by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
You are peering at the fading lines of the old Economics notebook. You know it is not the lines of the note written in your hand writing that is fading. It is your eyes that seem to be failing, losing the battle to sleep, fading. You’ve been doing this for some time, back and forth, pacing between dream and reality, forcefully jerking back to consciousness each time like a car nursing a weak carburetor. This realization worries you the way the knowledge of an impending trouble does, like when in your younger years you waited in fear for the return of your father home knowing you will get caned for not performing well in school. Jamb was only a month away and even though in your mind you preferred to count in weeks, preferring the false comfort of saying four weeks to the more threatening one month, you cannot deny the increased throbbing in the left of your chest each time you thought about it..
You dig into your purple pinafore pocket and fish out the last lobe of kolanut. You rub your fingers around it in an effort to sanitize it, to rub off any particles that might have gotten stuck on it. You do not bite off some and keep the rest for later. You throw it all into your mouth and chew slowly like a goat chewing cud, ensuring the molars on both side of your mouth get a generous chunk to mash. You cringe as the first bit of juice hit your taste buds. You hate it, the nasty bitterness, the sour aftertaste it leaves in your mouth. But you chew on, been doing so since Jamb became a real calendar threat , all part of your elaborate strategy for parting your eyelids at night, to read, to ensure Jamb did not as you and your classmates often joked, jam you.
You are running out of options. Just an hour ago in the hostel before setting out to the class to read, you had endured a hot cup of black coffee. Oral tradition in Eko Comprehensive Girls’ College had it that for coffee to repress sleep, there must be no trace of sugar. You hate coffee, so much so, you hated even washing your father’s coffee mugs as a child. You broke many intentionally and each time you did, you got smacked but you went on to break some more. That is how much you hate coffee, the taste, the sickening aroma, the mugs you had to wash. But not anymore. Jamb may have reversed the orientation of your taste buds you suspect. But for all your efforts, it seemed like your years of hatred were getting back at you now. Must be Karma you imagine. The sleep depressant whose efficacy is legendry among students has vehemently refused to work for you. It didn’t matter that unlike your classmates, you had not only withdrawn sugar but milk as well, just so to guarantee absoluteness of the sugar-free requirement. It just wouldn’t work. That night, you had gone a step further and adopted the other popular tactics of having both legs immersed in a bucket of cold water while reading. You had dragged the bucket along to class from the hostel. Yet, the lines of your note are fading, your eyes failing.
You sit up and shake your head from side to side to, in your estimation, shake off the sleep. It is the umpteenth time you are doing so. Your legs wobble inside the bucket, the cold sending a chill up your spine. You feel it, like water being sucked up a straw. You shiver a little more out of the fear of catching a cold than of the cold itself. Nothing was worse than catarrh for a student preparing for Jamb. You dread it, the discomfort of it, the taste of the tablets you will have to take, the drowsiness they will cause. Quickly, you take your mind off it and steal a glance around the classroom. It is all quiet. You see heads bent over books, reading and you feel some envy. There is one head lying on her book though, Eno’s. She is hugging her desk in sleep. She can afford to you think. She registered to sit for the exam at a miracle center – a rural school in the neighbouring state where she would have the questions solved and the answers dictated to her at a fee by exam mercenaries. She had told you about it, about the secrecy of the plan, about the certainty of the arrangement, about the testimonies of people from the year before. But you dared not get involved. Your father would have had your tongues for dinner should you mention such taboo in his presence. He is such a man of principle, your father, a retired school teacher with many months of unpaid pensions. Heartbroken as he is with the system, he would never support your cheating like Eno’s parents did. Yet he expected you to perform very well.
That was what made you scared the most, the fear of failure. The fear of failing your father. The look he had on his face the day he gave you the registration fee has become like a screen saver in your mind. It is a look you do not want to see again. Like pain mixed with love. He had had to take a loan from the Men’s Association purse in Church, because the deadline for registering was at hand and you had returned home from school that Friday crying, like you would die if you did not register for the exam that very day. No one could blame you for what you did. At that point, you were the only one in your class yet to register. You were left out of the juicy discussions, of University choices and the imaginations of life on campus. It was not a pleasant place to be in so you cried all the way home to your father. It turned out a successful coup d’état.
“Listen to me Ndifreke” He said as he gave you the wad of Naira notes, the frankness in his voice filling the air, clogging it. “This money is a loan. I don’t even know how I will pay it back. But, let me remind you, I don’t pay for anything twice. If you like, read. If you like, fail. I have done my part.”
You understood what he meant. Your sister, Mfon, had flunked her first attempt at Jamb. The day she came home with the result, your father, did not make any comment to her surprise. No scolding. No lamentation. No whipping. He simply stood up, gathered his wrapper into a knot around his groin and walked into his room without saying good night, without even listening to the evening news which was a daily ritual for him. He spoke a week later instead when he came home with a College of Education form for her, course and school of choice already completed. All he needed from her was her signature. No argument. No negotiations.
“We shouldn’t be crowding our Universities with dull brains.” He said that day standing over a sobbing Mfon. “I will not piss away my money trying to get a nonentity into University.”
He could be harsh with words like that, your father. And blunt too. He meant every word he says even when joking. That was what won him the nickname ‘Stalin’ among his very close friends. Since he retired however, he has calmed down a lot and has lost a great deal of the harshness and the humour. But not the frankness. You knew without being told that failure was not an option. It never was. Your father was the kind who would not hug and praise you for coming first in class, what else did he pay your fees for? And when you were second, he would cock his head at an angle and ask if the person who came first has two heads. You feared that this time, he would not even buy you the less fancied College of Education form like he did for Mfon, if you failed. He had said many times that he needed an extra hand in his vegetable farm.
A cold breeze blows in through the open window that has long lost all its louvers. A blip from your wrist tolls midnight. The darkness outside is the kind you feel you can cut through with a knife, the type that swallows you into its bowel like a fog. Usually, you are scared of the dark but at that moment, there is something more threatening, something more urgent. You turn your gaze back to your notebook, to the underlined subheading at the top of the page; “Factors of Production.” You run through the list of four factors and then recite them again, this time slowly, trying to memorize them like a nursery rhyme; land, labour, capital, entrepreneurship. Such precision was sine qua non for passing Jamb you’ve been told. Indeed, there is just so much you’ve heard about Jamb that you are now not sure which is true and which is folklore.
Unlike the other exams which were essay based, Jamb is multiple choices based. Its notoriety is accentuated by the rumour, more like a mystery, about negative marking, about the intentional victimization of candidates just because there weren’t enough spaces in the nation’s Universities to accommodate the throng that make it through Secondary School annually. The mystery held that for each wrong answer you gave, some marks was deducted from your score, that it was better to ignore a question altogether than attempt it and give the wrong answer. When you mentioned the negative marking story to Olu a few days ago, he dismissed it as beer parlour logic, insisting with that air of one who should know, that such talk was the usual excuse students gave for failing. You thought he spoke with a little arrogance that day, like he was scolding you for something you had not done, but you concluded that he had probably earned the right to speak that way. He had written and passed Jamb last year and was now a freshman at the Lagos City University.
Olu, with his sparkling teeth’s arranged like piano buttons and a smile that renders your belly butterflies restless, is another reason you must pass this Jamb. You and Olu are childhood friends. He is older by a year and was also a class ahead. His parents had ferried him off to the Federal Government College in Ijaniki, far away from home for his secondary education but you had maintained contact through countless letters in pink envelops sent through the snail mail. During the holidays, he helped you with your Mathematics and spent hours listening to your school tales about cruel senior students and harsh punishments, about difficult subjects and Saturday social nights. He is your best friend, the reason you picked Lagos City University as both your first and second choices. Eno and the other girls often tease you in the hostel that you are in love with him but you deny it and recoil shyly insisting he is just your family friend and nothing more. But when they are not looking, when it is light out and you were alone in your bed, you take out his passport size picture from the inner section of your school bag and admire his sprouting beards.
You jerk back to consciousness and like someone doing the wrong thing, you look around guiltily to be sure no one saw you nod off again. You are disappointed at yourself for drifting away again, so soon after chewing the last lobe of the kolanut. Suppressing a yawn, you go back to memorizing your notes, back to the factors of production. You try to say them without looking at the notebook…land, labour, capital…the last point does not pop up. You try again but it would not pop. Ashamedly, you scan your notebook. Entrepreneurship. You almost scream it aloud. Embarrassed, you flip to the next page hoping it held something more interesting, something more cheering, to keep my eye lids apart.
The new page bears some good news. Demand and Supply had always got your interest since your early days in Senior Secondary School. You sit up and with both hands supporting your head at the jaw, you read a whole page, and another page, and then you get to the graphs. The demand curve begins to appear like the supply curve. The supply curve begins to look like the demand curve. Then it all begins to fade again, the words, the lines, the numbers. Next, your head begins to droop, too heavy for your neck to carry, for your hands to support. You negotiate a quick agreement with yourself to take a short nap. Twenty to thirty minutes you think, just to clear your eyes. You remind yourself that you must be done with Economics that night as there is Government, Literature and English Language also waiting to be read. Just twenty minutes nap you whisper to yourself.
* * *
You are dreaming about Jamb, your Economics notebook is your pillow, your legs, ankle deep in a bucket of cold water. Your dream is so rich, so beautiful, that you don’t stop until dawn, until the sun is wide awake painting the earth in bright colours. Twenty minutes had become five hours. It is Eno who wakes you up, announcing in between yawns that it is time for you guys to return to the hostel. Hesitantly, like someone who just lost a bet and couldn’t still believe it, you pack up your books to leave hiding with your palm, the soggy patch formed by the saliva that had drooled unto your note book while you slept.
Sylva Nze Ifedigbo, an award-winning fiction writer and essayist lives in Lagos, Nigeria. He is the author of The Funeral Did Not End, a collection of Short Stories.