‘People are staring at us.’ Stella whispered to the person standing next to her.
‘Nah, they are staring at you.’ Edwin said, taking a step away from her.
It was Thursday, the fourth day of their service training and they were asked to come dressed in their uniforms because Day four was grooming training.
As they gathered at the hotel lobby that morning Stella, who was one of the first to be ready, looked at her colleagues and marvelled at how some articles of clothing could transform her rag-tag group into a flock of beautiful people.
‘It’s just like the movies.’ She thought.
When she got the job, Stella had misgivings about having to wear uniforms to work – she had hated her NYSC khakis – but when she saw herself in the mirror, and looking at her colleagues in the lobby, she felt proud to be wearing her uniform.
That was until they got to the training school. People stopped to stare, not bothering to hide it.
So when Edwin took a step away from her, she matched him, keeping pace.
‘When your uniform is like pana-pana, I need sunglasses to even look at you.’ He teased. ‘If they’re looking at me, it’s because I’m looking too cool for school.’
She felt a desire to dig her elbow into his side, but that would not do, so she held her back straighter, and her neck higher.
‘Sweetie,’ Flora, the receptionist at the training school gushed as she came out from behind her desk. ‘You are so beautiful, all of you are. You all are like sunlight pouring through those door in your bright orange suits, and the guys all looking dapper too.’
Stella felt the queasiness begin to leave her stomach.
‘Mind if I posed for a photograph with you?’
The sound of the alarm going off woke Bruce up. He groaned, then reached for his phone to shut off the alarm.
‘Oh shit!’ He jumped out of bed. ‘It’s Saturday.’ He staggered into the bathroom and raised the toiled seat.
Done, he came back into the bedroom and wore the clothes he had laid out the night before, starting with his swimming trunks. He grabbed his backpack and headed out the door.
When he got to the lobby, the last few of the group were just arriving.
They bundled themselves and their bags onto the bus, each person as reluctant as the other. It wasn’t even 6am and they craved more sleep, but it was the Saturday they had been dreading since they got the training program: Ditching Saturday.
At the swimming pool they met with Alfred their instructor. Alfred talked them through the entire drills:
First they were to swim one length of the pool – which was heated by the way.
Next they would put on their life jackets and inflate them by pulling the red tabs. The idea was to get them to experience the whole ‘inflate your life jacket’ drill.
After that, with their life jackets on, they would pair up and take turns rescuing each other as they swam across the length of the pool again. Then they would come out of the water and deflate the life jackets which would then be rolled up and tossed into the deep end of the pool for them to swim across to, untie, partially inflate, put on and tie around their waists, fully inflate – all while treading water – before swimming to the life raft and getting on-board.
Treading water, that phrase that had scared the bejeezus out of Bruce – and some of his colleagues.
The first three exercises passed fairly easily. Soon it was time for the ditching proper.
Alfred broke them into groups of five for easy monitoring.
The first group pushed off and a great splashing and heavy paddling was heard. Bruce looked up and saw Napoleon floundering.
Alfred watched him cover half the length of the pool and, his strength failing him, Napoleon held onto the side of the pool.
He was still coughing up water when Alfred walked up to him and asked him to come out of the water.
‘You’re done here mate.’ He said softly.
Napoleon contemplated arguing, thought the better of it and came out without a word.
The next batch swam across, trod water and donned their life vests without incidence.
Next it was the turn of Bruce’s group.
He took a deep breath and kicked off the edge of the pool.
‘Stretch, kick. Stretch kick…’ He paced himself. From where his head was submerged he could make out the yellow lifejacket bobbing about above him. He had his sights set on the one closest to him and he stretched to take it, but it was gone.
‘What da…’ Gulp!
In the moment he opened his mouth to complain, in rushed a healthy drink of water. He swallowed, trying to keep calm, but his lungs were screaming. He felt its teeth as panic nipped.
His flailing arm caught a lifejacket and Bruce dragged it under the water to untie it. When he tried to blow into it, he found his oxygen depleted. More water rushed into his mouth and his panic rose.
Kicking with all his might, Bruce angled himself for the pool’s edge.
There he dragged deep lungfuls of air.
‘You there, you’re done. Come out of the water.’ Alfred yelled.
Bruce let his hand drop from the side of the pool, he blew into his lifejacket and put it around his neck.
‘You there! I’m talking to you!’ Alfred yelled, but Bruce did not turn to look at him. Instead he swam for the raft and got in.
Alfred blew two short blasts on his whistle.
‘Everyone stop. Stop!’ He yelled, and all activity ceased.
‘One of you touched the side of the pool. Who among you was that?’
‘You’re not going to own up? If you do not own up or fish the person out, I will make all of you repeat this exercise next week.’ A red faced Alfred threatened.
After a moment Alfred blew his whistle again and they continued the drill.
‘I saw what you did there,’ a soft voice said close to Bruce.
‘How will they know I’m from Naija?’ He grinned.
‘You mean you were willing to allow everyone repeat this exercise?’ A shocked Ego asked him.
‘Repeat…? What do you mean?’ Bruce’s smile faltered.
‘Did you not hear Alfred? He was going to fail all of us because you would not tell the truth.’ Her disappointment clear in her voice.
‘But that was not me.’ Bruce’s voice cracked.
‘But you just told me how would they know you’re from Naija…’
‘That’s not what I meant,’ Bruce felt a sinking feeling. ‘I was talking about being such a good swimmer. How would they know I’m from Naija if I don’t prove myself a fish?’ He was surprised by how easily he came up with that response.
Ego moved away from him on the raft, she did not look at him for the rest of the exercise.
On the bus ride home they were taking turns giving Napoleon, Stella and Ileanwa words of encouragement; they would have to repeat the exercise the next week.
‘I don’t know what we are doing here,’ Ego started. ‘I thought we were a family, and I was happy to be one of this family. But where someone would put himself above the interests of the family… I don’t know.’ She stared straight ahead through the window as she spoke.
‘What are you talking about?’ Effiong asked.
‘At the pool when Alfred threatened to fail all of us because someone cheated…’
Each word she said was a fresh barb in Bruce’s heart, and with each word he felt himself sink lower in his seat.
‘I mean,’ Ego continued, ‘what kind of human beings are we if we don’t have our integrity?’
‘But it wasn’t me.’ Bruce protested feebly in his heart, and in that instant, he thought he heard a cock crow.