Previously on EZE RETURNS TO SCHOOL…
“Choose the option that best conveys the meaning of the underlined portion in the following sentence,” Mrs. Nduagu read from the English textbook that was open on her slightly arthritic hands. “Only the small fry get punished for such social misdemeanours.”
The teacher was seated, a well-preserved woman in her sixties. She was near retirement and had that seen-it-all, world-weary aura that you find in anyone who has been at the same job for too long.
She looked slightly up from the textbook and eyeballed the class through the top of her eyeglasses as she said, “As you can see, ‘small fry’ is underlined there. So you pick from the options which one best replaces ‘small fry’ in the sentence.”
I was at my seat, staring unseeingly at the textbook on the desk before me. Every muscle in my body felt tight, sprung for action, even though my brain was pulling me into unhelpful directions that had me corralled in a rage of uncertainties. Since I woke up this morning, with every hour that passed came a new reason for me to fear, to question my decision to do what I intended to do today. I’d walk into the examination hall and be nabbed straight away because someone knew I shouldn’t be there. I’d look into the question paper, at the questions, and not know what to answer. I’d write Joseph’s name on the answer sheet and expose myself to an invigilator who knows what Joseph looks like. I’d be dragged out of the exam hall, disgraced, expelled, sent back home to face the wrath of my parents.
My heart began to palpitate, a rush of beats that seemed to fill my hearing with its din, as Ibuka’s words from yesterday hammered at my mind. God forbid bad thing…! This is my life! I can’t be a party to this…! I can’t do this, Eze!
“Eze!” Mrs. Nduagu’s curt voice cut into my reverie, rousing me from my thoughts with a start that was so sudden, my mentation was short-circuited into responding to the last thing I’d heard the teacher say.
“Unimportant people,” I hollered, jerking upright in my seat as I faced the woman.
She stared her incomprehension at me as some of my classmates began to titter.
“Joseph Amuluche is unimportant people?” the teacher queried, her gray brows lifting above the rim of her eyeglasses.
I gave a confused shake of my head. “No, ma. Joseph is fine – I mean, he’s not fine – I mean…” I broke off to take in a steadying breath before speaking again. “I was just answering your question, ma.”
The gray brows descended, creating a groove below Mrs. Nduagu’s temple that was indicative of her annoyance. “A question someone who was clearly paying attention to my class has already answered. Would you care to enlighten us on what you seem to find important enough to preoccupy you during my class?”
My mind raced with thoughts of how to handle this. Mrs. Nduagu was famous for handing out detentions, sending erring students to the staff room to await whatever drudgery she’d have them do for her, from sorting through her lesson notes to grading assessment papers. I was in her crosshairs now, and I desperately didn’t need the disciplinary action that was sure to come. It was twenty-five minutes to 11am, almost time for the resitting of the Junior WAEC Mathematics exam.
Slackening the muscles of my face and suddenly looking downcast, I said slowly, “I’m sorry, ma. It’s just that…” I paused and added a catch to my breath. “Joseph is not feeling well… And I have been feeling a little sick myself since last night…” I worked a shudder through my body and lifted my hands to clasp them around me. “I was going to ask for your permission to go to the dispensary.”
The ice thawed from Mrs. Nduagu’s face and she said in a gentle tone, “Sorry, my child. Your friend is sick, you’re sick. Hurry off to the dispensary, so the matron can look you over and determine that it’s not something contagious.”
I got up with a forced shakiness, still in Academy Award winning mode, making sure to my face and the triumph brimming in my eyes averted. I cleared my desk of my lesson materials, and picked up a book inside which I’d tucked away my writing materials and a booklet on the past questions and answers for the Junior WAEC Mathematics. I’d been lucky to happen on Shola, the JSS3 boy in my House who owned the material and had been pleased to let me borrow it for a quick reading last night. As I leafed through the booklet, I’d felt both elated that I was able to recapture some of what I’d been taught last year and overwhelmed by the short time available for me to study.
Don’t you know how long me and Joseph have been preparing for this exam? Ibuka screamed in my head. Don’t you know? For three weeks! Three weeks!
“Get out of my head, Ibuka,” I ground out under my breath.
“What did you say?” Mrs. Nduagu’s enquiring voice brought my head up to face her.
I hoisted a perfect Malaria-stricken smile and said, “I was just saying ‘Thank you, ma.’”
She flicked her hand impatiently at the door. “Never mind that. Get going, and get well soon.”
I nodded and began shuffling out of the class. Involuntarily, I jerked my head in the direction of the other end of the classroom, and sure enough, my eyes encountered the question in Anulika’s stare. I couldn’t give any answers, so I turned away from her and continued on out of the classroom.
When I was out of the sight of my class, I straightened and took in a deep breath, my face firming with purpose. It is show time, I bolstered silently, and began marching down the SS1 classroom block.
“Eze!” someone called as I walked past SS1A.
I kept on walking.
“Eze!” There was a rush of feet as the caller sped from the classroom. “Eze, stop!” he called from behind me.
I stopped and whirled around, my eyes stormy. “I have nothing to say to you,” I hissed.
“Yes, but I do,” Ibuka replied as he walked up to me. There was a set expression on his face, one I recognized as the look he always got whenever he’d convinced himself to do what he’d initially hadn’t wanted to do. “I’ve decided that I’ll help you.”
I eyed him, striving to remain detached, unmoved. “It’s too late now. I had all the help I needed from this.” I gestured with my right hand.
His eyes flickered over the booklet in it. “That’s not what I meant. I’m not about to teach you anything. What I’m trying to say is…” He paused and pursed his lips as he muttered, “I can’t even believe I’m saying this, but yes, I’m trying to say that I’ll help you” – he lowered his voice and stepped closer to me – “do expo for Joseph’s exam.”
I was struck then by two strong emotions. First was the tide of relief that rocked me. It was visible. The panic eased from my face and my stance relaxed. And then laughter bubbled up inside me as I took in the import of Ibuka’s words. I was starting to grin as I said, “You want to help me do expo? You?” I made a production of glancing through his class windows into the room yonder. “Okay, please, tell me where Ibuka is and what you have done with him.”
“Shettup,” he said, smiling. “And better not make me change my mind.”
“Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!” I gushed as I moved to grab him into a hug.
“Yes, yes,” he grunted as he wriggled out of my embrace. His expression was solemn as he said, “First, you have to take back what you said.”
“What did I say?”
“You said I am a wicked boy and that I’m not a friend. I am a friend. I am your friend and Joe’s friend –”
“Of course you are,” I interrupted gently, feeling a prickle of shame at the hurtful thing I said to him during our row yesterday. “You are a friend. You are a best friend even.”
He nodded, satisfied.
“Is that all?”
“Let’s just get through today.”
“Everything will be alright, you’ll see.” I was suddenly full of confidence.
He grimaced, a pantomime of doubt.
“So, what’s the plan?” I said as we trekked out of our block.
What Ibuka had in mind was simple. Or not. Our communication for the malpractice would be through phones. I’d take Joseph’s Blackberry with me into the exam hall and text the questions to him. He’d get the solutions as quickly as he could and text them back to me as summarily as possible, for me to fill into the answer sheet.
“It’s a good plan, a bold one even,” I said as we walked. I realized distractedly that he wasn’t leading the way toward the dining hall, which was the venue of the exam. “But the obvious problem there is, whose phone will I text the questions to?”
“That’s where we are going, to go and get the other phone.”
We were approaching the SS3 classroom block.
“We are asking for an SS3boy’s phone?” I hissed, alarmed. “Ibuka, are you cra –”
“It’s not just any SS3 boy, Eze,” he said, waving away my panic. “It’s Joseph’s in-law’s phone.”
It took a second for what he said to make sense to me. “Jericho? We want Jericho’s phone? Oh. We want Jericho’s phone.” I began to smile again. The SS3 boy was the perfect person to ask for what we wanted without the risk of too many questions. After all, at the beginning of the term, he’d said we should come to him with any problems we had. And he still thought Joseph’s mother was his sister, and that he stood a chance with her upon graduation from secondary school. Joseph had played that fiddle to perfection.
The SS3 classroom block wasn’t a place I came to very often. In fact, I’d never voluntarily visited the block, unless at the behest of a senior student. And so, apprehension tightened my gut as Ibuka and I marched down the terrace of the block toward SS3C. The trousers we wore caused us not to stand out; there were no double takes at the sight of us from the SS3s loitering on the terrace, no ‘Hey, what are you junior boys doing here!’
Mercifully, SS3C wasn’t receiving any lecture, and the class was rowdy with the caper of the students inside. Through the window, we instantly spotted Pius Oche aka Jericho holding court in a corner of the classroom. We stood outside there, suddenly unsure what to do. It was okay to march confidently down the block, but venturing into an SS3 classroom required the kind of invitation Jehovah extended to Moses at the temple of the Burning Bush.
“You two don’t look familiar,” a female voice called from the seat closest to the window.
We turned to encounter the inquiring gaze of the SS3 girl seated just beyond us. I couldn’t remember her name, but I’d seen her enough times in her day-wear to know she was in Hope House.
“No, senior, we are not in SS3,” I answered. “We just want to see Senior Jericho.”
“Who? Oh, you mean Pius.” She turned and hollered, “Pius Oche!” When the boy looked up from whatever punch line he’d been about to deliver to his court, she said with a nod at the window, “Your small boys want to see you.”
Small boys?! Girl, can’t you see I’m wearing trousers? Respect the trousers, missy!
The irritation that flashed across Jericho’s face at the interruption was instantly replaced by a grin when he recognized us.
“Ah! The friends of my in-law!” he hailed as he started out of the classroom to meet us outside. “Wetin una dey do for here? Person don die?”
Of course, it’d take only a tragedy to make a junior boy to take on the foolishness of visiting the SS3 block.
“No, senior,” Ibuka answered with a small chuckle. “It’s just that…Joseph sent us.”
“He wants to ask you for a big favour, and we are hoping, in fact begging you to grant him the favour.”
The senior boy chuckled. “Okay, this is serious. If na to kill my mama, I no go gree o.”
He chuckled again at his wit. Ibuka and I joined in with a discrete laugh.
“No, nothing like that,” my friend said. “It’s just that, there’s this girl he’s chyking, and he wants to impress her. So he was wondering maybe, if you could lend us your phone small, so he can use it to show the girl that he’s a big boy.”
It took a moment for Jericho to react, and when he did, it was with a deep laugh that burst forth from the back of his throat. “Chai! These SS1 boys, una too much!”
“Wetin be that?” one of sidekicks, Ogidi, said as he ambled out of the classroom to join us outside.
“They wan use my phone form big boy for one girl like that.”
Ogidi’s eyes widened, and then he gave an amused shake of his head. “See morale na. Una no dey even fear face again.”
“No, no, I no dey even vex for them like that,” Jericho clarified. “Na respect u get for them. Respect, boys. Respect.” He gestured with his hand, as though doffing an invisible hat at us. “You can have the phone.” He began rooting for the device in his pocket. As he brought out the sleek Android smartphone, he shot a quick look around. “This is contraband, shey you know. Make the phone mo enter any teacher hand o, una dey hear?”
“Yes, senior,” Ibuka and I said in unison.
“If that one happen, just change school from there, una dey hear?”
“Good.” He nodded and handed the phone to Ibuka. “Tell my in-law that I want updates o. That girl must succumb today-today!” He gave a lascivious cackle and turned back into the class, with Ogidi in tow.
Ibuka and I hastened out of the block. It was almost 11am, and I could see a number of whites-and-blues already converging on the dining hall in the distance, thronging up the stairs into the hall.
“Here,” Ibuka said, as he stopped a short distance from the hall. He had retrieved Joseph’s Blackberry from his pocket and was holding it out to me. “You make use of Joe’s phone, I’ll use Jericho’s. I have flashed Joe’s phone with Jericho’s, so you’ll know the number to text to. I’ll find a hiding spot behind the dining hall, somewhere I won’t be disturbed.”
I nodded as I took the phone from him. My breathing had quickened and I could feel my heart beating a tad faster behind my chest.
“Are you sure you are up for this?” Ibuka looked earnestly at me. “You’re the one who’s going to be in there, trying to make sure they either don’t catch you with the phone or find out you’re not Joseph.”
“Is that supposed to help me in any way?” I snapped the question, feeling the tension snap taut my insides.
Ibuka smiled. “I was just testing your resolve, my friend. And I can see that you’re good to go.”
A responsive smile fleeted across my face and vanished almost immediately, too hampered by my fountaining apprehension to stay anchored.
“Thank you, Ibu,” I said with feeling.
“Don’t thank me yet. Let’s just get through what we have to do first. Have you prayed?”
“You know, for God to be with you.”
A short laugh gusted from me. “I’m about to do exam malpractice. Does God listen to that kind of prayer?”
“He listened to the Israelites all the time they were about to go to war, and that was murder they were about to commit.”
“Good point,” I said with another laugh.
He patted my back. I squeezed his hand. And then I was off, headed to the dining hall and an uncertain destiny.
I am @Walt_Shakes on twitter