“Hey, what’s that word for being afraid of cramped places?” He asked. I was barely two weeks old in this school and my reluctance at being left alone in the school bathrooms or in the classrooms at night during study, was already legendary. I sought safety in numbers so frequently, it was said that I…
“Hey, what’s that word for being afraid of cramped places?” He asked.
I was barely two weeks old in this school and my reluctance at being left alone in the school bathrooms or in the classrooms at night during study, was already legendary. I sought safety in numbers so frequently, it was said that I was afraid of my shadow.
“Claustrophobia”. I responded.
Knowing he was going to tie the term to me, I briefly flirted with the idea of expanding the meaning of the word, to include a lack of means of escape, but refrained realising he still would have been correct.
“Correct guy. Na you be that. Mr Claustrophobia. You always have the answers to all my questions.
for your former school, was your nickname Bookman? Because as you sabi book so, I sure say na wetin dem go call you.”
I was not discomfited at his diction. There seemed to be an unspoken rule in Nigerian Secondary schools that students had to mix English and Nigerian pidgin during informal conversations. And I should well know, having been ‘ping-ponged’ round quite a few schools in the south.
As to his attempt at a nickname, I smiled ruefully. He was close.
Like the way I had futilely avoided letting my tongue roll over my incisors the time I had lost my toothbrush and could not get another for two days, I tried to avoid thinking about the nickname and the palette of images it would usher in. I failed.
Unbidden, the memories surfaced, breaking to the top like air starved divers. As usual, I tried willing them back into their forbidden mental compartment, but, like Pandora’s box, once opened, attempts to force them back in seemed futile. I succumbed and let them wash over me overwhelmingly. Another Place, another time…..
A little under a year ago, I had taken forever to get ready on the day I was to get to my new school. My mother’s exasperation was obvious, her attempts at masking her irritation with empathy fell flat. When my father ran out of patience, he walked into my bedroom. As if the need to change my schools three times in two years wasn’t enough to frustrate him, I was being unnaturally tardy in preparation for yet our departure to yet another school.
One look at his face however, and my contrived tardiness immediately evaporated. That face looked like it could make short work of the small mound of granite near my bedroom window. In less than five minutes, we were on our way.
Simon Templar, all boys secondary school is imposing to a first time onlooker. The gates were massive and shielded most of the school buildings which were situated way deep inside the school compound, with very austere landscaping. The classroom windows had wire mesh reminiscent of my grandfather’s coops at his poultry. The dormitory, I could see nestling in the distance, had grey, rough walls, and as I came to believe later, covered haphazardly with grey paint in patches like someone had been instructed to paint the whole building as a punishment for some imaginary infraction.
My increasing feeling of impending doom was not helped by catcalls of “Hey Okrofo,” and “Welcome to the Templar Penitentiary.”
Looking around at the school environment and the students I could see, I couldn’t help but agree. By the time my boxes were searched for contraband and my few provisions confiscated, I was already developing a mien as a convicted inmate.
I thought I had kept what I assumed to be my poker face on, and so believe my mother felt, rather than saw my concern, before pulling me close into an embrace while telling me “don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”
My father, after due consultation with the departing House Master, replaced by someone I was to get to know in detail, placed his arms around the already bearded young man with the self-explanatory tag on his breast pocket, just below the badge depicting an old white man I believed to be Simon Templar, beckoned me over and said, “Kamsi, meet Osaru. He’s the headboy.”
‘Kamsi!” He boomed.
At first glance he was imposing. Later on, I blamed that paralysing impression on my already entrenched trepidation and inmate mentality. For, while I allow that in addition to his beard, he had a full mane of hair, and had weird gray coloured pupils that didn’t contrast properly with his fair skin, giving him a Vin Diesel like look, he was not much taller than I was, despite being able bodied where I was waif like.
“Sir,” I answered timidly, to my Parents’ chagrin and Osaru’s mirth.
“What’s Kamsi short for?”
My mouth felt leaden, as compelled as I was to answer, my mother beat me to it.
“You can’t talk again? This child sef.”
Turning to him, she said, “His name is Kamsiyochukwu. It means ‘Just what I asked God for’ even though I sometimes wonder. See how timid he is? Please I need you to take care of him. He’s the only one I have o.”
Osaru took a detailed look at the spindly, sickly looking eleven year old before him, unwilling to step out of the warmth of my mother’s nearness. I looked down instinctively when his eyes got to my face and lingered. His grin was, I imagine, comforting to my parents when he declared me his boy.
“Don’t worry. From today,” he said, turning to give a stern look at the other senior students loitering about, that day being a Sunday, before addressing me, repeating, “From today, you are under my protection.” Looking at my now ecstatic parents, he said, “This Bookworm is my school son.”
‘Thank you my son,’ they chorused.
‘He needs looking after. His head is always in the clouds, like he lives in his books. Very forgetful. Please take care of him for us.’ My mum pleaded earnestly.
His acquiescence obviously comforted them, for they left, secure in the knowledge their son had a protector.
And what a protector I did have. Physically, I defined the word breakable. I was thin and looked like the best advice one could give to me would be to avoid heavy gusts of wind lest I get blown away. I had no understanding of physical activities and contact sports, so I didn’t even get on the field. Despite having an above average ability in Chess and Scrabble, I was awkward around people and so kept away from them. Perhaps, if I were very dark in colour, I might have passed for a Steve Urkel look alike, but my fair skin lent unfavourable comparisons as a knock off Harry Potter. My goggle-sized nerd glasses completed my ensemble, making me ripe for being picked on both by my peers and my seniors.
That didn’t happen though for I was under Osaru’s protection. I spent the first term exempted from most compulsory labour activities, and woke up at least an hour later than my mates. My relationship with my protector served as a pointer for how I was to be treated, and ensured that rather than my inadequacies, I was known more for my talents, which, I have to admit, was only one thing. My love for books had given me what I felt was an expanded vocabulary and a sort of repository for knowledge. I became known as the ‘Bookworm,’ the human encyclopaedia.
When Osaru retrieved my rechargeable lantern from the security house, to enable me read into the night, well after lights out, I was in ecstasy. I became proud of my nickname.
I returned home for the holidays, singing the praises of my benefactor to my parents who were overjoyed. ‘Listen,’ My Father said, “we’ve finally found you the perfect school to thrive in. Don’t you do anything to antagonize Osaru.” I nodded vigorously.
Of course I wasn’t going to displease him. Was I mad? He made me feel safe and comfortable. I had come to trust him implicitly. Even when he started giving and requesting compulsory massages although I had no physical exertions, I wasn’t altogether scared. In retrospect, I was book smart, not street-smart. What knowledge do I have of muscle requirements? And, I said, to silence the mischievous voice seemingly of reason speaking in my head, its Osaru, ‘forgussake’.
Maybe that’s why it’s my fault. I should have run away the first time I felt his hardness rubbing against me during one of the massages. Perhaps I should have been wary of the seemingly constant alone times with him. To be honest, there was no surprise when he called me into the dormitory during night prep, with other students still at class. Not even when events blurred upon getting there and seeing him totally naked, erection proud and pointing, as if to beckon. At the back of my mind there was a question answered. Looking at his proud and pulsing member, a tile slid into place in my brain as I realised why other students hailed him in the communal bathroom, calling him the head boy in every ramification. I felt, rather than saw his eyes traveling around my body, settling everywhere but my face.
Perhaps the greatest shock that night was his voice when he asked me to undress. It had become reedy, thin, in sharp contrast to the boom box I had come to mentally associate with his voice. I did not resist when, after undressing, he asked me to lie face down on the bed. Looking at his hand, I understood then why he had sent me to the dispensary to purchase him a tube of Vaseline when harmattan was still some months away. Strangely, It seemed apt that I had purchased the accessory for my defilement. Yes. I knew that was what it was, but it somehow felt like a mere progression of activities, feeling almost natural. By the time it culminated in me lying face down beneath him, hearing his loud grunts, feeling his warm, sticky deposit when he was done, I wasn’t altogether shocked.
Not even repeat episodes woke me up from my stupor. Getting used to being called up to the dormitory most nights was easy. I was passive, numbed by the repetitiveness and my own powerlessness. It seemed inevitable, like a script acted in a daze.
Or maybe my Parents should be blamed. They probably should have noticed my reluctance to return to school after the second holidays, or the return of my solitary lifestyle and not believed my ‘I’m alright’ answers to perfunctorily asked questions about my wellbeing. But to be fair, I always was a morose and withdrawn child and I do not expect anyone to notice an extra cup of water in a full bucket.
Perhaps Osaru can take some of the blame. He found me too pliant (shoot, that blame might be mine), but my pliancy probably encouraged him to pass me off to Jimoh when he was graduating. Maybe I wouldn’t have snapped if I hadn’t been transferred on to Jimoh like a mere piece of property of which my only claim to fame is as a receptacle useful for stress relief.
Or blame my books. Yes, blame them. Maybe if I hadn’t lived too much in them, I would have known that one does not stab another multiple times in the thigh and remain at the scene, trembling from head to toe, eyes staring, but unseeing the pages of yet another book. Obviously, all my book knowledge couldn’t make me streetwise.
Oh well, I’d forgot I had a question to answer.
“Bookman?” I responded to my present bunkmate. “No. I was called “Bookworm.”
He laughed and got up. “O boy, it’s almost time for evening parade. Get your beautiful behind up and prepare.”
While passing out of our corner, he rubbed my head, lingering longer than I thought necessary. Maybe it was his use of the words, “beautiful behind” or the extra rub against my head that fed my unease. Perhaps also, my fear was unfounded, but I still reached under my pillow and drew comfort from the feel of the sharpened bread knife I’d secreted there.
Mother had brought me a new Vince Flynn when she came visiting last week, and as I opened it to read, I heard the call of the Bugle. I hastily dressed up in my parade whites.
I can’t slouch in Military School.
Here, I don’t have a protector. Nor do I want one.