Looking for Michael
by Sarah Hegarty
‘What brings you to Africa, Jill?’ Dana’s voice rises and falls behind me in the afternoon heat.
She appeared at my door ten minutes ago, opening it as she knocked. I was sitting at my desk, thinking about Michael. Now I can tell she’s scanning the small room, searching for photographs of grandchildren; maybe an airmail letter; proof that someone cares.
I keep my back to her. ‘Oh, you know – to do my bit for humanity.’
At least I’m conforming to type: the stuck-up Brit, cold-shouldering the friendly Aussie. Since we arrived, a week ago, I’ve watched her working her way round the other volunteers, extracting their stories with a cheery smile and a pat on the arm.
I hear the bed squeak. I turn round. She’s parked herself on the thin bedcover, her thighs spilling out of her shorts. I imagine her sweat on the sheet.
She looks up at me, her wide, freckled face innocent as a child’s. ‘Do you have a medical background, then?’
‘Yes.’ A long time ago, but that’s none of your business.
Beside me on the desk lies Morag’s farewell present, in its worthy recycled paper; a flat, square parcel, ticking like a time bomb in my heart. I was about to open it when Dana burst in. I presume it’s a book: my daughter-in-law has a book for every occasion. She pressed the package on me as we kissed the wrong cheeks on what feels like the other side of the world. My grand-daughter hugged my knees. I was glad when the taxi beeped at the gate. I walked down the path without looking back.
Dana’s foot, in its pink flip-flop, lands on my copy of Out of Africa. She picks it up. ‘What’s this about?’
‘Haven’t you read it?’
‘I don’t think so?’ She shakes her head and her mousy hair, in two ridiculous bunches, swishes at her jaw. ‘Is it good?’
‘I used to think so. It’s – poignant. Love and loss in colonial Africa.’
Her face closes down. ‘Not exactly relevant to us, then.’
Maybe not to you, I want to say. It’s certainly a different world from Good Hope Clinic, with its endless stream of enthusiastic volunteers, applying a sticking plaster to the continent’s gaping wound.
I turn back to my desk and take out my notepad and biro. I had half-thought of keeping a journal here, although I don’t know who would read it.
The bed sighs as Dana stands up. ‘Time for my shift. I’ll let you get on.’
‘Okay.’ I turn round and smile a thin smile.
She opens the door. Cooler air drifts in from the corridor. ‘Well, you take care, now, Jill. If you ever feel like a beer, just give me a call. Tutaonana!’
‘It means, see you later.’ She looks exasperated.
‘I thought it was kwa heri.’
‘Oh. Tutaonana, then.’
I intended to learn Swahili before I got here, but I’m not a natural linguist. I envy those who can tune into different tongues. I would rather people who spoke to me in broken English said nothing. But then, I’ve never been a talker. Not like Michael.
They didn’t stress, at the introductory session, that we had to learn Swahili. My age didn’t matter, either. I was interested, and I had the funds. When they found out I used to work in paediatrics – even though my qualifications were out of date – they were keen to sign me up.
I didn’t mention Michael on all the forms I filled in; just said I had no dependants. My reasons for volunteering? I lingered over that one. To understand what my son found in Africa. In the end I wrote, To give something back. But then I wanted to scratch it out. Haven’t I given enough?
On the way from the airport, as our minibus lurched and crawled through the Nairobi streets, I searched the gaudy billboards for a picture of Michael, or his name. That sounds stupid, I know. And there was nothing: just ads for mobile phones and Coca-Cola, and warnings about Aids. He wasn’t news. And how could he be? It was months ago.
There were five of us on the journey: me, Dana and a Swedish girl were coming here; two young French guys were being dropped off on the way. While they tried to talk to each other I stared at the city through the open windows. The smell of heat, fried food and diesel fumes drifted in. I wanted someone to look me in the eye. I wanted to ask them, What do you want from us? But everyone was preoccupied. Women in brightly-coloured dresses weaved through the traffic, loaded baskets on their heads; others bent over stalls piled with vegetables and fruit. Skinny dogs hunted, nose down, in the gutters. Was this what Michael saw? Cars and trucks came at us like images in a computer game. I suddenly remembered him, as a child, sitting cross-legged in front of the screen, playing his favourite Super Mario game; lost in a parallel world. I was always glad when he was occupied. I squeezed my eyes hard against the picture. I put my jacket behind my head and tried to sleep, jolting in and out of disjointed dreams.
Five hours later, we pulled up in front of the clinic. Its squat, white buildings sat in a strangely familiar landscape of grassland and flat-topped trees. I recognised Dr Mboto, the medical director, from his blurry picture on the photocopied letter. ‘Welcome to Africa!’ he shouted, as we stepped down onto the worn grass. He offered each of us a crunching handshake. His eyes were tiny behind milk-bottle glasses; his round, shiny face split by a smile.
We trailed behind him, dragging our luggage, as he led us through the clinic grounds to the accommodation block. ‘We are very pleased you come here,’ he called over his shoulder.
It was late afternoon, but still hot. I thought of Morag and Lily at home with the central heating on, windows and doors shut against the cold, and my heart tripped.
Just walking from my room to the main block makes me sweat. I’m glad to reach the cool of the dispensary. Tumi, one of the medical assistants, is standing under the ceiling fan, laying out tubes of eye cream and antiseptic ointment on a battered tin tray. She smiles, and looks me up and down. Under her worn white coat she always seems to wear her Sunday best; I’m sure she despairs of my drab outfit of t-shirt and loose trousers.
When I reach for a pile of leaflets on how to prevent HIV, she puts her hand on my arm. ‘Good girl! You leave your rings behind.’ They advised us not to bring anything valuable.
‘I don’t have any rings.’ My eyes start to sting.
She puts down the tray and stands, hands on hips. ‘No husband?’
Through the open window we can hear the women chattering, kids calling and shrieking.
‘No. Just a son.’ I open the door to let her through.
‘I hope somebody care about you.’ She swings through the door to the clinic.
Our patients understand the meaning of the word. They walk miles to get here. Then they wait, immobile in the boiling shade, chewing thick black lumps of molasses or stalks of sugar cane. Their children run in the dust, kicking up tiny sandstorms. The older ones look at me with serious eyes when I check their pulse, or take their temperature. They don’t speak.
It’s a long afternoon: eye infections, diarrhoea, fever, racking coughs, complications from poor nutrition. We do what we can, with what we have. The contrast between the supplies we ration and the contents of the medical bag in my room strikes me again. I’ve got tubes of antiseptic and antihistamine cream; stuff for diarrhoea; alcohol swabs for scratches and bites. I’ve had all my jabs. Even though malaria isn’t rife here I’ve taken my anti-malaria pills, just in case. A line from Out of Africa comes back to me: something about white men trying ‘to insure themselves against the unknown and the assaults of fate’. But that’s not true. Michael didn’t.
It’s early evening by the time we finish. I’m stacking chairs in the waiting room, so I can mop the concrete floor, when an old lady shuffles in. She puts a rolled-up bundle on the table by the door, on top of the pamphlets on hygiene and how to use condoms.
‘Salama, daktari,’ she starts, through stumps of teeth. ‘Tafadhali, naomba msaada?’
‘Salama. Sisemi Kiswahili.’ I stumble over the unfamiliar words. I repeat it in English. ‘I don’t speak Swahili.’ But I can guess what she’s asking. I put down the chair and walk over to her.
The bundle is a threadbare blanket. She opens it slowly. In the folds, curled like a fossil, lies a small boy. She strokes his arm. ‘Mother dead.’
The child’s closed eyelids flicker. His skin is hot and dry. ‘How old?’
‘Mbili.’ She holds up two crooked fingers. He looks less than one. She picks him up and holds him out to me. He doesn’t cry.
Without thinking I take him. He weighs almost nothing. I feel his bones against my chest. He smells of vomit.
The old lady prods my arm, and signals that the child’s bowels keep emptying.
He’s dehydrated, and feverish; he should be on a drip, but I doubt his body would take it. Our supplies are very basic. I stand, holding this new burden. I wonder how many times Michael stood in a room like this, and looked into an old face, or a young face, and said – what? Did – what?
The old lady picks up the blanket and drapes it over her shoulder. She looks at the floor; at the door; anywhere but at me. And now I see. This is her grandson. She’s a grandmother, too.
‘Okay.’ I touch her arm. ‘Okay.’
I get a clean towel and wrap the child in it, and carry him to the dispensary.
Tumi’s checking the contents of a cupboard against a list. She looks up when I come in.
‘Can you give me some rehydration salts? He’s had vomiting and diarrhoea.’
She comes over, takes his hand and checks his pulse. She shakes her head. ‘No good.’ She touches my shoulder.
I shake her off. ‘Look. I’ll do it.’ I can see the boxes, behind the glass. ‘I won’t need much.’
She shrugs, then passes me a box.
Still holding him, I tip the salts into a tin jug and measure in the water. It takes longer, with him on my hip; strange, to be doing things one-handed again, after all this time.
At the back of the clinic is a room with a couple of empty beds, a small table, and a chair. I put the jug on the table and sit on the chair, the child propped in the crook of my arm. He feels like a husk. I dip a spoon in the jug, and touch the tip of the spoon to his mouth. A trickle of water slides in. I do it again; keep giving him tiny sips. Some of it goes into his mouth, some onto his skin. He barely moves.
Tumi peers in, and gives me a look that says I’m wasting my time, but she comes back with a bowl and a cloth, and I touch the cloth to his hot forehead. I give him more sips of water; slowly, slowly. They stay down. He seems to be cooler. I knew it would work. Common sense: that was all. His breathing is shallow, but regular. I keep putting the spoon to his lips, dripping water into him, willing him to survive.
The room darkens around us. I switch on the lamp. Then I remember what I used to do when Michael was ill.
Closing my eyes, I can see the first line: ‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…’ I tell the child about the trees, the flowers, the problems of growing coffee. I give him more sips of water. He seems more willing to take it. I lay him down on the bed, and put a thin sheet over him. I remember the story about ‘the big chief Kinanjui’, and start to tell him how the chief held court, smoking cigars; and wore a cloak of monkey-skins. It feels odd to say that. ‘Things were different then,’ I whisper.
In the shadows I suddenly see Michael, his face creased in disbelief. Look around you, Mum. Here’s the legacy of those days. Can’t you see?
Yes, Michael. I see. But look, I’m doing something. I’m trying to do what you did.
I’m proud of myself, sitting in the gloom with this little boy: sliding water into his mouth; gently swabbing his limbs with the wet cloth; watching the thin skin on his ribcage rise and fall.
Fever’s unpredictable, you see. It always spikes up, in the small hours of the morning. But the child is calm. He lies still, curled under the sheet.
I’m flying over the Ngong Hills, to collect Michael and bring him home, but the plane is old and slow. There are no lights, anywhere. I look to my right, and through the window see a vulture. It comes in close, its head touching the windowpane. I look into its eye. The socket is empty. If I can get the plane to go faster, I’ll get to Michael before the vulture does. Then we’ll talk: the words that burn in my chest, day and night. But the plane is so slow I’m drifting through the air, sinking. And the medicine in the hold, that will make Michael better, is sliding out. I look through the cockpit as I fall down. I open my mouth to scream but no sound comes out. The engine stutters and shudders. The ground is coming up fast.
‘Jill!’ Someone’s shaking me. I look up, into a freckled face. ‘Go to bed! You’re bushed.’
I don’t remember where I am. My heart’s racing. Slowly the panic of my dream settles into the familiar dull weight in my chest. I look at the bed. It’s empty. The sheet is soiled.
‘He’s gone. His grandmother’s taken him.’ Dana moves between me and the bed, as if to break the spell. ‘You need to sleep. Come on.’ She reaches to help me out of the chair. I take her hand and get up stiffly, my legs as spindly as a puppet’s.
We walk like two old people back to my room. The sky is lightening, birds starting to chatter and call; soon the relentless heat will be back, bringing a new day.
‘This bloody country.’ I want to scream. ‘Do you ever get used to it?’ I feel stupid, as if I’ve been in a waking dream that everyone has tried to tell me would end this way.
‘I don’t know.’ Dana is weary. ‘You know about hospitals. It’s just worse here.’
‘Maybe I shouldn’t have come.’
‘That depends.’ She stops by my door.
‘What do you mean?’ I look down at the wall. A small black spider is inching towards a crack. My eyes and throat are burning.
‘Depends what you came for. But we’ve all got our reasons.’
‘Yes.’ Suddenly I see Michael, for the last time, on my doorstep in the grey rain: Don’t try to stop me. You don’t understand. A thick, hot bubble rises in my throat. I push the door hard, stumble into my room and lock the door. I fall onto my bed and howl, stuffing the pillow into my mouth so no one can hear. I sob myself into a feverish sleep.
I dream of nothing.
When I wake, still in my clothes, the room is hot and bright. My eyes sting and my throat’s sore. I sit at my desk and drink the remains of a bottle of lukewarm water. Morag’s present is still there. I’m sure it’s a paperback: an eco-friendly guide to sight-seeing in Africa, or something practical about bereavement.
Why do my hands shake as I rip the paper? But it’s not a book: it’s a photograph album, with a dark blue cover. On the first page is a picture of Lily and me, at Christmas, Lily wearing the red cardigan I knitted her; then there’s a photo of her and Morag. Clumsily I separate the stiff pages, but the rest are blank – no doubt for my adventures here. Where’s Michael? I’m about to fling the album across the room when I see an envelope, under the plastic on the last page. I imagine Morag’s rounded, childish writing. What’s she going to say? My heart knocks as I tear the flap. But there’s no letter. I pull out a photograph. I’ve never seen it before: it takes a while to work out. It shows a group of people, some wearing white coats, standing outside a low-rise building, like the ones here. There’s a big, empty sky, and trees at the edge. I search the faces. Then my heart thuds. There he is: my son, with his colleagues, on his last project. He’s laughing in the sunlight. Perhaps he’s just made a joke – everyone else is laughing, too. I flip the picture over. There’s a date on the back – August 12, 2010 – six months ago.
I stare at the wall. I picture Morag and Lily, wrapped up against the cold, hurrying to playgroup in the dank Edinburgh morning. I think of Michael, who had to come back, just one last time.
Kwa heri, my son.
Now I can’t stop the tears and I stare at the picture, stare at his eyes, at his smile, until his features blur into the face of the person next to him, and behind him, until I can’t see him any more.
© Sarah Hegarty, 2011