Previously on Angeions…
I stretched my trembling arm and placed my palm on the surface of the stone, eyes fixed unwaveringly upon hers for the fear that just as she had appeared, she would fade away the same way into the nothingness of my imagination. But then the cold surface of the rock turned warm. Puzzled by the change, I looked at where my hand had rested on the stone Her delicate palm was now touching mine, and I felt my heart melt…
I woke up. My mouth was dry and my body ached all over. I rolled on the bed several times.
“Nikolasi!” again my father called out; this time, banging on my bedroom door.
“Alright, I’m up!” I shouted back in a weary voice.
Oh man! Wasn’t it just a few minutes ago that I had gone to bed? School days were hell for me, especially in the morning. It took some minutes of self-discussion but I finally overcame the urge to prolong my sleep and propped myself up to a sitting ‘stance’. For a while, I lazed there in a half-asleep half-awake mode. Then my dreamy haze took over, plunging me into a trance. There, her face revisited my mind.
“Nikolasi! Nikolasi! Nikolasi!” came the last successive calls then followed much louder banging.
“I’m awake!” I confessed aloud, contrition evident in my hoarse voice. School was just dreadful compared to my snooze-induced day dreaming.
“This is the third time I’ve had to wake you up, young man. You must realise that I also get tired!” my father reprimanded me from the other side of the door. He always sounded extremely commanding when he spoke in Swahili. Frustration-with a tinge of rebellion-rose up within me, inviting me to scream my voice out. But admittedly, my dad’s annoyance was justified and I was being inexcusable. So I decided to hold my peace and bury my desire for the forbidden fruit of post-alarm slumber.
It always took me the most zeal to get out of bed and so once I was off it, I knew the worst was over. I flexed my knees trying to exercise the grogginess away as I mentally went through my morning procedure. Cold shower, dressing up and then the usual walk to the terminus. Blech! There was no love lost between the morning norms and my lazy self. But they weren’t going to stop, not anytime soon anyway.
February fourth. Today was going to mark my first day as a senior at Allivi High School after a one-month extended vacation-school officially began about four weeks ago. In translation, this morning was one of many to come. But while senior year, for most, may seem a year of benefits and freedom, I could only foresee more sleepless study nights with my final exams nearing. The Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education –KCSE- was an unforgiving beast that devoured ‘unsuspecting’ Kenyan eighteen-year-olds at the end of their senior year. Okay, so maybe my description was a little bit on the exaggerated side of reality. But what could you possibly call one single exam that basically determined the fate of your future? I sighed hopelessly, “KCSE, here I come.”
It took me an hour to get to ‘dressing up’ and fifteen minutes later, I was donned in my all-white school uniform, rushing to the station twenty minutes off-schedule. So unsurprisingly, I reached school late. Not the ‘capital offence’ kind of late; I wouldn’t dare do that. But it seemed I had tarried just enough to find a barricade of prefects manning the school gate, protecting the immaculate populace of Allivi high from the great invasion of the ‘latecomers’. In my school, prefects were a little less than all-powerful and one did best to fear them. Believe me, I could write a whole essay on ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’ from a single narrative out the many unfortunate encounters I had had with the ones they called ‘the perees.’
“Darn it!” I cursed aloud when I caught a glimpse of the Deputy Principal caressing my fellow latecomers’ undersides with his infamous cane, christened ‘the bane’. It was times like these that made me wish I was schooling elsewhere across the Atlantic where corporal punishment was punishable by death.
Mr Michael swung his cane in a timely fashion and I was not surprised when the impact sounded like a firecracker. His victim howled in immense agony. A few minutes later, I was walking on the pavement to class and my bottom ached like hell. What a bad way to start senior year, I thought.
The rest of the day was an aggravation of my bad luck. I had to kneel down a whole forty-minute-lesson just because I didn’t hand in last year’s math homework. What’s worse, I was sentenced to an hour of after-school ‘voluntary service’. By definition, miserable sixty minutes of cleaning the one-hundred-year-old basement below the school’s building after everyone else had left for home.
Allivi High School was a museum in every sense of the word. Only guided tours were left to make its archaic profile complete. For a 19th Century building, the school was in pretty good shape. Its walls had, without a doubt, defied time. I bet they were just as solid as they had been a hundred years ago. Repainting was the only necessary renovation, I imagined. Anyway, that was high school for me; all history, mystery, studying and sometimes- more often than I would like- immense pain in my butt.
Evening came awfully slow and it found me standing outside my class, basking in the graveyard silence that spoke volumes of the school’s desertion. The bell had rung a few minutes ago yet the jubilation of those happy to be going home had subsided. Everyone had left.
“Everyone but me,” I thought aloud and the sound of it sickened me. I walked to the school’s back gate a few yards opposite my classroom door. I was going to be home late, I realised; there was so much ‘volunteering’ awaiting me. With that thought, I took a glance at my watch.
Darkness had already engulfed the better part of the school’s compound, I noted, standing near the postern. It was a double gate really, two huge barriers made of iron which looked more like a portcullis when closed. The gates were too heavy to hang only by their hinges and so each had two fist-sized wheels that arced the ground to share their massive weights. The double gate opened into a small compound where three cottages stood, forming the staff quarters. Rizgala’s cabin was centrally located, fixed imposingly betwixt the smaller two. Rizgala was the school caretaker and had been so for years now. Sometimes I thought he was as old as the walls themselves. Anyway, he had the keys to every part of the school and I needed the ones to the basement. So from the double gate, I floundered to Rizgala’s humble abode and knocked softly on his oak-wood door. A few seconds later, it creaked open and a heavily-bearded man planted his plump frame between the doorpost. He flashed his brown teeth, grinning like a green gecko.
“Nikolasi kijana wangu, unkujia hio punishment, eh?” Rizgala chuckled in inquisition. There was a thick coastal accent to his Swahili as he asked if I had come for the punishment.
“Yeah,” I replied in a dragged tone, smiling sarcastically. I was certain he knew very well the purpose of my late-evening call to his place; the prefect on-duty had without a doubt made sure to that, as was his official charge. Rizgala’s questions were merely angled to serve his derisive pleasure, I strongly believed.
“Ka-mbe,” I answered, slipping naturally into the Swahili slang for ‘kinda’. My smile endured even as Rizgala’s grin widened with his increasing pleasure in my misery.
“I need the keys to the basement,” I said, rather impatiently now.
“Ngoja hapa,” he instructed me to wait as he sank into his cottage before resurfacing a while later with a large brass key secured between his huge smoke-stained fingers.
“Here,” he said, handing the key over. I clutched it like an eagle seizing a chick and whirled around, heading away quickly before I could say something regrettable. My restless eyes pecked at the watch again.
The compound had almost bowed to the darkness and I could hardly make out the cobblestone walkway to the Old Gate. The Old Gate was a huge wooden-door which opened up to a narrow flight of stone stairs that led down to the school’s basement; yup, the one I was supposed to be cleaning. I picked my way down the path carefully and a few seconds later, I was standing before the ancient oak-wood barriers that were looking as ominous as ever in the dying light. I decimated the thought as quickly as it had come up and before I could make the sane decision of fleeing the site, I slipped the brass key into the cross-shaped keyhole on the ancient door and turned it. The rest of it came easy and soon, I was halfway down the stairs. Rizgala must have turned the lights to the basement on because the small filament lamp that lit the passageway was as sunny as ever.
From where I stood, I could see my destination; a triangular-shaped anteroom with a door on both of its two walls laying opposite the stairway. The opening of the anteroom from the stairway was itself part of the third wall of the room. The triangular chamber was larger than a normal anteroom and the back wall had enough space to accommodate another door beside the one opening to the flight of stairs. Coming from the stairs when entering the room, the other two walls were in front view, each with a door into the nether parts of the basement. I left the last step of the stone steps and landed on the floor, facing the two entries in front of me. Judging by the number of cobwebs lacing the frame of the door to my right, it was clear that the one to the functional basement was its counterpart.
I drew my eyes off the walls and allowed them free reign around the room. A small filament lamp, just like the one in the staircase, lit the anteroom from its plain white ceiling. Lighting the basement of our ancient school was the current principal’s initiative. The original illumination was by flaming torches, and that was back then before the invention of light bulbs. I could not help but wonder how it was that electricity was discovered ages ago and yet the school was still using torches and lanterns up to last year. So much for school management, I thought, smiling to myself.
“At least he had reasoned on that part,” I thought audibly, complimenting the administration-something I didn’t do very often. My compliment did not last seconds in the air before the filament lamp flickered twice and went off, plunging me into frightening darkness. I fumbled through my back pocket and found the flashlight I was lucky to have picked up from the storage on my way here. I switched it on and the beam from it marshalled inexorably through the murk to light a patch of the huge wall in front of me.
I trudged on forward, too tired and wary of elapsing time to stop and consider to which door I was walking. Despite my doubts, the brass metalwork matched the key hole on the mystery door. I slid the key in, twisted it and the access clicked open. Then I turned around and illuminated the vicinity to confirm my blunder and for sure, I had opened the cobwebbed door to the right; the wrong door.
I can still go back…or maybe I could just explore.
The indecision was evanescent: my body had already made the choice and I strode through the entry automatically as if some unseen force had pulled me in. But just as I walked into the space, I felt my right foot tread on something living. My weight shifted impulsively to the culprit foot and the added pressure made the slippery being under it squeak eerily in obvious anguish. A mixture of fright, surprise and compassion kicked in, pumping adrenaline into my veins. I jerked instinctively, lingering in the air for a brief moment before landing artlessly. My feet buckled sideways as I collapsed to the ground. The flashlight in my hands clashed with the floor, probably shattering before it clattered to an unknown location.
Dazed, I sat still on the cold floor. I could not explain what had just happened. More apparent, though, was the fact that the flashlight was now gone, skated off to God knew where. I was in total darkness and the thought of it made my heart go overdrive with pure dread. Memories and senses collaborated against what was left of my courage: my senses perceiving the faint howl of the wind rushing into the room, my memories of scary movies attributing it to everything that was dreadful and evil. Suddenly, I could no longer keep sitting.
I planted my feet on the floor and raised myself up. The thumping in my chest became louder and I could almost feel the rush of blood in my veins. Even in the dark, the feeling that I had been here before dawdled ominously in my senses. And I was too far gone; not even self-preservation could deter me. My feet trundled on forward to lead me to a wall and I started feeling my way, walking blindly along its stretch.
It was not until I had reached the corner of the mystery room that I realised that I was actually living last night’s reverie. Again, I felt the wall but this time in anticipation; and surely, the cold touch of the brass knocker from my dreams was as carnal as it could get. I needed no more proof; I gathered my strength and pushed the wall in as hard as I could. The whole mass shifted noisily, revealing before me, the small room, exactly as it was in my vision. A faint amber light lit the chamber, streaming in from the compound right above us through a small window on the right wall. It seemed that it was only in the basement that the lights were out. I let my sight dart around the room. Settling my attention on the intricate Arabic patterns curved into the window’s frame, I became more convinced that I had indeed dreamt this very future unfolding before my eyes. A rough mapping of my prior movements placed the source of the penetrating light somewhere at servants’ quarters. That meant I was deep below the ground and most probably at the heart of the school’s main building. My attention shifted to the centre of the room; its incipient sight made my heart lurch.
I became afraid. I was petrified of how the thought of her made my whole being shudder with uncharted sensations, terrified of the disappointment I would suffer if she were not there like in my dream. I stared, entranced, at the rectangular piece of glass-like rock, waiting for my courage to stack up high enough for me to uncover the state of the Schrodinger’s cat of my situation. And then I finally made my move in a faltering step towards the object of my anxiety.
The rock dwelt in classic ordinariness, standing in stark defiance of what my whole being wanted. Still, I made one more step towards it, bringing me to within a foot from the rock of my reverie. My heart was crushed, but for a while, until she shimmered into sight within the mass of glassy stone. I looked into her eyes, two seas of blue wonder, and found recognition! She was as beautiful as I remembered. Her hair flowed in silky black curls over her shoulders and her smooth cream-coloured skin was observably flawless. I could hardly hide my happiness and relief. She saw it and smiled at me. I stretched my arm and my palm touched the rock. Just like in the dream, the glassy surface felt hard and cold at first, and then my skin warmed up when her delicate palm broke about a thousand laws of modern science to brush softly over mine. My heart was intoxicated.
This moment, though, was where my dream had ended-right here. I had no idea what lay ahead, I realised. And I hated not knowing.