Saturday, May 23, 2015

Preview: Twenty-One Days Post #4

CHAPTER THREE: Call up

Two weeks went very fast for Oluomachukwu. She spent the time touring Lagos, trying her best to forget her moments of weakness in Abuja and ignoring all her phone calls. She hadn’t spoken to her parents yet, she only sent messages, but she wasn’t worried. She had told her parents not to worry about her. The only time they were going to receive a call was if something didn’t go as planned, and she wasn’t expecting anything to go wrong.

Oluomachukwu couldn’t remember what day she did, but she finally called Akunna to apologise. The call didn’t go too well and Oluomachukwu didn’t want to even think about it. Akunna had refused to answer her calls the first five times, so Oluomachukwu didn’t bother calling back a sixth time. And after about five minutes, Akunna called back, yelled her mind at Oluomachukwu, then hung up.

Oluomachukwu thought it was more of a monologue than a dialogue. The age difference between both of them was merely seven years, but Akunna always wanted to act like she was the surrogate mother of all her relatives and family friends, the most responsible one and the one that everyone had to fear and respect. Oluomachukwu didn’t have time for that. With Akunna out of the way, she could now focus on other things.

On the NYSC website, Oluomachukwu checked what date she was supposed to pick up her Call-up letter. In the letter, she would know in what State she was going to serve. She already knew it was going to be Lagos State, because Kayode had worked it out for her that way.

She flagged down a taxi just a few meters away from Okechukwu’s house and asked the taxi man to take her to the NYSC Lagos State Secretariat in Surulere. She didn’t know the route to get there, even after she had toured Lagos. She had looked at most of the roads, but didn’t really memorise anything. As she rode in the taxi, she didn’t know if she was on track or off track, she was at the mercy of the taxi driver.

The traffic was so intense and the sun was very hot. It was already rainy season, but it had rained only a few days in the two weeks she was in Lagos, and when it rained, it poured. The heat was making her feel like she had been sitting in the car for more than two hours, but she didn’t know exactly how long it had been.

There were hawkers selling all sorts of things on trays, hanging either on their shoulders or resting on their heads. Some had cartons with transparent nylon in front, where their items were displayed. But with the heat and the angry motorists that filled the streets, who refused to buy anything, the hawkers stopped moving about and dropped their goods, and some of them started to grumble. One of the hawkers even started eating the meat pie he was selling, looking angrily at anyone he thought was judging him.

After another hour, the taxi driver dropped her off, and she asked him to wait for her, so that he could take her back to Ikoyi after she picked up her letter. He agreed.

*
The wait inside the collection building wasn’t too long. Oluomachukwu figured that it was for only foreign-trained Nigerian students, and that was why there weren’t any long queues reaching the main gate. It didn’t mean that the line moved fast, though. It was simply a short, but slow queue. The NYSC officials were calling prospective Youth Corps members to pick up their letters by the alphabetical order of their surname.

Oluomachukwu was on the queue for ‘J,’ and it was a rather empty queue compared to the ones for ‘A’ and ‘O.’ So some people that came in later than others got their letters and left before those who had been there earlier on the longer queues.

When Oluomachukwu got to the top of the queue, she was asked to present her international passport in order to collect her Call-up letter. Nothing of the sort had been written on the NYSC website, or even at the Abuja Head Office, but Oluomachukwu had been wise enough to take hers along with her. Some of the prospective Youth Corps members hadn’t taken their international passports along and were asked to go home and get it. It was part of the NYSC office’s way of knowing if prospective Youth Corps members were still in the country after registration.

Well, rumour had it that some of them register for the programme, then leave the country after paying someone to collect their Call-up letter, go to the Orientation camp for them and follow-up with the full service year for them.

Oluomachukwu presented her international passport and received her letter. She was posted to Lagos, and there was no surprise there. She folded the letter in two and put it inside her international passport, then in her handbag, not to be touched, until it was time to go to camp... in five days’ time. Oluomachukwu felt the timing was too soon. And as the idea of her going to camp so soon hit her, she started to have cold feet. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go to camp anymore.

*
As Oluomachukwu was leaving the building, her phone started ringing. She had forgotten to put the ring style to ‘vibrate’ as she normally did, so it wasn’t surprising that everyone looked at her when the phone rang, especially as her ring tone was a song in a language, foreign to everyone around her.

It was Nnanna calling and she hesitated. That was the best move she had made, because when she looked up, she saw Kayode from a distance heading towards the building — she had no idea he was in Lagos. She froze for a few seconds, not sure what to do. She declined the call first of all and turned her ringer off, after which she stood behind the door and started looking into her handbag as if she was searching for something. She waited until Kayode entered the building and went to speak with one of the officials before she snuck out.

As she was leaving, she heard him asking if they had finished distributing all the Call-up letters for surnames starting with ‘T.’ She didn’t know why he asked that, but at least she was glad he wasn’t looking for her. When she was sure that he wasn’t looking, she crept towards the taxi parked in plain sight and jumped in.

As she got into the taxi, her phone started to vibrate. Nnanna was calling her back. She picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Babe, I’ve been trying to call you since yesterday,” he said. “Are you okay?”

“Of course I’m okay.” Even Oluomachukwu could feel the frostiness in her own tone. “How about you and your fiancée?”

There was a sudden scramble, as though someone was fumbling with the phone. Oluomachukwu looked at her phone, Nnanna had hung up. As usual, he still didn’t have the courage to tell her the truth.

***

The weekend before going to camp, Oluomachukwu sat in Okechukwu’s sitting room with him, having a few drinks. She realised she hadn’t said much to him in days, and it seemed as if she was avoiding him. She didn’t just want him to mention Nnanna’s name again, or talk about Abuja or anything at that. She just wanted to go back to her room and sleep, or do anything that would keep her away from the sitting room, from Okechuwku and from the bottle of alcohol that refused to get empty. She stood up to leave.

“Oluoma, you’ve been avoiding me. Did I do anything wrong?” Okechukwu asked. Oluomachukwu stopped, speechless. She opened her mouth after a couple of seconds and slurred some rather incomprehensible words.

“I don’t understand what you just said,” Okechukwu replied, sounding puzzled.

“Never mind.” Oluomachukwu sat back and poured herself another drink, then the awkward silent moment returned.

“Anyway,” Okechuwku said. “You’ll need some things to take to camp.”

She looked at him. “Really? I’ve been checking online for a while now and I haven’t seen anything yet.”

“Well, I think there are some things you’ll really need, and the online updates might not be helpful. I doubt there will even be updates.”

“Hmm.” Oluomachukwu sighed. She was beginning to sense her cold feet return. “So what will be helpful?”

“I have someone I can call. She will be able to tell you what you will need.”

The only thing Oluomachukwu heard was ‘she’ and she hoped Okechukwu wasn’t talking about Akunna. That was the last person she wanted to talk to.

Okechukwu called his friend, Idara, who had served in the Lagos camp about two or three years ago, he was no longer sure. She was now based in Calabar, but if anyone knew the ‘A’ to ‘Z’ of the NYSC Lagos Orientation camp, it was Idara. She was also visiting Lagos for the week.

Okechukwu held the phone to his ear, then changed it to the other ear. Idara must not have answered the call, because he put his phone down briefly and complained for a little bit before redialling.

“Yes, hey, Idara,” Okechukwu said abruptly. “How are you?”

Oluomachukwu obviously couldn’t hear what Idara was saying. In fact, she completely blanked her mind, not wanting to listen to Okechukwu’s side of the conversation until he was ready for her. But before she could completely zone out, Okechukwu called her name.

“Oluoma, she wants to talk to you.”

Oluomachukwu scrunched her face, she actually didn’t want to talk to anyone, but he kept gesticulating to her to take the phone. She sluggishly leaned forward, then took the phone from him.

“Hello,” Oluomachukwu said.

“Hey, Oluoma. So how are you enjoying Lagos?” Idara asked.

“It’s all right. I’ve not really done a lot, because I don’t have friends here.”

Idara laughed. “But with Okechukwu there, what other friend do you need?”

“What?” Oluomachukwu had blanked out for a few seconds, so she didn’t hear the last thing Idara had said.

“I said, ‘you have an amazing cousin, so you can’t be bored.’”

“I’m not bored.” Oluomachukwu’s reply was so sharp it could cut through a massive chunk of beef in one strike. Even Okechukwu turned and looked at her, probably wondering what was going on.

“Anyway,” Idara said. “Here’s what you will need, but first just know that you don’t really have to stay in camp.”

“Really?” Oluomachukwu sounded excited for the first time in days.

“Yes. You can just go on the first day, once the second week, then maybe twice the last week.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, you don’t have to stay put for the whole three weeks. But I’ll advise you to go, just for the experience.”

Oluomachukwu almost said “Duh.” Of course she was going to attend camp. That was the reason she came back to Nigeria in the first place. She might have been having cold feet, but she knew deep within that she was headed to camp eventually.

“Will they just allow me waltz in and out of camp like that?” Oluomachukwu asked.

“If it’s the camp in Iyana-Ipaja, then you don’t have a problem.” Idara laughed before she continued, “I could waltz out whenever I wanted and needed. In fact, I actually did sometimes when Okechukwu came to rescue me.”

Oluomachukwu refused to acknowledge the last part of Idara’s sentence.

“But I don’t think anything has changed since 2011,” Idara added.

“Okay, things like what?”

“Umm, basically, just items to go with.” Idara sighed. “White tennis shoes and white socks, black undergarments that won’t embarrassingly display your body parts because you’ll be wearing white shirt and white shorts all day, then toiletries and a blanket.”

“That’s a whole lot,” Oluomachukwu protested. “And I still haven’t seen anything on the website.”

“They wouldn’t put anything on there, because they usually provide white shirts and shorts, two each, both of really poor quality, with some footwear they call tennis shoes that wouldn’t be your size.”

Oluomachukwu was about to thank Idara for her time, but she couldn’t because Idara didn’t stop talking. She just wanted to go to camp and find out for herself, because Idara was starting to scare her.

“Aha, get green belts too. They’ll give you belts made of cloth. And you’ll also be lucky if your khakis fit. They are the uniforms you use for parade and ceremonies. And there’s also a camp market that people call mami market, where you can buy everything you need...”

Oluomachukwu yawned, but Idara didn’t notice.

“Always lock your box and trust no one, even your so-called new friends,” Idara continued. “They steal things. Be at alert when you sleep. Also make an easy hairstyle that will be easy to style, because you are required to be at the parade ground by 5:00am and expected to put on a cap. If your hair is too full or styled like a crown, the cap will not fit...”

Oluomachukwu didn’t know if Idara was genuinely trying to be helpful or if it was because of Okechukwu. Either way, she was done listening to her. She was going to figure everything out in camp.

She thanked Idara, interrupting her, then hung up after their goodbyes and good night.

“What did she say?” Okechukwu asked.

“That I didn’t need to get a lot of things,” she replied reluctantly, which was obviously a lie. “And that I’ll know all there is to know in camp.”

***

Oluomachukwu couldn’t wait to get to camp. This time it wasn’t because she wanted to escape Okechukwu and his unspoken love for her, but because she wanted to get camp over with. Idara had called again to tell her how and where to hide in the mornings, so that she would avoid going to the parade ground for morning drills. Idara also told her that she could go to camp with mufti, because she would be able to put them on, especially on Sundays.

Idara also proposed to take her to the market to buy some of her basic needs and wears, some of which were going to be fairly used, because she wouldn’t need them after camp. She didn’t accept the offer. Okechukwu also proposed to take her to a proper clothes store and super market to buy every other thing she needed, and she also refused the offer.

On the night before Oluomachukwu was to leave for camp, Okechukwu bought her drinks. Well, it was for both of them, but since he had to work the next day, he really didn’t want to drink. And as they sat down on the couch, close to each other, almost glued together, Oluomachukwu wanted to tell him that they could never be together. She didn’t know how to tell him, but she didn’t have to worry herself too much, because Okechukwu had things he also wanted to tell her.

“Is something wrong?” he asked, then got up to serve them some red wine, a very dry one that Oluomachukwu didn’t really like.

“Nothing is wrong,” she replied. “Why?”

“Because you’ve been acting very strange since Abuja and I don’t know if something happened there.”

“Nothing happened there,” she lied, because in reality, Kayode and Nnanna had happened, their wife and fiancée had also happened.

“So what is it?”

“Nothing really,” Oluomachukwu replied, then in an attempt to talk about something else, she asked, “So who is Idara to you?”

“Just a friend,” he replied, then laughed. “Don’t tell me you are jealous.”

“I’m not jealous. I only asked who she was.” She took a gulp of the wine and swallowed it quickly so that the dry taste wouldn’t settle in her mouth.

Okechukwu approached her, took the glass from her and placed it on the table, then held her hands. “Oluoma, I love you,” he said.

“Please, no,” Oluomachukwu replied. “You can’t do this right now.”

Okechukwu didn’t reply. He had waited an eternity to say that and didn’t know when the right time was going to be. Besides, she was going to camp, and many people were said to fall in love in camp. He didn’t want her to go there and find someone else.

“I have waited for too long. Even after you blew me off for my friend, I never stopped loving you.”

“What about Idara?”

“So you are indeed jealous?” Okechukwu asked, leaned forward and tried to kiss her, but she turned away.

“No. I’m not jealous,” she said. “I just find it very hard to believe that you haven’t found anyone else since all that time.”

“I’m worried.”

Oluomachukwu found his reply very strange. “Worried about what?”

“That you would go to camp and find someone there. People tend to fall in love there.”

Oluomachukwu laughed. “Never in this lifetime. If at all I was searching, it would never be in an NYSC camp.”

“So you are currently not searching, right?” He wanted to confirm that he still had a chance with her. Oluomachukwu had actually been searching. In fact, her coming back to Nigeria was to go back to her roots as well, and eventually find a partner. But her encounter with Kayode and Nnanna sort of changed her mind and also taught her not to be in a hurry. Her partner would come to her hassle-free, eventually.

She looked at Okechukwu with a ‘not-interested’ facial expression, and said, “I’m not searching for anyone. I’m only going there for the experience.”

*****
Copyright © 2015 C. M. Okonkwo