It was the first weekday breakfast of the new term; something about this new beginning must have appealed to the kitchen staff, because that first meal of Monday morning was a delightful improvement over what was regular. The boiled egg was still the same, but the loaves of bread were remarkably bigger, with a rich aroma and tender feel that made it seem to melt in your mouth in between chews. The tea wasn’t just coloured water; it was a rich brew of sugar and beverages. And there was a dollop of honey for every student who walked into the dining hall.
The hall was abuzz with a million conversations, as students chowed down their breakfast with ravenous delight.
“Mmmm!” Hassan mumbled as he chewed, while dipping a bit of bread into his cup of tea, making sure it was thoroughly soaked before guiding the soggy piece to his mouth. “Ah! This is the way we should always be eating every Monday.”
“Nyama! This boy, you’re disgusting,” Ibuka said with an impressive contortion of his features as he watched Hassan tear out some more bread to dip inside the tea. “You’re in SS1, and you’re still eating like a JSS1 boy. Have some respect for yourself.”
“Ibuka, abeg leave me –”
“The honey was given to us for a reason,” Ibuka lectured, “so you can spread it inside the bread, and then eat it while drinking your tea –”
“And for Tuesday breakfast,” Hassan interrupted, ignoring Ibuka, while his jowls moved with alacrity, “they should give us moi-moi and custard, with milk inside.”
I scoffed. “Be there deceiving yourself.”
“But they should na,” Hassan maintained.
“But they won’t.”
“Seriously though, they should,” Chibunna chimed in. he sat beside Hassan on the other side of the dining table from Ibuka, Joseph and I. “This is a Federal Government College, for chrissakes. We are operating under federal budget, so they should be feeding us well.”
“Gbam!” Hassan said, an exclamation mark on Chibunna’s fervor.
“My father said,” Chibunna continued, “that there’s so much corruption in our government, that the president will give out these monies, and they will be passing it down like that, like that, and everyone involved will be taking their share, so that by the time it gets to us, they’ll only have enough to feed us with nonsense.”
“Do you think Mr. Iheukwumere takes out his own share?” Hassan asked in a hushed tone, his eyes darting around to make sure he wasn’t being eavesdropped.
Mr. Iheukwumere is our esteemed principal.
“After seeing that his big belle, do you still have to ask?” I quipped.
Hassan and Joseph sniggered. Ibuka shot me a disapproving frown. And Chibunna seemed like he had more to say.
“Seriously, our leaders have to change in this country. They have to –”
“Honestly, Chibunna,” I said exasperatedly, “when did you get so political?”
“I feel like you mean that as an insult,” he retorted coldly. “And if that’s how you see talking about how this country should change, then, shame on you, Eze.”
“Whoa!” Joseph and I said in unison, chuckling, as I drew back from Chibunna’s affront, my hands raised as though in surrender.
“We have to change,” he said furiously. “Our people should change. Corruption has to be abolished –”
“You were clearly watching only NTA news throughout the holiday –”
“– and all these greedy politicians should stop wanting to go into office with the sole purpose of fattening their pockets.”
“Well, then when you grow up, be a politician and show the rest of them how it’s done,” Joseph suddenly snapped. “Until then, please shut up. Some of us are trying to enjoy our meal.”
For a few seconds, Chibunna glared at him, silently fuming. Then he pushed away from the table, stood and stomped off with his breakfast, no doubt off to look for a crowd more empathetic to his outrage.
“He is right, you know,” Ibuka said, eyeing Joseph.
“Right about what?”
“Everyone running for office in Nigeria almost always does so with an eye for what he can acquire for himself.”
“It’s not called the National Cake for nothing,” I said with a chuckle.
“But it’s wrong. Joe, I hope your father intends to make a difference if he gets elected.”
“I can give you his number so you can ask him,” Joseph rejoined. “Hey, you could also request to be his personal advisor, and take Chibunna in as your assistant.”
Ibuka raised reproving eyebrows at him. “There’s no need to be impertinent, Joseph.”
“Bekee!” I burst out, laughing as I mimed an ovation. “Ibuka has spoken the first big English of the term. We shall now all endeavour not to be imperni…impenti –”
“Impertinent, udubere nnunu like you!” he said, before the three of us dissolved in laughter.
Just then, there was the familiar sound of the longsuffering misshapen metal being banged on top of a table. The din in the hall slowly dwindled, and the hall had started to quieten when the loud voice of Raphael Nwako, the dining hall captain rang out, “Say your prayers, everybody!”
There was a subdued hubbub as students hunched over the tables, not praying.
“Leave the hall!”
And we tided to our feet and out the door, chattering as the human traffic headed for the assembly ground. As we approached the wide stretch of earthen ground, upon which we were about to stand for the next thirty minutes or so, I began craning my head this way and that, peering above the sea of heads moving about us.
“If I didn’t know better,” Ibuka piped up, “I’d say you were stretching your head like that as a way of telling God that if He won’t make you taller than me and Joseph, you are determined to do it yourself.”
Joseph snickered as I scowled at Ibuka.
“Be there feeling tech with yourself, that you’ve grown taller me,” I retorted. “Clap for yourself, you have achieved something.” I hissed, to the amusement of my friends.
“Eze don vex!” Joseph chortled. “And there’s only one medicine that will stop his vex. Ibu, do you know what it is?”
“Paracetamol?” Ibuka said, smirking.
He gave a dramatic gasp, widening his eyes theatrically as he said, “Oh, I know, I know! It’s Anulika!”
I threw a feigned glare in their direction as they carried on with their tomfoolery.
Then I smelled her. Yes, I knew instantly that she was in our immediate vicinity simply by perceiving her distinctive perfume, before I even saw her. A slight current of air wafted across my face, and bore with it that pleasant scent, a hint of spice in flowers. My heart instantly began a fast tattoo as I glanced more urgently around. It was her. it had to be her. no one else I knew had ever possessed that scent.
Then I stopped.
“Eze…” Ibuka began gently.
“Yes, I’ve seen her,” I husked.
She had changed, subtly though. Her body was a bit fuller, with rounder outlines that filled out her uniform. In contrast, her face was less fleshy, accentuating her cheekbones, which were impressively high over lips that were full and pouty. Her hair was a rich dark intricateness of braids arranged over her piquant face.
Unbidden, my mind flashed to that last day of our Junior WAEC, that evening in our classroom, when she kissed me. The teasing pressure of her lips against mine, the quick exploration of her tongue, the explosion of pleasure that frissoned through my body – I’d dreamed of that kiss nearly every night for the past four months.
Anulika was not an easy girl to forget.
Her kiss had been impossible to get off my mind.
“Are you going to talk to her like a human being this term?” Joseph said, jolting me out of my brief reverie.
“How else have I been talking to her?” I said, as we watched her approach. She was in the company of her friend, Amaka Nwogu, and both girls were moving toward us, without knowing it.
“Like a mumu,” Joseph replied. “Abeg, this term, let that Mumu Eze be old things passing away. This time, that girl must be yours. Amen?”
“Amen!” Ibuka rejoined.
I chuckled. “But when I asked her out last term, she told me simply that we’ll see.”
“Relax,” Joseph said. “In this new term, the things we shall see will become the things we shall have.”
“Preach, Pastor Joe. Preach!” Ibuka hollered.
I was shaking my head in amusement when I saw Amaka notice us. They were a few yards away now. She said something to her friend, and Anulika looked up. It warmed my heart to no end that she beamed when she saw me. The Anulika of junior class had gone from cold, flat stares to polite smiles every time we met.
They drew close to us. There was a chorused exchange of greetings.
“Eze, how was your holiday?” she enquired, dazzling me with the sun.
“Good,” I croaked. Get thee behind me, Mumu Eze! You heard Pastor Joe, this is the year of Human Being Eze.
“What about Nkeiru?” Ibuka asked. “Isn’t she back yet?”
“No, not yet,” Amaka answered. “Her sister, Oluchi, had a minor crisis, and she needs some time to recover fully, so she and Nkeiru can come back together.”
Nkeiru Ogbuagu, another one of Anulika’s close friends, has an elder sister who should be in SS3 this year; Oluchi is a sickle-cell patient.
“Is she going to be alright?” Joseph asked.
“You mean Oly? Sure,” Amaka replied airily. “It was just a minor incident, Nkeiru said.”
“Shouldn’t you know these things as well, Joe?” Ibuka queried.
Amaka let out a scoff. “Oh, he didn’t tell you that Nkeiru broke up with him?”
“She did not break up with me,” Joseph growled.
Amaka opened her mouth to give a rebuttal, but was forestalled when Anulika grabbed her arm while saying, “Ok, Amy, no drama this early in the day. Let’s just go. Eze, I’ll see you around.”
“Yea, see you around,” I echoed as the girls moved on ahead of us.
It took several minutes before the assemblage of students and staff was settled, the students standing in class rows facing the staff who were seated. The principal looked ever so important, his pot belly seeming to distend a few inches southward since the last time he stood before us. Flanking him, the two vice principals looked ahead, stalwart and stern-faced. The teachers were spread out on benches behind them.
The preliminaries were shortly underway – the chorus of the national anthem, the morning prayer, and the reportage of the Press Club news.
When the principal rose to his feet, a stir of tension rippled through the rank of SS1 students. The moment had come, and we all knew it. He was about to speak about the Junior WAEC results.
This was how it was in the beginning of every school year – the results of the previous Junior and Senior WAEC exams were released on the school notice board, this after the incoming SS1s had already of course sewn their new uniforms. Some would see those results and know joy. Some others, fewer in number, would know great sorrow. The results could make or mar the reputation of a prospective SS1 student. Last term, during the exam period, we’d just finished tackling the Almighty Mathematics and were roaring our way out of the hall, when an SS2 boy stopped a group of us to ask what the ruckus was about.
“We have scattered Maths!” a boy in the group hollered, to the loud jubilation of the others. “SS2, here we come!”
The senior boy had given a soft indulgent laugh before saying, “You’re not in SS1 until your results are posted. You’re not even in SS1 when you come back to school in your trousers. No. Whether you are or aren’t in SS1 happens after the principal has spoken on that first Monday assembly.”
His words sparked to life in my mind as we stared at Mr. Iheukwumere, watching him drone on and on about how our set showed the most academic excellence in our exams than he’d seen in awhile.
“I have never been more proud of my students than I was,” the man was saying, his baritone loud and clear, “when I first set my eyes on your results. This year’s Speech and Prize-giving Day will see more stars who shone brightly during their graduating examinations than ever before.”
As a loud applause followed after the principal’s words, I glanced askance at Ibuka. He was staring straight ahead, the anticipation he was wearing almost as perceptible as the crackle of electricity.
“I have here” – paper rustled as Mr. Iheukwumere lifted a foolscap sheet from the table top – “I have here a list of the most excellent graduating JSS3s. By ‘most excellent’, I mean that they had all As in their results.” He peered briefly at the paper, seemingly unaware of the mounting tension amongst the students. “There are six of them, and I’d like to call them out in alphabetical order of their surnames to come out to the entire school’s acknowledgement.”
“Ibu, are you even breathing”” Joseph muttered, raising the fingers of his right hand to Ibuka’s nostrils.
I laughed as a highly-strung Ibuka knocked the hand away. “Oh thank God, he’s still alive.”
“You people should leave me alone –”
“Chijioke Duru!” Mr. Iheukwumere’s voice boomed.
A fraction of a second fleeted by as the student body realized that the principal had started with his roll call, and the SS1s registered the name. that microsecond passed, and a loud cheer ripped through the assemblage as the flustered boy stepped out of the SS1A line.
“Bastard!” Ibuka swore savagely under his breath. Chijioke Duru was his classmate and academic rival.
“Calm down, Ibu,” I said with a chuckle. “Principal said he’s calling the names in alphabetical order.”
“Yes, your surname starts with O, and his own is D,” Joseph smirked. “It’s not as if he grabbed a complete set of As before you.”
Ibuka remained stone-faced.
We watched Chijioke walk up to the principal and vice principals to shake their hands. Then the Head Boy gestured for him to stand next to them, facing the students. The grin he turned to face us with traced a path from one ear to the other.
Joseph and I whooped along with the rest of our classmates as the most intelligent boy in my class stepped forward. The ice in Ibuka’s eyes crystallized further, as he looked on.
The former JSS3E girl girls’ hands were lifted to a bespectacled face trapped in a silent scream of disbelief as she stumbled forward.
Despair began to battle for supremacy with rage on my friend’s face.
“YES!” he blurted the word with some vehemence as Joseph and I grabbed him in a fierce hug. The cheers had crescendoed around us.
“You people are suffocating him o!” someone lamented with a laugh.
“Free him o, let him go and shake principal!” another interjected.
My eyes were misty with unshed tears of joy as we finally let him go. He broke out of the student cluster, and half0walked, half-ran all the way to the principal. I heard the faintly-audible ‘congratulations’ that came from the three heads as they shook hands with him.
When he was done with the names and six of the brightest in our lot were standing next to him, the principal went on to extol the virtues of industrious learning, frequently gesturing at the six poster children for his exhortation.
“When this assembly is over,” he said, “you prospective SS1s can go over to the admin block – in an orderly fashion, I might add – to check the notice board for your performances. Remember, what you sowed all through your JSS3 is what you have reaped in those results.”
What you sowed all through your JSS3 is what you have reaped in those results.
The words kept up an ominous resonance in my head till the assembly was over, and the entire class of SS1s swarmed toward the admin block.
“Eze, relax,” Joseph drawled. “All of us will pass. Stop frowning as though Anulika has already dumped you.”
“If I fail, Anulika will dump me for sure.”
“Technically, she can’t dump you because she hasn’t agreed for you yet,” Ibuka said.
I frowned at him. The boy still looked giddy with pleasure from his five minutes of worldwide fame. “If you say that kind of nonsense to me again, thunder will fire your result and erase all those your As.”
He let out a loud peal of laughter.
“Stop fussing joor,” Joseph said. “I’ve told you, we’ll all pass.”
“Did you suddenly acquire the superpower of seeing into the future that we don’t know about?”
“Yes. You know what else my superpower tells me? That you and Anulika will marry and bear seven children.”
“Can you tell your superpower to subtract four from that number?”
Our banter kept on, managing to stave off my worry on our way to the admin block. However, once we got into the block, and got submerged in the crush of bodies struggling to get to the large, glass-cased notice board, my anxiety fountained. The palms I placed on shoulders to push my way through was clammy with sweat, and I could feel the triphammering of my heart, a banging that almost felt painful against my chest.
“Hey, stop pushing me!”
“Joshua, check my own! Have you seen my own?!”
“Arrrgh! I got C in Maths – thank God, I got C in Maths!”
“Chinenye, these wicked WAEC people gave you F in Homec! Can you imagine!”
“Shettup! Do you have to be shouting my result to the whole of Jerusalem!”
Words were volleyed back and forth, a gamut of emotions conveyed across the sea of bodies milling about in the small courtyard. I caught sight of a few reddened eyes hiding behind upraised hands or bowed heads, as the owners bore their misfortune hurriedly and shamefacedly away from the notice board. Outbursts of joy erupted here and there as those who passed reveled in their accomplishment.
Eventually, I got before the board. Joseph and Ibuka were right beside me. Our fingers and eyes darted across the glass-encased sheets of paper tacked against the wall.
“Joe, the A surnames are here…” Ibuka hollered, and the two of them moved a bit away from me.
I found the list of Es, and began tracing my forefinger down the index of names for mine. My gaze screeched to a stop when I happened on it. Egwim Eze.
English Language – A…
“Ah!” I squealed.
“What, what!” Ibuka whirled to face me, alarmed. “Have you failed anything?”
“What kind of rubbish question is that one?” I bridled.
Ignoring him, I refocused on the board.
Mathematics – C… Integrated Science – B… Business Studies – B…
My eyes raced to the end of the subject line-up. No Fs. No Es. Hallelujah!
“Yes! Yes!” I shouted, feeling several pound slighter. I threw a fist in the air. “Yes! I’m an SS1 boy now! Thank you, Jesus!”
The words were whispered, but the agony in Ibuka’s voice carried. Filled with sudden consternation, I turned and moved to where the two of them were huddled.
“I failed Maths –” Joseph spat in a low tone.
“Oh my god!” I gasped.
“No, you did not fail it as in you’ll repeat JSS3,” Ibuka countered. “He did not fail it-fail it. He just has to resit the exam.”
A rush of relief surged out of me in a sigh. “Oh, that’s good news na –”
“What’s good about it!” Joseph said furiously. “I failed!”
“Stop saying that!” Ibuka admonished.
But he was talking to Joseph’s behind, because he had started fighting his way away from the notice board. Ibuka and I hurried after him.
“Joe, you didn’t fail, you only have to resit the exam,” I cajoled once we had broken free of the crowd. “Just be grateful for that.”
“Yes, plus I’m here,” Ibuka added. “I’ll tutor you and help you prepare for the exam.”
“You guys don’t understand,” he growled. He stopped. We stopped. He turned to us. His face was set in a hard outline, and a vein pulsed in his right temple. His eyes were stormy with emotion. “This is embarrassing!” he ground out. “It is humiliating! How can I go and join JSS3s –”
“You don’t have to go and join them,” Ibuka said. “You can continue with your SS1 classes, while preparing for the resit, which is in three weeks.”
“Just three weeks, that’s all,” I said in a bolstering tone. “And then, you’ll smash this thing and carry on with being an SS1 boy.”
For a moment, he stood there, staring back at us, afraid to believe us, afraid to hope. Then the anger on his face began to wilt, and I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed his lips moved upward in the beginning of a smile.
“Are you sure?” he said huskily to me.
“Sure about what?”
“Sure that I’ll smash this Maths and not repeat JSS3?”
“Those WAEC people no dey fear face?”
“Smashing it is not by magic o –” Ibuka began.
“What? I have to say it o. Joe, you have to study hard for the resit, and I will not go easy on you as your tutor. You can count on that.”
“What, are you going to cane me if I don’t do my Wednesday tutorial homework?”
“Better don’t try me, Joseph Amuluche,” Ibuka warned.
“Hey, guys! Guys! Eze – Joseph!”
We turned to watch warily as Ebenezer Onome hurried toward us. The boy hadn’t been our favorite person all through junior year. But this was senior year; hopefully old things had passed away.
Ebenezer however quickly dispelled that hope when he came to a stop before Joseph. There was a malicious smirk on his face as he held out a notebook to him.
“What is that?” Joseph said, his eyes narrowing on the book and back up at Ebenezer.
“It’s my JSS3 Maths book,” the boy said. “I saw that you are resitting Maths, and I wanted to offer this to you as a sign of condolence. God knows you’ll need all the help you can get so you don’t end up cutting those trousers back into shorts.”
My mouth dropped open in shock. The bastard!
Joseph let a moment pass, as though he was making up his mind how to react. Then he cocked his fist and smashed it in Ebenezer’s face. The blow was totally unexpected, and the impact of it sent Ebenezer staggering backward with a choked scream. He tripped and crashed down on the ground, his book flying out of his hand. Swearing furiously, he started to push himself up from the ground. Joseph danced forward, his fist upraised again, his face thrust toward him.
“You want to fight?” he snarled. “Give me an excuse, please, just give me an excuse to give you the beating you’ve been asking for since JSS1.”
The next few seconds ticked dangerously by, as the fate of the world rested on Ebenezer’s decision. The two boys faced off each other, Ebenezer braced against the ground with his hands, and Joseph hovering menacingly over him. Ibuka looked on with me, uncharacteristically quiet, as though he wanted the altercation to progress as much as I did.
Finally, Ebenezer hissed. He pushed away from Joseph and to his feet, picked up his book, and without a word, he whirled and stomped away.
Joseph watched him walk away, slowly unclenching. Ibuka and I approached. I raised a hand to clasp his tense shoulders.
“Do you feel better now?” I asked.
A sudden breathy chuckle escaped his mouth as he first looked at me and then Ibuka. “Yes, I do. I really do.”
“Alright then,” Ibuka said. “Let’s go and check out our new classrooms.”
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