Richard grimaced as he sat on the edge of the wooden chair. He rested his elbows on the desk in front of him, his weight on his arms. Thinking of the hours before closing time, he groaned inwardly, wondering if he would survive it. The pain was intense; it seemed to shoot up into his intestines every time he moved. Sitting down was torture. Slowly, he shifted his buttocks, placing more weight on the left mound. It made no difference. Piercing pain accompanied the movement and he inhaled sharply, almost crying out. He broke out in cold sweat.
Oblivious to his condition, the Biology master droned on. It was the first period after break and Richard counted for the umpteenth time the hours before 1:50pm. He shook his head and fought back tears. The young boy sweated through another two hours, his high forehead glinting despite the cool atmosphere. The Literature mistress had just finished explaining how metaphors are used in poetry and was now gathering her wads of papers to leave the room when the bell rang. It was 12:40pm, time for a short break.
Richard lifted himself up in excruciating pain. He closed his eyes and straightened. Moving cautiously, he made his way to the doorway of S.S.1b class. He leaned against the wall and sighed. Nobody paid him any attention as the students strolled in and out of the class. Richard was a loner. Not because he wasn’t friendly enough but because he was a shy person and tended to avoid loud crowds. His classmates soon learned to dismiss him as the class geek. But not Joel, the class bully. He had threatened to cut off Richard’s ear if he did not help him with his assignments.
Today, as usual, he walked up to Richard, shaking a finger at him. “Let me just tell you, this is your final warning. The next time you see me, I will make sure you do not recognise your face again. You are stubborn o. What is there for you to do one more homework, after all, you finish your own even before closing time, eh?”
Richard was silent. He picked a spot just above Joel’s shoulder and stared intently at it. True to form, Joel stormed away, after glaring angrily at Richard for a few more minutes. Richard looked at his wristwatch. Three minutes to go into the class. He decided to stand for another minute before heading for his desk.
Two boys were chasing one another, the one in front dodging zig-zagly across the corridor along the aligned classrooms. Richard saw them within the womb of distance, gauged their speed and relaxed but, he never stood a chance. The other boy caught up with the one in the lead and laughing hysterically, they crashed full throttle into the sick boy. Richard fell and remained down.
He opened his eyes to the whirling blades of a ceiling fan. The pungent smell immediately registered itself. He need not have looked around to know he was in the school clinic. Nurse Elizabeth fluttered around. She was a smallish woman with thick arms. She helped him sit up, took his temperature and asked if any part of his body hurts. When Richard turned shyly away, she smiled, patted his cheeks and moved to the medicine cabinet.
“There is no need to be ashamed. Those boys are rascals and would have pushed an elephant down,” she muttered as she brought back some pills. “You can rest here. I have asked them to ensure your food is brought from the dining.” When she saw the look of gratitude on his face, she smiled kindly and said, “In fact, you can stay the night if you want. But by morning, you must go back to class.”
Richard felt a mass settle in his throat and he swallowed hard. The relief enshrouded him in a cocoon and he suddenly felt small. Tears welled in his eyes, blurring his vision and he quickly bent his head to hide them. Though he felt his stomach rejecting the morsels of food, he forced himself to swallow.
At last, night came and though Richard assured himself that he was safe, he closed his eyes with apprehension. It was way past midnight when he finally fell into a restless sleep. His dreaded reality paid him an unwelcome visit. He was up in bed and everyone around was asleep, their different degrees of snores, the only sound in the dark dormitory. He knew they would come for him and he shivered in the darkness, peering through his blurred vision as shadows clawed at him. He breathed through his mouth, as suddenly, the air shied from his bulbous nose. He sat, paralyzed by the knowledge that there was nothing he could do to stop what was to come.
Then, they arrived. He knew them as the ‘Wandering Hands.’ They clutched at his arms and legs, pinning him face down on the bed. Another hand clamped over his mouth. No need. Richard was always too terrified to cry out. A fourth pair of hands pulled down his pyjamas.
Knowing what to expect, Richard shut his eyes and grinded his teeth together, simultaneously tightening the muscles from his waist downwards like a baby afraid of the nurse’s injection.
The pain was always the same, except that it seemed to be getting sharper and more unbearable. If Richard was to tell the truth, he could never recount how many times he was illicitly penetrated or how many visitors he received at night. It was as if he always passed out and it was the pain bidding him a good morning that was obvious testimony to his humiliation. He woke up drenched in sweat and realised with a thudding heart that he had transferred his waking nightmares to his dreams on the one night when he could have slept without fear of anything.
Nurse Elizabeth had given Richard some pain relievers and by morning, he could walk without limping or scrunching his face together. Sitting down in class was not so agonizing and he noticed the patch of wetness staining his chair every time he stood up was relatively lighter.
Richard was grateful for the gray coloured trousers that was his school uniform but still tied a sweater round his waist everywhere he went since the nightly incident began and he noticed the patch of wetness.
Lighter International School was founded by missionaries during the colonial period but had since become the property of the Catholic Church in Katur. It is true that the level of discipline in the school had not diminished. If anything, the Principal, Rev. Silas Manarakis, had ensured that next to the high academic standard, the students were properly disciplined. Ideals such as honesty and obedience were right next to pious acts of worship. Richard did not need to be told that he needed more evidence before reporting his predicament to any authority in the school. Every night, he tried to glimpse the faces of his assailants but with the fear, the pain and his penchant for passing out, Richard had not been able to give them an identity.
As each day passed, he withdrew more into himself, not trusting even his mates. Everyone looked suspicious. It was almost as if they knew and were daring him to point a finger. But when he began to get paranoid, seeing evil grins of recognition on the faces of both staff and students, Richard learnt a new trick. He walked with his head bowed and his broad shoulders slumped.
Mr. Metu, the Mathematics master who lived in the staff quarters, was Richard’s first suspect. He was a jovial man who cracked jokes in class. But Richard saw something false in the smile and though the rational part of his mind argued that it was impossible since teachers lived outside the hostel, Richard could not stop wondering. A loud laughter in class will set his teeth grinding. So, he taught himself to look at the space between his feet at all times.
The next day was Thursday and Richard arrived early. He sat minimally on the hard wooden desk and waited for break time. The second and third periods being free since the Economics mistress birthed her twin babies. Richard, however, was the brunt of several jokes that morning. It was as if the fainting incident of the previous day had lent him a new notoriety and his classmates immediately found ways to make him sorry for that. Someone called ‘Stick legs’ and another screamed ‘Robocop’ to his face. But the most popular among most of the students was the nickname, ‘Slow motion.’ They would mimic the way he walked in front of the class and then break out in hysterics. Only Richard’s unshakable silence saved him. At last, they got bored and invented another game.
It was still some minutes to 10 o’clock when they came into the classroom. Three senior Prefects walked in and headed straight for him. Richard immediately recognized Senior James, his House Captain. He rose to his feet, straightened, and then bent his small head meekly. “Good morning, sir!” he greeted the top of his desk, while his fingers fumbled with the thin frame of his recommended glasses.
“Look at me when you address me, you fool!” James exploded.
Richard was so taken aback that in his fear; he quickly looked into James’s eyes. They were boiling. The other two Prefects stood a way back. It was as if they had nothing to do with the drama unfolding right before their eyes. The way they stood, close together, arms folded across their chest and eyes looking everywhere but at their leader’s, brings to mind a picture from a Western movie of a mob boss and his guards where their presence served not so much as a direct protection for their boss but to intimidate others into behaving themselves.
“Where were you last night?” James was still shouting and the class had grown silent as the boys focused on Richard once again. It was all right for the House Captain to immediately discover the absence of a House member since he must take roll-calls every night before turning off the lights.
“I was at the clinic.” Richard was beginning to stammer and like always, he hated himself for it.
“He fainted in class yesterday.” It was a small boy sitting directly in front of Richard. James turned to scowl at him and the boy quickly faced forward.
“So?” James continued, bearing down on Richard. “Is that enough reason for you not to return to your bed?”
The word ‘bed’ registered in a distant part of Richard’s thirteen year old brain and he wondered if it had any hidden meaning. As he was wont to do, his suspicion grew and Richard felt all the pent up anger, shame and self-loath rise to the fore. He clenched and unclenched his fists. But he wasn’t given an opportunity to respond. James turned away abruptly. “If you like, go to the clinic again. I will personally come there to get you,” he fumed.
Richard sat for a long time before deciding what to do. When he stood up, there was no pain. He walked stiffly to the back of the class and very casually, sat next to Joel.
“Hey Joel, do you still want me to help you with that math assignment?”
A slow smile crept into Joel’s face and he suddenly let out a loud laugh. Patting Richard on the back, he said, “At last, you are beginning to understand. So, how do we do it? I can give you the notebook now and you do the homework and bring it to class tomorrow.”
“No no. Our handwriting is different. And you know Mr. Metu will know. After night prep, just come to my corner. Then you can copy from my own.”
Joel shook his head. “But it is my brother’s hostel. If he finds me there, I am dead.”
“Well, that is the only way I can help you. I will do the assignment during prep. And you know tomorrow is Assembly; Mr. Metu will be in class even before we come in.”
Joel sat deep in thought, biting the insides of his lips; he looked like he was trying to decipher a difficult mathematical equation. “Can’t you give me your note after prep?” he asked eagerly.
“No!” Richard answered and made to stand up.
“No, wait now,” Joel cajoled. “Okay. Okay. I will come. But I must finish before lights-out.” Richard nodded and went back to his seat.
Richard changed into his pyjamas and sat on his bed. Joel was on his knees, writing furiously and using the spring mattress as his table. He had barely finished copying one page when James strode into the room.
Dragon House hostel was a long room with metal beds on either sides of the wall like a hospital ward. The middle of the room was vacant and served as passage since there was little space between one bed and the next.
“Come on, he will see you. Hide under the bed,” Richard said to Joel whose eyes were barely contained in their sockets.
Richard’s bed was at the end of the room, to the far wall such that the person at the door on the other end was unable to see who was there. The bed had been constructed in a way that a student’s bucket can be stored beneath it. Moving the red plastic bucket filled with water to one side, Joel scrambled under the bed and coiled into a ball. Richard gathered the books and kept them under his pillow, and then he straightened the bed cover to flow over the edge, sheltering Joel from view. James walked the length of the hostel and stopped only when his eyes settled on Richard. Smiling, he began to take the roll-call. When he was done, he switched off the lights and left.
The cold from the floor had seeped into his skin and Joel was shivering when he emerged from his self-imposed prison. He hissed, calling Richard names under his breath. Richard did not reply, he handed him a torch light and his notebook, then turned his back to him.
“But I’m not done,” Joel grumbled.
“Lower your voice!” Richard hissed. He shifted on the bed, providing a little space. “You can lie down as you are copying,” he said.
No one was allowed outside the hostels after lights-out. Joel knew he was trapped but he still hoped to finish what he came for before attempting to sneak back to his hostel. Grudgingly, he laid down and began to write using the pointed light from the torch. Within the hour, he was snoring soundly. Richard quietly got up from the bed, took the torch from Joel’s slack fingers and shone it into his face. The boy had dribbled a large amount of saliva on his notebook. Carefully, Richard withdrew his notebook from beneath Joel’s arms. He stowed it inside his schoolbag. Armed with his blanket and some clothes, he headed for the quadrangle outside.
Richard huddled in a corner and waited. It didn’t take long. The sound of several footsteps reached him. He went still, listening attentively. The boys joked in excited whispers, clinging unto one another as they walked past. Richard waited. He counted to sixty, then stood up, stepped out of his bathroom slippers and tiptoed into the hostel. He entered the long room and stood just beside the door. He heard the scuffles coming out of the darkness and could distinguish quite clearly the strenuous grunts of the older boys. He stood by for a long time, waited until Joel’s gasps of struggle turned into the watery moans he was accustomed to. And then, with a maniacal grin pasted across his face, Richard reached up and flicked the light switch.