It was the spray of cold water on my face that woke me up in the middle of the night. I looked up from my bed. It was raining outside. Heavily. The drumming sound of the rain on the ground assailed my ears as I got to my feet, shivering, and hastened to the window, intending to shut the wooden shutters against the intrusive shower. On the top bunk above my bed slept Ibuka; he was curled up in a fetal position, under covers, totally undisturbed by the rain.
Thunder crashed as I began to shut the windows, again and again, each rumble preceded by the violent flashes of lightning. The flashing beams diffused into the dormitory marginally and the occupants of the room – bunks, sleeping bodies and lockers – stood out like silhouettes, looking almost unreal, as if formed out of the darkness itself.
I hurried back to my bed, pulled the covers snugly over my body and shut my eyes, drifting off to sleep in a matter of seconds. In the meantime, the rain raged on outside.
Two boys were quarreling loudly in our dormitory as my friends and I walked across the hostel’s courtyard the next morning. We’d just returned from the borehole. It was Tuesday morning, and there were no classes, because the day was a National public holiday. Add that to the delicious chill permeating the atmosphere from last night’s rain, and the morning had this air of laziness and leisure that hung over the students. Most senior boys hadn’t even gotten up from their beds.
The SS3 boys in our dormitory, however, must have been up and out of the dormitory, because the two boys we saw as we approached the room, who had the temerity to be screaming at each other this early in the day, were junior boys. Leke Idowu and Matthias Itua – both of them were in the same class, JSS3D.
“Leke, you promised! You promised me! What kind of boy are you sef?”Matthias shrilled as we walked into the room. It was empty except for a few junior boys who were either huddled under bed covers or were clustered in small groups, conversing and studiously ignoring the rowing duo.
“Matthias, bring down your voice!” Leke hissed. His protuberant eyes oscillated from the other boy to us and back, in quick zigzag motions.
“I will not bring down my voice anything!” shrieked Matthias, a lanky boy with gaunt features and a docile personality. I’d always known him to be this mild-mannered boy who lived as though he had come to accept whatever his lot in life was. Whatever Leke had done to him must have been too grievous; enough to snap him out of his docility and turn him into this unfamiliar sight of enragement.
“I will not bring down my voice! You’re a very wicked boy! Wicked and stingy –”
“Don’t call my name! After everything I’ve done for you – this is what you always repay me with! But today, enough is enough!”
“Matthias, I’ve told you –”
“Don’t tell me anything! I don’t want to hear! And – wallai! – if you don’t do what you promised, I swear I will show you pepper!” He dragged his right forefinger over his tongue and flicked the digits of his right hand threateningly in Leke’s face.
“Don’t threaten me, my friend! Do you know who you are talking to!”
“Shebi that’s what you are saying to me, eh Leke? That’s what you are now saying to me . . .” His face crumpled and his voice wobbled a bit as he blinked furiously over angry tears.
That was when I decided to get involved.
“Matthias, what is the problem?” I asked, walking toward them.
“How is this now your business?” Leke instantly rounded on me.
I ignored him. The boy was not one of my favourite people. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t endeared to a lot of junior boys; his legendary stinginess made it hard for us to warm up to him. The boy was the kind of person who, if asked by his baby sister – if he had any – to give her the meat in his soup, would look her straight in the eye and say ‘No’.
I kept my gaze on Matthias. “Tell me, Matthias, what’s wrong?”
“Look, Eze –” Leke began.
“Shuttup, you this boy,” Joseph cut in. He was standing beside me. “He did not ask you. Why are you talking?”
Matthias lifted his knuckle to grind the tears out of his eyes. “Izzit not this Leke. Every time he will tell me to do this for him and do that for him. I should do them, and that he will be giving me small provision every now and then. Maybe even money during break time. He will talk, but when the time comes for him to do what he promised, he’ll be telling me stories. And I will endure because I used to think we are friends.”
I wanted to let out a scoffing laugh at that. Leke Idowu didn’t have friends, because he only had time to cater to one person. Himself. And I’d always found it odd that Matthias tolerated him. The two boys had struck up a friendship in our JSS2, one that had Matthias, who came from a lowly background, doing things for Leke, like doing Leke’s laundry, fetching water for him, tidying his locker and sometimes, doing his class assignments for him, all these with the expectation of reward from Leke’s considerable supply of allowance and provisions.
Or so we thought.
“But today,” Matthias was still fuming, “this boy has shown me how wicked he is. Yesterday, he told me to help him wash his clothes. If you see the clothes eh – both his own and the ones Senior Darlington and Senior Maduka gave him to wash. He gave them all to me. And this was in the evening o, nearly time for night food. I told him no. He then promised me heaven and earth, said he will make cornflakes for me, and buy bread and Mama Soso’s fried plantain for me. I agreed. Do you know I was still washing these clothes and they rang bell for food. Leke went for food o, but I could go. But I didn’t mind, because I was keeping my mouth to eat cornflakes and bread and friend plantain.
“Do you know that this boy disappeared after night food? I looked and looked for him, for where. He dodged me all throughout last night. Simple to smuggle out food for me, he didn’t. Hunger wanted to kill me. I was so hungry, if not for Chidi who allowed me to eat the leftover that Senior Ifeanyi left for him from the food he smuggled out for him.
“And now, I’ve seen him eating cornflakes, and I asked him for what he promised, and he is busy telling me nonsense.”
He stopped talking, and his thin chest heaved up and down with his agitated and raspy breathing.
Three pairs of eyes turned and rested with no small amount of incredulity and malevolence on Leke.
He stared defiantly back.
That was when I noticed the small bowl of creamy grub placed on his bed beside him. “Guy, nawa for you o,” I said. “I can now see that this your stinginess is deep inside your bone marrow.”
“Better watch what you are saying to me, Eze, and don’t talk to me anyhow. I don’t torolate nonsense.”
“It is ‘tolerate’, anu ohia,” Ibuka flashed. “You don’t even know anything. And you are just a nwa banshi – who do you think you are sef?”
“What did you just call me?” the Yoruba boy snapped, stung by the insult he didn’t understand. “Better pocket your mouth, orobo like you.”
“Hey! If you call him that again,” Joseph roared, “I’ll just wooze you a dirty slap!”
“Try am nah,” Leke snarled. “Since you don get two head. Abi orri e daru ni? Koni dafun e! Aba iya e!”
“Na your mama dey craze!” Joseph flung back. Every fiber of the spirited Lagosian in him was afire with outrage as he bounded forward, his fists clenched. “I’ll just beat you anyhow now-now, idiot! Try me! Just try me!”
“Joe, leave him,” Ibuka interjected, pulling Joseph back. “Leave him, the boy is nothing but a useless nincompoop.”
Whatever blistering rejoinder Leke opened his mouth to give was quelled when, in that moment, an SS2 boy walked into the dormitory. It was Henry, and he was bare-chested, wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and a sullen expression.
“Who be Leke for here?” he growled.
We turned to face him.
“Me,” Leke answered warily.
“Olumide dey call you.” And he turned and left the room just as unceremoniously as he entered.
The silence that descended in the wake of his departure pulsed with tensions of unfinished conflicts and bridled dislike. Scowls were exchanged. Someone hissed. And Leke whisked his partly-eaten bowl of cornflakes into his locker and walked stiffly out of the dormitory.
Matthias sniffed. Ibuka turned to him and said with some commiseration, “Are you still hungry? Soon, they will ring breakfast bell, you hear? It’s moi-moi we are eating, so I can give you garri and milk that you can soak and eat with it, okay?”
As Matthias nodded gratefully, Joseph hissed, “Someone needs to teach that Leke a lesson.”
“I think I know just how to do that,” I said, feeling the beginnings of an idea stir through my mind.
“How do you mean?” Joseph asked.
“You’ll see.” I hurried out of the room, to the quadrangle and out of the gates. I traversed the hostel to the backyard spread out behind our wing of the building. As I walked past the windows of my dormitory, I could see my friends watching me curiously through the burglary proof.
I didn’t have much further to go before I saw what I was looking for. I came to a stop before a black line pulsating across the ground that was still sodden from last night’s rain. It was a colony of soldier ants, marching from somewhere in the grassy section of the yard, where the rain must have disturbed their habitat, out across the cleared pathway, and down against the side of the building. The colony was on the move, as they always were after every rainfall that interrupted a spate of dry weather. Nomads, in search of better accommodation elsewhere. Foraging and scavenging for food as they marched. Powerful mandibles no doubt snapping in anticipation of any opposition or intruders.
“Eze, what are you planning?” Ibuka called from the window.
I turned and smiled. “Give me the packer that we use when sweeping our dorm.”
“Why?” Both he and Joseph chorused. They looked at me, then at the ants crawling by on the ground. Enlightenment came, and they grinned widely.
“Are you sure it will work?” Ibuka asked with a giggle.
“Well, let’s try first.”
Joseph disappeared from the window and returned with the dustpan which he passed to me through the window bars. “Pass it back through here,” he said, “so I can do it. That way it will be faster.”
I nodded and started toward the mass of insects. My heart had started a quickening tattoo as the menacing caste loomed before me.
“Be careful, Eze,” Ibuka called out. “Let them not bite you o.”
I nodded again. I leaned forward. Then I swept my hand downward, swiftly scooping sand and insects onto the dustpan.
The moment the plastic touched down on them, the ranks broke and the colony splintered into tiny black bodies darting this way and that. They moved speedily, and some of the ones I secured on the dustpan had already started up the handle and were scrambling all over my fingers. Their stingers bit down on my skin, sending short stinging bursts of pain shooting up my arm.
“Quick! Quick – hurry!” I said urgently as I dashed back to the window.
The dustpan moved from my hand to Joseph’s.
I swatted the insects off my hand as I sped back into the hostel. I got into the dormitory in time to see Joseph hurriedly sprinkling the contents of the dustpan behind Leke’s locker. Ibuka, Matthias and the other boys in the room looked on, expressions that mixed interest and amusement stamped on their faces.
“Do you think it will work?” Matthias asked.
I shrugged. “Let’s hope so.” Ants had a knack for discovering exposed food. And Leke had an uncovered bowl of cornflakes sitting inside his locker. Put that all together, and a perfect retribution was in the making.
Moments after Joseph was done, we went back to preparing for the day. Matthias returned to his dormitory. Joseph ironed Senior Darlington’s school shirt. I polished Senior Boma’s leather palm slippers. Ibuka cleaned out Senior Chidiogo’s cubicle. Then we had our baths. Time ticked by. Leke was yet to return from whatever errand Senior Olumide sent him out on.
Then the school bell pealed, announcing breakfast.
“About time,” Ibuka groaned. “Ah-ah, these people are late today o.”
“Maybe, it’s because it’s public holiday,” I said, “and they know we are not going to class after breakfast.”
“I’m hungry joor,” Joseph growled. “Let’s go.”
Outside, I could see boys streaming out of the dormitories, heading out to the dining hall. Joseph wasn’t the only hungry person.
As the three of us started for the door, Leke burst in. He was still in his pyjamas, and had the harried look of one who knew he probably wouldn’t make it in time for breakfast. He stomped past us, somehow managing the multitasking of unbuttoning his pyjama top and unlocking his cupboard.
“Ah-ah, Leke, where you dey since?” Benson hailed from his corner of the room.
“Izzit not Senior Olumide ,” he spat, his irritation apparent, “who sent me to Hope House junior hostel to go and collect something from their house prefect, Senior Innocent. And the guy just kept me waiting and waiting, while he was busy gisting with some senior boys. Because me, I don’t have something better to do with my time, abi?”
“Eiyaa,” Benson commiserated. “And now, you will miss morning food.”
“No, I won’t.”
“But you have not baffed yet nah.”
“I’ll do rub-and-shine.”
We were still watching when it happened.
Absentmindedly, Leke had picked up his long-forgotten bowl of cornflakes. From the dish teemed a number of ants. A dark avalanche that had moved on from the bowl and were now all over the inside of the locker. Leke was a dirty boy, and the ants were delighting in his untidiness. The unwashed plate from last night’s dinner. The partially-open tin of Peak milk. The tiny foody particulates that were smeared all over the floor of the locker. Wherever there was something edible, the ants were there, scavenging it all.
And the person holding the bowl of cornflakes was disturbing them. So they attacked.
Leke let out a shriek when he suddenly noticed the insects streaming up his hands. He screamed as he let go of the dish, and started slapping away at his hands, swatting at the ants and wincing at the pain of their stinging wrath.
There was an outburst of pitiless laughter from the boys watching him. I couldn’t help the surge of savage satisfaction that coursed through my body as I observed his discomfiture.
“Who did this?” he shrilled when he was done ridding the ants from his hands. He had on an expression of horror as he took in the sight of the insects swarming all over his locker. “Who!” He turned his angry face to the spectators.
We stared defiantly and silently back.
“Shebi it’s you!” Those protuberant eyes, made wider by his vexation, zipped from Joseph to Ibuka to me. “It’s the three of you – I know it is! You wicked boys, look at what you have done! I will report to Senior Chidiogo! You won’t get away with this!”
“Go ahead!” I retorted.
“Who is afraid of you reporting!” Joseph added.
“After all, did you see us put ants in your locker, you dirty boy,” Ibuka sneered.
“I know it’s you! And I will report!” He was close to tears. “I will report you!”
“Good, go and report,” a voice cut in. we turned. Matthias was standing at the doorway, and he was staring coldly at Leke. “Go, please, go and report them. And then, I will tell whoever you report to what you did to me. The wickedness you showed me yesterday.” He eyes sparkled with thinly-veiled dislike. “Who do you think the senior will beat – the wicked, stingy boy or the considerate boys who decided to teach him a lesson?”
We waited, smugly watching Leke.
He deflated and his face fell.
Recognizing his defeat, we let out a loud cheer, high-fiving each other and hugging Matthias. Then the four of us walked out into the chilly morning, chattering as we made our way to the dining hall, and dismissing Leke Idowu from our minds.
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