by Muhammad Khurram Salim
He looked wistfully at them as they gave out the aid, talking twenty to the dozen. What they were saying was a mystery to him. Aadhin stood in his faded shorts and looked as cute as any child could, all of seven years old and with a face like an angel’s. The day was dry, the sky featureless and he did not see the colourful birds that usually amused him. He had a bowl in his hand, one that his mother Taalea had given him, so he could get bread and fruit, maybe some milk, from the aid distributors from some foreign land. He looked at them from afar, as some dust blew past his face, and in the distance the sun seemed to dilute all of the skyline in a white heat.
‘I have no bread,’ he thought and felt downcast. He imagined that they were talking about giving him bread, like they were giving to others. There were big chunks of loaf he could see, and they looked more than appealing. He’d eaten one or two like those, not too long ago. When his mum had given him that and some cheese. It had been an enjoyable meal. He sometimes went hungry, no meal in the daytime, when the people seemed happy to lunch or snack. They always looked so happy, their faces radiant with satisfaction at eating a delicious dish or two. They had chicken with sauce and soups that had such heavenly flavour. Aadhin dreamt of eating those kinds of food. The kind they sold at big restaurants.
‘How can I get bread?’ the thought passed through his mind. ‘Will they give me? Maybe they will.’ Thoughts of being rejected crossed his mind. A few dusty crows sought scraps not too far away, hopping on the ground and seeking out the edibles they needed. His lips felt dry, he dreamt of vanilla ice-cream, something he’d never had. All his friends kept telling him that it had a heavenly taste. ‘How can I feed my belly with bread? I want to give my mum lots of bread. Will they give me lots? I have to go and get bread. I have to go there today. I can go quick. I can look nice asking them to give. They might have lots. I need bread. Mum said we need bread.’
He crossed a stretch of town ground, over sand and broken concrete, feeling hopeful, as others picked up foodstuff, from the aid workers’ stalls, a few yards ahead of him. Two teenagers and a boy went past, after taking vegetables and rice from the aid workers by their tent, under a purple canopy. Aadhin was soon there, in a queue, waiting to be paid attention to. The minutes passed and he summoned patience as the queue moved forward crawlingly. The heat was unrelenting and imposed itself on all that were there, a creeper that tightened its grip round throats and waists. ‘I’m going to put some extra bread under my bed,’ thought a dreamy Aadhin. ‘I’ll get bread, big loaves. Mum likes big loaves. I’ll have it with fish. And with milk. There’s a taste of bread in my mouth. Sweet. Salty.’
The three aid workers who were giving out the bread and milk seemed friendly and Aadhin smiled; he knew they would be nice to him, like the shop-owners in his local market. But, he told himself, these people are not the same as the sellers at the market. His mum would point that out to him, he told himself. He was almost close to the aid workers when two soldiers gruffly took him to one side. ‘What do you want?’ said one of the rough-looking soldiers, fiery anger in his eyes. ‘What’s the matter? Tell me what you want.’ Aadhin didn’t understand and stood holding out his bowl a little. ‘You better talk boy, or I’ll kick you away from here,’ said the other gruff soldier and this one had a red and sweaty face. ‘Speak English, yeah? Why can’t ya speak English?’ Aadhin stood silent and the soldiers muttered criticism of him between themselves. ‘Look at him, the bloody urchin.’ ‘What a bastard, look at his face.’ ‘Let’s kick this one out.’ They assumed he didn’t understand their English, and, matter of fact, he didn’t.
Aadhin was turned away by the soldiers and went back home sighing, without any bread. Taalea held him close and he cried a bit, as he was feeling lost and hungry. ‘Why did they not give me?’ he complained to his consoling mum. ‘They gave everyone but not me.’ ‘They were rude,’ said his mother wiping away his tears. ‘They should have been nice to you. You’d gone for bread, not money but they didn’t like you. We love you, Aadhan. Don’t worry. Allah will provide us.’ Aadhan nodded, feeling consoled.
Later, he sat on an old mat on their stone floor, with his cousin Jaami and his brother Waadi, as Taalea served them some stale bread and honey. ‘They didn’t serve you because you don’t know English,’ said his older cousin, chewing some hard bread. ‘You have to learn, Aadhin. You can learn some words from Waadi. He knows English, because they teach him that at his school.’ Aadhi thought about it and assented. ‘Yes, I must learn,’ he said licking honey, a tiny amount. ‘Then they will give me bread. They will like me.’
Later, late night, he sat by the light of a lamp and read some English, instructed by Waadi. The lamp threw shadows on the floor, and they were friends cheering Aadhin on. ‘Shadows do not talk,’ Aadhin reflected and repeated the word ‘bread’ in his head. ‘But these ones say so many nice things to me. They say I must learn and fetch the bread. I will do it.’ Waadi taught his little brother words and expressions and felt that Aadhin was making progress. ‘You will be precise tomorrow, Aadhin,’ said Waadi forcefully, then yawned as it was his bedtime. ‘I’ll be at school rooting for you, in my mind.’ Aadhin smiled, and he was all optimism about getting home lots to eat.
Aadhin got up early and got set to go to the aid workers. ‘They go there at 9,’ he thought getting ready, delayed by having to feed some rice grains to sparrows and pigeons. That was what a neighbour always did every morning and Aadhin helped her ritualistically. Aadhin saw the time in a neighbour’s clock, and it was 9.15 already. He walked quickly with his bowl and, as he moved his warm feet, he kept saying and practicing ‘give bread please’ and ‘excuse, me need bread.’ He turned a corner and walked through the dusty road. ‘Give bread please’ ‘excuse, me need bread’ ‘Give bread …’ He hoped the gruff soldiers would not be there or would be tied to a big tree.
He walked some steps more, nearly there, then noticed something unexpected. The aid workers had gone, their tent and canopy missing. Aadhin stood in his faded shorts and realized he would not get the bread the aid workers had had. A large bird of prey flew past metres above his head, the clouds looked unnaturally bright and distant, and a pang of hunger bothered him. No bread. A tear formed in his eye, he sighed, and, in his eyes, there was a sadness of defeat, along with the shadow of a dark cloud.