If this were a story, it would start with an argument. It would start with Ben and me arguing about something vaguely prescient, something to give the thing that happened a kind of existential echo—a child we wanted to have, or couldn’t have, or used to have. That would work. But the truth is we never wanted children. The truth is that when it happened we were listening to the BBC World Service on the car radio. Two ex-pats and the staticky scraps of empire, the sky heavy with desert grit and dawdling bats.
Our radio tuner was stuck and the car handbook was written in German—which neither of us could read—so the BBC is all we could ever play for the three years we were posted to Accra, that or a gospel station simulcast from one of the evangelical mega-churches along the road to Tema. It was a piece of shit, that car. The radio was the least of its problems.
The car was something we did fight about, and I’m working to forget who was right. Those first few months away from home we argued almost every night, upstairs in our white-tiled bedroom with its white walls and gauzy white curtains and ceiling flecked with crushed mosquitoes. We argued in a rasping whisper because the walls of the compound houses were thin, and there were ears everywhere. The house was empty except for our suitcases and a mattress on the bedroom floor. Our furniture was stuck in customs and we’d had to beg a skeleton life from our ex-pat neighbours: two forks, two plates and two threadbare towels. We were still getting used to these hungry new friendships; how eagerly strangers would offer themselves up to us, and how much of us they expected in return. There is solidarity in exile, but the reverse is also true.
The mattress was an odd size, aspirationally square and cut from heavy rubberised foam that flopped like deadweight when we changed the linen. With the sibilant ocean sound of the air conditioner, I dreamed water dreams. They were cruel dreams fuelled by the anti-malarial meds, dreams where I was pulled out and down and under. The fitted sheets didn’t fit, and I would wake most mornings fish-slick and breathless, my feet caught inside the elastic fist of a sprung corner.
Our arguments then were tedious and unremarkable—attenuated by the newness of it all: the white brightness of the Accra light, the Obruni scrutiny, the strange new weight of our wedding rings. To explain would be to invite you to take sides and neither of us deserves your allegiance. We were not kind to each other back then.
Here is what happened—where it starts and finishes. The roads were always quieter on Sundays and we were driving to buy groceries in the apostolic hush. It was a kind of vague, slurred Sunday morning like the world was spinning a little slower. Ben was driving and I was in the passenger seat, bare feet on the dash. Both of us were wearing our ex-pat uniforms: him in a Vlisco shirt with a dizzy pattern of tessellated fish and wrinkled cargo shorts, and me in a cheap cotton dress from Makola Market with its drawstring bust and red hibiscus. And the BBC World Service, snapping and spitting at us through the cheap speakers, grating as the harmattan air.
I wish I could tell you more about the boy. I did not catch much beyond the nimble boy-ness of him. All I have is the skittish memory of a football spinning across the road in front of our car, and then the swift, dark shape of him running after it. I remember the strange animal sound our car made as we braked for the ball. I remember my feet slipping up onto the windscreen and leaving a perfect pair of footprints on the glass. I remember the burn of the seatbelt pulling tight against my throat. Ben remembers colours—the white and black of the ball, the green of the boy’s t-shirt, the blue of the oncoming car that hit him.
A writer once told me that I should work the accident into a story—that I owed it to the boy to make something of it.
‘But to do it right,’ he told me, ‘the kid needs to mean something.’
‘What do you mean, to mean something?’
‘When he dies, the reader needs to really feel it—feel it more keenly than just some random street kid—it needs to be a boy the couple saw all the time, or knew. Like maybe the couple is paying the boy to run errands for them? Or maybe the boy was in the woman’s English class? Or maybe he stole something from them and was running away. My point is that the boy needs to have a family, a name, a face.’
‘But neither of us saw his face,’ I told him.
‘You’re missing the point.’
When Ben and I left Ghana we flew home into winter and quiet. Everyone’s bodies were so covered, so buttoned and zipped. While we were still looking for a new car—a decent car this time—my new workmates would drop me home and we’d linger talking in the cramped, furtive heat of their cars, parked in the driveway with the motor running like lovers or undercover cops. And I’d spin stories of sugar-ripe plantains and equatorial sunsets.
‘But what was it really like?’ they would ask.
You know what that question means—what it means to want to press your face up against the glass. Maybe you also know that there is a kind of rich triumph in being able to answer it—to have an answer. And so I gave the boy a family and a name and a face. I would sit in their cars with the rear-view cameras, blind-spot mirrors, dual airbags and anti-lock brakes, and I would fill their greedy ears with my story of my dead boy. I would tell them what had happened, to me. I am guilty of embellishment. I am guilty of enjoying their too-wide eyes.
But the truth is I shut my eyes. The truth is there were cars behind us and they lent on their horns and so Ben drove to the grocery store. The truth is, there was nothing to be done and so we did nothing. The reverse is also true.
If this were a story, the boy would be its climax and he would wield a kind of catalytic alchemy. Ben and I would drive into the accident broken and out of it healed. The boy would teach us how to be kind to one another. That would mean something, wouldn’t it?
But the truth is we drove our bags of groceries home a different way so as not to see the red on the road. We drove past compound after ex-pat compound with their guard houses and grand wrought-iron gates, past the quiet playground of the International School, past the corner where the prettiest street girls blew slow kisses at the cars with dip plates. And we drove past the US embassy, that brutalist, carceral slab of a thing that’s lit up so bright at night it makes your retinas fizz.
And after three years we sold our piece-of-shit car to a man with a limp handshake. One of the new crop of Americans condemned to spend three years in a booth rejecting visa applications. We knew the type by then: after a month they hated the job; after three, they hated the locals; after six, they hated everybody. You could always pick them out at the diplomatic functions—the men drinking themselves wide and dopey on imported beer, the women who started every conversation by counting down the number of months, weeks or days until they were due to leave. These were the people who taught Ben and me to be kind to one another, these people who never left the city and seldom left their white houses. We were united in our determination not to become them. I like to think we mostly succeeded. I hope that’s true.
The truth is, we sold the car for more than we paid for it, because by then we knew how.
Beejay Silcox is incurably peripatetic. She eloped to Vegas and drove to Timbuktu in a car held together with a bra-strap. She’s now in Cairo, finishing her first collection of stories.