Brother Onyeka gives me a hundred naira note and asks me to buy him ‘mineral’, any of the big one-litre bottle sold at sixty naira, at Mama Mike’s shop. I hop down the flights of stairs, skipping the nearest staircase and landing on the next with every hop.
At Mama Mike’s, her son Emma gives me Goldspot, sold at fifty naira, though I told him I wanted any of the sixty naira brand – Coke or Sprite or Fanta. As I clutch the misted icy bottle to my chest and leave the shop, I wonder if Emma didn’t hear or if the price of Coke and Sprite and Fanta has appreciated or if I unwittingly said fifty when I meant sixty. I wonder, instead of asking, perhaps because I am a little boy of four or six who has yet to ‘find his voice’, especially with adults.
Upstairs on the front balcony, Brother Onyeka asks how much mineral I said I wanted. He’s sure that I, a nursery three or primary one child, am the one who must have made a mistake, not Emma, a dopa whose chin is already a deeper shade than the rest of his face.
And my reply corroborates his certitude. ‘Sixty.’
‘Fifty!’ he pipes. ‘Did I say fifty or sixty? When you kids are being sent on an errand you don’t ever listen.’
It dawns on me then: my s comes out as f. He takes the bottle and change from me and I mutter a Thank God in my heart: he could have asked me to go change it and how would I have told Emma what I mean? For hours, I wallow in the doldrums and don’t join my mates I’d been playing with.
It doesn’t take long before I decipher the cause of the impairment: the tip of my tongue peeks out between my upper and lower incisors whenever it encounters an s or a z, as though I want to pronounce th like a typical Briton. For the next ten or three years, I often still wallow in the doldrums. Till I find a solution: I make a conscious effort to clasp my teeth before my tongue can peep through. At first it’s not easy – the way making sure your eyes don’t blink isn’t easy. Then months later Udoka observes casually, in reply to my remark that I used to ‘have my tongue in my mouth’ while speaking, that yes I no longer say five when I mean size.