A Boy Free on Christmas Morning

Fiction / Enit’ayanfe Ayosojumi Akinsanya


:: A Boy Free on Christmas Morning ::

            It was a day in Octo­ber, 2005. And like all days in Octo­ber in a prop­er aca­d­e­m­ic year, the term had just begun, new schemes of work writ­ten in chalk on the boards, old friends recon­nect­ing, and new bonds get­ting fas­tened. Old class­mates embraced and shook hands and clapped backs and shared sto­ries from the hol­i­day. They paused in their high laugh­ter and plo­sives only to dust out their lock­ers, clear the walls of cob­webs and the floors of lit­ter, and copy down the new timetable. It was a glit­ter­ing, unbro­ken air.


            The call had pierced through the stac­ca­to din—behind which he had grate­ful­ly slipped—through the thick­ness of his thoughts, and reached him like an arrow. He whirled around, his heart bad­aboom­ing like drums. It was Christo­pher Ayomikun. Of course, it was Christo­pher Ayomikun. Only Christo­pher Ayomikun barked out his name like that. Only Christo­pher Ayomikun cared enough to see him. He wait­ed in his seat. Christo­pher Ayomikun swag­gered up, one cor­ner of his mouth lift­ed as usu­al in a sneer. Tomi­wa wait­ed, his arm rest­ing on the slight swell of his well-worn duf­fel bag, which slouched almost weight­less­ly into his lock­er. Run­ning to the bus stop every morn­ing and every after­noon with it on his back posed no prob­lems for him. He had so few books.

            “Hey, Tomi­wa.” Christo­pher Ayomikun final­ly stopped by his desk, stand­ing too close for com­fort, stretch­ing out his hand. “How are you?”

            Tomiwa’s eyes slid down to the prof­fered hand. He gaped. It was sur­pris­ing enough that Ayomikun had  called him “Fagstard” as usual—Christopher Ayomikun had an ani­mat­ed imagination—but what was even more aston­ish­ing was Christo­pher Ayomikun offer­ing him—him—a hand­shake.

            “Well, well, well, are you going to shake my hand, or are you going to dis­grace me in front of the whole class?” Ayomikun asked. The nois­es in the class­room had dimin­ished into a steady, sin­gle thrum­ming; peo­ple were already begin­ning to watch. The boy cradling his old bag dared not look around to see, but he felt the hun­gry eyes, as strong­ly as he did each time Christo­pher Ayomikun engaged him inside or out­side the class­room. Christo­pher Ayomikun spoke again, “Come on, pal, this is a new term. Old things are gone. I’ve real­ized how child­ish I have been. Let’s start afresh.”

            His voice had tak­en on a soft­ness; his eyes, too. His sneer was also stretch­ing into a smile that looked sin­cere. And, as if “Tomi­wa” had not been enough, he had called him “pal”. Tomiwa’s mud walls were crum­bling. His heart lift­ed. He took Ayomikun’s hand, care­ful­ly at first, and then more con­fi­dent­ly, his fin­gers curled around Ayomikun’s firm palm. “Good morn­ing,” he mum­bled, feel­ing stu­pid; he wasn’t sure that was what he was sup­posed to say. He felt as in a dream. Some­thing ice-cool and sweet, like glu­cose, was spread­ing inside his chest. He won­dered if he should look around the class and smile tri­umphant­ly at the increduli­ty that must be past­ed on those faces. He stopped won­der­ing and looked around. They were all gaw­ping at the scene: his hand in Ayomikun’s, Ayomikun’s cov­er­ing his in a full firm clasp. A mir­a­cle kin­ship. He felt like scream­ing. He part­ed his lips, not sure what it was he would utter, but just then Christo­pher Ayomikun screeched and, with a vio­lent jerk, flung Tomi­wa’s hand off. It smacked against the desk. He spread out his arms like an actor and addressed the class.

            “See? I told you. Fagstard is not a mon­ster. You can actu­al­ly shake his hand and he will not rape you senseless!”

            Then he burst into gales of laugh­ter; some boys joined in. Tomi­wa rec­og­nized them as the ones who had way­laid him on his way home from school, once, twice, three times, and beat­en him up for walk­ing like a girl. They were like Christo­pher Ayomikun—tall, big, mus­cu­lar, things he was not. Because of them, he now ran instead of walk­ing. Because of them, he had stopped going out to the can­teen dur­ing break, just so they couldn’t see him walk­ing and have cause to beat him again. Not that he had the lux­u­ry of fre­quent­ing the can­teen any­way; his pock­et mon­ey was N20, every day. Includ­ing those days they had Junior WASSCE lessons and closed at 6 pm.

            Christo­pher Ayomikun’s laugh­ter slowed and lowed to spo­radic hic­cups, but the rest of the class—even the twin girls that were vot­ed “Most Qui­et” last term—had tak­en up the mirth and were all dou­bled over. Tomiwa’s heart sank. His palm stung. Sweat broke down his back and tem­ples, despite the sun­less­ness of the morn­ing. Goose pim­ples rose on his skin, as if some­one had splashed water on him and pushed him into a basin filled with raw rice. His eyes welled up.

            This was indeed a new term. He might not sur­vive it. Some­body shook the bell for assem­bly time. The class made for the door, girls and boys press­ing against him, push­ing past him, some scream­ing when they came in con­tact with him, the girls look­ing as if they want­ed to spit, some of the boys hold­ing their hands over their behinds, their eyes dis­tend­ed in mock ter­ror. He tried to slip past them but in his haste, his already squig­gly zip­per ripped open and his rat-eat­en books spilled out to the floor. His class­mates watch­ing from the cor­ri­dor erupt­ed in loud laugh­ter. He sank to the floor, will­ing it to yawn open and take him.

            “Clum­sy homo,” they chant­ed and dart­ed their eyes around in case a teacher or a pre­fect was coming.

            Where he sat on the floor, the boy hugged his split bag to his chest and wept.


*                                      *                                    *


            Tomi­wa was the first of two sons. Born to a gar­den­er in the rus­tic town of Ije­bu-Ode, he learned ear­ly enough to occu­py spaces like a thin shad­ow. His father raked lawns, plant­ed alla­man­da bush­es, trimmed sun-bleached flow­ers for a stingy rich fam­i­ly, and col­lect­ed N4,000 pay at the end of the month. Some­times, the salary would come. Some­times, it would come late. And then there were times it would not come at all. Dur­ing these times, it was hell for Tomi­wa, his lit­tle sick­le-celled broth­er, Eni­tan, and their moth­er. She had a makeshift kiosk in front of a weath­er-beat­en bun­ga­low, where she sold soap and sweets and match­es and cig­a­rettes. There, they had rent­ed a one-room apart­ment, and they owed the can­tan­ker­ous land­lord N15,500.

            Tomi­wa’s father, on those days of no pay, would arrive home in the dead of night and in a sog­gy whiff of alco­hol stench, his shirt front stained with beer vom­it, his face grotesque, his lips loose and his eyes bulging. When Tomiwa’s moth­er con­front­ed him about where he had been and what he had been up to, he beat her up. His stag­ger­ing and sway­ing did not dull his punch­es; they could have smacked holes in any liv­ing body. His words slur­ry, his artic­u­la­tions blur­ry, he would rain curs­es on his wife, his chil­dren, his rich employ­ees and the poor coun­try as a whole. Then he would resume beat­ing his wife, hold her by the neck, yank and tou­sle her hair, and force her down to her knees. Where is my food? No food! Why did­n’t you cook? No mon­ey! Must you wait for me before you cook? You have too many debts? No sales? Unfor­tu­nate woman! Oloribu­ruku obin­rin! Your legs are bad! My life scat­tered the day I mar­ried you! These played out in front of Tomi­wa and his lit­tle broth­er, who always burst into loud cry­ing and so stopped Tomi­wa from cry­ing loud­ly as well, for he would have to hold his broth­er close and con­sole him.

            Then, a Sat­ur­day came. His broth­er had a crisis—the fourth that month—and his moth­er had to rush him to a small, unreg­is­tered clin­ic. Tomi­wa watched her clam­ber onto the pil­lion of an oka­da, his heart pal­pi­tat­ing where he sat wash­ing his over-patched school uni­form beside the house. He had just wrung the soap out of his shorts when his father called him in and told him he would have to drop out of school. Tomi­wa stood and stared, the foam dry­ing on his hands.

            “Baba, what did you say, sir?”

            His father coughed. Tomi­wa noticed the new drawn shade in his eyes, the new­er unsight­ly criss­cross of veins on his fore­head. He had always looked sick, from exces­sive drink­ing and work­ing in the sun, but not this much. Tomi­wa wished things were dif­fer­ent for his father, for them all.

            “E pele, sa,” he said in concern.

            “Do you have owu ele­po in your ears?” his father shot at him. “I said you will have to stop going to school. I don’t have the strength to send you again.”

            The world spun rapid­ly inside Tomi­wa’s head; all of his life gath­ered up in his throat. He propped his wrist against his lips, sur­prised by the sud­den­ness of his own cry­ing. Per­haps it was the way his father had shout­ed it. With­out think­ing, with­out choos­ing to be dra­mat­ic, he sank to his knees and start­ed wring­ing his hands in plea. He thought lit­tle of his actions, of what his father would see. All he knew was that he was plead­ing to be allowed to con­tin­ue in school.

            His father sneered at him, a cold sneer that froze Tomi­wa in his move­ments. His father’s blood­shot eyes ran up and down him, until he thought he was about to spit on him.

            “How did I end up with a son like you sef?” his father said, and start­ed hack­ing again. His cough­ing shook his body.

            “E pele, sa.

            “Kneel­ing and mov­ing your hands like a girl.” He spat the phlegm in Tomi­wa’s direc­tion. Anoth­er fit seized his wil­lowy frame.

            Tomi­wa scram­bled up to get him some water.

            “Stop there, my friend!” his father barked. “Where you think say you dey go?”

            “Nowhere, sir.” Tomi­wa shiv­ered, stuck, con­fused, afraid to use his hands lest he did some­thing to fur­ther enrage his father.

            “My ears are full. I hear how you laugh like an idiot when those home­less boys on our street touch your body. I am warn­ing you. No child of mine will bring abom­i­na­tion into this house. E bet­ter make I kill that son with my bare hands than let him see that day.” He launched into anoth­er raspy paroxysm.

            Tears bloomed into Tomiwa’s eyes again, but he fought it. He had to kill vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Boys didn’t cry, his father once said. “E pele, sa,” he said again. This time, he felt the sym­pa­thy for his father more keen­ly. He moved uncer­tain­ly towards him, his hand stretched.

            “Get out of my sight!” his father blared, eyes flashing.

            Tomi­wa ran out, his eyes sting­ing, and for a while he couldn’t see his white vest as he washed it.

            His father left work and took ful­ly to drink­ing and owing a pile of mon­ey at the local bar in town. Often, in the mid­dle of the day, furi­ous ser­vice girls would drag him home and demand pay­ment from Tomi­wa’s moth­er. There were after­noons Tomi­wa and his moth­er found him crum­pled in the gut­ter, bab­bling old hymns. How his moth­er stood alone and Eni­tan did not die of his crises, and how Tomi­wa did not drop out of school, Tomi­wa could not say. But he wished he had dropped out anyway.


*                                      *                                    *


            Drop­ping out dan­gled in his mind—a fresh offer at escape—that day in Octo­ber. The day he prayed the floor of his class­room should open and gulp him in. The same day Abdul came into his life. Abdul was a youth ser­vice corps mem­ber new­ly post­ed to the com­mu­ni­ty school. Tall, firm-jawed Abdul, with a wide fore­head and wider shoul­ders and a lit­tle stut­ter that made the stu­dents find his every word even more pre­cious. When he stepped into their class that morn­ing, after the first three teach­ers had taught and left, he told them he came to teach Math­e­mat­ics and Math­e­mat­ics only.

            “I can solve all prob­lems. Care­ful—all arith­meti­cal prob­lems. Don’t bring your life’s prob­lems to me. Don’t bring your boyfriend-and-girl­friend issues to me.”

            A rip­ple went through the class.

            “Those ones are prob­lems I can’t solve. I have those prob­lems, too, you hear?  So make every­one go solve their prob­lems on their own, abeg. Gov­ern­ment no dey pay me allowee for that one.”

            The class burst into laugh­ter. Except Tomi­wa, who was still mop­ing over his ruined school bag. Abdul smiled and turned to the board.

            After school, a school pre­fect accost­ed Tomi­wa and told him Abdul want­ed to see him in the staff room. Stiffly, his mind blank, he made for the detached build­ing. Abdul sat, a Pace­set­ters nov­el held open with his thumb, and asked Tomi­wa his name. “And also tell me why you were look­ing moody dur­ing his class in the morning.”

            Tomi­wa part­ed his lips to speak, but it was tears, not words, that broke free. It annoyed him, that he was cry­ing before this stranger-teacher in tight white vest and green kha­ki pants. It was like a scene from all those TV melo­dra­mas his class­mates always chirped about dur­ing Free Peri­od. He pressed his hands to his face. He felt like scream­ing at him: Leave me alone!

            “Noth­ing, sir,” he mum­bled. “My head was aching. My name is Tomi­wa Arogundade.”

            The cor­p­er gawped.

            Lat­er, as Tomi­wa walked home through the bush­es flank­ing a lone­ly path, Christo­pher Ayomikun and his boys leaped out at him, their check­ered shirts undone and tied around their waists to reveal off-white sin­glets, long lithe canes swish­ing to and fro in their hands. Tomi­wa stag­gered back­ward. They had nev­er brought canes before. He wished he knew any oth­er route home, but this was the only lane. The boys sur­round­ed him, leer­ing and sneer­ing and whistling. He thought of his moth­er pray­ing into the night on her knees, reel­ing out psalms after psalms for divine pro­tec­tion from evil and its doers. Tomi­wa had man­aged to mem­o­rize only Psalm 23 com­plete­ly. He reached for it now like a tal­is­man. He mut­tered it earnestly.

            Christo­pher Ayomikun detached him­self from the cir­cle and neared Tomi­wa with his cock­sure swag­ger. Tomi­wa stared. He should run. These were peo­ple with height­ened preda­to­ry skills. These were peo­ple who grew up watch­ing too many Amer­i­can and Chi­nese films. The silence, punc­tu­at­ed by the twit­ter­ing of bush birds, stretched on for too long. They lolled the canes in their hands and peered at him thin­ly, like lizards. Tomiwa’s heart start­ed throb­bing again, and when Christo­pher final­ly spoke, it was like some­one splashed a buck­et of ice cubes down his shoulders.

            “Hey, Fagstard, how about we get your dis­gust­ing rosy ass pro-per-ly whipped?”

            Tomi­wa held onto his loose bag. “Please. E jo. I don’t want any more trou­ble. Let me just go home.”

            “Hey, hey!” Christo­pher Ayomikun threw his hands about in that the­atri­cal way com­mon with pul­pit clowns. “The sis­sy pleads!” He made a face and aped Tomiwa’s words.

            “Come on, Chief CA!” one of the oth­er boys screeched. “Why we dey waste time?” Some­body fit come and inter­rupt na. Make we naked this girlie and see wetin him been dey cover!”

            Tomi­wa went numb.

            “Well, well, well,” Christo­pher Ayomikun starred his role again, hands on hips, “you are about to regret ever being born into this world, you abom­i­na­tion.” He revolved on his heels. “He’s all yours!”

            They yelled in uni­son, their canes raised high, and raced toward Tomi­wa, who stood trans­fixed in the mid­dle of the path. It was over. It was beyond him what atroc­i­ty it was they were going to do to him this time. He closed his eyes, like when the lights of the world go out, slumped to the ground, and wait­ed for the onslaught.

            He could not see any­thing, but he heard a sud­den silence. Some­one had bound­ed into the road. They all stiff­ened in their tracks. The fig­ure approached steadi­ly, unflinch­ing­ly. A tall broad fig­ure. White vest. Green pants. A green cap.

            “It’s Cor­p­er Abdul!” some­one screamed.

            Tomiwa’s ear­lobes thud­ded with feet. They all melt­ed into the bush, leav­ing behind their weapons and a few san­dals. Tomi­wa opened his eyes and looked hard through the wink­ing green of his vision. It was Cor­p­er Abdul. The man pulled him up. Tomi­wa glanced up through the trees to send his thanks to what­ev­er god was there. He watched his sav­ior van­ish in a blur of white and green, and he didn’t know what next to feel, to do.


*                                      *                                    *


            Abdul gave chase, briefly. He caught none of the boys. They had moved through the for­est like light­ning through slip­pery clouds.



*                                      *                                    *


            “Are you hurt?”

            Tomi­wa shook his head no.

            “Are you not that boy in JSS3 A?”

            Tomi­wa nod­ded, feel­ing self-pity­ing­ly young and helpless.

            “Where do you live?”

            “Just before the busy road.” He point­ed vague­ly. The numb­ness was begin­ning to clear.

            “Hmm. The Cor­pers’ Lodge is not too far from there. Let’s walk together.”

            He nod­ded, his tongue glu­ing itself back to the roof of his mouth.

            They start­ed walk­ing; their foot­falls crunched the crisp Octo­ber-dried leaves under­foot and echoed in the trees. The silence grew too loud.

            “Hey, broth­er, I don’t know you much.”

            The man sound­ed a lit­tle force­ful, as if he had rum­maged and rum­maged around in his brain to find the least embar­rass­ing way to con­tin­ue the con­ver­sa­tion, and so wouldn’t con­done anoth­er list­less response. Per­haps it was his bari­tone. Per­haps it was his broad shoul­ders. Per­haps it was his clear open face, which gave the sen­sa­tion of star­ing into a cloud­less sky. Or per­haps it was sim­ply that the man had called him “broth­er”, but Tomi­wa sud­den­ly found his tongue uncling­ing from the roof of his mouth, like a weight in flight.

            “I real­ly don’t know much about you either, sir,” he said.

            Abdul smiled, appar­ent­ly encouraged.

            “I fin­ished from Obafe­mi Awolowo Uni­ver­si­ty. Depart­ment of Math­e­mat­ics. I am Yoru­ba, from Lagos, and serv­ing in a Yoru­ba town. I am one of the luck­i­est, I guess.”

            Tomi­wa gig­gled, a lit­tle amused, a lit­tle stunned by himself.

            “Okay, sir.”

            A bird cried.

            “So…when did all this rub­bish start?”

            Tomi­wa watched a lone lizard slith­er through a clump of bit­ter leaves. “Since I came into the school, sir. Three years ago.”

            “Ya Allah!

            Tomi­wa smiled, wry­ly amused, think­ing of what his moth­er was most like­ly to say if he ever told her about this part of the con­ver­sa­tion: she would snap her fin­gers and quote “do not be unequal­ly yoked with unbe­liev­ers”. His moth­er, he had often guilti­ly thought, was an incu­ri­ous, unin­tel­li­gent, faith­less worshipper.

            “But why did­n’t you report them to the school authorities?”

            “I did, sir. I did. The vice-prin­ci­pal him­self has pun­ished them over this issue. But they way­laid me again and beat the day­lights out of me and swore to kill me if I report­ed them again.”

            Abdul stopped. “And you believed them?”

            Tomi­wa nod­ded, his eyes heavy and shadowed.

            “This is unac­cept­able!” Abdul bawled. Then he caught him­self, as if he would have said more. He inhaled deeply. “Your parents—what about them?”

            Tomi­wa thought about his father’s beer-dark face, his moth­er’s blank exhaust­ed stare and his broth­er’s pained breath­less look.

            “I…um…couldn’t approach them. I did­n’t want them involved.”

            “To your own detriment?”

            For a while, Tomi­wa thought Abdul was going to slap him. He had raised his voice and a new ener­gy had entered him. But he only walked on, his face turned away.

            “I over­heard one of those imps call­ing you some­thing,” Abdul said. “I could­n’t hear it clear­ly. What was it?”

            A new, heavy silence fell.

            “They…call…me…Fagstard.” Tomi­wa’s voice trembled.

            “Fag-what?” Abdul’s face crum­pled into lines of utter confusion.

            “Fagstard, sir.”

            Abdul scratched his head. “Well, my broth­er, help your big broth­er out o. ‘Fang’ I know. ‘Cus­tard’ I know. But which one is ‘Fagstard’? They did not teach us this in school o.”

            Tomi­wa smiled sad­ly, touched by Abdul’s dis­cre­tion, his delib­er­ate avoid­ance of words that hurt like knives, but he also wished Abdul had hurled those words anyway.

            “Sir, I use the dic­tio­nary a lot. I am sure Ayomikun formed the word out of a join­ing of the words ‘fag’ and ‘bas­tard’.”

            A shad­ow fell between Abdul’s thick eye­brows. “No, Tomi­wa. You can’t be so sure about that.”

            Tomi­wa took a deep calm­ing breath before he spoke. “It’s okay, sir. I know what I saw in the dic­tio­nary, and I also know what I saw in Christo­pher Ayomikun’s eyes each time he called me by the name.”

            “Well, that’s not your name. It is foul. Christo­pher has to know that. You don’t deserve it. No one deserves to be called such non­sense.” Abdul kicked at a stone; his feet moved more quick­ly. He seemed to be gulp­ing air. After a while, he spoke again. “At least you know what they call you. Some of us, we don’t know the name of what we are. Even Ayomikun does not know yet what he is. The day he finds out, he will see that he is some­thing much worse than he could ever imagine.”

            Tomi­wa tugged at a tall stalk over­hang­ing the path. He won­dered what Abdul meant by that. He want­ed to ask for elab­o­ra­tion but Abdul was still speaking.

            “Back then on cam­pus, we had this room­mate. A fun­ny, gen­er­ous chap like that. He walked sway­ing his hips. He had a high-pitched voice and if you were not care­ful while lis­ten­ing to him from a dis­tance, you would con­clude it was a girl speak­ing. He hard­ly ever spoke with­out twirling his fin­gers and mak­ing dra­mat­ic faces. We called him ‘Mr. Pep­per’. He would cook and all of us would eat even more por­tions than he, the own­er of the food, would eat. He always left his cup­board open. You could pick any food item you want­ed from it. He always smiled and made us laugh by exag­ger­at­ing his walk. He said the only rea­son he did that to cre­ate laugh­ter was because we didn’t see him as mere enter­tain­ment. There was a time like that when peo­ple tried to talk him down because of his girli­ness. See eh. We all rose to defend him o. Very bril­liant boy. Grad­u­at­ed with a first-class. And he was a musi­cian, too. Would play this love­ly black gui­tar on rainy nights.”

            “Wow,” Tomi­wa said, gen­uine­ly wowed. Hear­ing about some­body that was almost exact­ly like him felt like redemp­tion itself.

            “Yes. Wow.”

            But Tomi­wa won­dered, “Cor­p­er Abdul.”


            “Would you have defend­ed him like that if he had been stingy, dumb and unfriendly?”

            Abdul cocked his head side­ways and scratched it again. Then he con­fessed, “I’m not sure oth­ers would have defend­ed him. They were like, ‘Who will now cook for us?’ But I would. I know would. I just liked him. No reason.”

            Tomi­wa plunged into ques­tions. “So how did he end up? Was he your set? Where was he post­ed to?”

            Abdul smiled, and Tomi­wa thought he saw a hint of sad­ness in the smile.

            “What, sir?” he asked.

            “Ismail is dead.”

            Tomi­wa stopped walk­ing. Abdul also stopped walk­ing. The trees sighed.

            “How… How did he die?” Get­ting those words out was like self-torturing.

            “There are some things that can’t be explained to you now.” Abdul spoke briskly. He looked rue­ful, as if he thought he had said way too much.

            Tomi­wa gazed at the foot­path. “Did he die because he was like me?”

            Abdul slipped into silence, a long, long silence. Final­ly, he said, “You are not ripe to know some things, my dear. But one day, I promise, you will know.”

            He looked like he want­ed to add some­thing, but they had got to the busy road, mar­ket and vehic­u­lar nois­es spoil­ing the air. And Tomi­wa thought about all the times he had tried to drink up his mother’s kerosene or chew up her bar soaps, and how on each attempt his lit­tle brother’s face had flashed into his mind, thin and sal­low, and he won­dered just how much was left to know. Abdul wait­ed and watched him cross to the oth­er side and dis­ap­pear into a corner.


*                                      *                                    *


            After that after­noon, Christo­pher Ayomikun and his boys were locked into inter­minable coun­sel­ing ses­sions with Abdul in the staff room, after school, repeat­ed­ly, and they no longer ambushed Tomi­wa on the path home­ward, nor harassed him as fierce­ly as before in school. After that after­noon, Abdul start­ed send­ing him a flask of food every lunch break and, after clos­ing, they walked the lone­ly path togeth­er and talked freely about all of Abdul’s past girl­friends and the cur­rent one who was in her final year at the Ogun State Uni­ver­si­ty and who vis­it­ed Ije­bu-Ode twice in a fort­night. But it was this first after­noon, this first walk, this first con­ver­sa­tion, this day in Octo­ber, that Tomi­wa would always remem­ber. The moment Abdul, a young man with no illic­it inten­tions, held him by the hand and picked him up from the dust. He won­dered what Abdul had seen. Abdul had cer­tain­ly not seen just a boy who liked boys. He had not seen just a boy being bul­lied and who need­ed his help. He had not seen just a help­less boy. Abdul had seen a broth­er. A full human.

            And from that episode, Tomi­wa was strength­ened. Ele­vat­ed. Human­ized and for­ti­fied. One day, it slipped out of his mouth, that famous­ly await­ed ques­tion of: “Where do you live in Lagos, sir?” And Abdul had hur­ried­ly told him where, his lips stop­ping soon­er than the words had come out, as if it had slipped out of him, too.

            Months lat­er, as the year wound down into Decem­ber and the har­mat­tan descend­ed in all its cold and dry­ness, Tomi­wa would still remem­ber that day in Octo­ber. He would see girls rub­bing an extra sheen of gloss on their lips and think of the first time he had rubbed on lip­stick. It was his mother’s. A pur­ple shade. And it was, like this, Christ­mas­time. His moth­er had seen it on him, and he had won­dered what she was going to do to him. But she had mere­ly laughed and asked him not to use that shade of lip­stick any­more because it didn’t suit his skin col­or. He had been sur­prised, but his sur­prise had been faint and fibre­less; his moth­er had always regard­ed his dif­fer­ence with the calm­ness of a wise silence. She had nev­er judged him, nev­er react­ed to his authen­tic being with the hor­ror of oth­er peo­ple. He would take this mem­o­ry, this lack of hor­ror, and with it go and vis­it Abdul in his home in Lagos to spend Christ­mas. Abdul, shocked to see him, would ask him—How!—and Tomi­wa would laugh a bel­ly laugh and slump against him in the weak­ness of that laugh­ter and tell him that he had lied to his par­ents and broth­er that he want­ed to spend Christ­mas with his mater­nal aunt in Lagos, a staunch Deep­er Lif­er who detest­ed phones and com­mu­ni­cat­ed only by let­ters. And Abdul would laugh deeply, shoul­ders shak­ing, and smack the boy’s head and call him, “Omo kata”—mis­chie­vous child—and wel­come him “into my hum­ble abode”. Tomi­wa would look around the siz­able room, the walls bare of pho­tographs, the air full of a dis­tinct­ly sin­gle scent, and would won­der about ask­ing whether Abdul lived alone and his girl­friend now vis­it­ed him often, whether she lived in Lagos as well. Then he would look at Abdul in his sin­glet, his broad chest taper­ing down to a small, dim­pled waist, his mus­cles step­ping out more obvi­ous­ly than they did in his NYSC shirt, and decide not to ask any­thing at all.

            Abdul would cook spaghet­ti and fried eggs, which Tomi­wa would find delight­ful­ly deli­cious, and they would sit on the mat­tress and eat it togeth­er. Over the meal, while the street chil­dren fired their bangers past the open win­dow, they would remem­ber Christo­pher Ayomikun and the rest of the class, and cack­le away into the night. After many hours of talk­ing and laugh­ing and yawn­ing, while in bed with him, Tomi­wa would think of sleep­ing and fac­ing him. He would imag­ine Abdul breath­ing into his face. He would shut his eyes and savor the sen­sa­tion. After a while, he would open them and lie in the oppo­site direc­tion of the bed, so that his face nes­tled close to Abdul’s warm feet. Abdul’s feet were always warm. Abdul would stir awake, look at him and give a faint smile of reas­sur­ance. In that smile was You are safe with me.Tomi­wa would mar­vel, once again, at this unshift­ing open­ness. He would wrap an arm grate­ful­ly around Abdul’s right foot and hold it close to his cheek.

            And sleep hap­pi­ly into Christ­mas morning.

From the writer


:: Account ::

HISTORY: There is homo­pho­bia in Nige­ria and there are severe cas­es of queer people—especially the young—getting bul­lied, dis­pos­sessed and, in extreme sit­u­a­tions, killed. It is crim­i­nal to be homo­sex­u­al or bisex­u­al in Nige­ria. Most queer peo­ple can­not come out to their loved ones as who they real­ly are. And it is hard­er for chil­dren whose sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion is already assumed because of how they present, for instance, effem­i­na­cy. Such kids are often lone­ly and mis­un­der­stood, and it takes only a mir­a­cle to find a friend out there.

SKETCH: I drew out this sto­ry around a sit­u­a­tion I had in ear­ly sec­ondary school (or what is called “high school”). I was bul­lied by school­mates who thought my effem­i­na­cy was an excuse for them to ridicule and malign me. To fur­ther sat­i­rize homo­pho­bic slurs and attacks, I thick­ened the main char­ac­ter with oth­er nuances going on in his life that con­tribute to his dis­il­lu­sion­ment in human kind­ness. I delib­er­ate­ly sketched it around a rare friend­ship curve, an avun­cu­lar guid­ance that is high­ly con­tro­ver­sial espe­cial­ly in a world still uncom­fort­able with, and igno­rant about, homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. But the old­er man in this sto­ry is straight and not abu­sive; I only want­ed to show the grit­ti­ness of an asex­u­al pup­py crush.

MARKER: I set the sto­ry in Nige­ria, where homo­pho­bia and the bul­ly­ing of effem­i­nate men still rage on. But it is such a uni­ver­sal­ly rel­e­vant con­flict that I have had most of my for­eign beta read­ers say they could relate to every emo­tion. I set it in the years pre­ced­ing the pass­ing of the anti-gay law by the Niger­ian gov­er­ment (mean­ing the years before 2014). I did this to min­i­mize the exces­sive hor­ror val­ue of the sto­ry. I wrote the sto­ry using a third-per­son point of view, osten­si­bly to make the read­er watch with a safe detach­ment but actu­al­ly to mag­ni­fy the sheer hor­ror of bul­ly­ing and lone­li­ness. The only  grave trig­gers in the sto­ry are homo­pho­bic slurs used by the antag­o­nists. The rest is a beau­ti­ful sto­ry of friend­ship and redemp­tion. I did my best to use plain Eng­lish throughout.

REPOSITORY OF INFLUENCES: I did not use exten­sive mate­ri­als for research for this sto­ry. All I had to do was take a look into my own ear­ly teenage, the strug­gles as an effem­i­nate Niger­ian child, my expe­ri­ences. The sto­ry is also heav­i­ly influ­enced by my deep, eager hunger to see some jus­tice hap­pen to the lone­ly, bruised queer child out there. I hope the sto­ry gives some kind of light to some­one out there.


Enit’ayanfe Ayoso­ju­mi Akin­sanya was born and raised in Nige­ria. He is the first-place win­ner of the 2022 Arts Lounge Inter­con­ti­nen­tal Lit­er­ary Award for Non-fic­tion, first-place win­ner of the 2022 inter­na­tion­al Itanile Sto­ry Award, a major final­ist for the 2018 Nation­al GTB Dusty Man­u­script New Nov­el­ist Award, and a top final­ist for the 2023 Afriton­doShort Sto­ry Prize. He is twen­ty-eight years old and the author of “How to Catch a Sto­ry That Does­n’t Exist”, a col­lec­tion of queer sto­ries pub­lished in 2022. He lives in Nige­ria. He tweets at @OsumareAy­o­mi.