The parks were getting busier these days. There had been a time when the only ones here aside himself and Dare were the stray lunatics and few homeless people who came for shade beneath the trees, rode the swings and dreamt away their reality
Isaac sat quietly watching the droves of people who walked about the park – most of them were smiling, some holding hands and chatting animatedly they all seemed happy, even the occasional lizards skating after one another in mating runs and birds cooing on the staves of electric wires travelling above, seemed happy. The night before, it had rained heavily and the earth still felt mildly damp – the grass, luxuriantly shimmering in the half-way sun. The sun was mild and the clear skies pastelled blue against the dark green underbelly of the shade trees. The air smelt of lavender and damp earth – a faintly sweet smell that rose and fell with the winds whistling through the trees above. Nature, humans, animals all appeared to be at peace. Yet, deep in Isaac’s heart, as he soaked in the ambient serenity there was confusion, fear, love and a myriad of emotions that failed to agree but conspired to make him unsure of what he believed in anymore.
His long legs dangled freely from the dead log he had been sitting on swinging an inch shy of the bald patches in the damp earth beneath. Bugs crawled across the bald patches in the earth leaving windy trails and here and there sods turned where human feet and animal claws had been. Isaac wore a pair of converse shoes, tight jeans trousers and one of his favourite T-shirts that bore the imprints of an American football club he knew nothing about. The right pocket of his tight trousers bulged obscenely taking the shape of something he carried in them. The jeans and sport shirts were all a ploy to blend in with the crowd at the park as being discovered by one of the teachers in school without proof of having collected a visit exeat from the staff room was tantamount to being pencilled for expulsion from school. It had taken Isaac immense effort on the first time to sneak out but thereafter he had grown bolder every time he did. Yet, his hands still felt wet and he still looked around him for any familiar face that may give him up as a sinner.
“Every unrighteousness is sin …” the chaplain’s words came back, reverberating in his mind and his fingers twitched unconsciously.
Isaac closed his eyes and blocked out the image of the corpulent priest, who wore a cotton cassock of white and a stole of brilliant red and directed mass in their school alongside teaching the senior classes Geography. Father Benedict’s fiery eyes flickered in their sockets any time he was angry or praying. Isaac could not imagine what the chaplain was like as a teacher and he was not looking forward to being in Geography class when he got to his penultimate year at St. Saviour’s for boys. It was about mid-day and he could just imagine what was going on in school. The boys in school would be about proceeding on the short break, pouring out on the corridors in noisy cloves slapping each other on the back of the head and running. Isaac had snuck out of school after the first class – feigning nausea to get permission to leave the class, had detoured past the broken fence behind the infirmary and taken a bus down to the park waiting for the only person that mattered to him in the whole wide world. Isaac felt for the bulge in his pockets and patted the denim entombed casing with his fingers drumming on it lightly. He scanned the park again squinting his eyes at a low angle reflection of the sun’s rays looking for that familiar face until somewhere on the other side of the park, a good distance from where he was sitting, he saw the approaching young man. Isaac’s heart stopped! Just like it did the first time and every other time he had the opportunity of seeing Dare. His hands began to go moist again as he wiped them hurriedly on the faded patch of the thighs of his blue jeans trousers, embarrassed by his own thoughts.
The chaplain’s words diffused into his memory again, this time with plangent throbbing in his subconscious.
“To be carnally minded is death …”
Dare wove his way through the mid-day crowd, his hands in his pocket. He had seen Isaac too and he couldn’t help but betray his thoughts by wearing his most endearing smile. Dare loved the taller boy in a strange way and even though their schools were many miles apart, within the same city, they still managed to steal an hour or two to see each other time and time again. Unlike Isaac, Dare was wearing his school uniform – a bright blue shirt with the characteristic double striped insignia of the Archduke Academy and a neatly pressed pair of black trousers perching lightly on polished shoes. Taped to his breast pocket was a small tag that read:
Dare Olutimehin – Health Prefect.
And he looked every detail the part.
His hair was brushed to a polished turf glistening in the glancing sun with a shimmer and sheen that rode the waves on the flat of his head. To some he might have looked too vain but to others he was perfect. Dare was in his last year and was a prefect too. He never needed an exeat to leave the school premises; the rules were more lax at Archduke than they were at St. Saviour’s.
Dare’s eyes failed to leave the other boy seating on a rotting log of wood that had once been a huge tree in the park but had been felled because it was believed evil spirits lived inside the boughs of the huge tree. Dare wondered how evil spirits could live in trees when there were many houses around. It wasn’t like the spirits would be seen by the humans anyway.
“Watch where you’re going idiot!” a big bellied man who had brushed past him yelled at him after Dare had almost collided with his female companion – a young girl in short skirts.
“It is you who is the idiot.”
Dare paused and shouted back at him, careful not to raise his voice to carry far enough as to reach Isaac where he sat watching him from a good distance away. Since they had locked eyes, Dare noticed Isaac had not taken his off him.
“Who are you calling idiot?” the man stopped, turned and began to advance but Dare stood his ground unmoving, his fingers gradually curling into a fist.
“Jerry … leave him. He is a small boy …. Less go jare” the young girl whose voice sounded like an irritating chirp, said to the fat bellied man who appeared hell bent on proving himself.
“Jerry … I say less go…” the girl dragged him by one meaty arm until he agreed to walk away.
Dare’s fingers uncurled.
He shifted his gaze from the annoying duo, his thoughts back on Isaac. Two years of meeting on and off had brought them close. Closer to each other than some of their siblings with whom they had lived all their lives. Dare’s father was a civil servant who managed his earnings between himself and four other siblings – his mother had died a while back. Their separate lives notwithstanding, there was no distance between himself and the awkwardly attractive friend he had come to know so well. Dare knew of Isaac’s vulnerability and the many secrets they had shared in their quiet moments. Secret things only few people knew – like the instance between Isaac and one of the boys in his dormitory at St. Saviour’s and the scars on Isaac’s back. Anytime Dare remembered those scars, he felt angry at his inability to hurt Father Benedict back for what he had done to his friend. In his world, pain was traded for pain and he still strove to inflict on the Chaplain of St. Saviour’s the same wounds the man of God had inflicted on a 14 year old boy. Dare had a plan and he wouldn’t let Isaac know – not until he had executed it. Isaac was too weak, he needed someone to protect him from people like Father Benedict.
Isaac, still sitting on the log, noticed the fat bellied man turn around attempting to pick a fight with Dare. They said something to each other and the girl appeared to coax the man into walking away. What thrilled Isaac was how still his friend stood – waiting as the man was approaching. He admired Dare because the young man feared nobody unlike him who had snuck about all his life hiding from other people. He had hidden in cupboards from his brothers who made fun of him and called him “Sisi” saying he always talked and acted like a girl; hidden from seniors in school who wouldn’t let him be; hidden from Father Benedict …
His back began to itch again as he unconsciously tugged at the neckline of his sports tee shirt pulling it across the skin to ease the itching sensation. When this appeared not to ease the itching, he ran his palm over the flat of his back feeling the welts of riddled skin like ridges beneath his tee shirt. He had forgotten the pain but the memories were indelible.
“Put your hands up” Father Benedict had ordered. His eyes glaring as if possessed and his jowls quivering as he pranced about in the sanctuary where candles burned eternally both day and night.
“Turn and face the wall … your shirt off and your pants down”
“What were you doing in the bathroom today?”
“You like boys?”
“Do you know it is a sin to like boys?”
“Do you know God hates boys who like other boys?”
And the first whip had cracked sowing its unrelenting sting on the ridges it harrowed on his back, over his arms and across his face as he turned around to flee the possessed chaplain. Isaac ran about the sanctuary screaming and finding no resting place from the whipping. The punctuating words of Father Benedict as he delivered each stroke that day were:
“Every unrighteousness is sin…” and “To be carnally minded is death…”
Again, Isaac drew his palm over the part of his back his hands could reach. He had hidden the scars carefully from his family and he had lied to most of his classmates at St.Saviour’s claiming that the scars had come by as a result of a strange illness he had over one of the holidays. Even though they still called him Mr. Tortoise in the mornings when all the boys took their baths. The only thing that kept him strong through the ordeal, the only thing he rested upon through the pain was the loving words of a friend who now stood only a few metres away now; a friend who made him complete.
Isaac stood up from the log, his feet hitting the earth with a soft thud. A full 6 feet with gangly arms and a pimple freckled fair face that bore a dimple, he began to walk towards Dare. Out of the corner of his eyes, he noticed that the fat bellied man was now lying on the grass underneath a shade tree with large broad leaves arranged in layers. His female companion who appeared young enough to be his daughter now rested her head on the mound formed by the man’s belly, rubbing it gently and pressing her ears to it as if listening for something. The mild sun had dimmed in its glare again. Isaac put his hands in his pocket just like Dare, futher squeezing the bulging content of his right pockets. On second thought, he took his hands out of his pocket, leaving them dangling like alien appendages by his sides as he walked clumsily towards Dare, unsure of what to do with the arms. They were always a nuisance at times like this. He walked awkwardly on, self-conscious and equally aware of the gift in his trouser pocket – a belt he had bought for Dare and had kept since the school’s resumption.
Dare – sticking out like an albino, was oblivious of his conspicuousness as the only person in the park wearing school uniforms at that time of the day. Two years of such trips to quiet places to meet Isaac had made him grow accustomed to anonymity, which often disguises as conspicuousness because one thinks himself more important that he truly is and imagines everyone is watching them. In reality, nobody cares. The man he had almost collided with earlier was now cuddled up with his girlfriend towards the left side of the park; a woman, standing nearby holding a folded umbrella was chasing two younger children around one of the free swings trying to get them under control – they appeared to find her seriousness rather amusing; two middle-aged men were engaged in a serious conversation that made one intermittently pull his hair and shake his head vigorously as the other held him by both shoulders; some picknickers, much farther away sat on napkins laughing. Nobody cared about the other person, they only cared about themselves.
By now Isaac was so near Dare could smell him. His long arms were extended in front of him, offering a weak handshake. Dare ignored the hands, opened his arms wide and squashed the much taller boy in a tight embrace as Isaac’s face contorted into a happy but self-conscious sweeping glance across the park wondering who was watching them, his heart beating much faster now. As Dare’s hands caressed Isaac’s back, he eased up on the embrace unconsciously not wanting to hurt Isaac any further though on second thought he could rationalize that old scars barely hurt – except in memories. As he eased up, both of them still locked in knitted embrace, Isaac had shut his eyes soaking in the moment. For a fleeting second, he allowed himself to get lost in his lover’s embrace. That moment of caring less about any other thing. That moment when nothing else matters.
Osundolire Oladapo Ifelanwa