If you asked Aliou what he wanted from life, he would know what to tell you. He would stand straight and say: “Sir, I want to go to university”. And he wouldn’t be lying. Not exactly.
When his uncles were in town, he would recite trigonometric theorems or the poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor. He would show them the stack of books he kept on a little table in the centre of the room he shared with his father. The room was bare, otherwise. Two pallet beds, a hard swept floor, a tiny framed photo of Aliou’s mother on the wall.
Aliou always made sure to collect new books to show his uncles, and read them too. Back-alley finds, rescued from bins and cardboard boxes, more than slightly foxed. Balzac, Dumas, a 19th century guide to Parisian haute-cuisine. He told his uncles he bought them at the flea market.
Every time, his uncles would say: “Here, Aliou, for your studies”, and thrust a few franc coins, sometimes a note, into his hand. Aliou would sometimes glance over at his father as he accepted their beneficence. His father would avoid his gaze.
Barrel-chested Uncle Babacar, a big shot at Banque Atlantique, always gave the most, plucked from a fat leather wallet. Lank, mustachioed Uncle Malik was generous too, sometimes. No one knew where he made his money, and the notes were always dirty and crumpled.
Uncle Fallou took the most interest in Aliou’s books. He always walked when he came to visit, gave Aliou his bus fare.
“What do you think Senghor means when he says he is the ‘locomotive with the well-oiled piston’?” Fallou said once.
Babacar and Malik had already listened through Aliou’s recital and moved on. They were sitting on Aliou’s bed, heads together, poring over the football results. The copper-nickel of a few coins was mixing with sweat in Aliou’s palm.
“What do you make of it, Aliou?” Fallou nudged him in the ribs.
Aliou chewed his lip. Poetry was a slippery thing. But he did know adults tended to think a certain way. He’d overheard conversations; Malik once asked his father why he wasn’t seeing any women. His father had shrugged, turned away. Later, Babacar muttered to Malik: “Something up with his manhood, brother?”
Aliou looked up at Fallou. “I think Senghor wants us to think he is a vigorous young man. But he isn’t, is he?”
Fallou threw back his head and laughed. “No Aliou, he is a dead ex-president. Not very vigorous at all!” He noticed Aliou wasn’t laughing, and patted the boy’s shoulder. “Nothing lasts forever, hey.”
Aliou nodded. He had felt for a moment as if the ground was tilting at a crazy angle, about to pitch him into a void where everyone he cared for would be gone, and he would be left alone, grasping at dry roots that would break off in his hand.
Then the sensation passed. His father was there, a few feet away, sitting on the bed opposite Babacar and Malik, craning to read the football results even though the light was failing and the newspaper was upside down for him.
Fallou dug a few coins from his pocket. “For your studies.” Winked.
Aliou weighed the metal in his palm, as Fallou went to sit with the others. He was disorientated, unnerved. Half of him wanted to cling to his father like a little boy. And yet the other half could feel new possibilities branching, racing, illuminating, like lightning on the distant horizon.
Every visit proceeded the same way. After assessing Aliou’s academic progress, the men would turn to the next item on the agenda: the crate of bottles they always brought with them. Aliou would take that as his chance. Grabbing a book as camouflage, he would slide out the door, into the warm evening, and he would be away, feet pounding the ochre streets of Bounkiling.
There was a tingling that lived at the back of his tongue, a sort of thick, thirsty feeling that water couldn’t quench, and this would propel his legs to the eastern edge of town, where the great, rutted, ruler-straight Trans-Gambia Highway bisected his world.
At the point where the town gave way to wind-blown squares of farmland, there perched a café with red plastic chairs. Aliou would run to the counter and slap down his money. The shopkeeper would laugh and turn to the chiller without needing to ask.
Aliou would sit on one of the wobbly chairs as the sun sank, tipping back the icy-sweet liquid and watching as shadows enveloped the trucks on the highway, headlights flaring as they bounced into the gathering dark. The bubbles prickled his tongue and shot up his nose.
But something had changed, this time. The movement of the trucks had taken on new meaning. He knew he had only to step out of his chair and strike up a conversation; help one of the drivers load sacks of grain onto the flatbed; climb into the passenger side of the cab. In minutes, he could be juddering eastwards into a new future. It was the same feeling as looking down at Bounkiling in miniature from the top of the minaret, toy cars glittering on the road, town split down the middle like a cocoa pod. Vertiginous.
The shopkeeper came to collect his empty bottle, and his mind flew back from the dusty road.
She wagged the bottle at him. “One more?”
A moment’s hesitation. He smiled, shook his head.
The sun was almost gone now, the sky filling with stars. The last of the day clung to the western horizon.
When his uncles asked him where he wanted to study, Aliou had always said ‘Dakar’, because anything further afield would have been like saying ‘the University of the Moon’. But watching the trucks press on into the night, towards the distant border, he thought to himself: “Why not the moon?”
Dan Hinge is a journalist based in London.