I stood in lane eight, barefoot, wearing an ill-fitting sports outfit which had been hastily provided for me by my House Mistress.
‘On your marks!’ The Games Master bellowed, almost deafening me as he was standing not too far from me. He was holding a microphone; why did the man have to shout?
I heard the hush of anticipation from the crowd as I crouched in starting position. It was the finals of the 100metres Senior Girls’ race. I knew that I would not be the centre of attention for the race. The girls in lanes four and five were favourites to win. I, a last-minute addition to the lineup, was only there to make up the numbers.
I rose slightly in my place, looking down and wishing that the girl who should have been in my place had not suddenly fallen ill that morning. I had not practiced my sprints since the in-house qualification stage two weeks before. I was an average sprinter at the best of times, and I was not too keen on my chances in this race.
I wondered if I had lost my chance to finally speak to my crush, Steve.
As I got dressed that Saturday morning, my only goal for the day was to find a way to talk to Steve, my class mate and the School’s Labour prefect. As my room mates chattered excitedly about which House would win the trophy for the best performance, I daydreamed about finally having a proper conversation with Steve. He was very handsome, charming and laughed a lot. Even though we had been classmates from JSS1 to SS3, he and I had spoken only a few times, but I treasured the words like they were precious gemstones.
‘Emerald House will win’. ‘No, Topaz House will win!!!’ The good-natured arguments continued around me. I was torn; I was in Topaz House which had very good runners, but Emerald House had the best looking guys who looked good in sportswear.
Steve was also in Emerald House.
‘Ufuoma, are you ready?’ My bunkmate Sylvia asked, looking at me expectantly. She had high cheekbones and high-set eyebrows, so she always looked surprised.
I checked my watch; it was about 9:00 am. Even though the Inter-House Sports Day officially started at 11:00 am, we students were expected to be there before that time.
I nodded. ‘Yes, I’m ready. Let’s go’. I secured the padlock on my locker, slipped on my grey backpack and fell into step with her. Sylvia and I were often mistaken for sisters because of our similar medium-brown complexions, medium heights and full hair. However, Sylvia was bubbly and smiled easily, while I was introverted and somewhat shy.
All the girls in our dormitory joined other students in the school for the 30-minute walk to the sports field. Most of us were dressed in our school uniforms-white tops over blue bottoms, while others were dressed in sportswear. The Geography of my school always baffled me. Each location was so far from everywhere else. My cousins who attended other Federal Government Colleges around Nigeria also had this same complaint, so I always wondered if this was a deliberate policy on the government’s part. Or maybe it was simply just poor planning.
The sports field was located in the centre of the school, quite close to the classrooms and the dining hall. The Boys’ dormitories were located at the other end of the school, as if to keep boys and girls as far from each other as possible after the school day ended. I would have told the school administration that they needn’t have bothered with this strategy; all the ‘hanky-panky’ between boys and girls occurred in the afternoons and evenings during study time in the classrooms.
My parents had already told me that they could not attend the Inter-House Sports Day as they would be traveling out of Lagos for a wedding. This did not bother me; the money and provisions which they had sent to me through a family friend the day before made up for their absence.
The smell of burnt grass and paint filled the air as we approached the field. The tracks had been freshly painted with white paint to demarcate each lane. I kept my eyes peeled for Steve, but he was nowhere in sight.
The sports pavilion which had been recently refurbished courtesy of contributions from the P.T.A. was on the right side of the field, and the four Houses in the school-Topaz, Emerald, Sapphire, and Amethyst-were designated canopies on the opposite side of the field. Students, Teachers, and visitors milled around, and Sylvia and I zig-zagged our way to the Topaz House canopy.
There was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was out in full force. Just as we set foot underneath the canopy, thankful for the shade which it provided, I felt a heavy hand on my right shoulder. ‘Ufuoma, please we need you to run today’.
I groaned inwardly, recognizing the voice of Mrs. Peters, my House Mistress.
I turned around and met her gaze, hoping that my despair didn’t show on my face.
‘Ma, what happened to Halima?’
‘I’ve been told that she’s in the sickbay with malaria; she definitely cannot run today’.
I looked at Mrs. Peters. She was once an athlete and was tall with a wiry physique; she always looked like she was about to take off in a sprint. However, despite looking very smart in her blue joggers and matching zip-up jumper, she was obviously very frustrated. Her fair complexion seemed to be getting redder by the second.
Resigned to my fate, I shrugged off my backpack, gave it to an apologetic-looking Sylvia and asked, ‘what will I wear to run?’
Mrs. Peters perked up immediately and barked at one of the junior girls hanging around us to bring a sports outfit for me.
I ended up with black shorts which were slightly too tight and a white t-shirt with ‘TOPAZ’ emblazoned at the back that was slightly too big.
Things progressed quickly after that, and before I knew it, the boring speeches and the march-past were over, and I heard the Games Master announce: ‘All the runners for the 100metres Senior Girls race should take their positions!’
‘Don’t worry, Ufuoma. I know you will run well’, said Sylvia. She was a very optimistic person, whereas I carried my cynicism like a badge of honour.
I dragged my feet to the track, with my ears full of good wishes from Topaz House members. There were so many faces in my field of vision but they all blurred into one vague blob. It didn’t occur to me to be nervous as I walked up to the beginning of the track to join the other girls, who were already stretching and extending limber limbs.
I just wanted the race to be over.
I came third.
I was as surprised as everyone else. I had focused only on not coming last, and I do not know where the surge of energy came from. I had seen the two front runners break away from the rest of the field from the corner of my left eye, and I had done my best to keep up with their pace.
There were loud cheers as we crossed the finish line and I fell heavily to the ground as I tried to catch my breath.
I was soon surrounded by screaming students from Topaz House, and my House Mistress smiled so hard that her eyes seemed to disappear into her face.
As I stood on the podium with the girls who came first and second, it suddenly occurred to me to feel proud of myself. While posing for a photograph with them, I suddenly noticed Steve walking arm in arm across the field with Dooshima, a girl who was also in SS3 but in one of the science classes. They were talking and laughing.
I looked down at my third place trophy and sighed. I guess I was meant to get some sort of prize that day; it just wasn’t going to be Steve.
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