There was a faint stir on my left as Joseph moved his body. Like me, he was lying down on the grainy and hard asphalt of the nearly-deserted car park. It was 9pm and the serenity of the environment was broken by the occasional resonance of students conversing, boys, as they strolled past, headed to and from the borehole and others with no particular destination in mind. It was getting late, but the school was still a long way from slumber.
“Me ke?” Joseph answered. “Be prefect? No o! I don’t want.”
Ibuka chuckled on my right. “I knew that was what you were going to say, Joe. You can’t even be prefect. You won’t even know how to be one.”
“Gbam! You know every-every, Ibu.”
“And you, Ibu…?” I prompted.
“Ah, yes nah. I’d like to be prep prefect.”
“Of course,” Joseph and I chorused.
He laughed. “What is it? Is it a bad thing to want to be a prep prefect? I would have said Head Boy sef. But I’m not tall and fine and popular, like some people we know.”
“Ah, forget Head Boy,” Joseph concurred. “If it’s that position, no one can contest it with Anthony.”
Anthony Osuji was one of the most popular boys in our set, in JSS3C, and was the poster child for good studentship. He was an active member of the Debate Club, had a musical prowess that made him a star member of the Music Club, and was the one knickers-wearing junior student, as a Press Club member, who had ever been chosen to read the news during an assembly. As if his résumé wasn’t impressive enough to make him a shoo-in for the post of Head Boy when we became senior students, he was also the protégée of Senior Nkemka, our current Head Boy, and had been the school-son of Senior Chiedozie, the Head Boy when we were in JSS2.
“The guy na correct Head Boy material,” I said. “Even principal knows him by name.”
“Plus he doesn’t even have a girlfriend,” Joseph added, sounding as though that was a handicap necessary to qualify one to be in the running for the post of a Head Boy. He shuddered, and as I laughed at that, he said, “What of you, Eze? Do you want to be a prefect?”
I nodded, and then realizing they couldn’t see that in the darkness, I said, “Yes, I do. I want to be –”
“Wait!” Joseph interrupted. “Assistant Head Boy?”
“Tah!” Ibuka interjected. “That’s not what Eze wants to be.”
“Dining Hall prefect?”
“Joe, leave the boy to talk na.”
“Social prefect? So you can be runsing all the girls…”
“I think you’re confusing me with you,” I rejoined. The two of them laughed. “No, I want to be a House prefect. For senior hostel.”
“I knew it,” Ibuka enthused.
“That’s nice,” Joseph said. “Nice for you people that want to be prefects.”
“Why don’t you, by the way?” I asked.
“Because as a prefect, you’ll be required to be a good student most of the time. Unless it’s in the line of duty, prefects are not allowed to simply be wicked anyhow. And I intend to be a wicked SS3 boy.”
“Joseph!” Ibuka and I gasped.
“Yes nah,” he said insistently. “You think after all these suffering I’m suffering as a junior boy, I’ll now enter SS3 and not do back? Nawa for you o. Do me, I do another person, God no go vex.”
“God go vex o,” Ibuka retorted. “God go vex well-well. It is because of this lack of forgiveness that we keep having wicked SS3s set after set. We really should learn to forgive and be good to our juniors, no matter what we went through as juniors ourselves.”
“I have heard you, Saint Chukwuibuka,” Joseph scoffed, drawling Ibuka’s full name. “When we enter SS3, you can join Father Abraham and Mother Theresa to bring joy to the world.”
We shared a laugh at the teasing remark. Our mirth lasted for several seconds, before we lapsed back into silence. We lay there, three young children, gazing up at the stars, peering into a future beyond the sparkling phalanx, wondering what it held in store for us.
“I wish we’ll enter SS3 like tomorrow-tomorrow,” I said wistfully.
“I wonder what we’ll be like as senior boys,” Joseph said in a tone that matched mine.
“Yes,” Ibuka agreed. “What kind of SS3s will we be . . .?”
The junior boy’s name is Joshua. He is seated in a corner of the Peace House senior hostel quadrangle, on a low tree stem, whose surface is smoothened by years of friction between other bottoms and the top. He inhales the citrusy smells of the shorn grass as his hands move rhythmically over the clothes in the bucket, both arms and clothes dampened by the sudsy water in the bucket. He hums a tune under his breath and concentrates on each item of clothing he picks from the pile beside him. He refuses to look at the garment heap; he doesn’t want to feel the misery that brought tears to his eyes when Senior Joseph ordered him to do his laundry several minutes ago. At least, he is not hungry, he has had lunch. Still, he prefers to be out of here, the hostel, to be in the school field with his friends, kicking around a ball or gisting up a storm.
Just then, the sound of the school bell resonates from a distance. He gives a start on his seat, remembering that it is time for the afternoon prep. At this time, all students are supposed to be headed for the classrooms. He hedges. His hands stop moving. He thinks about his options: to continue with the laundry and risk the wrath of whichever prefect will walk in on him, or suspend what he is doing and return later in the day to answer to Senior Joseph. Senior Joseph is an unpredictable SS3 boy, Joshua thinks, remembering how genial he can be, how so playful he is with his juniors, to the point you are tempted to take him for granted. And then, just when you are getting comfortable with him, he will unleash that mean streak that has made him one of the most formidable SS3 boys in school. Joshua knows this, and his fear makes up his mind for him. He continues washing, praying silently that no prefect will decide to do his duty and rouse the hostels for those ducking from the school activity.
Heaven doesn’t hearken to his prayer.
He stiffens at the bellow and looks fearfully up.
“Didn’t you hear the bell?”
The snarling face belongs to the prep prefect, Senior Ibuka. His plump form is smartly clad in well-ironed day-wear, and his fist is clenched over one end of a cane. Senior Ibuka is a kind-hearted senior, whose only ax to grind is with those who break school regulations.
“Am I not talking to you?” he barks as he steps out of the doorway of his dormitory.
Joshua swallows hard and gets shakily to his feet. Suds drip down his hands. “S-s-senior, sorry, it’s just that I’m washing –”
“And that’s enough reason not to go for prep?”
Joshua bursts out in protest. “No – senior! It’s not! I’m sorry, it’s Senior Joseph that told me to wash his clothes.” Surely, the prefect will pardon him, since it is his best friend whose chore is keeping him from attending prep.
“Joe told you to wash his clothes?”
“And you couldn’t choose another time to do it except now?”
Joshua’s heart sinks. Senior Ibuka is not partial to rule breakers, no matter the reason for the infraction. He stutters, “Se-senior, I’m sorry –”
“Before I count to five,” the prefect snaps, “you have vanished from here and straight to your class.”
“Yes, senior. . .”
“ONE!” he thunders.
Joshua bends to start packing up his things. His hands tremble in his haste.
“I said to your class now! TWO!”
Joshua realizes the prefect means for him to abandon everything and get out of the hostel. He hopes no one will tamper with anything, and turns to run out of the compound.
“Hey you! Joshua!” another voice shouts.
He pauses mid-flight and looks up, ahead of him, at the gate where the House captain, Senior Eze stands. The boy is clad in a white singlet, a pair of boxer shorts and slippers. He is also wearing a scowl on his face.
“Where do you think you are going?” he says as he advances into the compound. “Did Nduka not tell you this morning that I said you should clean those last two stalls in the toilet?”
Joshua’s heart sinks further, reaching down to settle on the floor of his stomach. “Yes, senior, he did –”
“And did you do it?”
They both know he didn’t.
He shakes his head miserably as he replies, “No, Senior Eze . . . I am so sorry, I said I will wash them this night –”
“Nonsense! Come on, will you go and wash that toilet right now before I come out of my good mood and beat thunder out of you!”
“Yes, senior.” On legs quivering like leaves, he turns around.
“Is that the way to your classroom?” a steely voice cuts in.
He freezes. In the moment spent answering Senior Eze, he had forgotten Senior Ibuka. He turns a distraught expression to the prefect and begins imploringly, “Senior . . . please –”
“I said, go to your class!”
“Better go and clean that toilet!” Senior Eze roars.
“Clean what toilet? Go to what class?” a new voice cuts in.
Joshua’s heart finally solidifies into a lump of stone, a leaden weight that sits down there in his stomach. He stares as Senior Joseph saunters out of the same dormitory Senior Ibuka just came out from. His expression is grim and his voice a bark as he says, “Joshua, you don wash my cloth finish?”
“No, senior. . .”
He glances at the laundry piled haphazardly in one corner of the quadrangle, and widens his eyes dramatically. “Wait first, na my cloth you carry drop there wan comot go class?” Outrage colours his tone.
“Which class?” Senior Eze says. “The boy is going straight to wash the toilet.”
“Take one step toward that toilet, Joshua,” Senior Ibuka snarls, “and you’re a dead man.”
“Wallai tallai, Joshua, if I don’t see you back there, washing my clothes,” senior Joseph seethes, “I will skin you alive!”
All of a sudden, the three senior boys are talking at once, their voices raised, their sharply-uttered commands and threats tumbling over each other in a fight for supremacy in volume and foreboding.
“If you’re not in that toilet before I count five, you’ll wish you were not born!”
“Miss my prep, you hear? Just dare miss my prep, and I’ll finish you!”
“Your papa there – will you go and finish my clothes before I beat the living daylights out of you!”
Torn and shuffling his feet in jerky, undecided motions, Joshua feels genuine fear course through his body in a cold cascade. Tears sting his eyes and dribble down his cheeks, and small sobbing sounds escape his trembling lips in fits and starts. He is truly terrified, and unsure which senior boy it is wise to disrespect.
Just then, the shouting stops and the three SS3 boys suddenly start laughing. Uncontrollable laughter which lasts until they are holding their sides. Joshua sniffs and stares confusedly at them.
Senior Ibuka walks up to him and pats him consolingly on his shoulder. “Stop crying, Joshua,” he says with a smile. “No one is going to beat you. You’re just a victim of three boys who should know better.”
Joshua gives a dewy smile in response. It hangs tremulously on his lips, as though he is unsure about believing the prefect.
“That’s better.” Senior Ibuka pats him again. “Now, go and finish Joe’s laundry and forget about prep.”
“Yes!” Senior Eze hollers from where he is standing. “And after washing, you can then go and clean the toilet.”
“And just for today, I’ll pardon you for missing prep, you hear?” Senior Ibuka adds by wagging a warning finger.
“Yes, senior,” Joshua says with a nod. And he watches the prefect move away from him to where his two friends are standing and jesting. He sighs, a trembly rush of air that betrays his relief, and starts to walk back to the tree stem and his buckets and the heap of clothing.
I felt Joseph shiver beside me. And the slight snores coming from my right made me aware that Ibuka was asleep. The night appeared to have gotten cooler, and I felt the cold current of the nightly breeze horripilate over the exposed skin of my arms and legs. The asphalt had gotten too uncomfortable to lie on, and there wasn’t as much traffic of boys in the car park as there had been several minutes ago. It was time to go back to the hostel, to our beds.
“Oya o,” I said, sitting up and brushing grit off my hands, “let’s go and sleep.”
“Cold is catching me sef.” Joseph was getting up too.
“Ibu, wake up!” I shook him once, and he blinked his eyes open.
“How do you manage to sleep on this tarred road sef?” Joseph asked as he stretched on his feet.
Ibuka yawned and said, “Men, I was having this dream about the future.”
“What future?” Joseph and I said at once. The three of us had started walking toward the senior hostels.
“About when we became SS3 boys. It was a good dream. I was the prep prefect. Eze was Peace House captain, and Joe was not a prefect. And the three of us were good seniors.’
“Tufia!” Joseph burst out. “It won’t work for you, you hear?”
I shot him an amused look, and my amusement was reflected in Ibuka’s voice as he asked, “What do you mean?”
Joseph’s face was a picture of righteous indignation as he said, “Both you and your dreams will not get me. You will not turn me into a good SS3 boy. Afukwana. I will be wicked, you hear me? Wicked! Wicked! Wicked!”
And in spite of ourselves, we started laughing hard, our sounds of delight reverberating in the nightly atmosphere.
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