“Guy, I still can’t believe you never told us before now that your brother is coming to this school,” I said as we walked briskly toward the school gate.
The Sunday mid-morning was cool, and the wind had teeth. Rain had fallen throughout yesterday, rounding out a monotonously watery, sunless week. The rainy season wasn’t going to let up to Harmattan without a fight, it would seem.
“You see that kind thing?” Joseph agreed enthusiastically. “Our son is coming to be with us, and this ogbeni didn’t even think to tell us so we’ll prepare for him.”
“Okay,” Ibuka drawled, lifting his hands in objection. “First of all, he’s not our son. He’s my junior brother. Secondly, I didn’t tell you guys because I was hoping that he wouldn’t come here.”
“Why?” I asked.
He answered me with raised eyebrows.
“Oh,” I chuckled.
Joseph chuckled too. “So you’re fearing what all these our juniors will do to your brother if you graduate a wicked senior, eh?”
“There’s no question of ‘if’, because I won’t be a wicked senior boy,” Ibuka said imperiously. “It is the sins of my friends that I fear will live after them.”
At his pointed glance, I drew back. “Hey, don’t look at me. I’m not the potential Lucifer here. He is.” I nodded at Joseph.
“Yes o,” Joseph said. “I am the evil waiting to happen in our SS3.” He tugged at both sides of his shirt collar in an exaggerated gesture.
“Spoken like the family’s last born who doesn’t have any siblings succeeding him in school,” Ibuka sniped.
“Hey, I’m not the one who told you to rush out as number one from your mother’s womb,” Joseph fired back good-naturedly.
We were getting close to the school gate environs, which was a beehive of activity. Saturday had been the day that marked commencement of JSS1s in school. And so, yesterday had been full of bustle, with a traffic of adults and students, old and new, traipsing between the school gates and the various junior hostels. Most of the JSS1 students had been admitted yesterday, but the admittance was to last the entire weekend. And so, a few more families had come to drop off their wards today. The Onyekweres were among this lot.
We paused to glance about at the melee of parents, admittance prefects and junior boys, with their well-laundered uniforms and naïve countenances.
“Jesus!” Joseph said. “Did we ever look this small?”
“Or this innocent,” I added.
“Or this scared shitless,” Ibuka finished.
Joseph and I turned to stare at him.
He shrugged. “What? I’ve been reading James Hadley Chase.”
“Ibuka!” a voice called out from the small crowd.
We looked in the direction of the voice to see a young man waving us over.
“Who is that?” Joseph asked as Ibuka started forward, leaving us to follow.
“It’s his uncle, Uncle Chetanna,” I supplied, “his mother’s brother.”
“Brother!” a younger voice called out excitedly and we watched as a small boy, who didn’t look much like our friend, scamper toward us. His smile was a beam, his face round-shaped, and his skin had the supple sheen of a well-fed, pampered child. That was where the resemblance with his elder brother ended. He got to Ibuka first and knocked his body against him in a hug. When he drew back, I could see that his cheeks were dimpled, his features were a striking copy of their mother’s, and he was as coffee-coloured as Ibuka was light-skinned.
“Brother, I’m so excited to be here!” he said breathlessly.
Really? My brows lifted in question, as I exchanged an amused look with Joseph. The poor boy.
“Er, why didn’t daddy bring you?” Ibuka asked, looking visibly uncomfortable to be assuming the role of big brother in a turf away from home.
“He and mummy had to go to one church knights’ convention like that,” the boy said. His gaze travelled from his brother and settled on us. “Are these your friends – the Eze and Joe you keep talking about?” Before Ibuka could respond, he’d moved toward us and extended a hand with a swagger. “Hi, I’m pleased to meet you.”
For a split second, Joseph and I stared at the extended hand in appreciation of the irony. This JSS1 boy had the temerity to ask for a handshake from two boys thrice his senior, simply because we were his brother’s friends. He’d neatly catapulted himself past the familiarity barrier, effectively setting the terms of our association with him. Any other junior boy with a proffered handshake would have received a slap for such audaciousness.
“Hi,” I said with a wide smile as I shook his hand. “I’m the one who’s Eze.”
“And I’m Joe, the one you should listen to from now henceforth.” Joseph gathered the boy into a side embrace. “And what’s your name?”
“Andy,” he said promptly.
“Andu,” Ibuka growled.
“Brother, that’s my name!” he said defiantly to his brother, a sulk creeping into his voice.
“It’s not,” Ibuka maintained flatly.
“Wait – Andu? What’s your full name?” I quizzed.
Andu’s eyes dropped to his feet as he murmured something unintelligible.
“What did you say?” I said.
I fought for a straight face.
Joseph wasn’t so successful. He was chuckling as he looked at Ibuka. “Chukwuebuka… Ihemelandu… Boy, your parents know how to dig into that traditional baby names book. What’s your sister’s name, Chizotaranwa?”
I gave up and doubled over with laughter.
“Better shut up, Nkemakolam,” Ibuka shot back.
Joseph winced, before turning to Andu. “My dear boy, I don’t blame you jaré. You want to answer ‘Andy’, you go ahead.”
“Just let me hear you introduce yourself as such,” Ibuka cut in warningly, “Or anyone calling you that, and you’ll be in big trouble.”
Andu nodded sullenly.
Boy! Ibuka the big brother was a wonder to behold, I thought as I stared at him. In spite of having a younger sibling, I’d never had to boss anyone around. Ola was much too young and too adorable to be the recipient of my sternness.
“Hey, what’s up, guys?” Ibuka’s uncle was approaching us. “Hey, Eze, how are you guys doing?”
“Fine, Uncle Cheta,” Ibuka and I chorused.
The young man, who was in his early thirties, was the last of Mrs. Onyekwere’s siblings, and the one whose looks Ibuka appeared to have inherited. Ibuka had once said that when people saw the two of them together, they thought they were brothers instead of uncle and nephew. I met Uncle Chetanna during the holidays, when he came to Owerri with Ibuka.
“Is this Joe?” He nodded at Joseph, who stepped toward him with a nod and a smile.
Recognizing a kin spirit in Joseph, Uncle Chetanna made a fist and held it up. Joseph made one too and they touched knuckles-against-knuckles in some newfangled high-five.
“My guy!” Uncle Chetanna beamed. “So na you dey control this small gang, eh?”
“Nobody is controlling me o,” Ibuka objected with a glower.
“Yes, yes, Ibu, we know,” Joseph said with a benevolent tap on his shoulder.
Ibuka shrugged him off as the rest of us laughed.
Then came the next few minutes, which were spent transferring Andu’s guardianship to Ibuka; Uncle Chetanna was in a hurry to get going back to Port Harcourt, so he left the responsibility of formally handing over Andu’s affairs to Mrs. Kanayo, Ibuka’s guardian, to the older brother. Ibuka wanted to get Andu settled in as quickly as possible. So it wasn’t very long before Uncle Chetanna was wheeling his way out of the car park, and the four of us were left to manage what were now Andu’s worldly possessions. There was the locker, inside which was stowed a bucket and his wound mattress. There were three filled-to-bursting valises and a school bag.
Joseph snapped his fingers at four JSS2 boys who’d had the misfortune of crossing his line of sight just then, and he ordered them to take charge of the locker. The four boys settled a collective glare on Andu, which I intercepted.
Stepping between them and Ibuka’s brother, I said grimly, “I have marked the four of you… Dignity House, eh? If you later ever raise a finger on that boy, I will –”
“No, we,” Joseph interrupted, stepping menacingly forward.
“Yes, we,” I amended, “will come for you. You hear me?”
Four heads nodded, their faces looking sufficiently browbeaten.
“Now carry that locker to Peace House junior hostel before I vex and start teaching you a lesson right now!” I snarled.
They scurried into position, hefted the locker and staggered forward. Joseph, Ibuka and I each picked up a traveling bag, and Andu slung his school bag across his back.
“So when you said,” Joseph directed conversationally at Ibuka, “that you were hoping your brother wouldn’t come to this school, what did you mean?”
“Yea, didn’t he take Federal Common Entrance exams?” I interjected.
Andu was skipping ahead of us, looking this way and that, drinking in his new surrounding and paying no attention to the three boys talking about him.
“He did, and he passed,” Ibuka said.
“Must be in the Onyekwere gene then,” I quipped.
We laughed shortly.
“He also passed the entrance exam for a private school,” Ibuka continued. “My parents were considering sending him either here or there. I guess the cost of a private school finally decided for them which school to send him to.” He sighed.
“Don’t worry, Ibu,” Joseph said. “We’ll protect your brother.”
“It’s not his protection while we are school that I’m worried about.”
“By the time we’re in SS3,” I said, “those who will want to show Andu pepper when we graduate will reveal themselves. If you don’t hear of them, then they don’t exist, and Andu will be fine. If you do hear of them –”
“Then you can tell your parents to change school for him,” Joseph finished for me.
“Exactly,” I said. “You’d be graduating from SS3 and he’d be graduating from JSS3. There’s no reason he can’t graduate on to another school for his senior year.”
For the first time since Ihemelandu Onyekwere rocketed into his scholarly universe, the worry began to lift from Ibuka’s face. He even managed a smile. “That sounds like a plan.”
“You see?” Joseph beamed. “Two heads are better than one.”
“By those two heads, you mean my own and Eze’s own, abi?”
Joseph feinted a slap in his direction in laughing objection.
The junior hostels clearly hadn’t settled from the hubbub of yesterday. Combined with today’s newcomers, the environment was chaos. Several JSS2s lounged about, observing the JSS1s with some degree of self satisfaction. Finally, there had arrived amongst them a set of students who would bottom-feed at the hierarchy of the student body.
The four Dignity House boys set the locker down in a corner Ibuka indicated and hastened out of the dormitory before we would think of more things for them to do.
“Men, it’s been so long since I was back here o,” Joseph said with a reminiscent glint in his eyes as he looked around.
Andu burst out, “Joe, where you in this dorm?”
I grimaced. This boy should be addressing with the affix, Senior. But like I said, our association with his brother had toppled that hurdle.
“Nah, I was in First Dorm,” Joseph said, pointing.
“Cool!” Andu’s eyes shone as he dropped his bag on a bunk and began hopping about. “I can’t wait to be in First Dorm. I can’t wait to be in First Do –”
His words were choked off as he whirled and stumbled into a figure walking past him. I only had time for a quick impression of a boy wearing a Hope House check shirt and trousers. Swearing furiously, the boy shoved Andu back, simultaneously swinging an arm whose palm struck Andu across the face. The boy squealed, spinning to the ground. Before Joseph and I could react, Ibuka had moved forward. His face was a snarling mask, and his hand arced through the air, striking the other boy with a more vicious slap. He staggered back, clearly not expecting the attack. That was when I recognized him to be Alfred Nzekwu from SS1F.
Alfred’s eyes flashed, and he began to lunge at Ibuka, when a voice called sharply, “Stop right there!”
The crack of whip instantly halted all movement, including that of everyone else in the dormitory. Martin Chiemeka, the house prefect of Peace House junior hostel, emerged. He was a burly, dark-skinned boy with kind eyes that held no benevolence at the moment.
“What is going on here?” he growled.
Andu was sniveling, still on the ground. I was going to get him up when Martin shot his glare at us.
“My brother,” Ibuka said stiffly.
Martin flicked a cold glance over him. He recognized Ibuka; after all, we’d all been in senior hostel last year. “I remember you… What’s that your name again?”
“Yes, and I don’t remember you as the fighting type. In fact, I seem to remember it’s that your other friend who’s very quarrelsome.” His eyes sought out Joseph.
“That is Senior Martin to you, Ibuka,” the prefect interrupted frostily.
“Senior Martin,” Ibuka began again, “I’m not usually violent. But that boy slapped my brother and I had to retaliate –”
“But your brother was the one who matched me!” Alfred burst out angrily.
“Did I permit you to speak?” Martin glared at him.
“Senior, his brother matched –”
“I said, did I permit you to speak, you idiot!” Martin moved one step toward him.
Alfred backed away two steps, and said dourly, “No, senior. I’m sorry, senior.”
Martin took a deep breath. “So the two of you decided to turn my hostel into a slapping arena, eh?”
“But senior, he slapped my brother first –”
“And you should have come to me and let me deal with him.”
Is this guy serious? I stared crossly at the senior boy. Does he not know that an older brother is supposed to react first and report later?
“Now, since the two of you seem so into your slapping,” Martin said, “who am I to stand in your way?” He stepped back and gestured Ibuka and Alfred toward each other. They stared uncertainly at him. “Go on, continue slapping.”
What! Joseph and I exchanged an astonished look.
“Uh, senior…” Alfred began.
“You slapped his brother, right?”
“And he slapped you…”
“So it’s your turn to slap back.”
Martin moved with a blur. His right hand swung in a backhand blow that caught Alfred across his chin. The boy shrieked and reeled. He clasped his burning cheek beneath eyes that had watered.
“Now, I’ve reminded you what a slap is, haven’t I?” Martin said coolly.
“Good. Now slap him. Ibuka, you’ll slap him back. He’ll slap you back. You’ll return the slap. Like that, like that, till we get a winner.”
Then he crossed his arms and waited.
Kai! See punishment na!
The two boys moved warily toward each other. Ibuka was blinking rapidly, his bravado from moments ago fizzling out. Alfred looked angry, ready to visit the rage at being twice struck on his fellow combatant. He lashed out. Instinctively, Ibuka ducked and the other boy’s aim whizzed past his face.
“Ibuka, come here,” Martin said in a silky voice.
“Senior Martin, please… I’m sorry… I won’t do it again, please…”
“Are you sure?”
“Good. Okay. Again.”
And thus began the slapathon. Alfred belted out a palm strike. Ibuka responded with a wallop. Alfred smacked. Ibuka whacked.
I flinched with each blow. Ibuka’s fair-skinned cheeks turned an angry shade of red in seconds. Snot started to dribble down Alfred’s bruised nose. They were both panting heavily, and their blows grew progressively weaker.
Finally, after what seemed like an interminable period of time, Martin called the combat to a stop. Both boys turned stares made bleary with pain and tears to him.
“What lesson have you learned here today?” he asked.
For a moment, no one volunteered an answer, not even the crowd of spectators.
“Is no one going to reply me?”
“That…that we should not fight?” Ibuka heaved.
“That we…we should not fight in your hostel?” Alfred ventured.
“No. Here’s the lesson. Violence never pays. Simple.” He smiled tightly at the two boys, and then turned toward Andu, who was still huddled against my side. “Hello, boy, what’s your name?”
“M-my name is Andu…”
“Well, that’s an unusual name. Okay, Andu, I like you. So move your things to First Dorm. And welcome to Peace House junior hostel.” And the prefect turned and walked out of the dormitory, leaving the tension behind him to slowly fragment into the usual mid-morning chaos.
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