“So, like joke like joke, Eze, you and Nuella are now doing boyfriend and girlfriend, ehn?” Joseph said with a chortle.
I gave an awkward smile and shrugged. My relationship with Emmanuella wasn’t something I could explain. I didn’t ask her out. After I saved her from the headlong rush of the mad cow, we first became fast friends with her frequent visits to JSS3B and my table in the dining hall during meals. Then Amaka accosted her once at the door of our classroom and queried her, quite querulously, about who she was coming in to see, she’d said in a voice that carried, “I’m here to see my boyfriend, Eze. You know him, don’t you?”
The entire class heard her, and word spread rapidly after that. Senior Gift’s sister with the ‘anya pussy’ was finally somebody’s girlfriend. Before long, I was getting summoned to the SS3 block, to Senior Gift’s classroom, so she could take a look at the boy who ‘successfully chyked her sister’. And while I was thrilled by the idea of having such an attractive girlfriend, I was also saddened by what it cost me – Anulika’s friendship. Since Emmanuella and I became an item, Anulika and her friends had become cold and distant with me; of course, Nkeiru had to talk to me every now and then, because she was Joseph’s girlfriend.
“Have you kissed her yet?” Joseph asked.
I shook my head. “No, I haven’t.”
I struggled to come up with an answer. I didn’t have any. It wasn’t even Emmanuella’s fault that we hadn’t kissed yet. Lord knows that she had dropped enough hints and created enough chances for that to happen.
“Well?” Joseph crossed his arms over his chest.
“It’s just – it’s not like…that is…I don’t know –”
“You don’t know?”
“Give him a break, Joe. He’s just saving his first kiss for Anulika,” Ibuka intuited.
“I’m not!” I flashed, mortified that my friends could still think that I was still hung up on Anulika. I wasn’t. I absolutely was not. “I’m over Anulika,” I said firmly.
“Are you?” Ibuka lifted his brows, his words sagging with skepticism.
“Yes, I am.” I was stung by his perceptiveness, and I added sourly, “What is your own sef? Stop acting like you know everything.”
“I don’t know everything, but I know this one –”
“How can you? You don’t even have a girlfriend,” I snapped.
“Yes, Ibu, which one you dey sef?” Joseph interjected with a grin. “You need to settle down o.”
“Unto wetin? I’m a JSS3 boy, not a man looking for a wife,” he retorted.
“Ehn, but still…” Joseph said. “Can’t you see Amaka, she’s busy giving you green light here and there, and you don’t even want to move inside her garage.” His grin turned lascivious.
“Move inside – Joseph, biko, don’t spoil me this evening. I don’t want. And I’m not looking for a girlfriend. Besides, I’m already catching all my boyfriend-girlfriend grooves.”
“Where?” Joseph and I said at once.
“Here…” And he lifted the book in his hand and, with a smirk, waved the front in our faces. It was another one of his romance novels; this one had on the cover a well-built, blond-haired man, clasping to his sunburned body, with one of his powerful arms, a petite woman with a tumble of flaming-red tresses, cherry-red lips and a swell of creamy bosom peeking from the top of her corset.
The three of us laughed uproariously at Ibuka’s cheekiness, before segueing into banter over another matter. It was almost 11pm and we were still in the classroom. We weren’t the only ones. At this time of the night, the JSS3 block was the only cluster of classrooms that was still alive with lights and human activity. In all the classrooms, boys were conversing, playing, reading and generally passing the time until it was late enough for us to return to our various hostels. This was for a reason. As the grunt of the senior hostel, JSS3 boys now had a collective new enemy – the SS2 boys.
With the approach of the WAEC examinations, the SS3s were gradually ceding authority over the school to their immediate juniors, the SS2s. In fact, in a week’s time, a new era would be ushered in with the announcement of the new prefects. A select group of SS2 students would be handed their obligations to uphold the school’s rules and regulations. And they’d be eager and cruel and mean-spirited, so drunk would they be with their new power.
As it was, they’d already started exercising their prerogative, the SS2 boys that is. And every junior boy in the senior hostels – SS1s and Jss3s – bore the brunt of their premature wrath. They didn’t care that as JSS3s, a student class with an external exam coming up, we also needed the latitude and freedom from hassle that the SS3s were getting. No. Our new masters couldn’t be bothered. Our chores tripled, the errands heightened, and the punishments were gleefully meted, whether deserved or not. The SS2s bore it. The JSS3s rebelled. We defied their authority by making ourselves very, VERY scarce from the hostels. Before the crack of dawn in the mornings, we’d be out of our beds and out of the hostels, armed with everything we’d need to get through the day – dining materials, buckets, books, change of clothing. And we stayed away from the hostels until well past midnight, when everyone was asleep, before sneaking back in.
By tacit agreement, all the JSS3 boys were doing this. And we had no idea how vexed it was making our seniors.
We knew when it was midnight, because the sound of the school generator began to thrum down, and the power was cut. Instant darkness settled on the school. Several pinpoints of light popped up in the classrooms; those of us who had torches had turned them on. The lights going out didn’t affect the boisterousness going on in the block. Those who were sleepy had already curled into positions on the desk tops, in their seats and on the ground atop spread-out wrappers, and dozed off. Time to go back to our beds would get here soon enough.
The minutes passed.
We carried on with our hubbub, while watching the hostels in the distance. We watched as the rechargeable lights bobbed about here and there through the windows. We watched human silhouettes move about. We watched the activity wane. And then, we watched the senior hostel gradually go to sleep.
I yawned, as Ibuka glanced at his wristwatch. “It’s twelve-thirty.”
“Those Dignity House boys have started going sef.” Joseph pointed outside.
Yes, the exodus back to the hostels had begun.
“Oya, let’s go.”
Desks slammed. Friends were shaken awake. There were noisy yawns. Boys were still talking. Feet shuffled out of the classrooms.
“Ibu, have you set your alarm?”
“My alarm is always set.”
“For four-thirty, bah?”
“No, for 7 o’clock. Stop asking me nonsense questions joor.”
We trudged away from the classroom block, some boys very nearly asleep on their feet. The night air was brisk and bracing, and I yawned repeatedly. The crowd split the closer we got to the hostels, as the boys in different Houses branched off into their respective compounds. The number of boys that moved toward Peace House hostel was more than a handful. As we approached, I noticed that the gate was unlocked, left ajar. That was odd. The gates were usually locked once the hostel was ready for bed, which meant that upon our return, we had to slither over the walls into the quadrangle, and steal into our dormitories.
“The gate is open,” Joseph observed in a low tone.
The other Peace House boys had noticed it as well, and we’d all stopped moving, wondering what this development meant.
“Maybe, they forgot to lock it,” Jisike whispered.
Some boys nodded, wanting to believe him.
“Senior Ifeanyi never forgets to lock the gate before sleeping,” Ibuka countered.
There were more nods.
“But Senior Ifeanyi will soon no longer be our House captain,” said Chibunna. “So maybe he doesn’t care about this part of his duty anymore.” The ending of his comment was inflected, making it come out like a question, as though he doubted what he’d said, and at the same time, hoped it would be true.
More nods. Some murmurs this time too.
“Look, we can’t just stand here all night nau,” Nnadozie said.
“Good observation, Nnadozie,” Ibuka said with heavy sarcasm. “What do you suggest we do?”
“Somebody should go jeje to the gate, and look in to see if there’s any welcome party waiting for us inside…”
“Well, now that you mention it –”
“I said someone. I’m not going,” Nnadozie said sharply.
“Correct! So, it is us that is good to go there so the welcome party can nab us, ehn?”
“There’s no welcome party there –”
“That’s what Nnadozie said –”
“I did not say that –”
“Someone should go and check nau –”
“You go and check –”
The murmurs were slowly climbing in volume as the debate raged on, and then Joseph hissed, “It’s enough. Let me go and check.”
Everyone stopped talking, and we watched him tensely as he crept forward, his body hunched and braced for a mad dash away from the gate, should he spot something undesirable. He got to the opening, peered in carefully. Then he straightened and craned his head in.
“Joe!” I called in a fierce whisper. “What do you see?”
He didn’t reply. He stepped in through the gate, and moments later, he came back out, shaking his head. “There’s no one in the quadrangle,” he said as he returned to us. “Inside there is very quiet.”
“Are you sure?” Nnadozie said, his voice heavy with disbelief.
“Would you like to go and check?” Joseph snarled at him. The boy didn’t say anything in response. “That’s what I thought,” Joseph finished. “Oya o, let’s go and sleep.”
We started forward again, slipping through the gate, hearkening to the silent calls of our respective beds. We were seven JSS3 boys that veered off toward Dorm 1. My dormitory. Leke was in the lead. Right behind him was Chibunna. Obieze and Benson huddled after them. And bringing up the rear was Ibuka, Joseph and I. Leke leaped up onto the pavement, got to the door and pushed gently at it.
The door didn’t swing open.
It heaved forward. Disconnected from its hinges, it fell to the ground, slamming down on it with the kind of startling loudness that was capable of waking the dead.
Time stood still.
We stood frozen in that moment.
And then pandemonium was wreaked. The dead didn’t wake up. Everyone else in the hostel did.
SS2 boys leaped up from their beds, shouting. Rechargeable lights sprung on, lighting up everywhere. A senior boy pounced on Nnadozie, who had been about to make an about-turn from his dormitory and whipped a ringing slap across his face. More SS2 boys spilled out of the dormitories, falling on the juniors caught in their tide.
Panicked, I turned to dash back in the direction of the gate.
“No!” Joseph hissed, pulling at my arm. “Not that way!”
Hassan was just then fleeing toward the gate. Hot in pursuit of him was Stanley. The SS2 boy caught him before he could dart through the gate, and landed a series of open-palm strikes across his face and back.
“The gate is exactly where they expect us to go,” Joseph continued as he pulled Ibuka and I toward the earthen corner that lay between the wall end of our dormitory and the fence. There was a big metal water tank, corroded from a long lack of use, resting in the corner.
“What are we going to do?” I said.
“Let’s hide here!” He was making for the tank.
“They’ll catch us –” Ibuka began.
“No, they won’t!”
The three of us piled quickly behind the tank. We sat down on the earth and waited. The space was slightly cobwebby and the air was musty. Our breathing was heavy, and my heart drummed a rapid tattoo as the cries of those of our mates who’d been nabbed echoed in the hostel. Their teary pleas were often interspersed with the angry, loud admonitions of the seniors and the ricocheting sounds of hands striking skin. My heart picked up beat when I heard my name called out.
“Eze! Where Eze dey! I no see Eze for here!”
“Na true – him and that Joseph and Ibuka!”
Ibuka tensed beside me. Those voices sounded like they belonged to Chijioke and Usman, both of them seniors in my dormitory.
“Leke! Where Eze, Joseph and Ibuka dey!” The query was punctuated with a slap.
“Senior, I don’t know!” Leke wailed wretchedly. “They followed us and come back, I don’t know!”
“E be like say they don run!”
“Na their lucky night be this!”
We remained in our hiding place, breathing heavily, and listening to the torture going on out there. There were lamentations, beatings, and then sounds that indicated that the junior boys had been set to the task of cleaning up the hostel. We heard the swish of brooms, the splash of water and the thud of cutlasses on the earthen ground.
Something crawled against my skin, where it was pressed against the wall. Ibuka shifted his bottom on the ground. Joseph slapped away a mosquito from the exposed skin of his arm.
The night wore on, with the moonless sky bearing witness to everything going on below it.
I stared up at it, and tried not to think about how cramped my legs were getting pressed against my tummy as they were. Or about how mosquitoes playing hopscotch on my body. Or about the misery of being a JSS3 boy.
No. I tried to think about Anuli – sorry, Emmanuella. And about my exams that would soon come and go, leaving open a long vacation for me to enjoy. I thought about going home to my mother’s meals, about visiting Ibuka in Port Harcourt, and spending a week or two with Joseph in Lagos. I thought about –
The bleeping sound was tiny and persistent, and very intrusive.
“What is that?” I heard somebody growl beside me.
That person moved. And that made me move my body in an attempt to stretch it. I couldn’t. The cramped quarters wouldn’t let me.
“It’s my watch’s alarm,” another person said sleepily. “I think it’s 4.30 already.”
Four-thirty in the morning? My eyes snapped open, and the memory of last night came rushing back. Joseph and Ibuka appeared to be coming awake to the same awareness. It seemed we had spent the night behind the water tank.
“Oya nau, let’s go,” Joseph said.
“To our dorm, we’ll quickly take the things we need for today and go back to class.”
We squeezed out from our hideout, and snuck back to our dormitory, warily looking around. Dark figures were slipping out of other dormitories; JSS3 boys beginning their days as usual. And in a few short minutes, the three of us joined the early morning trickle out of the senior hostel.
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