At the beginning of our friendship, she told me all about herself and her family. She said her parents used to live in the North before moving to Ibadan when the religious crises began and their properties were burnt and her brother killed, the pain in her voice when she told me the agony she experienced during this crisis was heart wrenching for me.
She told me how jealous and envious she used to be whenever we cruised down the street in our blue car looking smart and healthy. Her mum would sense the longing look in her eyes and would tell her to work harder at her studies so that she could also own a car like that. She always wished I would just wave back at her all those times she waved but was always disappointed that I used to look at her like a common beggar. She got angry at the leering look in Sean’s eyes and the sand throwing started. It always pained her that the look was like we were judging her like she would never amount to anything in life.
She told me that her dad was always too drunk to remember to pay her school fees, and she was always wearing hand-me-down clothes that hugged her body a little too tightly. She started to blame people like my parent for being who they were and for not caring about people like them. She said she had to go to the taxi- parks and motor parks to sell sachet water, oranges, and biscuits; in between moving cars; pinched by dirty looking touts; spanked on the buttock by drunk drivers that wanted their change that she didn’t have.
She told me of how she used to get beaten everyday by her teachers because of her incessant lateness to school. They did not understand that she had to trek all the way to school so as to eat something when she gets there. She told me of the humiliation of being thrown out of school when they couldn’t pay. In all these hardship, her sister had to stop school because her father and his family thought educating a girl was like a wasted effort. Sandra said that her mum had to put up with a lot of stress and humiliation for her to remain in school because she saw the diligence and determination in her. Her fees were often pardoned because of the quizzes and competitions she won for the school through her academic brilliance.
She confessed to me that each time she had to study in the sitting room that served as bedroom for herself and her sister while their parents slept in the tiny bedroom, the memory of me and my brother in our parents’ car and the scornful look on the faces of her dad’s family kept her eyes opened and set her determination higher even when the smoke from the open-lantern stung her eyes. Each time she talked about her childhood, I saw how thankful I should be for my parents. I couldn’t imagine myself hawking oranges on main roads because my parents were poor.
Sandra and I did our registration together. We were allocated the same hostel on the campus which was another part of my life that helped shape my adulthood.
The hostel of Lagos City Polytechnic was a row of long buildings consisting of small rooms built to accommodate four students per room but ended up housing ten or more due to the large population of students in government schools. The buildings were lettered A to E, and in each building were twenty four rooms with each room having its own bathroom and toilet. Sandra and I were placed into room 12 in block C.
We were lucky to share the room with two other girls from our general class; they were Ewang Cindy and Bimbo Lawson. They moved into the room before we did so they took the best bed space. The day we moved into the room, Cindy was cold towards us. It was as if we were invading into their privacy. She hissed and muttered all through the process of arranging our stuffs. We didn’t know why; but we kept up being friendly till she eventually gave in to Sandra’s charm.
Let me tell you a little about these two amazing girls. Bimbo was from Kwara State but her parents lived in Port-Harcourt. Her dad died when she was very young and he didn’t leave much of an inheritance for them to fall back on. Her aged mum therefore had to go through a lot for her children to get through school. She, like Sandra’s mum, was into petty-trading in front of the two bedroom house. Bimbo had two siblings; two younger sisters; all female just like Sandra. Bimbo’s mum was fifty years old when she entered into the Polytechnic and her youthful strength was already receding. It was affecting her little petty business and this was one of the reasons for Bimbo’s determination to excel in her education and this was what attracted Sandra and me to her.
Cindy on the other hand was the type of girl that liked to live in a fool’s paradise. She boasted a lot about her family that no one could really say what it was her parent did for a living or if they were alive. Sandra always said Cindy would land us into big trouble one day which she nearly did but that is another story for another chapter. Cindy’s parents never visited and she rarely ever went home on semester breaks. All we heard was that she had a younger sister and brother somewhere. They also never visited. It was rumored that her siblings were both dropouts and were undergoing apprenticeship under some artisans in the somewhere. We heard they both lived in Lagos with Mr. and Mrs. Ewang if they really did exist, some people even thought Cindy was a ghost.
Cindy hated it when people said these things about her. She claimed that her family was in Ghana and that that was why they did not visit. She showed us pictures of some people but she confessed to us later about her real parental background. In her newest story, her younger sister got pregnant while in school and was expelled. Her brother dropped out of school because they couldn’t afford the fees. She did not have a dad because he disowned them and traveled to Sweden with a white woman he used to work for.
“The point is that I don’t want anybody looking at me and shaking their head in pity,” Cindy said one day in our room. “I want no pity from anyone and I will make sure of that.”
Bimbo looked at her and shook her head.
“I told her to stop telling lies about her family but she never listened,” Bimbo said as she smoothed out the creases on her bed.
“Bimbo, please don’t start,” Cindy said as she walked out of the room, “if I want pity, I will go to those that will give me hundreds of thousands of naira for it.”
Time went by and I became more relaxed both in school and in the hostel. When I got to my second year, I started dating a four hundred level Ibo guy. His name was Austin. Austin was a quiet, cool, level-headed good-looking guy that had a cute gap in his beautiful set of teeth. He became a regular visitor to my room at the hostel and I paid frequent visit to his house outside the campus. I enjoyed talking to Austin and loved being in his company. Other guys respected him and he carried himself around with so much gait and confidence. We spent time at the library together and he often took me shopping.
When I introduced him to Sandra, she acted cold towards him and I was embarrassed by her hostility. Austin was so uneasy that he had to leave just a few minutes of his arrival, all attempts to make him stay was ignored. I finally yielded and escorted him out of the hostel but when I got back to the room I accused Sandra of being unfriendly and before we knew it, it had turned into an argument. It was at that moment that Bimbo came into the room and asked what the problem was.
“Bimbo, do you know who Alice had been calling her mystery boy friend?” Sandra began.
“Who is he if I may ask? Some armed robber you know?” Bimbo replied in her usual calmness.
“Austin Black Crow,” Sandra said in a low whisper. Bimbo shook her head and pushed me down on the bed.
“Alice, are you nuts?” Bimbo asked.
‘His name is Austin Allen,” I countered and gave Sandra a stern look but she hissed and looked away.
Bimbo told me that Austin was a Cultist. The leader of one of the most dreaded Confraternity on our campus. I shook my head and said it was a lie. Bimbo told me to be more vigilant and to have my ears to the ground whenever I find myself alone with him. I promised myself that I will do all I can to prove them wrong.
But what unfolded after that was surprising and changed the way I felt about Austin. Things started to make better sense to me after a while of watching Austin. I treated it like a big puzzle and by the time I arranged the first few pieces, the others began to fall into place. The way people greeted him and scurry away indicated they wanted to get as far away from him as possible. The stern-looking guys that always congregated in his house off campus were another pointer to this fact. There were days as well when he would tell me not to visit as he had things to do. And there were also a few guy-friends who would not talk to me or answer my greeting whenever I walked with him.
I decided to search his house during one of his frequent disappearances and as if truth was determined to reveal itself, he decided to travel home and left his key with me. I saw him to the bus station after I finished in class the next day and from there I went to his house.
I unlocked the door and stood in the middle of his one room studio-apartment. I didn’t know the exact thing to look for or what I would find; but I want to be sure if what Bimbo said was true and if my suspicions were positive. I went to his bed and lifted up the mattress but there was nothing there, just books and porn magazines, polythene bags and old newspapers. I replaced the mattress and sat on the bed for a while. I went to the television and lifted it up, I opened his wardrobe and searched through his clothes, rummaged in the cupboard where he kept his groceries and after minutes of a non-yielding search I gave up and poured myself a cup of water from his small fridge.
I sipped the water slowly and felt like a fool. What was I thinking? What was I hoping to find? If I did find something, what was I going to do with it? I gulped the last few drops in the cup, refilled the plastic bottle and returned it to the fridge. I picked an orange and placed the filled bottle of water on the lower shelf. I almost dropped the orange in my hand when I saw something that looked like a small gun at the bottom of the fridge. It was carefully wrapped in a transparent nylon bag and placed behind the oranges. I put down the orange and brought out the nylon bag. An astonished cry escaped my mouth but I covered my mouth just n time as someone started banging on the door. I hastily replaced the bag and calmed myself down as I opened the door. It was one of Austin’s friends. He looked at me from head to toe before he smiled and asked if Austin was in and I said no. He looked past my shoulder into the room and his eyes quickly scanned the room. Having satisfied himself that there was no one else in the room he turned and left. I went back into the room, sat on the bed and stared at the small fridge.
This is trouble, I thought. I did not know how I was going to calm or comport myself when I see Austin again. I got up, straightened and replaced everything to its original position and went out of the room.
When I got to the hostel and saw Sandra, I told her everything. She advised that we go to the student affairs office and make a report on what I saw. We met Bimbo on the way but she stopped us from going and asked us to follow her back into the hostel instead.
“You girls are just plain naive. Do you think those people at SAO do not know what these guys do on campus?” Bimbo began as we sat on the bed facing her.
“Our lecturers, some of our parents, the government, they all contribute one way or the other to the occurrences and activities of cultism in our schools,” she went on when we offered no response.
“Cultism is like a parasite that has eaten deep into our society. Politicians use these cultist as their political thugs, government often use them to disrupt activities in our school, so that the school will be closed and they will broadcast it in newspapers and television as they dangle some innocent guys as culprits while the perpetrators go free and we praise the government for a job well done,” Bimbo continued and wiped her eyebrows.
I looked at Bimbo and saw the excitement in her eyes. It was just as if the topic had brought out some pent-up emotions in her but I couldn’t identify which they were. Bimbo shook her head and hissed. I wondered if it was the government she had hissed at or the cultists themselves. I braced myself to ask her but she raised her hand and I bit back the question.
“Do you know that some of these cult guys are children of top government officials? Boys rejected in schools abroad and dumped in our midst to terrorize us? Those who use the guys as thugs take their children abroad and dangle little money in front of these ones and use them as baits to achieve their selfish aims,” Bimbo continued and stood up. Sandra and I nodded as the truth of Bimbo’s discussion hit us.
“All what you said are quite true but what do you want me to do now? Austin will be back tomorrow. How do I face him?” I asked in my perplexed situation. Bimbo sat down and placed her chin in her hand with her elbow resting on a table.
“I still think we should tell someone about this. I never really liked the guy,” Sandra said after a few minutes of silence. Our intellectual on cult matters refused to talk. I nudged Bimbo and she scratched her head saying she was trying to come up with something. I told her to hurry up. Cindy came back from lectures to find us still seated the way we were.
“Did someone die?” Cindy asked as she entered. Sandra smiled and pushed her into the bed and told her to shut up because we were busy thinking of a way out of my dilemma.
“Which depth of dilemma cannot be fixed with a bowl of iced cream?” Cindy asked. Bimbo couldn’t hold back her laughter at the phrase and rolled on the bed. I looked at all of them and wished it wasn’t me that had to face Austin when he comes back.
Cindy saw my worried look and controlled herself, and others tried to do the same. The funny look on Sandra’s face as she tried to suppress her laughter brought one from me and we all started laughing again.
“You girls shouldn’t be laughing. Please stop,” I urged between my own laughter.
By the time the alarm on Bimbo’s table clock struck twelve midnight, we were yet to make a concluding decision on how to solve the problem. I dozed off while the dread of seeing Austin the following day went into my sub consciousness.