“Eze, how are you doing?”
At the warmly-uttered inquiry, I looked up from my food and into the liquid-dark eyes of Enajite Ovoh, the Peace House SS2 girl everyone knew aspired to take Senior Chioma’s place as the next Dining Hall chief female prefect. She was a wisp of a girl, slender and porcelain-featured, with short, dark hair she wore in plaits like most other girls, and a face that radiated intelligence and warmth. There was nothing remarkable about her looks, but that liquid quality of her eyes, eyes that made her look like she was perpetually on the verge of tears, made her one of the most popular girls in her set. That peculiar girl whose set boys just couldn’t resist wanting to please or be around once she rested her eyes on them. Coupled with her porcelain features, she was really quite irresistible.
“I’m fine, Senior Enajite,” I replied, feeling a small smile creep up over my face.
Her gaze flickered over my dish of jollof rice, and her brow furrowed. “Ah, is that what you’re eating? That’s too small nau. Hold on…” As she looked away and signaled to somebody in a distant section of the dining hall, I felt my smile widen. She moved her hands at the person, making small miming gestures to relay her instruction, and moments later, a junior girl who looked like she was in JSS2 hurried over to her side, holding a plate that brimmed with an impressive mound of jollof rice. Two pieces of fish were perched on top of the mound.
Being a dining hall prefect’s protégée must have its perks, I thought as I watched Enajite take the plate from the junior girl’s hands. I could instantly feel the eyes of my table-mates on us, on me, as Enajite tipped the plate toward mine, and with my spoon added a generous portion of her food to mine. One of the fishes followed suit. I heard Chibunna sigh with some envy on my side.
“Is that okay for you?” she queried. The plate hovered over mine.
“Yes, senior, it is…” I replied modestly.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” I nodded emphatically.
“Okay.” She handed the dish back to the junior girl and dismissed her. Then she chatted a bit with me, before walking away.
“Hmm, nawa o,” started Chibunna once she was out of earshot. “Eze, since when did Senior Enajite become your school-mother?”
I chuckled in response. Chibunna was the boy whose company I was keeping these days. Joseph and I were still not speaking to each other, and Ibuka was still not speaking to us. And the strain in our relationship had become apparent to everyone who knew us. That made us susceptible to poaching by all the other hostel mates who wanted either of us as friends. Chibunna started spending his time with me; Hassan and Jisike drew Ibuka into their clique; and Joseph went back to Richard Ubazuo and co., the group of snotty, rich brats who he’d been friends with in JSS1. Presently, as we had the Tuesday dinner of jollof rice and fish, Ibuka was on the other side of the table chatting animatedly with Hassan and Jisike. Joseph sat at the next table where Richard was holding court. One time, his gaze drifted from his group, and clashed with mine, and in an unguarded moment, I saw the longing in his eyes, the want for the way things used to be. An echo of what I felt. And then that moment passed, and his expression became flat before he turned away.
“So, talk now,” Chibunna urged, drawing my attention to him. “So Senior Enajite is now your school mother, eh? Since when?”
“Not long sha,” I answered, spooning rice into my mouth. “It’s last term that she started showing interest in me, calling me to her class to give me money for snacks during break time. Then this term, when she started sending me small-small provision and giving me food, I knew I had become somebody’s school son.”
Chibunna chortled. “Lucky you o. If she becomes dining hall prefect, hmm, na so-so belleful you’ll be eating every time.”
“Yes o!” I concurred with a grin.
“Plus she’s very popular with her set boys, so if they know that you are her school son, they may not worry you much when they enter SS3. Especially Skinner.”
“What about Skinner?” I asked.
Skinner was the moniker borne by the SS2 boy, Nonso Obasi, who was in Unity house and had a growing reputation for ruthlessness. He was the one we all speculated would sit on the throne of the baddest boys in school once the present SS2s graduated into the ruling class of the student body.
“Skinner loves Senior Enajite,” Chibunna said. “Ah, you don’t know? The guy is scatter-tripping for her.”
“Skinner? As in the same Skinner that they say Principal is already threatening with indefinite suspension if he commits another offence – that Skinner?” It was hard for me to imagine the quintessential bad boy being the Romeo to any girl’s Juliet.
“Yes o – him. Obieze told me, he heard it from someone in Skinner’s dorm who heard when some of his guys were teasing him, saying that since their junior days that he has been monkeying for Senior Enajite, she has never once agreed for him. And yet, he still likes her.”
I winced inwardly as Chibunna continued talking, feeling my heart constrict at the thought his words called up in my mind. Involuntarily, my face turned to where she sat, three tables away from me. Her friends were there with her. Matthias was also there, and as I watched, he lifted a spoonful of rice and attempted to lovingly feed the food to Anulika. Amaka and Nkeiru found his theatric amusing and were smiling. Anulika however shot him a reproving stare and pushed his hand not-so gently away from her face. The rice spilled from the spoon, and Matthias’ face fell.
I’m not even sure I said yes to being his girlfriend…I mean – well, I’m not sure what I said yes to… I remembered her words, and I felt satisfaction. I felt melancholy too, but I felt deep satisfaction as I returned my attention to Chibunna.
“Say your prayers!” hollered Senior Ogbonna. There was a subdued ruckus as the clink of cutlery diminished and bodies adjusted on their seats to bend over the tables. A few seconds of pin-drop silence lasted before Senior Ogbonna’s voice reverberated again, “Leave the hall!”
“Fight! Fight! Fight!”
I heard the chant as I approached my classroom during what was supposed to be afternoon prep the next day. Clearly, the activity wasn’t being observed, which was not surprising, considering the fact that immediately after lunch, the Vice Principal Admin, Mrs. Ihejirika had called the prefects to her office for a quick meeting.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!”
The raised voices did not drown the sound of a punch connecting, a pained gasp, and the screech of metal on the floor as someone was shoved against a desk. The crowd in the classroom roared with approval.
I came to the doorway, and angled my head up and above someone’s shoulder in time to see Joseph slap an open-palm strike on top of Matthias’ head, as the other boy grappled with him. Matthias rode the pain of the blow by hunching his shoulders, and tried to grip Joseph’s midsection harder, limiting his options of lashing out at him. Both boys stumbled noisily about, with Joseph savagely struggling to unlock Matthias’ grip around his body.
“Oh Joe…” I heard someone murmur beside me.
I turned and saw it was Ibuka, staring with some distress at the altercation.
He flinched when he recognized my voice, and darted a quick look at me. He said nothing in response.
“Ah-ah, Ibu, you’re not even going to answer me when I call you?” I aimed for a smile as I spoke.
“What is it?” he mumbled, not looking at me. “Is it not because of you they are fighting?”
“How do you mean?”
Another roar of approval drew my eyes back to the spectacle. Joseph had heaved their bodies forward, slamming Matthias’ back against the wall. Matthias yelped, but the lock of his grip stayed fastened.
“What do you mean they are fighting because of me?” I turned back to Ibuka. He said something unintelligible, and I said tartly, “Speak up please.”
He shot me a glare. “I said, not you technically. It’s because of Anulika…well, not her exactly…it’s just…Matthias is just an idiot.”
“Can you just say something somebody will understand?” Exasperation coloured my voice.
His lips tightened in that familiar way he had whenever he had something unpleasant to say, but couldn’t bring himself to say it.
“Listen, Ibuka,” I began, intuiting his thoughts, “if what you don’t want to say is that Anulika has finally agreed for Matthias, then you don’t have to worry. I already know.”
He gave a start of surprise and turned to stare at me again. “You know?”
“She told me three days ago.”
“But how come…” He stopped.
“How come what? I didn’t tell anyone?” I finished for him. “Who could I tell? You’ve decided not to talk to me again, and Joe – well, Joe must really hate me now.”
“I don’t think Joe hates you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because the reason he’s fighting Matthias is because Matthias entered you people’s class some minutes ago when prep started to go and talk to Anulika. And Joe now go and tell him to leave and go back to his class. Matthias told him to go to hell, that he can come to JSS3B anytime he wants to see whoever he wants. That after all, Anulika is his girlfriend.”
“What – he said that?”
“Yes o! I came to your class to take my HB pencil from Ememesi when he said it. You can imagine the shock in the whole class. That Anulika agreed to be the girlfriend of that stockfish. Can you imagine!”
I couldn’t imagine.
“Anyway, Joe now come and push him to get out. He pushed Joe back. And that is how the fight started.”
“A fight that will end with my anger,” a cold voice drawled behind us. A second later, a hand came down on my shoulder and pulled me roughly out of the way. I staggered backward, and then regained my footing in time to see a bigger boy shove his way past into the classroom. He had a wiry build and a head whose hair had all been barbered off, leaving behind a shiny pate. It was the trademark look that belonged to only one person I knew. Skinner.
The moment everyone in the room realized who had walked in, the chants died down and the fighting boys stopped struggling and stood apart from each other.
“No, no, no, don’t let me stop you,” the SS2 boy said in taunting protest. “Continue fighting. I love a good fight. Go on, go ahead.” Thin-lipped and dusky skinned, he stood over Joseph and Matthias, his eyes narrowed malevolently at them. “Oya now – fight, fight, fight…”
Neither boy made a move toward the other.
“I said, fight!” barked Skinner.
They moved their bodies clumsily, and that was it.
“Either you fight, or both of you will go to my class where I will personally deal with you.”
Panic widened Matthias’ eyes, and he made a whimpering sound of slight hysteria. Joseph, however, gave the senior boy an unflinching look and said flatly, “Senior Nonso, I don’t want to fight anymore.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I don’t want to fi–”
The SS2 boy’s open palm struck Joseph’s cheek, cutting off the rest of his words. Joseph faltered back a few steps, rubbed a hand over the bruised cheek and returned a flinty stare to the senior boy.
“I heard you the first time,” Skinner said in a steely tone. “I was simply giving you the chance to not be stupid again. And since you want to act like a wise guy, maybe what you need is some special treatment from me. Now, run to my class, ask anybody you see there for my locker, and lie down on the ground beside it.”
Joseph spared a millisecond to glare at him some more, before he started out of the class. When he got to the door, eh saw me standing beside Ibuka. His gaze caught mine, and held. There was that unguarded moment again. That unfathomable expression. That identifiable emotion. And then he walked past me, and was jogging off in the direction of the SS2 classroom block.
“Today is your lucky say,” Skinner hissed at Matthias, wagging a finger in his face. “If to say you sharp mouth for me, you for follow that one dey go my class.” Then he turned to the sea of faces watching him apprehensively and snapped, “Don’t you people have an afternoon prep to observe?”
There was an instant rush of feet and the creak of seats as the class righted itself. Moments later, he was out of the room. Seated beside Boska, my hands on my desk, I was still, feeling a turmoil rage inside me. My mind was besieged by a slideshow of snapshots, snippets of memories that condensed the past three years into a delineation that sped through my mind. The day I got acquainted with Joseph. The first time he got us into trouble. The first time he fast-talked us out of trouble. The roguish grin that lit up his face when he was excited. The daredevil edge that sharpened his features when he was on a mission. The carefree din of our camaraderie.
I don’t think Joe hates you.
Our laughter. Our conversations. Our tears. Our companionable silences, even.
I don’t think Joe hates you.
Then came the dawn into my head, a few bright streaks painting the dark sky of my mind. And I knew what I had to do.
“Where are you going, Eze?” That was Boska.
I didn’t answer as I stalked out of the classroom. I was walking fast across the pavement when I heard another call. I turned. Through the window of JSS3A, I saw Ibuka rise from his seat and hurry forward to intercept me at the doorway of his classroom.
“Where are you going to?” he asked.
“I want to help Joe. And then, hopefully, he’ll see my help as my way of trying to reconcile with him.”
A smile erupted over Ibuka’s face, one that kept going until it was a grin. And then he said, “good. And I thought you were going to remain foolish all your life.”
The retort surprised a laugh out of me, and I grinned back as he joined me in my trek to the SS2 classroom block. My destination was SS2A, and I spotted her immediately we clambered onto the pavement of their class. Enajite was standing amidst a bevy of her friends, all of them oohing and aahing over something one of them was showing the others. Ibuka and I stood uncertainly outside the classroom, and I was starting to wonder how I would get her attention when she looked up, and her liquid gaze fell on me.
“Ah, Eze…” she said, breaking away from the gathering and stepping toward the door. I walked forward until I met her at the doorway. “Did you want to see me? Is there a problem?”
I nodded, and told her. About the fight. About Joseph. And about Skinner. She listened to the short narrative, saying nothing to interrupt me, and when I was finished, she put a hand on my shoulder and smiled at me.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Just wait here. I’m coming.” And she headed off to SS2D, Skinner’s classroom.
Ibuka and I waited. The minutes ticked by. It had been a mildly cold day. Presently, however, the weather was starting to change. The sun, long hidden behind the clouds that banked the sky all morning, came out of the shrouds gradually, lighting up the sky from grey to watery blue.
We waited, trying not to be apprehensive over the fact that we were standing – audaciously, it might be perceived – on the porch of a senior class. Hoping no peeved SS2 student would suddenly decide to have a problem with that.
And then two people turned the corner Enajite disappeared through several moments ago. It was her and Joseph, and when he saw us – Ibuka and I together – he stopped and stared. His face remained shuttered for a short moment, before it was split with a broad grin, the kind of smile that showed all of his teeth and lit up his face. And then he hurried to where we were, and pulled us into an embrace. It was a deep-tissue hug, the type that drew warmth as well gave it out.
I clasped the bodies of my friends tightly to me, and felt myself overtaken by a powerful and unfamiliar emotion that tightened my throat and forced from my chest a sob that I tried hard to contain. I felt a compound of joy and relief, followed by a floating, expansive sensation of lightness at the fact that right here, with these two boys was all the home I could think of right now.
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