My apologies for the lateness of today’s posting of EGTS episode. Life may imitate Art sometimes, but today Life refused to respect Art, and give me time to attend to this. Anyhoo, it’s here now. Read, enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments section.
“And you, you and you, three of you should go and sweep the backyard from here” – Senior Ifeanyi moved his hand in a sweeping arc – “to here.”
Barry, Chibunna and Jisike hurried away from the line with their brooms, their relief palpable. The rest of us stood before our house prefects, tensely waiting as Senior Ifeanyi assigned chores to us. It was Friday afternoon; lunchtime ended about twenty minutes ago. And now, it was time for the weekly and mandatory Friday afternoon cleanup of the hostels. There were floors to scrub, yards to sweep, grasses to shorn, water-sodden grounds to stanch, and rubbish to be carted away.
And while none of these menial tasks was an easy undertaking, there was one chore that everyone dreaded being assigned to. The assignment of cleaning the toilets. Those eight stalls that were gross and smelly most of the time – infested with faeces, maggots and disease-carrying house flies the size of small rocks. We all loved to defecate (Nature sort of made that a compulsory pastime), but no one liked to clean up the toilets. The job was detestable; from the junior hostels to the senior hostels, it was the same. The first time Ibuka did the job in JSS1, he was sick for days after. Joseph had favour and cunning on his side, and so had never once done the chore. In our JSS2, Mezu Ogbodo had angered Senior Udenze so much that the house prefect made him clean the toilets for the entire term. The boy still had the scars of the scabies he suffered as a consequence.
“You and you, see all that grass there?” Senior Ifeanyi instructed. “Make sure you cut it down well-well.”
Johnson followed after Nnadozie with slumped shoulders and a long face. He had a finger that was still blistered from the grass-cutting during Thursday’s groundwork.
“Why is he carrying face like shit?” Matthias muttered acidly by my side. “Is it not just to cut grass? Maybe senior Ifeanyi should have told him to go and mop shit in the toilet.”
My mouth twitched with the laughter I managed to stifle before the flinty stare of Senior Olumide – who was draped against a pole, clipping his nails – could reach us. Ibuka looked as worried as I felt. Joseph appeared unperturbed. Senior Ifeanyi liked him – and the generous lanwu he settled him with at the beginning of the term.
“Wetin remain?” Senior Ifeanyi queried, turning his head to his second-in-command. He’d already assigned the chores of cleaning the eight dormitories and the eight prefects’ cubicles, the scrubbing of the pavements and laundry room floors, and the sweeping of the quadrangle.
“It’s remaining those who will pour gravel on that place that is waterlogged,” replied Senior Olumide with a languid wave of his well-manicured hand in the direction of the part of the courtyard whose ground was sodden and muddy with the accumulation of moisture since the rains started. “And those who will wash the toilet,” he finished.
“Ehen, okay.” Senior Ifeanyi turned back to the lineup. “Em. . .” – he rubbed a hand against his jaw – “You” – a finger jabbed at the air – “you” – it jabbed again – “you and you, four of you should go to Tincan Island and get gravel for that ground. The rest of you, go and start work in the toilet.”
Echezona burst into tears.
I gave a grateful sigh as I joined a smug-faced Joseph, Ibuka and Matthias to our dormitories to pick up our buckets for the trip to the Tincan Island. Echezona was still sobbing as he followed the other boys to the toilet.
“Comon, will you sharrap there!” barked Senior Ifeanyi.
The sobs hiccupped to a stop.
“Now, listen, all of you!” the house captain continued in a shout to all the cleanup activities going on around him. “You people should better bend down and do your jobs well. I want these floors to be shining so much that if they put food on it and tell you to eat, you will eat. Everywhere must be clean – sparkling clean, today. In fact, this hostel must be so clean today that during tomorrow morning cleanup, we won’t do much. Because, let me tell you boys, we must carry first in Saturday’s Inspection. Do you hear me? First! Not second – First! Peace House must carry first! If we carry second, all of you idiots should better pack out of this hostel, because my vex will be hot on all of you!”
Senior Ifeanyi didn’t make empty threats.
“What if we carry third?” Matthias quipped in a low tone as the four of us walked out through the hostel gate.
“Or last,” Ibuka added with a grin.
“That time, all of you should better change school,” I deadpanned.
Our cheerful laughter resonated in the afternoon air as we embarked on our trek to the Tincan Island.
Tincan Island was not an island in the real sense of it. The name came more from the fact that it was a large parcel of land located on one end of the school, serving as a demarcation that separated that end from the vast waters of the local river, which encircled and streaked through parts of the school premises. When inside the Tincan Island, there was no sight of the waters flanking it; the river had disappeared from view, lost behind a seemingly impenetrable screen of vegetation. The land itself was one of Nature’s mysteries, with parts of it that rose into the air as sand dunes; some other parts had the hard, sticky, brick-like surface of clay, and then there were the acres of gravel-strewn grounds.
The appeal the Tincan Island held for students, especially the junior ones, was the wide space that seemed to stretch endlessly, beckoning on a touch of recklessness from those who came to visit. The air was crisp and clean, and because the island was located on a slightly elevated plateau, the sky was a vividly-coloured blanket, whose seeming closeness begged for a touch. Finally, and most importantly, Tincan Island was a haven from the pestering presence of the SS3s. Senior boys didn’t like to venture out that far from the main school premises, and prefects came hunting for rule breakers here only during the duty week.
My friends kicked off their slippers once we arrived, and started skipping about, laughing gaily and reveling in the sense of abandon the place proffered. I joined in too, but with my slippers still on. I wasn’t about to discard the precious, fancy-looking footwear that my mother bought for me during last Christmas.
“Eze, remove your slippers nah!” Joseph hollered.
“For wetin? I don’t want to hear story when it comes to this slippers o.”
“Ha! Is the slippers made of gold?” Matthias teased.
Joseph laughed at that, and then said, “Let us play a game.”
“But we’re supposed to be gathering gravel,” Ibuka replied.
“Eh, let’s just play small, then we can start doing that.”
“Hide and seek.”
“Yes, let’s play hide and seek.”
“Where will somebody hide kwanu?” Ibuka looked around as he asked the question.
“There’s bush everywhere. You can climb tree if you want.”
“Oya, who will chase?”
“Me, let me chase,” Matthias volunteered.
He shut his eyes and began the countdown from ten. Joseph, Ibuka and I scattered in different directions to seek hiding places. I ran in the direction of a thicket of cassava plants – a teacher’s farm probably. I tore through the shrubbery, pausing only momentarily to consider the possibility of disturbing a nest of snakes. The fear was fleeting, and was quickly trampled by my excitement. I finally found my hideout, and hunkered behind a cluster of cassava plants growing together on a mound. The pungent smell of the greens filled my nose, making me fight a sneeze, and the ground beneath my feet was soft, and appeared to sink in a few inches under my weight. Matthias’s voice resonated a she finished counting and started to yodel something about catching us.
I settled down to wait. Several minutes later, I heard shouting punctuated with laughter. It seemed Matthias had found someone. I waited a few more seconds to be certain; then I heard their calls: “Eze! Eze – come out o! Matthias has caught Ibuka!”
I nodded with satisfaction, got up, and started out of the bushes. But my feet didn’t move. Startled, I looked down to find my legs submerged in the mud up to my ankles. The ground that I thought was soft wasn’t just so; it was alive, shifting, moving, very infinitesimal movements under my weight that sucked at my feet and pulled it in, inch after inch. I tried to lift my leg and, even though the leg didn’t budge, the subtle vibrations of my intended motion caused the soil to shift and suck up another inch of my skin.
“Eze! Where are you?!”
“Help!” I croaked. Fear had dried my throat. I cleared it and yelped again, “Help! Help!”
“Help – help! I’m here!” I flailed my arms about in a frantic wave and forced myself forward. My feet sank another inch or two, and I lost my balance. I teetered forward, and landed on the ground, the lower half of me on the quicksand, and the top half on hard ground. The quicksand rose rapidly, and my legs became submerged up to my thighs.
“Help! Help!” I was screaming maniacally now, as my mind was flooded with images of the Hollywood movies I’d seen where the actors, usually lost in jungles, slipped into quagmires and disappeared inside the murky depths within moments of shrieking and thrashing about for help.
“Eze! Where are you!”
“Help – I’m here! Help me!” Tears choked my voice as I screamed and fought to pull myself out of the mire.
I heard hurried footsteps, and moments later, the three boys burst out onto the scene of my entrapment. Their eyes widened with alarm, and Ibuka gasped in horror, “Eze! Ground is swallowing you!”
Don’t I already know that?! I wanted to scream at him. “Please, help – please, help me . . .!” The slime was inching up towards my buttocks.
They shuffled about, fearful of getting any closer to me and uncertain about what to do. Then, they started hurling suggestions at me.
“Grab something – try and pull yourself out . . .!”
“See those cassava – grab them . . .!”
“Eze, be strong – you can make it . . .!”
Perspiration streamed down my face, along with the tears. My heart kept hammering away as I grabbed at the plant stalks and attempted to pull myself forward. I felt the sand move around me, clenching, striving to fasten its hold on me. I also felt my slippers slipping gradually off the feet that were submerged in the mire.
Oh no, my precious slippers . . . I can’t lose them.
I fought against the slippage, tried to clench my toes over the plastic. I panted with exertion as I struggled. My grasping hold on the stalks caused the plants to be uprooted.
“Help me . . . help. . .!” I shrieked, as my heart constricted with fear. “I don’t want to die . . . please. . .!” How could I die when I hadn’t even kissed Anulika yet? “Please. . .!” I sobbed.
With a sudden determined look, Joseph darted cautiously forward and stretched out his hands. “Grab my hand!” he commanded. “Grab it so I can pull you!”
I snatched at his hand and pulled. He skidded forward, his feet kicking up sands and dust. He lost his footing and fell on his bottom. His expression became frantic. “Help! Ibu, help!” he yelled back at the other two.
They sprang forward, with Matthias latching his arms around Joseph’s chest and Ibuka pulling at Matthias’s waist. Joseph’s momentum toward me jerked to a stop, and then they began to tug, Ibuka at Matthias, Matthias at Joseph, and Joseph at me. Inch by excruciating inch, I began to surface. My slippers pulled back from my feet; the upper on one of them snapped off. I let out a distraught whimper.
“My slippers. . .” I gasped.
“What?” Joseph panted.
“My slippers . . . it has cut –”
“Forget your stupid slippers and save yourself joor!” he exploded.
I did exactly that. I wriggled my feet off the footwear as my friends tugged harder at me. The slime unclenched around me as I was lifted further out. First my thighs, then my shin, followed quickly by my ankles. Several minutes later, the four of us were in a dirty, muddied heap sprawled on the hard ground, panting hard and grateful to be alive.
I stared first at the quagmire, with its deceptively placid surface, then I blinked up at the afternoon sky with its clear blue vastness and the fierce sun that sat supremely in it. And I muttered a prayer of gratitude to God.
“We should get back to the reason why we are here,” someone said. Probably Ibuka, the voice was too hoarse with exertion for me to make out whose it was.
“Yes,” someone else replied.
Friday cleanup . . . Senior Ifeanyi . . . Tomorrow’s inspection. We had a job to do.
A few moments passed before we got to our feet, slowly, as though our muscles had been liquefied by what we’d just gone through. My body felt heavy, with all the mud it was caked with. And then we began to walk sluggishly away from the quicksand, individually making the decision to take better care the next time we visited Tincan Island.
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