Today I missed the deadline for the Fish one page story prize that I had fully intended to enter.
I could blame it on the essay I was struggling to finish for college (submitted sweatily a full six minutes before the deadline this evening), I could blame it on the fact that the girlfriend submitted something much better than I could possibly come up with, I could blame it on my cripping Football Manager addiction. Mostly, though, I think the problem was that I never actually wrote a story of any kind.I wrote nothing. Nothing at all. Not even a germ of an idea. Long have I harboured thoughts of making a living of some description out of writing. But, by my reckoning, in the last seven years I have written maybe four or five things that could in any way count as a story. Not quite Stephen King, then. It might be because I get horribly embarrassed by committing awful things to page or screen, even if I'm the only one who ever reads them. I'm generally the only one who ever reads them.
I have certain standards when it comes to blogging, but I do tend to be far less pernickety as, even if I think I've posted the greatest load of offal this side of Offaly, I can still be persuaded by one or two encouraging comments left by kind people that what I've done is fine. It often isn't, but I'm slowly learning that that's really not all that important. When I do write something I'm pleased with, usually on paper first, I sit and jiggle my legs around uncontrollably and swiftly develop a hazy cloud of smug around my head. It is, quite possibly, far more excruciating in retrospect than when I just have to suck up the unpleasantness of reading over something so monumentally awful it makes me want to burn all the paper in the world.
So, without further ramblings, and with only the slightest of leg-jigglings, I'm now publishing something I wrote specifically for the Homepages book, published last December. Plenty of you will have bought copies of the book already and may have read it, but some of you won't have. Thanks to the work of Catherine many of us who aspire to be published authors have managed to be just that, at least once.
He's small and he's beautiful and he's bright as a button. He's curious about my white skin and my oddly straight hair so he clambers onto my lap, where I happily receive him. "Huyu ni nani?", I ask, hoping my rather blunt Swahili for "Who are you?" sounds friendly rather than interrogative. "Ema", he replies quickly, whilst exploring the theory he'd heard about white people being perfectly agreeable to small thumbs being placed in their eyes. he launches into a long stream of consciousness which I don't understand, but which i take to be indicative of great wisdom on his part. "You're so wise Baxter, you're like a mini-Buddha" I say, quoting Ron Burgundy's heartfelt tribute to his dog without even realising I'd done it. 'Baxter' sticks from then on, at least for me and any other volunteers whose sense of humour causes them no qualms about nicknaming a small Tanzanian child after a fictional dog.
"How old is he?" I ask a passing mama, off to do some real work. "Emanuel?" She thinks for a moment. "He is maybe two and a half or three. The people in the village, they found him in a bush so we do not know where he was born. the think his parents died from the sickness." The Sickness rarely gets its proper name in these parts, many people will even look away in distaste if you use its local name, Ukimwi. "Is he sick, too?" I ask nervously, clutching this glowingly healthy-looking child a little closer. "No, we do not think so.It is good because then it is allowed for him to share cups and bowls with the other children.
Small crumbs, Baxter, small crumbs.
It transpires that Baxter has an incredible head for names, and can tell you who any one of the 50-odd other orphans is. His roguish good looks and affectionate nature mean I'm far from the only one to fall for his charms. We bicker, with tongues far less firmly planted in our cheeks than they ought to be, over who he likes best. Baxter and I are having our daily chinwag one morning when another child wanders over, craving some attention. Baxter swats a small hand at him and scolds "Mzungu wangu!", wrapping his arms around my leg. I double over with laughter and kiss his little shaved head. "What does that mean?" asks another mzungu.
I grin smugly. "My white guy" I say, pleased as punch at the one-upmanship this allows me, pleased that I understood, pleased that he's used the word 'wangu', which I understand to be the more intimate form of 'my', often reserved for family. Whether or not Baxter is aware of these linguistic subtleties is an entirely moot point, in my view.
It is suggested to me that I look into adopting him. Insanely, this doesn't seem like an insane idea. So I do so, tentatively. It's a non-runner. The Irish government has a very select list of countries you are allowed to adopt from, and Tanzania is not on it. Even if it was, these orphans are not registered for adoption, as it's seen as leaving children open to be adopted for servitude or paedophilia. in the days leading up to our exodus from Tanzania Baxter can sense that there is something up. He cries and gets clingier. On my final day I take him in my arms for a chat. "Baxter", I say "How did anyone leave someone so handsome as you in a bush?" He gurgles some profound pearls. "It's alright though, they found they found Moses in a bunch of reeds and he turned out OK. Ninakupenda wewe, kwaheri."
He looks at me and agitates slightly.
"Chakula", he says.
Yes Baxter, you go get some food.
I leave him, smiling contentedly with face covered in snot and sticky rice, and crumple my long way home.