Janet! Yes, Janet Adaga. That was her name. I remember her. She wasn’t the kind of girl you can forget. The long curly mass of black hair. That shiny chocolate skin that glittered in the sun. Those sparkling large eyes that spat fire. Janet wasn’t the average girl.
I knew from the first time I saw her. It was a little after midnight.Duke’s barks had woken me. I pulled aside my pink blanket and walked to the window. The compound seemed silent except for the occasional barks that punctuated the darkness. A string of colored bulbs hung on the pine trees, suspending like a triangular chandelier, casting soft hue around the garden. I turned to head for my bed but Duke’s barks became louder. I turned back and there she was. Janet! Her legs were astride our white wooden spiked fence. Two little toddlers were looking up at her from the other side of the fence. I watched her agile form leap across the fence into our compound. Her blue gown trapped at the edge of the fence spikes. She yanked it . I heard a rip. She didn’t bother. She was already tiptoeing towards the garden. Duke was barking and charging towards her. She was just a slip of a girl. My age or maybe less but not more than 11 or 12 at most. Duke pressed on yet, she didn’t budge, she didn’t blink. Duke’s bared fangs didn’t deter her. I watched her take a step forward and another and then, she broke into a run, charging towards Duke with the speed of light. Her eyes spat fire. Her arms stretched out, poised and ready to attack. She reminded me to the Bible story book grandma had given me; with the picture of Samson with flowing dreadlocks, tearing the lion apart. I think Duke got message too. His barks turned into a low growl. A grunt, more like it. His tail between his hind legs, he ran back into the house.
Janet stopped. She was panting. Her eyes darted back and forth our garden. Plastic chairs were still littered as they had been from the birthday party mum had earlier. Half eaten plates of food scattered around the table. I watched her tiptoe towards the table and began to pack the leftover into the nylon bag.
That was my first memory of Janet. July 14, 1994. That was long before she became my best friend. Though she never called me that. She always said that we were worlds apart. She called me the privileged daughter of the bald headed professor. Hahahahahaha… But Dad was bald, indeed. Isn’t he? Janet was the kind of girl that says it as it is. She always mocked my grammar. She said that heaven knows that I can’t survive the streets that was why I was born behind these high fences. Yes, I knew my Dad hated her. He said no good can come from rusty association. He would go on and on about the consequences of meandering with the wrong class who speaks only broken English. Broken English…pidgin English! British English! Who cares? Who doesn’t like the way Jay uses her slangs and the way she says “I go whooze you slap o!”
Daddy didn’t know Janet the way I did. He didn’t know the Janet who shielded her two younger siblings(Dozie and Bella) after their mother’s death and their father ran away with their calabar house help. Dad didn’t know the Janet who stood up for me that night when the ghetto boys wanted to tear me apart. They hit her, kicked her yet she wouldn’t let go of my hand. She kept flinging curses at them. “your papa! E no go beta for una! God punish your mama!”
Daddy didn’t know the Janet who offered her body every night at Allen junction to every man just to see her siblings through school. He didn’t know the Janet that kept loving and giving even when she was dying.
It was on a Sunday afternoon,i first noticed the crack. I saw her bent over the broken benches behind the church chapel. Her hands were cradling her stomach, her face twisted in pain. The preacher’s voice echoed through the loudspeaker. She was vomiting blood. I ran to her. My eyes searched hers. My hands ran over her body. My mouth sought answers but she shrugged me away in her usual macho manner.
“I’m fine ” she said, infusing a foreign bass into her voice. But she looked anything but fine. Her face was drained of color. Her lip strived to stretch into a smile that refused to show. Her left hand wiped the blood off her mouth.
” It’s alright, Ify, ” she said again as she staggered back into the church.
I knew it was not alright. It hadn’t been alright for the past two months. So, one night, she brought me to her room and made me swear to keep her secret. She said she didn’t want her siblings knowing. I can still see her with her chins up, tears shining in her eyes as she flung out instructions to me as though I was some damn fool.
“I’m hurting too, Jay!” I screamed.
She stilled. Her hands fell to her sides. She looked me straight in the eyes.
“It’s HIV, Ify, I’m dying” she said. She was trembling. In two quick steps, we found ourselves in each other’s arms, tears flowed free, carrying the sorrows of our aching heart.
“We will fight this, Jay! We will. ” I promised.
She looked up at me. Tears blurred her eyes. Her teeth clattered like a school bell. She held my face and said. ” Thank you for everything, ”
There was a finality to her tone but I shrugged it away. Comon! This is Jay for godsake! The very same Janet that knocked two teeth off Felix, the street bully’s mouth. The Janet that trained her siblings through school. The Janet that charged at my dog years ago. This same Janet will fight this disease. Surely!
Two nights later, Janet died. Her funeral was solemn. It was just me, the priest, her landlord Mr Shola,Salome and Rita- the girls who used to work with her. Jay’s siblings didn’t show up. Dozie had sent in flowers, heaps of white roses that can fill a room. His scribbled letter said he was facing his bar exams. Bella didn’t show up either. She sent in money to cover the casket expense. Her reason was that she could not leave her oil company job at the moment because promotion was at hand. At about, 6:02pm,Jay was lowered into the ground without her beloved family’ wails to grease her passage into the land of the dead.
But who says family is by blood alone? Family can be bound by love too. Janet was my family too.
Three years later.
My red salon car parks by the pear tree beside the gate of St Philips Cemetery. My black stiletto finds it’s way down the rocky path. Broken graves, marble graves and cemented grave litter like pieces of chess lying around the board.
Here lies Ngozi Adibe. 1961-1998… No no! That’s not her. Here lies Kenneth Osaka 1974-2001, No no!
I keep walking. My eyes darting left and right. My black gown brushing against the walls of tombstones. And there it was: A tomb encased in white tiles.
Here lies Janet Adaga (1982-2012)
Sister and friend.
Rest in peace.
My fingers slide across the white tiles. A thousand memories flood my mind. Tears roll down my eyes. The pain feels just the same. Adieu Jay! I murmur. Kneeling on the grave, I place my roses at her feet.