At St. John’s College, two men are up to some mischief and wait for school dismissal and for Chinedu to carry out their plan.
His father, Ndubisi has told him to go home by himself after school, he is a bit busy at the office. Chinedu liked the idea because he has always wanted to be independent.
After school Chinedu and his friends get a lift from a kind gentleman and happily hop in.
When his friends drop off, the gentleman picks his friend whom Chinedu isn’t comfortable with.
He has to get down before his stopping point but unknown to him he gets down with something in his pocket, something small but worth a lot of money and walks home with it.
We get to meet Mr Chikere Ikeaka (Paapa), the school gatekeeper at St. John’s College and his gatekeeping skills ( he will later be playing an important role in the story).
A tinted black Lexus-300 halted and remained within the premises of St. John’s College. The gateman’s nose flared in annoyance as if there was an invasion. When the car delayed to leave, he turned wary.
Strangers were not welcome to pass times anywhere near the school premises.
Having seen fifty-five years and eight months come and gone, he was sure that whoever was inside that car was there for an icky intention.
Personally, he was biased against civilians like himself parading tinted cars as though they were elites. He had thought them to be people with hidden agenda.
He tolerated it better when people in power use tinted and bullet-proofed cars and understood such as life saving and protective measure against hoodlums, assasins, kidnappers and enemies within.
As he was thinking of how to interrogate the owner of the car, a cranky student sneaked through the school entrance towards the gate. He was holding an exit card while his backpack hung on his left shoulder. He seemed to be feigning an illness. But Paapa knew that it was a simple student trick he had grown to be amused by.
He was a very friendly fellow and had dealt leniently with the students but can be strict at times. Students found his nature painfully cunny and inestimable.
Paapa knew that it’s dangerous to allow students to exit the school compound anytime before dismissal.
“Where do you think you are going, young man?” He asked sternly and the student quickly browsed through his stout figure before landed on his light brown face with a mocking smile.
Paapa sensed he was amused by his squinty eyes as most students were. They had taken to calling him a squirrel since one student nicknamed him same. But he knows better to ignore them.
‘I’m not feeling well, Paapa. I need to go to my family clinic. I have my permit,’ he threw the words at him, flashed the card before his glance and took few bouncy steps down the sloped area before the gate.
‘Who gave you the permission when there is a clinic within the school?’ He asked and strode to the doorpost of his cubicle.
‘The Principal himself did!’
Paapa smiled wryly and shook his head in disbelief.
‘I’m sure you used that lie because it had not occurred to you that Principal’s vehicle is missing from it’s usual position,’
‘Well, I’m sick and need to go to the clinic quick. You don’t want me to get too sick in school and die, do you?’
‘The school clinic is always there for you. It’s not for the rats and chickens.’
‘And squirrels? ‘ He said clearly to annoy him but Paapa wasn’t as cranky as he was.
He folded his arms and began to take slow defiant steps through the gate.
‘I’m talking to you young man! If you walk out through that gate, be sure to come back with your parents,’ the student paused as if he had been remote controlled.
He forced his hands down to his sides and clenched his fists as he glanced at Paapa’s feet without turning his body.
Paapa recognised such move. The SS2 student was warning him to stop being an obstacle to him. Most of them did threaten him but he had always thought about how ludicrous their threats could be. He had always seen them as rats before a lion. He had not told them he fought the Biafran war.
But the boy knew better. He knew he could not afford to bring his parents to the school. He turned back and started walking back to his class.
Even the students had hidden agendas! Agendas unknown to their parents, guardian, teachers and baseman like Paapa. They all did and would not fool him with flimsy excuses. He wasn’t born yesterday.
‘I’ll make sure you left this school soon.’ The cranky student grunted to his hearing and waddled past him seriously crossed.
‘Whatever you want to do, do it fast!’ Paapa gave his disappearing back a stern scowl.
A car beep came to his ear lobes and he rushed to the gate to open it. The student was so lucky he escaped a visit to the Principal’s office.
The Principal’s car glass rolled down and he beckoned on Paapa who suddenly felt a dull thud in his chest as his heart skipped a beat. That was the inevitable state of his heart each time the Principal called him unexpectedly. He hoped his job won’t be the cause of his end.
‘Who are those young men waiting close to the second gate?’
‘I saw them park a while ago, Sir. I’m about to ask questions when a sick student caught my attention, sir.’
‘How long have they been there?’ He asked and turned to go expecting to be followed until the conversation was over.
‘Not quite long sir, I’ll talk to them, ‘ he left him and scampered away.
‘Please do that. You know I don’t like strangers loitering the school premise.’ but he should as well be talking to himself. Paapa had already gone.
He had always treated the Principal as his life jacket. In fact, he was actually. He had lost hope of ever beating the young and vibrant gateseekers when God visited him with a compassinate heart of the School Principal.
The feminine wreck of an interviewer who interviewed him that fateful day had already outrightly cast him away as worn and worthless. He was 56 and couldn’t possibly blame her for his bad condition. In her eyes, he couldn’t in any way handle the rigors of the gatekeeping nor do well there but she should have seen his strength and courage and given him a chance. Age was just a number.
He was already sauntering away after the awkward interview, forlorn and downcasted when he heard someone call, ‘Paapa’ he looked up to the second floor where the voice came from and wondered if there was any other old man being addressed. But he was the one.
When the Principal saw the tears at the corners of his eyes, he folded his hands across the stack of files before him on the desk, looked him in the eye, held his teary gaze for a while and cast his head down. When he raised his face to smile at him, his eyes were red, ladened with tear pressure which he worked to suppress. It was a hard decision to make. He was old for the gate.
‘You know I’ve been there but much younger!’ He said and let lots of words slip by in brief thoughtful silence before looking up to announce that he got the job. Paapa broke down completely.
‘If you do well, I will retain you til you retire.’
Paapa had stood up and knelt down in Thanksgiving.
‘Please get up, I’m not God, ‘ he stood up to help him to his feet.
‘Thank you, sir. I’m grateful sir. I assure you, I’ll live up to expectation. God bless you and bless your entire generation from age to age!’ Mr Okoli was amused by his overreaction.
‘I trust you will do this! Why not? Yes, you can! Say you can.’
‘I can, thank you sir!’ He had bowed and ran home like a child.
That was the day Paapa believed that horrendous miracles still happened.
The glasses where already rolled down when Paapa reached the car in question. An unfamiliar rock music blasting from the car speakers assaulted his hearing. He requested that the young man at the drivers side turned down the volume.
‘What?’ The driver cupped his mouth to shout at him and his ear to hear. Paapa wondered why the sound want distracting everyone in the school.
‘E be like say una ears be like elephant ear. Reduce the music volume make I talk to una.’ he shouted in Pidgin English ( he loved Pidgin English but had been forbidden from speaking it within the school)
Paapa looked up to see the two classes inside the school, close to the fence where the car stood and spotted the distracted students looking at them. As he looked down, he heard the sound of a whip on the desk as the teacher called their attention.
He studied the men. The driver appeared responsible. He appeared to have had a good life from birth. But the other looked like what he had suspected.
Despite his gentleman’s outfit, his type eight bald head, pointed goatee facial hairstyle, red-shot eyes and smoke wrecked lips, all worked together to betray him as a rogue.
Who una dey find?
“Ignore him, ” the rogue said to the driver and both kept silent.
“No be una I dey ask? You get pikin them for here?” Paapa was not comfortable with their silence.
“Calm down sir. We are waiting for someone.” The driver was gentle but the rogue tried hard to keep his cool.
“Na who be that person wey una be dey wait for?” He asked and the diver camly explained to him that the person they were waiting for was a female teacher. He was hoping to see her during break for an important information.
“Abeg make una go somewhere else go wait for her. This place na school area. It’s not allowed. I no wan make I lose my job for here.” He told them and they didn’t argue with him. They left the school premise and headed down the street. He saw them cruise past the street two times and remained calm as long as they didnt stop anywhere around the school.
A couple of hours later, Chinedu walked through the school gate into the tarred street already filled with cheerful students walking home. He and his two friends walked down the street waited for a bus.
His father had told him to find his way home after school and to keep it from his mother.
Chinedu had always wanted to be weaned from his mother’s excessive pampering and to be less dependent – left to do things by himself. This idea of going home by himself was first mentioned by Chinedu but his mother had said ‘no’ to the idea. She said it’s risky.
“What if anything happened to you?” She had asked. She said he was still young. Then he was 10 and in JS 1.
When Chinedu turned 15, whenever Ndubisi couldn’t meet up with picking him up, he would call his teacher to inform him to go home just like on that fateful day.
As they waited, a car stopped for them and the driver who looked very gentle asked them which direction they were heading and asked them to hop in. They hopped in. That was not the first time they were using a lift to go home.
His friends dropped off before him. His house was further down the road.
The gentleman stopped for someone who waved him to a stop.
‘Sorry, I have to pick my friend.”
‘It’s okay, sir, ‘ he didn’t have to apologise! It’s his car!
The man joined him in the rear. Chinedu became nervous. He’s smart and quick to read people and he had sensed that the man was a bad guy. What had he gotten himself into? He prayed non-stop in his heart and thought of what to do if he dared try anything bad. But decided to get down instead.
‘Please sir, can I get down here?’ He asked. The man’s body reeked of horrible smoke and.made him uncomfortable.
He had caught some boys smoking weed in the school lavatory during prep and had been warned to tell no one about it.
He had kept his mouth shot. He opened up to his father though and he gave him thorough lecture on the dangers of smoking in general. He told him not to sit close to a smoker because could become one by doing so
‘Of course, you can! I was hoping you would reach your building before dropping off. ‘
‘ I’m okay here, thank you,’ Chinedu sensed the man was moving closer to him. He desired to be stopped at that point without further delay but the man moved a little further before stopping for him.
‘If you insist,’ he smiled and unlocked the car. Chinedu didn’t know the car was locked neither did he suspect anything.
‘Did you..?’ The driver asked and got a nod in reply. He made a quick U-turn and returned to base.
Chinedu went home with a 24 karat gold watch worth more than Five Million Naira in his pocket.