Five days after I posted the prequel to this, something happened that gave me pause.
It is morning, Saturday the 8th of June, and I am running up and down flights of stairs in my socks, tights and a loose white Tee, in the name of exercise. Sweaty, breathless, music from headphones in my ears, I race past a kid who looks about 12, (I am no good at guessing people’s ages) going upstairs, and on my return lap, I have to follow behind him. On the landing, he is knocking at my neighbour’s door and I ask him if he didn’t just pass my neighbour going downstairs. I am a little suspicious. He says he is “looking for brother Kollins.” I unlock my door, asking him in and asking what he wants with Kollins.
“There is one boy who comes here. . .” he begins
“James” I interrupt him. “He hasn’t been here today. In fact, I am expecting him. Are you his brother?”
“Yes” he responds and tells me his name is Issa. He hesitates. His next words stop me cold. “James has had an accident”
In a flash, I picture James standing by the ironing board two days before, telling me about a barber who was killed in a bike accident, and regaling me with the stories that followed; how the barber was the only son of the family; how a girl who got pregnant for him had had an abortion. If only they’d known he would die . . . and so on. We concluded the exchange on a sober note, acknowledging how fragile life is. Now, in a flash, I picture James mangled, broken and bleeding under the wheels of a bike or car.
I rush into the room and begin dressing. I am throwing questions at the boy. Where did the accident happen? How did you hear? How serious is it? What do you know? He does not know much; his dad is off to the scene of the accident and it sounds serious. Then he says what throws me into the first show of shame of the day–the first of many to follow. He tells me that Kollins sent James on an errand with the car. It is Kollins’ car, a new Mazda 626, not three months old, that is implicated in this accident! The twin impacts hit me like blows to both sides of my head delivered at once. First, Kollins’ car has been in an accident. Second, if Kollins sent him out with the car, probably without a license or ascertaining properly that he can drive, then we are responsible, and we are in trouble. For a moment, I am consumed with this. I had been able to distance myself from the accident—I was going as a concerned person, but all of a sudden, I was going as a culprit, or at least a culprit by association. If James is seriously wounded or horror of horrors, has wounded or killed somebody else, I could be vulnerable to attack.
Unconsciously, I began to undress and start over. I had worn a short dress. Now, I found a pair of jeans and an Ankara shirt, and flats-I had to look non-threatening and be able to evoke sympathy. All the while, I am trying to call Kollins and irrationally, James. James’ phone does not ring, Kollins’ is ringing here in the apartment. Kollins had driven out with a friend who was staying over and that’s how come James could have been with his car. As we race out of the house and on to the street, neighbours are already standing in clusters, murmuring, talking. One of them is bold enough to ask me “who gave James car? Can he drive?” I offer her a dirty look in return and march past.
Somehow we have gathered that James has been taken to General Hospital Ikeja and we are headed there, Issa and I, but Kollins calls and I confirm that he knows what has happened. He tells me he is with James, James is unconscious, but he needs for me to go to the scene of the accident and secure the car.
Do I feel the need to explain what makes a person this “emotionless” and practical? Do I feel the necessity of defending me and Kollins in this, this perceived shallowness of thinking of something so trivial as a car, when a life hangs in the balance? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I would say though, that the same practicability that informed our actions, immediately following the accident, is the same one that guided our reaction in the longer run. As we are with one, so we are with the other and without the one, we might not have been able to be the other.
I change direction and we take a Keke to the accident scene not far from the house. We see a small crowd, about twelve or so people, and a police officer appearing to give directions but altogether looking quite ineffectual. Then we see the car lying on its roof and my first instinct is to shield Issa from what is before my eyes. The doors are caved in, the tyres are burst, shredded and the wheels, twisted. The glasses are shattered and the engine (I am later told) “scattered”, and the car looks compressed to about half its height. Fuel, engine oil and blood run in rivulets and I am standing in a puddle. I think James was in this? This is James’ blood! Unbidden to my mind comes my friend, Elnathan, when he had an accident in September last year; read about that here-I feel like i now understand the horror as I had not before, of nearness to death and helplessness in the face of it. And I begin to shake, even as I tell Issa that it is not as bad as it looks. I will never forget how calm he looked, and I felt as though I was the one who needed comforting. In front of us is the fence James ran into. The gate is lying flat on the ground and a part of the fence is broken.
I approach the officer and tell him I am a cousin to the owner of the car. I ask him what is going on. He tells me a towing van is on its way and he does not seem to have any questions for me. I find this interesting. Onlookers and passersby are making all kinds of remarks—some are saying the driver was rough, he was driving too fast, nothing was chasing him; and one lady in particular is bemoaning the misfortune of the owners of the car and the fence. I feel angry but a mental check reminds me that these people are only saying aloud what I myself have thought. I forgive them, just as I forgive myself.
I have an appointment to pick up a parcel at the airport and I have to call and cancel. When I explain what has happened, my friend tells me it is okay and we talk about a few other things, including my writing. He loves my blog and then he says something that fills me with shame. He says that at least this would give me something to write on my blog. I am ashamed because again, he has brought to the fore what I have hidden in the inner recesses of my mind. I cannot deny that from the moment Issa told me about the accident, my mind swung into “writers’ mode” and a part of me disconnected, and I watched dispassionately everything that happened, constructing it as I would report it—as a writer. I warned you that that day was a walk of shame.
I am still shaken, scared, feel alone, and all the while, the shadow of an unconscious, possibly broken and bleeding James is circling on the periphery of my mind. I need a dose of commonsense and maybe some humour—so I call my friend Eghosa. But I catch him at a bad time, between tennis, beer and pepper-soup or something like that and he is not sympathetic. The question “so?” echoes unsaid and I feel ridiculous. He calls back twenty minutes later, more settled, and it is then he understands what I am trying to tell him—that James didn’t just have an accident but had an accident with Kollins’ car. Eghosa goes ballistic; in his Bini pidgin “Kollins dey craze? E give that small boy im car? Nor be that boy wey dey take JAMB some weeks ago so? Ah, una fuck up oh, aaaah, this wan bad. See ehn…” and he proceeds to give me advice, tell me what I need to know and do, and makes me laugh along the way as I knew he would.
I will never be able to convey how frightening and surreal those thirty minutes that seemed like thirty hours were; how I sidled up to one of the bystanders to ask if he saw “the boy” when he was removed from the car, when I tried to pretend that I had nothing to do with the car when it suited me, how on speaking with Eghosa and feeling more confident, I exchanged the mild, bewildered expression I had been wearing for a haughty one, daring anyone to challenge me or ask me any stupid questions, how I hated and cursed all the other drivers and passersby who stopped and stared and shook their heads and some who glanced at me in what seemed like pity, or accusatorily.
The towing van is here and they try to tow the car on its roof. It makes a grating, scraping sound that messes with my nerves. They give that up and try to flip it. They hook a chain to it and tug, and when the car lands with a loud bang, shuddering on its wheels, it looks like a giant prehistoric animal that has had all its bones broken at once. A few minutes later, a car, pulled along by a towing van approaches where I stand and I imagine how many accidents usually occur on Friday nights and I am almost smiling before I realize that this broken, twisted, mass of steel hobbling and wobbling along is Kollins’ car. Tears reach my eyes. This car bears no resemblance to the sleek beauty with clean lines like a thoroughbred that I so loved.
We hitch a ride to the station, Issa and I, following the broken ghost of the car as it totters along.
At the station, a man I would later identify as a plain-clothes officer invites Issa and I to take any valuables from the car and while we are doing this, I see blood on my hands. I supposed I have not learnt the art of crawling through jagged glass. I feel unaccountably guilty as I retrieve Kollins’ sunglasses but I squelch it—Kollins’ sunglasses are very expensive and whether James dies or not, Kollins’ will continue to wear his sunglasses when all is over, I rationalize. I see the airbags that had been deployed on impact and I cheer. I cheer again when Kollins calls and says James has regained consciousness and they are moving him to LUTH. He is vague about injuries but assures me that nothing is broken. He tells me they will do a brain scan and X-rays and I tell him that that is so important, thinking about a young lady I knew who had an accident and was given a clean bill of health and sent home. A few weeks later, she went to get a friend from the airport, a headache started and she never made it home alive.
The Police officer, Linus invites me over to talk to a man I had seen hovering both at the scene of the accident and now here at the station, looking anxious. The man clears his throat and tells me he works on the premises of the fence the car ran into. He wants me to advise on whether we will assume responsibility for the repairs, or whether the company should do the repairs and we will reimburse. He tells me the compound needs to be secured as there are sensitive documents and valuable things inside.
I stand very close to him and I am enunciating my words very carefully because I am furious.
“Sir, I sympathize about your property and all. I do. But would you be terribly surprised if I told you that right now, your documents and stuff are like, the very least of my problems—while a boy lies in hospital battling for his life. Do you understand me?” Officer Linus says almost triumphantly “she has told you exactly what I expected her to tell you. Do you really think this young lady can think of your fence right now?” But as I move back to the car and remove the fire extinguisher, I overhear the man telling Officer Linus how they approached the car and extracted James from the wreckage, despite the risk of an explosion, and I feel ashamed. I walk back to them and find out that the man, Adekunle was one of the first people on the scene and he risked his life to save James. I apologize, I thank him profusely, I beg him to understand, and then I tell him to go ahead with the repairs and that we will settle up later. He insists on a signed agreement which I refuse to sign.
The Nigerian police can be your friend when they choose to be. Or maybe I was just lucky in the officers I had to deal with that day. I met with nothing but sympathy and understanding from Officer Linus and the other, Felix—but that may be because a pretty damsel in distress like me, well, who does not want to be a knight in black Police uniform-or armour? Gently, they guide me as we inventory what is taken from the car, they offer me photographs they had taken with their phones, then they let us go.
There is no longer need to go to the hospital so we go back home. I remember the yoghurt episode with James and from a sense of guilt, I buy Issa a bowl of ice cream. As we part, Issa turns to me and says “There was this day James brought cake and said you were the one that baked it. It was very nice.” I thanked him with my mouth, with my eyes and with my heart. This kid does not know how badly hurt his brother is, he knows that we are somehow to blame and yet, in an act of generosity which I think he comprehends and he must sense that I feel guilty and need this, he is telling me it is okay, that he does not blame me and he wants me to know this. Or maybe he meant nothing of the sort and it is all my fanciful imaginings. All the same, I am grateful. I marvel anew at how well brought up these boys are.
It is about 3pm and I am home. Scared, restless and alone, I convince myself that I need to cook to take my mind off things, to ensure that there is food when Kollins and his friend get home but the truth is, I start to cook because I am hungry and I am shamed by this. James might be dying and I am hungry. I look at the bathroom which James wanted to wash the day before and I had told him to leave it till the weekend now I wondered why I didn’t let him wash it. I thought of all the work I would now have to start doing again and my shame chronicle continues. I turn on the TV and the strains of Sponge Bob reach me. I think how I would give anything to hear James singing along. I think how James said he will cook the next Egusi soup to which I said “God help us.” I would give anything, I think passionately, to have James back here, alive and whole. I would let him have all the yoghurt he wants, I will not let him do any work, I will I will I will . . . the onions i am cutting give me an excuse for the tears to roll.
Kollins comes home and everything I was going to say disappears from my head. I sit by him and we are quiet. Every once in a while, one of us breaks the silence with “at least he is alive. At least he is okay.” I want to yell “your car! Of course it is not okay!” But I don’t. I know that it is important to each of us in reaffirming our humanity, after the initial blunder of that morning, to pretend as though the car does not matter. It does. Kollins eats too and I am gratified. A few hours later, we get a phone call from across the street. James is home.
. . . to be continued—watch this space