Read Parts 1,2 and 3 of the Pristine series here
The marching squads were made up of corps members from all the platoons that proved exceptional at parade, and Dara was in one of them. However, everyone returned back to their platoons when the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) called for an impromptu inter-platoon parade competition on the morning of the Miss NYSC pageant.
“Platoon commanders, come and stand here with me. I want a member of each platoon to command,” ordered the RSM, a short, dark man. All ten platoons were arranged in a U-shape, each platoon lined up in 3s, and he was standing at the center.
Dara’s commandant asked her before leaving, “You sha sabi as I dey give all the commands wey una dey respond to? You go fit do am well?”
She nodded and took the position at the front, mentally going over the commands.
Platoons 1-7 all had male commanders, making Dara the first female to lead a platoon. Platoon 9 also had a female commander, but the RSM was most impressed with Dara’s confidence and command tone, that even though a few otondos—a term she had come to understand meant novice—in her team halted wrongly, making them lose the parade to platoon 5, he still judged her the best commander for which she got resounding claps.
Taiwo was missing all day, only showing up backstage later in the evening as Dara was being dolled up for her first appearance as the eighth contestant.
“Where have you been?” Dara asked when she saw her. “Kenny and David just left here some minutes ago, we’ve been trying to reach you.”
“Yeah, my phone’s been off. I was in a meeting with my platoon members. There are some changes.”
There was noise now, the first contestant had just been called on stage and the audience was a loud mixture of cheering and booing.
“You look different,” Dara observed.
“All done. Press your lips together,”
Tolu girl told Dara, stepping back to admire her handiwork and adding one last layer of powder.
Dara looked into a mirror and gasped,
“OMG, I look so pretty but I feel so nervous!”
“Me too. Our rep chickened out this morning and here I am,” Taiwo said, smiling. Just then, the third contestant was called on stage, and as she walked away with an even bigger smile, Dara stood dumbfounded.
“Hey. You’ll be great,” Tolu told her with a hug, extra careful not to step on her white tennis or stain her spotless white uniform in which all contestants were to appear in the first round.
“Thanks,” Dara replied, truly needing the reassurance. Still, her heart skipped a beat when it was her turn to go on stage. Her strides were cautious, her smile a little unsure at first as she walked the first length of the stage. She paused to strike a terrific pose, though, with an arm akimbo, neck tilted with her ponytail hung playfully by the side and her long legs a little apart.
The audience cheered, but not half as much as they did when she showed up in native wear. She had thought the colours rather unusual when Tolu boy had suggested the gold lace buba and navy green aso oke iro, ipele and gele with red accessories, but standing with everyone screaming and clapping and taking pictures, she couldn’t help the big grin that took over her face. It helped too that most of the other contestants had chosen to wear the mid-riff baring traditional Fulani and Edo outfits, so she stood out all covered-up and regal.
The third round of appearances was all about evening wears, and just before they took to the stage, Taiwo walked up to her in the changing room and apologized, “Dara, I didn’t mean to double-cross you like this. I’m sorry, I should have let you know earlier.”
“It’s okay,” Dara replied with a smile.
She smiled back.
“Yeah, it’s not like you even wanted this in the first place. I helped you do it, so whether you win or I do, I’ll still feel like I won anyway.”
She sashayed off in a clingy polka dot strapless dress and Tolu scowled and said, while touching up Dara’s make-up, “And that’s your friend? Such a bitch.”
One of the other contestants standing close to them said wistfully as they watched Taiwo leave, “I’d kill to have a figure like that. She’s so sexy, she makes us all seem plain.”
Dara shook her head. She felt anything but plain. Her long, asymmetric orange dress with pleat details was gorgeous. She had loved it the very minute Tolu boy had shown it to her, and she couldn’t wait for the final catwalk.
They filed out one after the other according to their numbers. This stage of the contest wasn’t only about looks, and the first two contestants already flopped their questions.
The compere asked Taiwo, after she chose a number, “How many months in a year have twenty-eight days?”
“Like only twenty-eight days? Or up to?” she asked him, to be sure.
He shrugged and only repeated the question, to which she replied, “All twelve months.”
Dara inwardly prepared for her question too, instead of wondering if Taiwo had been right or wrong.
When it came, it was the camp director’s full name, the last question Tolu boy had asked her that afternoon so she aced it of course.
The girl she had met at the salon the day before was the last contestant, and there was a collective gasp when she answered the plural of ‘criterion’ as ‘criterions’. She ended up at the fifth position overall.
Dara’s heartbeat went wild when her name still hadn’t been called till the top three. Taiwo held and squeezed her hand as the third remaining contestant held hers too. They were standing apart from the others and still anxiously holding hands, when one of the judges finally announced, “In the third position as second runner-up is…contestant number 8, Miss Oluwadara Adegbite.”
Taiwo was first runner-up, and as they both congratulated the winner amidst the crowd’s jubilation, they were presented with their wrapped gifts. Several snapshots later, the winner with a tiara on her head and Dara and Taiwo flanking her on both sides, and the show was over.
Kenny rushed backstage and didn’t seem to notice Dara as she walked past her to hug Taiwo. “You could’ve told me! I’m so proud of you!” she exclaimed.
“Everything was last minute, I had to quickly prepare,” Taiwo replied, beaming.
Dara watched them, feeling left out. She had been the one preparing all week, why was Kenny not proud of her? If the tables were turned, she’d hug Kenny first, if not because she was her favourite twin, then because she had just achieved something she had almost given up on.
When she turned, David was smiling down at her.
“Can you hug me, please?” she said, a tear rolling down her cheek.
He instantly drew her into a warm embrace like he had been meaning to even before she asked, and told her, running a comforting hand along her back, “You look stunning. You were amazing.”
She smiled when she pulled back, but then he pressed his lips onto hers, startling her. The kiss lasted only for a second, but it was soft and firm at the same time, leaving Dara speechless even as her platoon members excitedly swarmed her, congratulating and taking pictures.
Morountodun is a writer and a microbiology graduate of University of Ilorin.
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