“Who jacked my locker?!” On Ibuka’s face was etched a livid expression. There was some shock there too, but he was mostly angry.
“Who jacked my locker?!” His voice climbed a few decibels of outrage, and he turned from the cabinet to glare at the entire room. No one was paying any particular attention to us. It was Saturday morning, a couple of hours before the morning inspection, and there was a stir of activity in the hostel, as students darted in and out of the dormitories – putting the finishing touches to their chores, running last-minute errands for the seniors, having their baths and getting dressed.
The three of us had just returned from our bath outside, on a small parcel of land that lay in the center of the four senior hostels – facing the backyards of Unity and Dignity House hostels, and the front yards of Peace and Hope House hostels. It was an open-air bathing arena that displayed the sight of naked boys, complete with taut buttocks and shrunken penises as we scrubbed and washed and rinsed our bodies. SS3 boys however didn’t bathe outside with us; they washed in the relative seclusion of the laundry rooms.
“What is this nau?!” Ibuka complained with a tremble to his lips. He was close to tears. “How can somebody just come and jack my locker?”
Joseph and I, toweled and still dewy from our bath, moved closer to his locker to scrutinize the damage. It was only the broken latch. The padlock still hung intact, holding the hasp and staple together. The thief had pried apart the staple from the door in order to gain access into the locker. Whoever the thief was, he’d been quick and proficient, seeing as the time he spent on this was all of the five minutes or so we were outside taking our baths.
“Ibu, come and check which of your things is missing,” I said as I pulled the door slowly open.
“They can’t have taken much,” Joseph said. “Someone would have noticed. Benson!” he hollered at a dorm-mate who was lathering shoe polish on his sandals. Benson looked up from his task. “Did you see anybody jacking Ibuka’s locker?”
Benson shook his head. “I’ve been in Dorm 7 since, where I went to collect polish from Ibe.”
“Eseosa, you nko? Did you see anyone?”
The SS1 boy he spoke to threw us an affronted stare as he shrugged into a singlet before snapping, “Do I look like Ibuka’s security man?”
“No, but you’re a dorm member,” Joseph returned. “If you saw something, it’s your duty to tell us.”
The boy hissed and turned away with a waspish ‘These useless junior boys sef.’
“When did you even begin wearing trouser, this one you’re talking,” I muttered acidly, glaring at him with Joseph.
“I’ll report to Senior Chidiogo o!” Ibuka burst out as he stepped to his locker. “And to Senior Olumide! Who jacked my locker, the person should talk now before I report o! Heh!”
“Just check first and see if they took anything,” I said in a cajoling tone.
He started going through his things, picking this up and putting that down. The inside of Ibuka’s locker was the tidiest I’d ever seen that belonged to a junior boy. His clothes always hung pristine and well-ordered from the hangers, with the dirty ones rolled up in a ball and tucked out of sight in the smaller-spaced bottom drawer. There were minuscule shelves inside upon which were arranged his toiletries and provisions, and he had small packets of air-fresher tacked to the edges of the cabinet, which kept the interior saturated with what had become a signature flowery scent.
His inventory was over in seconds; it was because of the stark orderliness of his belongings that the sight of what had been tampered with jumped out at us almost immediately. There was a fine dusting of powdery particles which stained the top of the shelf beside the tin of milk and sugar; the creamy powder was also collected at the rim of the milk tin, next to the lid which wasn’t closed in properly. Ibuka was not that slovenly, he always stamped that lid shut.
“The person took my milk,” he said miserably as he picked out the tin.
“And your sugar too.” I ran a finger over the dust and felt the grainy quality of sugar rub against my skin.
Ibuka opened the tin and we gaped at the inside. It was half empty, a good portion of the milk had been taken. Next, he opened the packet of sugar for us to see that the thief had made away with more cubes than we would have preferred.
“What kind of nonsense is this!” Joseph’s voice sagged with disgust. “How can somebody not simply ask for milk and sugar, you now have to go and jack somebody else’s locker to steal them! What kind of hungry, stupid, planless person are you to do that kind of thing!”
“Ibu, don’t cry,” I said, rubbing his shoulder in commiseration as the boy fought back his tears. “We will get to the bottom of this. Once Senior Chidiogo comes in, we will tell him.”
“This is just rubbish –!” Joseph wasn’t done fuming.
“Let us hear word abeg,” Eseosa snapped, whirling from his locker to glare at us. “Are you the first boy whose locker they are jacking? The three of you should get dressed and get ready for inspection, and stop making noise.”
“The way you are talking sef,” Joseph retorted, “I’m suspecting you.”
There was a pin-drop silence in the wake of the accusation. It lasted exactly three seconds, before Eseosa’s face, which was initially frozen in shock at the audacity, distorted into a snarling mask of anger. He had a dark, gaunt face with sunken cheeks and scant eyebrows, all of which appeared to shrink as he started toward us.
“What did you say to me?” he hissed as he advanced.
Joseph didn’t back down. “Instead of you to be showing pity for Ibuka and help us, you are busy talking to us as if what happened isn’t a bad thing –”
“How is it my business who jacked or didn’t jack Ibuka’s locker!” the SS1 boy roared. Spittle flew from his lips slackened with rage.
The spray struck Joseph’s face. With slow deliberate movements, he lifted a hand and wiped it over his face. Then he said with quiet insolence, “I just took my bath, Eseosa. Please stop spitting on my face.”
The look of pure, undiluted rage that distorted Eseosa’s face was almost comical. He developed a tic and his eyes bugged, looking like they would pop out. His fists clenched, and he spoke in a voice with a hard edge, “Keep sharping your mouth, you hear? Very soon, all these school fathers you are using to feel cool with yourself will graduate. And then it will be me and you.”
The two boys glared at each other for several seconds, before the SS1 boy turned and stalked back to his locker. I sighed then. Joseph’s future in this school did not look good. The boy may be a favourite with the SS3s – and even SS2s – but he neither had respect for nor a lot of friends amongst our direct seniors. Quite a number of the SS1s boys had already expressed their desire to get back at him for his blatant discourtesy to them when they become the ruling class of the student body. And by reason of association, Ibuka’s future and mine were just as grim.
“Look, let us just get dressed,” I cut in, directing my words at Ibuka. “Inspection will soon start. After it, we can report to Senior Chidiogo and he’ll take care of this.” Senior Chidiogo was the prefect whose domain was our dormitory.
He nodded mutely, and the three of us turned to our lockers and started our morning toilette. Deodorants were applied and hairs brushed. Clean day-wears were buttoned and zipped on. Freshly-polished sandals were buckled to the feet. Ibuka smoothened out the spotless white bed-sheet over his mattress. I checked to make sure the top of my recently-dusted locker remained so. Joseph quickly mopped up the small splash of water that collected in front of his locker as he poured from his jerrycan into a cup.
Everything was to be spic-and-span. Everything was already so. Senior Ifeanyi had left nothing to chance, and had driven us, both during yesterday’s cleanup and this morning’s follow-up, to refurbish the entire hostel and its environment. The grass was cut to just the right, low and attractive shade of green. The floors had been scrubbed so much they looked good enough to eat off of. Cobwebs had been brushed off the ceilings and walls, and dust wiped off every surface in the dormitories. The toilet stalls looked and smelled good. All the beds were made with sheets that were so clean and white it scared me to sit on mine; I was afraid something on my buttocks would stain it. Senior Ifeanyi had been neurotic all morning, with a mood that was easily ignitable and a loud voice that bounced around the corners of the hostel as he barked commands here and there. He’d even gone off to the junior hostel awhile ago to monitor how the junior hostel House prefect, Senior Ikenna, was running things. First position in the inspection results, it seemed, was a glory he was determined to bring to Peace House. Dignity House had held the position for far too long.
“Hey, guys, how far.”
We looked up to see Matthias saunter into our dormitory. The boy beamed at us, and we smiled back. Ever since we helped him get back at Leke with the soldier ants episode, he’d been hanging around us a little more than occasionally. We’d been a little resistant to the intrusion on our threesome, but after yesterday’s incident at Tincan Island, where he played a role in saving me, we began to take more to him. He wasn’t our friend yet, but he was getting there.
“Afar dey for Kano o,” Joseph said with good-natured grumpiness.
“What’s wrong – what happened?”
“Somebody jacked Ibu’s locker and stole his milk and sugar.”
“Everything?” He was aghast.
“No, not everything. He took some, but still –”
“I know, it’s still wrong. Boys can be really wicked, all these thieves we have in this hostel.”
We shook our heads in silent condemnation of all ‘these thieves we have in this hostel.’
“So have you reported?” Matthias asked. “Will you report?”
“Yes,” Ibuka declared firmly. “When inspection is over, I’m telling Senior Chidiogo immediately. What if the person is in this dorm, that means we have a thief in –”
“Wait, I don’t think the thief is in your dorm,” Matthias interrupted.
“What do you mean?” the three of us said at once.
The boy had tightened his face into an expression of thought, as though he was poking at a memory that wasn’t very distant. He began slowly, “I think I know who might have jacked your locker. . . Well, I’m not so sure, but. . .” He faltered. Instinctively we crowded a little closer to him, as he continued, “Yesterday night, Justin –”
“Who is Justin?” Joseph cut in.
“Justin Nzeh, right?” I said. When Matthias nodded in affirmation, I continued to Joseph, “He’s that Aba boy that is Dorm 6. . .” At his blank look, I added, “He’s our mate, in 3C. . .” He still stared blankly at me. “He and Hassan are friends. . .”
“Who is Hassan?” This he asked with a small grin.
Ibuka and I hissed exasperatedly and turned back to Matthias. He chuckled at Joseph’s theatric before continuing, “Well, as you know, me, him and Hassan are in the same dorm. And yesterday night, I overheard him complaining that he badly wants to shark otto. Hassan told him to go ahead and shark nau, since he has otto, but he said he wants to do it with milk and sugar, and his own had finished. He asked Hassan, but Hassan said his own has finished too, that he will go to his guardian’s place today to get more. Justin said he was really, really hungry, and Hassan then said jokingly that if he’s that hungry, he should go and jack Ibuka’s locker nau.”
“What!” Ibuka and I gasped at the same time that Joseph growled, “That’s what he said?!”
“Yes,” Matthias said, nodding. “He said, ‘Go and jack Ibuka’s locker nau. Shebi hungry dey catch you. Ibuka go get milk, that boy dey always get plenty, plenty provision.’ And then, the two of them laughed.”
There was another moment of silence as we stared incredulously at our informant. Surrounding us was the conversations of our dorm-mates, every one of the boys slightly pensive and waiting, concerned about the imminent inspection. But we were concerned about the boy in Dorm 6 who had the audacity to come all the way to our dormitory to damage and steal.
“Now, just so you know,” Matthias added hurriedly when he saw our frowning faces, “I’m not very sure he’s the one who did this . . . I’m just saying. . .”
It was too late. He had testified. And in our minds, Justin Nzeh had been tried and found guilty. Now, we just had to hand to him his sentence. We shoved past Matthias and started out of the room.
“Come, where are you people going?” Eseosa barked behind us. “Inspection has already started o, the teachers are already in Unity Hostel. . .”
His voice faded away as we continued determinedly towards the sixth dormitory. It was on the other wing of the hostel, and it was seconds before we had traversed the quadrangle and matched into the room. The boys in here were chattering too, in hushed tones. Waiting. There were no SS3s in sight. SS3 boys usually didn’t like dressing up and waiting around for the inspection. The absence was good; there would be no higher power to stop Justin from getting what he deserved from us.
“Can you imagine!” Ibuka hissed with great annoyance as we stomped into the room. His eyes were stabbing at three boys who were seated on their beds and conversing and laughing. One of them held a bowl in his hand, from which he’d just scooped up a spoonful of –
“Garri with milk and milo!” I said, outraged. “He didn’t waste time, he has even started eating what he stole already!”
The three boys saw us advancing, and their bodies stiffened, their expressions became shifty. The one with the bowl – the leanly-built boy with a small afro, who I knew to be Justin Nzeh – made to shove the dish out of sight.
“No, no, no,” Joseph sneered as we stopped before them. “You don’t have to hide it from us. We already know you are a thief.”
“And since you only stole my milk, perhaps you can tell us whose milo you stole,” Ibuka added tauntingly.
“Exciiiuuuzzee me!” Justin hissed with narrowed eyes as he got to his feet. His friends did too. Justin still held the bowl. “Are you calling me a thief?”
“Are you daft too?” I interjected. “Yes, we called you a thief. That’s what you are when you take things that don’t belong to you.”
“Hey, Eze, be careful how you come here to run your mouth,” Hassan rounded on me, “before you and I will put leg in one trouser.”
“Whose trouser – yours or mine?” I fired back. “Because if it’s your own, I’m sorry but I don’t want to catch any disease.”
The barb stung him, and Hassan shoved at my shoulders. I shoved him back. He swung a fist. Joseph parried it and swung one of his own. The blow connected. Justin grabbed at Joseph. Ibuka yelled. The third boy pushed him. Someone slapped someone else. There was a cry of pain. Something ripped. Heated words, sprinkled with swearwords, were hurled this way and that. The six of us struggled and shoved and yelled at each other, creating a spectacle that the other boys in the room appeared reluctant to break up, so avid was their interest.
“Una dey craze!” Someone had dashed into the dormitory, and his words, hissed with a mixture of panic and annoyance, doused the ruckus in the room. “Are you boys mad?! Inspectors just entered our hostel, and you are fighting – do you want Ifeanyi to kill you?!” The boy was Ejike, an SS2 boy, tall, dark and well-built, who was being groomed by Senior Ifeanyi to succeed him as House captain. “Comon, will you comport yourselves before I do something that will be bad for all of you!”
As the inhabitants of Dorm 6 instantly began darting about into position, Ibuka, Joseph and I started for the door. Ejike pinned us with a hard stare that made us falter to a stop.
“And where do you think you’re going?” he asked in a steely voice.
“Back to our dorm,” I replied, my tone hasty. “We’re in Dorm 2.”
“No, you’re not. For this inspection, you’re in Dorm 6. Now assume position and –”
He was cut off by a gasp. The sound was filled with such horror that I felt a presentiment of disaster as I turned, along with everyone else in the room, to the person who made it. It was Justin. He had his hands clasped over his mouth, and he was staring fixedly at his bed. There was a lump of garri on the bed, set together because of the liquid it had absorbed. It sat there, close to the pillow, the light-brown stain it left on the white sheet spreading slowly underneath it.
“What is that?” Ejike choked out, his voice barely above a whisper. When no answer was immediately forthcoming, he snarled more audibly, “Before devil will fire somebody now, will someone tell me what that is!”
Justin turned to him with a face that was a study in misery. His eyes were glassy with tears, and his lips trembled as he said, “S-s-senior Ejike . . . it’s the garri . . . that I wa-wa-was sharking . . . and –”
“I’ve heard enough,” Ejike barked. And then he froze. We all froze. We could hear it. The rumble of voices – adult voices – and the shuffle of feet, as the inspectors, no doubt, approached the dormitory. The conversation was punctuated with some laughter too. “Quick!” Ejike said in a fierce, low tone. “Remove that garri immediately and use the pillow to cover the stain!”
Justin sprang into action, scooping the lump off the bed and into his pocket, and pulling the pillow down. The discolouration vanished from sight.
“Everybody, stand up straight,” Ejike continued urgently. “And the three of you” – he waved a hand at my friends and I – “find somewhere and stand. Take your position. Remember, all of you, smile and greet them well when they enter.” He hedged and threw an anxious look in the direction of the catastrophe hidden under the pillow, and muttered, “May God help us today.”
Seconds later, the door swung open and a group of people walked in.
“Good morning!” chorused all the boys in the room.
The inspectors were teachers, the four housemasters and housemistresses, the Vice Principal Admin, Mrs. Ihejirika, and Mr. Nwabuko, who taught Health Science to the senior classes, and was the head of the inspection team. Both Mr. Nwachukwu and Mrs. Agbai, the house-teachers of Peace House, appeared a little jittery, what with the inspection currently in their turf, and the housemaster overcompensated by talking a bit too loudly and laughing too quickly to Mr. Nwabuko’s dry witticism. In the wings hovered the senior hostel house prefects, Senior Ifeanyi, with his patented scowl, and Senior Olumide, who had a smile ready anytime a teacher glanced his way.
The inspectors were pleasant enough as they went over the room. They conversed as they ran their fingers over the tops of the lockers and looked behind the cabinets. They asked questions as they looked at us, searchingly, at the uniforms and sandals we were wearing. They laughed at a joke or two as Mr. Nwabuko unshod his foot to rub his toes against the floor to make sure he wouldn’t feel any testament that it hadn’t been properly scrubbed and swept. They were thorough, and their scrutiny had us all standing tensely and watching. My eyes kept wandering to Justin’s bed, to the pillow that wasn’t at its rightful place at the head of the bed.
First position . . . My heart pounded as I prayed silently and fervently. First position . . . God, please give us first position. God, You know we need this . . . God, please, don’t let –
“Ah, that’s not where that is supposed to be,” said the housemaster for Dignity House, Mr. Enwerem, a dapper little man with salt-and-pepper hair. He was also pointing.
All the boys in the room stiffened. Justin fought back a whimper. Mr. Enwerem was pointing at the pillow positioned askew on his bed.
The man didn’t instruct anyone to fix it. He simply walked over to the bunk and lifted the pillow, with every intention of placing it right. Then he froze. The stark brown discolouration, startling on the white bed-sheet, arrested his attention at once. And everybody else’s. There was a gasp, followed by a momentary silence.
Then Mr. Nwabuko, tall, thin and balding, with an aristocratic nose that rose like a beak from his face, said in his raspy voice, “Whose bed is that?”
A few fingers pointed at Justin. The boy was trembling on his feet, and the misery was back on his face, abject, as he gazed from one teacher to another. The faces of Mr. Nwachukwu and Mrs. Agbai were stony masks. Senior Olumide didn’t betray any displeasure, but Senior Ifeanyi’s face was the picture of thunder. If a thunderstorm had a face.
“Young man, what’s your name?” Mr. Nwabuko questioned.
“Ju-Ju-Justin, sir. . .” Justin mumbled.
“Speak up, will you?” The snap in Mr. Nwachukwu’s voice made the boy jump.
“My-my name . . . is Justin, sir,” he reiterated.
“Okay, Justin, why didn’t you make your bed with a clean bed-sheet?” Mr. Nwabuko said, his tone still mild.
“I’m sorry, sir – I did . . . it’s just that – I was eating – em, sharking –” He stopped his blubber and finally said sorrowfully, “I’m very sorry, sir.”
Mr. Nwabuko smiled kindly and said, “That’s alright, son. Just make sure you wash this up, okay?”
The teacher turned to the pad in his hand and scribbled. His brow was furrowed, and his mouth was a moue of concentration. Whatever he was writing didn’t look good for Peace House. I glanced at Senior Ifeanyi. His expression was telling a story, of the many terrible things he would do to Justin when this was all over.
“Ok then,” Mr. Nwabuko announced when he was done writing. “Let’s move on, shall we? At least, this is better than the termite habitat we found behind that boy’s locker in Unity House, eh?” Strained laughter greeted his words, with the house-teachers of Unity House looking anything but amused.
The party moved on out of the dormitory. Senior Ifeanyi stayed behind to give a parting shot at Justin, “I will not deal with you now. Not even later. Do you know when I will deal with you? After Monday assembly, when they announce the inspection results. If Peace House doesn’t make it to the first position, then I will deal with you.” And he turned and followed after the teachers.
Monday came soon enough, and the assembly saw an impatient lot gathered under the brisk glare of the morning sun. The principal, Mr. Iheukwumere had finally gotten around to the sheet of paper on the table before him, one upon which was written the results from the weekend inspection. After a speech peppered with a lot of rhetoric about the diligence and dedication of the four Houses to sanitation, and how everybody was a winner even though they aren’t all at the top of the list, he picked up the paper and started from the bottom.
“In fourth position is. . .” his voice boomed.
I tensed beside my friends in the line, and began a round of silent, furious praying: Please, not Peace House! Please, not Peace House! Please, not Peace House . . .!
“Fourth position is Hope House.”
There was a smattering of applause, accompanied by some boos. Mr. Iheukwumere swept an avuncular smile over the assembly before returning to his paper.
“In third position is. . .”
Please, not Peace House! Please, not Peace House! Please, not Peace House . . .!
“. . .Unity House.”
Another tepid hand-clapping greeted the announcement. I saw Ebenezer’s face fall. He was in Unity House. I wondered vaguely if he was the boy who owned the locker behind which the termite habitat had been found.
“In second position is. . .”
Please, not Peace House! Please, not Peace –
“Peace House! That means that the House in first position –”
But a resounding cheer from Dignity House members had already torn through the atmosphere, drowning the principal’s voice, with the boys and girls of the House laughing and hugging each other exuberantly. The champions of hostel sanitation had claimed the victory yet again.
“Congratulations, Dignity House!” Mr. Iheukwumere was trying to make himself heard over the rumpus. “Congratulations, all of you!”
Someone, however, wasn’t feeling very heartened with the principal’s good cheer. I could see him where he was standing in the JSS3C line – Justin Nzeh. He was sobbing into his hands, no doubt contemplating his fate in the hands of Senior Ifeanyi.
*Planless: The quality of not having an ordered hostel life
*Shark otto: To drink garri (otto) soaked in water
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