ON THE HEART OF WAR
I knew something was going to go wrong. I felt it like I felt the sting of that yellow pendulum that hung itself across the sky that morning like a celestial stain which brought color and life to douse the plainness and gloom of the clouds. No matter how water-tight one’s plans are, fate always reserves a backdoor that leads to the ruin and collapse of it all, regardless of the faithlessness or faithfulness one had for it, or the murderous hate I personally had for it. Left to me I would treat fate the same way I would treat my lecturers – like urine in a cup.
Immediately I took down the pot of Egusi soup from the stove I knew instinctively that I had outdone myself again, and this time it wasn’t just the suspicious look the soup gave me, it was also the aroma, the cold indifference with which the fish treated the soup. There was no gyrating rhythm, no sensuousness or the ballistic excitement that shoots out at you from a freshly prepared soup, the type my mother was fond of, especially where torturing me was involved. Somehow I still had yet to learn how to cook a good soup without sabotaging the integrity of the different parts that made it up. I took the setback in good stride and proceeded to serve the soup alongside a plate of rice with an extra plate of bits of green vegetables and delicately-sliced carrots. I moved with the grace of a professional chef attending to high-value customers, and on this day my customer was the ebullient Ayomide Durotimi, the only 400L female student of the department of mathematics at FUNAAB who in one breath could be described as attractive and intelligent without actually compromising the meaning of those words. She gazed, she whooped, she tittered, and she blushed in response to my affected charm. She was her overly joyful self, apparently no boy she knew of – dead or alive- had taken such great pains to treat her so well. She spoke words of appreciation that I knew issued from the deepest reaches of her mind, and they built castles and made elaborate caravans that lit up my face and kept extra batteries as back-up.
I was beside myself already, completely unencumbered by the story the soup had to tell, so superficially absorbed by the helpless purrs of a dame. The plan is working. We settled down to eat our meal, helped with the fizziness of a hybrid drink, the result of a mixture of coke, sprite, and fanta. I ingeniously employed it to deal with any undesirable aftertaste the soup might leave on its way down. After we were finished, I moved for the kill. I inched closer to her and traced the fringes of her hair from her scalp to her shoulders, to command her attention so she could read the message I had on my face. My lips remained pressed together, all the work was left to my eyes and my smile. She batted her eyelids and tilted her head sideways, then brought it back again. Smiling, she said “What is it?”, I said nothing but my eyes opened a bit further and further again until they were as big as those eggs that were sold at fifty naira each. “You are a truly captivating spectacle, Ayo, has anybody ever told you that before?”. She giggled so hard I was worried she had become drunk. “Yes jor! And stop making a big deal out of it. I’m sure you see pretty ladies every day”, she replied. I was insistent, “But none as mysterious as yours”. Deftly, I took her hands in mine and pierced her eyes with mine. I crinkled my forehead to indicate sincerity, then I bit my lower lip, hesitating for a fraction of a second, and said, “I want to ask you something, Ayo, and I want you to accept”, her face became suddenly as bright as the sun. She longed for those words like a thirsty soul for a jug of cold water, “Okay”, she croaked. “Qudus is going to ask you out sooner or later, and it will probably be the biggest decision the poor boy would ever make since he got to school. I need you to say yes to him”.
The reaction was swift, she withdrew her hands and grabbed herself as if suddenly cold, the brightness burned out and was replaced with confusion. She shook her head gingerly, “I don’t understand. I thought you-, I thought- what are you talking about?”. I stood and reached for the cup of water on the table, handed it over to her and waited till she was through. There was a short pause and I resumed, “I understand it might come as a shock hearing this from me. And believe me, even Qudus doesn’t know I’m doing this. But he is my friend, has been for four years now and if there is one thing I know about him, it’s that he bleeds emotion faster than blood, if something should go wrong with the emotion that runs in his blood, he becomes nothing more than a piece of bread. A damaged piece of bread. I’m only trying to look out for him”. Her reply was surprisingly short, “okay”. As if on impulse she stood from my bed and began to pick up her things, “I am sorry, I have to go now. Thank you so much for the meal, and don’t bother to see me out, I know my way”. As she walked out of my room that day, unspeakable joy walked in and gave me a warm embrace. I was not only basking at my conceived victory, but also at my thespian performance which I believe would unreservedly earn me an Oscar. Leonardo da Vinci, in all his graces could not hold a candle to my performance. And no, Emeka Ike did not even qualify. I even did the unthinkable that day by skipping dinner because my joy was full. No need to taint it with oil.
It all started about a week before, in the classroom, with over half the class either slumbering or trying not to as Dr Ajayi stood in front and snuffed what was left of the living daylights out of us. I was in the middle of the mirage myself, I could not tell if it was real or not but I could feel life ebbing out from me slowly. Daylight had turned to night and even that was quickly becoming a monstrous nightmare. The Doctor was talking about the different classes, sub-classes, and sub-sub-classes of plant chemicals, called phytochemicals. He presented us with a lecture note that was almost a thousand page long, riddled with abominable names that threatened to screw off the top of my head, and structures, reactions, and pathways that, try as we might, did not wish to be understood. It was common knowledge that my school was no mere school because it served as a melting pot for breeding battle-hardened students who regard the subject of studying as one would regard breathing. The only thing the cultists here do at their night gatherings is to have study sessions, a student once quipped. But there were limits to what we could do and trying to understand a lecture note written in kryptonian was beyond our limits. The class continued at its boring pace until a hand shot itself upwards and its owner was granted permission to speak. It belonged to Qudus, who was gangly and lean with a prominent forehead that was more Cro-magnon than otherwise. His head was so massive it looked like he had an extra brain hidden somewhere in his skull. He started to speak, “Sir, the lecture note you have given us is too voluminous and we don’t understand what is written there. Is there a way that you could make it shorter and less complicated?” It was a honest question that was free from any bias or sentiment. And it represented the view of each student in the class, but there was a problem and it resulted from the courage and confidence with which Qudus called the lecturer’s skills to question. He rifled home his anger with his point, “Are you okay? Do you know how long I have been lecturing? Do you have any idea how long it took me to prepare this note? Why are you students so ungrateful?” Those angry words had enough power to vanquish the slumbering spirit that roved around. Everyone sat up quivering under the voice of the lecturer, trouble had come and it came with a syringe that drew blood from our faces. He thundered on, “No problem. You’ll be having your test this time next week. I shall teach you all how to speak to a Doctor”. And that was how Qudus the urchin presented the whole lot of us, shackled to his dogged foolishness, to the all-consuming flames of Dr Ajayi’s wrath.
Studying a lecture note that was written in an unknown language was more demanding than I thought. I seldom slept, and when I did I had nightmares that were too vivid to be described. On the day we had the test, my eyeballs felt like a million pins were placed end to end along the diameter of each eye, and they threatened to force them out. The test lasted for only thirty minutes, consisting of thirty multiple choice questions, a minute for each question. The outcome was genocidal on a horrific scale, it was a slaughter and a statement. At the end of the test, there was only one decision to be made, and it meant things would not end well for the urchin. The boys are pissed, and someone has to pay. I would lead the crusade. I knew Qudus had a thing for Ayo, and I knew he did not have the spine to yet tell her he loved her enough to ask her to be his girl. So I initiated the process. I edged him on, asking him to pop the question to her while at the same time setting up a meeting with Ayo at my place. I was going to pay him back for the humbling he made us receive at the hands of our lecturer.
Two days after the meeting with Ayo, while walking to the Student Union Building to grab a quick meal, I was cornered by Qudus and another gangly-looking, weather- beaten toughie, who was probably there to rough me up. He was wearing a frown that looked fake, I was wearing a glazed look that betrayed no emotion. I left it up to him to size me up and weigh his options. Meantime, I had curled my fists into a bunch and watched as Qudus’ apoplectic ravings showed just how far spit can move if directed with so much energy. He said many things, he accused me of destroying his relationship with Ayo, he said she yelled at him and told him never to speak to her again. He threatened to beat me up, and I told him to his face that he was so full of bluff that it was leaking out from his ear. I was enjoying his sermon and I showed him my teeth, which was expected to rile him further. But I did not expect what happened next. The thin toughie grabbed me from behind and Qudus caught me on the cheek with a fist, it felt like being hit with a pillow. I told him this and he drove another into my diaphragm. I fell into a ball, and drew in a lungful of air, and I surprised the toughie with an elbow at his groin, he twisted with pain and retreated, when I turned I walked into another pillow-like fist from Qudus but this time I was ready, I ignored the pain that shot through my nose and I went for his arm, twisting it until I could almost hear the pop sound. He cried out and pleaded for mercy. My body screamed with pain already, and I was tired, so I let go, with a promise to finish things the next time we crossed paths. But before leaving, I warned him never to speak in class if he was unwilling to use his brain.
The University health centre reeked of pus, blood, antiseptics, diseases and blood-curdling nausea. The nurse who attended to me was patient and warm, she reminded me of my mother and my stare would have lingered longer had it not been for the figure who walked past me assisted by another equally beguiling figure. My heart almost stopped when the first figure turned and we locked eyeballs. It was like falling into a bottomless pit, vertigo played me up and down like a football. I disentangled myself from the nurse’s grip and approached her, the closer I drew the heavier my legs became until I could no longer lift them. I spoke first, “Ayo I..”, she did not let me finish before saying out loud, “Shut up! I don’t want to see you or even hear you speak.” I turned to her friend and asked why she was here, she replied, “She is being treated for food poisoning. Something she ate at a guy’s place, I’m sure you can relate”, she was not smiling. I let out an “ahh” and proceeded to say something before Ayo pounced on me, “You can’t even cook, stupid boy!”, she turned and stormed off in the direction of the pharmacy. I went back to the nurse and she resumed dressing the wound on my face with a smile that cut through me like knife through butter.
It was bittersweet, my victory.