Mr. Akpan stood up with his bloodshot eyes fixed on me. He gave a dry smile and reached for the cane on the table. Judgment has been passed and no one can save me from his hands now. With tears in my eyes, I laid prostrate on the table while two students held my hands and legs. ‘Thief! Thief!’, the students echoed as his cane landed heavily on my back. I surrendered after whimpering for a while. It was no use fighting a lost battle.
Mr. Akpan was our housemaster in secondary school. He was a short man with a big belly and a round face. His coarse voice and bloodshot eyes made many of us concluded that he was a demon in human skin. He hardly smiles and whenever he did, it was a sign that a guilty soul was about to receive the beating of his life. The kind of beating that would keep you in the hospital for a week.
The last Saturday of the month was a special day for all students at Jaja Comprehensive School. Parents and guardians would travel down to the school to spend time with their wards and give them pocket money and provisions for the following month. Students whose parents did not come would sit dejected in the dormitory looking through the window, hoping to see them drive or walk in before the end of the day. By 6 pm, students whose parents or guardians failed to show up often go to prep with tears in their eyes. To many of them, it was the beginning of month-long suffering. To complement the little food the hostel mistress would put on their plates, they often steal from other students. We called it ‘smart play.’
The last Saturday of April 2002 left an indelible mark in my life. It was a week before my birthday. My guardian, Mr. Omole had informed me a month before that he won’t be available in April because he had to attend a marriage ceremony in Lagos. He promised to give me double provision and pocket money in May. ‘Borrow if you can, Shayo’, Mr. Omole said as he stood to leave, ‘I’ll give you a double of your provision in May. Then, you can settle your friends. Don’t steal or I’ll teach you lessons of a lifetime. Brace up and be a man.’
Back in the dormitory, I opened my box and emptied the bag containing my provision: A small sack of garri, two sachets of Cowbell milk, four sachets of Golden Mourn, and two pieces of Kasmo medicated soap. After thinking for a while, I divided the provision into two equal half. That was the only solution I could think of.
I did not bother to wait for Mr. Omole to show up in April. That would amount to wishing for rain in the middle of a dry season or waiting for a goat to give birth to a chicken. It just won’t happen. Mr. Omole was a man of his words. Nothing could change his mind. I picked my books and headed to a nearby classroom to read. It was two weeks to our mock examinations. The Joint Admission Matriculation Board (JAMB) had released the date for UTME and the school had scheduled a mock examination to test our readiness. I had barely studied for two hours when two students walked into the classroom.
‘Senior Shayo, Mr. Akpan would like to speak with you.’ They said. I left my book and hurriedly followed them. A summon by Mr. Akpan was a call to the unknown. The name itself had a way of driving fear into the hardest of hearts.
I entered the dorm and found him sitting on a table with folded arms. His bloodshot eyes fixed on my box.
‘Good eve…evening, sir…, Michael and Aliu said you’ll like to speak with me, sir’ I stammered.
‘Hold your greeting! A stolen wristwatch and a touch were found in your box this evening. If I was told, I would deny it. But I found them carefully wrapped with a magazine at the lowest part of your box. Only a professional thief could have done that.’ I began to sweat profusely. ‘Who would believe that a boy with an innocent face like yours could be guilty?’ He beckoned on two strong boys to hold me.
‘I don’t know who placed stolen items in my box, sir. I left the dorm two hours ago to read. I am innocent sir.’ I pleaded in tears. Mr. Akpan was not moved by my tears. ‘Well, now we know who is responsible for the disappearance of items in the dorm. Every day belongs to the thief, but today is for the owner.’ He gave a dry smile, ‘Lie flat on the table. It’s time to drive out the spirit of a thief from you.’
Despite my plea, Mr. Akpan descended heavily on me like a thief caught in the very act. He gave me twenty-five strokes of the cane. He then ordered me to address everyone and promise never to steal again. I tried to stand but I could not. While lying on the table, I addressed everyone with a faint voice. ‘I am sorry for everything. I am also sorry for the wristwatch and touch. It won’t happen again. I am not the thief neither do I know who the thief is. However, if confessing to being the thief would make this beating stop, I am the guilty.’
Mr. Akpan ran out of the dorm with watery eyes. It dawned on him for the first time that he had just beaten an innocent student like a condemned criminal. That same night, he took me to the hospital on his bike and foot the hospital bill. He apologized for his reckless actions and promised to unmask the guilty person within a week. Although Mr. Akpan became softer and more tolerant, he could not uncover the culprit as he said. Not in a week, not in a month, and not today: about nineteen years after the incidence.
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