Factor X

The story was inspired by a conversation I had with one of my neighbours. We were talking about our secondary school experience, the similarities and differences. Then she mentioned how students will get flogged for late payment of fees. The act is common in many Nigerian schools, only different in the level of severity from one school to another. This neighbour and I tried to find the sense in the punishing of children whose parents/wards are the ones responsible. After the conversation, I wrote down the first draft of this story. It was intended to be a flash fiction, but over time, the characters wouldn’t be contained in fewer than 1000 words. So the story grew, and I loved every stage of growth the story has gone through. It probably will still grow as I am considering extending it into a novel, but let’s see how that goes.

My new friend doesn’t know Mr. Tunde, or any teacher like him, because he attends a butter-butter school in the GRA. And he’d probably never hear of Mr. Tunde, or any teacher like him, if I did not beat him to the state essay prize.

“I love your essay,” he says after I read it at the award ceremony.

“I love yours, too,” I say, even though his second-place entry isn’t read.

He is first from the left of the front row where the five finalists sit. I am second. Until I am back to my seat after reading, until I am brought back to life after long and boring speeches given by representatives of politicians, we had not spoken. His compliment comes as rain in December.

He does a soft snicker. I try to suppress my embarrassment. I reveal my teeth to him without any sound. Awkward, the feeling. He is already asking if I’d like to read his essay before I get a chance to wonder why a boy who is supposed to be a competitor, a boy in a proper uniform—shiny black trousers, polished black shoes, crispy white shirt, and wine-colored blazer—is talking to me. Me in plain blue trousers and a white shirt that has long known brighter days.

I give him a nod.

“Are you with your phone?” He asks.

“I don’t have a phone.”

He pushes his Samsung tablet towards me. I almost freak out at the offer until it clicks that he is only offering me the soft copy of his essay.

“I can’t read it now,” I say.

He nods and pulls back his arm. We both turn our attention to the MC, a scrawny little man with a blond goatee, who ties up a joke already eliciting exuberance from the audience. The humor is lost on us. But we harvest our version of the mirth from the disorientation that is pasted on both our faces. The tightness in my chest relaxes.

After the ceremony, after the many photographs and sing-song congratulations, my new friend speaks of me to his dad, and we—Mom and I—are offered a ride home. Inside his father’s Lexus, I sit between my new friend and Mom. His father sits in front and tells the driver that he will be dropping us at Iyana Alagbede first. I catch the side of his father’s face, the dreamy smile that doesn’t leave his lips throughout. On the ride, I start to read my new friend’s essay, but Mom intermittently interrupts with her endless thanksgiving: “God bless you, sir. We are really grateful, sir.” I roll my eyes in pretend frustration as she expects me to join her every time she unsettles the silence. I use the opportunity to look away from the tablet screen—a chance to glean details of the car, cushions covered in fine leather and other polished materials that give off a floral smell I will always associate with fine cars.

My new friend’s name is Jimmy. It’s Saturday, at his place. I make so much fuss about his school uniform, the colors, the elegance. “I can only imagine how beautiful all of you look in assembly,” I say. He responds with a smile. I like his smile—his lips spreading out like an elastic band, his cheeks pushed upward to form twin balls that look like puff-puffs on either side of his face. Jimmy says I should give up my fantasy, his school is a mix of hell and heaven. He calls his school library heaven. The scent of books, the pages that open different spaces and times, the quiet; it makes him come alive, he says. But outside the library, he becomes nothing but his body size—fat, shapeless, and any other word his classmates think fits—and that’s hell.

I don’t know why his classmates choose to be uncomfortable with his body. Jimmy is not even as fat as the fattest boy in my class. The fattest boy in my class is called Moti and he is the bully, not the bullied. I stopped being his victim since I started doing his literature assignments, but sometimes I wish I could add some weight, bounce into the class and dare him to a fight. Mom always teases that I could eat up a house full of cheese and never increase a bit. I do not tell Jimmy all of this. Instead, I think of ways my school can be both hell and heaven.

The first time Jimmy’s driver drops him off at my house, a week after my visit to his, we sit on a bench in the verandah because there’s no electricity to run the fan. I’m grateful Mom is attending a church meeting and isn’t here to apologize to Jimmy every minute for the discomfort. I keep trying to win a match at a professional difficulty level in PES 2019 until his PSP Vita runs out of power. With no more fun to poke at my neophyte attempts, he sighs and asks me to tell him about my school. So, I think of hell and heaven again.

            My school doesn’t have a library like Jimmy’s. The building in my school that is supposed to be the library is filled with old books covered in dust. There’s no form of quiet in the library because that is where the female teachers haggle the prices of shoes, lipsticks, and bags with the supposed librarian. Aside from the loud laughs I have with Tomiwa and Johnson whenever we talk about the latest blunders spoken by teachers, nothing else feels extremely exciting that I could compare to heaven. But on the flip side, there’s one man that makes school unbearable.

“There’s this math teacher called Mr. Tunde,” I tell Jimmy, but the cry of my neighbor’s child steals half of my words.

“Mr. Who?”

“Mr. Tunde, the hell in my school.”

Jimmy adjusts on the bench so that his whole body is tilted towards me, an attempt to buffer the noise. In one breath I cuss and hope the electricity is restored so that we can go inside. I continue my story regardless. “In my school,” I tell Jimmy, “when you see boys and girls with knees kissing the earth, you’ll certainly catch Mr. Tunde lurking around. That’s his moment. You’ll never see him without the whip he made from the broken hoop that was a fan belt. In his moments, a hush falls on my school. Even the twin neem trees at the center of the school take breaks from their endless whistling. But there is always noise buried under the silence. It’s there, the noise, in loud staccatos, swooshing from the chests of the kneeling students. You will hear it if you have the ears of an elephant. I know that. This is a regular victim telling you.”

Of my countless victimizations, one day stands out: an unfortunate morning in Social Studies. I tell Jimmy all about it, watching how irregular curves form on his forehead. Mr. Sunday was late, and in my self-righteousness, I had decided to go remind him of his period. Coming back, without the teacher, I met my classmates kneeling outside. Their noise had attracted Mr. Tunde: The Silencer. I wasn’t with them, I can’t suffer with them, I thought. So, I decided to go sit in class, hoping that Mr. Sunday would appear before Mr. Tunde returned with his whip.

I had barely sat in the empty room before the gruff voice of Mr. Tunde startled me. “Who is the bastard inside the class?” All the high-pitched excuses that flew out of my throat did nothing to decrease the tempo of Mr. Tunde’s whip landing on me.

“See my hand. He gave me this artificial birthmark that day.” Jimmy looks at my outstretched arm, but I am not sure if he is seeing a scar on my wrist or a scene in a horror movie. I smile.

There is another noise again, a chorus that stretches through the neighborhood that I also join in. “Up NEPA!” There’s now electricity. I usher Jimmy into my home and lead him to the only sofa in the room, then I drag an extension box close so that I can resume gaming on the PSP while seated on the arm of the sofa.

In Alagbede, neighbors know each other beyond what is intended to be shared. The way I can tell which family is having chicken for dinner by the excitement of the children, or walls failing at concealing the noise from one of the bachelors’ rooms seconds after a new lady steps in. Through these intrusive noises we know ourselves better, that is how we know who to smile to by the next morning, who to greet in a high-pitched voice, or who to avoid. At Jimmy’s, the houses are so spaced and detached that it almost feels like malice. Inside his house, everything happens with the ultimate goal of preserving the peace. In his room, the TV plays loudly enough for us to catch the words and low enough to hear footfalls from the front door. When the maid comes to ask if we are hungry, her voice doesn’t go a bit above a whisper. It’s my second time in his home and I have only seen his mother’s smile on the big family portrait in the sitting room.

“I have not seen your mother around,” I say, half question, half statement.

“She works in London.” Jimmy says with a shrug. “She’s a consultant at a private hospital. No time to visit Nigeria.”

“Guy, what are you doing in this messed-up country then?”

Jimmy laughs, “This is why I loved your essay. Well, Mom said I should learn a bit of Nigeria.”

“Why did you love my essay?”

“It’s unpretentious. Unlike most of us who cast Nigeria in a fairy-tale future, you explained how the country will remain stagnant if many things don’t change.”

“Maybe it’s because I see Nigeria from a nightmare point of view.”

Jimmy opens his mouth but his lips come back together as quickly as they had parted. His fingers hesitate to turn the next page of the photo album we’ve been viewing—Jimmy has been constellating childhood stories from every page. I want him to talk. An apology, at least. That banal “I’m sorry” that really means nothing, offered for a situation that you have nothing to be blamed for. I do not look at him; I pay faux critical attention to the photograph of him in the company of three younger cousins unwrapping boxes under a Christmas tree. For about thirty seconds, we let the sounds from the TV and the whirring hum from the fridge battle for dominance in the room. I am thinking of asking what his mother meant by “learn a bit of Nigeria” before he beats me to speech.

“What about your father?”

The following weekend, after winning my first match in PES 2019 during Jimmy’s second visit to my house, I describe Mr. Tunde’s moments to him.

They begin with silence, Mr. Tunde’s moments. It’s a way we mourn for the bodies that would bear marks of his careless whip. It is said that he carved his whip days after his wife disappeared with the Ghana-must-gos she had emptied his house into. Chinyere, a girl notorious for fighting and beating boys, gives flesh to this story. She says he cried to stupor for days inside his empty house until he began to hear strange voices and to act on their commands. No one is sure of her story. No one says it is a lie.

Jimmy laughs unrestrained for the first time since I know him. “Everyone is afraid of Chinyere?”

“Guy, it is better to hold your lips together than to have them parted by a blow.”

It’s Friday and my school goes briefly silent again. Yes, Mr. Tunde’s moment, but not the usual. It starts with what will be known as The Priscilla Episode. I believe that people who spend all their lives looking for X—the unknown—from numbers cannot be far from foolish. So, the episode really doesn’t surprise me.

“What sort of senselessness is this?” I say to Mr. Tunde every time he points at me to find X, before strolling to the board. He never hears me. Maybe the voice in my mind isn’t loud enough. Or, he hears me. It may be the reason my X is always wrong, a constant excuse for him to tear my skin with the fan belt.

Miss Ozovehe, fondly called Kopa Zoe, enters my class when Mr. Tunde is just rounding-up his double periods. And as usual, I am scratching my back for getting X wrong again. She announces that the bursar had instructed her to call out and send home students with unpaid school fees.

Mr. Tunde puts his math textbook down and stretches out his whip. “Simply sending them home will not do. Let me teach them how to properly remind their parents.”

With the way he smiles in times like that, you can tell he relishes the act of tormenting students. Is he not supposed to leave after his period? How does flogging us make our parents get the money quicker?

My lungs start a protest against the air in the classroom; there’s no doubt, my name is on the list. Kopa Zoe tries to tell him that caning would not be necessary, but I hate the softness in her voice; it lacks a resolute conviction. He smiles to her as if determined to impress her with his flogging prowess.

“Goodluck Ternenge,” Kopa Zoe calls. The first name. My name.

I am convinced for the millionth time that the name my father gave me was nothing but a euphemism. My luck always plays in reverse. Except the essay thing. The class is silent as I make a slow, shivering walk to meet Mr. Tunde. Mr. Tunde has this eternal hungry-looking face, deep brown and riddled with bumps I cannot call pimples. Walking to him is walking towards the devil on Judgment Day. There’s no salvation.

“Idiot, don’t waste my time!” he says. “If I give you one, run outside and kneel down.”

After receiving the introductory lash, dancing out of the class in pain, I hear the second name: “Priscilla Adebayo.”

With total disregard for Mr. Tunde, the class vibrates with murmurs. I also stand still by the classroom door, refusing to kneel. Now, you would think he’d stop, think, listen. No, he doesn’t consider our defiance. Again, the foolishness of a man who lives his life searching for X.

“Ma, I have paid,” Priscilla stutters. We all know Priscilla resumes the first day of every term with a school fee payment receipt, so we share in her surprise.

“Do you have your receipt here?” Kopa Zoe asks.

Mr. Tunde doesn’t allow Priscilla to answer. His whip comes all over her since her desk is only a few inches away. With every landing, he calls her a liar. A thief. “Oh, you think the school is stupid, abi?” he says, with a lash for every syllable he utters.

Kopa Zoe looks on startled. Plus, she struggles to swallow, only succeeding at swallowing her voice in the end. But at least she isn’t paralyzed for long. She throws herself in-between Mr. Tunde and Priscilla. It is then Priscilla escapes him.

I forget to tell Jimmy how Priscilla cried all the way home. We both cried actually. But I didn’t let Priscilla see my tears. But I don’t leave out the excitement I got at Priscilla’s house. I followed her in so I could explain in peppered descriptions the wickedness of Mr. Tunde. But my storytelling wasn’t necessary. At the sight of the welts on Priscilla’s body, her mother went wild, cursing life out of whoever wanted to kill her only daughter. She cursed and cursed in Yoruba words I can’t retell. “It is sojah that will settle this case, olohun. Let your father come back first. In short, where is my phone? Let me call your father’s brother from the barracks.”

On Saturday, I keep looking at the narrow path on my street, hoping to see Jimmy’s silver Lexus dancing forward. I am dying to tell him about The Priscilla Episode. I am supposed to be visiting Jimmy this weekend, but with some talk about seeing the real world he said he feels better coming to me instead. I am running around the twenty-roomed compound with a neighbor’s two-year-old daughter balanced on my shoulders when the Lexus parks. I am surprised to see both Jimmy and Mom alight from the vehicle, but I figure Jimmy had seen her walking the long street from the market. After I let down Ejiro from my shoulders, and Jimmy and I help my Mom inside with the polythene bags, we come back outside to sit on the veranda.

“Mummy,” that is what Jimmy calls Mom, “said you were driven out of school for school fees.”

Before I can even show my disapproval of Mom telling Jimmy first, her voice reaches us from the kitchen. “That useless school, they are yet to understand that my son is now a star, winning a state competition and securing a better future than most of their incompetent teachers.” It is more of a boast to the ears of the neighbors than an expression of displeasure. I shake my head to the mischief.

“That’s not even the matter,” I say. “Something happened yesterday.”

“Tell me, tell me.”

After I narrate The Priscilla Episode, Jimmy throws his hands sideways and yells, “That is madness! Was Mr. Tunde reported?” To whom should we report? The principal, who constantly emphasizes, Spare the rod and spoil the child?

“Do you report to anyone when your classmates call you names?” I ask.

Jimmy looks away and his almost-invisible Adam’s apple bobs. He shakes his head, his eyes on the climber-plant stretching up the antenna pole in front of my house. And in that cogitative moment, I understand that we let some things happen to us because we don’t believe we deserve any better. For me, and most of the students in my school, Mr. Tunde is the bully and we are all Jimmys, doing nothing about it. I can’t tell exactly how Priscilla’s father will deal with the episode. But I can’t wait for the thrill of having Mr. Tunde humiliated by a soldier. Jimmy, too, anticipates the gist.

I have a father. I know him as much as my distant memory of him and Mom’s parsimonious anecdotes allow. But I guess just like Mr. Tunde’s X, my father is a faint symbol in my memory that opens up a door to a room filled with questions. They were high school sweethearts, Mom and Dad. He was the lanky sports prefect and she was the beautiful senior prefect. He was going to become a chemical engineer and work with Shell or NNPC, she was going to be a professor of modern world history. They were going to get married and live happily ever after, until their projections took a detour.

First, it was the problem of getting into the university. Dad’s father, who was a pensioner, couldn’t afford the fees for his eldest child. They were six children. Dad decided to pause and do menial jobs to save up funds for the next academic year. Mom had applied to the University of Ibadan but wasn’t admitted. The second year they both applied to UI, they were both declined. The year after, Dad got declined by UI again, but Mom got an acceptance letter from Unilag, and so did she get a letter confirming that I had taken up space in her womb. She was nineteen, Dad was barely twenty.

“You have shown us that you are now a man, you must also show us that you are a responsible one,” Dad’s father said.

“We can’t believe you have chosen to throw your life out the window like this,” Mom’s father said.

Dad got a job at a water factory; Mom became a freelance home tutor until she was too heavy with me. The plan was: after I was born, they’d work harder, take care of me, and they’d take turns studying. But life is not formulaic. Perhaps, everyone is working out a solution, a journey to reach X. And there’s no one-size-fits-all formula.

Every time Mom talks about my father, it is always wistful and hurried, like she’s describing something she once held in her hands tightly but can’t explain how she lost it.

“Your father is a hard worker,” Mom says. “He worked at the water factory in the morning, drove a van from bakery to vendors at mid-day, held a pump to fuel vehicles in the evening, read books, and applied for scholarships at night. I respect him. Then he suddenly believed he could make it faster by gambling. When he started, he won a few paltry bets. That was about the time you were born. He held your little fingers and called you Goodluck. Then he started staking high, higher and higher. He began to use the savings. I cautioned, but he flared. I couldn’t press too much because the larger part of the savings was from him. And then he pushed too far.

“You were just three years old. I had only brought you back home after your first day at school. As I stepped into the room and saw pieces of paper littering the bed, I knew it was bad news. The first was the landlord’s quit notice, something we’ve gotten so used to. The other was the light bill that was stapled with the quit notice. Then there were bet tickets, all failed. But I almost died after looking at one of the slips. He had staked a hundred thousand naira in hopes to win some millions. How he became so reckless, I never had a chance to ask. I did not expect him to come back home that night, he was used to nursing his pain privately. But I expected him back the next day, the day after, the weeks, months, and years following.”

It is Monday; the day it will happen. During assembly, I whisper into three ears, and before the end of the first period, the whole SS2 block is expecting the arrival of soldiers. In class, Priscilla’s empty desk keeps our breaths still. Then the arrival of the expected. “Kpa!” It comes during the second period when Mrs. Chinonso is dissecting the themes in ‘Piano and Drums.’ The feet of students from other classes shuffle out of their rooms, but Mrs. Chinonso continues the discussion as if she doesn’t sense the excitement in and around the class. I feel utterly betrayed.

“Kpa!” The sound again. It is only then Mrs. Chinonso takes a pause and walks out into the hallway to see what’s happening. The whole class follows after her.    

On getting to the hallway, I hope to see a man in military uniform, but I do not. In front of the principal’s office, at the far left from my class block, is Priscilla in mufti. Her father in a blue kaftan. The principal in her usual faded brown suit. And Mr. Tunde. Not just Mr. Tunde, but Mr. Tunde with a face resembling a used tissue paper. Mr. Tunde with his right palm spread on his right cheek. Mr. Tunde with his hyperactive whip fallen to the ground like a soldier gunned in battle. A moment to behold. And like other times, the school is hushed until the neem trees whistle us out of the one-minute silence.

            Kabir in 2B witnessed the making of the second sound. I can tell that my face glows as he explains how Priscilla’s petite father had to jump to reach Mr. Tunde’s cheek. How Mr. Tunde surrendered his whip to the ground to hold together the falling walls of his face. How the principal briefly left the doors of her mouth open.

A mash of blues and whites form on classroom corridors; boys and girls animated with hard-to-suppress glee. The teachers soon remember how to be in control and send us back to our classes. In class, we pop our heads outside the windows. Pushing my face through different breaths and smells, I see Priscilla’s father lead his daughter away. The principal goes after him, bending her knees after every step.

“This is just a warning; you will still hear from me!” he says.

We are taking a walk around my neighborhood as I tell Jimmy the fate of Mr. Tunde. We are now at the end of my street, at an open space where boys our age play five-a-side soccer.

“Did Priscilla’s father come back with soldiers?” Jimmy asks.

“No Priscilla, no soldiers,” I say. “Not even anything resembling the Boy Scouts.”

I sense the bits of disappointment in Jimmy, just like the way I had felt. But I don’t want this story to end that way, so I continue. “Back in the class, after the senior prefect had ordered us inside, I caught a glimpse of the man of the moment—Mr. Tunde—through the window. His head sagged, his lips sucked in. His one and only whip dead. And then the neem trees whistled rapturously, and the air in school smelled like victory!”

Jimmy is smiling his elaborate puff-puff smile and I am feeling fulfilled as a good storyteller. “You wish your father was always around, right?” Jimmy asks, completely catching me off-guard.

“Guy, why not? I believe he is out there, somewhere. When I meet him, I’ll tell him that his son won an essay prize worth a full scholarship through university. I will tell him that I won’t be studying chemical engineering but communication arts. I will tell him there’s no reason to be afraid again. I will tell him that I understand.”

I know Jimmy has his doubts about my father—everybody does, except me and Mom—but I love that he doesn’t say it. When my father’s brothers, men I’ve only seen once or twice, talked about Dad in the past tense, Mom said we will never do that. She knows the man my father is, he is alive. And I trust the woman my mother is.

Jimmy is looking at the boys arguing if a shot had been a goal or not; their fervor has intrigued him so that he doesn’t see the Lexus parking in front of my house. “Your driver is here,” I tell him. I give him back his PSP, asking when next I will see him. He says I can keep the console. He says something about travelling next week, but I am too excited to hear completely.

As we walk to the car, I ask Jimmy why he did not stop at just complimenting my essay. Why he wasn’t afraid to be friends with me. “Did you not think I will make fun of your body, too?”

“It’s because you did not look like them, the guys in my school.”

I want him to say what the difference is. I know I don’t look like his classmates in proper uniforms, but I want him to tell me something, something that has nothing to do with uniforms and brilliant essays. Something personal. But I see how hard he is trying not to look at me, I see that it will be hard for him to find words I expect him to say.

Before he climbs into the car, he turns to me and say, “So, Mr. Tunde is no longer The Silencer?”

“No. I only hate that after his final moment, some students haven’t stopped calling him The Silencer.

“I’ll do something about the hell in my school.”

I don’t know exactly what Jimmy plans to do, but I smile at him. I find my thumb oscillating around the X button of the console, and for once I think Mr. Tunde might not be entirely crazy. Perhaps we all hold on to X, like I have learnt to do while gaming, a means to win a tackle, to gain possession, to gain control.

I am soon aware of the corn seller’s eyes on my body as I stand in the middle of the street. She has stopped fanning the embers under the corn she is roasting. She switches her gaze, and we both watch how Jimmy’s car slow-dances down the undulating, untarred road.

Shedrack Opeyemi Akanbi (He/Him/His) is a Nigerian, believer, and dreamer. He studied History and International Studies at the University of Ilorin. His writings appear in The Roadrunner Review, Kalahari Review, Olongo Africa, Salamander Ink, and elsewhere. He was shortlisted for the 2020 Eriata Oribhabor Prize for Poetry (EOPP) and won the PIN Poeticallly Written Prose Contest in 2021. The 2021 second-runner up of The Bolaji Abdulahi Prize for Literature, he reads fiction for CRAFT Literary and Little Patuxent Review. Find him on Twitter @ShedrackAkanbi.