By Ifeanyichukwu Eze
Buba stares at the mirror one more time. His eyes still scream for sleep but it is 7:45am already. He grabs his lesson note from the bed with a sigh. It is not just that he would meet or greet other tenants on his way out of the compound, or walk two streets to his teaching post at Rangaranga Academy. Today, everything, even the thud of his black moccasin on the brown laden path hums of the feelings brewing in his chest from last Friday.
“See. Nobody will hear about it…and I told madam you travelled to the village for your grandma’s funeral. It was too urgent you couldn’t tell,” K said after the bail.
Buba swallowed the words he was about to say and merely raised his brow at K. It was the way K chuckled and his eyes darted on his round face as though he needed to be somewhere else and Buba was a delay. Same way he said, when Buba first arrived at Rangaranga Academy, two months ago, “Are you the new primary 5 teacher?” It was seamlessly arrogant yet confident. Even the principal, Madam Dambuwa did not query or deduct K’s salary when he missed classes and Buba had to teach his kids. Of all the teachers, K always had one thing or another going for him, unlike Mr. Gambo or Aunty Mima or Ms. Talatu or Malam Dankuwa. K often shared with Buba how they bored him with debts, how they did not want to do anything with their lives except to teach and complain about the salary that could not buy a bag of rice and that finished before it was paid. K would rather ramble about clients and money and new shirts and trousers and shoes and cars. But Buba thought maybe if he had not resigned from Nagarta Coffee Shop, if he was still serving tea and coffee and getting tips from customers, if he was still a cleaner at Jollof Canteen and working sixteen daily, he would not have met K. But maybe K was the push he needed to be all the things he was not.
“Omo, no dey fear. Haba,” K said when they arrived at Buba’s house, as though Buba did not spend three nights reading notes on international management and jurisprudence, or sit in the exam hall next to a man in white caftan who was copying from him, or behind a woman in black hijab who was writing from a sheet she pulled out from under her gown. It was as though Buba had just recovered from a hallucinatory session and K was a proof it was all fake.
“Just rest. See you on Monday.”
At 7:50am, the sun is beginning to crawl up the sky. The pupils march to their classes like little, little battalions in red and white uniforms, swinging their arms and chanting: Today is bright, it’s bright and fair, oh, happy day, the day of joy…
In their trail, a round of handshakes and nods and gentle cackles fly among the teachers. They disperse as soon as they catch sight of the headmistress, Mrs. Dambuwa.
But Buba had rehearsed the name like a nursery rhyme. I am Bashir. Amina is my granny’s name. God made Tukur. And God made me. He chanted it the same way his pupils said an unfamiliar word until they could sing it. And Bashir Amina Tukur grew in Buba’s head as a new body.
“She is a single mother,” K said. “She needs the certificate so she can rise to level 12 in her work place. Na straight A dis one need o.”
In his head, Buba played the script of how N200k would let him move out of his face-me-I-face-you compound to a flat at Jindadi Estate, payoff his debt at Mama Akuma’smala shop, buy a tricycle and give it out to a rider who would remit N10k weekly, and not depend on his salary for months.
“All those big, big people no get time to read. Your own na just to sidon inside hall write di exam. Everything don set,” K said.
But as Buba sped away on the answer sheet in the exam hall, the lecturer smirked at him. So you are Bashir Amina Tukur? Mrs. Amina? When Buba opened his mouth, all the words he had prepared to say vacated and the lecturer’s voice swallowed up the silence in the hall and bought stares on Buba.
Buba was shoved into a dark room like a sack and he stumbled over someone’s feet. The person stood over him like a shadow.
Buba stuttered, ‘Abeg, no vex…’ He smiled.
Another, stocky, had joined, his hand on his hips. “Wetin you do?” But he did not wait for Buba to answer. “You write exam for person ba?” Heunted.
Two others came up to Buba. One pressed his buttocks into Buba’s face. Another grabbed Buba’s groin.
“It’s okay, guys, it’s okay,” the stocky one said when Buba began to squeal. They gingerly left to their corner. All others stared with a mixture of understanding and disinterest. I have been writing exams for people,” he said, plopping down next to Buba. “I like bearing names that are not mine. It’s like alcohol. Some things are to be experienced without feeling, otherwise, life is unbearable.”
“Why did you let them catch you,” Buba said, surprised by the softness of his voice.
The stocky one frowned and smiled. “Oh, woman wahala o. The boyfriend of one lady I wrote exam for says I have snatched his girl from him.” He let out a light chuckle. “Is it my fault that the boyfriend cannot satisfy his girl?”
“Presido,” another said. “Dis new guy suppose fetch water today o? And sweeping and cleaning the toilet sef.”
The others nodded. Buba glanced at them. They appeared like a flock learning how to live again under a new shepherd.
“Presido, no be so you treat me when I arrive o,” another said.
“Why dis guy dey do face like shit sef?” another said.
“Mek him just take time o.”
“Na saint him be na.”
“You go fear saint sin na.”
Like a prompt, everyone, except Buba, joined in a string of laughter.
“Presido, you know say no body big pass anybody for dis our republic ba.”
“Relax, ma guy. Relax,” the stocky one said.
Buba steps into the classroom to a chorus of “good morning, sir,” from the pupils.
“Good morning, class. Thank you,” he says. “Please, sit down you all.”
Madam Dambuwa strolls by, hands behind, her head bobbing as though counting each of her steps. The kids all stand and greet again. She nods from the threshold. Buba bows slightly. If at all he wanted to think anything, the pupils’ chatter floods him when Mrs. Dambuwa leaves for the next classrooms.
“We missed you on Friday o.”
“Was grandma a good person?”
“What is a good person?”
“Did you eat at the funeral?”
“Ah. You want him to die from poison.”
“Your village people are not good people then.”
“So, there are no witches in your village?”
“That’s why she is a longer throat.”
“But I have never seen a dead person.”
“They are like people who are sleeping.”
Everyone turns to the speaker, Jinda. She is on the first seat by the door and the smallest in the class. She makes a face to confront the eyes on her but stops when Buba says “It’s okay, everyone. It’s okay.”
“Please, tell us a story, Mr. Buba.” The voices come off solemn, an attempt to pull away from that unjustified interruption.
“Myth,” he says and writes on the board.
The sun has moved to the centre when the closing bell rings.
Bye, bye, Mr. B. Bye, bye Mr. B, the pupils twitter out of the classroom with their bags. Buba waves at them and goes about reading through their notebooks. K walks in beaming. But when Buba looks up at his colleague, he is hauled back into the exam hall, the cell.
When the second punch meets K’s lips, he is still imagining this is not happening. The third throws him off his feet. While he coughs and struggles among the chairs and desks, Buba pulls him by the shoulders and dumps him on a chair. K wipes his face and spreads his hands.
“Guy, what is this you are doing?” Buba rushes at him again.
“Hey, hey, guy.”
Both men roll over on the floor entwined, until Buba pins K, who throws his face to one side as though in surrender. Buba regards him like a piece of unwanted sacrifice. It is not that he hates K or holds any grudge against him, but this is an attempt to confront the shame and fear of being judged as weak, foolish and naïve, an attempt to recover what he has lost, his innocence, his sense of power in spite of the world. But now he has been baptised into that world in which he has looked at from a distance, now he is like everyone else—a smoker, a drunkard, a sex worker, a corrupt politician, a fraudster, all the things he thinks he is not. It is what everyone is. And he too, is now one of them. But it is also an attempt at forgiving himself. He rolls away and sits with his back against the wall.
K sighs, tilting himself on one elbow.
“My girlfriend just left me, for one of my consistent clients.” He pulls up lazily beside Buba.
“It’s funny. The night before, she was telling me how I meant the world to her. The last time I had a breakup, I was barely out of the university, and just buried my grandmother whom I had lived with all my life.”
“Sorry.” This is not the word Buba intends.
K makes a screeching noise. “Grandma used to tell me each time I messed up that humans are god’s dark humour. When he is tired of seeing us wake up every day, he makes us do the things we fear so he can laugh and laugh until plenty water gathers in his eyes and he sheds it on us as rain. I mean, you take yourself too serious, Buba.”
Outside, the sun has turned into a large orange over the school compound and a gentle breeze filled the air.
“I have a new client sha. He is paying 300k per semester exam,” K says.
Buba drags himself to the door, unbuttons his blue shirt, throws his head backward and breaks into a low, almost noiseless laugh. E
Ifeanyichukwu Eze has appeared in The Rumpus, Guernica, Adda, and Agbowo. He was longlisted for the 2020 and 2022 Commonwealth Short Story prizes, and emerged second prize winner for the inaugural Akuko Writers’ Prize.