RELIEF by Aguajah Ifeanyi
by Aguajah Ifeanyi
You stand in front of Mama Gozie’s shop, looking behind at the stony road as you wait for your change. Along the road is a student walking, dragging her travel bag noisily behind. The mere sight of her makes you feel nostalgic because you think she’s on her way home, and you wish that you, like her, could pack your belongings and go home without anything happening, without checking your results months later when they will be released and seeing mostly F grades, and blank spaces where there should be scores for your continuous assessments, for you submitted none of the continuous assessment workbooks. You had thought the continuous assessments wouldn’t matter very much, that your exams would fetch you good grades, but, although the results are not yet out, you know you won’t do well in any of the exams. Now, three weeks after you wrote your last exam, you are still in school, trying to make things up.
Two weeks earlier, you had been to four different offices, met three lecturers, and submitted three of the workbooks. Last week you submitted three, and now there are two left.
Knowing that no lecturer would collect your workbook without calling you names or asking why you didn’t submit earlier, you always steeled yourself before approaching any of them. You planned the right words to say, how to say them, when to say them, and the most appropriate facial expression to fake while speaking: if, for instance, they ask why you did not submit earlier, you will make a sickly face and say, “I’m a ‘sickler’. I had severe crisis, was admitted into the hospital and wasn’t in school when it was submitted,” because simply saying, “I was sick” will not sound honest enough. I was sick is the students’ usual sentence for an excuse. Another problem, you knew, was your hair, your thick, coarse, not-always-combed Afro. You decided that you’d comb the hair well enough this time, so that no lecturer would complain as they mostly did when they saw you in the exam halls. Combing the hair, however, turned out not to be as helpful as you thought; the lecturers still complained.
“The hair is too much, why not cut it?” one of the lecturers had asked, a scowl curling on his face.
“I combed it, sir.” You ran your fingers through the hair.
“It doesn’t need to be combed. It needs to be cut. You are not ladies that don’t like water touching their skulls.” He paused, then, sounding suddenly jovial, he added, “Or are you a writer? Want to become the next Wole Soyinka?”
You told him no, that you are not a writer. You lied. You have always been a writer. Perhaps if you had said yes, he, like the bald-headed Mathematics professor at Abuja Building, would have said, “I knew it. Writers are always weird.”
It still baffles you how eager people are to make silly comments about your hair—even strangers. Once at Ogige market, a week or so ago, a boy who looked fifteen had pulled your hair from behind. You turned, and he said sorry, that he thought it was someone he knew. He walked past you and mumbled: Why not go ahead and make braids? He continued walking, perhaps thinking that you didn’t hear him, but you did. You felt like pulling him back and punching him six times in the face.
In classes, before the end of the semester, your classmates always complained about your hair, said it makes you look like a small version of the mythical bushbaby. It looks dirty and unkempt, they’d say, cut it. But you always insisted that it’s rather normal and completely natural. Okay, trim it, they’d suggest, or at least carve it. You didn’t even comb it, why? Sometimes you’d explain: it’s how I feel. There are times when I apply hair cream and have the hair combed. There are also times when I just feel like carrying it like this. After all, this is how nature made it be. Other times you’d just feel embarrassed, unable to look them in the face and defend your choice of hairstyle (is that even a hairstyle?). You’d stare at the floor silently as the speak, wondering why the way you wear your hair, untouched—no relaxer, no dye, no cut or carve—makes people uncomfortable. Well, you know the truth: Nobody carries African hair like that. If you must carry massive African hair, you will have to ‘fry’ it so hot with relaxer, until your scalp starts to burn, until the hair is loosened and softened, then you paint it black with dye, and carve regularly—that way, you look appealing. But you don’t like it like that. You want your hair to be as natural as it is possible to be. Once, though, you had tried to ‘disturb’ the natural state of the hair, but then it had nothing to do with the pressure from your peers. You had rather wanted to stretch the hair in a salon with a hot comb (because you felt hot comb was natural, more like a stronger comb), to make it softer, so that your wooden comb—the one given to you by Grandma, which always reminds you of her and how she would, while alive, go to hair salons with her own wooden comb and warn the hairdressers not to use their miserable fork-of-a-comb on her hair—can smoothly pass through it. That evening, you planned going to Donkor Hair Salon, but you intentionally walked past the salon. People will see you walk into that salon, you thought, and ask: what is a boy doing in women’s salon? So you continued walking away, slowly though, contemplating whether to go back or keep moving. Finally, you mustered the courage, turned and headed to the salon. There were two women therein. You told them you would want to hot-comb your hair and one of them told you to come forward and sit.
“Not now oo. Just wanted to know how you do it,” you said.
“I know. We need to know if the hair is grown enough.” She brought a metallic device, shoved it into your hair and pulled.
“This virgin hair,” she said in Igbo. “It’s not much, but we can be stretching small small, unless you relax it a little.” Relaxer? No, no, no. You thanked them and left the salon. Later you sent your cousin a WhatsApp message, telling her that you’d want to soften your hair, does she have some suggestions? She wrote you back and suggested that you try using hair moisturizer and okuma but warned you not to use relaxer. You sniggered at the warning. She obviously didn’t know how much you disliked relaxer.
Mama Gozie, after searching through her apron, brings out your change. But first, she hands you the loaf of bread and tin of milk which you’ve already paid for, then the change—a crisp hundred naira, a dirty two-hundred naira, and a twenty naira looking disgustingly pale, as if it had been repeatedly washed unknowingly while in the pocket. You’ve taken all her change, she says. You smile timidly and then turn to leave.
“Ngwanu, bye-bye,” she finally says.
By half-past twelve in the afternoon, you walk into an office inside the school and meet a charcoal-black, gentle-looking man sitting before a wooden table. His almost perfectly oval head so smoothly shaved that it glistens. You’ve never seen a head this oval and skin so dark. God, you think, this man is so black. The shape and colour of his head bring to your mind, an image of a huge kuro-tamago or black egg. Laughter crawls up your throat, but you dare not let it out.
“Good afternoon sir,” you greet. “I’m looking for Mrs. Nze.”
“Mrs. Nze is not around,” he says. “What can she do for you?”
“I want to submit my CA.”
“You want to submit your CA,” he says, half question, half statement. Smirk curls on his face and dread engulfs you. Your heart feels like it’s about to dissolve into your gut. Now, you think what the lady in the General Office said is true. There in the General Office, minutes ago, when you said you wanted to see Mrs. Nze, the middle-aged lady asked you why, you told her and she said, “CHM 122? We are planning to publish the results, and you’re here talking of CA.” She snapped her fingers.
You stood there, shaking slightly. Then you asked, “Where can I see her?”
“She’s not in school,” the woman said. “But her office is there—that small building.” She pointed through the window at a small, yellow building with orange roofing.
And now, inside the small, yellow building is this man with a head like a black egg staring at you, as if you’re the weirdest person he’s ever set eyes on.
“Which course is that?” he asks.
“CHM 122,” you say.
“MLS.” Suddenly, the abbreviation sounds impolite. “Medical Laboratory Science,” you quickly add.
“You are in Med Lab? Do you know her?” He points at the girl swinging on the swivel chair beside him. You are a little surprised that you’re just noticing her presence now.
“No.” You shake your head.
“I don’t know him either,” the girl says quickly, as if in defense.
“And you’re a regular student?” the man asks.
“Have you seen me before?”
You nod, and he says, “Now take a look at yourself. Do you look like a student?”
What’s he talking about? You ignore the question.
“I’m actually the one in charge of CA, and the only reason why I’ll collect this late submission from you is simply because I’m in a good mood today. Just see how bushy your hair is. You’re in the university doesn’t mean you wear your hair anyhow. Try cutting this bush. Do you hear me?” He pauses, and then says, “Well, drop the workbook on the table.” You do, and then look at the girl on the swivel chair. Her hair is grown and not braided. But from every indication, it’s been ‘relaxed’. You are nearly sure the man doesn’t complain about her hair. Why? Because she’s a girl or because her hair has been ‘fried’?
He’s a good man, you conclude as you leave the office. But you do not like that he doesn’t like your hair. Maybe, just maybe, if you ‘relaxed’ it like the girl’s, he would not have complained. But you did not, and, hopefully, you never will. You are rather concerned about making dreadlocks, consistently thinking of who, between Mum and Aunty Kate, will react more violently when you finally wear the dreadlocks. Aunty Kate, maybe. She has to be the fiercest person you’ve come across in life. When you were in primary four, school dismissed, and instead of going home, you went into the school field, chasing grasshoppers. The result was countless strokes from Aunty Kate that left marks scattered randomly on your back. It’s over ten years this happened, but the memory is still fresh. Obviously, though, you’ve overgrown the ‘flogging stage’. Aunty Kate can only yell at you now. And as for Mum, she may just not be a problem. You will make the dreadlocks!
You head to the General Studies Department to submit another workbook. As you walk, you remember the middle-aged lady in the General Office. Why did she say that results are ready to be published when workbooks can still be submitted? She lied. Why did she?
You live in a small self-contained apartment at Hill-Top. The apartment is as small as your room at home in Enugu, but despite the size, everything a student will possibly need, including a bathroom and a kitchen, is squeezed to fit in. At one part of the room, behind your reading desk, is an opening leading to the bathroom and kitchen. The two rooms are directly opposite each other, and between them is a space where a sink is tacked to the wall. Under the sink are your water containers. The building, a blue three-story house, sits atop a rocky hill not far from the school. While staring from the balcony, you can have a clear view of the Nnamdi Azikiwe Library and the Pharmacy Building amidst other smaller buildings inside the school. Sometimes when it rained, you feared that the soil and the red pebbles on the hill would be washed away by the rain and that the building would collapse. But it never happened.
The following day, the day you hope to submit the last of the workbooks, you wake in your apartment by five a.m., your eyes feeling heavy, glowing red like those of a bush rat escaping the hunter’s cloud of smoke. That has been happening to you for over ten days now. Perhaps, considering that you slept around twelve and woke by five, it could be said you did improve in some ways. For in the past days, you’d sleep around one a.m. and wake around three. Since the school closed, and as other students travel home, with you moving from one lecturer’s office to another, you’ve found yourself sinking into anxiety. The anxiety makes you sleepless. It’s within these past days that you understood the true meaning of insomnia—a topic you’ve read on blogs and magazines and texts but couldn’t make meaning out of it. And in these two weeks as well, you have always thought about Mum, the person who made you nearly obsessed with the term ‘insomnia’ in the first place. Yes, Mum always complained about insomnia, and whenever she did, you’d feel like saying to her: “Lie down, close your eyes, and sleep will come. It’s as easy as that. You just don’t want to sleep!”
Now that you, too, have lain down, closed your eyes, even tried listening to Enya’s music with the hope of drifting to sleep, but did not, you’ve understood how it happens. Experience may be the best teacher, after all.
It is dark outside, but you don’t know the precise time. Your phone is down now, and you don’t have a clock or a wristwatch either, so you can only rely on instinct. Sometime ago, you had woken at a time like this, your phone down, no watch, no clock, and everywhere dark. You turned on your solar lamp, assumed it was four a.m., boiled some water and set a bucket of water ready for bathing. Then the light came in. You charged your phone, switched it on and checked the time: 12:03 a.m. You hope such a thing does not happen now.
You turn on your solar lamp and sit on your reading desk. No, you don’t want to read. You want to complete a short story you began writing six days earlier.
You sit there for minutes, thinking, constructing and arranging sentences in your mind. Sometimes your thought wanders off, and you think that writing is such a difficult thing to do. Energy-draining, life-sucking. Could it be the reason why writers die before sixty-five? Shakespeare, Dickens, Aristotle, you name them. No, no, you berate yourself. Gordimer died at 91, Mahfouz died at 94, Morrison is 87 and still appears strong. It can’t be writing killing people.
When the writing seems to flow easily, you look through the window and see that it is already bright outside. You rise, ready to start the day’s activity in earnest.
By four p.m., you are seated before the Physics Department. You’ve been here since morning, but the lecturer you want to see just arrived minutes ago. You stand and stare into one of the glass windows. Seeing that your hair has curled into tight, tiny balls, you wonder yet again why you have to comb it in the first place.
You walk into the building and knock at the lecturer’s door, he tells you to come in and you do. The man seems to be in a hurry that he doesn’t notice your hair. He asks what he can do for you and you tell him you’ve come to submit a workbook. Someone knocks at the door, pushes it open and comes in, carrying a heap of books—workbooks, actually. She greets the lecturer and tells him she wants to submit her workbook.
“The both of you, keep the workbooks here,” he says. Pointing at a notebook, he adds, “Sign on the page and leave my office.” The two of you move closer to his table and drop the workbooks. You open the notebook he earlier pointed at and begin to flip through the pages, searching for a space to write your name and sign. Then you hear him ask the girl why she did not submit earlier.
“I submitted to our course rep, only to come to our class later and find it on the floor,” she says, and you turn to look at her. She’s lying; it’s telling on her face. You want to laugh, but that won’t be nice. You keep your upper and lower teeth in a tight grip to suppress the laughter.
“Hey!” a voice calls after you’ve left the office and walked some distance away from the building. You turn and it’s the girl. She’s wearing a backpack now. Perhaps the heap of books she was carrying earlier are currently inside the bag; she’s holding just one notebook at the moment.
“Do you know where I can submit my CHM CA?” she asks and you offer to help. You tell her to wait for you, so you can go to Carver Building and submit for her. You return minutes later and tell her you’ve submitted it. She thanks you, and you say, “You’re welcome.”
You walk a few more minutes and then stop before Kwame Nkrumah Road. Flashy cars are running the tarred road at a very high speed. In most of these flashy cars, a young man sits on the driver’s seat, hands on the steering, while a much older man in suit sits in the back seat. But they are on a very high pace you don’t notice this. Even campus shuttles—green minibuses and taxis with a thick white line running across them like a necklace—are at a high speed, stopping abruptly beside the green, stationary boards on which ‘Shuttle Stop’ is written boldly in white. You wonder if these drivers are oblivious of the fact that they are inside a school campus. They can knock someone down, and every finger will point at Ekwensu. Is it because the semester has ended that they gained the sudden liberty to drive this fast? Or has it always been like this? You can’t even tell now. A sudden feeling descends on you—a feeling of loneliness and homesickness. You think of home, about your brother Nnanugo. What would he be having for lunch? Maybe semolina and egusi soup garnished with meat and fish and pomo. When was the last time you had such sumptuous meal? Maybe two months ago, when you last came home. Then, the school stress was getting on your nerves. You felt you needed a break, so you packed some of your belongings and traveled home, ignoring ongoing school activities. Let the worst happen. You spent a whole week at home, doing nothing but sleep, wake, eat and repeat the cycle. Now it seems like you are paying unfairly for that memorable week.
You think of Mum. She has not called you for six days now—you are keeping count. Before these six days, however, she was calling almost disturbingly, telling you to come home, and you kept saying that some things are holding you in school. Maybe she felt she needed to let you be and so stopped calling. But does she not know you don’t have foodstuffs and enough money?
“Hey!” A voice jolts you into reality. You turn, and it’s the girl you met in the lecturer’s office.
“So where are you going to now?” she asks, coming closer.
“I don’t really know,” you say. “Maybe find a strong hotspot and check out some videos on YouTube.” You then remember that your phone is down, but you don’t tell her.
“Oh! That’s cool, but how about taking a stroll? Me and you?” She asks, and you remain silent as if thinking of what to say.
“Do you mind?” she presses and you say no, you don’t mind. She stretches her hand, you stretch yours, forming a loose grip with hers. You start walking down. You don’t even know where you are going to. Maybe Odim Gate or Ikoku Junction, you can’t say. But you are walking.
After a considerable moment of silence, you ask why she did not submit her workbooks earlier. She looks at you, laughs and says, “You, is it not the same thing that has kept you here?”
“It is oo, but I also wanted to spend some extra time here before traveling.”
“Spend some time here? Who does that?” Her voice almost a scream. “Everyone knows Nsukka is not the best of places. The weather is always cold; always drizzling. The environment is not even safe—snakes here and there. Last week alone, we killed three snakes in our lodge. One—a green one—climbed into my friend’s apartment through the window. That my friend, her apartment is on the third floor, but the snake climbed into it—through the window oo! Even the sellers here are so stingy. Imagine, I once bought akara worth fifty naira. The woman put six balls and after she counted and saw there are six instead of five, she removed one. That was so annoying, you know.”
You know about sellers’ tight-fistedness here. You equally know about the abundance of snakes here in Nsukka. In fact, you first saw a live snake here—inside a gutter at the Vice Chancellor’s Quarters. It must have seen you first and seeking a hiding place when you looked into the gutter and saw it running crookedly. It wasn’t a huge one, but it sent shivers into your body that day. It continued running until it was hidden under a slab of concrete. But then you can’t imagine snakes climbing as high as the third floor and entering people’s apartments through the window. Well, it’s too early to accuse her of telling lies, so you remain quiet. And then, there is something about this girl, the way she speaks, her originality, her boldness. Not every girl on campus will tell you they eat akara. But this one? She doesn’t even mind. Somehow, she reminds you of the pride-filled Kosara who broke up with you after you teased her amidst her friends about how she looked so elegant in a cheap dress worth two-hundred naira only. This girl here won’t be offended at such a joke, would she?
Your mind quickly drifts back to the present, and as if you believe this girl, you ask, “Six snakes in a week? Where is that, please?”
“You stay at Hill-Top?”
The stroll is still in progress…
“So what’s the name?” she asks.
“What? What does it mean?”
“Its literal translation—Stop tempting me.”
“Oh, beautiful. You’re the first I’m meeting with this name. Seems Igbos are exploring the language, digging out fresh names for their kids. My aunt named her children Nwadebe and Gbanite—meaningful names, but strange.”
“Yes, names starting with ‘chi’ are now cliché.”
“Not including mine. How many people answer Chizitere kwanu?”
“Well, so long as there’s ‘chi’, it’s still a cliché.” Laughter follows.
You reach Ikoku Junction and cross to the road leading to the school pitch, which further leads to the Faculty of Arts, where well-trimmed hedges stand like green blankets cast over well-arranged tables. At the Faculty of Arts, you stop, sit on the concrete seat under a Melina tree and chat for a while.
“It’s getting late,” you say finally, pointing toward the sky. The sun, orange and dull, is sinking below the horizon, and darkness is gradually descending.
You return to your apartment feeling tired, your legs heavy as logs of wood soaked in water. It’s cold and lonely inside your room. If it were three or four weeks earlier, your next-door neighbor Williams would be indoor, playing Cardi B, coming to your room only to borrow lighter or cooker, and saying, “my gas just finished.” The pharmacy student living opposite, who likes eating noodles with eggs, would have had the entire building pervaded by the smell of eggs frying. But everyone has gone for the holidays.
You bolt the door, undress and crawl into bed in your red boxer-shorts and white vest. You heave a deep sigh and close your eyes. Then there is a knock on the door. It comes again, and the only thing you can think of is armed robbers. Last week, when there were still few students left in the lodge, they came in the night, packed every footwear outside and left. Maybe they’ve come armed this time.
Rising from the bed, you ask, “Who’s there?”
A voice says, “It’s me.” A soft voice. A female voice. A non-threatening voice.
You open the door, surprised to see Anwazina standing before you. You stare at her and she stares back.
“You came?” you ask. “How come?”
“I knew you live here. I just wanted to be sure. Won’t you tell me to come in?”
“Batawa, come in please.” She comes in, you close the door, and every other thing happens swiftly.
The following morning, you are in a minibus, on your way home. Not even halfway into the journey, and this eighty-year-old-looking woman is already snoring beside you. A lecturer is sitting by your right, marking some scripts. The road is not free of potholes, but the driver doesn’t want to slow down. He keeps turning the steering swiftly as if making a complete 360-degree-turn repeatedly. The result is the car moving crookedly like a snake-like the one you saw at the Vice Chancellor’s Quarters. Passengers keep complaining, saying: Driver, nwayo, take it easy.
You think of yesterday, of everything that would have happened. Had everything went uninterrupted, it would have been your first. A first experience that would have opened the door for you to share in your friends’ strange bravery. You would have been excited to announce to them that you are man enough, that you’ve ‘knacked’ a girl. Then, with their eyes bulging, they would ask, “Who?” But you wouldn’t tell them. You close your eyes and try to imagine, conjuring up images of last night: her fingers with multicolored nails splayed on your chest. Your head moving around her neck and bosom, wetting them with your saliva. Your low groans. Her soft sighs. And then the call—the phone call that brought everything to an abrupt end.
After she had received the call, she remained still for some seconds and then pushed you away, gently though.
“What is it? What did I do?”
“It’s not about you,” she said and told you that her mother has just passed away. A heavier silence descended. She rose and walked out of the room. You stood at the doorstep, watching her walk away, feeling guilty for your inability to help.
Now, inside this minibus, you think of your own mother. What if you return and she’s no more? No! God forbid. There are so many things you want to tell her: why did she not call you? Does she not know you have no foodstuff or money? God, you pray, protect my mum. The next second you are stunned at what you just did—you just prayed? Your hypocrisy stares at you. When life goes smoothly and you are comfortable, you proudly profess your atheism, telling everyone how crazy they are to believe—or even think—that there is a being who sits above, watching over humans. Then, when things turn awful, awful in the way no one—no mortal—can help, you subconsciously call God. And although you do not pray with the kind of faith that breathes life into a rotting corpse, or the kind that manipulates results, going into the computer database, wiping off an F and replacing with a C or B, or even an A, and going ahead to make the changes reflect everywhere they had previously appeared as F, you feel relieved whenever you do—a sort of relief that simply comes with speaking and pouring out your emotion.
You bring out your phone from your pocket, log in to Facebook and scroll through your news feed. You pause and read Naijagist’s headline: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Wants to Know Why Hillary Clinton’s Bio Begins with ‘Wife’.
You click and read some of the comments:
– Can she focus on writing and stop deceiving young girls?
– She’s just an angry woman.
– Wait, did you guys see the video or just read a headline and jumped into conclusion SMH…
You scroll down and see a post from a Facebook friend:
It is shocking that many of you who have strongly preached the ‘live let live’ idea are the same people defending Chimamanda for being an emotional…
That’s how far you can read. You tap the block button, but on a second thought decide not to block him. You put his account on a thirty-day-snooze and exit from Facebook.
The lecturer beside you is now complaining loudly about ‘students of these days’. They do nothing else but always have their lazy eyes glued to the phone, he says. He’s obviously saying this because of you. You bring your headphones from your bag, connect to your phone and plug to your ears. After some dragging and tapping on the screen, Sia’s Confetti begins to play in your head.
Source: From the Rebel Issue (October 2019)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AGUAJAH IFEANYI AJAH is a literary and speculative fiction writer living in Enugu, Nigeria. His short story inspired by the legendary Benin king Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was longlisted for the Syncity NG Anniversary Anthology/Prize. Aside from literature, Ifeanyi has an interest in history, visual art, and photography.