Mr. Shammah is talking. “Hellooo. Hellooo. Alright, silence everyone. The 3rd round is about to start. Silence… SAAAAIIIIILENCE!”
The buzz of voices across the Hall reduces. Me and my teammates hold hands, bow our heads and say a short prayer. I see Tash smirking. Hmm. Let her smirk. This competition is just like ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ with Frank Edoho. You can prepare all you want but once you’re in the spotlight, it’s in God’s hands. They can ask you anything.
“Ok,” says Mr. Shammah, “it’s still a tie after 2 rounds of 10 words each. The score is 200 for SS3F led by Natasha Deverill” – scattered applause – “and 200 for SS1B led by Lolu Johnson.” There is a thunderous uproar from the back of the Hall. Ebube is shouting “LOLU! LOLU! LOLU!” I wince again.
“Thank you, thank you. Quiet down,” says Mr. Shammah. “The third round starts now. I will hand the microphone over to the HOD English, Chief Ajilore.”
Mr. Ajilore smiles as he takes the mike. “Thank you, our indefatigable Coach Shammah for that chieftaincy title you just bestowed on me. May your energy never diminish!” Teachers are laughing.
“To the teams, I say congratulations for your stellar performance thus far. This is the first competition where both teams haven’t got a single answer wrong by halftime. You guys are indeed record breakers. Well done!” He is beaming at my team. Mrs. Forsythe smiles at us too. Dr. Edidiong on the other hand is smiling so widely, he looks like Alice’s Cheshire cat.
“Alright, contestants are you ready?”
I swallow nervously.
Mr. Ajilore adjusts his glasses. “The first question is for SS1B.” He picks up the first card. The Hall is as silent as a graveyard.
“Ok. The word is ‘anodyne’. It is an adjective. Spelling is A-N-O-D-Y-N-E, anodyne. 1B, give us a synonym.”
Mr. Shammah starts the stopwatch. Beside me, Chamberlain whispers “Boring. Synonym is boring.” But this is easy. I speak clearly. “Bland. A synonym is bland.”
Mr. Ajilore smiles, “That is correct! 10 points to 1B.” Another uproar. Ebube’s screaming is hysterical, “LOLU! LOLU! LOLU!” I turn to Chamberlain, “Thanks for that answer jare.” He grins, “You’re welcome. Even though you didn’t use it.”
Tash raises her eyebrows and yawns. I know what she means. For a 3rd round question, that was easy.
“First question to 3F.” Tash looks completely calm. Mr. Ajilore picks the second card. “Alright the word is ‘transparent’. It is an adjective. T-R-A-N-S-P-A-R-E-N-T, transparent. Give us a synonym.”
Tash doesn’t waste a second. “Pellucid. Synonym is pellucid.”
“That is correct. 10 points to 3F.” Mr. Ajilore smiles wryly. “Though a simpler synonym would be ‘clear’ or ‘lucid’ or even ‘open’ depending on the context. Students in the audience, take note.”
“Second question for 1B. The word is frumpy, an adjective. F-R-U-M-P-Y, frumpy. Give an antonym.”
My answer is quick. “Elegant. An antonym is elegant.”
“Hmm. That is correct. 10 points. Though a more appropriate antonym would be ‘fashionable’ or ‘well-dressed’. For 3F, the word is inchoate, an adjective. I-N-C-H-O-A-T-E, inchoate. Give us the meaning of the word.”
Aisha leans close to whisper something to Tash but Tash pushes her away as she speaks, “Unformed. Something inchoate is something as yet unformed, something that is just beginning and hasn’t completely taken shape yet.”
“That is correct. 10 points.”
“Hmm,” Chamberlain sighs heavily. “I didn’t know that one.” On the other side, Shayo says, “Don’t worry. I did.” I smile. I did too.
“Third question for 1B. The word is smarmy, an adjective. S-M-A-R-M-Y, smarmy. Give us a synonym.”
My head is churning. I know it has something to do with flattery. But the answer can’t be flattery. Flattery is a noun. The answer has to be an adjective.
Shayo nudges me, “Ahn ahn, Omololu, this is simple. Insincere. Say insincere.”
I lean into my mike. “Insincere. Synonym is insincere.”
“That is correct. 10 points to 1B.” Students all over the Hall are cheering. My momentary hesitation must have frightened them. I’m sweating. I wish I could take off my blazer. Just one wrong answer and Tash will win this thing.
Mr. Ajilore picks up the next card. “Ok, 3F. The word is finagle, a verb. F-I-N-A-G-L-E, finagle. Give us the meaning of the word.”
Tash actually looks offended before she speaks, “To finagle means to cheat, trick, steal, extort, or to obtain something through questionable, illegal, unethical, unscrupulous, or dishonest means.”
Mr. Ajilore gives her a cool stare before saying, “Thank you Tash. That is correct. 10 points to SS3F. Alright, let’s step this up a bit.” He slides out a card from the bottom of the stack. Dr. Edidiong frowns. Tash looks gleeful.
“To 1B. Fifth question. The word is kismet, a noun. K-I-S-M-E-T, kismet. Give us a synonym.”
I lean into my mike. “Fate. A synonym is fate.” I see Tash frown.
“That is correct. 10 points.” I see Mr. Shammah resetting his stop watch. I had almost forgotten we are being timed. The answers are coming so quick.
“3F. The word is perspicacious, an adjective. P-E-R-S-P-I-C-A-C-I-O-U-S, perspicacious. Give a synonym.”
“Shrewd,” says Tash sharply.
“Shrewd. A synonym is shrewd.” answers Tash, chastened.
“Thank you Tash. That is correct. 10 points to 3F. Congratulations to you all, both teams have answered all the first five questions of the 3rd round correctly. I believe the score now stands at 250 points for 3F to 250 points for 1B.”
Lots of cheering breaks out. I can tell where most people stand now. Almost all the students and parents are on our side. Except for a few SS3 students here and there supporting, not Tash, but Aisha and Tinuke. The teachers are supporting us too but their cheering is more cautious. I think they believe Tash’s team is still going to win no matter how good I and my teammates are. They don’t want to get their hopes up.
“The sixth question to 1B. The word is solipsism, a noun. S-O-L-I-P-S-I-S-M, solipsism. Give us the meaning of the word.”
Shayo whispers, “Hmm, this one is hard!” Chamberlain adds, “Soli-what? God have mercy!”
But I know the word. I recite my answer from memory, “Solipsism, a noun. It is the belief that there is no other reality apart from one’s self.”
The Hall is deathly quiet. And then, Mr. Ajilore smiles. “Omololu, that is correct. 10 points to 1B!”
Chamberlain grabs me in a bear hug. I can see my parents and many teachers clapping. Tash frowns. An angry frown.
As the Hall erupts, Mr. Ajilore says, “Quiet please, quiet please. Yes, Mr. Johnson is correct. Solipsism is the philosophical belief that only the self exists or can be known or experienced as reality. The adjective is Solipsistic. So that is correct.”
“Now, to 3F. The word is ‘Astringent’, as an adjective. A-S-T-R-I-N-G-E-N-T, astringent. Give a synonym.”
Tash doesn’t miss a beat. “Critical. The synonym is critical.”
“That is correct. 10 points to 3F.”
Mr. Ajilore faces us. “To 1B…”
The questions come fast, blurring together now. We’re both giving quick, sharp answers. I think Mr. Shammah has stopped timing.
They ask us to give a synonym for ‘Anomie’. I think a bit, and then I say ‘Chaos’. It is correct. Tash is asked a hard one. ‘Dirigisme’, a noun. She gives the meaning. A situation where government has total control of the society and economy. She is correct. I’m happy they didn’t ask us that one. None of us knew it. We get ‘Abstemious’, an adjective, give the meaning. I say to be abstemious is to allow yourself only a little of pleasurable activity. I am correct. Tash is asked to give a synonym for ‘Emend’, a verb. She rolls her eyes and says ‘to Correct’. She is correct. We are asked the meaning of ‘Mea culpa’. I have forgotten it. Chamberlain whispers the answer in my ear. I say it is an exclamation used to accept that something is your fault. We get 10 points. I hug Chamberlain.
And then, after I use ‘Nepotism’ in a sentence (My uncle got me the job through pure nepotism), and Tash uses ‘Winsome’ in a sentence (Her winsome personality ensures she is always surrounded by boys), we end the 3rd round still in a tie. 300-300. We haven’t missed a question. Neither has Tash.
People cheer both sides when Mr. Ajilore announces the score. But the cheering is weaker now. The tension is increasing, getting almost unbearable. It’s the 4th and final round. It’s now or never. Do-or-die.
Mrs. Forsythe moves the final stack of cards to Mr. Ajilore’s end of the table. He picks one up. And we begin.
It’s like the tension has made us whip-smart, razor-sharp. Tash and I are giving correct answers faster than ever before.
1B, synonym for ‘Poltergeist’. I say ‘Ghost’. 10 points.
3F, synonym for ‘Neophyte’. Tash says ‘Novice’. 10 points.
1B, antonym for ‘Revivify’. Shayo whispers “To weaken”. I say ‘Enervate’. 10 points.
3F, antonym for ‘Antediluvian’. Tash says ‘Modern’. 10 points.
1B, synonym for ‘Menagerie’. Chamberlain whispers “Circus”. I say ‘Zoo’. 10 points.
3F, synonym for ‘Melange’. Tash says ‘Farrago’. Mr. Ajilore shakes his head. 10 points. A simpler word would have been ‘Mixture’ or ‘Variety’.
1B, meaning of ‘Hirsute’. I say ‘Hairy, an adjective to describe a really hairy person’. 10 points.
3F, synonym for ‘Halcyon’. Tash pauses. Tinuke leans close and whispers something to her. I read her lips. I think she said ‘Peaceful’. Tash looks horrified. She pushes Tinuke away and says ‘Tranquil’. 10 points.
1B, synonym for ‘Javelin’. Easy. My Dad read The Iliad to me loads of times. I say ‘Spear’. 10 points.
3F, synonym for ‘Glutinous’. Tash scowls. Too easy. ‘Sticky’. 10 points.
1B, synonym for ‘Pregnant’. I am stunned. Shayo whispers, “Gravid. That’s what doctors say”. I say ‘Gravid’. 10 points.
3F, synonym for ‘Gloaming’. Tash says ‘Dusk’. 10 points.
1B, synonym for ‘Troglodyte’. ‘Caveman’. 10 points.
3F, meaning of ‘Miscegenation’. Tash says, “The fact of a child being born to parents of different races; in short race-mixing”. 10 points.
Question Seven. We get synonym for ‘Poltroon’. I say ‘Coward’. 10 points. Tash is scowling non-stop now. She gets synonym for ‘Porous’. ‘Permeable’. 10 points.
Question Eight. We get antonym for ‘Zenith’. I say ‘Nadir’. Tash gets antonym for ‘Acme’. She looks infuriated as she repeats, “Nadir”.
Question Nine. We get meaning of ‘Cupidity’. Shayo and Chamberlain both whisper, “Greed.” I say, “Cupidity is greed”. 10 points. Tash gets meaning of ‘Blandishments’. She says, “Things you do to flatter someone so you can get what you want”. 10 points.
And finally, with sweat-soaked shirts and sweat-soaked blazers, we get synonym of ‘Legerdemain’. I have no idea. Shayo doesn’t either. It was Chamberlain’s responsibility to study words from French so I lean back and turn to him. His eyes are closed. He’s thinking… thinking… thinking…
I am desperate, “Chamberlain… Chamberlain, not now. Please, please not now!”
He opens his eyes, “Sleight-of-hand.”
“Sleight. Of. Hand. It’s like… hand tricks, quick hand movements. Anyway, that’s the answer. Say sleight-of-hand!”
Mr. Shammah is about to ring the bell as I say “Sleight-of-hand. The synonym is sleight-of-hand.”
It is correct. 10 points. And it’s as if the Assembly Hall explodes.
There is a standing ovation. Chamberlain grabs me. Shayo grabs us. Dr. Edidiong runs across the stage and joins the three of us.
Mr. Ajilore is clapping. Mrs. Forsythe is clapping. At the back of the Hall, my classmates are roaring like lunatics. Mr. Olorunnimbe is screaming like a maniac, “YES! YES! YES!” Ebube is lost in what I suppose is some kind of Igbo or Niger-Delta traditional dance. Somebody else is waving the ‘LOLU ROCKS!!!!!!!’ poster. SS2 students are cheering. SS3 students are cheering. Alhaja Abdul, Aisha’s mum, is cheering. My mum is crying. Shayo’s mum is crying. My Dad and Engineer Oguike are locked in an eternal embrace. Shayo’s Dad, Mr. Akinnusi just keeps shaking his head.
I see Mr. Sonaike, our Principal, smiling. All the teachers are clapping. SS1 students in the Hall have gathered together and are now singing ‘Winner oh oh oh!’ All the juniors around us are chanting, “LOLU! LOLU! LOLU!” I’m too tired to wince. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.
Tash’s mum looks completely lost. Tinuke’s people have woken up; they’re looking around, confused.
I’m thinking wow. Wow. We did it. We didn’t miss a thing. We got 400 points!!! I feel mentally exhausted.
I look over at Tash. Everyone has forgotten that her team hasn’t answered their last question. I’m shocked to see that even Aisha and Tinuke are cheering us. Tash lingers in between them, looking forlorn. I suddenly feel a rush of sympathy for her. I can imagine what this competition means to her. A white girl, far away from home at an African school, with no friends, with nobody who even likes her. Voc Dev is the only sphere of IDHS life she fits into, the only place she completely controlled for two years. And now, in SS3, her last Voc Dev competition before she graduates, she gets a draw in the final, with us, her juniors…
I extricate myself from the crush of my teammates and Dr. Edidiong. I walk over to the SS3F table. Tash is glowering at me furiously as I approach. As I reach them, Aisha and Tinuke say, “Hey, Lolu congrats!” “Congrats! You guys are really good!” I smile, “Thanks.”
Tash is silent. Her hands hang down her sides, balled into fists. I extend my right hand, “Tash, I just want to say, you really deserved to win this. I can’t believe we drew. You have no idea how terrified of you we were. We never really believed we could beat you. You… you inspired us.”
She’s still silent. Beneath the thick glasses, her eyes are swimming with tears. Her entire body is shaking. My hand is still out. “Look, I just came here to say, Tash Deverill, it is an honour to draw a Voc Dev match against you.”
I move the hand forward again. And that’s when Tash lashes out,
“A draw? A DRAW?! I could never draw with you, you silly little twit! You stupid little African nitwit! You think this is a draw? This isn’t a draw! No, I won. I WON! What do you know? What does anybody here know? It’s MY language, not yours. I’m English, you’re not! Africans could never draw with an Englishman in a contest of English words! This is MY competition! Mine! IT’S NOT EVEN YOUR BLOODY LANGUAGE!”
She covers her ears, bends over and screams, “Aaaaaaaarrrgggggghhhhhhhhhh!!!!!”
Then she looks up. People are staring at her. Tash begins to chuckle, a quietly deranged chuckle. She’s muttering, “It’s not even your language, it’s not your bloody language…”
Wow. My hand drops.
Natasha Deverill. I never did like her much.