Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman?

Bruno Centomo
Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman?
A laugh a day keeps the doctor away! I yelled. And then You’ll die before your laughter does! The response came without hesitation. And I had the proof: A smile comes quickly to the face of a fool. It remained to be seen if I was merely ill-prepared or if the person who had answered me was a fool. So I tried again to get them to laugh, and said laughing without happiness is not true laughter. And it was then that everyone finally understood and fell quiet. Just in time, before my mother interrupted and said it was best to hush up and eat before it got cold, whilst there was still food on the plate. And so I think it’s possible to imagine this miserable and wretched scene as it was back then, and still is in many cases today. Maybe the knowledge and the urge to say Black beans and rice make children healthy and nice was enough. That would certainly have satisfied any onlookers. For today, yesterday, for what you hoped would be tomorrow.

The table was so narrow we could hardly fit round it, and the more you laughed the more you noticed the hunger. In the end, there was always hope for the next day: it would be a Thursday and on Thursdays in my house (no idea why it had to be Thursday especially) we ate gnocchi. Or at least, we could hope for it. That was always granted: hope. More often than not you’d end up with the same old plate of rice, the usual bickering between the children, the rebukes and calls to order. You never know, maybe mum is still making the gnocchi, even now she’s up there, making the usual dough from flour and potatoes, and with that trace of a smile she gets us through. I grew up regardless, went to live in the city, and in a great big rush the world changed completely. I appreciated being able to do my business without freezing my arse off in the snow outside. And that there was a heater and there were supermarkets, cars and progress. Now that I’ve begun to grow old, I often to stop to stare, a little perplexed in truth, at all this “progress”. I feel a little lost in it all. When we were young we would play who’s afraid of the bogeyman, imagining this terrible creature in the form of all manner of hideous demons. In our parts, we called him “the black man” even though he wasn’t black. There weren’t really any black people down where we were. And when people of colour did arrive, from America mostly, people stared at them, with a little amazement, a little concern but certainly with curiosity. And then the foreigners started arriving and you saw they were just poor wretches like the rest of us. As children we fear fear itself, without necessarily identifying it with something or someone in particular. My daughter is in nursey now and she plays with a little black girl, as black as they come she is, and with a Chinese girl who has two beautiful slits for eyes, and with a Moldavian girl with hair so fair you can’t imagine. If I add that we adopted my daughter in Colombia, then I think it’s safe to say that the place where we really feel a sense of belonging is the land where we germinate, where we put down roots but also develop the desire to fly and learn, challenge and recognise. They teach me, these children, that the world is both infinitely huge and minutely small. That we were afraid of this incredible and implausible “black man” because he might catch up with us and we would lose the race. My father never said much about his time as a prisoner in Germany during the war, but if he ever spoke of the blows and the deprivations, he would recall, still moved, by the guard who would hand him a potato or a chunk of stale black bread in secret. And I believe that these children, who hold hands coming out of school, would ask us why on earth we can’t understand. We don’t understand that the world is a violent place, that there’s war and that on top of this there’s our own indifference and our unwillingness to understand. And I belong to this world, this world that consists of a bowl of rice, a child’s smile, games of ring a ring o’ roses, swinging round and round in a circle, drunk on our own happiness. We are so oblivious and indifferent and superficial. We’re not even aware of ourselves anymore. My mother, up there, will certainly have set the table for everyone, angels black and yellow, fat and thin. She might try and get the fat ones to eat a little less, but then she’ll send them all off to brush their teeth. We will hope for gnocchi with plenty of seasoning. But she will repeat that black beans and rice make children healthy and nice and will bless us all, white, black, red, yellow, cheerful or sullen, quiet or loud.

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