They had left messages, their names and packets of fruits most of which former the hospital staff had forgotten all about or been unable to relay due to the vagaries of shift duty. They had to come, the visitors, in a culture in which you send no flowers but have to take the trouble to make an appearance to show the invalid that you mean well, that you are concerned about the welfare of the sick and that it is after all a return visit to the one he or she has paid you, under whatever circumstances, in the past.
It occurred to the journalist, as he made the long return walk back to the ward, that there had after all been cause for relief and gratitude. Some of his colleagues at the newspaper office whom one would expect to turn up had chosen to stay away. Sarai Jari and Lawan Sani had not shown up at his hospital bed. Yet, in a deft move-to deflect criticism? -they were reported to have contributed to the money that went towards the procurement of the “goodies” taken to their convalescing colleague. Sweets and dates. Grapes and squash. Pawpaw and pomegranates.
Ahmad was again deeply touched to be honoured with the visit; touched, as he had sent no word to the office about succumbing to a malaria attack. He had wanted to save all the people who had cared to drop in on him, with the exception of blood relatives, the trouble of paying any hospital visits. It was for that reason that he wanted his stay to be a brief one-so brief as to fail to excite the apprehension in his colleagues of the fact that Ahmad Habib had been missing too long from his writing desk.
The hospital stay, with its distractions, its noises and its clinical smells and the abrupt relationships with fellow patients were all built on the remoteness of the possibility of their survival. The convalescing period nonetheless provided Ahmad with the opportunity to have a look at Rakiya Iro’s book of poems. He had had the corpus, along with his reporter’s notebook, brought to him for his perusal during those rare moments of tranquillity when both medical doctor and social caller took it upon themselves, as they were bounden upon to do so, to turn their attention to private concerns other than those concerning the sufferer of malaria. That gave him the benefit to give a consideration to his own very private concerns.
Such affairs, especially in the case of the notebook, which developed from the number of entries its keeper made on a daily basis, involved the young man’s careful observation of the etiquette of fellow invalids and their stream of visitors. They trooped in and out from the time-late-afternoon-when such visits are permissible to the hour-ten at night-when permission is mercifully withdrawn for the day.
Callers liked to sit around and talk and eat and keen and receive and return greetings on behalf of the infirm, as well as keep a mental register recording the names of all those whose failure to stop by would help to fuel the incessant talk within the walls of that refuge of the sick. Back at home, truants would face the consternation of the mindful, supposing the sick man or woman manages to regain his or her health, or recrimination, supposing the sickness ends in irreparable loss. The latter incidence would attract copious explanations and apologies from the person at fault. He would be upbraided at best as a wrongdoer and at worst a lunatic, who should not be thought of as capable of behaving any better than a child. Rehabilitation, which would be dependent on the restoration of respectability, would best be achieved on the initiative of the wrongdoer. Making peace at the instance of a second party would not allay suspicion in the minds of the faultfinders. These people-
“What are you writing?”
Shocked and greatly disappointed, the young man jerked his head up from his notebook and stared in the direction of the query. It had sounded much louder than the decibel level that the background noise of the hospital ward had proved itself as capable of ascending.
A ten-year-old boy stood before him-the invalid whose bad leg had been operated upon some weeks before Ahmad’s admission. His knee was still swaddled in thick bandages. That prevented Muhammad from walking normally and forced the primary school pupil to pull the leg stiffly along. The dressing was newly done that morning. It looked starkly white against the dull cream of the utterly cheap hospital clothing, of a jumper and a pair of shorts that the inquirer stood up in.
“I am writing a newspaper article.”
So the boy had succeeded in the end. He had been showing signs that he wanted to talk to Ahmad but had lacked the courage to do so. Instead, he had followed him around with his eyes. He bided his time by conversing with fellow patients on either sides of his bed and with nurses, who, it appeared to the journalist, had become very familiar with the young boy, such that they received endless visits from him in their tiny office, where they kept drug-allocation records. The general disturbance of the ward, of the stream of noise between one visiting hour to the next-Ahmad could contend with distraction issuing from the background but he now had to come to terms with this new addition-insofar as doing so would not mike his writing suffer.
The offer of an apple failed woefully to keep the disruptor at hay. The offer or the offering succeeded instead as the stratagem for him to cultivate a friendship with the giver. In civil terms he could not bring it upon himself, the fervent wish to keep scribbling notwithstanding, to push away the hand that had made the overtures for companionship. If the fruit, which Muhammad enjoyed so much that he gobbled it up, the relationship could prove to be a lasting one: there was much more of the titbit to be had. But if the offering and especially from the manner of the expression of gratitude, then Ahmad should expect the development of a relationship so close as to lead the boy, who should be thought of as capable of it, to tag along whenever he saw the journalist about to seize that rare opportunity to slip away from the hubbub of a ward and record his recollections of the day under the cool shade of a tree.
The boy, as it turned out, proved to be a tag-along. He dropped snippets of information, childish talk-banter meant to strengthen the bonds of a new friendship. Ahmad wondered whether he could use that as “material” provided by a minor his scant knowledge of whose illness might not provide the interesting details that would unquestionably be worthy of inclusion in a series of articles on the healthcare delivery system of Kano hospitals.
There was the great worry too that the sick boy, useful as he could turn out to be, might after all have nothing much to offer other than the mundane mannerisms of a child which Ahmad, who had numerous nephews and nieces, was very knowledgeable about.
There was also the greater worry that what material the boy had to offer might not be germane to the plans that the journalist had already drawn up to focus attention on Rakiya’s poems.
But there was the far greater worry that the sick boy, who was needy of rest to help him achieve a speedy recovery, could be thwarted from resuming his education following his recovery from the fracture of the bone that had led to the postponement of his schooling.
The journalist soon saw the virtue to let the force of circumstance, which could have been responsible for their chance encounter, to take its course and chart the way for him to follow. Thus, as with minors at home, so with this minor of the hospital ward: Ahmad decided to tolerate the boy and allow him his whims and caprices, his flights of fancy, but all the same begin the covert process of disengagement until such a time when the breakage of their impromptu relationship would not leave any traces of ill feelings on the part of the boy.
Kamal lives and writes from the ruburban Ungogo of Kano. 08065438300 [email protected]