Navy boy Johnson's relationship with the sexy Clara is threatened when he naively says something that goes against her principles; by Okwuje Israel Chukwuemeka.
Today Johnson called Clara at eleven fifty-five, five minutes before the time of the free midnight calls. Five minutes was too long to wait. Never mind that it would cost him about a hundred bucks. He needed to speak with Clara, to hear her velvety voice, or so he had earlier said to Jibola.
The phone rang for some time before Clara picked up. Then a plume-soft "Hello" followed. He said nothing immediately after. He stayed silent for some time, as if taking time to digest what he'd heard. Then Clara said "Hello!" in a less sweet tone, with sharpness, and then, "Who's this?"
"It's me," he said.
"Was wondering if you'd transformed into mute mode or something," she said.
He chuckled. "It was your voice. You don't realise how breath-taking it is, do you? I was breathless, literally."
Clara sniggered. "But your breath has now returned, right? You don't cease to flatter me."
"No, no, this is beyond flattery. I really mean everything I say. Anyway, how was your day?"
"Not much happened today. Today was actually kind of good, save for our silly physics teacher who almost ruined my day."
Johnson struggled to get air into his nostrils. He frowned. Jide, an Oscar Three boy, noticed his grimace and said in pidgin, "Why you dey do face like shit?" He ignored Jide. He moved the phone from his left to his right hand. His left ear had become hot somewhat. Moreover his left hand hurt, so that it quivered.
"Don't let any impish teacher bother you," he said.
"He flogged me. There's a mark on my back!"
"What? A mark! I find it hard to believe that such things would happen in a girls-only school. And by a male teacher. Any sensible man should understand the frailty of women. Haba!"
"And that's supposed to mean..."
"Women should be handled with care, delicately, like rose petals, you understand me? Every sensible man should know that."
"And men are to be regarded as the stronger?"
"Sure. Men are."
Clara sighed. The sound of her sigh echoed deeply into his eardrum. "I don't believe you. You hadn't struck me as male chauvinistic till now," she said.
"Am I?" Johnson asked this, even though he did not know what it meant to be male chauvinistic. Never before had he encountered the phrase in reading. And a dictionary wasn't in sight, near his bed space, to consult.
"By the way, what's wrong with being male chauvinistic?" he however asked, in the hope that her response would in some way indicate the meaning of the phrase.
"Well, I do not subscribe to the ideology of women being the weaker. My anger towards my physics teacher flogging me on the back should be about it being wrong. And just that. Not because I'm a woman and weaker than a man physically."
Johnson laughed, wondering if what she'd said made any sense. "But aren't women weak?"
"You cannot lift a gallon of water, I can. Why? Because I am male and you're female. That makes you weaker physically. It's just nature. It's organic. You can't cheat nature, you know."
Clara fumed. "I can't believe this. You know how you currently sound... like one of the male chauvinistic pigs I read about in a novel recently. Honestly speaking. And it's pathetic."
"Did you just call me a pig or something?"
Johnson removed the cell phone from his ear. He hoped she really hadn't meant to call him a pig. There was a crackle when he put the phone back. The line blurred and then became clearer.
"You're a male chauvinist," Clara said thereafter. She seemed not to have heard the last comment he made.
Johnson began to suspect that this 'male chauvinist' was a bad thing, perhaps even an insult. But he did not ask Clara what it meant. He did not want to appear ignorant to her. His throat tightened as he thought of what next to say. The conversation hadn't gone how he'd expected it to go - where he would serenade her with elaborate superlatives and she would blush over the phone.
"But I maintain that men are stronger than women," he said.
"You're still saying it," she said.
"But it's true, isn't it?"
"I don't believe you. Imagine!"
She hung up. The line intoned a grating monotone.
"Clara! Clara!" he said, as though unaware she'd hung up. Then he put down his phone.
She must take what had happened as a fight. This would be their second fight. Their first had occurred a few months after they had begun dating. She had called Jibola one Saturday night. On finding out about the call, Johnson had been a little jealous. Why would she be calling Jibola at all? He had challenged her about this, saying it's not right to call the friend of one's boyfriend, without informing one's boyfriend. But she had barked at him, saying he had no rule over her, that they were not married and that even if they were, he still had no right to query her for calling a friend of his without telling him. He had marvelled at the fierceness of her retort, the firmness of her effusion, but at the same time thought it sexy. However she did not speak to him for a week afterwards.
Now he could expect nothing less. How would he cope without hearing that plume-soft "Hello" which sent him to a different planet? He resolved to call her again before retiring to bed. But first he must check the dictionary for what it meant to be a male chauvinist. So he rummaged through his locker for his Oxford Advanced Learners. He found it, perused through M words, found male but couldn't find male chauvinist. Where was the damn word? He couldn't call her back before finding out its meaning. He went to Papa Two to consult Clement, who he thought should know the meaning. Clement was gambling in Papa Four, so he walked further down Papa Division to Papa Four. The other gamblers failed to take notice of him when he entered, save Bolaji, a Papa Four boy, who said, "Guy, what's up?"
"Clem, I need to ask you something," he said.
"Shoot," was Clement's response, though Clement's eyes were fixed on the cards in his left palm.
"There's this word I'm looking for: Male chauvinist. I can't find it."
Clement beamed a broad smile. "Male chauvinist, is it? Where did you hear it used?"
"Does it matter? Do you know what it means or not?" Johnson snapped.
"Relax. You came to me, remember?"
Clement cleared his throat. A didactic air he exuded, his mien. "Ok. First, that's a phrase, not a word per se, two words to be specific. And you'd not see 'male chauvinist' in your dictionary. Check for chauvinist. Then attach male to its meaning. That should cut it."
"Oh! Ok," said Johnson, at first feeling silly but then enlightened. "I'll check the S words then."
"No, no, no." Clement guffawed at Johnson. "The word actually begins with a C; CH constitutes its first two letters. Don't let the pronunciation deceive you. By the way, who called you a male chauvinist?"
Johnson dallied for a response. "Nobody, actually... Just wanted to know its meaning, that's all. You know when one stumbles on a new word; that sort of thing."
Clement nodded his head, the other gamblers huddled about, looking at their cards, strategizing on how best to outwit each other. "For what it's worth, it means superiority: male superiority. Women, mostly those neo-feminists, use it when men undermine them," Clement said when Johnson made to leave.
"Like when men say women are weaker physically?"
"Yeah." Clement's countenance brightened.
"But isn't it true? Can they lift up a keg of water?"
"I wonder. Silly lasses claiming to be feminists," said Clement. "Some women are just confused."
"I totally agree," Johnson said.
Clement faced his game of cards. Johnson left for Oscar Three.
Afterwards he dialled Clara's number. She wouldn't pick up his call. Soon an electronic voice said her phone was switched off. He gave up easily. Another one week. No plume-soft voice to hear, just the annoying voices of navy boys and of hags, and of female teachers, and of naval ratings, and of officers in the school, which never took him to the altitudes he reached when Clara spoke. He thought about her assertion of him being a male chauvinist. What was wrong with that? In Nigeria, indeed in Africa, weren't men regarded as superior, stronger? Why did Clara take it so personally? He let his mind go blank. Then his upper eyelids descended to rest on his lower eyelids. It was just past one.
Two weeks passed. Clara still wasn't picking up his calls. By now he had begun to experience the clichés of love. Most nights he'd roll from side to side on his bed, finding it hard to sleep. And on the nights he succeeded in sleeping, images of her inundated his dreams. Even during the day, thoughts of her still possessed his mind.
Today was no different in the Anglican Girls Grammar School, where navy boys had been invited for the Literary and Debating day. He'd been one of the dancers performing a mime. He'd been ecstatic about the occasion, thinking her school would be in attendance. Only to find out that her school - notorious for snobbery - had ditched the event because the host school was a public school, far below them in status.
After his performance, which he believed was way beneath stellar, he remembered how he had met her. They had met when navy boys organised a Literary and Debating day, some months ago. She had danced R. Kelly's Snake Man on the stage of the Jubrila Ayinla Hall, employing belly dancing moves, twirling her waist all over the place like a rattle snake, so that the jaws of many navy boys dropped as they watched her in awe.
Then blinds were drawn all over the windows of the Jubrila Ayinla Hall, for the crux of the matter, which had drawn many a navy boy for the event in the first place: Rocking. Loud music blared. Chairs were moved to the extremes of the hall to create ample dancing space at the centre. Navy boys began to pick girls to dance with, indeed to rock. About ten guys had rushed to her. He was one of them. Who wouldn't want to dance with a girl who could twirl her waist like a rattle snake?
She had ditched all but him. She had bid him come with her left pinkie. Then they had danced, rocked, he facing her. Then he had moved to her back in stealth and wrapped his hand around her. She hadn't objected. But she had responded in kind, bending low to the ground and then rising and bending, and making his head spin like a top.
Thereafter she had left him her digits, scribbled on a crumpled leaf of a paper. "Call me," she'd said. And he had savoured every moment of it, counting his many blessings.
Another weekend soon came. A good time for free midnight calls. Still, she was evading his calls. He'd call, her phone would ring, and then, the next minute, her line would be unreachable or switched off. There was nothing he hadn't tried. He had sent her text messages. About ten in total. Yet she wouldn't budge.
Omatshola House was in high spirits as usual, especially because it was a Saturday. From the four divisions, one could hear many navy boys speak on the phone: to family back home, to friends in other boarding houses, to their girlfriends. Never mind that having a phone in school was illegal. But the naval officers, who conducted rounds for student headcounts every night, had come and gone. So there was nothing to fear.
Johnson tried getting through to Clara's phone. Her phone rang, she cut the call. He sighed. He wondered what he was doing. Why even bother trying to continue the relationship? He put down the phone. His facial muscles tightened. He decided to let go. But soon he was dialling her number again. Her phone rang. She cut the call.
He continued calling, she continued cutting. And, for some reason, she didn't switch off her phone, as she would normally do. He did not hear the irritating electronic voice saying her line wasn't reachable, or that her line had been switched off. He called until she picked up the call.
"What?" she said.
"Clara," he said, "I've been calling you for about two weeks now."
She said nothing more. He clenched his teeth. "Is it..." he said. He closed his mouth.
As he was about to speak further, he heard someone say, "Bring that cell phone here." He looked toward the door, where the voice had come from. The House Master, a naval officer, was at the door. He bit his lower lip in trepidation. He knew this marked the end of his phone. He walked up to the House Master and handed over his phone. The House Master put it into the pocket of his long-flowing kaftan, which contained eight other phones he'd seized from other navy boys that night. The House Master left. Johnson was lucky to not have been punished. Owning a phone in school, normally, was a grievous offence, deserving of severe punishment.
Indignant, he kicked the foot of his bunk after the House Master had left. Other Oscar Three boys, who had been silent, watching this happen, consoled him, even though some sneered covertly. "No more Clara," he even overhead Jeffrey, an Oscar Three boy, say.
He lay on his bed, and cursed the day he met Clara. That Literary and Debating day in the Jubrila Ayinla Hall.
Three days later, he was about to go to bed when Jibola entered into Oscar Three. He had stayed, frustrated, without a phone, without a connection to the outside world, stuck within the asphyxiating walls of the school. Had he the chance, he would smash Clara's face against one of those walls.
"You have a call," Jibola said.
"Call from whom?"
He sighed. Yet he readily took the phone from Jibola and retreated to his bed space. Oscar Three which, before then, had bustled with activity, went quiet, a queer anticipation on the faces of the other room members. For they all had debated on what would happen next to the couple of the year, on whether Clara would grow some sense.
"Yes!" Johnson said.
"What do you mean, yes!" Clara said.
"Exactly what you heard. Yes!"
"Hmm! I tried calling you yesterday, but your number wouldn't go through," she said, rather dryly.
"My phone was seized the last time we spoke. Many thanks to you, for that one. Many, many thanks! I have you to thank."
She snorted. "You don't..." she said. "You don't really blame me for your phone, do you? Your phone getting seized cannot possibly be my fault, can it?"
"Whatever. What do you want to say to me?"
The line crackled, making a breezy sound, as if she were on a bike whilst making the call. She said some things which he couldn't hear. When the line got clearer he heard, "I don't think this is working any longer." The trite line he hoped he'd never hear from anybody. He hoped that he hadn't heard her correctly.
"What isn't working?" he said.
He cleared his throat. "I have not been able to understand you these past weeks... because I am a male chauvinist? Is that what this is about?" He scowled. Oscar Three boys watching and eavesdropping shot at each other puzzled looks.
"Well, I think you are the antithesis of what I stand for. And I can't stand that," she said.
"I am the antithesis..." He said this, though he, yet again, didn't know what 'antithesis' meant. And, yet again, there was no dictionary to consult. Moreover, he was too amazed to go to Papa Two to consult Clement.
"Listen, it's over, I'm ending this, ok?"
"Over?" He clenched his teeth. He contemplated saying more. But what more could he say? He hadn't really thought of the possibility of a breakup, much less from Clara. Even when the thought of a potential breakup cropped up in his head, he imagined himself being the instigator and not the girl he was dating. Now an audacious Clara had done it and was acting as if it were not a big deal. In the next few seconds, after her utterance, he felt every affection he had left for her vanish. Yet no words would proceed from his mouth. Oscar Three boys were still watching him, trying to read his facial expressions, to divine his thoughts.
It occurred to him that she must have said other things - which he didn't hear as his mind trailed off momentarily - when he suddenly heard her say, "I'm dating someone else. Another navy boy." The words bounced unto his eardrum impertinently, so that he removed the phone from his ear. Another navy boy. Did she have to be that generous with the detail of whom she was dating?
"You're a bitch," he said, as he put the phone back on his ear.
"You heard me; a bitch!"
Oscar Three went terribly silent thereafter. Perhaps no one had expected the phone conversation to degenerate to one of vulgarity. Johnson himself was surprised that he made such remarks, though, at the moment, it seemed the most apt for Clara.
He cut the call and handed over the phone to Jibola. Irately, he walked away from Oscar Three, not returning for an hour. When asked by Chidi, another Oscar Three boy, why he had all of a sudden become so livid, he walked to his locker, opened it, brought out a perfume bottle and smashed it on the wall. The dark blue bottle broke with a heavy thud and dispersed over myriad directions, littering the terrazzo floor with shards of glass. The leftover perfume spilled on the ground, forming a small pool, and then vaporised, aromatising Oscar Three in the process.
"That's the reason," Johnson said.
He had smashed the last of Clara, making smithereens of her, or so he thought. Afterwards, he got a broom and ridded Oscar Three of the trash, feeling self-satisfied. Into the incinerator out back Clara went.