The Aitken Alexander Isolation Series: The Cough by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The Cough


There is no knock. My sister waltzes into my room carrying a tray with a jar and spoons, like a nurse in a ward. She has no respect for my self-isolation. She informs me that she has just come from my brother and sister’s room and now it is my turn. The jar is a quarter full with what I quickly identify as honey.

“Why would I take a spoonful of honey?”

“No! It is not honey. It is a special concoction! The cure to corona, if you will.”

“Who put you up to this? Mum?”

She doesn’t answer, she is busy scooping the honey out of the jar. On closer examination, there are dark flakes in the honey. I am almost certain she is using this as an opportunity to kill me and take over my room.

“I’m not drinking that.”

“Don’t be a big baby. The others took it!” I look at the other spoons on the tray, they have traces of honey on them.

It turns out the dark flakes are bitter kola. I oblige and swallow the remedy.

“Chew it. Don’t swallow!”

I swallow it; and it takes all of my will to prevent myself from regurgitating. I stand up from my bed and hurry to the sink, just in case. All this because I made the grave error of coughing yesterday.

We were at the dinner table, except for my brother. His food is brought to him and left on a coffee table by his bedroom. We only sense his presence, when the internet runs out, so all in all, not much has changed.

Mum was telling us about her superpower.

“I can taste germs,” she informed us. “I can taste them with my tongue.”

“Can you taste any now?” My sister asked, leaning forward. It was hard to tell if she was an eager audience or if she was merely teasing my mum. My dad smiled into his teacup, but kept his thoughts to himself.

“Not now; but when I went by your room earlier, I definitely sensed something.”

I opened my mouth to make a witty remark, but instead I coughed. The table went quiet. Their heads turned to me, as if I had said something blasphemous. I covered my mouth with my hand as three more coughs broke free. I heard the scrape of my younger sister’s chair.

“Wait,” I told them, my hands up in a gesture of surrender, “Food went down the wrong tube, is all.”

“Are you sure?” asked my mum.

But who could be sure?

I lost a cousin to meningitis a couple years ago. Her name was Temi. I learnt that meningitis could easily be mistaken for the flu. Only, it could kill you in a matter of days, sometimes hours. I remember feeling a little panicked – how did you fight something, you couldn’t readily identify? How could I make any guarantees to my family, when I had traveled for work, just as the virus had begun to spread?

In the end, they disinfected the table and I was shuffled off to my room.

Outside my window, I can see that the construction of the house opposite has come to a halt. It feels like the whole world has stopped turning. I chew on a slice of bread to soak up the horrid taste of the honey and bitter kola remedy.

In the week of being holed up at home with my family, I have been forced to consume moringa, tea with honey, and other strange herbs. I have knelt before a bucket half full with hot water and menthol, whilst my head is covered with towels. And this was all before the cough. I can only imagine what they have in store for me now.

My phone rings, and I look at it. It’s mum. She is two doors away from me.


“Oko mi, how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine mum.”

“Still coughing?”


“Ok good. You don’t have it in Jesus’ name.”


I cough again. There is a moment of quiet between us; just before she cuts the phone. Perhaps she is afraid of catching it via radio waves now. Moments later, my phone vibrates with an alert from our family WhatsApp group. My mum has dropped a message, one of those messages that have been making the rounds: A potential cure has been found – lo and behold, it is an old home remedy…

I count the seconds.

There is a knock on my door.


Oyinkan Braithwaite is the author of the bestselling debut novel, MY SISTER THE SERIAL KILLER, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the Booker Prize.