A million million spermatozoa

All of them alive:

Out of their cataclysm but one poor

Noah

Dare hope to survive.

And among that billion minus one

Might have chanced to be Shakespeare,

Another Newton, a new Donne –

But the one was Me.

– Aldous Huxley

 

She was just the shy type. She was just an ordinary girl; unburnished image, unresolved parentage. She was Barbara. Last night, a message put her on tides of ecstasy, and she was overjoyed when in the early hours of the morning she realized that the news was no joke. She had feared an ebb-tide might sink her into blurry depths of disillusionment. But the tides of ecstasy had not betrayed her. It was the summer of 2012, and she was going to meet her grandmother for the first time. She bade goodbye to the  life of a foster child. She watched Ebube shed a few tears for her. “It is for the good,” she told her best friend. “Things will sort themselves out.”

Her grandmother’s house was not all she imagined it would be. It was more. A duplex adorned with wisteria, and a backyard that boasted a cornucopia of different flowers. She became a butterfly of homo sapien descent, and paid visits to the flowers on a daily basis. Her grandmother told half-baked stories about her parents, and she believed that one day she would come to know the truth. She came to love her grandmother dearly, despite the fact that she did not raise her. She forgave her and her excuses for not stopping her abandonment by her mother. She took care of her like she had known her all her life.

A month later, she started school at Glistensia College. She was five months away from her eighteenth birthday when she became a student of Glistensia, in the department of Music. There was Mark, there was KC, there was Wale, and there was Dinma. The four had remarkable talents, and Barbara looked forward to outdoing herself. And, hopefully, them. Not the gregarious type, but Glistensia had taught her a survival mechanism. Dinma sings like a thrush, Mark plays the violin like Yanni, KC plays the trumpet perfectly well, and Wale on guitar leaves pictures of Jimi Hendrix in the mind’s eye. She admired them all, and wanted to tap from their reservoir of finesse.

“You will never steal my shine.” Dinma, the hitherto only girl  in the group, warned. “You will not, not on your life.” Barbara saved this in her memory’s archive, and does well to visit the words each time their paths crossed. Their group, Barnacle, were outright winners. At least, they have won seven out of the twelve musical competitions they participated in annually. They would be contesting in the Glover Musical Competition coming up next year, which is a big one for them, considering the enormosity of the prize money and its being international. Dinma appeared to be the one with the biggest plans for the prize money, should they win. She would buy a house, a car, and set up a record label. Wishes are free, and so anybody can make theirs. However, Barbara was not drafted into the wish-making. She was a newcomer and a novice, as Mark pointed out, and so not entitled to such an opportunity. Barbara was only a little perturbed, challenges were not new to her. “Fear is not an option,” she had once told Ebube who went ahead using it during any competition with his friends. She became his hero.

  ***

Barbara was standing with two friends around the quad of their faculty when someone walked past her, taking her books down. She turned and discovered a boy standing behind her.

“Hi. My name is Jim, and my friends call me Jim O. May I know you.” His hand was proffered for a handshake.

Barbara fell about; her laughter was a strained one. “You must be kidding, right? So…”

“Kidding? How?” he interrupted.

“So you brought my books down and all you could do is stand and introduce yourself? Eh, Jim O?” Her friends fell about now.

“Why are your friends laughing?” He asked with what appeared to Barbara as a strange seriousness. Her friends laughed the more.

“Jim O, are you a student of Glistensia?” Barbara asked.

“Question!” he exclaimed. “Don’t I look like one?” He bent down to pick the books and  Barbara tried to stop him. He rose and grabbed her by the waist, kissing her on the cheek.

“What?!” her two friends shouted. By now, Jim O had received a slap.

“How dare you kiss me! Are you insane? Are you… Are you…?” Barbara stammered.

“I am a first year student of Psychology. I was only trying to know how a serious-looking girl would react when kissed by a stranger. Thank you, thank you.” He ran off.

Barbara was stupefied and flummoxed. Her shock was still at its peak, when the bell for their class rang. She picked her books, Jim O having dropped them again, and went in with her friends. Mr. Brown was taking them on  Introduction to Music, and Barbara did not know he was until the lesson petered out. She stood up and joined the file of students leaving the classroom.

“Barbara!” Folashade called out. She was one of her friends present during the earlier incident.” Please wait.” Barbara stood till she approached her. “Are you heading to the hostel?”

“No. I will be at the library.”

“Okay. Regarding what happened earlier today, how could that boy kiss you?” Barbara said nothing, and so she continued.” What was he doing in our faculty?”

“I was stunned, Folashade. I was stunned!”

“You ought to be. How could he turn you to an experimental ani …” She stumbled over the last word, and on a second thought added, “…object? How could Jim O!’’

“Well, Folashade, I will be on my way now. See you later.’’

“Okay. Don’t worry much, dear.’’ She stood, and watched her friend disappear with the crowd of students before she disappeared in the opposite direction.

  ***

In the school gym, Mark, KC, and Wale stretched whatever muscles they had.

“How do you see Barbara’s performance during the rehearsals for Glover?” Mark asked KC, his chest rising and falling as he dropped the dumb-bell. He was breathing fast.

“Not bad. Not bad!” came the voice from a stationary bike. “I’m somewhat scared.” Wale chipped in.

“Why?” Mark asked as he wiped his face with a towel.

“I’m scared for Dinma. That wannabe might just steal her shine; she’s got some talent.”

 

Mark opened his mouth, gesticulating towards Wale, and closed it abruptly. He wanted to say something, but the words seemed to be checking out themselves in the interior of his throat.

 

“That’s true,” said KC, “the girl has got some untapped potentials. Dinma should beware.”

“Yeah!” affirmed Wale. “This is Dinma’s final year, and she deserves to win in the solo category. She can’t afford to lose.”

“Why would she lose to a fresher?” asked Mark rhetorically. “Please, we should bother about people we would meet from other schools. Barbara is too small for anyone to be fretting because of her.”

“Well, I must remind you,” began KC, “That she was selected for no other thing but her raw talent. And that is all that matters.”

“Barbara Emelife can’t set the Thames on fire!” exclaimed Mark. “Let her go ahead and have technicolour dreams. She’s just a fledgling, and I am not sure the flying part would ever take place. At least, not this time.”

“That’s a harsh thing to say.” KC pointed out. “Would you say the same if she were your sister?”

“Okay, okay. It’s enough,” interrupted Wale. “I think it’s time to hit the road.” Mark was saying something to which nobody paid attention. They packed their belongings and eventually did.

 

   ***

Barbara took the alternative path, because the more usual path that led to the volleyball court was under construction and hence blocked. The one she took was a lonely path that coursed through a bush. She stopped to pick the bell-shaped flower of an African Foxglove.

 

“Hi. My name is Jim O,” said the voice from behind. Barbara shuddered.

She turned and looked at him seriously, searching her head for an appropriate gambit. “Do you usually do this? I mean, is it a lifestyle?”

Jim O smiled, looking sheepish. “Not really. Where are you heading to?”

“Jim O or whatever you call yourself, it is none of your business.” Barbara said and began to leave briskly. “You should find something useful to do with your time.”

“You are worth my time!” he exclaimed, trying to keep up with her pace.

“Maybe that slap wasn’t enough.” Jim O burst into laughter, a laughter that made Barbara to halt. She looked at him like he was an alien. “Some boys. Some boys.”

“You look like you are going for sports. I like your trainers,” he said as he followed her again. “Can I come and watch you play?”

“Thanks, and no.” She turned and looked at the tall boy like she was his mother. “See, Jim O, I do not want to slap you again. Maybe giving you my name would do something wonderful in your life; my name is Barbara. Now, can you leave me alone?”

Jim O smiled a victorious smile. He looked like a boy of sixteen. “Thank you, thank you. You can go now.”

Barbara smiled as she shook her head sideways, and then disappeared from the sight of the stalking schoolboy.

 

 ***

The days for the first semester seemed to be breezing away swiftly, and soon it was December. Barbara cherished the idea of spending Christmas with her grandmother; they would leave Lagos for Abuja for a three-day recreation, and Father Newman had promised to give her a Christmas present. In fact, she believed that this would be her first ever Christmas with family. She was overjoyed. Her music tutor had told her to relax well during the holidays since the Glover Competition would take place in January, and she bought the idea. She planned to go to the Grocery store a few weeks to Christmas to make sure she had whatever she would need. Retail therapy, too, was on her mind. She loved the idea of competing in the Glover Musical Competition, and thanked her stars that she was able to pass the entrance examination for Glistensia. A fortnight before she travelled back home, she met with her two friends.

 

“So you mean you met that Jim O again?” Adaku, the other girl present that day, asked with a half-smile on her face.

Crossing her hand across Barbara’s shoulders: “You did?” Folashade asked.

“Yes I did.”

“Good Lord!” exclaimed Folashade. “What did he do this time?”

“Followed me.”

“Followed you?” Folashade asked. “Good Lord, to where?”

Laughing against her wish: “Please, enough of this your Good Lord phrase.” Adaku said, and then tapped Barbara’s crossed legs. “Tell us.”

“He wanted to follow me to the women’s volleyball court. He said he wanted to watch me play.”

Leaning into Barbara’s face from where she stood: “Hmm. And you allowed him?” Adaku asked.

“Yes.”

Surprised, excited: “Why? You like the boy?” Folashade asked.

“I do not like the boy,” Barbara said frowning, “And I had to tell him bluntly not to follow me.”

“Ah hah! I knew she was pulling our legs.” Adaku said. “But that boy… that boy is something else.”

“Yes, I agree with you.” Barbara said. “He is the least of my worries now. I have to practice hard for the Glover Competition coming up next year, and that is the greatest of my worries because I want to win.”

“You deserve to win; you’ve got talent.’’ Folashade said, nodding her head. “But how about Dinma, the girl in final year?”

“She’s doing pretty good, but has always been aggressive towards me.”

“Because she thinks you might win in the solo category?’’ Adaku asked.

“I don’t know, and I do not want to talk about it now. Please, you two should accompany me to my tutor’s office. I need to see him before vacating.”

“Okay.” Folashade said, and drew Adaku by the hand. The three girls stepped down the pavement where they had been, and walked away with feline grace.

***

During the third week of December, Barnacle was hit with bad news. KC was involved in an auto crash! It was Adaku who informed Barbara about this incident through a phone call. Coldness greater than  December’s harmattan enveloped Barbara when she heard the news. She asked for the hospital address and left home to visit KC.

“Hello, KC,” she said, touching his arm outstretched on the bed. KC shook with what onward impulse he received. Barbara watched him as he struggled to open his eyes. “It’s me. Barbara!’’

Keeping a gaze on her: “Barbara. Oh, Barbara, look what happened to me! Look…” Tears rolled down his eyes.

“You will get well soon. I assure you that.”

“When is ‘soon’? We have barely three weeks to the competition.” He wept.

“You will recover in time for the competition. You’ll recover, I say !”

“By a miracle?” He closed his eyes, and a blob of tear sat beneath his eyelid.

“Don’t worry, dear. I’ll be praying for you.” She placed her hand on his chest and nodded her head as he opened his eyes again. “All is well!”

“Thank you for coming,” he said, as though her consolatory words fell on deaf ears. “You’re too kind.”

“God will speed up your recovery. You’ll see.” She dropped the food and fruits she brought for him beside him and said, “Be strong for me.” KC smiled and waved her a goodbye as she stood up to leave.

Outside the hospital she stood, grateful that she won’t smell more of drugs and disinfectants. She felt her lips were cracked by harmattan and licked them as she boarded a taxi home.

 ***

Christmas sauntered in, and Barbara was in Abuja with her grandmother. They travelled on the twenty-sixth and spent three days altogether. Barbara relished the idea of coming back again to Abuja for the competition that would see other African countries participating. While in Abuja, she received a call from KC. He had called to tell her that he might make it to the rehearsals on January 3, and Barbara waited none too patiently to see him. They would return to Lagos by plane, and Barbara was delighted by the idea of travelling by this gigantic man-made bird she had only seen in movies. So, she waited eagerly for their departure.

On January 3, rehearsals took full swing. KC was present! Everybody worked very hard to perfect themselves for the group category as well as the solo. The Christmas season appeared to have treated every member of Barnacle well, bar  KC who returned limping. But of course that would be no problem as long as his mouth was not affected.

 ***

Barnacle departed for Abuja on January 9 for the competition that would commence on January 12. There was tension amongst them; even the delegates from Glistensia were tensed. Everybody wanted to win one way or the other. For Dinma, winning, she thought, was certain having won some competitions in the past. They arrived Abuja in the afternoon, and immediately checked into a hotel. Dinma and Barbara shared a room, to the disappointment of themselves. Nobody paid attention to their complaints! During private rehearsals, one would leave the room for the other; and Dinma usually did. She preferred joining the boys in their room. Intense rehearsals went on until January 12 came knocking.

 ***

The representatives from the various participating schools walked in gently, neat and resplendent in their uniforms. Barnacle was the last to walk in, and they looked beautiful in their velvety blue and white tops. The hall was quiet until the anchor broke the silence.

“Good day, ladies and gentlemen! I’d like to welcome you all to the 2nd Glover Musical Competition…”

Barbara’s phone beeped, and she touched the message icon: “We are here to support you. Go Barbara, go baby!” The message came from Adaku, and when Barbara searched her out with her eyes she saw her, Folashade and a boy waving at her. The boy was Jim O! She wondered what her two friends were doing with Jim O. But this was no time for wondering, and so she waved back and concentrated on the task ahead.

The competition kicked off with the Karaoke round, and by the end of second round which involved composed songs presentation, two teams had been disqualified for plagiarism. In the third round, which involved the use of musical instruments, Barnacle stole the applause of the audience.

Before long, it was time for the solo category. Slots were drawn, and wale was up against Mensah from Ghana, KC was up against Given from South Africa and Mark was up against Mwangi from Kenya. In the girls’ category, Dinma was up against Naledi from Botswana, while Barbara was to face Mmambo from Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the organizers, the winners from each duel will sing one song each to determine who becomes the winner for both the male and female category.

The battle began, and towards the evening it was already over. Within half an hour, the results came. Barbara and Dinma had made it to the next round. Wale did, KC did, but Mark lost to a Malian. It was a painful one for him, and he could not hide his emotions and so wept. He was consoled by the anchor , who walked him down the podium’s flight of stairs. The next round, being the last, would take place the next day and everybody could not wait to know who the winners would be.

That night, Dinma did not sleep in the same room with Barbara She begged the boys, and they smuggled her in. She intensified her practice, with Mark telling her reasons why she ought to win in the girls’ category. She and Mark stayed awake until it was 1a.m the next day, when Dinma said she was exhausted and needed a night repose.

  ***

Before the competition commenced, the anchor announced that a US-based Nigerian musician arrived Nigeria last night, and would be doing a collaboration with the winner from the girls’ category. There was frenzy in the crowd, and Dinma stamped her foot impulsively. She peered at Barbara from where she sat, and saw her face in her palms. She smirked.

As the competition began, some persons in the crowd began to raise papers bearing the names of their favorites. It was a hot round, which saw Dinma getting more applause from the crowd. Then, it was Barbara’s turn.
She was singing Do You  Know How  by the award-winning new singer, Flying Hawk. No sooner had she started than she felt the heel of her shoes going off. It happened, but she did not fall. Some members of the crowd cheered her on when they saw that she continued despite the challenge. Dinma was grinning. Barbara sang on, eventually removing those heel-less shoes. She strutted on the stage barefooted, and by the end of the song was sitting by the stairs of the podium. It was a wonderful performance, and so the audience clapped. But many, figuratively, were already betting on Dinma or Paulina from Cameroon . Barbara went in while the judges went to work. Refreshments were served as the judges worked, and thirty minutes later the boys took the stage. Each did his best and left the rest to the judges. The competition promised to be a memorable one. Barbara’s phone beeped again, and she reluctantly touched the message icon. “You were awesome” it read. The phone number was unknown to her and she wondered who sent it. Seconds later, another entered. She read it: “From the troublemaker, Jim O.” She shook her head with no expression on her face, and returned the phone to her bag. When the anchor finally appeared with the results, Stacey D was standing with him. Every snack-chewing mouth went silent as the humongous US-based Nigerian musician stood with one of the results in her hand.

    ***

“Today is a great day. This is an epoch-making event, and you ought to be glad that you are present. I’d like to welcome everyone to the last segment of the 2nd Glover Musical Competition, which is the Announcement of Results. We’ve witnessed an impressive performance today, and of course I watched it from my room.” Impressive” is an understatement. Have you ever wondered why the rabbit is a magician’s favorite animal? I would tell you, but maybe not today. Thank you all for being here, and please give yourselves a standing ovation.”

The crowd went thundering with their palms. She motioned to them to sit down.

“We will not be announcing the winners outright. The best three from both sides will be called out, and later we would give you guys your winners. I hope that sounds limpid enough.” She whispered into the anchor’s ear before she continued, “He will be announcing the best three in the male category. So listen up!”

Wale made it, Lucas from South Africa did, and so did KC. As soon as the anchor was done, Stacey D stepped forward with the result for the female category.

“Dear beautiful people, it was not easy to come up with these three. But I believe, these by good judgment are the best contestants. Without much ado and in no particular order I give you the best three female contestants.” She paused, and then announced: “Paulina from Cameroon!”

The audience roared.

“You can call her P Lina, like she would love to be addressed. The next is…” Stacey D paused, and with a foot forward exclaimed, “Dinma from Nigeria!”

The crowd cheered, while Dinma scowled at Barbara before running to the podium. The crowd, now, was silent.

“And the last but not the least is Barbey from Nigeria!” With tears in her eyes, she stood up and walked gently to the podium. Somebody in the crowd was busy shouting “Go Barbey, Go Baby!” There was about two minutes delay in the announcement of the winners. And when the news finally came, KC was edged out by Lucas. While Wale took the third place. There was tension in the girls’ “camp”.

“The winner is Dinma, and the winner is Barbey!” Stacey D announced, and confusion enveloped the crowd. “This year, we had an impressive battle; and now for the first time, we have joint winners. By this incidence, P Lina occupies the second place position and so the third place occupant shall be decided by viewers’ and audiences’ choice. Please make some noise for Barbey and Dinma!” She hugged the two girls, while pandemonium swallowed the entire building. She kissed both girls on their foreheads, and found herself weeping uncontrollably. She left the stage, and demanded to talk to the two girls separately in her room.

Barbara descended the podium to join the crowd who were shouting “Barbey, Barbey, Barbey…!” She hugged as many as she could and then stepped away a bit.

To Adaku and Folashade: “You two are the best kind of friends anyone could ask for,” she said  as she hugged them. With her head behind them, she saw Jim O blowing her a kiss. She sighed with a smile, and then walked up to him to thank him for coming.

 

  ***

 

“Good day, ma’am,” Barbey greeted Stacey D. She nodded her head, and then pointed her to a seat. She took the seat gently.

“You are a wonderful singer.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“How long have you been singing?”

Barbey scratched her head: “Well, I can’t really say exactly. I think anybody can sing averagely, so I sang like every other person. Not until I came to Glistensia.”

“I see,” said Stacey D, nodding her head. “Your mom must be proud of you.”

“Yeah, if only I know her.”

There was silence in the room.

Reluctantly: “So you have never met your mother?”

“Yes.”

“Who have you been living with?”

“With my foster parents, until my grandmother came to pick me…”

“Mother? You mean your grandmother came…you mean it was your grandmother who sent you to Glistensia?”

“Yes?!”

With flamboyance and flair: “Oh! Please forgive my silly questions. I get too emotional with family matters.” She fiddled with a pen on the desk. “It must have been a difficult life for you. I guess.”

“You can’t imagine it.” She pressed her fingers into her eyes. “But it’s all over now.” Stacey D could see the redness of her eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

“No, you don’t need to be.”

“No, I should be sorry.” Stacey D countered. “Who gave you that mark on your neck?” she asked cautiously.

“My…my…”

“I get it. Your mother did.” She paused for a moment. “Would you forgive this your mother if she appears tomorrow with reasons for abandoning you?”

“I don’t know. I have never thought about that.” There was grave silence. “Please ma’am, can we change the topic?”

“No.” she said impulsively.

“What?!”

“I mean, of course! We can change the topic.” She wiped the tears in her eyes with a handkerchief. “But I need you to forgive me.”

“For what?” Barbey asked, seriously.

“For your abandonment and…” She hesitated, and then decided against her wave of guilt to drop the bombshell. “Barbey, I am your mother.”

Barbey hesitated before she stood up. “You?” she said, pointing at her. She shook her head sideways. “So you are the woman who left me in agony? You are my mother? Oh Christ! I can’t believe this…”

“Please Barbey, forgive me. I can explain.” She walked up to her and made an attempt to hold her hand.

“Don’t you lay a hand on me!” Barbey screamed. She looked around and then said, “I don’t think I should be here.” She went for the door and Stacey D tried to stop her. She pushed her down, and banged the door. On the floor, Stacey D wept bitterly. She laid just there, crying and blowing phlegm into her handkerchief. The whole world seemed to be crashing and the unbearable debris caving in into her head. She held her head and wept. In a minute or two, the door opened. A hand held the door from outside, as if the owner of the hand was contemplating if to come in or to remain outside. Thereafter, Barbey stepped in.

“You need to hear me, child.” Stacey D said, and rose to her feet.

“Tell me, tell me!” Barbey burst out crying. Stacey D held her, and led her to a seat.

“You see, a boy impregnated me when I was as young as you. Mother was furious. She never thought I would be that loose. I apologized but she wouldn’t listen. When you were born, she helped me financially which ensured that you were fed and clothed. But then, the problem came when I wanted to leave you in her custody. She said she wouldn’t do that, and so you were found an orphanage with strict instructions that you must , if need be, be given to a good foster home with financial help coming from mother…” She paused for a moment. “I regretted my actions after I left the country.”

“But why…why couldn’t you wait a little longer?”

“I was scared. I was scared of your presence in my life putting a kibosh to my career dreams. Please, forgive me Barbey. I am really sorry.” She blew more phlegm into her handkerchief.

“Oh, mom!” Barbey exclaimed, and suddenly felt surprised at herself for calling her “mom.” She shook her head as tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Barbey said and went to hug her. “It’s a new year, and maybe we both deserve a new life.”

“Yes, we do! We do, darling.” She wept on Barbey’s shoulder. “And your birthday is two days away.”

“Oh, you remember?” Barbey asked with a smile that struggled to appear on her pain-stricken face.

“Yes, Barbey. Yes I do, and have always wanted to return home. Mama didn’t tell me she finally picked you.” The last sentence appeared to be inappropriate, and Barbey felt it.

“This is no time for that, mom.” Barbey said, tears of happiness coming down her cheeks. She was feeling a kind of happiness she had never felt before. She wished this happiness would grow continuously. She imagined she had just peeped through the window of heaven and hoped heaven’s gate would soon be opened to shine a glorious light upon the remainder of her days.

Mother and child melted into each other’s arms and wept because of the years they longed for a miracle.

 

Marvel Chukwudi Pephel is a Nigerian writer who writes poems, short stories and other things besides. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in High Coupe, The Kalahari Review, Jellyfish Whispers, Pyrokinection, Academy of the Heart and Mind, The Avocet, Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature, PIN Quarterly Journal, I am Not a Silent Poet, The Naked Convos, African Writer, Poetry Tree on the Charles, amongst others. His poetry was selected for the Best New African Poets 2016 Anthology. He is currently a two-time winner of the Creative Writing Ink Competition (Ireland). You follow him on Twitter @Marvel_C_Pephel.

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