Previously on EZE RETURNS TO SCHOOL…
“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 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 person stomping down my way.
It was Ms. Pepple, and the plumpish woman in her forties whose eyes were flashing with nascent outrage was matching down the aisle, between the two rows occupied by the small number of students resitting the exam, with all the righteous air of an arch angel swooping down on a sinner trying to sneak his way into heaven on the judgment day.
Panic quickened my pulse, and I hastily slipped the phone properly under the sheets before me, as my mind raced with rosary beads of responses I would give for being in possession of a phone, not only inside an examination hall, but inside the school premises. My body turned clammy with sweat as the enormity of my situation crashed down on me; I could feel my armpits turn slippery with perspiration, with beads of moisture tracing their way down my sides.
“Get up from there, you idiot!” Ms. Pepple ordered.
I remained seated, and shut my eyes tightly as I waited for her wrath to descend on me.
Then I heard a yelp come from the other row, followed by a flurry of sharp utterances from Ms. Pepple. Wood groaned against the floor as a seat was scraped backward. I slowly opened my eyes and turned to observe the teacher as she tugged at the material of a student’s shirt, attempting to pull it from the cinch his belt held it tucked inside his trousers.
“Auntie, please –” the boy, who I recognized to be Nonso Odenigbo from SS1C, was pleading. He was also trying to hold Ms. Pepple’s hands back from their mission.
“Shut up your mouth!” she barked as she batted away his hands and grabbed a fistful of his shirt’s fabric.
“Auntie, please, I’m sorry!” Nonso’s voice had hitched with his agitation as he struggled with the teacher.
“Let go of my hands, you rascal!” Ms. Pepple roared.
The other two invigilators promptly began making a beeline for the scene.
Realizing that I wasn’t the one who’d caught the teacher’s attention filled me with such a tidal wave of relief that I was momentarily struck with a dizzying spell. I clutched at my seat with both hands and swallowed saliva rapidly as I watched Ms. Pepple try to quell Nonso’s resistance with a combination of her strength and berating.
“Behave yourself, you this boy!” one of the other invigilators, the female, chided as the two of them drew up to the scuffle.
“Auntie – sir! Please, I’m sorry! Please, I won’t do it again!” Nonso shrieked, his face shiny with the tears that had begun to spill from his eyes.
“You won’t do what again?” Ms. Pepple said with a sneer. “Let us see what you were doing before that you’re now sorry for. Come on, will you get your hands off me!” With a sharply-expelled breath of exasperation, she released Nonso’s shirt and grabbed the waistband of his trousers, speedily burrowing her hand past the cincture and into the trousers.
The girl seated on my right side let out a delicate gasp and looked hastily away.
“Auntie, please –”
“Aha!” Ms. Pepple’s triumph shone on her face as she withdrew her hand. In her grasp were rumpled pieces of paper. “Expo!” she crowed, turning an accusing glare on the boy. “I knew it! I saw the way you were acting like a criminal with your uniform. All you lazy students that have refused to read in this school, upon this is your second chance to pass this subject! You are finished, you hear me?”
“Please, auntie – I’m begging you, auntie!” Nonso was the picture of blubbering dejection. “Auntie, it’s the devil’s workshop.”
“Which one is the devil’s workshop, you or this hall where this exam is taking place?” Ms. Pepple retorted as the other teachers shirked with derisive laughter. “You don’t even know the proper way to use that literary expression. I’m sure you retook English Language as well, shameless boy!”
“Auntie, please –”
“That’s enough!” the male invigilator cut in sharply, the humour of a few seconds ago vanishing from his visage. “Just know that you have failed this exam!” the slender man with the small, aquiline features of an angry bird snapped. “You should be ashamed of yourself. You are resitting an exam – I’d expect you to read and come better prepared this time around!”
“Expect them to read ke?” Ms. Pepple scoffed. “Ha! If they did not read when they were in JSS3, is it now that they are in SS1 that they will read? Look at them – look at all of them!” She swept a wide glare over the two rows of occupied seats. “They don’t know anything!”
“In fact, all of you, stand up!” the female invigilator, an expansive woman even more bulbous than Ms. Pepple, commanded. “Stand up, all of you!”
My heart began a fresh thumping, and I darted a frantic look at the sheets of paper before me as I got to my feet. The phone underneath the question paper barely made a discernable impression.
“Turn out your pockets, all of you!”
“And untuck your shirts!”
As the invigilators barked their orders, I began silently praying that they wouldn’t sift through our papers. My heart had begun to pound really fast, causing a sick feeling to well up inside me.
“Hey! You there, what’s in your pocket?!”
“It’s just my handkerchief, sir!”
“Did I not say you should untuck your shirts? Are you trying to hide anything inside there?”
“No, ma! I’m not, ma!”
Father, please help me escape this and I will do anything You want! I fervently prayed. I will give offering every Sunday during service. I will not make fun of Reverend Mbaka again. I will go for Protestant Prefect in my SS2. When Anulika agrees for me… Okay, Father, forget Anulika’s case for me please. But any other thing You want me to do, I will. Just, please deliver me from this.
“Open your eyes, my friend, and show me your pockets!” The barked instruction came from right in front of me, startling my eyes open to face the male invigilator.
I upended my pockets hurriedly and lifted my shirt. He peered gelidly at my trousers, swept a fleeting look over my tabletop and moved on to the next student.
A sigh of relief trembled out of me and my muscles began to quiver so much that I had to drop back down on my seat.
“Did I say you could sit down?” the man’s voice reared back at me in a whiplash.
I jumped back to my feet. “Sorry, sir.”
The teacher spent a few more minutes going over every student in the hall. They didn’t find any other culprit, and at the female invigilator’s say-so, we got seated again. I shot a quick glance in Nonso’s direction, my irritation at the boy who nearly ruined everything stabbing at his back. He was hunched over his tabletop, shaking with quiet sobs as he, no doubt, envisaged his imminent return to JSS3.
The silence that followed after the disturbance was at first strained. I sat there, not daring to get back to the answers Ibuka had texted me. The invigilators slowly strolled up and down the aisle, their hawkish gazes set on us. Ms. Pepple didn’t leave the hall; she stood instead at the teachers’ recess spot, alternating between going over the material she confiscated from Nonso and shooting smouldering looks at the boy.
Time and tedium eventually blunted the teachers’ vigilance, and they retreated back to their corner where they recommenced their conversation with Ms. Pepple, occasionally laughing at some witticism shared.
And then, very carefully, and yet with affected nonchalance, I withdrew the phone from underneath the question paper, jabbed at the keypad to light up the screen, and thumbed it again to open Ibuka’s text. My eyes raced over the digital print, instructions from Ibuka on how I’d solve the essay questions I texted him earlier. As I read the message, some of the exercise began coming back to me, and I slid the phone from the table into my pocket, before getting on with my work.
The remaining two hours that ticked by were nerve-wracking. Typing a text of the essay questions under the occasionally-watchful invigilation of the teachers was tension-filled. And whenever I received Ibuka’s responses with the report of the phone’s vibration, I felt like I could jump out of my skin with renewed fright. At some point during my overwrought ordeal, the girl on my right shot me a beaded stare, one rife with suspicion. She seemed to believe I was up to something.
Believing that she would call the attention of the teachers to me, I returned her stare with one of my own. My expression was weighty with silent entreaty.
Her lips tightened, her face resisting.
The pleading left my countenance and my face became a glacier. My eyes threatened as though I was speaking the words out loud: Talk. Just talk, and if it’s the last thing I’ll do, I’ll finish you in this school.
She got the message, judged me with her eyes and a patronizing shake of her head, before returning to her exam.
The remaining hours of the examination ground to a halt when the male invigilator hollered, “Pencils down! Pens down!”
A stir roiled through the room as the students were roused from their scribbling. Papers rustled and a few yawns tremored through the hall as their owners stretched their bodies.
“Now, in a single file,” the man continued, “starting from this row, come forward and submit your answer sheets to Mrs. Ngonadi over there.”
I was on the row he’d ordered to move forward. I got to my feet as I gathered the sheaf of papers and my writing materials together. Joseph’s Blackberry was safely tucked out of sight in my pocket. I felt flush with the sensation of success. A tremulous smile even ventured onto my face.
We thronged forward to where Mrs. Ngonadi and Ms. Pepple stood. They were conversing as Mrs. Ngonadi collected the answer sheets from the students’ outstretched hands, placing each paper atop the one she’d collected before on a small pile on her other hand. Occasionally, Ms. Pepple’s gaze flickered over the answer sheets, even though she did not pay any attention to us. In spite of this inattention, I kept my face averted from her as I drew closer to them.
“Next,” Ms. Ngonadi called.
I stepped forward and held out my answer sheet.
“So, my sister, you need to see this George Lace,” Mrs. Ngonadi returned to their conversation as she took the paper from my hand. “Selense o! That is eh, correct material…”
I moved slowly away from the two women.
“And how much did he say he was selling it for?” Ms. Pepple queried.
“The yeye man said its forty-five thousand naira o! Inanukwa nonsense!” Mrs. Ngonadi hissed.
I was almost at the open doors of the dining hall. I began taking in lungfuls of the rich afternoon breeze. The horrors of this examination were about to be left behind.
I am free –
I was right at the threshold of the open doorway when I heard Ms. Pepple say the name. There was a question in her voice, as though she wasn’t sure what she’d seen.
I froze. I didn’t turn back though to confront whatever was unfolding. I just stood there with my back to them. A boy walked past me.
“Wait, is that name on that paper Joseph Amuluche?” I heard her say.
Papers rustled as Mrs. Ngonadi said, “Er, yes, it’s…” I imagined her squinting at the indecent scrawl that was my handwriting. “Yes, it’s Joseph Amuluche.”
“But I didn’t see him here…”
My heartbeat began ramping up again. I was still frozen in place.
“Do you know him?” Mrs. Ngonadi queried.
“Yes, he’s in my Geography class. If he was here for this exam, I’m sure I would have noticed him – Wait, who submitted this answer sheet?”
That was all I needed to release me from my immobility. I bolted from the dining hall, dashed down the stairs and began running in the direction of the Senior Hostel.
My heart constricted, did a brief pit stop and pumped forward again, all in the microsecond it took me to whirl around in the direction of the call. Ibuka was speeding toward me, the agitation on his face a reflection of mine.
“I heard…I saw…” he panted as he ran up to me.
“Yes. I was watching from a window.”
I grabbed his hand and pulled the two of us out of sight of the dining hall. “Well, thank God I’ve escaped. She wasn’t even sure who submitted the paper –”
“Yes, but she’s quite sure Joe was not in that hall,” Ibuka countered.
“She can’t prove it.”
“How?” Immediately the question left my mouth, I answered it in unison with Ibuka: “By asking Joseph.”
We looked at each other for a beat.
“We have to prepare Joseph,” he said.
“In fact, we have to get him out of bed right now,” I concurred.
We hurried the rest of the way to our hostel. As we darted inside the compound, we met with the sight of Joseph spitting water out into the gutter that bordered the pavement. He stood with his shoulders slumped, as if supporting the weight of the world, and half-closed lids hooded his eyes. He had a cup of water and his toothbrush in his hands. Clearly, he’d just finished brushing his teeth.
“Hey, Joe, how far?” Ibuka called out.
“How are you feeling?” I added.
He winced slightly as we crowded him.
“I still feel very bad,” he groaned.
“No o, you can’t feel bad right now,” Ibuka interjected. “You have to reject every spirit of feeling bad now-now-now.”
Joseph hoisted a wan smile for Ibuka as he spoke to me, “Was Ibu ordained a minister of Mountain of Fire when I got sick?”
Laughter bubbled up inside me and sputtered out of existence instantly at a withering look from Ibuka. “Oh – er, erm, Joe, do you know what day it is today?”
“Wednesday na, abi is it Tuesday? I think it’s Wednesday –”
“Today is your exam resit for Junior WAEC Mathematics,” Ibuka interrupted.
Joseph stiffened, his expression sharpening with a fleet of emotions – shock, disbelief, acknowledgement, sadness and anger. “Why didn’t you guys tell me?” he rasped, dividing a betrayed look between Ibuka and I.
“We didn’t because you were sick and we had a plan?” I answered.
“What plan?” He narrowed his eyes at me.
I looked quickly about to dispel the fear of any eavesdroppers. Then I lowered my voice as I replied, “We impersonated you.”
As Joseph’s eyes widened with surprise, Ibuka choked out in outrage, “We?! Eze, say it like it happened o! You imperso–”
The rest of his words were cramped back inside when I clapped a hand over his mouth. “Will you keep your voice down!” I hissed.
“Leave me biko!” He slapped my hand off his face. Righteous indignation sparkled in his eyes. “That is how if they catch you now, you will come and implicate me to say I followed you to break school regulations.”
“But you did break school regulations,” I shot back.
He bristled. “Look, let me tell you –”
“Hey, hey,” Joseph cut in. “You impersonated me? And you broke school regulations? How long have I been bedridden abeg?” He looked fascinated. “Can someone fill me in on what’s being going on?”
The following three minutes sped by as Ibuka and I quickly disseminated what had happened since he took ill. As our story graduated, Joseph’s eyes grew rounder and rounder, saucer-like in his astonishment.
“Chai!” he said finally with a mock-mournful stare. “I’ve being a bad influence on you boys.”
“That’s beside the point,” Ibuka snapped, as though unsettled by the notion of Joseph being a bad influence on him. “We need to brief you on what was in the question paper, because Ms. Pepple will most likely find you to ask you.”
“And we need to get to class right now, in case she goes to our class to look for you,” I said.
Joseph nodded. The three of us walked into the dormitory so he could get dressed. As he moved about before his locker, Ibuka and I took turns to educate him on the questions we’d tackled. The essay questions were easy to recall; the objectives, not so much. By the time we started out of the hostel, Joseph was nodding to our comments with the solemn expression of one who was saturated with the knowledge we were imparting.
We had almost gotten to the SS1 classroom block when the call lashed at us from behind. I started inwardly when I recognized Ms. Pepple’s waspish voice. We turned to face the woman, who was almost upon us. She stopped before us, planted her hands on her hips and proceeded to give each of us an eyeful of her simmering wrath.
When her glare fell on me, I involuntarily held my breath and tensed the muscles of my stomach, trying with all my strength to keep my anxiety locked behind a placid countenance.
“You were not at the exam hall this morning, were you, Joseph?” she said curtly.
Joseph dredged up a smile, the perfect expression of bewilderment. For a boy who was still wracked with illness, I could imagine what Academy Award winning brilliance he was about to portray.
When the stakes are higher, the act gets better.
“I’m sorry, ma,” he said hesitantly. “I don’t understand what you’re asking.”
“I wasn’t asking. I am telling you that you were not in that exam hall,” the teacher cut in tersely.
“But I was, ma. I had the Maths resit. And I was in the hall to write the exam.”
“I did not see you,” the woman accused.
Joseph appeared taken aback. “But, ma, I was there. I even saw you –”
“You saw me doing what?” she hissed, her tone sharp with distrust.
“When you caught that boy – what’s his name again, ehen, Nonso Odenigbo – you caught him doing expo.”
Ms. Pepple looked from him to Ibuka and then to me. When she turned back to Joseph, she snarled, “Which one of your friends wrote that exam for you, Joseph?”
“Ah!” Joseph recoiled from the false accusation. “None of them, ma! I wrote my exam myself.”
“Which essay question did you first answer?” she attacked.
“I first answered the one about the frequency distribution of the scores of fifty students in an English Language test shown in a table.”
“How many sub-questions were in that one?”
“Three. In fact, 3c had i and ii.”
“What was question 3b?”
Joseph pursed his lips in pretended thought, before answering, “To draw a cumulative frequency curve for the distribution.”
“And what was the last essay question you answered?”
“The one about finding the equations of the line that is perpendicular to y equals to x over 3. In fact, I remember that one because I couldn’t finish before Mr. Egbuniwe called time up.”
Ms. Pepple opened her mouth, began to speak and then broke off, pursed her mouth and knitted her brow.
“I see,” she finally said. Her tone could have frosted a four-layer cake.
She favoured the three of us with another round of glares, before she said again, “I see.” Then she added, “You may go back to your classes.”
Feeling the threat of a smug smile, one already tugging at the corners of my mouth, I turned around with my friends and we hurried toward our block to find a spot where we could let loose and whoop with joy over our accomplishment.
I am @Walt_Shakes on twitter