English Reading

As the Night the Day

Abioseh Nicol

Kojo and Bandele walked slowly across the hot green lawn, holding their science manuals with moist fingers. In the distance they could hear the junior school collecting in the hall of the main school building, for singing practice. Nearer, but still far enough, their classmates were strolling towards them. The two reached the science block and entered it. It was a low building set apart from the rest of the high school which sprawled on the hillside of the African savanna. The laboratory was a longish room and at one end they saw Basu, another boy, looking out of the window, his back turned to them. Mr. Abu, the ferocious laboratory attendant, was not about. The rows of multicolored bottles looked inviting. A Bunsen burner soughed loudly in the heavy, weary heat. Where the tip of the light blue triangle of flame ended, a shimmering plastic transparency started. One could see the restless hot air moving in the minute tornado. The two African boys watched it, interestedly, holding hands.

“They say it is hotter inside the flame than on its surface,” Kojo said, doubtfully. “I wonder how they know.”

“I think you mean the opposite; let’s try it ourselves,” Bandele answered.

“How?”

“Let’s take the temperature inside.”

“All right, here is a thermometer. You do it.”

“It says ninety degrees now. I shall take the temperature of the outer flame first, then you can take the inner yellow one.”

Bandele held the thermometer gently foward to the flame and Kojo craned to see. The thin thred of quicksilver shot upward within the stem of the instrument with swift malevolence and there was a slight crack. T he stem had broken. On the bench the small bulbous drops of mercury which had spilled from it shivered with glinting, playful malice and shuddered down to the cement floor, dashing themselves into a thousand shining pieces, some of which coalesced again and shook gaily as if with silent laughter.

“Oh my God!” whispered Kojo hoarsely.

“Shut up!” Bandele said, imperiously, in a low voice.

Bandele swept the few drops on the bench into his cupped hand and threw the blob of mercury down the sink. He swept those on the floor under an adjoining cupboard with his bare feet. Then, picking up the broken  halves of the thermometer, he tiptoed to the waste bin and dropped them in. He tiptoed back to Kojo, who was standing petrified by the blackboard.

“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” he whispered to Kojo.

It all took place in a few seconds. Then the rest of the class started pouring in, chattering and pushing each other. Basu, who had been at the end of the room with his back turned to them all the time, now turned round and limped laboriously across to join the class, his eyes screwed up as they always were.

The class ranged itself loosely in a semicircle around the demonstration platform. They were dressed in the school uniform of white shirt and khaki shorts. Their official age was around sixteen although, in fact, it ranged from Kojo’s fifteen years to one or two boys of twenty-one.

Mr. Abu, the laboratory attendant, came in from the adjoining store and briskly cleaned the blackboard. He was a retired African sergeant from the Army Medical Corps and was feared by the boys. If he caught any of them in any petty thieving, he offered them the choice of a hard smack on the bottom or of being reported to the science masters. Most boys chose the former as they knew the matter would end there with no protracted interviews, moral recrimination, and an entry in the conduct book.

The science master stepped in and stood on his small platform. A tall, thin, dignified Negro, with graying hair

and silver-rimmed spectacles badly fitting on his broad nose and always slipping down, making him look avuncular. “Vernier” was his nickname as he insisted on exact measurement and exact speech “as fine as a vernier scale,” he would say, which measured, of course, things in thousandths of a millimeter. Vernier set the experiments for the day and demonstrated them, then retired behind the Church Times which he read seriously in between walking quickly down the aisles of lab benches, advising boys. It was a simple heat experiment to show that a dark surface gave out more heat by radiation than a bright surface.

During the class, Vernier was called away to the telephone and Abu was not about, having retired to the lavatory for a smoke. As soon as a posted sentinel announced that he was out of sight, minor pandemonium broke out. Some of the boys raided the store. The wealthier ones swiped rubber tubing to make catapults and to repair bicycles, and helped themselves to chemicals for develop-ing photographic films. The poorer boys were in deadlier earnest and took only things of strict commercial interest which could be sold easily in the market. They emptied stuff into bottles in their pockets. Soda for making soap, magnesium sulphate for opening medicine, salt for cooking, liquid paraffin for women’s hairdressing, and fine yellow iodoform powder much in demand for sprinkling on sores. Kojo protested mildly against all this. “Oh, shut up!” a few boys said. Sorie, a huge boy who always wore a fez indoors and who, rumor said, had already fathered

a child, commanded respect and some leadership in the class. He was sipping his favorite mixture of diluted alcohol and bicarbonate—which he called “gin and fizz”— from a beaker. “Look here, Kojo, you are getting out of hand. What do you think our parents pay taxes and school fees for? For US to enjoy—or to buy a new car every year for Simpson?” The other boys laughed. Simpson was the European headmaster, feared by all the small boys, adored by the boys in the middle school, and liked, in a critical fashion, with reservations, by some of the senior boys and African masters. He had a passion for new motor cars, buying one yearly.

“Come to think of it,” Sorie continued to Kojo, “you must take something yourself, then we’ll know we are safe.” “Yes, you must,” the other boys insisted. Kojo gave in and, unwillingly, took a little nitrate for some gunpowder experiments which he was carrying out at home.

“Someone!” the lookout called.

The boys dispersed in a moment. Sorie swilled out his mouth at the sink with some water. Mr. Abu, the lab attendant, entered and observed the innocent collective expression of the class. He glared round suspiciously and sniffed the air. It was a physics experiment, but the place smelled chemical. However, Vernier came in then. After asking if anyone was in difficulties, and finding that no one could momentarily think up anything, he retired to his chair and settled down to an article on Christian reunion, adjusting his spectacles and thoughtfully sucking an empty tooth socket. 

Towards the end of the period, the class collected around Vernier and gave in their results, which were then discussed. One of the more political boys asked Vernier: if dark surfaces gave out more heat, was that why they all had black faces in West Africa? A few boys giggled. Basu looked down and tapped his clubfoot embarrassedly on the floor. Vernier was used to questions of this sort from the senior boys. He never committed himself as he was getting near retirement and his pension, and became more guarded each year. He sometimes even feared that Simpson had spies among the boys.

“That may be so, although the opposite might be more convenient.”

Everything in science had a loophole, the boys thought, and said so to Vernier.

“Ah! that is what is called research,” he replied, enig-matically.

Sorie asked a question. Last time, they had been shown that an electric spark with hydrogen and oxygen atoms formed water. Why was not that method used to provide water in town at the height of the dry season when there was an acute water shortage?

“It is an impracticable idea,” Vernier replied, shortly. He disliked Sorie, not because of his different religion, but because he thought that Sorie was a bad influence and also asked ridiculous questions.

Sorie persisted. There was plenty of water during the rainy season. It could be split by lightning to hydrogen and oxygen in October and the gases compressed and

stored, then changed back to water in March during the shortage. There was a faint ripple of applause from Sorie’s admirers.

“It is an impracticable idea,” Vernier snapped.

The class dispersed and started walking back across the hot grass. Kojo and Bandele heaved sighs of relief and joined Sorie’s crowd, which was always the largest.

“Science is a bit of a swindle,” Sorie was saying. “I do not for a moment think that Vernier believes any of it himself,” he continued. “Because, if he does, why is he always reading religious books?”

“Come back, all of you, come back!” Mr. Abu’s stentorian voice rang out, across to them.

They wavered and stopped. Kojo kept walking on in a blind panic.

“Stop,” Bandele hissed across. “You fool.” He stopped, turned, and joined the returning crowd, closely followed by Bandele. Abu joined Vernier on the platform. The loose semicircle of boys faced them.

“Mr. Abu just found this in the waste bin,” Vernier announced, gray with anger. He held up the two broken halves of the thermometer. “It must be due to someone from this class as the number of thermometers was checked before being put out.”

A little wind gusted in through the window and blew the silence heavily this way and that.

“Who?”

No one answered. Vernier looked round and waited.

“Since no one has owned up, I am afraid I shall have

to detain you for an hour after school as punishment,” said Vernier.

There was a murmur of dismay and anger. An important soccer house-match was scheduled for that afternoon. Some boys put their hands up and said that they had to play in the match.

“I don’t care,” Vernier shouted. He felt, in any case, that too much time was devoted to games and not enough to work.

He left Mr. Abu in charge and went off to fetch his things from the main building.

“We shall play ‘Bible and Key,’ ” Abu announced as soon as Vernier had left. Kojo had been afraid of this and new beads of perspiration sprang from his troubled brow. All the boys knew the details. It was a method of finding out a culprit by divination. A large door key was placed between the leaves of a Bible, at the New Testament passage where Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead before the Apostles for lying, and the Bible suspended by two bits of string tied to both ends of the key. The combination was held up by someone and the names of all present were called out in turn. When that of the sinner was called, the Bible was expected to turn round and round violently and fall.

Now Abu asked for a Bible. Someone produced a copy. He opened the first page and then shook his head and handed it back. “This won’t do,” he said, “it’s a Revised Version; only the genuine Word of God will give US the answer.” 

An Authorized King James Version was then produced and he was satisfied. Soon he had the contraption fixed up. He looked round the semicircle from Sorie at one end, through the others, to Bandele, Basu, and Kojo at the other, near the door.

“You seem to have an honest face,” he said to Kojo. “Come and hold it.” Kojo took the ends of the string gingerly with both hands, trembling slightly.

Abu moved over to the low window and stood at attention, his sharp profile outlined against the red hibiscus flowers, the green trees, and the molten sky. The boys watched anxiously. A black-bodied lizard scurried up a wall and started nodding its pink head with grave impartiality.

Abu fixed his aging bloodshot eyes on the suspended Bible. He spoke hoarsely and slowly:

Oh, Bible, Bible, on a key,

Kindly tell it unto me,

By swinging slowly round and true, To whom this sinful act is due….

He turned to the boys and barked out their names in a parade-ground voice, beginning with Sorie and working his way round, looking at the Bible after each name.

To Kojo, trembling and shivering as if ice-cold water had been thrown over him, it seemed as if he had lost all power and that some gigantic being stood behind him holding up his tired aching elbows. It seemed to him as if the key and Bible had taken on a life of their own, and he watched with fascination the whole combination moving slowly, jerkily, and rhythmically in short arcs as if it had acquired a heartbeat.

“Ayo Sogbenri, Sonnir Kargbo, Oji Ndebu.” Abu was coming to the end now. “Tommy Longe, Ajayi Cole, Bandele Fagb . . .”

Kojo dropped the Bible. “I am tired,” he said, in a small scream. “I am tired.”

“Yes, he is,” Abu agreed, “but we are almost finished; only Bandele and Basu are left.”

“Pick up that book, Kojo, and hold it up again.” Ban- dele’s voice whipped through the air with cold fury. It sobered Kojo and he picked it up.

“Will you continue please with my name, Mr. Abu?” Bandele asked, turning to the window.

“Go back to your place quickly, Kojo,” Abu said. “Vernier is coming. He might be vexed. He is a strongly religious man and so does not believe in the ‘Bible and Key’ ceremony.”

Kojo slipped back with sick relief, just before Vernier entered.

In the distance the rest of the school were assembling for closing prayers. The class sat and stood around the blackboard and demonstration bench in attitudes of exasperation, resignation, and self-righteous indignation. Kojo’s heart was beating so loudly that he was surprised no one else heard it.

Once to every man and nation

Comes the moment to decide . . . 

The closing hymn floated across to them, interrupting the still afternoon.

Koho got up. He felt now that he must speak the truth, or life would be intolerable ever afterwards. Bandele got up swiftly before him. In fact, several things seemed to happen all at the same time. The rest of the class stirred. Vernier looked up from a book review which he had started reading. A butterfly, with black and gold wings, flew in and sat on the edge of the blackboard, flapping its wings quietly and waiting too.

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“Basu was here first before any of the class,” Bandele said firmly.

Everyone turned to Basu, who cleared his throat.

“I was just going to say so myself, sir,” Basu replied to Vernier’s inquiring glance.

“Pity you had no thought of it before,” Vernier said, dryly. “What were you doing here?”

“I missed the previous class, so I came straight to the lab and waited. I was over there by the window, trying to look at the blue sky. I did not break the thermometer, sir.”

A few boys tittered. Some looked away. The others muttered. Basu’s breath always smelt of onions, but although he could play no games, some boys liked him and were kind to him in a tolerant way.

“Well if you did not, someone did. We shall continue with the detention.”

Vernier noticed Abu standing by. “You need not stay, Mr. Abu,” he said to him. “I shall close up. In fact, come with me now and I shall let you out through the back gate.”

He went out with Abu.

When he had left, Sorie turned to Basu and asked mildly:

“You are sure you did not break it?”

“No, I didn’t ”

“He did it,” someone shouted.

“But what about the ‘Bible and Key’?” Basu protested. “It did not finish. Look at him.” He pointed to Bandele.

“I was quite willing for it to go on,” said Bandele. “You were the only one left.”

Someone threw a book at Basu and said, “Confess!”

Basu backed onto a wall. “To God, I shall call the police if anyone strikes me,” he cried fiercely.

“He thinks he can buy the police,” a voice called.

“That proves it,” someone shouted from the back.

“Yes, he must have done it,” the others said, and they started throwing books at Basu. Sorie waved his arm for them to stop, but they did not. Books, corks, boxes of matches rained on Basu. He bent his head and shielded his face with his bent arm.

“I did not do it, I swear I did not do it. Stop it, you fellows,” he moaned over and over again. A small cut had appeared on his temple and he was bleeding. Kojo sat quietly for a while. Then a curious hum started to pass through him, and his hands began to tremble, his armpits to feel curiously wetter. He turned round and picked up a book and flung it with desperate force at Basu, and then another. He felt somehow that there was an awful swelling of guilt which he could only shed by punishing himself through hurting someone. Anger and rage against everything different seized him, because if everything and everyone had been the same, somehow he felt nothing would have been wrong and they would all have been happy. He was carried away now by a torrent which swirled and pounded. He felt that somehow Basu was in the wrong, must be in the wrong, and if he hurt him hard enough he could convince the others and therefore himself that he had not broken the thermometer and that he had never done anything wrong. He groped for something bulky enough to throw, and picked up the Bible.

“Stop it,” Vernier shouted through the open doorway.

“Stop it, you hooligans, you beasts.”

They all became quiet and shamefacedly put down what they were going to throw. Basu was crying quietly and hopelessly, his thin body shaking.

“Go home, all of you, go home. I am ashamed of you.” His black face shone with anger. “You are an utter disgrace to your nation and to your race.”

They crept away, quietly, uneasily, avoiding each other’s eyes, like people caught in a secret passion.

Vernier went to the first aid cupboard and started dressing Basu’s wounds.

Kojo and Bandele came back and hid behind the door, listening. Bandele insisted that they should.

Vernier put Basu’s bandaged head against his waistcoat and dried the boy’s tears with his handkerchief, gently patting his shaking shoulders. 

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had done it, sir,” he mumbled, snuggling his head against Vernier, “but I did not do it. I swear to God I did not.”

“Hush, hush,” said Vernier comfortingly.

“Now they will hate me even more,” he moaned.

“Hush, hush.”

“I don’t mind the wounds so much, they will heal.”

“Hush, hush.”

“They’ve missed the football match and now they will never talk to me again, oh-ee, oh-ee, why have I been so punished?”

“As you grow older,” Vernier advised, “you must learn that men are punished not always for what they do, but often for what people think they will do, or for what they are. Remember that and you will find it easier to forgive them. ‘To thine own self be true!’ ” Vernier ended with a flourish, holding up his clenched fists in a mock dramatic gesture, quoting from the Shakespeare examination set-book for the year and declaiming to the dripping taps and empty benches and still afternoon, to make Basu laugh.

Basu dried his eyes and smiled wanly and replied: “ ‘And it shall follow as the night the day.’ Hamlet, Act One, Scene Three, Polonius to Laertes.”

“There’s a good chap. First Class Grade One. I shall give you a lift home.” 

Kojo and Bandele walked down the red laterite road together, Kojo dispiritedly kicking stones into the gutter.

“The fuss they made over a silly old thermometer,” Bandele began.

“I don’t know, old man, I don’t know,” Kojo said impatiently.

They had both been shaken by the scene in the empty lab. A thin invisible wall of hostility and mistrust was slowly rising between them.

“Basu did not do it, of course,” Bandele said.

Kojo stopped dead in his tracks. “Of course he did not do it,” he shouted; “we did it.”

“No need to shout, old man. After all, it was your idea.”

“It wasn’t,” Kojo said furiously. “You suggested we try it.”

“Well, you started the argument. Don’t be childish.” They tramped on silently, raising small clouds of dust with their bare feet.

“I should not take it too much to heart,” Bandele continued. “That chap Basu’s father hoards foodstuff like rice and palm oil until there is a shortage and then sells them at high prices. The police are watching him.”

“What has that got to do with it?” Kojo asked.

“Don’t you see, Basu might quite easily have broken that thermometer. I bet he has done things before that we have all been punished for.” Bandele was emphatic.

They walked on steadily down the main road of the town, past the Syrian and Lebanese shops crammed with knickknacks and rolls of cloth, past a large Indian shop with dull red carpets and brass trays displayed in its windows, carefully stepping aside in the narrow road as the British officials sped by in cars to their hill-station bungalows for lunch and siesta.

Kojo reached home at last. He washed his feet and ate his main meal for the day. He sat about heavily and restlessly for some hours. Night soon fell with its usual swiftness, at six, and he finished his homework early and went to bed.

Lying in bed he rehearsed again what he was determined to do the next day. He would go up to Vernier:

“Sir,” he would begin, “I wish to speak with you privately.”

“Can it wait?” Vernier would ask.

“No, sir,” he would say firmly, “as a matter of fact it is rather urgent.”

Vernier would take him to an empty classroom and say, “What is troubling you, Kojo Ananse?”

“I wish to make a confession, sir. I broke the thermometer yesterday.” He had decided he would not name Ban- dele; it was up to the latter to decide whether he would lead a pure life.

Vernier would adjust his slipping glasses up his nose and think. Then he would say:

“This is a serious matter, Kojo. You realize you should have confessed yesterday?”

“Yes, sir, I am very sorry.” 

“You have done great harm, but better late than never. You will, of course, apologize in front of the class and particularly to Basu who has shown himself a finer chap than all of you.”

“I shall do so, sir.”

“Why have you come to me now to apologize? Were you hoping that I would simply forgive you?”

“I was hoping you would, sir. I was hoping you would show your forgiveness by beating me.”

Vernier would pull his glasses up his nose again. He would move his tongue inside his mouth reflectively. “I think you are right. Do you feel you deserve six strokes or nine?”

“Nine, sir.”

“Bend over!”

Kojo had decided he would not cry because he was almost a man.

Whack! Whack!!

Lying in bed in the dark thinking about it all as it would happen tomorrow, he clenched his teeth and tensed his buttocks in imaginary pain.

Whack! Whack!! Whack!!!

Suddenly, in his little room, under his thin cotton sheet, he began to cry. Because he felt the sharp lancing pain already cutting into him. Because of Basu and Simpson and the thermometer. For all the things he wanted to do and be which would never happen. For all the good men they had told them about, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, and George Washington who never told a lie. For Florence Nightingale and David Livingstone. For Kagawa, the Japanese man, for Gandhi, and for Kwegyir Aggrey, the African. Oh-ee, oh-ee. Because he knew he would never be as straight and strong and true as the school song said they should be. He saw, for the first time, what this thing would be like, becoming a man. He touched the edge of an inconsolable eternal grief. Oh-ee, oh-ee; always, he felt, always I shall be a disgrace to the nation and the race.

His mother passed by his bedroom door, slowly dragging her slippered feet as she always did. He pushed his face into his wet pillow to stifle his sobs, but she had heard him. She came in and switched on the light.

“What is the matter with you, my son?”

He pushed his face farther into his pillow. “Nothing,” he said, muffled and choking.

“You have been looking like a sick fowl all afternoon,” she continued.

She advanced and put the back of her moist cool fingers against the side of his neck.

“You have got fever,” she exclaimed. “I’ll get something from the kitchen.”

When she had gone out, Kojo dried his tears and turned the dry side of the pillow up. His mother reappeared with a thermometer in one hand and some quinine mixture in the other.

“Oh, take it away, take it away,” he shouted, pointing to her right hand and shutting his eyes tightly.

“All right, all right,” she said, slipping the thermometer into her bosom. 

He is a queer boy, she thought, with pride and a little fear as she watched him drink the clear bitter fluid.

She then stood by him and held his head against her broad thigh as he sat up on the low bed, and she stroked his face. She knew he had been crying but did not ask him why, because she was sure he would not tell her. She knew he was learning, first slowly and now quickly, and she would soon cease to be his mother and be only one of the womenfolk in the family. Such a short time, she thought, when they are really yours and tell you everything. She sighed and slowly eased his sleeping head down gently.

The next day Kojo got to school early, and set to things briskly. He told Bandele that he was going to confess but would not name him. He half hoped he would join him. But Bandele had said, threateningly, that he had better not mention his name, let him go and be a Boy Scout on his own. The sneer strengthened him and he went off to the lab. He met Mr. Abu and asked for Vernier. Abu said Vernier was busy and what was the matter, anyhow.

“I broke the thermometer yesterday,” Kojo said in a businesslike manner.

Abu put down the glassware he was carrying.

“Well, I never!” he said. “What do you think you will gain by this?”

“I broke it,” Kojo repeated.

“Basu broke it,” Abu said impatiently. “Sorie got him to confess and Basu himself came here this morning and told the science master and myself that he knew now that

he had knocked the thermometer by mistake when he came in early yesterday afternoon. He had not turned round to look, but he had definitely heard a tinkle as he walked by. Someone must have picked it up and put it in the waste bin. The whole matter is settled, the palaver finished.”

He tapped a barometer on the wall and, squinting, read the pressure. He turned again to Kojo.

“I should normally have expected him to say so yesterday and save you boys missing the game. But there you are,” he added, shrugging and trying to look reasonable, “you cannot hope for too much from a Syrian boy.”

Interpretive Questions

1. Why does Basu’s false confession ruin Kojo’s plan to tell Vernier the truth?

2. Why do the events of one school day make Kojo aware of what it is like to become a man?

3. Why does Kojo conclude that if all people were the same “nothing would have been wrong and they would all have been happy”?

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