I had slept with the bike, as usual. I woke to the swish of Pia sweeping the compound and to the honking of the cranes as they took off from their roost. I sat up and rubbed my sore eyes. A sound was missing. I emerged from the thatched shelter as the sun lit up the trees on the hill. Pia paused from her work and turned towards me, hands on hips. I rubbed my eyes again. My big sister, standing against the dawn, was showing signs of becoming a woman.
“She is sick,” said Pia.
“Grandmother. She has a fever.”
There was a cry. Pia went into the hut and emerged with Glory on her hip, shushing her so as not to wake Grandmother.
“Here, take her, I have to fetch water,” said Pia, dumping Glory in my arms and picking up the yellow plastic jerry cans in the same movement.
She disappeared down the path to the stream. Glory struggled against my ribs and wailed. I went to find what was left of yesterday’s porridge to stave off Glory’s hunger.
When Pia returned, she found us sitting on the ground, Glory batting at the bike’s pedals while I polished the wheels. It was beautiful. The frame was black, the saddle was black, the tyres were black, the rims shone silver in the strengthening light. He had really cared for it. I was doing the same; until that time when all would be well.
“He will not come back,” Pia said, easing her loads into the shade, reading my thoughts.
“He said he would,” I replied.
There was a moan from the hut. Pia poured some water into a plastic mug and took it into Grandmother. When Pia came out again, Glory and I were standing in front of the low pile of earth, paying our respects.
“She will not come back either,” sighed Pia, looking around for anything that she could use to rekindle the fire.
“I will go and get medicine,” I said.
“On the bike,” I replied.
“You cannot ride it.”
“You said he was not coming back. I am big enough now.”
I left Glory playing with the dead flowers and wheeled the bike towards the path. Glory turned and chuckled at the sparkling of the spokes. The handlebars were nearly as high as my head. The bike wobbled, and leaned against me like a drunk. I could ride it. I would ride it.
“How will you pay for the medicine, Bwana Cyclist?” Pia asked.
I looked around the compound. The papayas and bananas were not ready for market. In any case, we had to eat something. I looked back at the bike.
“I will sell the bell.”
“I wish you luck,” Pia shrugged, “now I have work to do. Grandmother will need ten tablets. Make sure you come back.”
I wheeled the bike to the tree stump so that I could mount it. There was no way that I could sit on the saddle and reach the pedals at the same time. I took off what was left of my shirt and rolled it up. I needed something to save my balls from the crossbar.
The track to the village snaked downhill, past coffee, bananas, maize and beans. I was not strong enough to work the brakes. I rang the bell. My thumb ached. The bike bumped ever faster, jerking down the rutted lane like a spirit dancer at harvest time. The channels gouged out by the October rains were the worst bits. I tried to protect myself by standing on the pedals and tensing my legs, but it didn’t always work. The cool breeze on my face did not make up for the pain between my legs or the hyena laughs of the women as I clattered past them.
A pair of horns as big as tusks swung towards my face. I leapt off the bike and rolled into a ditch, somehow missing the cow and the old man following it, who cursed me for my foolishness. The bike was not hurt.
By the time I reached the village, the bruises and cuts on my legs and side were less painful than the drumming in my head. I stood in the shade of the medicine woman’s stall, the bike supporting my aching body. After we had exchanged the usual greetings, I started on my business.
“Please Madame, I need ten tablets for malaria, for my Grandmother.”
“Is she very sick?”
“She is very sick, Madame, but I have no money.”
“This is a problem for me.”
“It is a problem, Madame, for Grandmother.”
“Do not try and be clever boy. Do you think I can give them away?”
“No Madame.” I leant the bike against a mango tree and sat down in its shade, my arm around the frame. I could try to trade the bell later. I did not mean to fall asleep.
A shoe nudged me. It was a polished black shoe. I sat up quickly. Above the shoe was a white robe. I followed the delicate pattern of crosses woven on the dazzling cloth. They led to a large face bearing a broad smile to match the huge body. He could have been an angel, but it was Pastor Amos.
“How are you, little cyclist?” he enquired.
“I hear that grandmother is sick.”
“So Pia is there all alone, looking after grandmother and the baby?” “Yes.”
“This is not good. There is too much trouble in your family.”
“It is true, Pastor Amos.”
“Pia is a good girl, isn’t she?”
“And you have been a good boy?”
“It is as you say, Pastor Amos.”
He brought out his purse from the white folds and gave me a new one thousand shilling note. I handled the paper with wonder. I pressed the smoothness against my cheek. I looked at the pictures. I held it up to the sky. He smiled down at me.
“There you are little cyclist, that is enough for the tablets for your
Grandmother and a soda for you. You will need strength to get back up the hill.”
I thanked Pastor Amos and waved as he set off on his motorbike. It was a smart blue trail bike, 250cc, with two mirrors that flashed in the sun. A cloud of red dust chased him up the hill. I bought the tablets from the medicine woman, who counted them carefully into a scrap of paper and screwed it into a tiny package for me.
“There you are young man, God has smiled on you today,”
“Yes, Madame, thank you.”
I wheeled the bike across to the shop and chose a cold ‘Fanta’. I sat on the cool concrete step in the shade and enjoyed every drop. The last time I had a soda was when Dad had taken me to celebrate the birth of Glory. It was just the two of us. I was happy to be part of his pride.
This time I did not spend long with my drink. The sun was at its hottest. I soaked my shirt in water from a ditch, covered my head with it and started pushing. I met nobody on the track back to our place. Everything – the birds, the trees, even the crickets had gone to sleep in the heat. Everything, that is, except the flies which buzzed around my eyes and mouth. I could not swat them away as I needed both hands to push up the endless hill. I tried to work out if there was any part of me that was not hurting. After a while I stopped thinking and just leaned into the handlebars. The clicking of the back wheel gave me a rhythm, encouraging one foot to follow the other. I had stopped looking at anything except the bit of track ahead of the front wheel. A bright light flashed across my face. It came from the mirror of a blue motorbike, half-hidden in a weed-infested banana plantation. I recognised the boulder on the other side. This was our path.
I straightened myself up and put the shirt back on. I felt Grandmother’s tablets safe in my pocket. I stood on the rock and mounted the bike.
Pia was going to see this. My legs somehow found the strength to push the pedals round. I wobbled over the last few bumps into the compound.
Grandmother was sitting in the shade with Glory on her lap. Our three cups stood on the small table. The table was covered with Grandmother’s best cloth, the one with embroidered edges. The ‘Blue Band’ tub, where we kept the sugar, stood next to the cups. The metal spoon rested on our saucer.
Glory whimpered. Grandmother sagged against the wall of the hut, her right arm draped over Glory. Grandmother’s eyes were wide open, as if she had seen a vision. Her mouth moved but made no sound, she tried to lift her free arm towards me. There was a distant scream; a scream that stopped before its time.
I stood on the pedals and the bike lurched forwards along the path. I stood on them again and hurtled downwards. Far below me was a big man, holding Pia’s arm with one hand, clamping her mouth with the other, pushing her against a tree. Pia was struggling and kicking, but the man was too strong. As the bike rattled closer, I could see that he was laughing. The man turned and started to move towards me. He let go of Pia. The bike hit a rock and took off. The front wheel hit him on the chest. He crashed backwards. His skull cracked on the trunk of the tree. I was thrown sideways into a thorn bush. Pia helped me out. The bike was a wreck, its front wheel bent double, the forks splayed apart.
The man lay untidily on the edge of the path, dark blood oozing from his mouth and ear, a dusty tyre print slashed across his chest. A shoe lay on the other side of the path. A ray of sunlight picked out the pattern of crosses on the edge of the shining white material thrown against his neck. The rest of his robe twisted round his body, revealing more than it should. I gave the tablets to Pia who hugged me and tried to help me up the hill. I pushed her away. I told her to go to Grandmother.
I turned and looked at him. A big blue fly was exploring his mouth. A line of red ants were starting to thread their way through the forest of hair on his thigh. I turned away and threw up, orange Fanta froth staining the grass on the side of the path. When I had stopped shaking, I hauled the bike back up the hill to its shelter. Pia brought me water. I sat next to Grandmother against the wall.
That was when I started to cry. I did not cry for a long time. Glory joined in, so we all took turns to calm her down again. The sun was starting to sink across the valley.
“We should tell someone,” said Pia.
“We will tell the elders,” said Grandmother, “they will know what to do.”
“Will they call the police from the town?” I asked.
“Perhaps,” replied Grandmother, “Pia was not the first one. The elders will know what to do.”
“I need to fetch water,” said Pia, looking towards the valley path. Her body quivered like a leaf in the evening breeze. She looked at me.
“I will come with you, my sister,” I said.
“Thank you, my brother.”
“We will go the long way round.”
Three cranes honked their way back up the valley, I could hear the slow flap of their wings as they floated past us to their tree. Pia handed me a jerry can. I held her hand.
© David Cundall