Starboys

Aba Amissah Asibon

Flames lick the headmaster’s bungalow. Teachers and students stand by as wood crumbles into powder and plastic melts like butter. Just moments before, war had been waged with buckets of sand but the flames had simply cackled back, lashing their orange tongues out at them. Next to the bungalow, the skeletal remains of the headmaster’s recently purchased vintage Mercedes, Ruby, spits out plumes of blackened smoke. The crowd’s sympathies are with the man whose knees are now planted in the charred grass, his face cupped with bony hands. The faint blare of sirens can be heard in the distance. Teachers take this as a cue to begin shooing students towards the dormitories, where they will stay up all night discussing the most action the Aggrey Academy for Boys has seen in all of its one hundred and sixteen years of existence.

*

Each boy, when they first arrived at Aggrey, would gaze up in wonder at those glorious whitewashed walls sitting atop the Oguaa Hill. They knew promising futures were fashioned behind those walls – an ex-president, Ghana’s first cardiothoracic surgeon, three recipients of the Order of the Volta. Some of the boys were merely continuing a family legacy – fathers and grandfathers who had themselves once walked those verdant grounds, etching their names into the school’s illustrious history. Others had been groomed their entire lives by fathers who believed their children should have the sort of education they had not been privileged enough to receive themselves. Those fathers had invested in tutors who gave their sons extra lessons in mathematics and French to get them Aggrey-ready. Then there were those boys, the ones people called Scholos, who had never even dared to dream of an exclusive Aggrey education but for whom, thanks to their exceptional academic abilities, had been scouted and offered full scholarships funded by the ever-generous Aggrey Old Boys Association. 

On the first day of school, the freshers were welcomed by tolling bells beckoning them into the assembly hall. They took their seats on wooden benches, a throng of khaki shorts and shirts, rows of feet clad in white knee-high socks and shiny black Oxfords. Accompanied by an organ, they fumbled through the unfamiliar school anthem. Afterwards, the headmaster took the stage, his face barely visible above the wooden podium. He welcomed the new students and suggested they familiarise themselves with the school handbook, urging them to uphold the school motto, excellentia et integritas at all times. The boys clapped, their cheers heavy with expectation for the next three years of their lives.

In the weeks that followed, the newcomers would gradually fall into the routine of boarding life. They grew accustomed to the jarring sound of the waking bell at five a.m. and the severe lack of privacy in the communal bathhouses. Occasionally, they would lose track of their schedules and get punished for tardiness. Punishments at Aggrey were solely at the discretion of the prefects – anything from being exempted from Saturday night cinema to being offered to Zobo, the groundskeeper, as his assistant for the week. Sometimes, boys were sent downhill to the headmaster’s bungalow, where with no wife or children in sight, there was always an abundance of chores to be done. Under the glare of the afternoon sun, the boys would begrudgingly trim the expansive lawn with machetes and desilt drains with shovels. But even in the pain of punishment, they found pleasure in polishing Ruby, who looked like something off the set of a James Bond movie, a dazzling crimson – an unlikely match for a man who lived in tartan slacks and a one-bedroom bungalow. Immaculate Ruby, who was rarely moved, except on weekends when the headmaster went to church. The boys would run their youthful fingers along the silver star proudly fixed to her bonnet, daydreaming about the many cars they would someday own. Occasionally, the headmaster would catch a boy getting too carried away and snap them back to reality with a nip on the cheek. 

Mealtimes at Aggrey were mandatory. Students sat at pre-assigned tables with napkins spread across their laps. It was a well-known fact that Aggrey fed its boys well – two course meals that put the watered-down rations served elsewhere to shame. After grace, senior members of the table dished out portions with no sense of egalitarianism. The boys taught themselves to dissect balls of kenkey with forks and knives because at Aggrey, eating with one’s fingers was considered uncouth. Other things considered uncouth at Aggrey included ironing one’s uniform without first starching, sitting in the assembly hall with legs uncrossed, growing facial hair and wearing flip-flops outside of the bathhouse.

The boys soon caught on to the source of all the contraband that managed to make it past the guarded front gates and into the dormitories. Zobo, the stooping groundskeeper, could bring in anything for a fee – cigarettes, akpeteshie, even naughty magazines. He did draw the line at hard drugs, saying he could not live with the guilt of a student overdosing. You only had to slip him a list of whatever you needed, plus the cash and the items would appear in your locker the next day. For those desperate enough to use Zobo’s services, the 10 percent commission he charged on each consignment seemed a small price to pay.

The boys also quickly learned that alliances were the key to survival at Aggrey. Loners were easy targets for disgruntled seniors. There were several unofficial cliques – unofficial because the Aggrey handbook clearly forbade “gang activity of any sort.” At Aggrey, the clique picked the boy, not the other way round. A new recruit always had to bring something of worth to the table. Freshers knew they were being watched by the senior boys, every little detail of their lives under scrutiny. The grapevine was heavy laden – somehow, they knew whose father did what for a living and who had scored what in the entrance examinations. Some cliques had personal connections in the kitchen which meant that their members enjoyed extra portions of food – two more slices of sugar bread at breakfast, an extra piece of goat meat in their jollof at supper. Others used their connections to get themselves out of backbreaking work assignments and punishments. The most feared clique at Aggrey was a group who called themselves the Bandits, led by a pimple-faced senior nicknamed Red because his skin was the iridescent colour of palm oil. It was common knowledge that Red had far overshot the school’s three-strike policy and had still somehow managed to evade dismissal. Even the prefects, with all of their badges and self-importance, could not touch him. He and his group of seven ambushed boys on their way back from the tuckshop, emptying their pockets of chocolates and chewing gum. They cut bathhouse queues and coerced freshers into ironing their uniforms in time for morning inspection. Everyone knew what happened to boys who defied the Bandits. Odartey Lamptey, a fresher from Odoi House who had refused to hand over his chicken thigh to Red at Sunday lunch had spent the rest of the afternoon locked inside the latrines.

One afternoon, after classes had been adjourned and students sauntered back to their dormitories for siesta, the Bandits singled out three solitary boys and threw them into a forgotten storage closet at the end of the classroom block. Their rationale for picking out those three in particular? They simply did not like the looks of them. As the wooden door shut behind them and the lock turned, the three were plunged into darkness, their only illumination trickling in through slits in the boarded-up windows. In the abysmal lighting, they could make out floating dust motes and the faint outlines of lopsided desks.

The first boy, Atlas, pudgy and moon-faced, paced up and down the room, chewing on his nails.

“My father will hear of this,” he said, to no one in particular.

“There’s nothing your father can do about this,” the second, Daud, spat back. 

At just under five feet, he looked far too young to be in secondary school. The third boy was crouched in a corner, knobby knees tucked underneath his chin, torso rocking back and forth. Daud walked over to the boy, whose name they would later come to learn was Owusu.

“Hey, are you alright?”

The boy answered his question with an empty stare.

Atlas continued with his pacing, eventually marching to the door to pound on it with his fists.

“Stop it, will you?” Daud warned, glaring at him. “You’ll only cause more trouble for us.”

But Atlas would not listen. He brought his mouth to the rusty keyhole and shouted for help.  When he realised help was nowhere near, he slid his back against the peeling door. In the distance they could hear the bell tolling, signalling the end of siesta.

“I can’t afford to be marked late for supper,” Atlas shrieked, throwing his hands in the air. “My father would kill me.”

Owusu began to heave from the crouching position. 

Atlas’ eyes widened. “I hope he’s not going to die on us.”

“Don’t be silly,” Daud scolded, bending over to place a hand on Owusu’s shoulder. “Can’t you see he’s probably just claustrophobic?”

Claustrophobic. The word flew over Atlas’ head but he did not show it. Owusu’s gasps quickened, his shoulders violently rising and falling. Atlas rushed to the door, this time hurling his beefy body against the rattling frame. The last thing he wanted was to be stuck in a dark room with a corpse. To his relief, a key jiggled in the other side of the keyhole and the door flung open. In the doorway, they could make out Zobo’s hunched silhouette. All three boys stood up straight, side by side.

“What dey happen here?” Zobo asked between missing teeth.

Atlas opened his mouth to speak but was quickly silenced with a sharp pinch on the thigh from Daud.

“Sorry Sir,” Daud began. “We came in here looking for a replacement for my broken desk when the door jammed on us.”

Zobo raised his eyebrows, looking the boys over.

“Commot for here.” He waved them off. “Bell for supper just ring.”

The three raced down the classroom block and past the dormitories, aware there was no time to change out of their daytime khakis into the more supper-appropriate linens. They would rather endure hundreds of disapproving stares than be placed on the dreaded latecomers’ list. As they filed breathlessly into the dining hall with the rest of the school, Atlas grabbed Daud’s arm and spun him around.

“Why did you pinch me back there?” he demanded.

Daud calmly shook out of his grip. “Because I knew you would snitch.”

“Rightly so! My father will hear of this.”

Daud laughed and shook his head. “That, my friend, is how you make enemies around here.”

“He’s right.”

Both boys turned to look up at Owusu, who towered over them. It was the first time they had heard him speak and neither had expected such a rich baritone to come out of a frame that lanky. Once inside the dining hall, the three boys dispersed to their respective tables, bowing their heads while the dining prefect said grace. And when he was done giving thanks for the food and all of life’s blessings, the three boys responded, “Amen”, with unprecedented conviction, grateful for surviving another day at Aggrey with no strikes.

*

Despite being in different houses, the three banded together after that encounter in the storage closet. They walked to meals and evening prep together, even held spots for each other in the bathhouse queue. Daud and Atlas marvelled at Owusu’s sponge of a mind, how easily he absorbed calculus concepts, the speed with which he could recite the entire periodic table – he was a Scholo after all. Owusu patiently tutored Atlas, who had a particular fear of physics and anything else that required a formula. Daud and Atlas would wait for him to finish his homework so they could tactfully copy off his notebook. Their teachers praised them for their stellar academic performance. Their peers teased them for being teacher’s pets.

Even if no clique wanted the three boys, they were still determined to get one or two seniors on their side. Atlas’ father, a prominent old boy of the school, made sure his son’s chopbox was always fully stocked. It was this bounty, that Daud capitalised on to gain favour with a few seniors. In exchange for a bottle of orange squash and a packet of Cream Crackers, the chapel prefect agreed to walk them to the tuckshop and back, shielding them from the Bandits’ ambush.

The only reprieve the boys at Aggrey got from their humdrum routine was on Visiting Sunday – that one Sunday in the month when the school gates opened and the car park came alive. Those parents who drove German machinery – and there were not many of them – announced their arrival with the confident roar of their engines. Their sons approached their vehicles with shoulders held high, mindful that all eyes were on them. Atlas was perhaps the only one of such boys who met his parents’ car with an ambivalence in his step. His mother would jump out of the front seat, her voluptuous figure draped in airy silk kaftans. She would fuss over his appearance and ask if the school was feeding him well enough. His father was a lot less dramatic. A bespectacled man with a bristly moustache, he always kept his hands tucked into his trouser pockets. Under his father’s gaze, Atlas could often be seen fidgeting with the hem of his weekend linen shirt.

Daud’s parents were in the Other Cars League, pulling up into the car park in their green Mazda. He would climb into the backseat, rummaging through whatever box of provisions his parents had organised, nodding absent-mindedly when his mother asked if he was remembering to perform Salat. She would weep if she only knew that her son had never once unfurled his prayer mat since starting at Aggrey.

There was one more rung below the Other Cars League – those parents who made the journey to Aggrey by public transport, alighting at the school’s entrance and making their way up the rest of the hill on foot. Owusu would spot his mother from a distance, a basket of home-cooked food balanced on her head. He had asked her several times not to bother with coming up to Aggrey as frequently, mindful that the long journey likely left a dent in her pocket but the woman was stubborn. Mother and son would sit under one of the velvet tamarind trees adjacent to the car park, watching as vehicles rolled in and out. She always brought gossip from the compound house they shared with three other families.

“You should see the looks on M’Agnes and Maame Ama’s faces when I tell them I’m coming to see you at Aggrey,” she would say, giggling.

People often told Owusu he reminded them of his late father with his lean stature and oblong face, but it was his mother’s optimism he coveted. He would walk her down to the main gate before dusk and watch until the trotro disappeared into the evening sky. On the walk back to the dormitories, his shoulders felt heavy with the weight of his mother’s pride. Ahead of him lay the promise of a more befitting house for his mother and a chauffeured car to take her wherever she needed to go – if only he would continue to work hard at school. He thirsted for this promise – so help him God!

*

Interhouse sports were taken seriously at Aggrey. Unlike their counterparts in co-ed schools, Aggrey boys did not have the luxury of flirting with and nursing crushes on members of the opposite sex. Instead, they were stuck behind those great white walls, cut off from civilization and any semblance of excitement. So, they took all of their pent-up energy and channelled it into competitive sports. Every second Friday of the month, each house donned jerseys in their respective colours and trooped to the sports field for the interhouse football tournament. From the sidelines, they cheered their players on with chants and droning vuvuzelas. Fynn House was the football powerhouse. Its boys were built like brick walls and equipped with the agility of foxes, leading one to wonder if the housing assignment process had been rigged.

Daud had been recruited to play reserve for Volta House, while Owusu served on the school’s first aid team, disinfecting scraped knees and passing out bottles of cold water to players. Atlas, on the other hand, had been relegated to cheering with the rest of school from the benches. One afternoon, bored of blowing his vuvuzela for a losing Odoi House team, he made his way down the eastern end of the sports field towards the exit. Huddled underneath a neem tree sat the Bandits who were hollering at the players. Atlas contemplated turning around but it was too late – he had already locked eyes with Red. His breath stalled as Red motioned for him to come closer. Without Daud and Owusu at his side, he felt naked.

You can do this, he thought to himself as he inched towards the group. They’re only boys, just like you.

“What’s your name?” Red asked, his top lip curling.

Atlas puffed out his chest and took in a deep breath. “Atlas Ohene III, son of Atlas Ohene II, Aggrey class of ‘65 and CEO of the Shiloh Group of Companies.”

The Bandits squinted at him. Had he said too much? He had a tendency of rambling on when he was nervous. Owusu called it diarrhoea of the mouth. 

Red stood and began to approach him with a fluid gait. He circled Atlas, sizing the boy up from the roundness of his shorn head to the white sneakers covering his toes. And when he stopped a few inches away, Atlas could smell lunch’s groundnut soup on his breath. Red’s lips relaxed into the early stages of a smile. Hope flickered. Then, without warning, Red stuck out his index finger, pointing at something that caused the rest of the Bandits to break out in whooping laughter. Atlas looked down and saw the object of their amusement – his taut belly jutting out from underneath his ill-fitted green jersey.

Red and the Bandits began to chant, “Obolobo! Obolobo!”

The rest of the students turned their attention towards the disturbance and Atlas felt his face heat up, his feet eventually propelling him in the direction of the dormitories. Daud and Owusu abandoned their posts and went after him. They eventually located him in his bunk, face buried in a pillow.

“Leave me alone,” Atlas growled without looking up.

Daud moved closer to the bed.  “Chin up, my guy. It could have been worse.”

“What could possibly be worse than the whole school calling me fat?”

“Remember that boy from Bartels who peed himself because Red made him get under his bed and stay there for three hours? That was worse.”

“No one will ever forget that Red called me Obolobo,” Atlas retorted in between sniffles.

“They certainly won’t if they find you crying like a baby.”

Owusu glared at Daud, chiding him for being so insensitive.

“You know I’m right. Those boys feed off any sign of weakness.”

Atlas sat up and wiped away the snot with the back of his hand.

“Don’t worry,” Owusu said, squeezing his shoulder. “Vengeance belongs to God.”

“But sometimes God leaves vengeance up to us,” Daud responded, eyes twinkling. 

Owusu smirked.  “Give an example.”

“Well, like the June 4th Uprising we learnt about in history class.”

“People lost their lives in that coup!” Owusu exclaimed, horrified by his friend’s analogy.

“But it was for a good cause. There was too much corruption in the government.”

“Can hurting other people ever be justified?” Owusu asked. 

Atlas sat in silence, looking back and forth between his friends as they argued.

“If it’s for the greater good, I think it can be,” Daud quipped.

Owusu sighed. “Daud, you’re disturbed.”

“And you, my friend, are too self-righteous.”

Atlas shot up from the bed and got between his friends before further damage was done.

“Let’s focus on the issue at hand,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “My father will hear of this. He will come and see the headmaster.”

His friends laughed, shaking their heads.

“Haven’t you learnt anything at all?” Daud sneered. “No one’s daddy can save them from the Bandits.”

*

The end of the first term came without warning. One minute the freshers were learning to fold their bedsheets into hospital corners and the next, they were stripping their bunks and lugging their chopboxes back home. They exchanged phone numbers, promising to stay in touch over the three-week break. Little did they know that once back in the outside world, they would become too intoxicated with its liberties to remember to reach out to each other. 

When the boys returned for their second term at Aggrey, they could tell something in the air had shifted. At the opening assembly, the headmaster announced that music and art classes would be cut to give the boys time to focus on subjects they would actually be examined on. The students jeered, causing the prefects to take their places around the assembly hall just in case things escalated. The headmaster also announced that the school would be tightening its reins on spending in an effort to be a better steward of the resources it had been entrusted with. And although he did not elaborate on what these cost-cutting measures were, the boys would soon find out. 

Lights out now meant that all lights, including those that illuminated corridors and pathways were to be switched off at 9 p.m. to conserve electricity. If the boys needed the latrines in the middle of the night, they were to make use of the kerosene lanterns that hung above their bunks. For those easily spooked by darkness, they trained their bowels and bladders to stifle nature’s call.

The students mourned their beloved Sunday morning hot cocoa which had now been replaced by something with an uncanny resemblance to dishwater. Meals served in the dining hall barely scratched the surface of their hunger and they found themselves turning to their chopboxes to supplement with garri and sugar and powdered milk. The Bandits took to raiding the freshers’ provisions, taking whatever caught their fancy. This drove the boys to find creative hiding spots for their treasure – biscuits and drinks stuffed inside shoes and pillowcases. But if a boy was caught with concealed goods, Red made him kneel in the gravel until his kneecaps bled.

Halfway through the term, boys began to get summoned to the headmaster’s office at random. They would be in the middle of a lesson and Zobo would show up with a note bearing a name. At first, they assumed these were routine slaps on the wrist, regular reprimands against tardiness and the occasional fist fight. But someone figured out quickly enough that all of the boys who had been sent for were Scholos. 

Zobo came for Owusu in the middle of literature class, while Mr Adjei was taking them through an analysis of Cry, the Beloved Country. Atlas and Daud glanced at each other from across the classroom, worry lines forming across their faces. After class, they loitered around the administration block until Owusu eventually emerged, head hanging.

“What happened in there?” Atlas asked, panting from trying to keep up with Owusu’s brisk steps.

Owusu kept walking, his eyes fixed on the ground. They followed him into the dormitory and gathered at his bunk.

“What happened?” Daud asked, his tone impatient. “What did the headmaster say?”

When Owusu finally looked up at them, his face was smudged, his eyes red. “I’m losing my scholarship at the end of the school year.”

His friends gasped. 

“The Alumni Fund doesn’t have enough money to continue supporting me.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Atlas argued. “My father and the other old boys still give a lot of money every year.”

Owusu shrugged. The three boys sat in silence, their minds milling. Soon, the other students began to trickle into the dormitory, changing out of their sweaty khakis, poking and shoving each other, the world simply moving on.

“We’ll find a way,” Daud promised. “We always do.”

But for the first time since the three boys had come to know each other, they doubted that even Daud, with all of his resourcefulness, would be able to find a way out of this. 

*

The morning after the fire, the boys of Aggrey Academy stroll into the assembly hall, their faces smeared with exhaustion from staying up all night. The hall is abuzz with so much speculation the boys do not notice the assistant headmaster take the podium. With the aid of a megaphone, he calls the room to order. The boys rise to follow the usual order of morning assembly, beginning with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer but the assistant headmaster motions for them to return to their seats. 

“As you all know,” he begins. “Our dear headmaster lost his home and all of his belongings in last night’s tragedy. The Fire Brigade are currently conducting their investigations.”

The hush gives way to whispers. What are the investigations for? Do they suspect foul play?

The assistant headmaster waves his hands for calm to be restored. “We encourage each of you to come forward with any information you might have. If you saw something, say something.” 

He pauses to scan the hall. “We are offering a cash reward to anyone who can provide any leads.”

The hall erupts in chaos. Voices, like angry wasps, flit back and forth. 

“All classes have been cancelled for the day so your teachers can focus on dealing with the crisis,” he continues above the din. “You are all to engage in independent study for the rest of the day.” 

The students pour out of the hall, determined to make the most out of a day void of the usual rigidities. The three boys, on the other hand, are sombre. They gather in the abandoned storage closet, the same one in which they first met six months ago. 

“What do we do now?” Atlas asks, nibbling on his fingers.

“We do nothing,” Daud responds.

“It’s all my fault,” Owusu says, lowering his eyes.

Daud dismisses him with the wave of a hand. “Don’t be silly. This was my idea to begin with.”

“But we wouldn’t have had to cook up such a ridiculous idea had it not been for me and my… situation.”

“Stop blaming yourself. We meant no harm.”

“It seemed like such a simple plan: steal the silver star and have it sold in town.”

“Of course, I had to go and mess it up,” Atlas says. “One small noise and I drop the lantern.”

“It’s normal to panic in such situations. How were we to know the grass would catch fire?”

“Do you think anyone saw us?” Owusu’s voice is a whisper.

“I doubt it but one can never be too sure.” Daud bites his bottom lip. “We must get ahead of the investigations.”

“How do you mean?” Atlas asks.

“We must divert any possible suspicion.”

“I hate when you use your big-big words.”

“We must implicate someone else.”

Atlas throws his hands up in the air. “There you go again!” 

“What he means,” Owusu intervenes. “Is that we should put the blame on someone else.”

“But that’s not right!”

“Is it right that Owusu and all of those boys should lose their scholarships through no fault of theirs? Besides, we could use the money from the reward to pay Owusu’s fees.”

“But who would we blame it on?” 

In a flat tone, Daud answers, “Someone everyone knows is quite capable of doing such a thing. Someone, whose presence no one would miss.” 

The three boys avoid each other’s eyes. There’s not much more to be said. On their way back to the dormitories, they will each pass by the administration block and separately ask to see the assistant headmaster. Three corroborating stories from boys with unblemished records can hardly be disputed. Any guilt is assuaged by this fact: that this is an act of service.

Aba Amissah Asibon is a Ghanaian writer whose short fiction has been published in Guernica, Adda, Johannesburg Review of Books and Short Story Day Africa’s Migrations anthology. She has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the Miles Morland African Writing Scholarship. She was also a 2023 Wilbur Smith New Voices winner for her novel-in-progress. Aba has works of fiction forthcoming in Doek!, Jalada and the Captives: New Short Fiction from Africa anthology.

 

*Image by Adam Wilson on Unsplash

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