When Aminu woke, he heard his mother coughing in the kitchen below. She had been coughing for days but he had paid no attention. They lived on the old cart road reaching into Baga, a little army cantonment town in Borno, near the river. The coughing sounded terrible. He pulled on his tattered jacket, pulled on my socks and went downstairs, just in time to catch her collapsing into a little armchair, holding her side. She must have made an attempt to light the kitchen fire, but it had gone against her. She looked so tired and helpless that Aminu’s heart turned over. He ran to her.
“Are you all right, mama?”
“I’ll be all right in seconds,” she replied, trying to smile.
“The old sticks were wet, and the smoke entered my throat.”
“Go back to bed and I will light the fire,” he said.
“How can I, my son?” she said anxiously. “I have to go to work.”
“You couldn’t work like that,” he said. “I’ll stop at home from school and look after you.”
It’s a funny thing about women, the way they will take orders from any one in trousers, even if he is only nine.
“If you could just make yourself a cup of tea, I might be all right later on,” she said guiltily, and rose, very shakily, and climbed back up the stairs. Aminu knew that she was feeling really bad. He put more sticks into the kitchen fire. His mother was so economical that she never used enough, and that was why the fire sometimes went against her. He used a whole bundle and soon had the fire roaring and the kettle on. Aminu made her a toast. He was a great believer in hot buttered toast at all hours of the day—even if the menace of Boko Haram loomed above their very heads. Aminu made the tea and brought it up in a cup on a saucer.
“Is that all right?” he asked.
“Would you have some boiling water left?” she asked, and Aminu suddenly felt the irritation in his shoulders.
“This is too strong,” he agreed, taking a sip. “I’ll pour some of it out and then add some boiling water.”
“I am an old nuisance.” She sighed.
“This is my fault,” Aminu said, taking the cup. “I can never remember how much of those bits of tea leaves to put in the water.” A cold chill sent his hands hugging his torso. “Put the shawl round you while you’re sitting up.”
He rushed down, got some boiling water in a mug, made her tea lighter, and then sat down to have his own breakfast by the window. Then he went out and stood by the front door to watch the kids from the road on their way to school.
“You’d better hurry or you’ll be late, Aminu,” they shouted.
“I am not going,” he said. “My mother is sick, and I have to mind the house.”
“Liar!” they jeered. “You are scared of being blown apart by bomb kpoa!”
“I am scared of nothing.”
They should have remained *Al-majiris, these uncultured children. He himself wasn’t a malicious child by any means, but he liked to be able to take out his comforts and study them by the light of others’ misfortunes. Then he heated another kettle of water and cleared up the breakfast things before he washed my face.
“Would you like me to get the doctor?” he asked his mother.
“No,” his mother said impatiently. “He’d want to send me to the hospital, and how can I go to the hospital? You could call in at the chemist and ask him to give you a good strong cough bottle.”
“Write it down,” Aminu said. “If I haven’t got it written down, I might forget. And put ‘strong’ in big letters. What should I get for lunch? Milk and bread?”
“Yes,” she replied.
He passed the school on my way. It was almost empty. Boko Haram were blowing up mosques and churches and the air was thick with death smells and rumours that schools were their next target. So parents had held their children back home. Opposite the school was a hill; Aminu went up a short distance and stood there for ten minutes in quiet contemplation. The schoolhouse, the playground and the gate were revealed as in a painted picture, detached and peaceful, except for the chorus of voices through the opened windows. He could have stood there all day, even if Boko Haram were watching him closely. Of all the profound and simple pleasures of those days, the sound of these voices was the richest.
When he got home, he rushed upstairs and found Yar Uwar Maryam sitting with his mother. She was a friend of his mother’s but he called her Yaf Uwar, “Aunty”. She was a middle-aged woman, very knowledgeable, gossipy and pious.
“How are you, mama?” he asked.
“Good,” said his mother with a smile.
“You can’t get up today, though,” said Yar Uwar Maryam.
“I’ll put the kettle on and make a cup of tea for you,” he said.
“Sure, I’ll do that,” Yar Uwar Maryam said.
“Ah, don’t worry, Yar Uwar Maryam,” Aminu said lightly. “I can manage it.”
“Isn’t he very good?” he heard her say in a low voice to his mother.
“As good as gold,” said his mother.
“There are not many like him, these days,” Yar Uwar Maryam said. “Most of them going on now are more like savages.”
In the afternoon, his mother wanted me to run out and play but he mustn’t go far. He knew, if once he went a certain distance from house, he was liable to stray into temptation, if not death outright. At dusk, he lit the lamp in the kitchen and the candle in his mother’s room and tried to read to her, not very successfully, because he was only at words of one syllable. It had been quite a while he showed his face at school. But he had a great wish to please, and for her to be pleased; so they got on quite well.
Later, Yar Uwar Maryam came again and as she was leaving, he saw her to the door.
“If she is not better in the morning, I think I’d get the doctor,” she said over her shoulder.
“Why?” he asked in alarm. “Do you think she is worse?”
“No, I wouldn’t say so,” she replied with affected nonchalance, “but I am frightened she might get pneumonia.”
“But wouldn’t the doctor send her to the hospital, Yar Uwar?”
“Wish he wouldn’t,” she said with a shrug, pulling her old shawl about her. “But even if he did, wouldn’t it be better than neglecting it?” She paused. “You wouldn’t have some brandy in the house?”
“Yes, I do.” He was nine years old, but he already had a brandy in the house.
“If you could give it to her hot, it might help her to shake it off,” Yar Uwar Maryam said.
His mother said she didn’t want the brandy but he had got such a fright that he wouldn’t be put off. He almost forced those few teaspoonfuls into her mouth.
When she had drunk the hot brandy, she fell asleep. Aminu quenched the lights and went to bed but he couldn’t sleep very well. He went into his mother’s room, her head felt very hot, and she was rambling in her talk. It frightened him more than anything else. And he lay awake, thinking of what would happen to him if it were really pneumonia.
The depression was terrible when, next morning, his mother seemed not to be any better. He had done all he could do and he felt helpless. He lit the kitchen fire and got her bread and hot milk but this time he didn’t stand at the front door to see the other fellows on their way to school. Instead, he went over to Yar Uwar Maryam and reported.
“I’d go for the doctor,” she said firmly. “Better be sure than sorry.”
He had to go first to the house of his uncle who lived quite far from their house, to borrow some money. After that, he went to the doctor. When he returned, he laid out a bucket of water and soap and a clean towel for the doctor. He then cooked some lunch for his mother and himself.
It was after lunch when he called. The doctor. He was a fat, loud-voiced man and, like all the drunks of the medical profession, thought himself to be the cleverest doctor in Baga.
“How are you going to get this now?” he grumbled, sitting on the bed with a prescripton pad on his knee. “The only place open today would be Charlie’s chemist”.
“I’ll go, doctor,” Aminu said at once, relieved that he had said nothing the hospital.
“It’s a long way,” the doctor said doubtfully. “Do you know where it is?”
“I’ll find it,” Aminu said.
“Isn’t he a great fellow?” the doctor said to Aminu’s mother.
“Oh, the best in the world, doctor!” she said. “Nobody else could be better than him.”
“That’s right,” said the doctor. “Look after your mother, she is the best thing for you in the long-run. We don’t mind them when we have them.” He added to his mother, “But then some of them turn out to be rascals.”
Aminu wished he hadn’t said that; it tuned in altogether with his mood. To make it worse, the doctor didn’t even use the soap and water he had laid ready for him.
His mother gave me the directions how to reach Charlie’s chemist, and he set off with a bottle wrapped in brown paper in his hand. The road led uphill through a thickly populated poor locality, as far as the barracks, and then descended between high walls, till it came to an open area on one side of which stood a temple, made of purple sandstone. He leaned on the low wall, near the temple and thought how happy a fellow could be, if he had nothing to trouble him. Aminu tore himself from the wall with a sigh and climbed up the few narrow steps to the temple.
He leaned before the statue of Holy Mary in the temple and prayed for his mother’s recovery. He also promised the Virgin that on his return from the chemist, if he had any money left, he would offer her a sacrifice of hundred naira for his mother’s recovery. After that, he walked up to Charlie’s chemist which was a short distance from the temple.
A little girl was standing near the shop.
“You’ll have to wait, little boy,” the girl said, quickly.
“What will I have to wait for?” Aminu asked testily.
“He has to make your medicine,” she explained pointing to the salesman who was in the shop. “You might as well sit down.”
After handing over the prescription and the bottle to the salesman, Aminu sat down next to her, glad of someone to keep him company.
“Where are you from?” she asked. “I live near the Colonel’s house.” She glanced at the paper package. “Who’s the bottle for?”
“My mother,” Aminu said.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“She has a bad cough.”
“She might have pneumonia,” she said thoughtfully. “That’s what my sister that died last year had. This is a tonic for my other sister. She has to have tonics all the time. Is it nice where you live?”
Aminu told her about the high mountain near my house and then she told him about the houses, the dirt track and the tree-lined road near their place. It seemed to be a nicer place than theirs, as she described it. She was a pleasant, talkative little girl and he didn’t notice the time until the salesman came to the counter and said:
“Here,” she said and thrust the bottle with the prescription paper to her. She had two twenty naira notes, which she placed on the counter.
“Thanks,” said the girl to the salesman. She turned to him. “Yours won’t be ready for a good while yet. I will wait for you.”
She waited until his bottle was handed to him and he too gave the chemist two twenty naira notes. They then walked towards the temple together. On the way, he bought some sweets from the twenty five naira that was left with me and they sat on the steps beside the temple to eat them. It was nice there with the young trees overhanging the high walls; and the sun, when it came out in great golden blasts, threw their linked shadows onto the road.
“Mine is awful,” she said. “Tonics are awful to taste. You can try it if you like.”
Aminu took a taste of it and hastily spat out. She was right; it was awful. After that, he couldn’t do less than let her taste his.
“That’s grand,” she said enthusiastically, after taking a swig from it. “Cough bottles are always grand. Try it, can’t you?”
He did, and he saw she was right about that too. It was very sweet and sticky.
“Give me another,” she said excitedly, grabbing at it.
“It will be all gone,” he said.
“It won’t,” she replied with a laugh. “You have lots of it.”
Somehow, he couldn’t refuse her. He was swept from his anchorage into an unfamiliar world of trees, steps, shadowy lanes, and a little girl with a fair complexion and large beautiful black eyes. He took a drink himself and gave her another. Then he began to panic. “It’s nearly all gone,” he said. “What am I going to do now?”
“Finish it and say the cork fell out,” she replied, and again, as she said it, it sounded plausible enough. They finished the cough syrup between them, and then slowly, as he looked at the empty bottle in his hand, and remembered that he had not kept his word to the Virgin Mary and had spent extra money I had – twenty five naira on sweets. A terrible despondency swept over him. He had sacrificed everything for the little girl and she didn’t even care for him. It was the cough bottle she had coveted all the time. He saw her guile too late. He put his head in his hands and began to cry.
“What are you crying for?” the little girl asked in astonishment.
“My mother is sick, and we have drunk her medicine,” Aminu said.
“Ah, don’t be an old crybaby!” she said contemptuously. “You have only to say the cork fell out. Sure that’s a thing that could happen to anybody.”
“And I promised the Virgin Mary an offering of sweets from the money left and I have spent the money on you!” he screamed and, suddenly grabbing the empty bottle, ran up the road from her, wailing. Now he had only one refuge and one hope – a miracle. He went back to the temple, and kneeling before the Holy Mary, Mother of God, he begged her pardon for having spent her hundred naira, promised her a worth from the next hundred naira he got, if only she would work a miracle and make his mother better before he got back. After that, he crawled miserably homeward, back up the hill, but now all the light had gone out of the day and the beautiful hillside had become a vast, alien, cruel world. He felt very sick, he thought he was going to die. In one way, it would be better.
When he got back into the house, the silence of the house and the sight of the fire gone out in the kitchen smote him with the cruel realization that the Virgin Mother of God had let him down. There was no miracle and his mother was still in bed. At once, he began to howl.
“What is it, my child?” his mother called in alarm from upstairs.
“I lost the medicine,” he bellowed, and rushed up the stairs to throw himself on the bed and bury his face in the pillow.
“Oh, wash up darling, if that’s all that’s troubling you!” She sounded relieved, running her hand through his hair. “Is anything the matter?” she added after a moment. “You’re very hot.”
“I drank the medicine,” I bawled.
“Ah, that’s no harm.” she murmured soothingly. “You poor, unfortunate child! It was my own fault for letting you go all that way by yourself. Undress yourself now, and lie down here.”
She got up, put on her slippers and unlaced his shoes while he lay on the bed. But even before she finished, he was fast asleep. He didn’t see her dress herself or hear her go out, but some time later, he felt a hand on his forehead and saw Yar Uwar Maryam peering down at him, laughing.
“Ah, it’s nothing,” she said, giving her shawl a pull about her. “He’ll sleep it off by morning. But it’s you – you who should be in bed.”
He knew that was a judgement on him but he could do nothing about it. Later, he saw his mother come in with the candle and he smiled up at her. She smiled back. Yar Uwar Maryam may despise him as much as she liked, but there were others who didn’t. The miracle had happened, after all.