Thursday, 19 November 2015

Billy knows where babies come from.

"I know where babies come from," Billy told me smugly once we were alone. We were five years old and Billy was obviously quite proud to be in possession of such privileged information and was bursting to share it. At the same time he was clearly enjoying my presumed ignorance on the subject, and he knew that once he shared his insights he would no longer be superior to me, at least not on the subject of procreation: he decided to show off anyway.

"Do you know where they come out?" he continued when I offered no response. He took my silence as a cue to elaborate and he did so using words I'd never heard before so I was none the wiser, and I had no interest in knowing.

By the time Billy had exhausted all the obstetrical information he had gleaned from some unreliable source or other we had known each other all of five minutes. He had established himself as the boss and it wasn't only his worldly wisdom that set him apart; we were playing with his toy cars on his veranda at his house and he knew how dependant my family had suddenly become on his own.

Only an hour before the subject of childbirth had been broached by Billy, his mother had picked our family up at the end of a long and dirty train ride from Mozambique that had brought us to the conclusion of a much longer adventure. We'd never met this woman before and the train ride had been preceded by a six week boat ride from England, six weeks of howling gales and bored children whose parents were usually too sick to entertain them. Before that there had been tearful goodbyes in Ireland, and in my mind the details of the tumultuous process of transplanting our family from Ireland to Nyasaland became a composite impression of smells, colours, tastes, sounds and other sensations mixed together with heavy doses of anxiety, hunger, fear, vomiting, excitement and general befuddlement.

It was only a month or so before we left Belfast that with my younger brother I had been told that we were going to live in Africa; our first response was to jump up and down on our beds making what we thought were monkey noises. Later we learned what monkey really sounded like. I had sensed from the guarded whispers and knowing looks that passed between my parents over the previous weeks that something was wrong in the world, and this news explained most of it. Things had been odd, and all the oddness seemed to be linked back somehow to a man being shot on my uncle’s black and white TV while I was in the bath. The man who had been shot had shot another man and he was the president and his wife was called Jackie and that was really odd because my uncle was called Jackie too. Little did I know that for the next few years I was to perceive my life in that way, a confusing amalgam of threatening international events, the politics of a two-bit African country, passenger jets going missing over the ocean, climbing trees and learning to tell the time.

So being delivered into the cold drizzle of Africa was perhaps a bit like having to go through the process of childbirth all over again; I’m told my birth into Ireland had been unusually traumatic, and if Billy’s account was any way accurate the trauma was severe. Now it had happened again, and I had been born into Africa, a torturous process but with a pleasant conclusion.

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