Story By Nissi Adeola
The four children squealed playfully, all struggling to spread their own portion of the large outdoor mat as the evening darkness settled upon the earth. Gentle humid breeze blew, just like it did every evening. Playful laughters rang out as the siblings tugged at the fluffy dark brown mat. Little Jerry, however, abandoned the quest and ran about amongst his three elderly ones, basking in the evening glow. Timothy gave the mat a final tug and smiled to himself, knowing what was coming next.
“I am lying in the middle” Loveth yelled.
“No” Tessy countered. “You were at the middle yesterday; I would lay in the middle today.”
“No! The first person to get here always stays at the middle and that’s me” she pointed her slim second finger at her chest with her left brow raised in a saucy manner. Timothy noticed the stubborn jutting out of her chin and almost laughed. Being the first born, Timothy had the loveliest siblings. Loveth, his impossibly stubborn immediate sister was just four years younger than his twelve years old self, followed by Tessy, the partially quiet, yet partially talkative one, then the ever bouncing last born – Jerry. They were the loveliest siblings, closer than most and forging an unbreakable bond that went beyond blood ties, despite their occasional fights – one of which always came up during nights like these.
“I want to stay at the middle?” Tessy whined, pulling her face up to a pout.
“Me too” Jerry cooed.
Loveth put her small hands on her hips, a tell-tale sign that they were in for a serious round of argument if Timothy didn’t intervene. Loveth for one, has never been used to losing.
“C’mon now, Love” he called, using the pet name he knew always got her doing his bidding. “Can’t you just allow Tessy for tonight? You know only kids like cuddling between two people. You are not a kid, are you?” he raised his brow.
Loveth glanced at him and seemed to be battling with herself. Of course, Timothy knew that she would always give in using that argument, because Loveth would never admit to being a ‘kid’. Her face broke into a plastic smile.
“Well, you can have the middle, baby. I don’t really like it anyways, I can’t roll around when I am stuck between two bodies” she shrugged. Tessy’s face pulled to a frown like she hadn’t thought of that.
Timothy shook his head with a smiled. Trust Loveth to turn the tables anytime she isn’t pleased.
“Are you children done arguing already?” Bola called from behind, as she and George watched the exchange between their children with a wry smile on their faces. They always had this session every night.
Tessy and Jerry pranced about on the mat happily as their parents came to take their positions on the mat. They always looked forward to this time every day. It was always the family’s favourite time of the day – lying outside after dinner, talking and laughing happily as they together watched the changing clouds and sparkling stars.
Finally settled, the four children lay knitted together, loving the company of one another above all else. They cuddled closer as darkness blanketed around them – Tessy obviously winning her spot in the middle along with Jerry, with their heads closely placed on the mat, looking up at the dark sky above in companionable silence.
“I should have brought a wrapper” Loveth said as she shivered from the cool evening breeze. Maybe she shouldn’t have let her middle spot go so easily, she mused.
Tessy frowned at the sky. “T. boy” she called and Timothy turned his head towards her in response. “Why is there no star in the sky today?” she asked innocently.
Timothy stared at the lone half-moon ahead, trying to rationalize his answer. “They are there Tess, you just can’t see them.” He said.
Loveth frowned. “Then where are they, Tim?” she also looked at the sky, hating the vacant state of it.
“They are very far away, hiding behind the clouds”
“Stars play hide and seek too?” Tessy asked, amused.
Timothy smiled and playfully poked Tessy. “Maybe”
“Or maybe they are all dead” Loveth suddenly declared. Timothy and Tessy turned stunned eyes at her. “My teacher told me that when a child is born, a star is born, just like the Jesus story” she explained. “It means that if a person dies, a star also dies, right?”
Timothy stared at his eight years old sister carefully. Loveth might be stubborn and daring but one thing was certain – her small head had the capacity to think far and wild, way beyond the normal imaginations of a child.
“You are right, of course. But if all the stars are dead, it means everyone on earth is dead, and that is not possible because we are still alive, aren’t we?”
Loveth grinned mischievously. “Maybe we don’t exist; maybe we are ghosts.”
Tessy’s eyes widened with fright. “We are not ghosts, right?” she asked Timothy in fright.
“Of course not” Timothy shot Loveth a warning glance. “Stop scaring Tessy and Jerry, they won’t be able to sleep”
Loveth smiled and raised her eyes to the sky but her smile soon vanished when there was no star up there to wink back at her. She rubbed her arms gently, driving away the chill that brought goosepimples to her skin. “I hate it when there are no stars” she said drily.
“Me too” Tessy seconded.
Bola sat on the mat, not far from her children, with George’s head on her laps as he sprawled freely on the mat. She smiled at the sight of her children, discussing gently. Something was different about tonight, she could feel it. Even the restless Jerry seemed to be lying quietly tonight, for the first time. It was like everyone wanted to be calm enough to take in the peaceful contentment of the moment. Despite the fact that they had to struggle day in day out to make ends meet, it was still worth it. They were still one closely united happy family, contented with the little they had.
“They look happy” she commented softly, playing with the hair on her husband’s head, the way he liked it.
“They are happy” George answered.
She shook her head in amazement as her thoughts and gaze strayed slightly from her children. “You think we would have been this happy and content if we were rich?” she asked.
George shrugged. “I don’t know. We might get too caught up in our wealth that we forget about one another” he smiled up at her. “God doesn’t make mistakes”
“Of course not” she answered. Over the years, she had gotten over the extreme handsomeness of her husband, but as she gazed down at his smiling face, she was struck once again with womanly pride. At thirty six, her husband was even more handsome than she remembered, it was no wonder that her children were so beautiful, all taking on the beauty of their father.
Bola ran her fingers through her husband’s hair as her eyes strayed to the dark starless sky above. Thoughts of the immediate needs in the house invaded her thoughts. She sighed. “I don’t have enough money with me for the children’s feeding tomorrow” she muttered, thinking about the empty food supplies.
Timothy needed to get his textbooks, especially now that he was about to seat for his Junior WAEC. The foodstuff was already exhausted, not to mention the new uniforms she needed to get for the two girls. There was always one thing or the other needing money; she was already used to having wants and needs. Her eyes scanned the sky seeking the nightly stars, knowing that the sight of blinking stars would bring hope of a brighter tomorrow. There was none. No star tonight! Why did that unsettle her so much? The usual hope she always got from the tiny beautiful stars was nowhere to be found, leaving her with a tiny level of fear eating at her insides.
George sighed into the air. “All would be well” he breathed.
Bola nodded and opened her mouth to respond when all of a sudden, a loud shrill hit her ears.
“Ahhhhh!!!” Timothy’s voice rang out.
And then it began!
“Tim?” Bola jumped out of her sitting position in a flash, rushing to her first son. George was right at her heels, reaching Timothy in a flash. Timothy held his chest as pain engulfed his face.
“What is it, T.boy?” Bola rushed as she removed his hand to stare in confusion at his chest. “What is wrong?”
Timothy gripped his chest, groaning in excruciating pain. “My… chest” he managed.
“Are you okay, Tim?” Loveth asked in agitation as George sat on the floor and moved Timothy gently to lean against him.
“Your chest? What… what’s wrong Tim? Tim?” Bola queried, shaking fearfully, looking at the pain stricken face of her son, as his siblings gathered around him.
“Timothy” George called albeit calmly. “Is your chest hurting?” Timothy nodded grimly.
“Go and get balm, Loveth” Bola yelled. “Hurry”
Loveth sprung into action, fleeing into the house without a backwards glance. Tessy and Jerry stood around, their faces askew with fear and worry. “Sorry Tim” Tessy murmured.
George rubbed Timothy’s chest gently, looking at his face constantly while Bola talked on, trying to sooth Timothy. Loveth rushed out of the house with the balm and Bola snatched it instantly, opening it for George.
“Sorry T.boy” Loveth muttered, hopping anxiously from one foot to the other as her father massaged the balm into her brother’s chest, applying moderate pressure. Little by little, Timothy returned to normal, the pain gently oozing from his face.
“How is it now, Tim?” Bola asked hurriedly. “Do you feel better?”
Timothy tried to sit up but George held him still. “What do you feel now?” he asked.
Timothy blinked, frowning. “The pain is gone”
“Gone?” Bola murmured, frowning deeply.
“I… I only feel little discomfort but I don’t feel the pain again”
George paused for some seconds, then released Timothy to sit on his own as Bola examined her son carefully. “Are you sure?” George asked.
“Yes dad” he muttered. “I think the balm is very good”
Bola sighed in relief. “Thank God! You really scared me”
“And me” Loveth chipped, looking almost angry.
George released the breath he had unknowingly been holding. “You should start sleeping on your back instead of your chest; that’s probably the reason for the chest pain”
Bola shook her head like she couldn’t still wrap her head around what had just happened. “Let’s just go in, I’ll give you some drugs, then you go straight to sleep” Bola declared. Without wasting time, they rolled up the mat and walked inside. All seemed okay but Bola couldn’t shake off the nagging feeling that something was wrong. Very wrong!
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“Timothy” Bola called out as she pushed a tiny ankle socks over the tiny foot of her last child. “T. boy” she called playfully again when she got no answer.
“Yes mum” Timothy answered, his voice echoing out of the bedroom.
“Hurry up son, you are going to be late for school”. Sighing, she glanced at the wall clock. “Many times, I wonder if you remember that you are no longer in primary school”
Timothy laughed slightly from the room. “How can I? I have you to always remind me, mum” his voice was bright with laughter and Bola smiled, adjusting the collar of her lastborn’s uniform. She turned to inspect her two daughters and was satisfied with their dressing. The satisfaction of a mother shone in her bright eyes as she pushed the other socks on Jerry’s other foot. No one would see Bola and say she had been blessed with four priceless jewels. It always came as a big surprise to people whenever they heard that Timothy, Loveth, Tessy and Jerry had all come out of her womb. Her small stature and young youthful face could almost pass for that of a lady in her early twenties, thanks to the peaceful life and happy family that she had built with her husband – George.
Bola picked up the tiny shoes on the floor and placed them on her laps before hurriedly grabbing her purse. Immediately she opened her purse, she frowned, her spirit deflating. How can I spread this round these children? She wondered vaguely, shifting the content of her purse onto her slim palm. Eating the previous night had been tedious enough, and they had all shared the scrap they were able to gather. Now however, Bola wondered how she would explain to her children that their money for lunch would be cut short; the money they usually took wasn’t enough as it is and she knew that her husband also had nothing left with him.
She felt someone watching her and she raised her eyes to see her twelve years old son staring at her with a deep look of concern. With full bushy eyebrows which joined in an arch at the junction of his nose, Timothy – along with his siblings – was a perfect replica of his father. A mother couldn’t ask for a better son! Timothy was the best son any woman could ever pray to conceive; smart, helpful, loving and most of all, caring.
Bola saw the intense look of worry in her son’s eyes as he stared at her and she quickly put a smile on her face. “See the time” she rambled as she removed a few naira notes. She placed them in her son’s palm before he could protest.
“Use forty naira for your transport and manage the rest for you lunch. Ok?” she murmured.
“But…” he started. “But what of-”
“Don’t worry about your siblings” Bola cut in knowingly. “I would take care of it”
“But…” Timothy began again.
Bola frowned. “No buts young man, get going. You don’t want to be punished for lateness now, do you?” she asked sternly. “Get going” she said again, shooing him.
The mention of punishment definitely had its desired effects as Timothy grudgingly shrugged his schoolbag onto his back. “Okay ma”
She looked at him carefully again. “Are you sure you are okay? Your chest doesn’t hurt anymore?” she knew he had assured her but she wanted to be double sure. All night, she hardly caught a whim of sleep, as she constantly checked on Timothy. She had told to stay home but he had school tests to write and would hear none of it.
Timothy grinned. “I am very strong” he bent his arm into an arc, revealing imaginary muscles.
Bola smiled. “Okay, off you go” she said, brushing down Jerry’s hair. “Say goodbye to your brother” she whispered to Jerry.
“Bye T.boy” he muttered halfheartedly. He was always gloomy when he was hungry.
“Bye Jay” Timothy returned and made for the door. “Bye Lovey, Tessy” Timothy called aloud as he rushed off.
“Bye Tim” his younger ones chorused in unison from the room.
“Brother Tim” Bola corrected sternly, but as always, she was ignored. Despite all her efforts, she hadn’t been able to ingrain the ‘brother, sister’ thingy in her children.
“Come back early, T. boy” Loveth called after her brother.
“I will” he yelled back.
Bola smiled. Her children were so fond of each other; they have formed a close-knitted relationship that not all siblings possessed. George entered the room and Bola heaved a sigh of relief when she saw him holding some Naira notes in his hand. “I kept this for their feeding; it is all I have left” he explained and Bola was once more grateful to God. She might not have married the wealthiest husband but she had definitely married the best.
She quickly took the money and entrusted Loveth with the money for all her younger ones, since they were all in one school. “Now, you all should be careful in school, okay? No rough plays” she warned sternly and they all murmured their acknowledgements as they trodded out the door.
“Bye parents” they chorused fondly, like they always did.
“Bye children” Bola and George murmured with a smile.
“Be careful, okay?” Bola called at their retreating backs, staring at them until they disappeared from sight then she closed the door firmly. Bola smoothed her moist palms on the soft fabrics of her well-worn skirt as she let out a deep sigh. Her face was pulled up to a frown as her teeth bit into her lips. She knew without being told that they were in for compulsory fasting today, but she didn’t mind. As long as her children were not hungry, she could handle anything. That was not the cause of her distress.
George approached her, turning her to face him. “What’s wrong?”
“I… I have a bad feeling, George” she muttered worriedly. “Timothy said he is fine, I don’t think so”
George blinked, releasing the breath he had unconsciously been holding. The incident of the previous night had left him with a certain level of worry, but he wasn’t going to tell Bola that. He smiled gently. “Timothy is a strong boy, he takes after me” George grinned proudly, trying to put Bola’s mind at ease. “I’m sure it is just your paranoia at work; we prayed about it and I know God is in charge, uhn?” he kissed her forehead with a smile.
Bola swallowed and nodded with a dry smile. “Of course” she muttered. She truly wanted to believe George, but why did she still have the sickening feeling that something bad was about to happen?
To be continued