In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)7

But even as I talk I know it is foolishness. I know that my life spoil and even I myself feel like laughing.

I don’t want to be out in the street now. It isn’t that I don’t want people to see me; I don’t want to see people. Frank tell me it is because they are white. I don’t know, when Frank talk like that I feel he is challenging me to kill one of them.

I want to get off the street, to calm down. Frank take me to a café and we sit right at the back, facing the wall. He sit beside me. And he is talking to me. He talk about his own childhood, and I feel he is trying to show me that he too as a child had ague in a bare room. But he win through in life, he is in his city, he is now wise and strong. He don’t know how jealous he is making me of him. I don’t want to listen. I look at the flowers on the paper napkins and I lose myself in the lines. He can’t see what is locked up in my mind. He will never in a hundred years understand how ordinary the world was for me, with nothing good in it, nothing to see except sugarcane and the pitch road, and how from small I know I had no life.

*

Ordinary for me, but for my brother it wasn’t going to be like that. He was going to break away; he was going to be a professional man; I was going to see to that. For the rich and the professional the world is not ordinary. I know, I see them. Where you build a hut, they build a mansion; where you have mud and a pará-grass field, they have a garden; when you kill time on a Sunday, they have parties. We all come out of the same pot, but some people move ahead and some people get left behind. Some people get left behind so far they don’t know and they stop caring.

Like my father. He couldn’t read and write and he didn’t care. He even joke about his illiteracy, slapping his fat arms and laughing. He say he is happy to leave that side of life to his younger brother, who is a law clerk in the city. And whenever he meet this brother, my father is always turning his own life into a story and a joke, and he turn us his children into a joke too. But for all the jokes he make, you could see that my father feel that he is very wise, that it is he who pick up the bargain. My two older sisters and my older brother are like that too. They learn just so much in school; then – it was the way of the old days – they get married, and my older brother start beating his wife and so on, doing everything in the way people before him do, getting drunk on a Friday and Saturday, wasting his money, without shame.

I was the fourth child and the second son. The world change around me when I was growing up. I see people going away to further their studies and coming back as big men. I know that I miss out. I know how much I lose when I have to stop school, and I decide that it wasn’t going to be like that for my younger brother. I feel I see things so much better than the rest of my family; they always tell me I am very touchy. But I feel I become like the head of the family. I get the ambition and the shame for all of them. The ambition is like shame, and the shame is like a secret, and it is always hurting. Even now, when it is all over, it can start hurting again. Frank can never see what I see in my mind.

*

A man used to live near us in a big two-storey house. The house was of concrete, with decorated concrete blocks, and it was in a lovely ochre colour with chocolate wood facings, everything so neat and nice it look like something to eat. I study this house every day and I think of it as the rich man’s house, because the man was rich. He was rich, but once upon a time he was poor, like us, and the story was that he had a few acres of oil land in the south. A simple man, like my father, without too much education. But in my eyes the oil land and the luck and the money and the house make this man great.

I worship this man. Nothing extravagant about him; sometimes you could see him standing up on the road waiting for a bus or a taxi to go to town, and if you didn’t know who he was you wouldn’t notice him. I study everything about him, seeing luck and money in everything, in the hair he comb, in the shirt his hands button, in the shoes his hands lace up. He live alone in the house. His children married, and the story is that he don’t get on with his family, that he is a man with a lot of worries. But to me even that is part of the greatness.

One time there was a wedding in the village, the old-fashioned all-night wedding, and the rich man lend his house. And on the wedding night I went in the house for the first time. The house that look so big from the outside is really very small inside. Downstairs is just concrete pillars, walls around open space. Upstairs is five small rooms, not counting galleries back and front. The lights dim, dim. It is what I remember most. That and the dead-rat smell. You feel dust everywhere, dust falling on you even while you walk. It isn’t dust, it is the droppings from woodlice, hard smooth tiny eggs of wood that roll below your hand if you put your hand down anywhere.

The drawing-room choke up with furniture, Morris suite and centre tables and everything else; but you feel that if you press too hard on anything it will crush. Just the furniture, nothing else in the drawing-room, no pictures or calendars even, nothing except for a pile of Christian magazines, Jehovah’s Witness or something like that, things that the rest of us throw away but he the rich man keep, and he is not even a Christian. The place is like a tomb. It is as though nobody live there, as though the rich man don’t know why he build the house.

And then one day somebody shoot the man. For money, for some family bad blood, nobody know. It is another country mystery. The black police nail up Five Hundred Dollars Reward posters everywhere, as though the village is suddenly like Dodge City or like something in Jesse James, with Henry Fonda and Tyrum Powers just around the corner.

Everybody wait for the drama. But no drama happen. The posters fade and tear, the police forget, the house remain. The ochre paint discolour, the galvanize roof rust and the rust run down the walls, and the damp run up fast from the ground like a bright green bush. The bright green get dark, it get black, real bush grow up in front of it. Mildew stain the house, the roof is all rust. The paint wash off the woodwork, the grain of the wood begin to show, the wood begin to get hollow, the soft parts melting away, until only the hard grain remain, like a skeleton. And all the time I live there the house just standing there like that.

I see now that the man I thought was a rich man wasn’t rich at all. And from here, from this city which is like a country, I feel I could look down and see that whole village in the damp flat lands, the lumpy little pitch road, black between the green sugarcane, the ditches with the tall grass, the thatched huts, water in the yellow yards after rain, and the rusty roof of that one concrete house rotting.

*

You wonder how people get to a village like that, how that place become their home. But it is home, and on a sunny Sunday morning, nobody working, see everybody relaxing in their front yards, a few zinnias growing here and there, a few marigolds and old maid and coxcomb and lady’s slipper and the usual hibiscus. The barber making his round, people sitting down below mango trees and getting their hair cut. And in my mind it is on a morning like this that I can see my father’s younger brother coming up the pitch road on his bicycle.

My father’s brother is living in the city. How he get there, how he get education when my father get none, how he get this job with the lawyer, all of this happen a long time ago, before I was born, and is now like a mystery. He is a Christian, or he take a Christian name, Stephen, as a mark of his progressiveness. My father does mock him behind his back for that name, but all of us are proud of Stephen and we well enjoy the little fame and respect he give us in the village.

It is a big thing when he come to visit us. The neighbours spreading the news in advance, my mother chasing and killing a chicken right away, my father getting out the rum bottle and glasses and water. Fête! And at the end, just before he leave, Stephen sharing out coppers to the children for the Sunday 4.30 matinée double.

Or so it used to be. I adore Stephen when I was small. And adoring him like this, I used to think that he live alone in the city, that we was his only family. But then I get let down. I realize that Stephen have his own family, that he have
a whole heap of girl children, going to the Convent, and that he have his own son, a bright boy, a great student, and he worship this son. The boy is my own age too, or just a little older. Once or twice he come to see us. He is nice and quiet, not pulling any style on us, and you could see that in a special way my father is prouder of him than he is of me or my younger brother, that Stephen’s son is what he expect, different, a bright boy and a future professional. My father don’t give him coppers for a matinée. He send him a Shirley Temple fountain pen, a Mickey Mouse wristwatch.

Stephen never tell us when he is coming, and you wonder why a man like that would decide to leave his family on a Sunday morning to come and have a country fête with us. My father say that Stephen is glad to get away from that modern life sometimes, that Stephen is not happy with his Christian wife, and that Stephen, because of his progressiveness, is full of worries. I don’t know what worries a man like Stephen could have. And if he have worries, they don’t always show.

Stephen is a joker and a mocker. Even before he put his bicycle in the shade, even before he take off his hat and bicycle clips, even before he take the first shot of rum, Stephen start mocking. I don’t know why he find our donkey so funny; it is as though he never see one before. He mock us because of the donkey; he mock us when the donkey die. Then when we buy the lorry and it get laid up for a few weeks below the house, blocks of wood below the axle, he mock us because of that. Everything we do is only like a mockery to Stephen, and my father encourage him by laughing.

Stephen mock me a lot too, in the beginning. ‘When you marrying off this one?’ he used to ask my father, even when I was small. My father always laugh and say, ‘Next season. I got a nice girl for him.’ But as I grow older I show I don’t appreciate the humour, and Stephen stop mocking me.

He is not a bad or cruel man, Stephen. He is just a natural joker, with all his so-called worries. Sometimes he mock himself. One time, when he bring his son to see us, he say, ‘My son never yet tell a lie.’ I ask the boy, ‘It is true?’ He say, ‘No.’ Stephen burst out laughing and say, ‘My God, the influence of you people! The boy just tell his first lie.’ This is Stephen, a little seriousness always below the mockery, and you feel that one reason he mock us is because he would like us to be a little more progressive.

Stephen is always asking my father what we are doing to educate my younger brother. ‘The others are lost,’ Stephen say. ‘But you could still give this one a little education. Dayo, boy, you would like to take some studies?’ And Dayo would rub his foot against his ankle and say, ‘Yes, I would like to take some studies.’ It was the beauty of the boy that attract Stephen, I feel. He used to say, ‘I will take away Dayo with me.’ – ‘Yes,’ my father would say, ‘you take him away and give him some studies. In this school here he learning nothing at all. I don’t know what teachers teaching these days.’

I always think it would be nice if Stephen could take an interest in Dayo and use his contacts to get Dayo in a good school in the city. But I know that Stephen is just talking, or rather, it is the rum and curry chicken talking, and I don’t see how I can talk to him seriously about Dayo. If Stephen was a stranger it would have been different. But Stephen is family, and family is funny. I don’t want to give Stephen or his son the idea that I am running them competition. Stephen would more than mock, if he feel that; he might even get vexed.

So I let Stephen talk. I know that he will drink and mock, that his eyes will get redder and redder until his worries begin to show on his face in truth, and that when the fête is over he will jump on his bicycle and ride off back to the city and his family.

I know that Stephen can’t really take an interest in Dayo, because Stephen’s whole mind and heart is full of his own son. For years Stephen talk of his son’s further studies, and for years he save for these further studies; he don’t keep it secret. Even when the time for these studies get close, when everything is fixed up with the university in Canada, Stephen don’t relax. You begin to feel then that Stephen is more than ambitious for his son, that he is a little frightened too. He is like a man carrying something that could break and cut him. Even my father notice the difference, and he begin to say behind Stephen’s back, ‘My brother Stephen is going to get throw down by his son.’ Like a happy man, my father. He educate none of his own children to throw him down.

Then one Sunday afternoon, some months before the boy leave, Stephen come. Without warning, as usual. This time he is not on a bicycle and he is not alone. He is in a motor car and he is with his whole family. From the pará-grass field at the back of the house I see the car stop and I see all Stephen’s girl children get out, and I remember the condition of our house. I race up in a foolish kind of way trying to sweep and straighten up. But my heart is failing me, because I can see the house as the girls will see it. And in the end, hearing the voices coming up the steps at the side, I pretend to be like my father, not caring, ready to make a joke of everything, letting people know that we have what we have, and that is that.

So they all come upstairs. And you could see the scorn in the face of Stephen’s Christian wife and his Christian daughters. It would be much more bearable if they was ugly. But they are not ugly, and I feel that their scorn is right. I try to stay in the background. But then my mother, rubbing her dirty foot against her ankle, grin and pull up her veil over the top of her head, as though it is the only thing she have to do to make herself presentable, and she say, ‘But, Stephen, you didn’t give us warning. You had this boy’ – and she point to me – ‘running about trying to clean up the place.’ And she laugh, as though she make a good joke.

The foolish woman didn’t know what she was saying. I run out of the house to the pará-grass field at the back and then through the sugarcane, trying to fight down the shame and vexation.

I walk and walk, and I feel I would never like to go back to the house. But the day finish, I have to go back. The frogs croaking and singing in the canals and the ditches, the dim lights on in the house. Nobody miss me. Nobody care what they did say to me. Nobody ask where I went or what I do. Everybody in the house is just full of this piece of news. Dayo is going to live in the city with Stephen and his family. Stephen is going to send him to school or college and look after his studies. Stephen is going to make him a doctor, lawyer, anything. Everything settled.

It was like a dream. But it come at the wrong moment. I should be happy, but I feel that everything is now poisoned for me. Now that Dayo is about to go away, I begin to feel that I am carrying him inside me the way Stephen is carrying his own son, like something that might break and cut. And at the same time, forgive me, a new feeling is in my heart. I am just waiting for my father and mother, for Stephen and all Stephen’s family, for all of them who was there that day, I am just waiting for all of them to die, to bury my shame with them. I hate them.

Even today I can hate them, when I should have more cause to hate white people, to hate this café and this street and these people who cripple me and spoil my life. But now the dead man is me.

*

I used to have a vision of a big city. It wasn’t like this, not streets like this. I used to see a pretty park with high black iron railings like spears, old thick trees growing out of the wide pavement, rain falling the way it fall over Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge, and the pavement covered with flat leaves of a perfect shape in pretty colours, gold and red and crimson.

Maple leaves. Stephen’s son send us one, not long after he went to Montreal to pursue his higher studies. The envelope is long, the stamp strange, and inside the envelope and his letter is this pretty maple leaf, one leaf from the thousands on that pavement. I handle the envelope and the leaf a lot, I study the stamp, and I see Stephen’s son walking on the pavement beside the black railing. It is very cold, and I see him stopping to blow his nose, looking down at the leaves and then thinking of us his cousins. He is wearing an overcoat to keep out the cold and he have a briefcase under his arm. That is how I think of him in Montreal, f
urthering his studies, and happy among the maple leaves. And that is how I want to see Dayo.

*

It was after Stephen’s son went to Montreal that the jealousy really did break out in Stephen’s family against Dayo. They did always scorn the boy. They used to make him sleep in the drawing-room, and he had to make up a bed on the floor after everybody else went to sleep. He didn’t have a room to pursue his studies in, like Stephen’s son. He used to read his books in the tiny front gallery of Stephen’s tiny house. The gallery was almost on the pavement, so that he could see everybody that pass and they could see him. See him? They could reach out a hand and turn the page of the book he was reading. Still, this regular reading and studying he do in the gallery win him a little fame and respect in the area, and I feel it was this little respect that the poor boy start to pick up that make Stephen’s family vexed. They feel they are the only ones who should pursue studies.

Stephen’s daughters especially take against the boy, when you would think they ought to have been proud of their handsome cousin. But no, like all poor people, they want to be the only ones to rise. It is the poor who always want to keep down the poor. So they feel that Dayo is lowering them. It wouldn’t have surprised me to get a message one day from Stephen that Dayo was interfering and tampering with his daughters.

You can imagine how glad they all was when Dayo sit his various exams and fail. You can imagine how much that make their heart rejoice. The reason was the bad school Dayo was going to. He couldn’t get into any of the good ones. Those schools always talk about a lack of background and grounding, and Dayo had to go to a private school where the teachers themselves was a set of dunces without any qualifications. But Stephen’s daughters don’t look at that.

You would think that Stephen, after all his grand charge about progressiveness, would stand up for Dayo and do something to give the boy a little help and courage. But Stephen himself, when his son went away, get very funny. He is not interested in anything at all; he is like a man in mourning. He is like a man expecting bad news, the thing that would break in his hands and cut him. His face get puffy, his hair get grey and coarse.

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