Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Fire-fighter (10/05/06)
TITLE: Because of him
By Folakemi Emem-Akpan
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My legs almost give way under me when I hear the blare of my name from the speakers. The announcer has made a mistake in the pronunciation and my name sounds unlike my name but this is the least of my worries right now. The three speakers before me were seasoned professionals with pre-typed notes and crisp manners. I am nothing more than a boy, despite my suit and certificates.
“Ifeanyi.” My mother’s elbow pokes me sharply in the rib and I am reminded once again that I’m the only contestant who brought his mother. But she’d suddenly turned deaf and dumb that morning when I persuaded her to stay behind.
I cough and straighten my tie even though it’s unnecessary. I force a smile at my mother and move away from her side, placing one heavy foot in front of the other.
Halfway to the podium, someone matches my face with the name the coordinator announced, takes pity on my obvious youth and begins to clap. It startles me and I almost stop in my tracks but I go on, thinking of him.
I’m doing this because of him. And because of other men like me who grew up without their fathers.
All too soon, I reach the crudely constructed elevation and climb the stairs. People are clapping in frenzy now and my confidence receives a big boost.
“Thank you.” My voice seems to fill the air, and I’m no longer the little boy whose mother came to give emotional support. Mum tells me I sound just like my father, and this to me is the highest compliment anyone can pay me.
My speech isn’t typed and for a moment that seems to stretch into eternity, I regret. In the euphoria of the moment, I forget what I’d meant to say. My hesitation rages on and the applause becomes deafening. I open my mouth, take in a mouthful of air and begin to say what comes to mind.
“The last time I saw my father alive, I was eight. Old enough to understand what happened but young enough to be scarred.” I scan the crowd for my mother’s face. She’s wearing a smile but I know there’s untold anguish in her soul, just like mine.
“We were fast asleep when the fire started. He carried me out of bed and raced downstairs with me. When I was safely outside, he went back for my mum who had a bad leg then and couldn’t walk on her own. By that time, our neighbors had gathered and one kind lady called the firefighters. But my father had to go back inside. To retrieve some important documents, he said. Mum pleaded with him not to but he said he would be okay. He said there wasn’t going to be any problem but just in case there was, at least the firefighters were on their way. Something did go wrong, and the firefighters never came.” I swallow a lump.
“Some of the floors were made of wood and one was already too weak from the fire. Dad stepped on it…and crashed. Death was instantaneous.” I look over the crowd. They’re taking in my words hungrily. Good thing I forgot my intended speech. A thousand drops of tears press against my eyelid but I blink them back.
“When we contacted the firefighting office the next morning to find out why they didn’t come, they told my uncle something I’ll never forget. The manager said they hadn’t received operational funding from the local government in three years. As such, they didn’t have working trucks, no water. Nothing.”
I press the tears back more violently. “Lack of funding killed my father. Denied me the pleasure of growing up with a father.”
My mother is sobbing quietly into her handkerchief. I take a deep breath, turn back to the crowd and say as boldly as I can. “If you elect me as local government chairman, my first official duty would be to overhaul our fire fighting office.”
As the applause begins, I step down quickly from the podium and force my way through a mass of admirers to my mother’s side. Behind me, the coordinator is announcing the name of the fifth and last aspirant. The tears are coming fast and furiously now but I keep blinking back.
“Thanks, child.” She follows me obediently and together, we burst into the hot sunshine.
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