It was the year that Lisa Lisa rocked the charts, and G-Force dominated every dance floor, and Sporting-Waves pomade was in the hair of the bad boys (not me), and almost all the girls had breasts the size of tangerines straining from behind the blouses of their school uniforms, and some of the boys (the bad ones, again) claimed to have “pressed” them.
It was also the year my bunkmate Mike Denani, who was not a bad boy, astonished me one afternoon behind the Social Studies building by telling me exactly which of the two holes in the mysterious region below a woman’s waist babies emerged from. That was a disgusting thing for him to say, and though I laughed it off at the time, I could hardly look him in the eye for days afterwards, mostly from the suspicion that he was actually telling the truth.
The main trouble in those days, though, was with the toilets attached to the house, which were in an awful state, regardless of how much the one-eyed Warrant Officer who served as our House Master screamed about it. They had to be scrubbed clean every Saturday morning at the first sign of daylight. The finger and palm blisters we got from cutting grass with dull cutlasses were far better than the stink and gloom of the shithouse, and every first-former wished dearly for a lawn or farm assignment on Saturdays rather than toilet duty. The toilet was so foul, in fact, that many of the pupils preferred to squat in the wild bush behind the dormitory and wipe with leaves. Yet, though in those days I missed toilet-paper with an intensity I have never since then felt for any absent lover, I could never bring myself to wipe with leaves: too oily, too crinkly, too unpredictable. And what if the leaf tore and I got shit on my hands? What if I accidentally used lemongrass and carried an itchy ass around for two days? Or, worse, if I attracted the curiosity of one of the black mambas that nested in those tangled grasses?
No thanks. I was happy to take my chances and stand tiptoe over the horrible open pit in the unlit toilet and do my business there. I washed with water, cleaning first the little pucker (that is, the one that women also had but apparently didn’t use for delivering children), and then obsessively washing my legs in case anything had accidentally run down, washing as obsessively as a squirrel washing a nut. I was nothing if not hygienic, and our prison camp of a school wasn’t about to change that. There had to be a modicum of order to my life, even out at this gulag.
So, naturally, I was terrified when our bunk was rattled at 3am on a Wednesday and my leg was yanked through the mosquito netting. The whole house was being woken up. Boys of all ages rose grumpily from interrupted dreams that, I feel sure, all involved either our music teacher or the contraband magazine Ikebe Super, or some unholy combination of the two. The seniors barked out that an emergency house meeting was being called. It had something to do with the toilet.
All the senior boys stood on one side of the central passage of the dorm, and the first and second-formers were made to line up on the other side. The seriousness of the matter made it immediately obvious that connections would not spare anyone from the investigation. The fact, for example, that my school-father, a fourth-former known to everyone as “Paul McCartney” because of his docile manner and girlish voice, was standing right there, was of no use, no matter how imploringly I looked at him. Not that it would have been of any use, since I had wrinkled my nose and complied only reluctantly the previous week when he asked me to clip his toenails. It wasn’t until many years later that it became obvious to me that Paul McCartney’s various ambiguous requests (“rub my back,” “wash my feet,” and so on) were due to his latent homosexuality which even he might have been unaware of at the time.
The House Prefect, ordinarily quite a decent fellow, bellowed at us, calling us filthy worms. If the House Master were present, he said, we would all be getting thrashed within an inch of our pathetic lives. As it was, the crime – some boy had defecated indiscriminately all over one of the toilet stalls – would be investigated. He held up a torch-light threateningly, and switched the beam to the highest power.
The senior boys grinned, as if the whole thing were a grand joke. I avoided Paul McCartney’s eye, but I doubt he was laughing. There was a doleful expression on his face that rarely varied. Meanwhile, we quaked in our singlets and nightclothes, and each of us started loudly protesting his innocence until we were silenced by a blast of profanity from the Prefect.
One by one, we shuffled to the front of the line. Each boy, as he approached the House Prefect, was made to drop his shorts to his ankles, and bend over so that his anus could be examined with the beam of the torch. The seniors tittered delightedly, making comments, craning their necks to get a view. Judgment was swift, and each exonerated boy pulled up his shorts and joined the others with a mixture of relief and acute shame.
My bunkmate Mike was ten spots ahead of me, and even though I knew my turn was soon, I still felt sorry for him as he lowered his underwear and exposed his ass to the torch’s glare. His precocious penis swung into view. I was ashamed to be present at his shame, and I thought I was in a bad dream that would soon end. When the line came to a boy with a barrel-chest and fuzzy hair – of course I’ve forgotten his real name, but everyone called him “Yam Tuber” – who was three places in front of me, I started to unbutton my shorts. I was fearful, because in these situations there’s never any certainty that one is free of incriminating evidence. I concentrated all my energy on not pissing myself.
There was a low whistle from the House Prefect.
“Ah, ah! Oloshi! What is this!”
The seniors crowded in, murmuring their agreement. Apparently, traces of fresh caca remained around Tuber’s sphincter. The Prefect seized him by the neck. “Oloshi! You have been wasting our time!”
The investigation was over. I almost died of relief. It’s even possible I pissed myself just a little bit. We were sent back to our bunks, but it was more than an hour before any of us could get back to sleep. Tuber had been dealt with, and his moans of an injured dog punctuated the darkness at irregular intervals. Though the welts on his neck and back healed quickly enough, he carried an abandoned, betrayed look on his face for a few weeks.
But me? Those things happened a long time ago. I continue to clean with an attentiveness that would impress the most meticulous of domestic cats. And now I buy Quilted Northern or Charmin, whichever of the two is more expensive.
by Teju Cole
An earlier version of this story appeared in the now-defunct blog Abdul-Walid of Acerbia. – Eds.