The morning was cold enough to make Robert put on a long sleeve shirt over a thick polo underneath which he had also worn a vest. The shirt had a button missing. Normally, Robert would never have been caught dead outside wearing such, but having woken up later than he intended from studying the night before, with an examination by two thirty that afternoon and dirty laundry for the week in a pile (since much reading equals to not so much washing) he picked up the first non smelly shirt he could find.
No matter how thick in it the exam became, Robert could never sink so low as to stink. Heck, he had a reputation to consider. He could go out on a limb to show how hip he was; peeps couldn’t know the half of it. It was just like the time when he had to return to the hostel during a short break between classes to change trousers just to prove to Anita that he owned two that were an identical pair. She said he was insane but he could tell she was none the less impressed, and had even stuck with him for the rest of the day… Anita… That kind of reminded him of Alisa… And also Jessica, though she was in another department. They made time pass a little more quickly.
Robert stuffed in his mouth a piece of something that could pass itself off as bread and chased it with some three day old milk in a carefully cellotaped tin. This was after shaking out his other clothes and picking up the loose change. His roommates were still asleep, sprawled in picturesque positions. He was not worried because he knew things would become better: There was a certain uncle he’d been timing. Pepper will soon land, and such money would guarantee the change from cramped hostel room to spacious self-contained one. Robert looked in the mirror and walked to the door, then he came back and checked himself again.
He still had to take one last look at some screed of material before the exam and he needed a quiet place. The hostel reading room was out of the question; especially at night, what with all the snoring of his comrades and the bottom-aching benches, amid the mosquitoes that often came collecting blood samples for their research. Robert frequented abandoned dark buildings; where in some other tale he had almost been robbed and molested had it not been for his lightning fast reflexes and deathly accurate skilful blows. The fact that a security guard had been passing by at that moment, having been on a routine patrol (definitely not attracted by Robert’s wild yells for help and his frantic pleas for mercy) was surely what saved the miserable robber who had threatened him with what had eventually turned out to be a plastic gun.
The library was always an option. That was once Robert subtracted the people within it chatting, the seat reserving, the fact that no food was allowed, the doormen asking to see a library card as if students didn’t have the right to seek knowledge without the encumbrance of a named and photo-affixed means of identification to prevent them from selfishly considering to steal the books. Sorry, borrow… borrow the books… if only just for a little while: A semester, maybe two. Then forget to return it when the book started to look more and more like one of their own.
Hardly anybody read library books anyway, thanks to the genius of the World Wide Web. Unlike that kill joy of a lecturer who would ask him to do research with books he could physically see, duly referenced with authors and pages, telling the class on one occasion that he had been confounded to see conflicting explanations of a single topic proudly defended on the same internet search page. He had also said that one of the explanations in particular had been very lurid, describing what it had felt was the answer to his search on which rubber based polymers were the most suitable for deep sea divers involved in narrow point penetration explorations, whatever that meant.
Robert’s nose was blocked. It was a good thing he had asked the sleepy-eyed store keeper for some mentholated sweets. It seemed there was a menthol-everything these days. Just like Sandra often telling him about menthol needing to be in hair relaxers, because things were never seen to work unless they “pained”. Yes. That was when they were effective. Balm, even cream. All that remained was menthol tea.
Hey, wait a minute. Wasn’t that what some guy had been trying to make him sample? The dude who had told him to magnetize his water using a special jug where the water molecules contained within once polarized through the magnetic field could cure some cancers and cleanse blood corpuscles? Robert could remember the man had even mentioned something about osmosis. Robert had been awed. The man had spoken with much authority, dropping names of people like Robert actually knew them: Ola and her fibroids, Obi and his pile. The Nnaji’s down the street and their sick dog. Robert remembered now… the tea was made from a certain plant the trader had said was cultivated only in Jerusalem. So no, there was no menthol tea… Not yet, anyway.
Robert slowed his pace as he saw a stray dog pass. Earlier on he was to learn the hard way that dogs did not actually appreciate bones, or people stepping on their tails by mistake, or trying to smile at them whilst showing teeth.
It was really chilly. Robert felt he should have drunk some coffee or followed Henry’s advice and drunk a glass of wine. He readily would have, but the idea died immediately in his mind as he remembered once when everyone in the room had looked queerly at Henry as if he had been eating a corpse. It was followed by thinly veiled comments alluding to him being a poser, or annoyingly being revered; as one whose father was on the Forbes list. Simply because he felt like drinking wine? Come on, it was one of life’s simple pleasures! Now Robert had to drink his wine in secret for fear of the Jews. If only his roommates would consider that unlike them he didn’t spend the better part of the previous day at the kebab-quadrangle buying all the chicks suya because he was hoping to “get some” or had already gotten some and was still paying the price.
So far, passing exams was not new to Robert. Not just marginally, but passing well enough to be noted by the bigger girls and gifted with their glances and friendly smiles. Friendly – Robert would say again – because he often learnt the hard way that a smile at you may be the key but it was not usually to the door you wanted and he had begun to grow tired of boys admiring him for feats he had never even dreamed could be accomplished when they simply saw him conversing with any of the girls that were liberal with their laughter. It just showed him how clueless they all were and how, when one actually considered it, none of the feats being touted as done by many might have actually been done; the actual record breakers often being silent about their exploits.
Robert was still scrambling to read a few more lines. A thing he had sworn he could never do back then when he had newly been admitted, believing that he would have by the exam day gone over the entire course material three times with a week left over. Back then he had been primed, and exactly suited for this course: He was 16, knew absolutely nothing about it, and was supremely confident in his abilities. It was the recipe for success. He saw he would graduate top of his class, at worst best five in the next four years, capped off with a research fellowship grant. He added one more year for ASUU strike just in case. He would start life at 21, become a high flyer and in an appropriate period of time buy an Aston Martin like Uncle Kay whose luxury house built on the sea was really big. Though Robert hadn’t seen it, he was sure it was blown out of proportion by his haughty cousins. So he could guess it was only four stories high unlike ten as Tommy had said. By 24 he should be living the good life: Cruise to Aruba, then to Bermuda and then Atlantic City with its white sand beaches. There will be no rush for marriage; he would take his sweet time. Marriage was merely a social convenience which he did not intend to conform to. He was not a girl neither was he the first born, so his folks hounding him for grandchildren would not be a problem.
Two years in the system had opened Robert’s eyes: Research? In his dreams! But then if one actually looked at it, there really would be no need to research if the facts had been searched for very well the first time. Robert’s latest research was to find new ways to finish the wad of stapled white sheets and remember every typewritten line on them word for word. It was as good as it got: A concise summary of everything his lecturer wanted them to know for the semester. It made his and their job easier, so everyone was happy. It was only a cause for concern back then when some things in these white printed pages with exaggerated diagrams began to conflict with what Robert had seen in a textbook. “Disputed material” his lecturer called it, when he raised the issue in class. The lecturer had an educated way of quelling their numerous doubts, and so the conflicts had begun to matter less. Come to think of it, how is it not more likely that a textbook that was peer reviewed and proof-read by several authors in the field and had worldwide circulation being in its twelfth edition was not riddled with typos and wrong ideas when compared to a carefully compiled and seasoned summary by an experienced teacher who had been taking the topic for the last ten years, and yes of course giving the lectures with the same expert summary, unhindered by recent editing. Come on, man… think.
Robert recalled that he had spent most of the previous evening chatting online with his books open in front of him, reading by induction. He had been chatting with Samantha. Yes. we have been removed from the era of getting done face to face what could be done facelessly behind your Smartphone, with the keyboard giving your fingers the morale to say the details of the things your tongue could not when a pair of eyes looking at you and your lips as they struggled to twist the least offensive way to voice some serious words was involved. The blank stare you would usually get afterwards from the girl would make you consider repeating all you just said.
“Could it be…?” “If it was…” “Can I know…?” Ahem. Cough. Splutter. Eyes furtively darting to make sure no one you knew was around, then exit stage left, split!
Those kinds of scenarios left Robert as wordless as he had been when he stumbled upon a church “one sunday like that”. Church was really getting modern. Robert thought he had walked into a discotheque upon seeing the speakers, sound blasters with sub woofers and a turntable to boot, jamming gospel records. He was immensely intrigued by the part about hugging his neighbour whilst sharing the Lord’s peace. The girl to his left hugged him so tightly. His legs felt like jelly. Robert liked this church as opposed to the predefined monosyllabic responses and simple handshake he had been used to. But it had begun to concern him a little when for the next thirty minutes every word of the sermon had been blocked by a buzzing sound in his head that refused to go away, unlike his gasps that had come and gone some time after the girl to his left had had to drag herself out of his hug after looking at him weirdly, just like a rat would look at a piece of fish conveniently placed within its reach in a strange metal contraption whose edges did not look like it would wish to let go of whatever it grasped whenever it had been fortunate enough to grasp it. And what about God himself? Heei… Half way through the hug Robert had already forgotten they were in church!
Samantha had posted a pic. Haa ah! Robert could swear this was the same picture of her he had seen two days before, but now with a multitude of likes and comments. What changed? The expressive struggle for motivated inner emotions on the current humanist state which she had said was the inspiration had suddenly changed to “feeling this latest beat by…” yeah… that dude who dresses to the teeth while all the female dancers behind him seemed to have forgotten to take off the last bit of clothing they had on. In the new picture her hand was raised higher. That was all. Same dress, same hairdo. Yet that other picture had only two people give their opinion on it. Robert would say only two because the third person had written an acronym that Robert had liked, used, then hated, become indifferent to, used and then hated seeing once again; all the way around and back. A three letter acronym that seemed to be the easiest response to anything, and also the laziest, which his mum had innocently sent to his uncle after her text about a friend’s untimely death, thinking it meant “lots of love”.
Now this was interesting. So, simply a raised hand and a different caption could swell Samantha’s two opinions to thirty two and counting. That, and apparently the bulge that was now clearly visible from her slightly unbuttoned sweater. Oh yeah, that had changed as well. It seems one button does actually make a world of difference.
Robert reached the library and saw Samuel coming out.
“Hmm! Robert. You go give them assignment nah. Na your script go be marking scheme. No be you again?” he said, smiling.
Robert simply smiled back, still aware that if he did not finish reading he might not be able to take the exam to save his own life.