It was 5:30 again. Time to carry his mom’s prized wares of home-made perfumes, air fresheners and insecticides to Nung-Udoe market for her again. He didn’t need an alarm to get up; he had been waking up at this time five days a week for the past two years. As soon as he was strong enough to use his father’s wheelbarrow his mother had him conveying her Ghana-must-go bag to her kiosk for her. She would keep it locked in her shop, but after she had her wares looted four years ago she knew better. Now she brought her most expensive wares home with her. Ezekiel had to get up at five-thirty in the morning otherwise he wouldn’t make it in time for school. He woke up, prayed as taught and instructed, had a bath and dressed up in his uniform after which he pushed the wheelbarrow three miles to the market. He always got there around six-thirty with his mother in tow. She started going that early to allow Ezekiel make it to school on time but later realised the out-of-towners working in Uyo commute on the road along which the market stretches at those early hours opening her up to a new set of customers.
Nevertheless Ezekiel wasn’t always in school on time, sometimes he got punished. Either the staff in charge made the latecomers cut grass on one of the many ever growing fields in the school compound, or they were flogged and asked to pick up as many pieces of litter they could find before being released by the staff using an arbitrary system to determine if the student’s litter pile was big enough to warrant it. Ezekiel hated their smug faces, if only they knew how long he had to walk in the cold on those foggy mornings Akwa Ibom seems to have too much of, after taking a cold bath just to get to the market, after which he would walk for another hour to make it to school on time.
The lessons in class were drab. His teachers were too brisk in their method, teaching as if in a hurry to get away from them. At least they came more often now that the Ministry of Education cracked down on ghost workers and lazy work-skipping teachers. But that did not change their attitude towards their job; they were nonchalant and more concerned with impressing superiors and supervisors than with impacting knowledge on the students. Dull students abound. But what more could be expected. The governor had made a decree; education was free to all and sundry up until the SSCE level. Even parents whose kids did not have a primary school education had them enrolled in secondary schools, and the instruction from above was to accept all comers. Some of Ezekiel’s classmates could not even speak English properly let alone write. He was by far the best of the lot, and he didn’t realise how conceited that made him. That is until the Edet cousins, Sifon and Promise came along.
He despised Sifon immediately, who did she think she was, coming into his domain and acting all cocky, she had no regard for him at all. She immediately shot her hand up every time a teacher asked a question, did no one teach her to let the dumb ones try and fail before lazily signalling the teacher to answer the question? Show-off. Before long she was the teacher’s pet in JSS2C, a position Ezekiel previously held but pretended not to care about. She was taking everything from him, even the admiration and attention of his peers. She didn’t sigh before helping a classmate out with schoolwork like he did, and she didn’t comment about how simple a math problem everyone else was finding tedious was, she was humble and it infuriated him.
His plan was simple, come top of the class on test week, which would remind everyone he was the smartest one in class and not Sifon. Study time was limited, between conveying goods for buyers in the market after school with his dad’s wheelbarrow for small change and helping his mom move her goods back home the only time he had to himself was after dinner. He was always tired but picturing Sifon’s face as she would watch him rake in all the highest scores kept him going.
The test week came around and the air was heavy. The tests were written and submitted and when the results were released the following week the worst had happened, Sifon had him beat in all but two subjects, mathematics and basic technology. And even in those two he wasn’t top of the class, Promise –Sifon’s cousin– beat him to it. He was exasperated, not only did Sifon beat him, Promise did too and he didn’t even think she was a threat to his position since she was always so quiet in class. With his initial plan in pieces he started to get bitter and it reflected in his attitude towards the girls, Sifon in particular. He teased her a lot, gave her funny nicknames and played mild pranks on her. He would take something of hers and have her chase him all day to get it back; it was his own little self-compensation for his defeat.
Before long they were tagged husband and wife by their classmates since they were always going at it. He hated the tag, how dare they refer to her as his wife, she was his arch nemesis, the Putin to his Obama, the Jerry to his Tom, the PDP to his APC and he was not going to stand for such blatant mis-labelling. He started to stay away from her, stopped teasing her altogether in hopes that help would dissolve the marriage but that did not deter his mates, and when the teachers got wind of it everything got worse. Their teachers thought it was cute and if per chance there was a question that either of them was asked and couldn’t answer the spouse was called upon to bail the other out.
He couldn’t stand the situation and started to get desperate, he warned his friends and classmates to quit pairing them up and at some point he even tried to pair her up with someone else but all was for naught. He even brought the case before the head teacher who just laughed and called him cute. He was suffering and everyone seemed to think it was cute; this just made him get more frustrated.
‘Ezekiel did you see your wife this morning?’ his friend Divine asked as they walked into class after the assembly, ‘She was looking fine o; she even wore lip-gloss, just for you. You are a lucky man.’
‘Stop it Divine, she’s not my wife’ he replied sounding quite irritated.
‘Why deny your love Zik, it’s clear you two were made for each other.’
‘Shut up, Sifon is ugly and annoying and she is no wife of mine, I’ll rather marry a monkey.’ He snapped, the last straw had dropped and it had broken the camel’s back. Everyone within listening range were taken aback, no one expected such an outburst, even Ezekiel was surprised at himself but he loved the look he saw on their faces, maybe now they’ll take him seriously. As he turned to take his seat, he saw Sifon standing by the door and before anyone could say anything to comfort her she ran out with water in her eyes.
The following days were different, no one called him Sifon’s husband anymore and no one called her his wife. Her best friends stopped talking to him; she stopped raising her hands to answer questions and even moved her seat to the furthest point in class away from him. He felt a semblance of contentment, now his world was sane again; he made the nametags go away and dealt his arch nemesis a blow all in one shot, but something was wrong and he couldn’t quite figure out what.
Over time he started to feel bad, he didn’t mean to hurt her the way he did but it wasn’t his fault was it? It was the fault of the class for marrying them without their consent. He started to miss her, he wanted to go over to tease her, pull her hair, snatch her pen and make a run for it but he knew he couldn’t. Soon he found himself thinking about her at odd moments, during the long walk to school in the morning, in the middle of a class and even when doing chores. He would steal glances at her whenever he could and remember the time when they played together. He tried to say hi once but couldn’t, not with what he had done, he decided to apologise but how? He was too embarrassed to do it person so he wrote a letter;
Hey, how are you? I know you’re not talking to me and I just wanted to say I am sorry. I didn’t mean what I said back then; I was just tired of people saying we are married. You’re not ugly and I wouldn’t pick a monkey over you or anyone else. You are smart and lovely and I hope you forgive me and we become friends again.
With deep regrets,
It was almost a week to the exams when he wrote the letter but he didn’t leave it at her desk until the day before vacation. Every time he tried he couldn’t bring himself to drop it, the thought of her not forgiving him and then passing the letter around making him a laughing stock was persistent in his mind so he decided to leave it just before the holidays, no more school so he wouldn’t get laughed at if his mates found out about the letter and the break would give her time to forgive him. His sins would be forgotten come the next term, he was sure of it.
At the end of the term he came second behind Sifon with Promise a close third, the fact she beat him yet again didn’t infuriate him, when he found out he only smiled and thought of how brilliant she was. The holidays came and Ezekiel was in the market everyday working and helping his mom out. He hated the holidays, all he ever did was stay in the market pushing the wheelbarrow, and when he wasn’t doing that he was sitting in his mom’s shop, he found it all very boring.
A tailor had just recently put up shop two stalls from his mom’s and he saw a girl in the shop that looked a lot like Sifon. Upon further investigation he discovered the tailor was her mother and she was her apprentice. He spent most of his time in hiding, taking alternate routes to avoid the tailor shop and was always on the lookout. After a week he came to a conclusion, he would not live in fear. He decided to talk to her the next time he saw her. As he walked out of his mom’s shop later that day he saw her looking at him from the entrance of her mom’s shop. This was it the moment of truth, he waved at her and she waved back with a smile. A smile awkwardly found its way to his face, and at that moment he knew it was going to be a fun holiday.