Written by: Kenny Udogu, (Architecture, 2003)
“Have you been in England for long?”
It sounded like an innocent question but the lift to the girl’s voice suggested more.
Obi struggled to suppress the smile that tugged at his lips. At least she wasn’t as obvious as everyone else who bluntly told him his English was very good for a Nigerian. Some had been uncouth enough to ask if he arrived earlier in the summer to attend a course to be able to speak so well.
“Sixteen days and counting,” he answered, his thoughts drifting to the return flight his mother had booked for his Christmas holiday.
Just under eighty days to go until he could feel warm again without having to wrap his lanky frame in multiple layers of clothing. Back to the reliable scorch of the equatorial sun. He had never thought he would crave the warmth so much. Whichever genius decided academic semesters should begin in autumn was a miserable soul who had no consideration for anyone born outside of the Arctic Circle. It was probably the same person who had decided student halls should switch their heating off right about midnight when he needed his radiator’s comfort more than ever. He shivered slightly just from the thought.
“Your English is pretty impressive. Even better than mine, I suspect.”
At least she still hadn’t thrown in the godawful ‘for a Nigerian’. The irony was that he was fairly certain she was British but he couldn’t place her thick unfamiliar accent.
Obi nodded slightly, wondering if she expected some form of thanks. When he made no move to carry on the awkward conversation in his ‘pretty impressive English’, he expected her to wander off towards a group of fresh faced teenagers lingering close by as they waited to occupy a lecture theatre in the Pope Building. After all, that was what everyone else did when conversation petered out. Walking away was easier than trying to feign interest in chatter which was clearly going nowhere.
Things had not started off so bleakly.
When he arrived for the International Students Welcome Programme about a fortnight ago, there had been a strong sense of comradery between the foreign students.
Everyone had felt just a little bit lost and had no choice but to cling to the strangers they were forced to interact with in a multitude of cleverly devised mixers. Obi’s height and constant smile somehow fooled everyone into thinking he was more sociable than he was, so he found himself surrounded by people, even though he barely spoke without being prompted. There were also a good number of Nigerian newbies who helped him ease into his new environment much quicker.
So when all the home students arrived for Freshers Week and the campus was more packed than ever, he was surprised to find that he had never felt more alone. The few friends he made during the prior week were dispersed across different halls and campuses, happily making new friends with ease. He had always struggled to connect with people and now it felt like he would be stuck on his own for good. It didn’t help that none of the foreign students he had befriended were on his Architecture course. In fact, other than three Chinese guys and a girl from Sri-Lanka, his course mates were almost exclusively British.
“My goodness, it’s so cold,” the girl continued. “Don’t get me wrong, Aberystwyth is quite nippy this time of year but I expected Nottingham to be much warmer. That’s why I applied here. Well, every university I applied to was inland. I’m just relieved someone took me.”
Obi nodded again as he made a mental note to find out where Aberystwyth was and never go there.
More awkward silence passed before the girl pipped up again.
“What made you want to come out all the way to…”
She was interrupted by a roar of laughter from the group beside them. Obi hadn’t caught the joke and it looked like his unrelenting course mate hadn’t either because she turned and glanced at the group with unabashed longing in her eye. That was when he understood why she wouldn’t shut up and go away. It didn’t matter that she was a home student, she was just as nervous and petrified as he was of this new experience. Everyone was already standing in groups by the time she arrived outside the lecture theatre and she desperately needed to form an alliance with him just so she wasn’t on her own. He had been so wrapped up in his own bubble of discomfort that he had failed to see his fears and emotions mirrored in her.
I heard it was a good university for the degree, top ten ranking in the nation.
Obi answered the question she hadn’t had a chance to complete. “My cousin is an alumna so she convinced my parents it was a great choice.”
The girl smiled so widely, Obi feared the corners of her lips would touch her ears. He found himself smiling too.
“Well you’re braver than I am. I don’t think my mother would survive the separation trauma if I have to leave the country. She practically cried when she found out I hadn’t applied to a Welsh uni.”
“I’m Obi, by the way.”
The lecture theatre doors opened at that moment and a mass of jaded looking students poured out into the corridor. Obi wondered if they would look as defeated in an hour’s time. He also realised this was his cue to extract himself from Eleanor.
Instead he heard himself say, “I hope we don’t have to take notes, I’m a slow writer”.
“Oh don’t worry about that, I downloaded this brilliant note taking app that will change your life,” Eleanor winked, waving her phone at him as they entered the room. “I’ll show you in a minute.”
With that Obi knew his fate was sealed. And, weirdly enough, it didn’t feel like such a terrible thing after all.