Leaving the Side Room
I’m six years old, a patient in a whitewashed colonial hospital in mid-nineteen-sixties Kenya. I can’t stop coughing and can’t keep food down. I spend most of the time in a side room off the ward. It’s better when the door is closed to keep the constantly bleached ward floors from stinging my eyes and making me sneeze. The sheets are stiff and wound tight around me. Lungs compressed in a clinical shroud, as if I’m being prepared for when they stop working.
Mum and Dad are only allowed to visit at weekends and Mum cries every time they have to go. The tall Scottish Sister in her huge starched white Pope’s hat is always watching. When my parents leave the ward she says, ‘Satisfied now? Upsetting your poor mother like that!’
It’s as if Sister’s eyes are trained on the back of my head even when she isn’t there. So, I never cry, holding my screams between my ears until they fade out, and are gone.
When my parents walk through the car park, Dad’s consoling arm around Mum’s waist, I stand on the metal bed and bang on the window to try and attract their attention. I think about flying down to stop them leaving. They look up but can’t locate where the noise is coming from and carry on to their car.
Each morning I’m taken from my room to sit at a low communal table in the middle of the ward with the other terrorized children, to stare in silence at sludgy mounds of grey porridge, cooling and congealing in our plastic bowls. The salty oat smell makes me retch. Under threat, I spoon in a small amount and try and swallow, but soon eject, the porridge dolloping onto the table.
Sister notices: ’You will pick that disgusting mess off the table and eat it, every last drop.’
‘There’s no such thing as ‘can’t’ in here. And when you’ve cleaned your mess off the table, you will then eat all the porridge in your bowl. And if you don’t, I will give you more and ask you to eat that too. Now, I’m waiting.’
A stand-off ensues.
‘Do you realise that children in the villages are starving and would give up their eyeteeth to have your porridge. And you, you’re so fussy and spoilt that you won’t even try to eat it.’
‘I do try but it makes me sick.’
Another tactic: ‘well, you make me sick. Sorry, your behaviour makes me sick, and I’m sure it makes your parents sick too. So be a good boy and eat your porridge.’
My hand is shaking as I try and manoeuvre the spoon towards my mouth. Sister grabs my hand to steady the spoon and pushes it firmly into my mouth. I choke and am sick over her apron.
‘Nurse, over here: hold his head.’
Ruth, a Kenyan nurse, sighs but does as she’s told. ‘Tilt it back a little, thank you.’ Then Sister looks down at me. ‘This is a battle you’re never going to win. You will eat because if you don’t you will die. Do you understand?’
She must notice the fear in my eyes because she smiles and seems to soften. ‘I’ll add some honey to make it taste nicer, she says. She pours a huge spoonful in and stirs it through the lumps of porridge. When the porridge is in my mouth it tastes even worse than before, but I manage to keep it down. Each time I swallow, the spoon dives back into the bowl. Sister loses interest when half the bowl is left.
I return to my room and am sick on my bed. I try to clean it off with a towel, but the porridge seems to stick to everything like glue.
I lie on my bed as far away from the sick as I can. My lungs noisily fill and re-fill, saltwater sails tightening, vainly trying to stretch out but grating on my ribcage. I gasp and look for water on my locker, but the glass is gone, and the warm water left in the jug has a layer of film on it, calcium falling like snow in a shaken Christmas globe.
The globe is on a windowsill by my sister’s bed in our bedroom. A white bearded Santa rides a sleigh laden with presents through a snowstorm high over an African village. I glimpse the globe each time her Beatles curtains draw apart in the breeze, Paul’s and John’s faces warped in strange, bloated grins, George’s features creased, angry, Ringo’s long angled head all teeth and smiles.
A few hundred yards from our house, iguanas sleep in the coral caves. My family’s Europeanised cultivated shamba – roses, jasmine and bougainvillea – is tucked discreetly aside with woven bamboo from a row of low-level brick outhouses where Kenyan workers and their families stay.
It’s taboo to go there unless you’re invited. But sometimes, Joseph, our forty-year-old ‘Houseboy’ takes my hand and leads me from our house and into his, where he invites me to sit cross-legged beside him on the concrete floor. We drink pungent fermenting root juice and share simple mielie, a sour tasting, sticky white maize dough, which he shows me how to knead and squeeze in my hand before eating. I try to hide how it makes me retch but I can’t disguise it and he notices, laughs and offers me more.
Joseph is strong and muscly like a middleweight boxer, with a proud wiry military moustache. My sister, who’s nicknamed ‘Memsaab Kali’ because of her fierce temper, once called him a ‘mpumbavu’ (‘fool’ in Swahili) and he slapped her, leaving the pale smarting imprint of his long fingers across her cheek.
When he works, he prefers to wear the same weekly-bleached white shorts and vest, whilst on Sundays he’ll cycle out of the driveway in a freshly pressed dark suit, enroute to visit his wives and children in the nearby village.
Petronella, my ayah, wears a typical nanny’s uniform, a pale blue dress and white pinafore. She is reserved, showing her teeth only slightly when she smiles at anyone in charge. Some afternoons, when it’s less hot, she takes me to play with other children. She holds my hand tight as she tells the other ayahs how well I’ve been doing at school. As we play, the ayahas talk amongst themselves, occasionally looking over at us. She laughs loudly with them in a free way I’ve never seen her do at home. Once when she pointed at me and I heard her tell them, ‘he’s quiet this one, but he’s a good boy, I can see it.’
In the Christmas holidays a few weeks before going into hospital, she led me through our shamba towards the outhouses. ‘There’s a party, you’ll like it,’ she assured me. ‘My children are here, and you can meet them,’ her expression animated, her walk loosening from its normal subdued procession into almost a run. I could hear music and laughter, and she swung her hips and giggled as we passed the bamboo and were greeted by a crowd of partygoers.
I felt uncomfortable; the music was too loud, and the afternoon sun was blazing. So many people were there, children running everywhere. Some of the children rushed over to greet me, holding out their hands, ‘hello, hello’, others stayed back, staring at me from the other side of the yard, before losing interest and running away. Joseph stood at his doorway. He barely smiled, acknowledging my arrival with a quiet nod.
The heat of the sun, mixing with smells from the barbecue, sizzling paprika yams and corn cobs, curried goat and chicken bubbling in large pots, made me feel dizzy. A small girl walked over, holding a scrawny chicken by its neck. She handed it to a woman, who took a knife from her dress pocket, and with a quick swipe, slit its throat, decapitating it. The chicken’s tiny head plopped to the ground, its body following, legs twitching as it landed, leading its body in an erratic impromptu dance, blood spurting from where its head had been. Children circled around it, some clapping, others shouting excitedly and mimicking the stricken chicken’s death dance. One boy saw that I was scared and pointed at me. Soon others were looking and laughing at me, as the chicken stopped still for a moment, before slumping into the dirt.
Joseph appeared, shushing the children to be quiet. He glared at Petronella, took my hand, and led me back past the bamboo and into the quiet of our shamba. He opened the door to the kitchen, the red tiled floor cool on my feet, and pulled out a chair for me to sit. He poured me a glass of water. ‘Best for you to stay here,’ he said, and left closing the door behind him.
Once a week my wheelchair is pushed along whitewashed hospital corridors, over buffed shiny floors, smells of disinfectant and faraway kitchens (lunchtime – so mince, not porridge!), all the way to the X-Ray room. The cold grey metal board pressed hard against my chest makes me shiver, and I find it hard to breathe in and hold my breath when I’m told to.
Ruth, the nurse who wheels me down from the ward, comes over to help me:
‘Imagine you’re playing hide and seek and don’t want to be found, so you hold your breath and don’t make a sound.’
She holds her breath, smiles and puts a finger to her lips to show how quiet she’s being.
I must look worried because she ruffles my hair and whispers in my ear ‘it’s okay, you’re safe with me, no one will find you, even Sister, just don’t hold your breath too long, eh!’
A doctor examines the X-Ray pictures on the wall. The thin white bird bones of my chest look like they’re about to snap. As the weeks pass, the dark shadows on my lungs start to go away.
It means I’m getting better, and my wheelchair is pushed along corridors to the far end of the hospital, out through heavy plastic drapes and onto a long white veranda overlooking the sea. The brakes are snapped shut and a thin tartan blanket placed over my knees. I’m left there for exactly two hours. It’s Kenyan wintertime, and the blanket is too thin, and I shiver and struggle to catch my breath.
I notice another blanket has been left on a nearby chair. I don’t know whether I can use it: if I’m allowed to. I stare at the blanket and even though I’m alone, I still don’t take it. I stay sitting, doubling the blanket over my knees, hoping the cold will pass.
Then I remember that no-one will come to collect me for at least an hour. I take a plastic bag from my dressing-gown pocket, where I’d managed to secrete this morning’s porridge from Sister’s watch, and I throw it over the balcony.
The sun escapes around the building and arrives onto the veranda, and I start to warm up. My eyes slowly adjust to its glare, and there ahead is the Indian Ocean, spreading out as far as I can see.
I close my eyes, breathe in, and imagine waves parting as I swim out onto the horizon.
Alan McCormick lives in Wicklow. His writing has been published in The Stinging Fly, Southword, Banshee, Best British Short Stories, Confingo, Sonder, Popshot and Exacting Clam; and online at 3:AM Magazine, Dead Drunk Dublin, Words for the Wild, Époque Press, The Willesden Herald, Fictive Dream and The Quietus. His story ‘Fire Starter’ came second in 2022’s RTÉ Short Story Competition, and ‘Boys on Film’ was runner-up in this year’s Plaza Sudden Fiction Prize. He is currently working a collection of memoir essays with the assistance of an Irish Arts Council Literature Bursary. His website can be found at www.alanmccormickwriting.com