I escaped my birthplace when I was a young man. But in spirit, I escaped much sooner. When I was still a kid I became aware that life for many people did not mean scraping your knuckles red raw as you picked up scraps from around the market stalls, holding your breath and pinching your nose to block out the stench of open sewers, and caking your feet in mud to protect them in the absence of shoes. That you didn’t have to bathe publicly in polluted rivers, huddle up to your parents in the absence of warm bedding, gather firewood for cooking.
I slump into the taxi and join the traffic as it snakes like a hapless trail of invertebrates around the ancient hub of the city. I don’t remember the congestion being this bad when I was young. Taxi drivers lean on their horns, making a sound like a herd of elephants. Everyone in a hurry. The buzz and clatter of the crowds and construction sites contribute to the cacophony. Car emissions mingle with the smells of food stalls, filling my nostrils, mouth and lungs and making me heave rather than hungry.
The scene is like a festival, a kaleidoscope of banners and bunting hanging pendulously, like bunches of grapes, from every building. Beggars burst from the crowds like seeds from a pod, taking advantage of the slow-moving traffic to beg from the vehicles with open windows. A little money goes a long way. Mangy dogs stretch out on the pavements as though dead, ignoring the passing feet which nudge and kick them.
I was a sensitive child, always rescuing strays, sobbing when I was told we had enough mouths to feed and made to turn them out again onto the streets. Like us, they had to take their chances. I was just a teenager when I was last in this town, looking at the world through a hormonal haze almost as thick as the smog churned out by the unregulated factories which surrounded us. I shudder involuntarily as the memories come flooding back. So much has changed, yet so much has stayed the same.
The heat makes me lethargic and I have to fight to stop my eyes from drooping. The oppressive humidity wraps itself around me like a blanket. I remove my tie and undo the top button of my shirt as sweat bleeds from every pore in my body. How much longer will I be trapped in this traffic jam? Patience is not a virtue in this part of the world; it is a necessity. I glance at my Rolex. Maybe another twenty minutes.
When we were young, my brother and I would sit cross-legged on the corrugated roof of our house, sharing our daily spoils – maybe an overripe banana or mango. The stars shivered in the cold night air like diamonds in a jeweller’s shop, both unreachable. We shivered, too, as we wished our lives away in a pleasure of pipe dreams. Which girl would we marry; where would we live; how many children would we have; what sort of job would we get – teacher, lawyer, doctor? But most of all, these were the things my brother and I always talked about:
· How soon we could escape this place.
· How soon we could escape this place.
· How soon we could escape this place.
The thrum of the city’s sleeplessness was tantalizing with its echoes of secrets yet to be revealed. Time was on our side.
Like most children in our neighbourhood, we were aware that our parents were poor. Our father wheezed constantly due to a chronic breathing problem most likely brought about by toxic fumes in the factory where he used to work. Compensation or a pension was unheard of. Mother took in clothes to repair, being paid a paltry sum for the privilege. We knew without saying that we brothers were their insurance for the future.
For me, one pipe dream became a reality. I won a charity-sponsored scholarship and for several years floated on a cloud of academic endeavour. I remember my mother’s proud, gap-toothed smile as she paraded her son, the prospective doctor, in front of her friends. At that time I don’t think it occurred to either of us that I would ever leave the area, let alone the country. But after completing my medical degree I leapt at the opportunity to work in a hospital in Scotland, giving little thought to the impact it would have on my family. Such is the ambition and self-centeredness of youth.
I had always been one of those people who cared for others, who wanted to do good, but at this point in my life, I entered a hedonistic phase. I spent almost as much time going to parties as attending to my patients. My first month’s salary went on warm clothes, soon to be followed by designer clothes and other accoutrements of success. Of course, I didn’t neglect my family completely, sending financial support regularly. I could have been more generous.
My brother was brighter academically than I, but by the time he was university age funding was tighter, and his life moved in a different direction. If he was disappointed, he never told me. Instead, he turned his considerable resourcefulness into building up a business restoring and repairing computers, earning a decent enough income to be able to support our parents. He accepted his lot without resentment and was happy to care for our parents as they aged.
Until the accident.
My brother’s death was an avoidable incident had it not been for the hellhole of a hospital that he was rushed to after the crash. Money talks in matters of health and insurance was out of the question. By the time I found out he had been crushed on his motorcycle beneath an overcrowded bus, it was too late. I was consumed with a visceral desperation to turn back the clock, to make up for lost time, to hold him in my arms. As I saw red, puffy eyes reflecting back at me from the mirror every morning, I knew I had to go home.
How could I have neglected my family for so long? Every time I planned a visit I had ended up cancelling it, sometimes because of justifiable medical commitments, but more often - inexcusably - because of the lure of social activities, holidays, girlfriends.
But excuses cannot be reused the same way that paper bags are recycled, and every year that went by my guilt was growing, like a snowball rolling down a hill. As a younger man, I had made the mistake of assuming that everything in my orbit would stay the same. Had the nihilistic inevitability of life, a fact that I faced daily as a doctor, taught me nothing?
It is twenty-four years since I have been home. Two gross of months. Too gross an underestimation of how cherished I am by my family. I may not need my parents in the way I did as a child, but they are much older now, and they need me.
So, here I am, a middle-aged man, grown up in mind now as well as in body, back in my country of birth and compelled to confront the reality of my brother’s death and the reality of my parents’ frailties. Too little, but maybe not too late.
As I drink in my surroundings, I see things now from a different perspective. Each sound, smell and sight is an explosion of synaesthesia in my mind and brings back a distant memory. The sweet melodies my mother used to hum as she lulled us to sleep; my father’s beard, greyed long ago, which would graze and tickle our faces as he kissed us goodnight; the rattle of rain sounding like a volley of gunshots on the roof; the unmistakable smell of my mother’s fresh, home-made bread; my multi-coloured bedspread, threadbare, embellished with a faded print of oriental birds. How I loved those birds! I used to look up to the sky every day hoping to see them for real, little knowing that they were only to be found in the countryside, miles away. Now I am back I vow to go there and find them.
And as I climb out of the taxi, I see my parents standing at the door, their faces creased with lines as deep as river deltas, bodies bent with age, their arms around each other for mutual support. We are a monsoon of tears as we hug hard enough to crush each other’s bones.
The passage of time has become a mere comma in our cosmos.