The Yellow Balloon
Bekalu blinked at the ceiling. The single bare light-bulb hung, as usual, in be-cobwebbed splendour. But something was different…
Of course! Today was Timket, the day of the baptism of Jesus! Today was a special day. A king among days.
He slipped quietly out of bed and dressed with careless haste, before hurrying into the toddlers’ room. Twelve tousled forms in varying degrees of dampness peered at him from their cots. He made his way to the fourth on the left, and scooped the bed-warm infant into his arms.
‘Happy Timket, little Eyob,’ he murmured into the dark curls. No-one knew if Eyob really was his brother, but they’d been found on the steps of the orphanage on the same day, eighteen months before. The baby still had his umbilical cord attached. Four year old Bekalu had been too shocked to speak for four months.
Wayzaru Ayana bustled into the room, a huge bundle of clothes impeding her vision. She almost fell over the pair before she saw them.
‘Bekalu!’ what are you doing here?’
He grinned up into her wrinkled face. ‘Happy Timket, Wayzaru Ayana!’
‘And a happy Timket to you, too.’ Her fierce expression softened. ‘Now run along. I’ve got twelve nappies to change and twelve doses of medicine to give. You can see Eyob later.’ She took the child from his arms. ‘And change into your Timket sash,’ she called after his retreating back.
Bekalu scurried back to his dormitory. He’d forgotten about the Timket clothes he’d laid at the foot of his bed the previous night. The other boys were now awake and dressing in their finery, admiring each other with broad white grins splitting their brown faces. Bekalu pulled on the white suit and the bright striped sash, stopping only to wrestle his trousers from one of the other boys, who had seized the opportunity to dance around the room with them on his head.
Breakfast was particularly delicious, and it was with a delightful sense of satisfaction and well-being that Bekalu skipped into the courtyard an hour later, his face washed and his tablets swallowed. An informal game of basketball was in progress; the single rusting ring being bombarded with enthusiastic shots from some of the older boys.
It was a considerably dustier Bekalu who observed the courtyard gates opening a little after lunch. In walked a woman with the palest skin he had ever seen. Her hair hung in sick-looking yellow curls, and even her eyes looked pale and washed-out. He wondered if she had some terrible illness, and shrank away from her.
His fears soon left him, however, when she opened a large bag and began handing out the contents. She lifted a floppy red object to her mouth, blew… and he gasped as a red ball appeared from nowhere. He couldn’t take his eyes off it as it bobbed around the courtyard. It seemed to float like a cloud, to laugh like a baby.
He felt a tap on his shoulder. The pale woman was holding out two of the floppy things - one blue, one yellow.
For me? He gestured.
For you, she indicated.
Then she pulled out a small packet of sweets and pressed it into his hand. He stared at her, unable to believe what she seemed to be saying. How could anyone possess such good fortune? She smiled and blew them up for him, her curls bobbing joyfully. He ran off quickly before she changed her mind, chasing the coloured balls around the courtyard and giggling with unadulterated joy.
That evening, Bekalu crept into the toddlers’ room, which was dark and quiet, except for the soft exhalations from a dozen pairs of tiny lungs.
Eyob hardly stirred as Bekalu lifted him out of his cot. Today was a special day, and tomorrow was a long way off. Tonight he wanted to share his joy.
Half an hour later, Wayzaru Ayana found her missing baby, nestled in the bed of his older brother. Bekalu, too, was asleep, with one hand curled around the infant’s body, the other clutching a punctured yellow balloon.
Timket is celebrated in Ethiopia on 19th January, in preference to Christmas.
Tens of thousands of HIV positive children are in orphanages across Africa. Many people consider them to be unadoptable.
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