. . . so ten hours after the accident, James comes home. I think it is late, I will go see him the next morning. But I wonder how he might be feeling if I do not go to him. He would need reassurance. He would want to see my face and he might need something. I ask Kollins and he says “go.” I want to take dinner but James’ mum is with him and so there is no need. We think.
I have to ask around which apartment is his. This makes me feel bad—I have never visited, living cocooned in my sweet little apartment. And here I am in the place James calls home, and I shudder. Communal living, face-me I face- you, a dark hallway with doors on either side partly or fully open to reveal tiny musty apartments, peeling paint, dirty walls, low blackened ceilings that would make me claustrophobic, threadbare rugs and curtains. Even the voltage seems lower as the lights are so dim, but that may be because the light bulbs are themselves coated black by soot from the different cooking fires here and there. Through the hallway and out back to my left is James’ room. I count eight pairs of shoes and slippers at the door and I know there will be a crowd.
I knock but they have heard me ask someone if this is James’ house, so I am asked to come in. I enter and about eight pairs of eyes stab me from different positions in the tiny, cluttered room. James’ dad is across from me, his brothers Issa, and another I will be told is called Abu, and other faces I don’t recognise stare at me with mild curiosity and slight apprehension. They don’t know what to expect. The game has changed.
When Kollins returned and related what happened, it was with a profound sense of relief that I realised that contrary to what I had thought, that Kollins sent James on an errand with the car, James actually asked to use the car to run a personal errand, he told Kollins that he would have with him a friend who drives well—and indeed he did. Kollins had a moment to reflect on the matter. True James cannot drive very well, but then, how many of us did not start our driving with our parents’ cars, mostly without their permission. My cousins even started at thirteen, just grabbed their father’s car keys and took off and before you know it, a driver is made. Same with my kid brother. And so while in retrospect, it was probably not the smartest idea, it seemed like the cool thing to do, and Kollins and I are nothing if not uber-cool. Add to this the fact that James, looking very sincere said “Brother Kollins, I will not even scratch your car. Nothing will happen to your car.” The innocence of children ha! Teach him to make promises he has no right to make.
And so when at first I thought we were to blame, I felt miserable. When I returned home from the scene of the accident and walked down my street to my house, I was nervous. I felt like everyone was looking at me with accusing eyes and talking, and judging they have killed somebody’s child and I felt despondent. Then I thought for what? We did what parents do. Why should we feel guilty? Where is the justice if we are supposed to treat this boy like ours, but when something happens, we are forcibly reminded that he is not ours after all. If he died, we would not be allowed to mourn him, yet we would feel every bit as terrible as his family. I suddenly understood the pressure of having with you a child that is not yours. I recalled how my mum always, it seemed to us, treated our maids better than us. She would buy us slippers when she travelled and they, sandals. She went over and above the call of duty to be fair and sometimes we felt cheated. I now understood that while you are allowed to—in fact, expected to treat a child you have in your care with love, you are deprived of the trappings of this love when the chips are down—the right to mourn if you were in any way responsible, the right to discipline the child as you would yours, the right to make certain decisions and be allowed the prerogative if it doesn’t work out very well in the child’s favour. I felt resentful.
But then, now that I know that we weren’t at fault after all, we have gone from culprit to benevolent liberator. James has ruined our car and we can dispense mercy, and at a flick of our wrists make all their troubles go away. Or we can say uh oh, you have to replace the car your son crashed. Whatever, I prefer this position to the former. And so as I walk into James’ house, now that medical results declare him good as new, on to the issue of the car, nobody knows what to expect.
I say hello to everyone and make straight for James who is lying on the bed. I’m not sure what I expected as I already know he escaped uninjured. But I somehow expect to see something, anything, a sign that this boy has been at death’s door. James is so whole, if he were more whole he would be a loaf of whole wheat bread. This is not fair. Even I got blood on my hands trying to retrieve stuff from the smashed car. I look him over-his eyes are red and on seeing me, he is getting emotional. I quickly tell him to get over himself right now, there is nothing to cry about you are alive, see?“
Someone gives me a plastic chair and I sit and look around. The room is tiny by any standards and reminds me very much of some of the places I lived in, in my student years—that is before my university years, when I misbehaved and got thrown out of boarding house, me and some of my friends, and we rented a place very much like this. Actually it’s nice. He even has a refrigerator, a luxury at my stage in his life. Now I can afford to be upset by small rooms where the walls close in on a person and the ceiling seems to bear down, now I can afford to have exotic conditions like claustrophobia and vertigo and ADHD and OCD and bipolar disorder and other such cool stuff. Now I can afford to complain if the shower doesn’t run or my cab doesn’t show up in time. Now I can afford to travel from Lagos to Abuja or Calabar by air and have people hover around me asking if the trip was hard, if I’m stressed, grumpy, and aren’t those airlines just so incompetent and the staff nasty? Did the pilot land gently? Was there turbulence and were the snacks nice and the convenience clean? Did the carousel bring my luggage over in time!
And I stress and bitch, and I like to forget that not so long ago, I was lucky to have a roof over my head, never mind claustrophobia, I was lucky to have water in the general tank outside to haul from, and I was doing twelve hours in Chisco and The young shall grow, and eating Gala/Lacasera and never mind turbulence, hitting potholes like I need an abortion and worrying about accidents and armed robbers in equal measure. Also, planes don’t spoil in the sky. Oh well. Levels don change. So I make my peace with James’ surroundings.
When his dad begins to tell me how sorry he is, I stop him. Looking him straight in his face, I incline my head towards James and tell him that that boy over there is more important than any ten cars. That we are not thinking of cars right now but only grateful that he is alive and well. It is a lie of course. That we are not thinking of cars I mean. James does not want the noodles his mum has made and I smile at his playing invalid as I go home and bring him rice with the choicest bits of chicken and a big pack of juice. Before I leave for the night, I take the father aside and ask him not to scold James. In the next few days, Kollins and I will assure the man that no amount of scolding will equal the self-flagellation James is undergoing.
The next morning, I call as early as 6am to ensure that James made it through the night. Despite the results of the brain scan, it will be weeks before we would relax enough to let him sleep for two hours straight without waking the poor boy up to ensure that he is not dead, without looking at him critically and asking if his face doesn’t look a little swollen.
Remembering the pity-party of the night before, I call James again and ask if he would like to come and spend the day with us. He says yes please. He has already counted seventeen visitors, over to say eeeya, and it is not even 8am. We, Kollins and I have decided that it is the best way to get him back to normal as quickly as possible. Poor boy at this stage does not know if he has been banned from ours or not. He does not yet understand that he is ours. And when you take a person in, you prepare for whatever baggage may accompany them. And as romantic as it sounds (not to mention the fact that I like playing saint), if it takes ten crashed cars to prove it, so be it. I think of all the arguments against adoption and I imagine that adopted children who look bad, look bad because their sins are measured against the backdrop of the fact that they are not our own children after all. Birth children steal, play pranks, are promiscuous, are naughty, insult and threaten their parents and do unimaginable things. But adopted children are supposed to be perfect because duh, they are adopted and as such must be grateful and behave as model children. They do not have the luxury of being children, period!
James comes over and I act like a mother hen. When I hear him washing up in the kitchen, I run out screaming but Kollins assures me that that is the path to recovery, letting him continue as though nothing happened. I see the sense in it.
We are wrong about sequestering James. We are baking a ‘welcome back from the dead’ cake and are in a party mood, when his parents, siblings and some people from church come over. All afternoon people come and go and we are amused as we play host, answer questions, express our joy at James’ escape, shrug off questions about the car. When James’ father understands that the car is a write-off and that there is no third party insurance, he drops to his knees. The old man weeps, he says he has never gotten in trouble with anyone on this street all the years he has lived here, and now. . .
Kollins goes to great lengths to explain to him that he is not in trouble with anyone, that what is done is done. It is a while before he recovers. They call us saints, they say they wish everyone in the world was like us and this amuses the hell out of us. Everyone in the world like me! Well, that would be a crazy place that is for damn sure. The thing is, the moot question arises in my mind as to whether things would be different if James’ father could afford to replace the car. As it stands, he is a cobbler and so as I said, the question is moot.
Kollins handles the situation well. He is not good with talking about his feelings. Myke would tell me everything. But Kollins tells me what is proper, what I want to hear, what is politically correct. But he is hurt. You must understand how difficult it is, especially in a place like Lagos, to wake up one day without a car and have to start doing public transport. But it is difficult to explain this without seeming as though he has regrets. He has none. He is just sorry he does not have a car. Kollins does not immediately realise the implication of the accident. He wakes up Sunday morning and prepares for church. Then he takes off his clothes slowly and lies down on his bed. This is more heartbreaking than any words. He forgot.
On Sunday, the new fridge packs up. On Monday, Kollins stays home from work and we have the snakes . and we agree that truly it never rains but it pours. Kollins calls on all the bad things that plan to happen to happen now. He has hit bottom and is ready. I’m not so sure. I don’t want the house to fall on our heads.
James is moody. He sits for hours without speaking. He stares into space. His feet drag. I try to talk to him and it’s not working. Kollins tries. We have a friend, Chikezie speak to him. We assure him that it is over, we are never talking about the car again. We tell him mistakes happen, we only learn from them. He blames himself and we ask him to shush. We try to make jokes, asking how many times the car somersaulted and who usually even counts that shit. He is slipping into depression and we don’t know what to do. We realise too late that we got cheerful too soon, we did not allow him do the necessary grieving, anxious to reassure him that all was well. But we thought we were doing the right thing. We tell him we are here, we care and he should take his time and he can talk to us. We let him be.
I am writing part one of this story and James stands over my shoulder and says he wants to talk to me. I look up and say go on. He looks down on the floor, at his feet, above my head and finally he looks me in the face.
“There is this girl. . . ” he begins and he does not know why I am smiling. We talk for an hour.
James is not there yet but he will be. And while I am the cheerleader, Kollins is undisputably the hero of the day