Fourteen: by Nkechi Hokstad

Photo credit: Paco S

That time of the month. Again. Nkiruka’s period always surprised her, despite its regularity. Each month, she divested herself of heavy dark red clots. The pulsating pains shot up her back and down her legs, uncomfortable in their intensity. She was told invariably by her mother, her sisters, her aunties, her friends – all women suffer from this, it won’t kill you. Yet, there were often times when she would wish for death. The pain was so bad that it would cause her to vomit silently in bathrooms, keeping her eyes open for fear that she would pass out from it. A decade later, the doctors would discover the light endometriosis that caused her so much anguish. Nothing we can do about it – all we can do is help you manage the pain with contraceptive pills, codeine and tramadol. Although the pain was briefly alleviated, it never quite went away.

For now though, she was on her own with her insides screaming at her to do something, anything. She lay down, wishing this curse of fertility away, refusing to accept for the umpteenth time that this umpteenth prayer would not work. Someone had once told her that having a child would stop the pain. Nkiruka frequently toyed with the idea of becoming pregnant, imagining which one of her many crushes on whom she would bestow the honour of fatherhood. Being a scrawny fourteen year old with thick lenses in even thicker spectacles, she knew that this scenario was unlikely; or at least several years too early. In any event, she didn’t even like children.

Eventually, she sighed, sat up and slowly flipped her legs out of bed. Her eyes adjusted to the murky darkness. God, the room was so stuffy! Her bed sheets were drenched in her sweat. She glanced at the seven other girls still fast asleep, their faces contorted into varying grimaces. The heat and discomfort would do that. A broken fan hung from the ceiling, mocking them with its promise of cool, moving air where there was none – NEPA was, as always, a familiar unfamiliar friend and there was no electricity to speak of. A select few of the girls had rechargeable lamps with fans attached, but these ran out from over exertion the evening before – it was either that or study by candlelight (or, even worse, sit in a group on the front steps of the hostel using the light from the matron’s kerosene lamp, trying and failing to avoid the swarming insects and choking fumes).

She thought back to one of her many battles with her older sister four years ago. Chika had failed to charge her own rechargeable lamp, and insisted that she was entitled to use Nkiruka’s.

“No, you can’t have it! I need it!”

“We’re supposed to share! Who told you it was just your own?! Give it to me!”

“Go get your own, bloody fool!”

(“Bloody fool” was a favourite insult of Mother, who would sometimes spit it out when cars cut in front of her in the road.)

Back and forth they went. It ended in slaps, scratches and a forlorn lamp broken into pieces at their feet. The matron, Mrs Kekere-Ekun (her name meaning “small lion”, which was apt – her various wigs resembled a lion’s mane and her roar was just as bad as her bite) would call them into her room yet again to remind them that they were sisters and shouldn’t fight. Nkiruka wanted to tell her not to try to rewrite over a decade of history, but that kind of insolence would have garnered a longer speech, most likely followed by physical punishment, the worst being having to crawl using your knees across the gravel that interspersed the dirt roads around the school.

Chika had since graduated, and Nkiruka had celebrated jubilantly at the ostentatious ceremony, only to weep confused tears following her departure. It had been the same when Chika had first left for boarding school, leaving her at home with their other siblings. Nkiruka had gone very quiet that night and Mother asked her if she was missing Chika, which she vehemently denied – how could she miss someone whose sole job in life, it seemed, was to make hers a misery? Chika’s departure made her the top dog of the house – at least, until the following year when she would follow in Chika’s footsteps, providing she passed her Common Entrance exams. Chika would frequently taunt her with thoughts of failure and having to sit an extra year of primary school, but without the added context that the extra year was entirely normal, and very few girls skipped it. Only in Nigeria would failing to pass a test a year earlier than you were supposed to take it be deemed as failure.

It was almost as bad as failing to start your period early. She was one of the youngest in her year of boarding school and her period had not arrived until she was thirteen. Until this happened, she was excluded from the hushed talks of being “on”, and the urgency of needing to leave a class as soon as possible to avoid getting “stained”. One of her classmates, Adaobi, an early developer with large breasts and a Coke bottle figure, mocked the whiteness of her underwear as she hung it out to dry, clearly spoiling for a fight.

“Hmm, see this small girl with her white pant!”

Nkiruka’s heart beating too quickly, she fired back, “What’s your own? Because I’m too clean to have yama-yama in my pant? Abeg, carry yourself and go!”

Adaobi, not used to being challenged by girls virtually half her size, looked momentarily shocked, but quickly collected herself by placing her hands on her hips, rolling her eyes and kissing her teeth before shouting at the top of her voice so that everyone around could hear,

“See her mouth! She no know say na only pikin wey dey have white pant! Us better people don grow pass finish!”

This public accusation of girlhood stung Nkiruka deeply. That night, with echoes of her classmates’ laughter ringing in her ears, she would scratch at her biggest mosquito bites and smear the blood and fluid which seeped from them into the crotches of her pants. She pretended to have started her period a full year before she did so. When it finally arrived in a hail of blood, gore and unbearable cramps, she realised too late that being a late bloomer had its benefits.

Late bloomer no more (as another cramp happily reminded her), she willed herself out of bed and tiptoed out of the room. The squeaky badly fitted door woke no one. Feeling her way through the dark to the toilets, she could hear the rats scurrying around in the corners, annoyed at this intrusion of their twilight world. As a junior girl, she would have run back to the room, screaming her head off, begging God, someone, anyone to save her. Not anymore.

Girls more blasé than her would continue to discard uneaten food in the corners of the hostel, a midnight feast for the rats who ruled the night. The bins which existed were few and far too small to house the waste generated by the hostel’s inhabitants. Sometimes, at night, Nkiruka would hear the high-pitched whistles of the rats followed by a girl screaming, and she would wonder whose toes the rats were now attempting to devour. In the village, the rats would have been food, dried and smoked bushmeat sold by the roadside. The irony was not lost on her, thinking that their parents parted with so much money each term only for their children to become rat bait. Not that the teachers cared – in their opinion, these were spoiled, molly coddled children who needed to be brought down a peg or two. It was not uncommon for a group of the most venomous teachers to summon a girl to the staff room and rain insults on her about her lack of work ethic and efforts to waste her parents’ hard-earned money. Come visiting day, those same teachers would sidle up to the parents, praising them and their child to the skies, in the hopes of getting an unsealed envelope full of that hard earned money. The girl would say nothing to her parents of the teachers’ duplicity – visiting day was but one day, and she would be stuck with the teachers for weeks following. The unearned commission would hopefully stop some of the abuse and lead the teachers to select a new victim.

On reaching the toilets, she picked a cubicle and made the obligatory check behind the door for the various fauna that made their way into the hostel on a disturbingly regular basis. A lizard. A larger than usual rat. At worst, a snake. She recalled a girl, Ivie, running out of the toilets one early morning, screaming that there was a python behind the door. It wasn’t a python, but whatever it was was pale yellow and white with reddish-pink eyes and ominous fangs which had to be poisonous. The head of that snake now adorned a jar of formaldehyde on the topmost shelf of the science lab, its mouth prised open in death. This morning, bar a spider spinning an intricate web in one of the door panels, there was nothing. She pulled her pants down and eased herself onto the toilet seat, the toilet bowl filled with the urine and excrement of those junior girls who were too scared to flush the toilet at night, preferring to run back to their rooms as quickly as they had run out of them. They were stupid. The frequent lack of running water in the school made flushing a luxury that was either unavailable or unaffordable, unless one was prepared to use their bucket of water reserved for their morning wash. The morning wash won every time.

At least, the toilet seat was dry – whoever had gone before her decided that sitting was a better option. As Nkiruka peed, she checked the sanitary pad glued to the inside of her pants, themselves enclosed in her cycling shorts reserved for keeping her pads in place during her period, a job too difficult for the pad wings which instead preferred to cling to her pubic hair. No blood. Not a drop of it. She let out a loud hiss, realising that she still had at least eight more days of pain to endure.

Shaking herself dry and swiftly pulling her pants and cycling shorts up, she lowered her nightshirt as she bypassed the sinks next to the cubicles without so much as a second glance. There was likely to be no water, but she could not be bothered to check. Somehow, the thought of not washing her hands after having used the toilet still amused her. A naughty secret that wasn’t a secret. Everyone did the same.

In her second year, one of the girls, on being confronted with an empty water cistern and a toilet bowl brimming with days old faeces, flies and maggots, decided to use the sink instead and broke it. The culprit was never apprehended, but it prompted a beating of the junior girls by the seniors. The seniors summoned them all to a house meeting, shouting in their faces:

“Oya, confess! Who broke the sink? Better confess! We know who did it! If you tell us now, nothing will happen!”

The extra small junior girls cried useless tears. The not-so-small ones played along, imploring their friends to confess to a crime they were clearly too lightweight to have committed. Later, the junior girls would dance away from Senior Banke’s swishing cable swirled in water to make more effective its stinging crack as it landed on their backs, arms and legs. Poor Elizabeth, one of only two mixed-race girls in the entire school, was covered in fresh red-purple bruises the following morning, yet all Nkiruka felt when she saw Elizabeth was envy. Her own lingering pain did not show so gracefully on her dark brown skin.

As she made her way back to the stuffy room, she paused just outside the door, her hand raised to push it open. Deciding against it, she turned around and walked down the steps to the hostel gates.

The hostel was made of red clay bricks, supposedly with enough patterned gaps in the communal areas to allow for adequate ventilation, and smooth whitewashed cement floors. The design was very simple – twenty bedrooms (ten on each floor) each housing up to ten girls at a time, four sets of communal bathrooms (with mushrooms sprouting in their damp, dark corners and wide drainage holes which the rats sometimes used as water slides), twenty toilets, and a larger central room both upstairs and downstairs. The upstairs central room was a common room, with a rarely used small television locked in a cage suspended from the ceiling. The downstairs central room was intended to be used as a dining room but was found to be too small to contain all the girls. So each mealtime, the prefects would rattle the heavy iron gates which secured the hostel, and the girls would file out, marching up to the bigger dining hall at the top of the hill, the hill which held the boys school. The more vain girls would preen and fuss before heading there, aware of the upcoming scrutiny of boys who were mostly too gangly and nervous to approach them, but would keep a close eye on which girls’ tables were likely to leave the most amount of food behind, allowing them to raid the pots for pieces of leftover meat on their departure. However, these raids would follow the far more important task at hand. When the girls filed back down the hill, the boys would congregate at the top to watch them, until they were dispersed by an irritated teacher.

Nkiruka’s thoughts turned to a stormy afternoon after lunchtime. With the fast-approaching rain threatening to expose her white lacy bra duly stuffed with tissue paper, she tried to race back to the girls school to save herself from certain humiliation. In her hurry, she tripped on a rock, falling flat on her face, and, as luck (or not) would have it, the wind whipped up her skirt at the exact same moment in time. In her mind, as she lay on the ground with her eyes tightly shut and wishing for a death which would not come, the boys whooped and hollered in amusement. Other girls, not willing to be tainted by her embarrassment, ran past without stopping to help her up – perhaps they too had their own secrets to keep under the flimsy uniform blouses. After what felt like a lifetime, she managed to pull herself up and, without a backwards glance, ran as quickly as she could back to the girls school, her tears mingling with the now pouring rain and her once-perky bosom now soggy and deflated. For an entire week following, she would hide in the trees behind the hostel in an effort to avoid the thrice daily trips to the dining hall, her only meals being the near-crumbs her more sympathetic friends smuggled back to her and the occasional pack of dry biscuits she bought from the tuck shop with her diminishing pocket money. Nkiruka would emerge from that ordeal unscathed bar her wounded pride and a near skeletal figure which necessitated even more bra stuffing, only this time with rolled up socks (for let it not be said that she was not a fast learner).

On reaching the hostel gates this early morning, she placed her face on the rusty iron, cool to the touch, and pushed gently. Of course they wouldn’t open. They were locked every night. The chains encircling the heavy-duty padlock rattled, threatening to expose her. The pains were still there. She breathed deeply, counted to ten, and started climbing the gates, willing them to be quiet. When she reached the top, she briefly sat with her legs akimbo between the welded spikes. Nkiruka always took a few seconds to acknowledge and appreciate just how expertly she was able to navigate these gates. The numerous scars on her leg were a giveaway of her previous unsuccessful attempts. There were unfounded rumours that a girl’s vagina had once been impaled on one of the spikes, a false tale no likely spread to stop others attempting to do the same. She jumped off, landing silently on her feet, and crept around the side of the hostel as she dusted herself off as congratulations for a job well done. The sky was turning a lighter shade of navy-black, and soon, the sun would stretch out its fingertips, slowly prising away the darkness. For now though, she was alone.

Behind the hostel was a small concrete open hut with a corrugated iron roof. As she walked toward it, she thought it looked like a larger version of a traditional English wishing well, or at least, like the ones in the pictures of her childhood story books. No one knew why this hut had been built. Some of the girls used it to shelter from the sun’s rays while washing their clothes. The nerdy efikos used it as a quiet study area during the weekend. The more religious girls used it as a prayer spot. The bad girls used it as a nighttime hideaway to receive the boys sneaking over from their hostels at the top of the hill. Random wooden chairs pulled in from the classrooms littered the floor of the hut. One was upturned, leading her to wonder if someone had fled in haste the night before. The house mistresses were aware of these nightly transgressions and one would occasionally see sporadic flashes of light from their powerful torches, trying to trap girls to make an example of. They never did – the girls (and boys) were too fast for them.

As she entered the hut, she picked up the chair and turned it over. For a brief moment, Nkiruka thought she heard a noise coming from the dense trees a few metres away. No fear. Whatever or whoever it was could be easily outrun, and if not, today was the one day she could afford to not care. She sat on the chair, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. In a few hours’ time, she would be leaving this all behind and, in a few weeks, heading to a different school. She knew little about it, but knew that it wouldn’t be here, in this place that demanded so much of her to be something and someone she did not recognise. She had managed to downplay her excitement for months, but this morning, she let it bubble over and out of her, a short, sharp laugh escaping her mouth. She thought about how crazy she looked sitting there alone in the dark laughing to herself, and this only served to make her laugh even harder. Her cramps intensified. As she wiped the tears of joy and pain from her eyes while placing a steadying palm on her lower back, silence returned.

She stood up and took a step, realising a moment too late that she had trodden on a moth. Lifting her foot, she could see that no part of it was salvageable. She felt no guilt – were it an intelligent creature, it would have had the sense to have been born a colourful butterfly. The dull brown patterns on its crushed wings bore testament to the simple truth that nature naturally favoured the beautiful. She scraped the remains off her slipper and wiped her fingers off on the wall of the hut. As she made her way back to the hostel and over the gates, the thought crossed her mind that today marked the start of a new chapter of her life.

 


Nkechi Hokstad (neé Chigbue) was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. Having moved to the U.K. in 1998, she completed a law degree at King’s College London and eventually qualified as a finance lawyer. Nkechi spends most of her spare time trying to overcome her fear of writing … by writing.

Related country: Nigeria

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