It started one morning when Kollins (Collins with a K, just like my friend Winifred who insists she is Wynyfred and even till date I think of her as why-nai-fred) my flatmate went up the street to shave and came back with a young boy in tow.
“Pearl, meet my friend James” he said “he will be doing my laundry and washing my car. He will help you around the house with anything you need done.” In my head, I thanked Kollins for the “friend” bit. I smiled at James who looked at his toes and smiled back shyly. I welcomed him.
At first he walked on pins around me and I basically ignored him. Ours is a small house, not much to do. Then one morning he clears his throat and says “Aunty Pearl, can I do anything for you?” And that was when I discovered laziness. And so James took to doing the dishes and sweeping, running errands and preparing everything for me to cook.
The plan was for James to come in the morning and do whatever needed doing, then leave and return only if summoned. Next thing I know, James is curled up in my living room watching Nickelodeon (I just turned on the TV to see how this thing is spelt). I wait, one hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, evening. Nightfall. Day one, Day two, Day three, Day four, Week one, week two and I call Kollins. I say to him “what was our agreement with James? I thought he was to come mornings, and whenever else as needed? Now I have a shadow all day. I can’t think, I can’t pad around naked. I need to be alone, have the house to myself during the day. He is foiling it.” I confess that I am losing my cool and starting to snap at James so it’s best we told him how the land lay. Kollins agrees completely, says he thought I had changed the plan since I always seem to have something for James to do. I tell him I have something for James to do because James happens to be lying around. I cannot exactly go downstairs and buy foodstuff and do all the cooking and serve James while he watches Nickelodeon now can I? We agree that Kollins will talk to James, after all he brought him.
The next morning, James does not show up and Kollins says he hasn’t even spoken with him. The second day, still no James and Kollins says he didn’t even wash the car. We agree that the boy is really sensitive and knew something was up. Kollins says he has new respect for the boy, says he’s got pride. Me, I feel like we are playing chess with this boy and he has got moves. We are at an impasse. We won’t call him back. If he wants to sulk, let him. I keep saying “I don’t need him. In case he doesn’t know, there is nothing he is doing for me that I wasn’t doing before and that I can’t do.” Meanwhile, dishes are piled in the kitchen sink until noon when I give up on James showing up that day and do them. I am angry. But I understand.
James shows up one morning. He greets me like he was here yesterday. I answer exactly the same way. He picks up where he left off. I am secretly relieved. But then he begins again, staying all day until late at night. I talk to Kollins again, I say “is it all or none? He has to virtually move in with us or he can’t work for us?” Kollins says he will talk to him. Kollins does. James continues. I am flustered. I tell Kollins shame on him, he has failed and I will deal with the matter my own way. I tell James “listen, I have friends coming over, so please leave when you are done, I will call you if I need you.” He looks hurt. My heart is heavy. He shows up around 9pm. I cannot believe it. I think “this crazy kid shows up here when I am done making dinner and I am now required to feed him like I am his slave? Hell to the NO!” I walk to the door and say rudely “why are you here at this time? Shebi I told you I will call you if I need you.” He looks at the wrought iron burglary proof which I have refused to open and says mildly “I brought Uncle Kollin’s laundry.” I feel stupid but I am still angry for reasons I cannot name so let him in and stand by the gate urging him to hurry. He leaves and I go to my room. I cannot work. I cannot think. I sure as hell cannot sleep. I go to the living room and stand over Kollins. I tell him I feel bad that I sent James off without dinner. Kollins tells me I will have to learn to steel my heart and I repeat to myself Pearl, you will have to learn to steel your heart. When he comes the next day, he takes my temperature and knows I feel bad. He can tell from my jostling around trying to be nice, offering him food and whatnot. He knows he has won. He stays all day and I think it is not so bad after all.
James is a singer. He sings gospel music all day long and I finally tell him to shut the fuck up! He is stunned and I explain that I am trying to think. He is pacified. He used to watch Jesus Channel all day and as I worked, I could hear preachers screaming at me from my living room and when I wandered in, all the gospel singers always looked overfed. One day I yell at him “I don’t go to church and you have dragged me to church in my own house abi? Oya, turn that off right now!” that was when he discovered Nickelodeon. He sings to me from spongebob. Sometimes I come out from the room to see how much progress he has made with a task, and sure enough, there he is with the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl, right in the living room, eyes glued to the screen. I shake my head indulgently. He tries to involve me and I tell him sorry, I don’t do teenage TV. I tell him I want to watch Amanpour and when I come to the living room at eight, he has overridden the reminder. I tell him I will strangle him.
James asks a million questions. When he is not asking me if wind and breeze are synonymous, he is asking why celebrities have the highest divorce rates. When he is not asking me why we shouldn’t put kulikuli in fried rice, he is asking how important formal education is. So he forces me to think and question myself. When I tell him not to take shit from anybody, I wonder privately if he takes shit from me, I weigh my behavior and my actions. When he hasn’t eaten of the cake we bake by the second day, I tell him to eat the damn thing already and for godssake take a chunk home for your siblings. But when he eats my Shoprite bread without asking, I tell him how I travelled all the way to Surulere to get that bread and how dare he eat it without asking me. When food lies around, I scream at him for not knowing to put it in the refrigerator, but when he does take soup I’m trying to thaw for the evening meal and put back in the freezer, I tell him I will strangle him. So he makes me see myself clearly as the person who will offer liberties, but balk when liberties are taken. He is my conscience, a judge without a gavel. I buy yoghurt to help with my diet and James counts four packs. I eat the first and second and third and James finally asks if he can have the fourth. I yell HELL NO and I tell him that that thing is five hundred bucks and he says “for one?” I don’t know if he is laughing at me. I feel mean. So the next day I explain that is not so much the price as the fact that it is not common in the area. I buy him ice-cream instead.
Sometimes James is moody. He will perform his duties without speaking and eat his food quietly. “What is wrong with your son” Kollins will ask me anxiously? “I don’t know” I would respond. I will sidle up to James and ask if he is okay. He would say he is. Two hours later, I would ask if he is sure there is no problem. He would say yes and I would say the answer is no if he means that there is no problem. Kollins and I are unconvinced but what can we do? We hover around him and if he starts chattering, we grab vodka, hit the living room and turn on the TV, and normalcy is restored. Sometimes, James leaves without brightening up. Kollins goes to bed. I go to my room and try to write. The muses stare at me balefully and I scream I did nothing wrong! Sometimes he stays moody for days and when I feel my own brow getting dark, I tell him to stay away from me until his countenance changes. Then he laughs and says he really is okay. Sometimes he does have a problem but he says to me “I will tell Brother Kollins.” I wonder if this is how parents feel when a child chooses one over the other to confide in.
James has written Jamb and failed! He would come with piles of books and scatter them around my living room and I knew he was trying to impress me. The other day, I came in and he was asleep with The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives on his chest. He wasn’t supposed to read it until after his exams. Two days to his exams, he tells me he is going to “check out his center for ‘help’”. I ask him if he cannot write the exams without this “help” and he says he truly thinks he cannot. It is his second attempt. I want to remind him that he is a child of God, but I am used to Christians and their benign God-the kind who will send “customers” to a sex-worker on a bad night if she fasts and prays often-so I shrug and let him go. I really want to tell him not to but I don’t. Results come out and before he leaves to check his score, he prepares me for the worst by telling me that the ones he has seen so far are very bad. I grunt and smile inwardly. He comes back, his face like thunder. For a second I feel a twinge of relief-James will not be deserting us and going to school. This is followed fast on the heels by shame and self-disgust. This shame is what fuels my tenderness, my encouragement, my mood-lifting talks. I never tell Kollins I was happy for a beat when James told me he had failed.
He blames the woman who gave him the ekpo, and I tell him without missing a beat that she was only trying to help and would he blame her if he had passed? It could have gone any way. I give him an instant lecture on taking responsibility. He is bristling but can’t argue. He tells me he needs a drink and can he have some vodka? I’m stunned but I rally quickly and have the presence of mind to offer him the milder Calypso instead. When I come back thirty minutes later, he is passed out cold. When Kollins returns, I tell him “your son has failed JAMB.” Kollins laughs and laughs until I tell him I will throw him out of the house.
“Pearl, you know that thing you usually say that commonsense is not common, bah? James does not have commonsense. I asked him to fix my buttons and he just fixed them, not caring whether or not they were aligned.” I laugh and share my own story about James’ lack of commonsense. James goes out to buy stuff and when I ask for my change, he presents me the mixing bowl and hand towels we sorely need, and which I didn’t ask him to buy. I stand at Kollins’ elbow and say “James has commonsense.” We expect James to be perfect but who is?
James is enterprising. He can couple anything, fix anything. I call him my handyman, then my housekeeper. He is a hybrid of the two, and a lot more. He always has business ideas. Today he wants to learn masonry, tomorrow catering and small chops and the next, he wants to help me with my business. I smile and we have lengthy talk sessions. Inside I hope I am helping. I feel responsible, like he has been entrusted to us. I tell him my stories-my pillow making days, my manicure and pedicure days, my laundry for friends days and all the rest. I see myself in him and I tell him so. At other times I pass by and Kollins is lecturing him about dude stuff and business. James is attentive. He will do good, this James.
His father is the cobbler on my street. I have never spoken of James to him. He knows that his son spends all his time with us, and we have virtually adopted him, yet when I pass by, I wave and say “good morning sir.” And I watch his expression carefully. He always has a smile for me. The day the smile fades, my heart will break because I will have to let James go. May that day never come. James works for us for about six weeks before it occurs to me to ask him how old he is. He could be any thing from sixteen to twenty and I am scared that he is less than eighteen. When he tells me he is nineteen, I cannot hide the relief on my face.
I have assumed cult status on my street. James tells me everyone is curious about me. They ask him what I do and he says “she works from home on her computer” just as I told him to. The implication hits me later when he said somebody said I could be a –19 girl and he was forced to elaborate. She writes. My saving grace is a little girl. I was walking up the street to get drinks one night with a friend and I saw this man, drunk and holding a plank and yelling at this child of not more than 5 years old. She was terrified and everyone on the street was screaming at the man but the child was running scared and blinded by her tears. She stumbled in front of me and a car was approaching. I took in the whole situation at a glance and without thinking, I swept the child in my arms and started running in the opposite direction from the man. I was scared, and I could have angered the man more since the child could have been his as I suspected. But it was a reflex act. My friend just stood by and didn’t know what to do with his hands. By the next morning, James told me my street people would kill for me. So I emerge from my house about once a week and I’m feeling the love. Everyone is smiling and saying hello and touching my hair and oohing and aahing and I’m smiling like I’m dispensing ice-cream with my smile. When I walk with James along the streets, he walks six feet tall. I smile and when he greets people and would hurry on, I stop and greet them too. I can tell he is pleased and this pleases me too. And appeals to my vanity.
I stand in the kitchen cooking and as I try to explain why we will not be putting kulikuli in my fried rice, my voice cracks. I clear my throat and it cracks again. “you are losing your voice” James notes and I tell him it’s nothing. He offers hot water and Tom-tom. He hovers. I am touched. When it rains and James is not here, he races to my house to make sure everywhere is sealed. When I need something and it is raining, James will go in the rain and even if I try to stop him, my attempts are halfhearted and I feel guilty. I ask myself if I would let my child go out in the rain. I do that a lot with James, asking myself if I am fair. A few weeks ago as some of you know, I activated my braless policy (covers face). So I pass in front of a mirror and I catch a glimpse of my nipples jutting through my T-shirt. I present myself to Kollins and ask “is this what you people have been seeing all day?” He nods. I say “oh god, I have traumatized this boy.” In times like that, I am reminded that he is not my child.
I do not kid myself that we are doing James any favors. He is more to us than we can ever be to him. And he will make good. All we can do is to put in our two kobo and try to be a part of his success story.
So tonight when Kollins returns from work, I will stand over his shoulder and tell him “we are not doing James any favors. He is more to us than we can ever be to him. And he will make good. All we can do is to put in our two kobo and try to be a part of his success story.”