ASKING FOR A FRIEND
Though a brainy student, I wasn't typically a sharp guy back in school days. With my good-boyhood and honest-to-heaven transparency, it took me a while to realize book intelligence isn't quite the same as street-smartness. And oh the many sufferings this brought me.
"Hey, B,” I heard someone whisper from the back of the line on the assembly ground. We just sang the national anthem and now the press club was on the podium in front, broadcasting the news. The members of staff stood behind facing the students.
"Yes, Senior Steve,” I said, when I saw who it was. Steve was my pseudo school father, and a slick bastard. Gambler, womanizer and a low-key rule breaker (smuggled contraband into school, cooked in the hostel, went to town without permission from his guardian, etc) his selection as a school prefect shocked us. His academic brilliance was a perfect mask for his rascally tendencies, though. At least it fooled the teachers who chose him.
"You know Miss Lizzy?” he asked, rhetorically.
Miss Lizzy was a corp member posted to my school, Government College. Head to sole, she did too much just to be remarkable: Awkward-colored hair extensions reaching down past her negligible waist, eyelashes like whips, claw-sized, bright-looking nails, noisy stilettos every day of the week, to keep the list short. Plus this failed attempt at a foreign accent that only gave away her localness. As expected, she wasn't in many other teachers' good books, most of them married women who didn't dress up much. Their taunts and gossips about her appearance wouldn't be so bad if her own self-esteem weren't so fragile.
The principal, Mr. S. S Bala, is this square-shouldered midget with a bushy mustache and few miraculous strands of hair on his head. Someone once said it's all the hair on his head that got transplanted to the top of his upper lip. I had to agree especially when I remembered the concept of deforestation-afforestation the man taught us in Agricultural Science. Anyway, we hardly called him Mr. Bala. The man loved his initials to bits. His face would light up like a toddler offered a favorite candy whenever he heard us call him, Mr. S. S. Only us knew the S. S., referring to his head, was short for Sahel Savanna.
Word on the streets—of our hostel—is that S.S. was getting some. Reportedly bereaved of his young wife six years earlier, who's to blame the man? Not that Lizzy wasn't a willing giver herself. Besides the open, leery looks she tosses the male teachers, a couple truants from my hostel who liked to invade S. S.'s orchard confirmed they always saw her, on Saturdays, from the top of their cashew tree hideout, waltzing to the bald man's lodge during our afternoon prep and only to leave near nightfall, sweaty and shifty-eyed, a button or two undone, her hair an untangled mess. Not blind themselves to the helmsman's escapades, the male teachers now knew to give a wide berth to Miss Lizzy and the females, to tone down the backbiting.
Anyway, let me not meander any further into gist that's not related to this…
"Yes, I do,” I answered Senior Steve.
"Good. Go give this to her.” I looked up from the folded piece of paper and saw her up ahead, her colorful accessories making the rainbow look like monochrome. Beside her was, yes, S.S.
(As I write this, I shake my head for those who run errands for someone else without doing anything to find out what the content of the message is—not even by a sneak peek even if warned not to. You say? Oh, it's the sender of the message we must dread, not the receiver, right? Okay. We'll see.)
So, obedient idiot that I've always been, and naive to a tee, that was how I carried the note from him, stepped out of the line and approached the row of academic staff in front of a student population of about one thousand five hundred to deliver a note I would realize—three wondrous slaps from S.S. later—read:
NICE ASS TODAY, MISS. BUT IS IT REALLY YOURS?
I even added verbally, as Senior Steve specifically told me to, “I'm only asking for a friend.”
Of course, you know he would gladly admit to sending me, right? Or that I would not even need to have to muster the nerve to rat him out?
Don't even ask me for how long I was suspended from school that session. Just know it's longer than Miss Lizzy's hair extension.
The ‘f’ in my own ‘family’ stood for flogging. We were bred with it. It was a dietary requirement. And no, don’t be fooled by the title, there was nothing sugary about the experience. Not to us. It was only sweet for our parents, especially Mama. Mama could be too tired to cook, but let her find out that we left a chore undone, or an errand unattended. Her muscles would spring to life. Yes, for beating. She was always, it seemed, gunning for some sort of cane prize.
It wasn’t as though my younger brother, Akin, and I liked to be mischievous, sometimes we were simply unlucky—like the day I was bringing my parents’ meal from the kitchen and was about to set it down when Mama asked me to bring her an extra plate. Then some accursed, godforsaken witch of a housefly found no better moment to perch on my earlobe. Both hands occupied so I couldn’t swat it, I raised my shoulder to attend the itch—a motion, most sadly, Mama would misinterpret.
“Eh-ehn, am I the one you’re shrugging your shoulder at because I asked you to bring me a plate? Go and bring me that cane.” That was the format for guaranteed punishment: a rhetorical question, masquerading as an investigative inquiry, followed by an imperative statement. To attempt either answering the question or appealing the order only fetched a bonus pre-punishment slap, so what was the point? Discipline received (with swollen arms and a bruised knee as testament), and dinner forfeited (my favorite àmàlà and ewédú), I made sure I killed off all the insects I could find in the house that night. And the next day.
Mama’s motive for beating us, as she put it, was that the world was just too rotten and she couldn’t, wouldn’t, allow her two boys be corrupted by indiscipline. Her mantras included the Proverbial “…a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame,” and “Train up a child in the way he should go…” The day she would upgrade our caning ration, she invited us both to sit down and lamented how we—I, actually—had not been taking my studies seriously considering I had the Common Entrance exam in a few months. Then she tasted her tallest finger and leafed through her unclothed Bible before proclaiming, “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod…” Akin and I went flat on the floor at ‘rod’. As I begged her to be lenient, and Akin pretended to pass out, she continued reading, “…if thou beatest him with the rod he shall not die.” There was no going back.
While it was the most popular, flogging was not the only method of instilling discipline. Mama could also ask us to ‘kneel down, raise up your hands and close your eyes’ as our school teachers did, with Mama’s version including, ‘and face the wall.’ I never quite understood the eye-closing and wall-facing part, but I understood that an unexpected lash would attend the buttocks if our raised hands showed any sign of drooping. Alternatively, it would be the dreaded ‘Lọ f’ìka ẹ d’ólè s’íbèyẹn!’ meaning “Go and plant your finger on that spot,’—a punishment that was akin to the posture in hopscotch when you are about to pick up the stone, but in this case, you would be forced to freeze. The actual torment was the clear instruction to never change legs or switch fingers. It wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes for a union of sweat and tears to begin the solemn procession of tumbling off the tip of our noses.
Did I mention that Mama had uncanny prediction accuracy? If she told us ‘Spoil that mousetrap and see what I’ll do to you,’ we could as well begin to weep in advance, because by either extreme caution, or a complete absence of the same, we would engineer the fulfillment of her prophecy. Was it when, while pouring her some drinking water, gravely mindful of her strict, not-too-low-but-not-to-the-brim policy, Akin’s trembling hands overfilled the china cup, wetting her wrapper? Or how, despite warnings against handling hot things without a cloth, I would attempt removing a clay pot of fresh gbègìrì soup from the fire with bare hands, ending up with a shapeless, canary-yellow sea dotted with black shards staring back at me from the sandy kitchen floor? After earning a fat knock on the head that he would nurse all week, and after I acquired her fingerprints across my cheek, Akin and I needed no telling: Mama never threatens. She assures.
Still, all too often, my brother and I seemed to discard prior warnings and revisit our old ways. One Saturday afternoon after chores, Akin and I left the house without permission. Not that we could have sought it, because neither parent was home. The whole thing was my idea; Akin hardly had the courage to break rules anymore. I, on the other hand, was bored out of my wits and needed some rowdy company. We just had to make sure we were home on time.
We visited our neighbour’s farm first and climbed and plucked and consumed all the cashews we could stomach, throwing up when we could go no further. We had spent over three hours there when Akin suggested we head home. I was about to succumb when I realized how bad an idea it was: our shirts were littered with cashew juice, one of the most stubborn stains I have encountered in this life. If Mama spotted or sniffed it, our alibi was blown. So I suggested we go play soccer with our friends. The dust would mask the cashew stains as long as we ensured that we slid and rolled abundantly on the pitch. It seemed like a brilliant plan but when we got to the pitch, and our team kept winning, it was almost impossible to leave. Akin pressured, but I kept reassuring him we would go home after the next win. It wasn’t until a teammate kicked the ball far into a thick bush, and no one volunteered to retrieve it, that everyone dispersed. Our curfew was “6pm sharp” so when my teammate glanced at his watch and casually declared that it was “past 7”, I took some relief in knowing I wouldn’t face our parents’ wrath alone. Chastisement is worse without a partner in crime. At least in this case Mama had no basis for her “Can’t you see your brother? Is this how he behaves?” statements. When I searched, sang and screamed to no end however, I realized how undone I was: Akin had gone home without me.
Stopping two doors away from home, panting like my heart would find its way out any moment, I bent down and locked two straws of spear grass together, then plucked a lash from my left eye and buried it in the hair atop my head—two of the sure-fire charms my school friends told me guaranteed their parents forgot to punish their wrongdoings. Remembering how little of an amnesiac my own mother was, doubled my pace. And my blood pressure.
I approached our front entrance, hesitant. The door was ajar. I peeped in between the door and its frame through the gap occasioned by the hinge. I squinted, widened, cupped the edges of my vision, but the lantern’s flickering light was inadequate to make out anything. Two taps on my back and I instinctively went flat on the ground, confessing, “Mama, the hosts of heaven are my witness, I went in search of Akin not knowing he came home by another route. He went out, plucking cashew all afternoon. In fact, his friends also told me that while they were playing ball…” I paused. Something was not right. Mama would have cut me off mid-sentence, even for the most valid of excuses. As I contemplated looking up at her face, and considered whether I could afford the extra penalty that would attract, I heard a sound. A cackle. Then sniggering.
It was Akin.
I sprang up, bent on vengeance—both for his ditching me and now for disrespecting me. Pleading filled the air, as we swapped positions. He gobbled my forgiveness before I was done cooking it up. Then he gave updates: As expected, our parents had been asking of me, but he covered for me, telling them I left my shoes back where we went to play ball. I thanked him, although I wondered how such explanation could fly. How would I trek over four kilometers and not realize I was barefoot? He said Mama was busy in their room and I only needed to make it to our own room unnoticed and start snoring. Tomorrow morning, we would outwit her in the time-of-arrival debate since she was not there when I came in; he was. My tense shoulders caved in as I smothered Akin in an embrace reserved for brothers.
So, tip I toed, hoping to make it safely to our room. In the low light of the lantern dimmed by its smoky shade, I saw two long, thick sticks—bigger than I’d ever witnessed—behind the kitchen door. To think, retribution had been chilling by the corner all this time, awaiting my arrival.
I was almost out of the passage when: “Olúwamúmiboríogun.”
Now, that was disturbing on two levels: One, my full name was only mentioned when I had committed a serious offence. Two, that was Papa’s voice. While Mama beat us as frequently and as soundly as she could, Papa hardly did. But whenever he had to, it was a guaranteed grand style thrashing. And knowing Papa, this was about more than flouting curfew.
“Welcome,” he greeted, punctuated by the sound of the main door latching behind me. In slow motion. Paka…paka…paka. Triple-bolted. Fate sealed. No neighbours could intervene. “Come,” he said, grinning. He was just a couple feet away but reaching him seemed like a holy pilgrimage on foot.
“Father, I’m not worthy to be called thy son,” quoting the prodigal son from our Sunday School memory verse, as I prostrated right where I was. If disownment was the alternative to death via thrashing, my choice was clear.
“What nonsense! You’re indeed my son. And will always be.” Disinheritance bid unsuccessful. Then he motioned at something. Now, unlike Mama, Papa always went to the imperative statement; he had no time for rhetorical questions. He would only summarize the purpose of the thrashing after it was over, like, “Next time you won’t go and break somebody’s louvre blades with a ball.” So, I stood in front of him and awaited the imperative statement.
“Go and bring those canes.” He added for effect, and apparently to heighten my torment, “They are ALL yours.”
My eyes followed his outstretched hand from origin, across my head and to, my goodness, the back of the kitchen door. Yes, where stood the two skyscraper sticks that would draw the curtain on my sojourn in this world of sin and flagellation and death. This was the end; it couldn’t be any clearer. From far off in the galaxies, I could hear Papa’s favorite song from his phonograph playing in my head, my thumping heart replacing the bass drum as Jim Reeves sang, Take my hand…precious Lord, lead me home.
But Papa would interrupt the flow and abort my levitation, bringing me back to the parlour where I was now inching my way towards the kitchen, bum and boxers united by sweat. He smiled.
“Your headmaster said you passed your Common Entrance exam so I stopped to buy you some sugar cane. You like them, don’t you?”