FOREWORD: Do remember to watch out for ‘CSI 9JA: The Jack And Jill Story’ to be featured every Monday on MyMindSnaps.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Joseph and I turned to Ibuka. He liked to ask such questions as these about the future. Which university do you plan to go to? How many children will you like to have? What kind of wife will you like to marry? When you grow, will you like to live overseas or here in Nigeria? And oftentimes, Joseph would reply with an exasperated, “Ah-ah, Ibu! All these old man questions you’re asking sef, it is too early for us to worry about these things.” To which Ibuka would piously retort, “It’s never too early to think about your future.”
There was no arguing that.
“What will you be?” I said, throwing the question back at him. “You first and tell us.”
“I will be a doctor,” he answered with a self-satisfied smile, as though the proclamation meant he already was a doctor.
“I knew it,” Joseph burst out. “I knew it must be doctor. Either doctor or lawyer.”
“Meaning what?” Ibuka shot him a beady stare.
“You like to tell people what to do –”
“I do not –!”
“And doctors and lawyers like to tell people what to do. Doctors like to tell you that you must drink this medicine and eat that diet. And lawyers like to tell you to shut up, that anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law.”
I started chuckling as Ibuka protested, “It’s not lawyers that say that. It’s policemen.”
“Joe, you have been watching too many American films,” I added.
“Yes nau, where else will I get the inspiration for what I will be when I grow up…”
“What?” Ibuka and I chorused the question.
“I will be an actor, and a model,” he said, wagging his brows over his handsome features.
“Is there even a university course for those?” Ibuka said, his voice sagging with reproof.
“Yes. Theatre Arts for acting,” Joseph returned. “And my fine face for modeling.”
“Nice!” I hollered, before dissolving into laughter.
Ibuka glanced balefully at me, and said curtly, “This one you are just laughing like a laughing jackass, what you want to be when you grow up, is it to be a clown?”
The barb stung. I sobered up at once, and scowled at him, while Joseph sniggered.
“On the contrary,” I bit out, still smarting from Ibuka’s gibe, “I want to be a pharmacist.”
“You want to sell drugs?” Joseph asked.
Perceiving a taunt in his query, I turned my scowl to him. He recoiled, his hands spread out, and laughingly said, “Ah, easy nau, it’s not me that yabbed you. It’s Ibuka.”
“Actually, pharmacy is more than just selling drugs,” Ibuka interjected. “It’s quite a noble profession.” He turned a reconciliatory smile at me. “Well done, Eze. You made a right choice.” There was something avuncular about his commendation, as if he was some benevolent elder bestowing me with much desired approval. I found myself almost preening at his words. “That means, when we enter SS1,” he continued, “you and I will either be in SS1A or SS1F.”
Senior class was the career-deciding period in our school. Unlike junior class, when the school administration put you in a class and made a bulk the class subjects compulsory, you made the choice of what class to be in and more of what subjects to study when you crossed over into senior class, depending on the choice you made about the course you would like to study in the university. Senior classes A and F were the medical science classes, B was the arts class, C and D were the commercial and finance classes, and D was the engineering class. Whichever class you chose to be in would be your class until your graduation from the school.
“That’s great!” I enthused. I’d always wanted to be classmates with Ibuka. “Which one should we be in? I’d like to be in F.”
“No, let’s make it A.”
“No o! F abeg, because A is where all the hot brains in science, like you, will go to. And me, I can’t compete. I’ll just go there and be carrying last-last!”
Joseph giggled. “That is true though.”
“I can’t go to F,” Ibuka maintained resolutely. “Just check out the name nau – F! That’s like the first letter for failure –”
“Ibu!” Joseph and I chorused in shocked amusement.
“What? I’m sorry, but it’s true. I’m an A student. I have always been, and I will always be an A student. And all those hot brains you are talking about don’t scare me. Let them come, let us all be in the same class. When we are all there, anyi ga ahu onye ike ga-agwu!”
“Ibu, the champion…!”
Joseph and I were laughing as we hailed him.
Just then, the sound of the bell pealed. We were roused from our seats in the classroom, responding to the call for JSS3 students to proceed to the dining hall for their examinations. For the past three weeks, we’d been writing our Junior WAEC exams, tackling subject after subject, some with success, some others with misery, and yet others with mixed feelings. There were those JSS3 students, like Ibuka, who walked out of the hall, seeming perpetually pleased with themselves, as though each exam they’d just tackled had been a walk in the park. Fortunately for Joseph and me, Ibuka wasn’t like my classmates Christopher Emeh and Ebenezer Onome, who liked to talk to death about their feats in the exam hall, about how they wrote this and smashed that. It was annoying, and they knew better than to bother anyone other than their friends with their recitals.
“Christopher, I believe,” Joseph had growled when we stepped out of the hall after Mathematics. “I know he’s a smasher. But Ebenezer is just a noisemaker. You’ll see, we’ll come back in SS1 and after all this talk, he’ll still get mostly Cs and Ds in his result.”
Ibuka and I laughed boisterously at that, wickedly agreeing with his sentiment.
We had our final paper today – French. It wasn’t a very popular subject, and would have been the least attended examination, if the government hadn’t made it a compulsory subject. We walked out of the classroom, joining scores of other JSS3 students strolling toward the dining hall, which had been doubling for our exam hall since we started the WAEC examinations. Students moved in cliques, chattering, their attitudes noticeably casual. All the tenseness that characterized our dispositions during the start of the examinations had diminished, especially with the knowledge that this paper was the last, and thereafter, our vacation from school would commence.
My pulse quickened when I glimpsed Anulika moving out of her hostel, flanked by her friends. Nkeiru looked up, saw us and waved. Joseph waved back. She turned to her friends and a short conversation ensued; no doubt, Nkeiru was asking to be excused so she could come to us. She was after all Joseph’s girlfriend, and the two lovebirds liked to share some canoodling every moment they got. The other two girls glanced in our direction, and my gaze lanced with Anulika’s. My breath caught. She looked just as beautiful as she’d been looking for the past three weeks she’d sat next to me during the examinations. Due to the complications of our relationship, what with the issues of Matthias and Emmanuella, we’d maintained a politeness between each other every time we met at the exam hall. I always longed to talk to her, to really talk to her, but her countenance never encouraged that. Even presently, for the briefest moment, when our eyes met in silent communication, hers was darkly inscrutable, while mine was rife with longing. And then she looked away, and Nkeiru was skipping toward us.
“You know, she has broken up with Matthias,” Ibuka said to me, apparently noticing my eyes on Anulika.
I didn’t know that. “Really?” I asked him. “How did you know?”
“Amaka told me. She said I should not tell anyone though. I think Anulika forbade them from telling people, that must be why Nkeiru hasn’t told you,” he added, looking at Joseph, who looked unaware of the breakup news as well.
“Well, apparently, Amaka is a worse friend to Anulika than Nkeiru is,” Joseph quipped.
“Shettup joor. She simply likes Eze, and wants, like me, to see her friend together with you.” He had turned back to me, eyeing me solemnly.
“I don’t know what you want me to do, Ibu,” I said, looking away from him. “She doesn’t seem interested in me anymore. Not like she ever was. She’s always acting very cool toward me these days. And the last thing I want is to ask a girl out who will slap me with a big ‘No.’”
“Kai! That will be the baddest of the baddest,” Joseph said with a smile and a comical shudder.
“Joe, you’re not even helping matters sef,” Ibuka chided with a laugh.
“What? I’ve told Eze to meet me for tutorials. Whenever he is ready, I’ll teach him how to get the girl.”
“Hello, guys… Hello, boyfriend,” Nkeiru hailed cheerily as she approached us.
“Hi, girlfriend,” Joseph said, his greeting louder than Ibuka’s and mine.
Nkeiru beamed at him, coming to stand next to him and sliding a hand around his back. He drew her close to him too, and the four of us continued with our stroll toward the exam hall.
“Are you all ready to smash this one too?” Joseph enquired of the girl.
“Yes o. Je suis prêt pour cet examen,” she said with halting flourish.
“Correct!” Ibuka crowed with delight, before saying with considerably better adeptness, “Oui, c’est ce que je parle.”
“Oya, it is enough for you two abeg!” Joseph growled. The other two were laughing. “Haba! Don’t come here and be using your je m’appelle to intimidate Eze and me o.”
“What are you talking about?” I interjected, flicking a teasing glance at him. “You’re on your own o. Vous êtes sur votre propre,” I finished proudly.
Ibuka and Nkeiru cheered with some hand-clapping as Joseph muttered “Traitor” with a smile.
“Don’t worry, Joe,” Nkeiru cajoled. “If it gets too tough for you in there, simply threaten your over-sabi seat partner with the wrath of the spirit world, and he or she will let you copy from him.”
Her joke was met with robust laughter from the rest of us. It was a relief to be able to finally see the humour in the aftermath of our dreadful business with the cat-demon, Seetha. Following that night, there’d been some scrutiny on us, especially Joseph, and it hadn’t been the comfortable kind of attention. We met with the principal, and had a number of sessions with Father Joshua Chukwudibe, the reverend who conducted the school’s protestant service. The attention of our fellow students had been mostly unpleasant too, with some of our mates maintaining a shunning distance from Joseph and deriding Ibuka and I for remaining friends with him. There were whispered speculations about his state of mind, and not-so-whispered ones, as though the gossip-mongers were goading him, hoping for a reaction from him other than the stoic silence he’d been exhibiting toward everyone else but his best friends.
Finally, on the morning of our CRK exam, when we were walking past Richard Ubazuo and his gang, overhearing loud snippets of their scuttlebutt, Joseph had whirled around and stalked over to them. Ibuka and I tensed, bracing ourselves to jump into the altercation should Joseph swing the first blow.
But he didn’t. He simply got in Richard’s face, stepping up close to him and invading his personal space, and then he hissed at him, “Be careful what you say about me, Richard. Be very careful. Remember I was possessed by a demon… Me and that demon, we were very close. We might still be close, who knows… In fact, we could still be so close that I just might send him to pay you a visit in the night. You know what angry demons do to idiots they come to visit in the night? Keep talking nonsense about me, and you’ll find out.” He paused to eye the visibly terrified boy angrily, letting the ominousness of his threat sink in; he swept his foreboding look over the other boys in Richard’s gang, before walking away from them to join us. We laughed over that scene later in the day.
Eventually, the situation surrounding Joseph lightened. Some of our mates tentatively started interacting with him again. Not everyone was in talking terms with him, but that wasn’t a bother. I was positive that by the time we returned next session, people would forget and things would return back to normal.
An assembly of JSS3 students soon collected at the entrance of the exam hall, and moments later, at the gesturing of the invigilators, we started filing into the expansive room. The dining tables and benches were still there, well and spaciously arranged. But there would be no pots of food, plates or cutleries on the surface this morning; instead there’d be sheets of paper and writing materials.
My friends and I separated from each other, moving away to our different assigned spots in the hall. I felt a prickle at the base of my neck as I walked toward my seat. I looked quickly back, and my heart stopped briefly. Anulika was walking behind me. Up close, I noticed that she seemed quite unwell, with shadows under her eyes, and a little forlornness to her appearance. The wrenching thought that this might be her mourning the end of her relationship with Matthias cut through me.
Shoving that rumination aside, I reduced my gait until she was next to me, before I said, “Hi, good morning.”
She gave me a wan smile. It wasn’t her brightest, but it still made my heart ache with yearning. I hadn’t seen her smile in quite awhile. “Good morning, Eze…”
“You don’t look well, are you okay?”
She nodded. “Yes. Well, actually no. it’s just a little fever. My brother tells me it’s the stress from studying for our exams that is causing it. He says I need rest. Thankfully, after today, I can rest all I want –”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “Your brother? You have a brother in this school?”
“Yes nau –”
“Senior or junior?” I knew this brother couldn’t be our mate; I’d know him if he was.
“Senior, he’s in SS3, Dignity House… Donald…”
“Wait a minute, Senior Donald, Dignity House former prefect is your brother – Senior Donald Kanu?” I stressed the surname.
She caught on the emphasis and smiled. “Yes, he is my brother. My mother was married once before, and Donald’s father’s name is Kanu. They divorced, and then she remarried, to my own father, who answers Egereonu.”
“My, what an interesting family background,” I murmured, thinking about how the resemblance between the two siblings was in a few distinguishable features. It was no wonder the senior boy had seemed very familiar to me when he saved me from drowning in my JSS1.
By this time, we had gotten to our seats, and settled down. She was seated on my right, facing me from the other side of the table, separated from me by a few inches. We talked some more, about our respective vacations, about SS1 and about what classes we’d be in. She was also going to be a science student, and was yet to make up her mind about which science class to be in, A or F. When I told her about Ibuka’s aversion to the F class, she threw her head back and gave out that familiar, musical laugh that warmed my heart to hear. As we chatted, it occurred to me that too much time had passed since we were this close, and I realized I’d missed this easy banter so much.
Soon, the exam was underway. The answer sheets were first distributed by the hawk-eyed invigilators, before they handed out the question papers, sounding out warnings for no one to turn right-side-up the sheets that had been placed facedown before them. We were not to start answering any questions until everyone had gotten a question paper, and the chief invigilator had announced for us to begin. As Mr. Okonkwo, one of the invigilators representing WAEC in the school, reiterated the instruction, Anulika winked mischievously at me, before miming turning open her own question paper. I widened my eyes in feigned shock and wagged a warning finger at her. She giggled. I smiled. The world never seemed more beautiful in that moment.
“You may now begin!” the chief invigilator announced.
There was a resonant rustle in the hall as bodies shifted, and papers were adjusted, and pens started scratching away on them. The rustle quickly died down, and a tomb-like silence descended on the room, intermittently broken by a cough here and the murmur of teachers conversing there.
My heart had been beating fiercely in the moments preceding the start of the exam, but once I rested my anxious gaze on the typewritten words, recognizing more questions I could answer than the ones I’d have to think real hard to tackle, my heartbeat steadied. I looked ahead of me to see Ibuka in a far corner, hunched over his work, scribbling furiously away. I arched my head around to see Joseph having a hissed and alert conversation with the boy seated next to him. And then, I returned to my exam and started with the first number on the question paper.
I’d studied well for French, and the gods of external examinations were kind to me, because most of what I’d read featured as questions. I was on a roll, barely lifting my head to ponder too long on a problem before tackling it. It was about an hour into the exam that I heard sniffles coming from my right. And then someone cursed softly, before sniffling some more. I looked in the direction of the misery-laden sounds, and was taken aback to see Anulika wiping at her eyes. The handkerchief, which she regularly brought with her to every exam to stanch the perspiration she suffered from the tenseness of writing an exam, was scrunched up in her fist, and she was staring miserably at the papers in front of her.
“Anuli…” I called out softly. “Anulika…”
She heard and looked at me. Her eyes were glassy with tears that hadn’t been shed yet. I felt an incomprehensible sadness well inside me at the sight of her unhappiness.
“What’s wrong?” I hissed.
She bit her lip, her reluctance apparent.
“Tell me nau…” I urged, sweeping a hurried look around for any hovering invigilators. There was none. I returned my gaze to her. “What’s the problem?”
“It’s this Number 5b…” she whispered back. “This verb conjugation… I did not read it… And I told myself to read it o… But I was feeling too sick… And then I said let me just read small…” This wasn’t the Anulika I was used to. She was a very bright student, maybe not in Ibuka’s league, but she’d never asked me for assistance since we started our Junior WAEC. Not once. On some occasions, she’d even finished with a paper before me, and way before the invigilators called for the end to the exam, joining students like Ibuka, Christopher and Ogechi Uzoh from 3E to saunter out of the hall under the collective envious glare of other disgruntled students still battling to finish.
As she blubbered, the boy seated on her right, from my own side of the table, shot her a glare, silently admonishing her to keep quiet. I moved my eyes back to my own question paper, to find out the exact problem she was talking about. Number 5b. Verb conjugation. I’d answered it, even marked the number with an asterisk to remind myself that that was a number I needn’t go back to.
“I’ve answered it,” I hissed back at her.
She stopped talking and looked at me, her gaze ever-so teary.
“Do you want me to show you?”
She looked around, hesitant, and then turned back to me, before nodding slowly. I grinned inwardly. Anulika was a self-possessed person, the kind of girl who would be galled by the fact that she had to ask a boy to help her with a problem.
Feeling my heart starting a fast beat again, and keeping a careful lookout for any invigilators, I very slowly turned my answer sheet around, angling the corner of the page where I’d answered the question in a position that would be advantageous enough for her to see my work.
“Oya, write,” I encouraged.
She arched her head and squinted at my paper, moving her lips as she memorized a line of answers, before turning back to her work and scribbling. The boy, who’d frowned at her earlier, with his eyes gleaming, turned his head as well to peer at my work.
“Hey!” I seethed at him.
He gave a start, and turned a pleading look to me. “Let me copy small nau. Me too, I haven’t answered Number 5b.” When I maintained my scowl, he added, “Shebi you are showing her, a girl. Help your fellow boy nau.”
I relented at that. And he happily began scribbling away. With my heart palpitating rapidly behind my chest, I kept looking warily but surreptitiously around. Often times, students indulging in exam malpractice were nabbed, not because the invigilator had seen the illicit object in the student’s possession, but because he had noticed the suspiciously cagey attitude of the student, and gone on to investigate him or her.
I did not want to get caught. That would mean the summary end of the exam for me. I hadn’t yet finished with my work, so getting dismissed from the exam this early could mean an F in my result. I knew the risk, but seeing the dejection lift from Anulika’s countenance as she copied from my work made my daring worth it.
“Thank you, Eze…” she murmured a few minutes later. She accompanied the words with a small smile.
I nodded, and was sliding my paper right-side-up when the other boy began complainingly, “Wait, wait small, I haven’t finished…”
I ignored him and returned to my work. Human being that I don’t even know his name sef, I thought uncharitably, before hissing and commencing with my writing.
It was a jubilant atmosphere that surrounded the end of the examination. As the invigilators carted away that part of our future, JSS3 students milled about in the exam hall, spilling out to the courtyard, cheering, throwing things and yelling exuberantly.
“Au revoir, JSS3… Bye-bye for life…!”
“I am now a senior girl o…!”
“No more shorts, time to start rocking trousers…!”
“I don tire, I just want to go and sleep for a whole week…!”
“Holiday is coming, holiday is coming…!”
As I stepped out of the hall, it was to see Joseph holding court in one corner of the courtyard, dispensing anecdotes that had the boys and girls around him laughing boisterously. Ibuka, Nkeiru and Amaka were in the gathering too. I went to join them, pleased to see that the boy was already rapidly regaining his admiring popularity with his easy charm. I looked around. Anulika was not in the vicinity.
“I think she went back to the hostel,” Amaka said, noticing my visual search.
My face warmed under her knowing stare, and I mumbled something incoherent.
“What did you say?” she said.
“Nothing… er, I’m going back to the class…” I addressed my friends.
“Why nau?” Joseph replied. “Let’s go to the field and play ball!”
There was a chorus of agreement from the other boys around.
“I want to go and keep my writing materials joor,” I replied, lifting my hands to show the math-set and pen I was holding.
“What is all this one you are holding?” a boy interjected jocularly.
“Abeg throw them away!” another one hollered.
There were more laughs and shouts of approval from the crowd.
I shook my head at them, and started walking away.
“Eze, wait…!” Ibuka called out.
I smiled inwardly, and turned around. Of course, I could always count on Ibuka not to abandon me, and to accompany me back to the classroom.
“Here, keep my own for me too!” he said, handing me his things, before winking at me, laughing gaily and running back to join the crowd, leaving me to fume silently after him.
Grumbling something about disloyal friends, I started the trek back to the classroom block on my own. I soon got the JSS3B, and began rummaging through our property as I tucked away the things I’d brought back from the exam with me.
It was the prickle at the base of my neck that alerted me to her presence first, before I heard her move into the classroom. I turned, and there she was, at the doorway, her form haloed by the afternoon light. She still looked tired, the shadows under her eyes were still there, but her familiar radiance was back. The smile she was wearing on her face was bright and unhindered, as she swept a look about the classroom, curiously taking in the change it had undergone since we stopped having classes and the females stopped coming to the classrooms.
“You shouldn’t be here,” I said hoarsely. I swallowed hard, conscious of a slight throbbing in my heart.
“Why, is it not my class as well?” Anulika said, advancing into the room.
“Not anymore. Did you not hear, it’s bye-bye JSS3,” I quipped.
She laughed at that, nodding as she replied, “Ah, yes, that is true. Come next year, I’ll discard this pinafore and start wearing skirts.” She patted her palms down over her dress, and unbidden, the image of her body accentuated by a form-fitting shirt and skirt filled my mind, drying my mouth in the process.
“Thank you again.”
I blinked. The image dissolved. And I said, “Huh?”
“I’m thanking you… for what you did for me in the exam hall. I know you didn’t need to do it, and yet you did. Thanks…”
“Oh, that was nothing,” I said, waving a hand dismissively. “You are a friend, and I’d like to think that if I was in such a situation, you would have done the same for me.”
“I will, of course I will,” she said. And just then, I realized that she’d been advancing further toward me throughout the time we’d been talking. She now stood mere inches from me. The nearness was startling, and it gave me a heady feeling. She was looking steadily at me, a stare that was both unnerving and stimulating.
“Ask me again, Eze…” she finally said in a husky tone.
“Ask you what?” I blurted out, uncomprehending.
“Ask me again,” she repeated, this time very slowly, letting the import of her question sink in.
It sank. I understood. And I opened my mouth to ask her the question I’d consistently sought an answer for, for three years. “Will you kiss me, Anulika…?”
She chuckled softly, nodded and stepped closer to me, before planting her lips on mine. Our mouths touched, and something kindled inside me. The kiss was gentle and sweet, a teasing of lips, a darting of tongues. I stood very still, my hands placed very tentatively on her hips, absorbing every sensation, letting the pleasure cascade all over me.
I was wrong earlier on. The world just got more beautiful, in that moment she kissed me.
And then it was over, and she was stepping back from me, biting her lip as though uncertain about my reaction to her, now that she’d finally kissed me.
“That was amazing,” I breathed out.
The doubt cleared from her face, and a smile lit up her eyes. “Really?”
“Yes.” And without even thinking on the words, I added, “Anulika, will you be my girlfriend?”
She laughed then, a sound my words had surprised from her, a joyous, ringing laugh which was infectious, and I found myself grinning.
“So I give you allowance, and you are now looking for allowances, ehn?” she teased.
“Yes, so will you be my girlfriend?”
“We’ll see…” she replied mysteriously.
I panicked slightly. “We’ll see? The kiss took you three years to give, don’t tell me it will be during our Senior WAEC that you will agree for me.”
She laughed again, placing a hand on my arm, warming me with both touch and sound. “Oh, Eze, we’ll see. We still have our lives ahead of us, waiting for us in SS1. So, yes, we’ll see…” Her expression was enigmatic, as she took my hand, and jerked her head toward the outside. “Now, come let’s go and join our friends to celebrate the end of our JSS3.”
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