Nche did not bother bantering with the pupils lining his path.
The gutter surrounding Santa Maria Church was already littered by pupils with their lunch packs, eating and japing.
The stairs was reserved for the big kids and the bullies and others rich enough to buy ice cream, though the pupils attending Santa Maria Primary School were all considered poor, or at best average.
Poorer still were those who usually ate at the church stairs and gutters, mainly to avoid the mockery and shame that would be directed at them by those who happen to have a delicious meal for lunch. Rice was the only food considered delicious in the school. Boiled yam could be welcomed if eaten with tomato stew or egg sauce.
The air was filled with the aroma of different types of food, mixed together it resulted in an indescribable fragrance that goes right through the nose with a peppery sting. This was permanent feature of lunch time at Santa Maria Primary School.
Perhaps it was this same mixed aroma that forced a teacher to initiate the routine of eating outside years back. It has willingly been upheld by the pupils through the years.
Nche passed his classmates in haste without a word. But he made sure to look into the contents of their lunch packs. He would use that the next time they bandied words. Some of them rained nasty words on him as he passed.
Egodi was already seated on the stairs with her back resting on the church door and her eyes darting back and forth, obviously looking for his brother.
The church door was large. A wooden image of a dove in a circular frame was neatly carved on it. The stairs ran three steps ending abruptly with the gutter, here covered.
It was neat, thanks to late comers who are punished with the task of ensuing that neat as it can be all day. Egodi tightened her face into a scowl when she saw Nche. Ignoring the look on his sister’s face, Nche stopped at the foot of the stairs.
“Carry yourself up here. Can’t you see hunger has killed me already,” she shouted at Nche.
He had wanted to ask why she was seated at the third step, but he knew better. A wrong word or action could earn one a nickname, a very bad one difficult to expunge, in the area. But he hated sitting on the third step because it was usually reserved for the strongest pupils in the school, often those in Basic 6 classes.
Egodi was only in Basic 4 and he was in Basic 1. He wondered how Egodi fought her way unto the third step. She doesn’t often get into trouble but he was always preyed upon. They would include his name on the list of noise makers or closing off his booklet during class works and exams. Egodi had fought all the bullies in the school on his account.
“Nchekwube! O gini? What does you?” Egodi fumed.
He only frowned at that. English plays tricks on them all, he admitted. Nche commands the language better, mainly because he is the novel-reading type which was, by the way, considered effeminate. He hardly let anyone know he reads, having been given many soft names already. Chikwado had nicknamed him Greenie after the softest grasshopper and Tony calls him nwa mummy, loosely translated as mother’s child. Strong kids are named after their father, he had reasoned.
The stairs was packed that day. Ebuka, nicknamed isiukwu on account of this big head, sat on the first stairs. He stood up for Nche to pass, cursing the air. Ebuka had once been a formidable enemy of Nche’s, the type that hardly concedes defeat. He would cry and cry but would come back for another round of fight. Egodi defeated him by befriending Onyeka, his handsome brother. Ebuka was very loyal to his brother, s he left them alone. Nche thought of him as a dog and smirked, wondering what would happen if they could hear his thoughts.
Ifeanyi, infamous for his stubbornness and nicknamed isike, sat on the step directly behind Ebuka’s. Ifeanyi sat still, defiant, he refused to move. So Ebuka, who had to step down again for Nche to pass rained abuses on Ifeanyi.
Egodi called out, “Ifeanyi, nhee! Is it that you don’t want to come out now? ”
On hearing her voice, Ifeanyi climbed down the stairs, glaring at Ebuka. Nche noticed that Ifeanyi was quite wiry as Ebuka returned his glare, tilting his head to an angle off Ifeanyi then focusing his eyeballs, which was then at the extreme, to Ifeanyi. This was all an attempt to have an intimidating look. Nche slipped through the dining students on the stairs, to his sister. He wondered if she would agree to eat near the gutters.
The powdery scent that greeted him, notwithstanding the food aroma, was unmistakably coming from Lotana, nicknamed omekanwanyi because of his effeminate ways. He always managed to brush himself against Nche whenever they sat together while not actually giving him any much attention. At least that was what Nche thought. Lotana was only on the stairs because he was in Basic 6. He sat with Nneka who was nicknamed Madam koi koi because of the way she waddled around as though she were wearing high heels. She was as much tarty as she was a churl.
Onyeka sat beside Nneka. He was found of her, the churl! Nche wondered why he liked, with her catty comments and scraggly teeth, thought she was pretty. Nche sometimes wished it was his sister who sits with the urbane Onyeka, though even he was aware of his sister’s demure looks. He so much admired Onyeka. He was not alone, as he would sometimes catch his sister stealing a glimpse of Onyeka too.
Nche watched Egodi scoop the noodles, which had been forced into a flask originally meant to hold hot water and not food, into a plate. Noodles are the most delicious food in Santa Maria primary School, ever. Nche wondered why they were sitting outside when their lunch was noodles. His mind nearly exploded with that thought.
Heads were now turning to them. “Did you hear that smell?” a pupil asked. Nche hated anything that courted attention. But, at that instant, he felt proud. Lotana would surely not let him eat in peace.
“Look at his eyes entering my food,” Nche thought to himself.
He was slightly angry because he knew Egodi would give some of the noodles to Onyeka who would then share with Nneka, the churl! He wondered if his sister had not realised that.
“Why did our parents give you Egodi? ” Nche asked instead.
“Allow me to eat in peace. You and your questions. No wonder they call you aska. ”
“We were never rich. That’s your name.”
“That’s why we have you, hope!”
“When money comes, will I get a new name?”
Egodi did not reply him. Whenever his questions bother her, she would just stops answering. Nche knew that too. They ate in silence. The other pupils watched, salivating.
The school bell rang and the students dispersed for their respective classes. As Nche stood up to leave, his sister held him back.
“Don’t make me wait for you when school dismisses.”
He only nodded and left. As the class prefect, he sometimes had to stay back awhile with the teacher.
Two boys were fighting across the gutter. He was careful to avoid them, wondering how he would survive Santa Maria Primary School when his sister graduates.
The dismissal bell set the school compound on fire. Adrenaline-high pupils ululated and ran from one corner to the other. Nche’s teacher had left before the close of school, which meant nobody would delay him. He could not be more grateful.
He packed his bag and went in search of her sister. He did not need to go to her class, knowing she would be at the usual spot just before the gate. Getting there meant dribbling though bodies and dodging pupils as they ran randomly.
The bullies were already at the school gate waiting for their victims and the ice cream vendors on their bicycle were beating out a loud kpoi kpoi kpoi sound on the aluminum container that contained the ice cream. There were also women sitting on stools selling their soya milk, bean cake, baked snacks, and other wares.
Nche did not find Egodi at their usual meeting spot. The mere fact of it knotted his stomach. He decided to wait for her there. Just then Ebuka passed by. He had his hands on the shoulders of a junior student, obviously begging for a treat. He could have been that junior student, had he not a strong sister. He believed that the bullying would have been less if more parents would visit the school especially at dismissal.
His eyes darted around avidly searching for his sister, his mind still on the weary of the long distance home. He was also well aware of his vulnerability standing there alone.
He felt his heart jump. It was unmistakably the voice of Ifeanyi, isiike. He turned, Ifeanyi was pointing at him. It was the highest gesture of provocation at Santa Maria Primary School , expected to herald a real fight.
“Because of you, my food still remains small after the bell. I finished it fast but I entered class late and aunty flogged me,” Ifenayi said.
His words still hung in the air as he whacked Nche with his school bag. Nche flinched. Ifeanyi came at him again with the bag. Nche could see that Ifeanyi was out to hurt him.
“Where is Egodi for Christ sake?” he though as pupils began to gather around them. He thought of the wicked names they would give him if he ran away or get beaten. It was the biggest faux pas in Santa Maria Primary School. He knew he had to face Ifeanyi.
His attacker’s first blow jolted him out of his thoughts. He literally saw stars. His legs shook and instantly could no longer carry him. He collapsed but an awkwardly placed stone broke his fall.
At that moment, he made up his mind to fight. He lunged at Ifeanyi, thinking that the speed of his movement combined with his weight, he might be able to bring the wiry Ifeanyi down. The movement saved him from his attacker’s blow. He catches Ifeanyi in the middle and tumbled him the ground.
There was a shout. A victory shout, maybe, Nche couldn’t make out. He was atop Ifeanyi, victory stance, he presumed. His heart pounded so hard that he thought it might come out of his mouth. Being on the ground felt different, like he was on another planet where he was a dwarf and the shadows he noticed around him belonged to giants watching dwarves make fun of themselves. No, it felt more like a fighting pit.
He noticed Ifeanyi was in pains. The ground was rough and stony and it must have hurt him very much to land on it so violently. His face was red and his eyes too. Niche saw tears run down the sides of his face. The shout most have been from Ifeanyi then, Nche decided…and the watching giants too, perhaps.
Suddenly, he wanted to apologise to Ifeanyi and beg him for forgiveness. But he told himself how stupid it would be. He was afraid to say anything or do anything. The giants were chanting continuously. He wondered why.
Suddenly, he felt himself turned over. He landed on his back. The ground was really rough and stoned bit into his back. The pain was unimaginable. He shouted but his voice was drowned by the victory shouts that accompanied the change of position.
From his position on the ground Ifeanyi suddenly seemed to be a giant too.
“Where is my sister?”
Niche was only able to make out the bulging vein on Ifeanyi’s tiny bicep before he received the first low. Pain coursed through him. It started from the head and spread to every inch of his body.
Nche felt Ifeanyi’s cold hands on his shoulder. He concluded that Ifeanyi wanted to bash him on the ground, so, when he felt himself lifted up, he pushed further with full forced and clamped his teeth into his bully’s shoulder. This brought another shouting spree from the bloody giants. He could taste salt and dirt. He feared for his teeth which throbbed.
Just then, Nche felt Ifeanyi’s heavy weight lifted off him. The world whirled. Then a giant face emerged, it was smiling at him. It was his sister.
“Where were you,” he wanted to ask. Instead he felt tears well up in his eyes. He wanted to cry.
Egodi yanked him up before his tears could find their way down his face. She whispered, beaming with a smile, “Don’t cry! You too much!”
“Really? I’m too much,” he thought.
The crowd of students gathering around him seem to think he was too much too. They were chanting, for him.
“You people will not go home abi,” Egodi shouted at them.
Ifeanyi was still on the floor with his left hand on his right shoulder where he was bitten. Nche felt glorious watching as Ifeanyi dabbed at his wet eyes.
“I just won a fight,” he thought.
Nche felt pity for his vanquished enemy, but not for long. Egodi helped him get the dirt off his clothes and bag. Then they started their long journey home.
“I am so proud of you,” Egodi said.
Nche smiled. It was a smile of pure joy.