Francis Jeyne’s death wasn’t a shock because it was unexpected; it was a shock because it was unwanted. And it wasn’t irritating because it wasn’t preventable; it was irritating because it wasn’t prevented.
The ones without power – classmates, hostel mates, friends – had done all that they thought was within their power to keep it from happening, while managing not to think too deeply about the possibility of its occurrence. Death was too serious a matter; too far away from the ordinary lives of teenagers who were just fighting the barest of middle-class battles: passing high school.
The ones with the real power to help Francis – the teachers and other relevant authorities – had brushed it aside as easily as they brushed away all the problems they didn’t immediately want to deal with, for the simple reason that they had their priorities all arranged in a list, and the wellbeing of an at least acceptably passing student was not even near the top of it.
Damon walked into the bedroom and immediately scrunched up his nose in disgust. It stank, both of drugs and body odour, as if Francis had not taken a shower in at least a month. He grimaced, wishing he was wearing something more protective than chalewote, when he accidentally stepped on something unidentifiable, with strange texture – squishy and rubbery, like a mushroom. All the windows were closed, adding to the mustiness. Nobody ever bothered to come and check that everything was in order. Each person who had been delegated this responsibility simply skipped over this door whenever it was time for inspection, as if it was invisible. This wasn’t surprising. In this institution, when problems were too big to handle, people simply dealt with them by ignoring them.
Francis’ books and dirty clothes were strewn all over the room, adding to the already too-powerful stench. He had long since ceased to bother about hiding his illicit practices. There was some strange, powdery substance to be found in various places, on his desk and on the floors, and crumpled up leaves torn from his notebooks in every nook and cranny.
“What the hell, Francis,” complained Damon to the unresponsive body sprawled out on one of the two beds in the room. “You smell worse than a dead rat. I don’t even know what you’ve been inhaling this time.”
That wasn’t a surprise. Francis didn’t tell him anything at all anymore – a fact that sometimes stung Damon, since he and Francis had once been practically joint at the hip. Damon only knew what weed and cocaine looked like, and whatever Francis was on was neither of those. He wondered if even the boy himself was aware of what he was injecting into his bloodstream.
His roommate was knocked out. Since it happened so often, at first, Damon found no cause for alarm. Francis’ routine was to come in, snort and smoke various things, then pass out without warning (and also without showering). Most of the time, Damon couldn’t even stand to be in the room. Now, its functionality was mainly as his wardrobe, and a storeroom for his belongings. He could leave the use of sleeping to Francis, who was, apparently, impervious to the mess that he had created. Quite literally, he lay in the bed that he’d made. Damon himself unofficially lived in his friends’ rooms for the time being. None of the authorities had as yet complained. Their selective blindness was noteworthy.
Damon and all other friends involved, had tried especially hard to rid Francis of his horrible habits – except to go to the extent of spilling the beans to faculty members. That was the one thing they couldn’t do: snitch. Why should they jeopardize his future that way? It was one thing to advise your friend against destroying himself; it was another thing entirely to destroy him by reporting him, under the guise of helping. They were caged in by the lack of choices. This was the trap. Snitching could never be considered helping. No matter how high your morals were, this was the un-crossable line – the ultimate breaching of unwritten “code” of the High School Bible; a sin worse than adultery, for which being stoned wasn’t even a punishment severe enough.
Of course, none of them were under the illusion that the teachers did not know exactly what was going on. But lots of people did drugs from time to time, and more often than not, they ended up academically fine. If the staff were going to choose to let their senses work selectively, the only thing that could disrupt their act was if the students themselves pretended to have functional eyes. Evidently, for Francis’ friends also, wilful blindness was their only sensible option.
They’d cooked up so many schemes. They had tried hiding his supply of badly produced, low-quality concoction of powders, thereby putting themselves at risk – for if it was discovered, it would have been discovered on them. However, as friends in solidarity with Francis’ plight, it had been a sacrifice they had been willing to make. It was better that all took the fall for innocence than a single person for guiltiness. Unfortunately, the hopeless addict had merely discovered their hiding spot, which they had mistakenly assumed was fool proof.
For their next attempt, they had tried dumping all of his drugs that they could find into a nearby lagoon. Somehow, he always managed to acquire more in at least two days, and during the wait, he would be the crabbiest, sulkiest, most unsociable boy they had ever met. Some days, he wouldn’t talk to anyone at all, or he would simply lock himself up in his room, where the rest of the boys could hear him sobbing occasionally. They never mentioned the crying, though. If ever anyone even hinted at it, Francis would deliver acidic, murderous stares that could shut everyone in the room up in a second.
The other strategy they had attempted to employ was to physically hold him back from a roll. During those instances, Francis had nearly punched, kicked and bitten all their limbs off.
Half the time, the boy wasn’t even acting human – a stark contrast to the bubbly personality he used to have. Now, he was a wild animal in a boy’s body, with primal instincts and reactions. The beast inside him had now become him. Damon and his friends had all thought that it was amazing the kind of strength desperation could bring out in a person.
When they had concluded that their efforts and methods were to no avail, the boys had taken a hiatus, to try to get their own lives under control (for of course they had lives too), and used the break from keeping Francis from self-destructing to see if they could come up with anything more genius.
They had all relaxed on the matter perhaps a little too much, when they discovered that the headmaster had gotten him a therapist, whom he saw twice a week. None of them knew for sure how well it was working, but for now, Francis seemed docile enough. He was missing far fewer classes than he used to, and he was mostly quiet when he was alone in his room. In any case, the boys were greatly relieved that the staff had acknowledged the pressing issue without them ever having had to have reported. But they would continue to dutifully act like the problem didn’t exist, so far as the solution seemed to be coming from elsewhere, without need of their intervention.
But now, in Damon’s room, at that moment, the scent was unpardonable. Any passer-by would surely be able to catch a whiff of the ungodly scent. Then who’d be in trouble? wondered Damon. He quickly formulated a plan: to rouse Francis and somehow get him into the shower while he opened all the windows and sprayed air freshener everywhere. That way, if anybody came by, they would at least meet a scent that was receding, rather than emanating from a living, sleeping body.
Holding his breath, he approached the odorous sleeper and prodded him urgently – because “gentle” had ceased to work a long time ago. “Francis,” he said. “Get up. The room smells like an effing stable, and you’re the horse-shit.”
Francis didn’t even stir. There was no response, not even the least movement in his eyeballs. There were no half-hearted, semi-conscious insults, telling Damon to go and do something physically and sexually impossible. It was all very uncharacteristic.
“Come on,” groaned Damon. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone into a comatose sleep again. We can hear you from the next room every time you inhale…”
And that was when it occurred to Damon that Francis was not snoring. Whenever he went into a sleep state that he would not be roused from for several hours, he snored like a freaking Dragon with asthma – and yet, here he lay now, still as a stone. Damon really began to panic then. He put his hand, then his ear, on Francis’ chest and felt nothing. Then he tried to locate a pulse in his limp wrist. Nothing. He put his ear to his nose. Not a breath. A cold shiver ran down Damon’s spine.
The pastor relieved his bowels in the lavatory after returning from his church service that Sunday evening. His dual lives as a pastor as well as a teacher had never been difficult for him to integrate into each other. He preached to his students, and taught his congregation. During a service like today’s, the line between the two aspects of his life was even more obviously blurred. His sermon had been about diligence and perseverance. Diligence was what would give you the A’s in your life. Perseverance was what got you back up and running every time the world dealt you a bad grade. The tests of life would weed off the faithless from the chosen. For we were not put on this earth to be losers, to accept F’s in complacency, but to be victorious, honour students of life.
Today had been a family service too. What a joy it had been to speak the word of God to the children and interact with them, and to remove those tempestuous expressions on their faces that were the consequence of having been dragged to church by their parents on a Sunday night they could have spent playing video games. Yet he brought pure joy and ecstasy to them through his voice, and in his message. Unfailingly, he made the congregation burst out in laughter. It wasn’t a wonder that the children loved it when he preached. After all, wasn’t he around children most of his life?
“Children, at this stage, do you know what the most important thing in your life is?” he had asked. “Do you know? It is to do well in school and make mummy and daddy and God proud. Eh? Do you understand? Do not allow any powers and forces to get in the way of your education! Eh? The devil wants you to fail, but no weapon fashioned against you shall prosper! Say Amen!”
Yes, it had been quite a fruitful and relevant sermon, and an altogether bountiful church service. Except for the choir. There had been something off about their performance today. Someone too close to the microphone had been singing off key for too long – way too high. At some point, he had begun to wonder if there was a legitimately tone-deaf member of the choir.
But as for him, he had carried out his part well. After a service like that, he felt like a stellar performer after a concert.
Yet after the text, the depressant he had received after he had flushed the toilet, he felt like what he had flushed down the toilet. A simple message from a fellow teacher, so concise, but laden with such heavy implications: “Francis is dead.”
The phone flew out of his hands and he barely noticed. Luckily, it did not enter the lavatory bowl. It did, however, dismantle as it crashed to the tiled bathroom floor. The battery flew out with a velocity equivalent to the speed at which the energy appeared to be draining from the pastor himself. Francis? Dead? What did “dead” mean? As in, no longer living? No! It couldn’t be! How could he be dead, when he hadn’t even written his end of term exams yet? And…no! It simply couldn’t be! After everything they’d done for him? The expensive therapist they’d hired to counsel him, just so that he wouldn’t slack on his schoolwork… So it had all been to no avail? Ah, heavens, no!
The teacher felt sick to his stomach. So much money wasted. And the school had already paid in advance for his registration for the international examinations. That was non-refundable money. The school’s statistics…They would suffer after their nearly-spotless records of the past decade. All that was happening right now was really beyond unfortunate; Francis had been a potential distinction student. He could have gotten a distinction, as easy as koko! Now, all chances were completely lost. With the total number of registered students down, they would never be able to beat last year’s record of distinctions. Time they’d never get back. Money they’d never get back. A reputation that they couldn’t un-tarnish.
God, why have you brought this calamity upon me and my school? he lamented as he crumpled in shock and devastation to the floor. His expectations had just gone up in smoke.
Francis’ parents, Mr and Mrs Jeyne, were in the private room with the headmaster, switching nearly comically from loud and livid, to silently stunned, and back again, in unpredictable intervals.
“WHY DIDN’T YOU DO ANYTHING?” his mother screamed, nearly out of her mind. “YOU LET HIM DIE. YOU KILLED HIM!”
The headmaster told himself sternly to refrain from replying, “No, madam, the foolish boy killed himself.” He thought, if the reports he had received from Damon and the others during the post-mortem interrogations from students were true, he could definitely see where Francis had gotten his temper and tirade qualities from. Indeed, he wouldn’t want to have to hold this woman back if she wanted to inhale something illicit. Out loud, he said, “Mrs Jeyne, I believe that you too were aware that your very own child was engaged in drugs – not any less aware than any of us in this academic institution.”
He thought he was being pragmatic. He thought pragmatism would save him in the worst of situations, that it would get the most inflamed people to calm down and feel foolish in front of him. That’s what they had taught at the charismatic training sessions, anyway. He had not had his well-remembered lessons put to the test as intensively as they were being tested now. For this opportunity, at least he was grateful. Ah yes, optimism: the ability to see the benefit in the absolute worst of situations – another well-remembered quality that he was putting to use when it was needed. Deep down the man was very proud of himself. He felt diplomatic, like the President of somewhere important. Hell, he felt like the African Bush.
Francis’ father stood up looking like he was ready to punch someone’s teeth out of his skull. “Now, don’t give me that bull-crap, do you hear me? My son is dead, and if we’re going to play the blame-game, Mary and I are going to put it where it’s due. Of course we were aware that he was on drugs. But the drugs were not coming into the house; they were coming into the damn school. What the hell could we do about it? Don’t act like we were more responsible than you were. Our son spends –” He choked and continued, “Spent three times more of his life at school he did at home. And unless you’ve caught some bloody f***ing amnesia, you should recall that when we found out, we notified you immediately. We asked for your f***ing assessment. We asked if he needed to come home. We asked for everything. Mary called you nearly every day! And what did you say? You said that the school would take care of it, that he was well enough to continue to attend classes, that he would undergo therapy, that you’d take care of everything, that he would be FINE! AND NOW HE’S NOT BLOODY BREATHING!” By the end of his speech, he was roaring louder than his wife had been earlier.
“Mr Jeyne,” said the overwhelmed headmaster, who was beginning to feel that the air conditioner was not nearly functional enough. This meeting was not going anything like the way he had expected it to, the way he had prepared in his mind. The man’s tirade had driven his calm, prepared speech way out of his head. “If you’ll just calm down, I’m sure we can…”
“CALM DOWN!” shrieked Mary. “CALM WHAT DOWN? How can you tell anyone to calm down when you’ve just finished murdering their son?”
“Madam, this is being blown out of proportion. You make it seem like I held a gun to his head and shot him.”
“OUT OF PROPORTION?” she roared. “I enrolled my baby in a school run by idiots! The loss of a teenage life should be proportional to what, now? You killed him with your high and mighty ‘we can take care of him’ when you knew he was in need. Ahiaa therapist! A person who doesn’t even know him, and only sees him for one hour a week? Are you mad? You might as well have held a gun to his head. You murdered my son!”
“I assure you, she was perfectly qualified for the job. She holds a PhD in…”
“I don’t give a damn about her PhD. Did her PhD fix my son? Can her PhD bring my son back to life?”
“Madam, you won’t let me explain,” said the nearly helpless headmaster, dabbing at the sweat on his face with a handkerchief. “All that we did was in the best interest of your son. We wanted to keep his life going as smoothly and as normally as possible. He was due to write his A-levels this May. We couldn’t let him lag behind the academic schedule. So we got him the best therapist available, and allowed him to continue with his school life. The students don’t know that we know this, but lots of them do drugs and still get A-stars. We didn’t want to rush into anything drastic. We had hoped that eventually, he would realise he was jeopardizing himself and his grades, but he didn’t. But even as his grades continued to drop, we organized remedial classes for him to improve. Unfortunately, he could not realise what was at stake, and took that fatal dose.”
His hyperventilating receded a bit. Yes, he had given a rational explanation for what had happened. They had indeed expended their efforts and resources into keeping Francis’ life on track. That was undeniable. His parents had to see the sense in it. They had to be appeased somehow. He looked at them tentatively. None of them had resumed yelling in his face again, so that was a good sign.
Mr and Mrs Jeyne had only let the rambler go on for this long because they had relapsed back into silently stunned shock-states. To add to the shock was the absurdity of the principal not realising that everything coming out of his mouth was excrement. Excrement made of food that was so improperly digested that it was coming out in great big particles, the same way it had gone in; unbroken-down lumps of food that the body was unable to refine before it ejected, as if his digestive tract had turned itself upside down.
For a few seconds, everything was silent. Then the woman blinked and said, incredulous, “So you think you’ve said something aama.”
The headmaster did not respond.
She put her hands on her head, fell to her knees and wailed, “This is the man we paid school fees to, o! Awurade!”
Francis’ father said coolly to the headmaster, “Do you not realise that you expended far more resources on keeping my son’s eyes glued to textbooks than you did on fixing his mind? Is the cure for an addiction an A-star? Is the rehabilitation centre a classroom? Is examination a counter-active measure for addiction? A life was just lost, and as it was being lost, all you were concerned about was his A-levels and his academic performance. You’re not running a school; you’re running a diploma-producing factory. I swear, I would have forced him to drop out of school myself, if it meant he could keep his life. Ah, but it’s all the same with you academics. You inhale marks, self-medicate with examinations, and get high off distinctions. And maybe my son’s death would have meant even a meagre fraction of what his life was worth, if only it was able to serve as a wake-up call for you monkeys. But you people are incorrigible. I’m taking you to court. And I swear, I won’t quit until I see your school bankrupt.”
With that, he picked up all he had come with and left the room, while his struck and sobered wife absently followed his lead.
When they were gone, the headmaster felt uneasy. He felt unpleasant, and he did not appreciate feeling unpleasant. He needed something to consume the guilt and pain, take his mind off the things he wasn’t ready to think about. He would go mad if he didn’t get something – anything – to distract him – immediately. So he pulled out his computer, and browsed through at least forty high-school transcripts, until he could breathe normally again. Then, exhausted and tranquilized, he fell asleep at his desk, dreaming of Paradise.