CENTIPEDE TRAFFIC choked the breath of the Ugbowo expressway. Hakeem was somewhere in the chaos, in a bus. A miracle how all of eighteen passengers were squashed like sardines in a tin can into the mangled metal on dusty wheels. In the backpack on Hakeem’s laps was his dissertation, arranged and bound. He was on his way to campus where he intended to submit it to Mr. Okungbowa, his project supervisor. Merits and Implications of Civil Service Reform in Nigeria was finished in three weeks. Hakeem was the first person in political science to get his project approved. As Hakeem pondered on his itinerary for the day, a perceived commotion nearby drew his attention. He searched for confrontation or some kind of shirt-grappling with his eyes, but couldn’t find any. He had been mislead by an anonymous sense. Perhaps, it was because of the excess of sun or the prevalence of sweat or the urgency in the frustrated voices around him. Or all of the above. His surrounding was a powder keg. Soon enough, voices erupted nearby. Two agberos on the side of the road were fighting, presumably over money. It had to be money; a lateral root of conflict, a likely cause under the circumstances. Hakeem took yet another swipe at his forehead with his handkerchief just before the bus moved a couple of yards further. Stagnance again.
Mr. Okungbowa signed on all the copies of the dissertation. He was a slight man in his 70s. He responded to inappropriate behaviour from his students with smiles and flimsy warnings. He seemed like one who had linience and tolerance installed in him, or perhaps one who, over the many years, had lost to will to scold.
“Sir, just try to convince Mr. Donaldson on my behalf. Sir, please,” begged an increasingly desperate Hakeem. Mr. Donaldson, who he had walked out on in class, had sworn to teach him ‘a painful lesson.’ Hakeem’s attempt to personally plead with him resulted in the scorned lecturer throwing a stapler at him that narrowly missed his shin.
“I will try. But mind you, Yakubu, Donaldson is not one who is easily swayed when his mind is made up,” Mr. Okungbowa warned. Hakeem, whose exams would start in four days, knew all he could do was to wait and hope.
A hungry Hakeem was getting impatient. He read about Premier League transfer news while he waited for Mama Osas to bring his egusi soup and eba. All of a sudden, his WhatsApp message alert preceded the notification: Message from Regina. She hadn’t messaged or called him since she walked out on him on that breezy night at Xplosion. I think we should see. 8 pm. Upstairs at the cafeteria deck?, the message read.
It had been a week since Hakeem met MJ at the ATM. She had smiled at him and he had responded with a smile of his own. Three days later, they were making out at Hakeem’s doorstep. It all happened so quickly that they found themselves inside his apartment, rolling around. Last minute resistance from both parties was all that stood between their genitals that night. Right there on his mattress, MJ confessed to Hakeem with a naked chest and smeared lipstick that raging guilt wouldn’t let her cheat on her boyfriend who was back in Lagos. She was only in 100l which meant her resolve in preserving her long distance relationship was still fresh and steadfast, yet to be ruthlessly put to the test by bulging biceps and the exuberance of youth. Treasure was still trying to squeeze herself into Hakeem’s life. And with very little subtlety. She had gone from sending him romantic text messages to blatantly telling him she wanted him ‘like mad.’ Somewhere in the mix, she offered the unsolicited service of being his ‘nasty slave.’ Her desperation puzzled Hakeem. To him, she came off as someone who wasn’t sure what she wanted from him in particular. Perhaps, she felt his reputation would restore some dignity to her damaged public image if they became an item. While on the bus stuck in Ugbowo traffic, he received a picture of her bare breasts captioned ‘for your eyes only.’ The boy sitting next to Hakeem certainly got a good look.
The cafeteria deck was teeming with activity. Everything seemed to be happening. Amidst all the discordant chattering, there was a distinctly loud posse to Regina’s right who mostly talked about Hawi, the self-acclaimed greatest rapper alive who got booed off stage halfway through an abysmal performance at the open mic night. He had gone into hiding and word quickly spread that he had rid his head of every single strand of hair. Hawi: the inadvertent martyr of alternative/experimental/esoteric rap. There was another group who seemed to be there just to watch stuff on their laptops. All four of them – completely silent – just sat by each other with their faces screwed to the beaming monitors like synchronised androids, their intermittent blinking occasionally reminding Regina that they were, in fact, humans. Of course, there was the group of individuals who, for some reason, were there to give people the impression that they were studying amidst the concoction of clattering energies.
“Sorry I’m late, Reggie. Temporarily lost my wallet,” explained Hakeem as he adjusted on the plastic chair close to hers. Regina had gone on and on in her head about how she was going to tell Hakeem about what happened with Abraham. She considered not telling him altogether, but she knew the weight of it would be too heavy on her conscience. She imagined how she would probably be reminded of it everytime she met his gaze or everytime he touched her sensually.
“Before we stray too far, I have something I want to tell you. Something I need to tell you.” Sighs. “It was after the fight at…” Regina paused and asked for them to move to a more discreet space. “It was after the Xplosion incident. I was upset and I made a stupid decision. I had sex with someone. Abraham,” she finally revealed in an almost rueful tone as they stood at the top of the stairs leading to the ground floor of the cafeteria. Regina instantly started to regret why she hadn’t warmed up to it. Perhaps, that would have taken some of the sting from the revelation, she thought. It was too late. Hakeem had begun to descend down the stairs. As she watched him leave, she let out a loud sigh. She found that she felt a measure of relief.
* * *
INDOMIE SAID HIS PRAYERS right before he carefully wrote his matriculation number at the top of his answer booklet. Hakeem watched from the corridor where he waited and kept himself visible just incase fortune smiled in his general direction. Before leaving for an ‘external appointment,’ Mr. Donaldson specifically instructed Mr. Awogbayila to not let Hakeem into the hall for the exam. The exam had been delayed for twenty minutes as a result of question paper shortage. “I don’t bloody care if he has paid his fees or not. That boy is not writing my course,” he said. Mr. Donaldson was a monument of a man who had broad shoulders and a narrow torso. He stood at 6’4″ and walked as though he had springs installed in his heels. As Mr. Donaldson confidently strode away, the possible consequences of missing POL 423 hit Hakeem for the umpteenth time, but with profound impact this time; he would have to spend another year in school. He considered the possibility of being pardoned and the possibility of getting his increasingly likely carryover ‘waved’ away. He felt himself involuntarily easing into a hollow, pitiable mould of resignation.
For a second, the voice seemed like a distant, undefined sound. It registered late in Hakeem’s consciousness. He looked over the railing of the corridor and found Ovie looking up at him. In that instant, an idea came to Hakeem like a divine revelation. He quickly gestured for Ovie to climb up the stairs. They converged on the out-of-order toilet.
“Let’s switch shirts. Donaldson won’t let me into the hall. Don’t worry, I have a plan.”
Hakeem’s plan was easier said than done:
Switch checkered black and white shirt with Ovie’s plain black shirt
Head for the closest barbershop and completely shave off afro.
Sneak into hall and write exam in the hope of not being recognised by invigilator.
Ovie could only watch as Hakeem hurriedly tucked the unflattering shirt into his trousers. It was all happening so quickly.
With her headphones plugged in, Regina sat in the mass of darkness that covered the school auditorium. It was as though the yoke around her neck had been loosened a little and the weight she was dragging around had been lessened after the final exams. She sat behind a projector that displayed colourful patterns from a laptop nearby. The warped images wobbled and jittered, morphing from one abstraction to another. Michael Jackson was playing in her headphones. Instruments were being set up and the NxtGen dancers were rehearsing in a small corner of the conspicuously lit stage. The final year concert was two hours away and there had been rumours that B-Red would show up. “Even if he come, which song he wan sing?” Ese had questioned rhetorically earlier in the day, mocking the singer’s unspectacular discography. As MJ crooned Human Nature into Regina’s ears, the sound and the psychedelic patterns that were being projected contrived to create an ambience, an ambience that was joyfully fulfilling and vaguely sorrowful at the same time. This must be something like what Hakeem says he feels when he listens to UB40’s Kingston Town, she thought. Hakeem. For some reason she couldn’t quite decide on, she felt some relief that she and Hakeem were apart. But she missed him and his mind. She wondered if his presence in her life burdened her psyche; if his omniscence forced her to keep up. Many a time, she had felt dependent on him mentally. But she missed him still. She unlocked her phone screen and found a message from Hakeem waiting to be clicked open.
Hey, Reggie. I downloaded all the Issakaba films and I was wondering if you would binge-watch with me. I have Bailey’s 🙂
Lol. Was planning to watch the concert, but fuck that. Anything for Sam Dede.
Everytime Regina heard a discussion about CGPAs and Segun Junaid, she would narrow her focus on where it was coming from. Segun was the only competition she had left. By the end of 300l, it was clear that it would be a two-horse race to the finish. For long periods, it looked like it would be a trifecta, but Charles Iloegbunam fell off somewhere along the line. Some said it was because of his affiliation with the Black Skull cult, while some others said it was because of generation curses in his bloodline. Everytime students and lecturers asked Regina if she was interested in being the overall best, she would stress that all she wanted was to finish as strongly as she possibly could. When her head of department asked her what her chances of being valedictorian were, she told him “a first class is the only aim, sir.” She was lying. She desperately wanted to be up on the podium. So, when she discovered Segun had finished with a CGPA of 4.71, she felt her heart sink. It was Seliat who broke the news to her and the other roommates. She swallowed saliva and tried to act as normal as she could for the rest of the day, laughing a little too hard and reminding her roommates how contented she was one too many times. After a couple of days, she slowly started to feel the disappointment melt away and a newfound optimism gradually emerged: an optimism about her future prospects, about the doors her healthy degree could open professionally and socially.
All four floors of Challenge Hostel slowly emptied after the exams and only graduating students who wished to wait for their convocation ceremony were allowed to remain in the hostel. The buzzing corridors became deserted spaces where echoes were amplified and the waste baskets by each door took longer to fill up. Regina took familiar trips to the library where she read books that didn’t directly have any ties to anatomy; a luxury she felt she couldn’t afford during school session. She was pleasantly bemused by the bizareness of Amos Tutuola’s fiction and inspired by Chinua Achebe’s social commentary. She spent most of the remaining nights in her dorm room with Ese where they talked about all they could manage to; the cute doctor at the school clinic and his stethoscope, stolen underwear, the elusive/mythical g-spot. Pastor Ezekiel, the pastor who claimed to see into Regina’s past, was caught in bed with a church member’s wife a couple of days before the session officially ended. A female usher at the church who was consumed by guilt also confessed to secretly sourcing personal information about students and sending them to Ezekiel himself for a Sunday segment tagged Hour of Prophecy.
On her final night in room D2, she curled up in her mattress and reminisced her childhood into life. She remembered the shaman who came to the house when she was just a girl with his filthy satin and his uneasy gaze. The one who said she was bringer of ruin and destruction. The slight man, who her father simply called Oiboh, had blood-shut eyes and black toe nails. She remembered trying as hard as possible not to make eye contact with him. What if he was right, she wondered as she absent-mindedly stared at the light coming from Ese’s busy phone from across the moon-lit room. Regina imagined disastrous future scenarios like losing all her children to a mysterious illness or a terrible fire burning down her house and everything in it. What if the gods really meant what Oiboh claimed to have seen? Her mind drifted towards cherished memories soon enough. Cherished memories she usually shared with Hakeem in bits and pieces from time to time. One of these memories stuck to her mind with the stubborness of a leech despite its vagueness. The memory was the story of the day a stranger helped to her feet when she slipped up on a muddy road a few blocks away from the house. The stranger took her to a shade nearby and washed legs.
For some unfathomable reason or coincidence, she never told Hakeem this story.
Hakeem and Regina mended their broken hearts the night he invited her to watch Issakaba. They collapsed into sleep after a few tears and a little too much alcohol. Hakeem was also waiting till after the convocation before leaving. He finally got Mr. Donaldson to mark his POL 423 answer booklet after the head of department’s intervention a week after the exams. Hakeem had considered telling his parents about the debacle before it was resolved. His parents. Mr. Yakubu – against the majority of his family’s wishes – finally agreed to take his wife back after he banished her for having an affair, but Mrs. Yakubu told Hakeem over the phone shortly after that Mr. Yakubu had started using her mistakes as an excuse to practice his adultery to her face. Hakeem sympathised with his mother, but he hated that that was all he could do at the moment.
On his final day as the resident of the boxy self-contain on Osazuwa street, he sat on his neighbour’s bench and watched people go about their everyday business. Children ran around in the rain that drizzled. Adults walked gingerly around puddles that were unevenly distributed along the street. An occurence from Hakeem’s childhood that he seldom reflected on suddenly found its way to the front of his mind. It happened when his family travelled to Benin for a few days to visit Mr. Imasuen, a close friend of his father. Ignoring his parents warning not to step out of the compound alone, he sneaked around Mr. Imasuen’s gateman and sat in a shade across the gate just to watch a cluster of kids kick a tennis ball in no particular direction. The kids legs were covered in mud up to their knees and the green tennis ball was almost entirely engulfed in orange-brown. And then, all of a sudden, a sound like a thud caught young Hakeem’s attention. It was the sound of a girl landing on her back. He ran towards the girl who had begun to sob and helped her to her feet. He held her by the hand and led her to the shade. There was a bucket carefully placed under the downward-sloping end of the shade’s zinc roof. The bemused girl, whose tears had dried up, watched as Hakeem carefully rinsed her muddied legs. When he finished, he placed the bucket back where he saw it, then sat on the wooden bench in the shade. The girl stood clueless. After a few moments, she sat by his side and let out a string of words with the hoarseness that succeeds crying.
“Sorry,” he responded. An incoherent response, but an excusable one for an 8 year old.
Lightening struck in an instant and the sky opened its jaws. The playing kids dispersed in different directions. Hakeem caught wind of his name being called with menacing vigour. He dashed into the pouring rain and ran for the gate. There was no time to look back.
* The End *