In boarding school everyone was known for something. We all had nicknames. Everyone got in trouble but Ben got in trouble most and was known as One Day One Trouble, after a book title. Kizito was known as Miler. He loved to run and would wake up early to run ten miles before the bell rang for morning prayers. Sule was the only Muslim in the school and was allowed to observe Ramadan, he was exempt from running errands and from punishment during the holy month. Gideon Malanga was from Rhodesia, this was during the days of Apartheid, he was spared from punishment by the seniors—it was said he had suffered enough in his home country. He was the only one who didn’t have to eat spicy food, well not only him, there was also the kid named Sylvester who was said to have a stomach ulcer and sucked at an antacid all the time.
Patrick was good at art. He would climb over the school fence to go and buy and smoke cigarettes in the tiny store across from school. He was suspended for his large painting of Peter Tosh across the dormitory wall. In the painting Peter Tosh was smoking a giant spliff and the words Legalize It were written underneath.
Baka walked like a girl, and spoke like a girl, he even laughed like a girl. For some reason the seniors liked him, he never got in trouble and was never punished and he laughed with everyone. He was the son of a senior police officer.
Richard was a rich boy, or was usually rich at the beginning of the school term but was wont to spend his pocket money rather too quickly. He would begin the term as Richard and by the end of the term he transformed into Poorchard.
William was known as William the Pig even though on his locker he styled himself William the Conqueror. He was filthy, too lazy to do his laundry. He was always called out for punishment on sanitation inspection days. He was always brooding. One night around 9:30 p.m. when we were coming back from prep, where we went to read and prepare for the next day’s classes, he emerged from behind a whistling pine, wrapped in a white bedsheet. The wind blew, ruffled the bedsheet in the moonless night, and “Ghost,” a boy screamed, “Ghost,” we all screamed, and ran, including our prep prefect. The prep prefect ran and fell into a ditch and broke his arm. William had his revenge.
Austin was big, he was built like a giant but he also peed on his bed. One night the seniors decided on an ordeal-by-fear cure for his bed-wetting. They lifted him and his mattress while he was snoring deeply, and deposited them on the mini soccer pitch. When he woke up in the morning, he was under the skies, and the morning dew had mixed with the piss on his shorts. He fled home and never came back.
Eustace was said to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Eustace also wet his bed, but he was never punished. It was considered part of his spiritual nature. He was the head of the school chapter of the Legion of Mary. While others mowed the lawn he carried a big statue of Mary to the chapel and prayed there all alone. He usually sent away for chaplets and rosaries and missals and prayer books and was a mass server. He didn’t eat much at the dining hall and was said to observe fasts and obscure feast days.
Israel was a Jehovah’s Witness. He did not celebrate Christmas or New Year or Easter and would not stand motionless or make the sign of the cross when the bell rang for Angelus. Everyone knew he was going to hell but Israel did not believe in hellfire either. Regardless, the Priest told us Israel would still go to hell, even more so because he did not believe. He was a good boy, always neat and tidy, but he was never made a school prefect.
Vincent loved talismans and charms and magic and spells and incantations. He wrote letters to spiritual homes and received rings from occult societies, he had a ring for passing exams and another ring he called Girls Follow Me for making girls fall in love with him. He talked about strange phenomena—the Bermuda Triangleand the Loch Ness Monster and an occult grandmaster named DeLaurean who died and resurrected on the third day but was struck down by lightning because only God’s begotten son could have the honor of rising from the dead. He carried around a book entitled The Third Eye. He failed the promotion exams to form three and disappeared, he never returned.
Ray was the best dancer. He knew all the moves from the Soul Train. He taught the seniors all the latest dance moves. He was never punished. He was the star of the socials night when everyone danced to the latest Motown records. In his final year he was made the Social prefect.
Francis styled himself the Constantin Dimiris of the school after a character in a Sidney Sheldon novel. He was quick to tell you that he never forgot an insult nor forgave an injury. He took pleasure in forcefully grabbing provisions from junior boys. He read novels all the time and used big words, but he scored a Fail in English in his school-leaving certificate.
Cyril was a wizard, everyone knew that. A senior boy knocked him over the head and the senior developed a headache thereafter. Another senior punished him for lateness to morning assembly and missed his math exam. Cyril was a wicked wizard. If you asked him if he was a wizard, he would smile and ask you if the word wizard was written on his forehead. One night when a false fire alarm went off in the dormitory and everybody ran out, Cyril was the only one who slept through the stampede. This proved he was a wizard: his body was lying on his bed, but his spirit was away at a coven.
And there was Nicholas, poor Nicholas, the only white kid in our boarding school. His parents were missionaries of some kind. They were medical missionaries, or so the story went, they departed on interior missions with their old and rickety Land Rover and left Nicholas among us. We loved to make him blush and would have him say words like cunt and pussy just so he’d redden. He was nicknamed Oxygen Consumer. He was the boy with a large pointy nose among a bunch of flat-nosed kids, which made his nose the odd nose out. There were drawings and exaggerated cartoons of his nose. When he walked into any room, boys would pretend to faint from the lack of air, and they’d scream, “Nicholas has consumed all the air in the room.” By the time he’d spent a second term with us, his pidgin English had no peer and he was eating black eyed peas for breakfast like everybody else.
Joe, Joel, and Jonathan were members of the Shaolin Temple. When it was time for evening sport they wore their black gi’s and strutted their stuff. They broke planks and cement blocks with the sides of their palms. They flew over flowerbeds. They seldom spoke and when they did their words were few, like the words of the dubbed-over Shaolin films from Taiwan that we all loved to watched. Once, a new student had tried to join the Shaolin Temple. They gave him the task of jumping over a very high wall. He jumped the wall to the other side, but landed on his hands and fractured both wrists. He was in great pain but he tried to bear it like a true disciple of Shaolin. He went and lay on his bed and covered himself with a blanket. The next day when he was discovered in bed, he was running a fever of 120. His mother came for him. She took him to a bonesetter instead of the general hospital. When he returned to school many weeks later, he avoided the members of the Shaolin Temple. When he saw them coming from the right side of the Appian Way, he crossed over to the left. The members of the Shaolin Temple didn’t say much. Someone heard them say that the way of Shaolin was not for everyone, it was only for warriors. The seniors pretty much let them be.
And then there were the seniors. You prefaced their names with the title Senior. Senior Charles, Senior Stanley, Senior Neville. When a senior screamed, “Junior Boy,” you dropped whatever you were doing and appeared by his side. If a spoon of cornflakes was on its way to your mouth, you dropped the spoon immediately and appeared by the senior’s side with an obsequious smile on your face. If the senior asked what you were doing and you said you were eating cornflakes, he told you he was all of a sudden in the mood for cornflakes. You happily ran and brought him the pack of cornflakes and better bring along your tin of powdered milk and your pack of St. Louis Sugar.
There were a couple of seniors in form three. They were called Seniors Form Three Supposed Five. Though they were in form three, they had repeated the same class twice and their mates were now in form five. There was of course the honorary senior Danger Boy, who was rumored to be a former amateur boxer. He was big, dark, and muscular and had a beard he shaved every other day. It was rumored he had a concubine in town. The wily seniors started the rumor that he had been a senior in another school but had gotten in serious trouble and transferred here and in the process been demoted. Danger Boy didn’t deny the rumor. They even created a hitherto nonexistent title for him—Senior in Charge of Discipline.
There were seniors who did not look like seniors. Senior Fide was quite small for a senior but he wore a hat to the dining hall and carried a walking stick at all times. Only a senior could dress like a dandy to the dining hall.
There were seniors who smoked cigarettes and seniors who drank beer, there were seniors who had girlfriends in town and some who had more than one girlfriend. There was also Senior Stanley, who was rumored to convert junior boys into girlfriends; we were discreetly warned to stay far from his eyes and clutches. There were seniors who never said a word. Senior Francis read all the time. He only came to eat at the dining hall. He had no junior boy who served him. After eating, he washed his plate himself. He was known as the triangular senior—dormitory, dining room, classroom. That was his trajectory. The week of his final exams, he began talking to himself. He plucked flowers from the flowerbed and whispered endearments to the ixora flower. He was taken to the hospital. The story was that he had developed a brain fog, an expression we were hearing for the first time. He never returned.Any student who spent too much time in the prep class was warned to remember Senior Francis.
Some seniors were kind, some seniors were mean, many were hardhearted, some extorted our pocket money and provisions, but every senior would tell you that one day your time would come and you too would become a senior and then you would have the chance to carry out your revenge on junior boys. Do not forget, they told us, every senior was once a junior.
And then there were the prefects. Every prefect was feared. As soon as a prefect walked into the dining hall and touched the bell, you had to stop eating. Prefects spent the better part of the half hour giving speeches, making announcements, haranguing junior boys, boasting, or simply making themselves sound menacing. A typical speech by a prefect went like this: “You junior boys think you cantry me, you junior boys are all chickens in a basket, you junior boys think you can stand on my nose and get balanced, you junior boys who are planning my downfall, let me tell you this, junior boys, your plans will fall and crumble like the great walls of Jericho.” After which he’d say, “Now lie down all of you, lie flat on your stomachs,” and we’d scramble to find someplace to lie on the filthy, stinking floor of the dining hall. Another prefect would walk in and ask us to sit, but before we could start eating, he’d set off on his own announcements and somehow forget we’d already been punished and would say, “On your knees, junior boys.” We would all fall on our knees and he’d leave. The prefect in charge of mail would ask us to get up and listen for our names. If there were fifty pieces of mail, at least thirty-five of them would be addressed to a boy known as Celestine, his nickname was P. O. Box. By the time the seniors were done with us there would be less than three minutes left to bolt down our meals, and heaven help us if we were not done when the bell rang for the end of the dining period—the head of the table would empty our unfinished meals in the waste bin. There was a kid nicknamed Scavenger who’d been caught one night attempting to eat from the trash.
Vincent was the Socials Prefect. He brought us Kung Fu films by Bruce Lee, Bruce Li, Chen Si, and Angela Mao. He earned a cut from the gate takings. He organized afternoon get-togethers. He invited girls from neighboring girls schools. Only the senior boys danced with the girls. The junior boys stood around the perimeter of the Socials Hall and whispered about Seniors who held onto their dancing partners too tightly. Vincent would go on to university and while there would show blue films in his room and collect gate takings. He would later become a famous producer of Nollywood films.
The Games Prefect was Christopher. He was an all-round athlete who excelled in javelin, pole vault, shot put, and soccer. Each time we had a match with another school he would announce a collection. He believed we were good but that we needed the extra wind of juju behind our backs. We gladly paid up. Sometimes we lost and he’d ask for another collection to go to a more powerful juju man. He was a mass server as well. On days that we won our soccer matches we could hear the players singing and celebrating from almost a mile away.
The Labor Prefect Roy was the most hated individual, if one could be singled out. He was the inventor of all kinds of cruel and unjust punishments. He invented the V-Portion—a brand of punishment in which the portion of grass that you were assigned to clear grew expansively the more you cleared. He was said to have punished a boy once by asking him to fill an empty bucket with water using only a tablespoon. The boy must have made a thousand trips. He was nicknamed The Most Wicked of Them All. But he came to a bad end. For some minor infraction he poured water on the hard cement floor and told a junior boy to lie there through the night. The next day the boy developed a cough, a bad cold, and was taken to the infirmary. He told the infirmarian what had happened, and this was reported to the principal. Roy was stripped of his prefectship, then expelled from the boarding house and from the school. His deputy, a boy in a lower class, served out his prefectship. That was how the saying came about, “You can be wicked but you cannot be more wicked than The Most Wicked of Them All.”
Eventually, the one day came.
We bounced into the dining hall. All around us, gray petrified faces. It was our turn. “Junior boys, you are all chickens in a basket. You think you can stand on our noses and gain balance. Lie down all of you. Lie down flat. Stretch out your hands . . .”
E. C. Osondu was born in Nigeria, where he worked for many years as an advertising copywriter. Winner of the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing, he is the author of a novel, This House Is Not For Sale (Harper, 2015), and two story collections: Alien Stories (BOA Editions, forthcoming 2021), winner of the BOA Short Fiction Prize, and Voice of America (Harper, 2010). His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Guernica, AGNI, and elsewhere. With William Pierce, he co-edited The AGNI Portfolio of African Fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University, where he was a Syracuse University Fellow. He is associate professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island and a contributing editor of AGNI. (updated 9/2019)
Osondu’s first two published stories appeared in AGNI: “A Letter from Home” was named one of the Top Ten Online Stories of 2006 by storySouth, and “Jimmy Carter’s Eyes” was a finalist for the Caine Prize. Read a conversation between Osondu and Pierce at Critical Flame.