Boy And Oh Boy
Photograph by Guillaume Bonn, Story by Helen Young
We were twins then. Nuit rode my slipstream into the world bringing with him the dullest animal caw Grandma had ever heard. Abuelo, her husband, claimed that story as his own. He hadn’t been present at the birth, and neither had Mama, not really. She was already pressing what little life left to her out through weary, split lips to have noticed her second born was different to the first. ‘What about me? What sound did I make?’ I always asked. Abuelo let the question hang, as he always did at the end of his second-hand story.
‘You,’ he’d whisper. ‘You were as loud as a jaguar pup.’
Nuit, named by a Creole friend of Mama's whose own son drowned on a picnic, came into the world a full fifteen hours after me.
‘Must have been swimming in circles round that cord,’ Abuelo chuckled when he recalled it, passing his hand gently across the back of Nuit's neck as though undoing some of the wrong from then. Nuit's face always split into one of his silly, dumbo smiles – another of his un-twin-like traits. Nuit, my swimming partner in creation. I hated him but loved him too. Bled for him. Defended his honour in the dried up riverbed behind the school because it was my honour too.
‘No Nuit, don't!’ I'd say when he’d pass a grubby thumb through my tears after the fighting was done and we were alone again. Then, I'd have to punch him as well, not hard but enough so he'd have some tears of his own to cry over.
We often came home late from school. It was expected. Grandma had a job washing the neighbours’ sheets. Neighbours who weren't much richer than us. To balance the shame of this, Nuit drew mud civilizations across those fresh white plains, which meant the work had to be done twice over. Grandma had come at him fierce with the laundry tongs and promised me to take him somewhere else on wash nights.
Our accustomed route on wash days meant traversing the scrub land that was like a rash upon the island’s skin, parched and leaving us itching for the balm of the ocean. We were all dried up and half-crazy from walking when we finally hit the sea. All we could think of then was lubrication.
We found the abandoned hotel pool on one of Grandma’s wash days. Ignoring the standard ‘Keep Out’ signs, we passed crumbling gates to pitch deeper into the forgotten hotel complex that had been left to ruin itself slowly. Much like Martha who lived alone on the end of our street and took in gentlemen boarders. We crept past where I imagined the lobby might have been, taking a tunnel covered in split mosaic that had once resembled octopus tendrils and snapper shoals, now gathered at our feet like fish scales.
‘Pool!’ Nuit shouted when we emerged, in that dull way he had of being excited that no one recognised but me.
‘Wow,’ I breathed, letting the sound tumble out of me because it had taken my breath away too. In their desertion of the resort, the hotel owners had left behind a swimming pool as big as a whale. We rushed greedily to its edge and peered down, excited to be able to greet our mirror selves.
‘No water,’ Nuit said.
‘You’re wrong,’ I said, pleased that even here I could remind him of the order of things. ‘Boy, oh Boy!’ Abuelo used to shout when we got up to twin mischief. I’d interpreted this as, ‘Boy’ to mean me first, and Nuit my ‘Oh Boy!’ second.
‘Boy, oh boy,’ Nuit said now, in that way he had of reminding me my mind was really his.
‘Come on,’ I said, jumping down onto the cracked tile pit.
I took the shallow end in my stride, the patter of Nuit’s dull steps behind. We reached the deeper end where I’d seen the water, not shimming but dull and stinking. I thought back, trying to remember when the last monsoon had come, but couldn’t. Instead, I remembered how Miss Joseph, our teacher, had shown how you could taste whether the fruit on the tree was good or bad by bursting it open and sampling a little of its juice.
‘Taste it,’ I said.
Nuit bent down and reached his fingers, which resembled mine, into the drink. Something buzzed close to my ear and I snapped my hand against it. Nuit brought his hands out of the water but stopped his fingers before they reached his mouth. He looked at me, unsure. I wonder now if he had read my mind, seeing the fear I’d tried to keep hidden. He was always braver than me. He stuck three fingers in his mouth, making sure I saw that he’d licked them clean before pushing them back down into the water to scoop up a fistful of the rancid soup.
‘Fine,’ he said, swallowing.
Around us, the pool was losing itself to shadows one metre at a time. I squinted defiantly up at a sun intent on leaving the sky at the far end of the resort. Fronds of overgrown palm framed its descent perfectly – as though it were an image from a brochure long ago. Back home, the sheets would be dry.
‘Let’s go,’ I said.
On the walk back, Nuit was silent.
‘We’ll come back tomorrow,’ I said. ‘If you keep it to yourself.’
‘Tummy,’ he replied.
We reached the house and feasted on rice and beans. Nuit ate slowly. Nobody asked where we had been. I tried pretending we were dining like the people in the five star resort, but couldn’t, remembering the mosaic octopus on the wall with its missing tentacles.
‘Tummy,’ Nuit said again, looking at me.
‘Drink your water, Nuit,’ I said, registering the untouched glass of clear liquid before him.
‘What’s he eaten?’ Grandma asked.
‘Nothing,’ I squeaked.
‘Nothing,’ Nuit echoed, although his tone was braver than mine.
He looked at me again, the sweat beading on his brow that was the same as my brow. I shivered.
‘Tummy,’ he said again.
Helen Young is an author and digital editor. Her novel, Breakfast In Bogota is crowdfunding with Unbound now at unbound.com/books/breakfast-in-bogota/. Her debut, The May Queen, was published in 2016. Good Housekeeping termed it an 'unsettling, coming-of-age tale.' Stylist called her 'One to watch.' She is obsessed with questions of identity and geography – namely, the versions of ourselves we carry with us. @helenireneyoung
Guillaume Bonn is a lens based artist who was born in Madagascar, he currently divides his time between the African continent and Europe. He is the author of several books and film documentaries. @guillaumebonn