by Chukwuebuka Festus
Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.
Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despair.
— William Blake: Songs of Experience.
In Zodiac College, one of the most famous and magnificent citadels of modern sciences and arts, lived Princewill; a handsome looking young man of the arts, and Florence; a fine fair lady who was of the department of sciences. They were both students of the college and were admitted together but into different departments. They each had great gifts for which they adored each other and which earned them not a little band of fiendish foes within a short while and a handful of fervent admirers in the long run. Princewill had a good sense of humour; he read and loved classical literature and was also very good at Arithmetic. Florence was beautiful and bashful; she had a rich melodious voice and she sang well enough whenever the fancy took her. Princewill admired Florence for her sublime beauty and grace, he loved to hear her speak; her sweet voice always caressed his soul, it soothed his whole being and invariably set him in high spirits. But for the many times Princewill tried, he did not find the courage to tell her so. Florence on her part, for some curious reasons, found herself helplessly enthralled by Princewill’s charm, his subtle wit, his good sense of humour, and quite often she would long to be with him and to speak with him because he made her smile, he strengthened her feeble will and made her feel she could achieve anything. But when she considered the matter in the cold light of the day as she often did, Florence always felt it would be immodest of her to be the one to say “I love you”, and quite apart from that, she felt such declaration would not only be unseemly, and would not only cast her in the mould of a shameless tramp, but would also berate her dignity tremendously in his estimation. And for this reason, as much as for her lack of confidence, she held her peace. So that the both students lived and related to one another in ignorance of each other’s feelings.
In his bid to be with Florence, Princewill would often tell her to help him compose a song which he would present to their music class for appraisal; and if the song was endorsed by their music teacher, then he would qualify to present it at the college theatre. Florence’ heart would always flutter with happiness whenever Princewill made her this request; and she would, with such pleasure and happiness which she often carefully concealed away in the depths of her heart, quietly set about writing the song, wearing such a sombre look that often seemed to suggest she was merely doing it out of sympathy, and not because of the fondness and admiration she had for him. And whenever Princewill saw the sobriety of her expression, and the seeming reluctance in her demeanour as she wrote the song, it always made him feel bad, it made him think he must be very insignificant before her, and these feelings wounded his love for her, they gnawed at his heart, and ultimately discouraged him from approaching her on the subject matter of his affections. Now to prevent her from noticing his dismay, Princewill would, in such moments, often strike such a confident and indifferent pose, strutting about defiantly from one quarter of the library where they normally stayed to the other; and just like a conceited lover, or more appropriately, a cowardly admirer who would not want his feelings betray him, and who would sooner acquit himself discreetly than diligently declaring his feelings, often walked about the library pavements with his arms clasped behind his back: glancing now through the window louvers, now through the glass doors, in such insouciant manner that did not only distract Florence but also irritated her and made her feel he was ungrateful for her assistance. In a moment or so, Florence would call him and tell him she had finished writing the song and he would be vastly surprised. And when she sang the written song to him in her usual graceful style, Princewill would be fascinated as much by the beauty of the song, as by the sonorousness of her voice, so much that sometimes, he unconsciously shut his eyes to relish the rich lyrics and to savour the euphonious chorus which always transported him to some magical plain such that by the time he regained knowledge of himself and eventually opened his eyes and found the song had long ended, he would be embarrassed, and not knowing what to do, would begin to clap involuntarily.
“You are a prodigy,” he would say ecstatically, “you are indeed a real music prodigy. Where did you learn that?”
She would smile warmly and would quietly drop her paper. “It just flows,” she would say. “I didn’t learn it from anybody or anywhere, it comes naturally to me.”
Princewill would be dazzled anew by her beauty and elegance. Her oval face, her fair skin, her red chubby lips which glistened with bright red colours that smelt of caramel; her sensuous voice that tickled his brains and struck him all the time by its loveliness. “You look so beautiful when you sing,” he would say.
She would smile coyly again and would look the other way to hide the faint blush that would rise to her cheeks. “Do you think so?” she would ask.
“Yes,” Princewill would say, “I do.”
The first day he paid her this compliment, her body tingled with excitement and her face was radiant with joy. Was that an accidental compliment, or a careful declaration of his love for her? She had asked. At any rate, she never bestowed much thought on the meaning of what he had said. But what was paramount for her was that the words he used were so true, they were so sublime, and so real that she could never forget them. She would always remember them and would be grateful to him for saying so. “Thank you,” she’d said finally and they left.
A few days later when the song was presented in class, it was warmly received and generously endorsed by their music teacher who praised it greatly for its lyrical beauty, and then it proceeded to the college theatre where it came second, evidently because Princewill didn’t have a good voice.
“I owe the success of this song completely to you, Florence, I can’t thank you enough,” Princewill told her the following morning. “But come my dear, tell me, how is it possible that such a prodigious musician like you are wasting in the sciences instead of the arts, where your talent would be cultivated and harnessed for your own good and for the good of mankind?”
Florence now looked at him suspiciously, wondering where he’d learned all those high-flown words. “It’s the same thing with you Prince,” she said, with her languid voice. “You call me music prodigy, well, thanks for the compliments. But I think you are also a math genius. You know Arithmetic by heart, you are good at Geometry, you solve Trigonometry more accurately than those of us in the science department; in fact, all the various branches of Mathematics and natural Sciences come easily to you, you know them well enough, as though you were in my department, but you are in the arts, you see….”
“What incongruous choices we made!”
“Yes,” Princewill said animatedly. “What incongruity! A math genius as you said, in the art department and a music prodigy in the sciences! What ill-assortment!” he exclaimed boisterously. “Let’s switch departments.”
“What!” Florence shrieked. “You can’t be serious, Princewill, at class five, Penultimate class?”
“Yes, it is better we correct this malady now before it mars us. Okay, let’s take it this way: you sing and compose songs with ease and grace and you do well in the arts but you are in the sciences. On my part, I solve intractable equations and theorems, and I do well in the sciences but I am in the arts, you see, — that’s improper, believe me dear, that’s malapropos— I think we are making a mistake.”
“You speak big-big English Princewill, I don’t like it,” Florence said reprovingly, and looked the other way.
Princewill shrunk in despair, and just like a little tendril that was seared by a sultry sunshine, he bent his head in gloom and did not utter any other word. He did not imagine she could say that to him. He did not imagine she could rebuke him so sternly and with so much anger in her voice especially when he did it all for her sake, to make her happy. It hurt him so much and his heart sank in sadness:
“I’m sorry,” he said finally. “I will not say it again.” Then he looked away dolefully and tears nearly started to his eyes. He picked his bag quietly and packed his books inside it. “I’m tired,” he said, “I want to go to my hostel room.”
“Did I offend you?” Florence asked with anxiety.
“No,” he replied her, still looking away.
“I’m sorry,” she said and held him by the hand. Her palms were soft, moistened by cream and sweat; and he loved the way she grasped his hands so earnestly, as though they belonged to her. He loved the deep apology etched out on her face, he loved the remorse that glistened in her eyes and his anger was mollified by them. “I won’t say it again,” she said. “You can speak to me the way you please.”
Next morning news went round the college that the most senior students in the institution would be writing their West African Examinations in a matter of months, and that those of them holding positions of responsibility as College Prefects would be handing over power immediately to the students in Penultimate classes to enable them prepare adequately for the forthcoming exams. Now College Prefects, otherwise known as school functionaries, were a group of eminent and brilliant students who were given the responsibility to maintain law and order in a college. They had power to flog and punish students who flout school regulations, who come late to school, who loiter about the school premises, and who commit other minor misdemeanors; and they also had the immunity or privilege not to be flogged or punished when they err in those areas. In Zodiac College there were many prefects: the Disciplinary Prefect, the Labour Prefect, the Social Prefect, the Library Prefect and so on. But the most high-ranking official was the Senior Prefect, who was usually a boy, and the second in rank amongst these elite students was the Deputy Senior Prefect, — a position exclusively reserved for the girls. Now the college Rector, who was similarly known as the Principal, also told them that the students in penultimate classes who were interested in becoming college prefects should get themselves ready for the interview which would hold that same day at noon.
The whole college was thrown into a huge uproar upon receipt of this news. The most senior students were grumbling amongst themselves that they were being compelled to relinquish their coveted positions prematurely, — a position they assumed not too long ago. The penultimate students were jubilating happily that they would soon assume power and form government, and that they would no longer be flogged and punished for lateness, noisemaking and all other delinquencies they committed in school, but on the contrary, would now be the ones flogging others for doing so, and also that they would begin to enjoy the many privileges and immunities attached to those positions. As for the younger students, some of them were nervous with agitation, not knowing what to expect from the new government that would come in, for although they were not comfortable with the present administration because of their highhandedness, they were nonetheless content, for the devil they knew was better than the angel they knew not; while the others were restless with excitement and they frolicked about the college premises merrily, in celebration of the exit of their tormentors, and they were all hopeful in their expectations of a better leadership. The teachers too were busy lobbying, running helter-skelter from one office and classroom to the other, trying to influence panel members on the one hand, and to mobilize their best and most favoured students and put them forward to be interviewed for the various positions, on the other. Students in penultimate classes scrambled about ecstatically, and hurriedly scoured the college library in search of materials on public speaking, job interviews, and generally, books that dealt with how to boost ones confidence before a panel, so that the whole college was thrown into a big commotion.
While these rowdy events went on, Princewill sneaked away into the college library where he comfortably ensconced himself in a hidden corner and was busy reading one of his favourite classic novels. Florence made frantic efforts to find him. She asked his friends his whereabouts; she sought for him in all parts of the college: his classroom, the college theatre, and even in his hostel, but she did not see him, and she became quite worried thinking that something bad might have happened to him. It was only after some moments when she had become wearied with worries that she found him in a corner of the library reading a book he was holding in his hands with such great attention that he did not even notice she was standing before him.
“Princewill,” she called with relief. “O dear goodness! So this is where you’ve been all this while, and I’ve been looking for you?”
Princewill was amazed.
“O Prince where have you been,” she cried, in the manner of young girls, “did you not hear the announcement the Principal made this morning about the interview for the selection of new College Prefects?”
“I heard it,” he said, “but I’m not interested.”
“Why?” she asked anxiously.
“I’m afraid; I may not do well in that interview.”
“O Prince,” she cried again lovingly, “how could you say that? If you can’t do well in the interview, then nobody will.” She held him by his hands and looked deep into his face. Her crystal eyes, her impassioned gaze expressed her feelings more eloquently than words. They besought him; they exhorted and implored him to go. “Perhaps no one has ever told you this before, but I will. I know you so well Prince,” she said, “and I know that you can do it. I know you can do even more. I believe in the gifts you have; I believe in your abilities, and I know there is no other student in this college that can do well as the Senior Prefect other than you. Be strong my friend and have confidence in yourself.”
Princewill was speechless, and for a long while he continued to gaze at her in astonishment. He was amazed, not just by the wisdom and loveliness of her words, not by the sweetness of her voice, but by how she had so much transformed and inspired him by them. Florence told him he should always aspire for the best, that he should go for the interview; and not only that, but also that he should vie for the biggest position which was the office of the Senior Prefect. Princewill shrieked in horror when she said that. How could she have forgotten so soon? He told her that he was not qualified to vie for the position because he was in the arts and that art students were not allowed to vie for that office because they were deemed to be unserious and irresponsible, and that they made a whole lot of noise in college. She told him there was no rule in the college prohibiting art students from vying for the position, and that all those things people say in college about art students not being eligible to contest the position were mere rumours and lies and that he was going to prove them wrong. Florence impressed it on him in lofty and laudable terms the need for him to contest, and he was soon convinced. Princewill now told her that he was going to vie for the position and that even if he did not want to, that he would do it for her sake. They smiled happily and she wanted to hug him, but merely patted him affectionately on the shoulder and they went downstairs for the interview.
The interview commenced at exactly twelve in the afternoon. It was conducted in the college theatre by five eminent and intimidating teachers: the English master, teacher Franklin; who was the chair of the panel and who loved to use superfluous words. He drank a lot of hot coffee in the early mornings and also in hot afternoons, and he said it was the way of the Whiteman whose language he was privileged to know and teach. The next person on the panel was the Chemistry master, teacher Francis; who was very tall and huge, and seated next to him was the Biology mistress, teacher Mary; who was short and fat and had big, podgy cheeks and flabby arms which quivered furiously whenever she spoke or raised her arms. The remaining two were the Geography master, teacher Joe; and the Economics mistress, teacher Rita; while the former had a small pair of bulging eyes, the later had a flat nose with two gaping nostrils and a round face,—so that they all looked intimidating but were nonetheless intelligent and quite harmless.
The students assembled at the threshold of the theatre and they were called in one after the other to be interviewed for the various positions they had chosen.
The first person that entered into the theatre for the interview was one science student whose name was James Chukwudi Okafor. He was quite frightened and agitated. As he entered, he felt at once like someone who was entering, not into a musical theatre, but into a surgical theatre: an operating room where they would cut through his belly and bowels with sharp knife and scissors. He walked slowly, his footsteps were weak and unsure just like those of a toddler, and immediately he approached the panel, his stomach rumbled in violent revolt and a large mass of air rushed to his anus. Before he knew what was happening his heart was already pounding heavily within his chest. On coming for the interview, just like many other students, he had read a number of books that dealt with how to boost once confidence before a panel, and generally, how to avoid nervous tension in an interview situation. One of the books recommended that he should swallow hard. Another one which he remembered vividly said that he should take a deep breath; then there was yet another that suggested he should drink enough water. But all these recommendations were useless, for in spite of his having done them all, he was still so tensed up and nervous that he was not completely sure whether he could still remember his surname. All these flurry of thoughts were still raging in his head when he finally arrived and stood in the midst of the panel. He greeted them with a low, barely audible voice, but none of them answered. They were all busy flipping through their papers. The English master, teacher Franklin, now sipped his coffee deliberately and adjusted his spectacles. He looked at the boy for the first time, gazing deeply and derisively at him from above the tip of his spectacles, and, when he had taken a good look, he now said:
“Well, gentleman, may we know you?”
“Sir?” replied the boy, clutching at his trousers nervously.
“Are you deaf?” the teacher roared impatiently.
“Yes sir… no sir.”
“Then answer my question!”
“Sir… what question… sir?”
“He said tell us your name, you little scoundrel,” put in teacher Joe angrily.
“Sir… my names are James Chukwudi Okafor sir…”
“Your names are what! You ignorant buffoon,” barked teacher Franklin. “How many individuals are in you, young man?”
“I am one individual sir,” the boy said raising his index finger.
“You are one person right?”
“So why did you say my names are?”
“Slice your head you mischievous boy! Come on will you say my name is and not my names are, you presumptuous cow! That is how you people spoil my reputation in this college.”
The boy took his correction and the interview went on. After some time the panel was done with James, they gave him thirty-five percent and another student entered. He was short and muscular and he looked very sturdy just like an oak tree, and he told the panel he was vying for the position of the Disciplinary Prefect.
So many students came forward to be interviewed for the various positions. There were altogether four students from the science department who were interviewed for the position of the Senior Prefect and they all performed woefully. Teacher Franklin said their performance was execrable.
Princewill and Florence were among the last set of students to be interviewed that day. Florence went into the theatre first and, although she did not perform so well, the teachers were nevertheless satisfied by her modest efforts and also by her good looks and dignified carriage, and they all agreed that she was presentable and worthy of consideration. By the time Princewill entered the music theatre for the interview, the panel members were already tired and exhausted, and were rounding off their duty for the day. They were very much surprised when Princewill told them that he was vying for the position of the Senior Prefect. And they were even further astounded when they learned he was from the Department of Arts. The panel members, already prejudiced, now launched a barrage of questions at him. Princewill was unperturbed by their permutations, on the contrary, he acquitted himself so brilliantly and responded to their questions with such grace and elegance, borrowing now from Tolstoy, now from Shakespeare, now from Virgil, and from other classical writers he read, so that by the time he finished addressing the avalanche of questions they put to him, the panel people were all gazing at him in utter stupefaction; looking not just amazed, but also profoundly mesmerized.
When the interview ended, they compiled their report and sent it to the Principal; it contained a detailed list of students who they had chosen for the various positions based on their individual performances, and in the end, they heartily recommended that Princewill be made the College Senior Prefect.
Now their recommendation that Princewill, an art student, be made the College Senior Prefect elicited mixed reactions. There were heated debates among the teachers and the management of the college, some of whom argued that it was not in the tradition of the college to give the coveted position to art students owing to their irresponsibility and hooliganism. The art teachers contended that it was time to break with such tradition and that the mere fact there were a couple of irresponsible and noisemaking students in their department did not mean all art students were irresponsible. They argued that there were irresponsible students in the sciences as well, and that there were also hooligans and lunatics amongst scientists.
After some days of heated and robust debates, the management of the college ruled that the decision of the panel must be followed. The next day, on the college assembly ground; were students and teachers normally converged to say their morning prayers, the principal announced the names of candidates that had been chosen as college prefects. He started from the least position up to the middle, calling the Disciplinary Prefect, the Social Prefect, the Deputy Senior Prefect… and when it was time to call the Senior Prefect, he delayed a little, to heighten the tension and curiosity of students. Now after a few rigmarole and other complimentary remarks, he announced to the college community that the new Senior Prefect was Princewill Johnson, and the students roared with cheers and gave him a tumultuous applause. Florence could not contain her joy when her name was called and the Principal said she had been chosen as the Deputy Senior Prefect. But when the Principal called the final position on his list, and announced Princewill as the new Senior Prefect, she screamed with great joy and ran ecstatically to where Princewill was, and on reaching him, she flung herself at him and Princewill caught her from mid air and embraced her warmly. She looked him intently in the eyes and said: congratulations, my Senior Prefect; and he held her close to his chest and said: I love you, my dear Florence, and calmly embraced her again.
Not a few teachers were scandalized by the melodramatic display of the two students. But whatever embarrassment they must have felt was drowned by the celebration in the air. The male students hoisted Princewill on their shoulders and the female ones carried Florence daintily on their slender arms; and they were both hailed and celebrated as the hero and heroine of Zodiac College.
About the Author:
Okoli Festus is a peace activist, a human rights activist, and an environmental activist. His political commentaries and short stories have been published in a number of literary journals and magazines, including Okike and Lion’s Spot. He has a Bachelor of Laws degree (LL.B) from the University of Nigeria Nsukka, and is presently at the Nigerian Law School, Kano campus. He lives in Enugu State. He can be reached through, firstname.lastname@example.org