“Eze! Eze! Over here!”
Even as I looked around, following the sound of the voice calling me to its origin, I knew it was Ibuka. The school car park and the immediate surroundings of the school gate were crowded with a motley crew of students, families and the vehicles that brought them here. There were pockets of conversationalists, parties of parents reacquainting themselves with the ‘father of IK’s classmate’ and the ‘mother of the girl in Esther’s dorm’. Students were reuniting as well, friends with beaming smiles who were enthusiastically exchanging updates about the just-concluded holiday.
“Ibu! How far?” I hollered as I left my father’s side and made for my friend. Father was too engrossed in a heated debate over yet another government scandal with another parent, a rotund, balding man who seemed to think his loudly-uttered monologue was all he needed to convince Father of his point.
Ibuka and I met halfway, and came together in hug, a deep-tissue embrace that brought back the last three years in a rush, confluent in that moment of touch. The memories hit my mind like flashbulbs, and I felt a sharp prick in my eyes as we pulled back from each other.
“Oh, Eze, I have missed you o!” Ibuka gushed.
I nodded in response. I didn’t trust myself to speak. I swept a long look over Ibuka. The holiday had only been about four months long, and yet, the boy looked bigger and more robust than the last time I saw him.
“Ah-ah, Ibu, was it fertilizer you were eating during the holiday?” I said as I stepped close to him, placing the side of my head against his, and reaching my palm up to level the tops of our head. The last time I did this with Ibuka was last year, when we were in an argument over who was taller. Then, my fingers didn’t meet any resistance. This time, the tips jutted against an inch of his head.
This boy don grow pass me sha!
I drew back from him in shock.
He chuckled, his expression smug. “Don’t blame me. Blame it on my mother’s excellent cooking.”
“My mother cooks well too!” I said crossly.
“Does she add protein to your food? Or did you spend the entire holiday eating fufu and garri?” Ibuka jibed.
The laugh erupted from me before my brain could compute that the appropriate reaction to his snark ought to be affront. I doubled over, and he joined in my laughter, placing a meaty hand on my shoulder.
“Chai! Ibu, it has been long o.” I flicked tears off the corners of my eyes. It felt really good to share a laugh with my best friend.
“I know. Since we came” – he gestured to his parents who were caught up in a dialogue with some of their peers – “I’ve been looking all over for you and Joe. I know he must be back, since Lagos buses always bring back Lagos-based students a day before the main reopening date.”
“Oh no, Joseph did not come back with the Lagos bus. At least, I don’t think he did.”
“How do you know?”
“He called me –”
“You now have a phone? Joe now has a phone?” His eyes were wide with delight.
“No, I don’t. But yes, Joe has a phone. He called Ada’s phone to talk to me. I emailed him her number, and he called. And we talked and talked, he was not even fearing for his credit, the big boy that he is.”
“He is not the only big boy there is, biko,” Ibuka countered.
“What do you mean…” I began, and then, a light-bulb moment happened as I gasped, “You have a phone too?”
He was grinning as he nodded.
“Where is it? Can I see?”
“No, I didn’t bring it. It’s against school regulations.” He shot me a tiny frown, as though insulted that I would dare think he would willfully break a school rule.
“Oh, that’s true,” I said.
“My father bought it for me as a Welcome-to-SS1 present,” he went on, “a sort of congratulation on my successful Junior WAEC.”
“But the results haven’t been released yet. How can you know if you passed all the subjects?”
He arched his brow at me. The expression said it all.
I chuckled as I remembered who I was talking to. Ibuka may not be the most self-assured of teenagers, but he had an abundance of confidence in the one area he ruled – his academics. I could just see his Junior WAEC result now – a promised land of As, where Bs and Cs would fear to tread, and Ds, Es and Fs would have no idea what it looked like.
My results on the other hand… I pushed the disturbing thought aside, and nodded ahead of us. “Behold, our new lords and masters.”
Ibuka followed my gaze to the rank of prefects who formed a barrier between the new arrivals and the rest o the school. It was just a small number of them, girls and boys, on duty to check the students in. their job really was to go through our bags to ensure that none of us was smuggling contraband items into the school, a thankless job that had them alternating between stone-faced sternness reserved for the students being checked in, and smiling cordiality aimed at the parents looking on.
“Do you think they’ll be a wicked set of prefects?” Ibuka asked.
“No more wicked than their predecessors,” I replied.
“Yes, of course, the usual.”
“The prefects are not the ones to fear,” I said. “It is the SS3s.”
At my words, our gazes were drawn to the bank of buildings standing in the distance like brooding sentinels, staring malevolently back at us. It was hard, in that moment, to tell whether the senior hostels were happy to see us.
“Did you miss it – senior hostel, that is?” Ibuka enquired.
“You might as well ask me if I miss being nearly killed by an evil spirit.”
He chuckled, evidently recalling the culmination of our escapades last term. “Do you think anyone of them is anxious to kill us?”
The SS3 was a very volatile class. I hadn’t offended any one of our present seniors last session, when they were in SS2. But this was a new session, and they now had all the power. Anything could happen.
I shrugged an I-don’t-know at Ibuka. “I didn’t make any enemies when they were in SS2.”
“Neither did I…”
“But you know we may still get to suffer, right?”
“For another man’s sins, you mean?” Ibuka said, turning his head away from the hostels.
I laughed shortly at his words. “Indeed. And his name is –”
“Joseph!” he cried out.
“You don’t have to shout his name,” I chided.
“No, I mean – Joseph! He’s here!” His face had lit up again as he pointed.
I was turning when a familiar weight and smell hit me from behind. Slim hands encircled my front and the back of my neck, and their owner acted as though he was strangling me.
“You may not speak, because anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law,” Joseph growled in my ear.
“Is tackling me from behind how police arrest people in your village?” I retorted cheerfully.
There was an outburst of laughter as he released me to hug Ibuka. I watched the tops of their head with some envy; I was clearly going to be the shortest one this school term. They broke apart, and I did a quick scan of Joseph; he looked the same, handsome, tall and –
“Wait a minute!” I grabbed his bicep, which looked more sinewy than I remembered. “Have you been working out?”
“Oh my God, it’s true!” Ibuka enthused. “I felt his chest just now that we hugged.” He raised his hands to palm Joseph’s pectorals. “Joe now has akpa obi – Chineke!”
Joseph was grinning unabashedly, claiming our amazement as his due. “I was following my elder brother to the gym one time, plus I started doing press-up.”
“So you couldn’t be satisfied with using your fine face to get the girls,” I said, “you had to try and turn yourself into Incredible Hulk too, abi?”
“Don’t worry, if Anulika comes begging for some Joe loving, I’ll tell her no,” he sallied back.
The three of us laughed uproariously at that.
“Eze told me you now have a phone,” Ibuka said.
“Yes, a Blackberry. I have it here.”
“You what!” Ibuka and I said in unison.
“I hope you’re not planning on smuggling it into the school,” Ibuka began reprovingly.
“Of course I am.”
“Joe, show me, let me see,” I said excitedly.
“Eze! Don’t encourage this!” Ibuka scolded.
“I’m not encouraging anything. I just want to see.”
“I hope your parents know about this,” Ibuka returned his wrath on Joseph.
“Know about what?” a mellifluous female voice cut in.
The three of us jumped, and I looked up and into Mrs. Amuluche’s face.
Joseph’s good looks, tempered by some definition from his father, were chiefly inherited from his mother. Mrs. Amuluche is a very beautiful woman, who also possesses that kind of good genes that places her at an indeterminate age between thirty and forty-five. Joseph had once talked about how people often mistook his mother and older sister for siblings; they almost look nothing like mother and daughter.
Her face was a delicate oval, her eyes dark and artfully shadowed. Her mouth was painted scarlet, in notable contrast to her fair skin and the elegantly-cut black dress she was wearing. Stones glittering discreetly in her ears and around her neck finished up the appearance of a woman you couldn’t help but notice.
“Well?” she said, lifting her penciled brows. “What am I supposed to know about?”
“That I might be changing my mind from Arts to science,” Joseph said.
The lie was smooth, delivered with just the right amount of earnestness.
His mother’s smooth forehead furrowed. “Really? You didn’t tell us about that? Does your father know?”
“No, he doesn’t. It’s just something I’m thinking about, mum.”
“Is there anything wrong with Arts? You’ve always wanted to study Theatre Arts, to be an actor.”
Oh trust me, Mrs. Amuluche. He still wants to be an actor. He’s giving an Oscar-worthy performance right now.
In response to his mother, Joseph tilted his head in a maybe-yes, maybe-no fashion, and I saw Ibuka’s lips tighten. His expression was prim, like he was mining some reserve energy to help him not blurt out the truth to Joseph’s mother.
“Mummy Joseph, is that you? Ehen! I thought that was you.”
We turned at the sound of Mrs. Onyekwere’s voice. Ibuka’s mother had waddled forward to embrace the other woman. My father and Mr. Onyekwere brought up the rear. In spite of her evident class and higher status, Mrs. Amuluche was no snob – something else she’d clearly passed on to her son. Within moments, the four adults were chatting away, an animated conversation that was often punctuated with loud laughter.
It wasn’t very long before the three of us were checked in. Joseph’s phone was either not in his bags or was too cleverly hidden to be detected by the prefect who searched them.
Our parents didn’t break their banter as we were waved past the barrier. The three of us carried on with our own prattle as we walked several yards ahead of them, struggling bravely under the weight of our bags.
As we walked, Ibuka swore softly and began fumbling with his back-pocket. He pulled out a wallet and opened it to reveal a sizeable amount of money.
“Is that your pocket money?” I asked, wide-eyed.
“Your parents let you have it?” Joseph asked.
“Yes. They trust me to give it to my guardian as soon as possible.”
Of course they did. Who wouldn’t trust the very responsible Ibuka to do the right thing?
“Ah, my father has my pocket money o,” I said. “My guardian will soon come and meet him here, and he’ll give the money directly to him.”
“As always, my mother simply wired my pocket money into my guardian’s account,” Joseph said.
“What are you now doing?” I said to Ibuka as I watched him attempting to fish out some notes from the stack. The hefty bag hanging from his right shoulder was making the effort a breathless task.
“I forgot to count out the lanwu I will give some seniors.”
“See you, you’re just dulling,” I said. “I know my pocket money will always travel from my father to my guardian, so I saved up some money during the holidays that I’ll use for lanwu.” I could feel the stiffness of the small wad of money pressing against my right butt cheek from inside my back-pocket.
“Me, I’m not lanwu-ing anybody this term,” Joseph declared.
Ibuka gave a snort of laughter. “If I was wondering whether they’ll kill you before, now I’m certain of it.”
“Joe, please,” I pleaded. “If you’re thinking about doing strong-head for these SS3s, think about us. I don’t have the energy to share in the goodness and mercy your enemies will dish out to you.”
“Me too o!” Ibuka concurred hastily.
“Relax,” Joseph drawled with an enigmatic smile. “I have a secret weapon I’m going to test on these seniors. If it doesn’t work, then I’ll lanwu them.”
“What’s the secret weapon?”
“If I tell you, I’d have to kill you.”
“You were just watching plenty-plenty action, spy films during the holidays, weren’t you?”
We laughed some more at that.
Our mirth however began to dissipate as we walked into the embrace of the senior hostel environs. The place was astir with students moving this way and that; those who returned to school the day before had already acclimatized and observed with bored superiority as those coming back today settled in, some in the company of their families.
Within minutes, we were walking in through the gates of Peace House. The hostel had the appearance and stale smell of neglect, the kind of smell where the odour had seeped into the walls like rodents that ended up dying and rotting.
“Oh boy, the clean-up that is waiting for us is not small o,” Ibuka lamented, as we strolled slowly into the front yard, in the direction of our dormitory.
“It’s not just the clean-up!” a voice called out behind us.
We turned. I grimaced when I saw who it was.
Eseosa Atskioja was now in SS2, but his graduation in class had clearly brought no improvement to his appearance. The naked dislike that stained his dark, gaunt features was the same one I remembered from last session.
“Hello, Eseosa,” Joseph greeted coldly.
The SS2 boy nodded in silent acknowledgement as he approached us. He’d never liked us, a feeling that was mutual, and if we hadn’t already known, it instantly became apparent who amongst us he bore the biggest grudge for.
“Joseph, Joseph, Joseph,” he said in a slow mocking drawl. “I always thought you were a smart boy.”
“I am a smart boy,” Joseph returned.
“I don’t think so. If you were, you wouldn’t have come back here for SS1.”
“And what’s there to stop me from coming back for SS1?”
Eseosa’s lips stretched into a thin smile that was no smile at all, and he turned his sneering look to me, and then to Ibuka, before refocusing on Joseph. “I saw on the news that your father is starting his campaign for election. I’d always known you’re a spoiled rich brat. But to find out that you’re the son of Chief Amuluche…” He tsk-tsked maliciously.
“How do you know I am related to the man you’re talking about?” Joseph said woodenly. Unlike some of the other boys in our set from privileged backgrounds who liked to tout their family’s affluence every chance they got, Joseph preferred to let everyone think he was just another Lagos boy whose parents gave just enough for school to keep him comfortable. It was better that way; senior boys liked to prey on rich junior boys.
“The internet is a very good place to look for answers,” Eseosa said.
“Just imagine what you were using your time to do,” Ibuka said furiously. “Are you that jobless?”
“And so, what if his father is a politician,” I interjected. “What is it to you? How is that your consine?”
“If you think telling me that you know about my family,” Joseph added, “will somehow make me lanwu you” – he gave a caustic bark of laughter – “then you’re seriously mistaken.”
Eseosa’s sneering expression did not waver in the face of our insolence. He said, “You know, if I was your friend, I wouldn’t have told some Peace House senior boys that you’re rich enough to lanwu the entire SS3 population. If I was your friend…”
Triplet expressions of cold fury stabbed at him as the import of what he’d just said sunk in.
Mayday! Mayday! Joseph’s cover has just been blown!
“Well, well, if it isn’t the leaders of next tomorrow!” a loud voice called out just then.
We turned to see a small gang of SS3 boys slouching on the pavement of the right wing of the hostel. The one who’d just spoken was named Pius Oche, but as was mostly the case with bad senior boys, his real name had long since been eclipsed by his nickname, Jericho. The moniker didn’t arise because he was big. He wasn’t. He however had a stalwart build and conveyed an indisputable aura of malevolent authority with his dark complexion and mean little eyes.
He was also not a very bright boy.
“The three of you!” he crooked a finger at us. “Run down here!” When we began walking in their direction, he bellowed, “Are those new trousers too big for you that you’ve forgotten how to run? I said, RUN DOWN HERE!”
And we promptly ran over to him.
“Look at them, looking very fresh,” one of cronies crowed when we came to stand before them.
“No be just today?” another one said. “After today, they go rearrange quick-quick.”
The entire gang snickered at that.
“So, Joseph Amuluche,” Jericho said, stressing the surname, “there has been a little rumour going around since yesterday that you’re quite famous.”
“Famous?” Joseph let out a breathy laugh. “Ah, Jericho, it’s not… See, the thing is –”
“It’s a yes or no question,” Jericho barked.
“But you didn’t even ask a question, senior,” Ibuka blurted. A microsecond later, he looked like he wanted the ground to open and swallow him out of sight for venturing such effrontery. He swallowed hard and stared as Jericho turned to him.
“You’re the one who is the bookworm, right?” he said in a low snarl.
“Okay. The next time you interrupt me, I will use one of your textbooks to beat shege out of you, do you hear me?”
Ibuka nodded again, no doubt trying to decide which one of his textbooks was capable of being so formidable in the hands of Jericho.
“So where were we?” Jericho turned back to Joseph.
“Joseph!” the voice of our Saving Grace called. “Where are you boys?”
Our parents had just walked into the compound. Mrs. Amuluche was the one who’d just called.
“Over here, mu – over here!” Joseph called. “I’m coming.”
“Who is that?” Jericho asked.
“My sister,” Joseph deadpanned.
I swallowed saliva into the wrong side of my oesophagus and suddenly found myself fighting back a fit of coughs.
“You mean am?” Jericho’s eyes goggled. “Wow! She is fine!”
“Correct high class babe,” another crony said.
“She don marry?” Jericho wanted to know.
Unwilling to lie any further, Joseph offered a simultaneous smile and shrug, letting his head-tilt suggest what it did.
“Oh wow!” Jericho chortled. “Lagos men them, they don blind finish!”
“If na me, I for don wife that chick tay-tay!” yet another member of the gang agreed heartily.
“Hey, Ogidi, respect yourself,” Jericho scolded. “Na my future wife be that.” And to Joseph, he said, “Oya, Amuluche, come and introduce me to her.”
Joseph braced his hands hastily against the senior boy’s chest to stop him from moving forward. “Ah, Jericho, it’s not like this nau. You’re still in SS3. If I introduce you to her now, she won’t take you seriously. Wait until you graduate from secondary school. Let me be telling her about you, a secret admirer that she has. And then, once you enter university, I can take you to her.”
“She go wait?” Ogidi grumbled distrustfully. “This kain babe no dey wait for man o.”
I could see Joseph’s jaw clench as he answered the senior boy, “She’s my sister. Trust me, she’s not in a hurry to hook up with anyone anytime soon.”
Jericho contemplated the idea for three seconds, then, “Ok, that sounds like a plan.”
See what I meant when I said he’s not very bright?
He was smiling as he continued, “So from now on, you are my in-law. That’s what I’ll be calling you from now on. And from now also, anyone that worries you, just tell them to come and settle their beef with Jericho, you hear?”
Joseph was beaming. “What about my friends?”
“Their own follow too nah. Wetin be your name?”
“And you, bookworm?”
“Ehen! The friend of my in-law is my friend too.”
“Eze!” my father boomed just then.
“Ibuka, what are you children doing there!” Mrs. Onyekwere followed sharply.
The three of us started back for our parents with wide, victorious grins. I caught sight of a figure on the other side of the gate, a face outside the compound, staring malignantly at us.
“Eseosa doesn’t look too happy that his plan has failed,” I said, nodding my head in his direction.
Ibuka stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry at him. Joseph laughed.
“The mumu doesn’t know who he’s dealing with,” he said.
“Let’s not underestimate him though,” I said. “That guy really has it in for you, Joe.”
“He should bring it on.”
“And then, me and Eze will suffer alongside you, eh?” Ibuka said with a sigh.
“That’s why I’m here nah, to always make trouble for the three of us.”
As we reveled in our mirth, we had no idea just how true his words would eventually turn out to be.
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