I was in JSS3, 13 years old, and yet to have my first kiss. Joseph, on the other hand – who had been kissing girls since we were in JSS1 and a JSS2 girl cornered him in class one evening after night prep to give him his first experience – never missed an opportunity to brag about how lengthy his lip-locking conquest was. As for Ibuka . . . well, he had also had his first kiss. Sort of.
It is actually a good story. But I’ll have to take you back to when we were in JSS2 to recount it.
As JSS2 students, we were the seniors of the Junior Hostels. The lords and masters who reigned supreme over JSS1s, and if you were lucky enough to be made a hostel supervisor, you also got to lord it over other JSS2 boys in your hostel. My friends and I were supervisors – Joseph was the first dorm supervisor, Ibuka was the pavement supervisor, and I was the third dorm supervisor.
Being supervisors gave us a small taste of the kind of authority that the school prefects enjoyed. Those of us who abused the power quickly became hostel bullies and extortionists, using what we had to get what we wanted. Senior Udenze, our House Prefect, selected us for the posts and he gave us a lot of latitude in our duties. And excesses.This made it possible for Chidi, the second dorm supervisor, to get away with slapping Jisike – also in JSS2 – under the pretext of disciplining him for stubbornly refusing to sweep the dormitory. And Obieze, the toilet supervisor, used the threat of scrubbing toilets to get JSS2 boys to furnish him with provisions every now and then. The feud that quickly became legendary was the one that existed between Jeremiah and Benson. Both boys were in JSS2E. Benson was the class captain and not a hostel supervisor, and Jeremiah was the front yard supervisor. Both boys disliked each other, and every time Benson wielded a heavy hand on Jeremiah in class, he came back to the hostel to face Jeremiah’s wrath.
Not all of us, however, were drunk with our power. In fact, the only supervisor who didn’t bully, extort or intimidate both his mates and the JSS1s was Ibuka. He was well-liked by our juniors because of his fairness, and he got many overtures of friendship from JSS2 boys who disapproved of his association with Joseph and I. “Why are you even following Eze and Joseph?” I overheard Hassan say to him one day. “Come and be our friend. Leave Eze and Joseph – they are wicked. They are not like you.”
But Ibuka was a loyal friend too, and never entertained the idea of dumping us.
“Ibu, abeg tear me foolscap paper from your rough book,” I said, standing before his desk in his class, JSS2A. Both our classes were having a rare free period, and our classmates were loitering and roaming about in between the two classrooms.
He gaped at me, incredulous. “So that is why you came all the way from your class to my class? To ask me to tear my rough book for you?”
“Yes.” I nodded.
“What happened to your own rough book?”
“I have tear it finish.”
“What do you even want to use foolscap paper to do?”
“I want to start writing the Inter Science assignment that The Mummy gave us,” I said, calling the Integrated Science teacher, Mrs. Ezuruonye by her nickname. I suddenly had an idea and I gave it life. “Unless you want to help me and do –”
“No.” Ibuka’s voice cut across my request like a whiplash. He was frowning as he lifted his notebook out of his desk. “Let me give you the paper so you can go and do it yourself.”
“Ibu, come on, please nah –”
“No. Mba.Mm-mmm. I’m not helping.” He ripped out the sheet and waved it in front of me.
“Oya, let me copy from your own.”
“I’ve not done the assignment yet. And when I do it sef, I’m not going to give you to copy. You and Joseph will just go and copy everything I wrote verbatim, and then Mrs. Ezuruonye will know we did expo.”
“This is just assignment nah. It’s not as if it’s test or exam. Teachers don’t use to check who copied the same thing in assignment.”
“I don’t want, Eze. Go and do your own first, then I will check it to make sure you wrote the correct thing.”
That was a good compromise. I smiled my agreement with it, and had started turning away when a girlish squeal caught our attention.
“Uzoma, leave me alone joor!” a girl snapped plaintively.
“Uzoma, leave me alone joor,” a boy mimicked in a mocking falsetto, and then said, “What if I don’t want to leave you alone nko? Eh? Eh?” And he tugged at one of the plaits on her head.
The girl was Ine Johnarry, a plump girl with baby-fat cheeks that dimpled prettily when she smiled, and tiny eyes with slanted ends that earned her the nickname ‘China’. Those eyes were now crinkled nearly shut as her face rumpled with misery. One hand went up to pull at her ear in the familiar gesture of warning. “Uzoma, you’re looking for my trouble! Uzoma, you’re looking for my trouble now! Heeeh! You won’t leave me alone now!”
“You want to cry? Cry nah! See oh!” taunted Uzoma, a skinny Peace House boy with ratty features and a mean-spirited disposition. “Cry!Cry-cry baby like you!” And he tugged at the plait again.
Ine’s face rumpled some more, and her trembling lips formed a moue of despair. “Uzoma, leave me nah…” Her voice was a quaver.
“Uzoma!” someone roared.
I was startled around to face Ibuka. A livid Ibuka. He had thick brows that had come down to form a groove in his brow, and his mouth was working, the way it usually did whenever he was furious. He shoved up from his seat and stomped over to the corner of the room where Uzoma was pestering Ine. He came to stand before him, and both his obvious rage and bigger size seemed to make the other boy quail.
“Leave China alone!” he fumed. “What is wrong with you? Can’t you see that what you’re doing to her is paining her?”
Uzoma thrust his chin forward belligerently. “Ehen? How is that your business?”
“She doesn’t want your disturbance. Leave her alone, or else…”
“Or else what?” Uzoma’s eyes gleamed with challenge.
Ibuka took a menacing step forward, placed his face only inches from Uzoma’s and said icily, “Or else I will tell Senior Udenze that when he’s writing next week’s duty roster, he should make you scrub the toilet for the whole week.”
Atta boy! My dear friend had finally used his authority to smack someone down to size.
Uzoma shot him a hateful look, and without saying anything, shouldered past him and out of the class. In the wake of his departure, Ibuka straightened, with an expression on his face that betrayed his surprise, as though he couldn’t believe what he’d just done. He mumbled something at Ine, without looking at her. He was less his confident and talkative self when he was around girls, especially those with any claim to good looks. He was turning to walk away when Ine said, “Thank you very much, Ibuka.”
He stopped and turned to face her. She was smiling – that kind of smile that was wide, open, enthusiastic. It pulled her small eyes down into slits and caused her cheeks to dimple like side pockets. In the face of that beam, Ibuka stood, his mouth slightly agape, his eyes rounded and his face lax. If he’d been struck by lightning, he couldn’t have looked more stupefied.
“Thank you very much, you’re my savior.” Ine came to stand before him. “You’re like” – she groped for the word and found it – “you’re like my knight in shining armour.”
“Oh no, China – it’s just – I couldn’t let him – you’re very –”
She giggled, clearly enjoying his discomfort. He smiled then, seemingly mortified by his awkwardness. Then he took in a deep breath, and upon exhalation, said steadily, “It’s nothing. I just wanted to help.”
“No problem.” He turned and started back for his seat, unaware of the gaze Ine let linger on his back. I was watching her, and when she noticed my eyes were on her, her body gave a startled jolt, and her eyelids fluttered down in the look characteristic of one caught doing what she was not supposed to be doing. And she turned back to her seat.
I recounted the episode for joseph, and later that day, as we strolled to the dining hall for lunch, we teased Ibuka with the incident. Joseph was the helpless maiden, all limp-wristed and fluttering eyelids. “Oh thank you,” he cooed in an off-key falsetto, “thank you very, very much for saving me, mister.” And I thrust out my chest in a show of the gallant knight and declared in a struggling bass, “Say no more, young lady. I was happy to do it, and I will do it again. When the dragon comes again” – and I waved my hand with flourish – “just call on me.” And the three of us gave in to fits of laughter.
The next day, after lunch, I discovered something in Ibuka’s locker. I’d opened it with his spare key, which I had in my possession (the three of us had the spare keys to each other’s lockers), and I was searching for his packet of Omo. I wanted to get started on my laundry. As I rifled for the detergent, I spotted a book. At first glance, I could tell it was a novel. Small, compact with a glossy red cover. I picked it up to see the title, and was surprised by the picture on the front cover – that of two people in an embrace. They were Caucasian and beautiful. The man’s hair was thick and dark, and hung to his nape, and his eyes smouldered down at the woman who was held to his broad-shouldered body with muscly arms. One hand was placed on her neck, beneath her sheaf of dark blonde hair, which cascaded like a golden waterfall down her back, and her head was angled so that her red, pouty lips were braced for the kiss the man seemed ready to give. The title that was stenciled above the couple was appropriate – Red Hot Lover.
I was intrigued. I flipped the book open and read the first page, and then the last. I caught descriptions of a man and woman kissing, and how their hearts beat faster. I read it again, and felt my heart beat faster too. I flicked to a random page in the middle, and my eyes widened as I followed the woman’s legs as they ‘wound around Zack’s hips, pulling him closer so he was buried deep inside her, and every stroke pushed her higher, closer to the pinnacle, up to the peak where earth ended and heaven began.’
“What are you doing with my book?” Ibuka’s snappish voice pulled my quasi-erotic equilibrium to a screeching halt.
I looked up, startled, with my eyes widened and my breathing a bit rushed. I was aware of my shorts feeling too snug and uncomfortable around my groin area. “Huh?” I croaked.
Ibuka snatched the book from my hand with a scowl. “What are you doing with my book?”
“It’s not your book.” I finally found my voice.
“What are you talking about? It’s my book.”
“It’s not. Since when did you start reading romance novels?”
“Since a time that is none of your business!” he snapped and tried to shoulder me away from his locker so he could stand before it.
“Eh? Who is reading romance novel?” Joseph’s voice resonated before his face popped up beside the locker.
“Ibuka!” And I tugged the book out of his grasp and brandished the front cover before Joseph’s face. “See? Man and woman kissing!”
Joseph saw, and his eyes goggled with glee.
“They are not kissing joor! Give me back my book!” Ibuka said furiously and yanked the book back out of my hands.
“Eh? Ibu, who gave you romance novel to read?” Joseph asked. His expression was one of fervent curiosity.
“It’s my own,” he declared petulantly.
“I saw all the novels you came with for this term –”
“Exactly,” I interjected, “and we did not see” – I paused and added with a lewd smile – “Red Hot Lover.”
“Nna eh, the name sha,” Joseph cackled.
“That is eh, if you see the things they were doing inside,” I rejoined.
“Ibu, who gave it to you nah? You can tell us.”
He stared resolutely back at us. His lips had firmed into a straight line, as though he was willing himself not to say anything to us.
“Tell us nah. Is it Cynthia?”
“Or Amaka – I’m sure it’s Amaka…”
“No, it has to be Chinwendu…”
“Wait oh, why must it be a girl that gave it to him?”
“Yes nah, boys don’t use to read romance novels…”
“Except boys like Ibuka…”
“Maybe it’s Okechukwu…”
“OK, OK, OK.” He caved with an abashed smile. “If I tell you everything, you have to promise not to tell anyone.”
TO BE CONTINUED.