Under the Christmas tree in Philadelphia this year, at our older daughter’s house, were 2 gift bags with my name on them – and they were full of books! I did finally swim this afternoon, after spending the first half of the day sitting completely still, reading, but not until I was finished my first selection: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adicheie. What a glorious morning, and what a glorious read.
One of the main characters, Obinze, spends a part of his life as an undocumented immigrant, using a false identity, in London. Scared all the time and desperate for regular work, normalcy and hope, the reader is reminded of how much each small thing matters. No kindness is wasted.
One morning in early summer, a renewing warmth in the air, Obinze arrived at the warehouse and knew right away that something was amiss. The men avoided his eyes, an unnatural stiffness in their movements, and Nigel turned swiftly, too swiftly, towards the toilet when he saw Obinze. They knew. It had to be that they had somehow found out. They saw the headlines about asylum seekers draining the National Health Service, they knew of the hordes further crowding a crowded island, and now they knew that he was one of the damned, working with a name that was not his. Where was Roy Snell? Had he gone to call the police? Was it the police that one called? Obinze tried to remember details from the stories of people who had been caught and deported but his mind was numb. He felt naked. He wanted to turn and run but his body kept moving, against his well, toward the loading area. Then he sensed a movement behind him, quick and violent and too close, and before he could turn around, a paper hat had been pushed onto his head. It was Nigel, and with him a gathering of grinning men.
“Happy birthday, Vinny Boy!” they all said.
Obinze froze, frightened by the complete blankness of his mind. Then he realized what it was. Vincent’s birthday. Roy must have told the men. Even he had not remembered to remember Vincent’s date of birth.
“Oh!” was all he said, nauseous from relief.
Nigel asked him to come into the coffee room, where all the men were trooping in, and as Obinze sat with them, all of them white except for Patrick from Jamaica, passing around the muffins and Coke they had bought with their own money in honor of a birthday they believed was his, a realization brought tears to his eyes: he felt safe.