The way the wheeze trembles out through my nostrils is testament to the fact that I had lied to myself earlier. There really is no outgrowing the dread of this period. At all.
Brendan is done calling the list. My name isn’t there. He is now gathering the canes and making for the doors in quick strides. Those defaulters are dead today, I swear.
We continue our meal in silence, grateful for the little luck we’ve had in escaping Brendan’s ‘hit list’. And then a series of thwacks in rapid succession interrupt us again and whip our attention towards the podium.
Water Prefect, Kingsley Ajaka, is bringing down a leather belt on a student’s back. The student collapses from his kneeling position to a lying one where he is writhing and crawling away from Kingsley, but Kingsley’s strokes follow with demonic force and speed – whack!-whack!-whack!-whack!-whack!-whack!-whack! – his big eyes blind to whatever part of the hapless student’s body his weapon lands on. If the poor boy doesn’t bleed today… Later I would accost the boy before prep after noticing the thick welts on his face to ask what his offence was only to be told that he had been flogged for ‘wasting water.’ Hehehe.
As one of the students appointed caretaker of the school while the administration deliberated the issue of appointment of prefects, everyone expected Kingsley to be appointed to a more significant post – like punctuality or assistant head boy – which would afford him leverage to exercise authority. But his hopes had been dashed hence he is venting that anger on someone – for wasting water. Bastard.
In the wake of Kingsley’s brutality, comes the head boy’s own speech. In a cool voice, he states that he wants all SS1 students to wait behind after lunch. Head girl, Ngozi Essien, sashays up to interrupt him, whispers something to him in an important manner, and sashays back to her table…
House captain of Diamond House, Ekene Robinson, climbs next. All the girls in that hostel should assemble in the hostel immediately after lunch. She repeats herself nine times, each time shriller than the last before she goes back to her table. Can this one withstand students’ stubbornness? She cannot even command a significant presence.
It’s now the turn of the punctuality prefect to give his own announcement. In all my years here, never has a punctuality prefect been a weak-willed, soft-hearted person – and never will it be. Ika Innocent fits perfectly into the shoes of his predecessors. He stands straight, chin up, hands on his hips, one foot placed in front of the other, smiling faintly. Casual but lethal. His voice is more collected than the head boy’s, like still water in a bucket. ‘You know my own,’ he begins, ‘I don’t like talking too much, but I will talk a little so that when the action begins to happen you won’t say you were not served a script beforehand.’ Best art student in his class and president of the literary and debating society – why wouldn’t he get colourful? ‘Do not, I repeat, do not contemplate coming late for any activity or exercise or else you are done for. I will not entertain any excuses, so don’t come telling me that your school mother sent you on an errand or that you were dying of AIDS that’s why you came late. I will just tattoo your back. As for dodging activities altogether, if your case gets to me, it is better you kill yourself before I come do it for you. I know this is all clear. Bon appetite.’ He hops off the podium.
Most of the SS2 and 3 students are shuffling out of the ref now having finished their meal, and being too high above the rules to stay for grace. SS2 are wearing varied expressions of self-importance communicating the message of their new status as the most lawless of the school after SS3. From the shuffling throng a girl’s voice sticks out as it approaches me. My attention forks the source of the sound. I know the girl. She is pretty and I would have liked her but for circumstances beyond my control. She is the new assistant horticulture prefect – the most useless post anyone could ever hold. Her name is Patricia Ehima and she is my estranged cousin. Despite that our fathers are brothers, Patricia and I speak a maximum of six sentences to each other in a term. I have no idea why this is so and I won’t waste my time dwelling on it beyond concluding that perhaps because we met just once at childhood before meeting again in school, we probably weren’t used to each other still, and with the hectic life of school, haven’t found time to be family – nor did we care to.
Patricia smiles at me briefly. I return the gesture, but she has already snatched the attention from me to give it back to the boy by her side, Kunle Boye. He is our new social prefect. I rotate my neck for my gaze to follow them out the doors as she smiles steadily at something he’s saying through lips that are barely moving. She laughs then and flicks her wrist up in the air as if dismissing him, increasing her pace. He grins and follows.
My attention lets them be. So long as they are using a condom, I don’t have a problem – because I need Patricia badly.
By this time next year, my class will govern the school and I want to be social prefect. The outgoing prefects always have a say in the decision to appoint successors. Patricia’s friendship with Kunle will be useful to me, so, starting today, all awkwardness between my cousin and me ends; I am including some family time in both our schedules from now on.
The bell goes again. Four rings by dining hall prefect, Edidem Abasifreke, mandating us to rise and chorus grace. As is typical with this period, we haven’t been allowed to finish our food, having spent most of lunchtime listening to the crazy announcements of our power-drunk prefects. I don’t even care; cold beans and soaked garri that has caked are not my idea of something good to eat – fuck all these prefects.
‘Now you have just five minutes to wash your plates and cutleries before siesta,’ Edidem warned before the amen.
‘And listen!’ a powerful voice crashes in after Edidem. It’s Haliru Malik’s. He is the overall house captain, and is actually a cool guy, if you know what I mean. ‘As soon as you are done here, climb your beds for siesta. What did I say?’
We tell him what he has said – in case he wasn’t listening to himself.
‘Lemme not get you anywhere else – that clear?’
We respond with the drawn-out yes and set about the next business – plate-washing. The taps, located at the front of the hall are running now and people are scrambling for them. The jus – especially – are making every effort to keep their faces averted from the right-hand section of the hall, but then they can only try and everybody can’t be lucky; I purse my lips to hiss for the attention of a ju guy trying to zap past. The boy’s shoulders seem to deflate when it is certain it is him I called, and he shuffles towards me. He shouldn’t feel so bad; someday he will become a senior too. Even before I give the instructions, he shows he knows what to do; he collects the plate and bowl of half-eaten food and slips back into the crowd headed for the taps. At supper time I will see him, with my plates squeaky clean, ready for another meal – rice this night – and, hopefully, we might get to eat in peace without these mad prefects spitting all over the place. ■