The silence in the dining hall was a loud one, broken only by the hum of the invigilators’ conversation, the occasional rustle of paper and scratch of pen on sheets, and the faint dripping sound of beads of water tapping down from a leaky ceiling to a lone spot on the ground in an isolated section of the hall.
I paused in my writing when my hand got too clammy, and reached for the handkerchief I’d dropped seven seconds before on the table beside me. I wiped my sweat-moistened palms with it, and then dabbed at the perspiration that had dewed on my temples. The commodious space of the dining hall ensured that it remained relatively cool during every season of the year; and now that the last rains were falling, it was especially nippy in here. But that apparently didn’t seem sufficient for my system. I was acutely aware of the invigilators who stood in a corner of the dining hall section we were occupying for the examination, the two of them conversing and occasionally sweeping probing stares over the students hunched over their exam sheets.
There was a slight buzzing on the table, as the device partially concealed by my question paper began vibrating. My heart leaped with a fresh surge of panic as I snatched at the phone with shaky fingers. Taking a deep inhalation, I forced a deliberateness to my motions as I held the phone in my hand and glanced at the screen. A message icon was stamped on the screen. I clicked to open it and digital text spread out before me. My eyes skimmed over the first words: These are OBJ answers. I’m still working on the essay.
Following that was a series of alphabets crowded next to numbers so I’d now where each answer belonged. The sight of the exam solutions filled me with some elation, and I carefully dropped the phone back on the table, partly beneath my question paper, the screen placed just so that I could see the text on it.
After a quick look in the direction of the invigilators, I took in a shaky breath and began working on my answer sheet, scrubbing off the answers I’d earlier shaded into the boxes provided which didn’t tally with what I’d gotten in the text message, and filled in the ones I hadn’t answered. I worked briskly; only my eyes moved as they flicked from phone screen to answer sheet. My hand moved too, to tap the phone keypad each time the backlight faded off to turn the screen blank. I also raised my head intermittently to glance at the teachers, to make sure my clandestine activity was still going on unnoticed. As all this went on, my heart triphammered away behind my rib cage, each beat heightening the tension I felt.
When I was done, I dropped my pencil and flexed my fingers, attempting to ease off the cramps that had stiffened the muscles. Round one was over. Now I simply had to wait for the answers to the essay questions. That one would be a lot tougher. I wouldn’t just have to glance casually from phone screen to paper; the essay required that all workings leading up to the answer be penned down. I took steadying breaths, as I tried to hold on to the optimistic thoughts that I could do this.
I felt a presence walk in through the dining hall doorway. I turned to see a woman join the two invigilators. When I recognized her, my eyes grew wide and panicked, and my mouth dropped open just a little bit. I closed it abruptly and watched as the woman began sweeping a gaze leisurely over the section of students. I hastily looked away, arching my face away from her line of sight. My heartbeat renewed its vigour, and I began to breathe hollowly.
She was Ms. Pepple, the school’s Geography teacher. I’d been to her class just one time, when I was still trying to determine which subject to option for, Health Science or Geography. I’d eventually opted for Health Science, primarily because Ibuka was taking the class, leaving Joseph to carry on with Geography. I didn’t think the woman would pick me out as someone who wasn’t supposed to be here, rewriting the Junior WAEC Mathematics exam; she didn’t know me that well. But she’d undoubtedly recognize me, and I didn’t want any attention drawn to me. Part of the reason I’d felt emboldened into perpetuating this risk was because I’d been certain the exam’s invigilators wouldn’t be any teachers from the school. As such, there’d be no familiar face to potentially discover my crime of impersonation.
But with Ms. Pepple here –
The phone buzzed again, the vibration startling me from my fevered reverie. I reached for it.
“Hey, you there!” a voice barked.
I froze. Fear spasmed through me and percolated inside my chest, waiting to take over.
“You!” This time, the voice was accompanied by rapid footfalls approaching me. “Is it not you I’m talking to? What do you think you’re doing? Turn around and stand up.”
A bead of sweat traced a path from my forehead down to my left eyelid, seeping through my lashes and into my right eye, momentarily blurring my vision. But I was too numb to lift a finger to my eye, to brush off the teary veil, as I turned to face the uncertain wrath headed my way.
17 Hours Earlier…
“Eze, you cannot be serious!” Ibuka bellowed, stopping to turn a disbelieving stare on me.
“I am serious,” I said with more conviction than I felt. “Or maybe I’m not… I don’t know. But, Ibu, we have to do something.”
“Yes, we do. We have to take Joseph to the dispensary so that the Matron will take care of him this evening,” Ibuka said grimly, “so he can get well enough for his exam tomorrow.”
“What if he doesn’t get well enough?”
“He will –”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“I don’t know!” Ibuka yelled, raising his hands in a sharp gesture of exasperation. “I don’t know, okay? But what I know is that your solution is crazy!”
“It’s not –”
“We have to take Joseph to the dispensary, Eze.” He jabbed a finger in the direction of the building.
“And when we do, and he doesn’t get better, then there’s absolutely no way I can impersonate him and not risk getting found out.”
“Are you even listening to yourself?” Ibuka waved a hand at me. “Are you? You could get caught. How do you even think you can pull this off?”
“I was hoping you would help me –”
“God forbid bad thing!” He punctuated his objection with a snap of his fingers. “I cannot get myself into trouble –”
“Joseph is our friend!” I fired.
“And this is my life!” he bit back.
For a few moments, we stood there under the fading light of the western sun, staring heatedly at each other, the air around us crackling with tumultuous emotions. I drew in a deep breath, as my mind began to fleet about for a way to convince Ibuka to be a part of my plan. I needed him.
Tomorrow was the day the SS1 students who’d failed their Junior WAEC Mathematics would be re-sitting the paper. Earlier today, Joseph had started complaining of a headache. The migraine didn’t let up, and gradually progressed to a fever, which had him shaking and bunched up under his bed covers by the time the dinnertime bell was rung. This development had had Ibuka and I worried; all afternoon, Ibuka had been swearing at the “witches” who were attempting to decapitate all the hard work he’d put into Joseph to get him ready for this exam. We were on our way to the dining hall when I broached the solution of impersonating Joseph for the exam.
“Look, Ibu –” I began softly.
“Eze…” His countenance mellowed a bit too. “Please, let’s just take Joe to the dispensary.”
“When we do, the Matron will have it on the record that he was in the dispensary the night before his exam. And if he doesn’t get better tomorrow, she won’t discharge him. And if I go ahead and impersonate him –”
“You shouldn’t –”
“If I go ahead and impersonate him,” I reiterated firmly, “and someone gets suspicious and begins to ask questions, it will be easy to prove that Joseph was never in the exam hall.”
“And so your plan for him is what?”
“For us to go and see if we can get medicine from the Matron to give him in the hostel, and then pray that he’ll get well enough to write the exam tomorrow.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“I’ll write it for him.”
Ibuka began shaking his head and turning to continue to the dining hall. “I can’t be a party to this, Eze.”
“Ibu, I need you.” I reached out and grabbed his hand.
“No!” He recoiled from me. “I can’t do this, Eze.”
“You need me? What do you need me for? Joseph is just one person, you don’t need two people to impersonate him.”
“I’ve forgotten most of our junior class Maths. I need you to give me a sharp-sharp lesson on it this night.”
He stared at me as though I had just suggested that priests might secretly be killing babies during baptism. “Are you serious?” he rasped.
“Ibu, I know it’s hard –”
“It’s not hard, Eze. It’s impossible!” he interrupted. “Don’t you know how long me and Joseph have been preparing for this exam? Don’t you know? For three weeks!” He thrust three fingers in my face. “Three weeks! And you want me to squeeze everything into one night.” He gave a short, dry laugh. “as if I’m Superman! Plus I have CRK test tomorrow afternoon –”
“You have been studying for that test since last week that Mr. Iroegbu told your class about it,” I snapped.
“And so? Eh? It still doesn’t mean I can teach you everything you need to know this night.”
“You can teach me small –”
“Eze, I can’t teach you anything!” he said with a finality I’d never heard from him before.
I stared at him and felt a sinking sensation within me. The confidence I had in my plan began to flounder, and the despair that came nipping at the heels of my mind got short-circuited to resentment at Ibuka. My expression hardened and a scowl formed on my brow. Without a word, I turned to walk away.
“Eze, wait…” It was his turn to reach for me.
“Get away from me!” I spat, knocking his hand off and whirling around to glare at him. “You are a wicked boy! And you are not a friend!”
Hurt crept over his features. “Eze…”
“Don’t worry, Ibuka,” I said cuttingly, “I’ll handle it all by myself. I’ll help Joe get through this all by myself. That’s what friends do for each other.” And I turned and resumed my trek to the dining hall alone.
TO BE CONTINUED LATER THIS WEEK 🙂