It was the biggest examination hall in Government Secondary School, Gamko. No one wandered into it. It was said ghouls lived in and haunted the hall, though none of us saw them eye to eye.
One day, in their final term, an SS3 student brought a camera to take a photograph of the hall. He stood some safe metres away from General Science lab, raised the camera and clicked but nothing showed. Click. Click again, nothing. He lowered his camera, speechless. Unsatisfied, he looped it around his neck and clicked again. A thunderbolt came out from the sky and struck him. This uncanny incident was widely reported locally. Luckily, the boy didn’t die, but only fainted that day.
Since then, despite my curiosity, only twice did I go close to Xomxom hall.
The mysteries about the hall were like folktales tied with our small town and the peddlers were students like me. The school authority did not care about the stories. It was a thing purely within the student circle. Teachers, especially the science ones, sneered at the stories or paid no attention to them at all; perhaps, because they had no business with the hall. It was a deserted building only good for excretion and refuse disposal. The other halls in the school were enough to contain our small number during exams.
During short break one day, while we played soccer in the school field, my friend Teejay shot a long-range projectile. The ball flew directly to the entrance of Xomxom hall. The ball wasn’t mine so I had to get it by all means because the owner’s father, my neighbour, was a stern man. I also didn’t want to lose my dignity before my friends who all thought the ball belonged to me. I drew close to the edge of the hall but I could not enter. The windows were cobwebbed and eerie suggesting nothing went into it and returned. They beckoned me in a scary way. “Boys, let’s go pick it together,” I said in tremor. The boys giggled, others hushed and walked close with their arms crossed behind their backs, reminding me of the tortoise in childhood fables.
“Talle, just go and pick it. Nothing will happen to you.” It was Idi’s voice; I could pick his voice from a million voices no matter the distance. Idi was not a close friend. He played roughly and cried a lot, but the thing I hated most about him was that he bit his opponents during fights. I have two marks from his teeth.
Me? Go and pick what? I knew it was a setup, a dalliance with death and a sure romance with bad luck. I swallowed hard, lifted my foot, closed my eyes and heaved a sigh. “Ah! Let nothing happen to me o,” I squirmed inside my chest. Sweat dripped from my face, soaked my armpits and trickled from my buttocks as I moved closer to the entrance. An ill wind blew and swept the ball further into the hall; my mouth hung agape.
“What’s this?” I blurted and almost turned back. All the boys erupted in a frenzy of booing and guffaws.
“Talle, you are a coward!” said Tolu, with his wry laughter.
“I’ll replace the football from my savings,” I said, turned around and walked away.
* * *
Things went on well in school: daily attendance, sports, regular school practice and experiments at the science laboratory. The other halls were used for the final mock examinations. We were going to use them in a few months. As we prepared for our exam, some students were transferred from the troubled Northeast to our school.
Our principal was transferred, too. A Madallah woman was sent to us: Madam Hadiza S.K. Everyone called her a no-nonsense person. The female teachers gossiped her but sang praises in her presence. Madam Larai, the talkative of them all, said she knew the woman before, that Madam Hadiza S.K. was once a nice woman who became egotistical, temperamental and vengeful since she divorced her third husband. She also said Madam Hadiza demonised men and downgraded her fellow women, especially those who submitted to their husbands. Our religious mistress only had regard for the Lord and nothing else; she had no time for gossip. Mr. Jambola, the foreign teacher, knew it wasn’t play to be in charge of the affairs of a school in a troubled part of the country where Madam Hadiza S.K. was transferred from. People like her were targets of murderous terrorists. Sometimes we watched it in the news on TV.
Before the exams began, the new principal refurbished facilities in the library and laboratory. She replaced all the energy-consuming bulbs in the entire school with fluorescent cylinders. She bought new chairs and tables, employed more hands to clear grasses, water and tend to flowers. The broken staircases were fixed. Our school resurrected with the ambience befitting a government secondary school. We were excited in taking out broken chairs and tables and in blackening the boards with charcoal. And then we collected essays for publication in the school magazine and longed for something different from what we were used to, things like end of the year and send-off parties.
Monday, the good day of the Lord came; it was our first paper. The school register was redrawn to accommodate the newcomers. To my curious surprise, Xomxom hall was cleared. I wondered who the folks were that had the nerve to clear all the debris and cobwebs in Xomxom hall. Were they oblivious of the spirits that lived in it?
It wasn’t a day for needless and long-winding interrogations. All I could say was, with the beautiful shape the school became, I only wished a university was built next to it. We lined up, primed and set to file into various halls.
“Talle Tanko,” Mallam Isa read from a list.
“Yessir!” I shouted from the crowd, moved closer and mumbled something fast. “Toilet, sir. Excuse me, sir!” and ran off before he said any word. Six minutes later I returned thinking my name was skipped and the students ushered in.
“Talle Tanko! You know you’re the one holding us, ehn? Oya! Get in.”
Get in where? Xomxom hall? I adjusted my trousers and ran forward, surprised. “I’m sorry, sir,” I grimaced, “runny stomach. It must be something I ate this morning. Carry on with the list, sir.” I ran back.
“Come back here!” Mallam Isa bellowed.
Me? Never! I vowed in my mind. Not me. The time was eight-seventeen a.m. A few minutes later, I returned to meet Mallam Isa’s anger. He asked a junior student to get a horsewhip from his office. “The two-pronged horsewhip,” he snarled.
“Number 101. Talle, come forward or risk not writing this paper.”
“Sir, please, can you change my venue to Science Hall B?”
“What is wrong with you, Talle?” he said. “Are you under a spell? Can you see the time?”
I was speechless and stared at him in terror. He came after me and I broke into a run.
A hot pursuit ensued. Round the halls he chased me, swinging the whip at my head. But how could I go into Xomxom hall? Shouldn’t I be flogged rather than give myself willfully to the evil spirits in Xomxom hall?
Mallam Isa finally broke to a stop and placed his hand on his chest to catch a breath. “Grab him!” he called to the students standing by.
The boys caught up with me at the principal’s door where I stumbled to, knocking for an answer. They seized me, raised me in the air and carried me back to Xomxom hall. Mallam Isa caned me twenty-one strokes.
“Are you mad?”
“I said are you mad?”
“Yes, I am, sir!”
“Will you get into the hall now before I—”
“I’m sorry, I won’t. I’ll rather die here.”
The principal walked in at this point. She came for exam supervision.
“What’s going on here?” she said.
“Talle is being silly, Ma,” Mallam Isa said. “Everyone here is stranded because of him. I guess he plans to cheat in the exam. His partners must be in Science Hall A or Hall B, hence his insistence to join them.”
“It’s not true, Ma. I don’t cheat during exams. There are spirits in this hall,” I said.
“Spirits?” said the principal, her face puckered like a baby swallowing something bitter. She scrutinised me as if I was an alien. A derisive smile played at her lips. “Don’t be silly,” she snickered, “you bush people love to mystify things.”
Mallam Isa said a few words in agreement.
Madam Hadiza S.K. looked at me again and walked into the hall. “Spirits?” she wondered aloud, advancing to the centre of the hall. “What spirits are you talking about? Okay, here I am; where—?” Before she ended her sentence, the door slammed shut and silence fell on everyone outside. Mallam Isa reacted first. He forced the door open but try as he could nothing happened and he gave up. We watched. No one breathed a word.
Mallam Isa spoke finally.
“For God’s sake, what’s going on here?”
“Let’s wait for a while,” I said, safely out of earshot.
Mallan Isa began to yell through the door. But there was no response, only silence. We joined in yelling the principal’s name; there was still no response.
“Okay, I know what to do.” Mallam Isa turned to us, fear in his eyes and voice. “You all move to the next hall while I report this to the vice principal.”
But no one waited for him to finish speaking; we were already running away. The other students, when they heard the word, even they who sat and waited for question papers, joined us and we raced to the school gate.
“Kai, kai, kai! Come back here! Talle Tanko, Haruna Tanimu, Suleman Mohammed, ehm, ehm . . . Mustafa Yakubu, I say come back here,” Mallam Isa bellowed.
I did not turn back, none of us did, as Mallam Isa’s voice pulled us back. One could never know when a spirit imitated a person you know, whispering your name. We were not ignorant of this because it was one of the popular tales of the mysteries of Xomxom hall.
Salisu’s “Xomxom Hall” is the second story in our Praxis Magazine Ten Short Stories for 10 Days of Christmas stories published from 21 to 30 December. Click the link above for details and to read the earlier stories you missed. Invite your friends.