The first time I saw him, I was standing on a gravel path behind my classroom at King’s College. His chubby frame clad in the de rigueur white shorts and shirt that was our College uniform, he was walking towards the point where I stood chatting with my childhood friend and classmate John Eze. It was our first term at King’s College and while I had quickly learned to keep my nose out of trouble and avoid the formidable torment from bullying senior boys, my friend John was of a more adventurous spirit. Keen at answering back, and never biting his tongue, he had soon gained a reputation among the senior boys as a “caster”. This quaint term bestowed on those junior boys who instead of keeping their heads low and taking whatever was doled out to them by seniors, was akin to a licence to making your life miserable. John was undeterred though and his frequent trips to various Housemasters to report bullying seniors had continued unabated in spite of threats and now, there were darkly whispered murmurings about how he was to face the brine treatment at our forthcoming initiation night. This was a school tradition at the end of the first term where all the new Form One boys were to mount the stage, one by one and recite the words “I am a fag, a dirty stinking fag, I am to be seen and not to be heard. I come from the bush village of X where we eat frogs toads and rats. From today I promise to be a true King’s College boy and to leave behind me all outlandish behaviour. With your kind permission, I would wish to entertain you with a song/poem/drama sketch” Following the hapless new boy’s performance, the School Captain would take a voice vote from the rest of the school on whether the brine solution should be administered or not. The need to avoid drinking brine was a powerful incentive to most of us to be on our best behaviour that first term, but not my friend John. So as this chubby Form Two boy made his way towards us on the isolated gravel path, John yelled “Fatty!” and took off. As I cowered at the edge of the path, I saw “Fatty” throw down his bulging school bag (mark of the day student) and chase after John in swift pursuit. He was built like a tank, but moved like the wind. John had miscalculated. He was soon captured, had his ear twisted, and fearful of being reported to a Prefect, started begging for mercy. I soon joined my friend in his pleading and that was when I first saw him, the one John had called Fatty smile. It was a huge smile, the white teeth, with a gap in the front, gleaming out of his dark face, the dimples appearing as if by magic in the chubby cheeks. “You can go”, he said, “My name is Udoffa” as he picked up his discarded schoolbag and headed for the School gates. For a senior to brush off such an insult in this way was quite unusual, but I was soon to learn over the years that that was the quintessential Udoffa. Behind his brash, blustery exterior resided a heart with genuine warmth.
I was to know him only as Udoffa for several years, following the College tradition of using surnames only, and I watched him shine on the cricket pitch, and make his smiling way through the College. He graduated a year ahead of me and it wasn’t until he was admitted into the University of Nigeria that I met him again and learnt his first name, Johnny. He was studying Engineering ,it was my father’s fiftieth birthday, and we had had a huge party at the house on the university campus where we then lived. Johnny had turned up with the Egwuatus, a brother and sister who were long-standing family friends who were also first year undergraduates. The party was dying out then and I can remember us all sitting on the steps at the back of the house, eating chicken and rice and birthday cake and downing the beer I had only then just been allowed to drink. When my father came round to chat with us, it turned out my father had taught Johnny’s father years before. Perhaps that made us a little closer and when I was admitted to study Medicine at Nsukka the next year, Johnny together with his close friends from King’s, the two Okafors, made sure they kept an eye out for the small group of King’s College boys who were freshmen that year. He had maintained his passion for cricket and could often be seen striding along with a single cricket stump on his way to and from the legendary Agbebi buildings where the engineering faculty was located. The engineering boys had a reputation for living life hard, and the solitary girls among them had a hard time of it. If ever a faculty smouldered with testosterone, it was the engineering block at Nsukka. And, so perhaps it was a perfect foil for Johnny, but somehow whenever I bumped into him on campus, I was always impressed by his solicitousness, because he always seemed to want to make sure that I and the other KC boys were fine.
When I left Nsukka for the clinical school in Enugu, I had less and less contact with Johnny and by the time I graduated, hardly ever saw him again. There were chance meetings at airports and motor parks, the quickly snatched few moments of conversation from which I learned he had gone on to work for an oil company and was building a career.
The last time I saw him, strangely enough was in a church hall near Northolt. My friend John, the one who had called him “Fatty” had just died after a long and harrowing battle with multiple myeloma. We were holding a wake for him, and as we sat in the hall, saddened and bereft, I noticed a large figure looming over my chair. I looked up to see that smile again, it was Johnny. He was on holiday in the United Kingdom and having just heard about John had traipsed halfway across London to be at the wake. We exchanged numbers, I remember and promised to keep in touch, but somehow never got round to doing it.
This week, in between lectures, I slipped into one of the computer rooms to do a quick e-mail check. Opening my e mail, I saw an e-mail from my old classmate Olu Akpata, indefatigable facilitator of our boarding school network. Some bad news, the e-mail said. My eyes sped down the page to read that Johnny Udoffa was dead at 33 and that he would be buried in two days time. My vision blurred, I felt confused. I wanted to do something, speak to someone, anyone. I wondered what I was thinking of, sitting here in this computer room when Johnny was dead. I had probably never felt more isolated than at that point. I did not even know what had happened, how it had happened. Almost exactly two years ago at the beginning of 2002, I lost my friend John. I remember arriving from the airport, from my Christmas holidays, thinking how I was going to visit John the next day to wish him a Happy New Year, and hearing the telephone ring, and being told John was gone. I remember the trip to Northolt, that cold winter night and sitting in John’s living room, seeing his photographs smiling from the walls. I remember trying to get our old classmates together to work with John’s friends and family to plan the funeral. And I remember, big, bluff, Johnny Udoffa at the wake, his dimpled smile shedding light at a dark time. Today, I remember as Johnny Udoffa is laid to rest in Lagos, another Johnny, Johnny Eze who once called him “Fatty”. And I remember the first time I saw them together, standing on a gravel path.