In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)8

But the first bad news was mine. I come home one weekday, tired after my lorry work, and I find Dayo. He is well dressed, he is like a man on a visit. But he say he leave Stephen’s house for good, he is not going back. He say, ‘They try to make me a yard-boy. They try to get me to run messages for them.’ I could see how much he was suffering, and I could see that he was frightened we wouldn’t believe him and would force him to go back.

It is what my father would like to do. He scratch his arms and rub his hand over the stiff grey hair on his chin, making that sound he does like, and he say, as though he know everything and is very wise, ‘It is what you have to put up with.’

So poor Dayo could only turn to me. And when I look at his face, so sad and frightened, I feel my body get weak and trembling. The blood run up and down my veins, and my arms start hurting inside, as though inside them is wire and the wire is being pulled.

Dayo say, ‘I got to go away. I got to leave. I feel that if I stay here those people are going to cripple me with their jealousy.’

I don’t know what to say. I don’t know the ropes, I don’t have any contacts. Stephen is the man with the contacts, but now I can’t ask Stephen anything.

‘There is nothing for me to do here,’ Dayo say.

‘What about the oilfields?’ I ask him.

‘Oilfields, oilfields. The white people keep the best jobs for themselves. All you could do there is to become a bench-chemist.’

Bench-chemist, I never hear this word before, and it impress me to hear it. Stephen’s family don’t give Dayo any credit for learning, but I can see how much the boy improve in the two years and how he develop a new way of talking. He don’t talk fast now, his voice is not going up and down, he use his hands a lot, and he is getting a nice little accent, so that sometimes he sound like a woman, the way educated people sound. I like his new way of talking, though it embarrasses me to look at him and think that he my brother is now a master of language. So now he start talking, and I let him talk, and as he talk he lose his sadness and fright.

Then I ask him, ‘What you would study when you go away? Medicine, chartered accountancy, law?’

My mother jump in and say, ‘I don’t know, ever since Dayo small, I always feel I would like him to do dentistry.’

That is her intelligence, and you well know that she never think of dentistry or anything else for Dayo until that moment. We let her say what she have to say, and she go down to the kitchen, and Dayo begin to talk in his way. He don’t give me a straight answer, he is working up to something, and at last it come. He say: ‘Aeronautical engineering.’

This is a word, like bench-chemist, that I never hear before. It frighten me a little, but Dayo say they have a college in England where you just go and pay the fees. Anyway, so we agree. He was going to go away to further his studies in aeronautical engineering.

And as soon as we agree on that Dayo start behaving as though he is a prisoner on the run, as though he have a ship to catch, as though he couldn’t stay another month on the island. It turn out in truth that he had a ship to catch. It turn out that he had some friends he did want to go to England with. So I run about here and there, raising money from this one and that one, signing my name on this paper and that paper, until the money side was settled.

Everything happen very fast, and I remember thinking, watching Dayo go aboard the ship with a smile, that it was one of those moments you can only properly think about afterwards. When the ship pull away and I see the oily water between the ship and the dock, my heart sink. I feel sick, I feel the whole thing was too easy, that something so easy cannot end well. And on top of all this is my grief for the boy, that slender boy in the new suit.

The grief work on me. In my mind I blame Stephen and his family for their jealousy. And, I couldn’t help it, two or three days after Dayo leave I went to the city and went to Stephen’s house.

It was a poky little old-fashioned wood house in a bad part of the city, and it shame me to think that once upon a time I used to look on Stephen as a big man. Now I see that in the city Stephen is not much, that all his hope and all his daughters’ hope is in that son who is studying in Montreal. He is like the Prince to them. And in that little house, with no front yard and next to no backyard, they are living like Snow White and the seven dwarfs, with their little foreign pictures in their little drawing-room, and their little pieces of polished furniture. You feel you have to stoop, that if you take a normal step you will break something.

It was late afternoon when I went. Everybody home. Stephen rocking in the gallery. It surprise me to see him looking so old. The hair on his head really grey now, standing up short and stiff. Everybody is looking at me as though they feel I come to make trouble. I disappoint them. I kiss Stephen on his cheek and I kiss his wife. The girls pretend they don’t see me, and that is all right by me.

They give me tea. Not in our crude country fashion, condensed milk and brown sugar and tea mixed up in one. No, man. Tea, milk, white sugar, everything separate. I pretend I am one of the seven dwarfs and I do everything they want me to do. Then, as I was expecting, they ask about Dayo.

I stir my tea with their little teaspoon and take a sip and I put the cup down and say, ‘Oh, Dayo. He gone away. On the Colombie.’

Stephen is so surprised he stop rocking. Then he begin to smile. He look just like my father.

Stephen’s wife, Miss Shameless Christian Short-Dress herself, she ask, ‘And what he gone away for? To look for a work?’

I lift up the teacup and say, ‘To pursue his higher studies.’

Stephen is vexed now. ‘Higher studies? But he didn’t even begin his lower studies.’

‘That is an opinion,’ I say, using some words I pick up from Dayo.

One of the girls, a real pretty and malicious little one, come out and ask, ‘What he is going to study?’

‘Aeronautical engineering.’

The shock show on Stephen’s face, and I feel I could laugh. All of them are mad with jealousy now. All the girls come out and stand up around me in that little drawing-room as though I am the brown girl in the ring. I just drinking my tea out of their little teacup. On the walls they have all those pictures and photographs of foreign scenes, as though because they are Christian and so on, they must know about these things.

‘Aeronautical engineering,’ Stephen say. ‘He would be better off piloting a taxi between the airport and the city.’

The girls giggle and Stephen’s wife smile. Stephen is the mocker and joker again, the man in control, and it is all right again for his family. They get a little happier. I see that if I stay any longer I would have to start insulting them, so I get up and leave. As I leave I hear one of the girls laugh. I can’t tell you how full my heart get with hate.

Next morning I wake up at four o’clock, and the hate is still with me. The hate eat me and eat me until the day break and I get up, and all that day the hate eating me while I am working, driving the lorry to and from the gravel pits.

In the afternoon, work over, the lorry parked below the house, I take a taxi and went back to the city, to Stephen’s house. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Half the time I was thinking that I would go and make friends with them again, that I would go and take Stephen’s jokes and show that I could laugh at the jokes.

But that is the way of weakness and it would be foolish and wrong, because you cannot really joke with your enemy. When you find out who your enemy is, you must kill him before he kill you. And so with the other half of my mind I was thinking I would go there and break everything in the house, swinging one of those drawing-room bentwood chairs from wall to wall, from jalousie to jalousie, in all those tiny rooms, through all that damn fretwork.

Then a strange thing happen. Perhaps it was because I did wake up so early that morning. The constipation that was with me all day suddenly stop, and by the time I reach Stephen’s house all I want is a toilet.

So I rush in the house. Stephen rocking in the little galle
ry. But I didn’t tell him anything. I didn’t say good afternoon or anything to his wife and his daughters. I went straight through to their toilet and I stay there a long time, and I pull the chain and I wait until the cistern full again and I pull the chain again. Then I walk out and I walk through the house and I didn’t tell anybody anything, and I walk out on the street, and the feeling come back to my arms, no more stretched wires inside them, and I walk and walk until my head cool down, and then I take taxi home, to the junction.

And next morning again I wake up in the darkness at four o’clock, but this time I am frightened. I only feel like crying and praying for forgiveness, and I begin to know something gone wrong with me, that my life and my mind not right. Even the hate break inside me. I can’t feel the hate. I begin to feel lost. I think of Dayo lying sick on the floor in the old house and I think of him leaving on the white Colombie. And even when I get up in the morning I feel lost.

I expect punishment. I don’t know how it is coming, but every day I wait for it. Every day I wait to hear from Dayo, but he don’t write. I feel I would like to go back to Stephen’s house, just go back and sit down and do nothing, not even talk. But I never go.

And then Stephen get news of his son. And the news is that Stephen’s son gone foolish in Montreal. The further studies and his father too much for him, and in Montreal he is foolish, like those police dogs that get foolish, like pets, if you kill their handlers. Stephen get his bad news now! The Prince is not coming, and in that little house in the city the whole family mash up, in truth.

My father say, ‘I always say that Stephen was going to get throw down by that boy.’

He feel he win. He do nothing; he just wait and win. But I remember my own hate, the hate that make me sick, and I feel I kill all of them.

*

I think now of the maple leaf the boy send us in the airmail envelope with the strange stamp. Walking on the street with his overcoat and briefcase, when he was pursuing his studies. The street is still there, the rain fall on it a thousand times, the leaves still on the pavement beside the black railings. Now I feel I walk on that pavement myself, among the strange leaves. Strange leaves, strange flowers that sometimes I pick. I have paper; the paper have lines like a schoolchild’s copybook, and a number; and Frank write my name in his own handwriting at the top on the dotted line. But I have nobody to write and send a leaf or a flower to.

*

The water black, the ship white, the lights blazing. And inside the ship, far below, everybody like prisoners already. The lights dim, everyone in their bunk. In the morning the water is blue, but you can’t see land. You are just going where the ship is going, you will never be a free man again. The ship smelling, like vomit, like the back door of a restaurant. Night and day the ship is moving. The sea and sky lose colour, everything is grey.

I don’t want the ship to stop, I don’t want to touch land again. On the bunk below me is a jeweller fellow called Khan or Mohammed. He is wearing a hat all the time, all the time, and you would think he is wearing it for the joke. But he is not laughing, his face is small, and he is talking already of going back. I can’t go back, I will have to stay. I don’t know how I trap myself.

The land come nearer, and one morning through the rain you see it, more white than green, no colours there. The ship stop suddenly and it is very quiet, and there in the water below is a boat and some men in oilskins. You see them move but you can’t hear them. And after all the days at sea everything in and around that little boat is very bright, as though a black-and-white picture suddenly turn Technicolor. The rocking water is deep and green, the oilskins very yellow, the faces of the people very pink.

The mystery land is theirs, the stranger is you. None of those houses in the rain there belong to you. You can’t see yourself walking down those streets set down so flat on that cliff. But that is where you have to go, and as soon as everybody get down in the launch with their luggage the ship hoot. It is white and big and safe, it is saying goodbye, it is in a hurry to get away and to leave you behind. The Technicolor is over, the picture change. Now is only noise and rush and luggage, train and traffic. This is it, and already you are like a man in blinkers.

*

I tell myself I come to England to be with Dayo and to look after him, to keep him well while he is pursuing his studies. But I didn’t see Dayo at the dock and I didn’t see him at the railway station. He leave me alone. I do what I see other people do, and I manage. I find a job, I get some rooms in Paddington. I learn bus numbers and place names; I watch the season change from cold to warm. I manage, I am all right, but only because I feel it is not my life. I feel as I feel on the ship, that I lose that, that I throw that away.

Then, after all those weeks when he leave me guessing, Dayo write. He try to blame me; he say he had to write home to get my address. He is in another town. He write nothing about his aeronautical engineering, but he say he just finish one particular course of studies and he get a diploma, and now he want some help to move down to London to do some more studies.

I take the day off from the cigarette factory and draw out a few pounds from the post office and went up by train to the town where he was staying. It is always like this now. You are always taking trains and buses to strange places. You never know what sort of street you are going to find yourself in, what sort of house you will be knocking at.

The street is solid with little grey brick houses. Only a few steps from the gate of the house to the door, and the man who open the door get mad as soon as he hear my name. He is a small old man, his neck very loose in his collar, and I can’t understand his accent too well. But I understand him to say that Dayo is owing him twelve pounds in rent, that Dayo run away without paying, and that he is not giving up Dayo’s suitcase until he get his money. I begin to hate the little fellow and his mildewed house. Dirt shining on the walls, and when I see the little cubicle he is charging three pounds a week for, I had to control myself. You always have to control yourself now, I don’t know for what reward.

In the cubicle I see Dayo’s suitcase, still with the Colombie sticker. I pay and take it straightaway. I don’t know where in this town Dayo can be, where he is hiding these last four weeks, but like a fool with this heavy suitcase, as though I just get off the ship myself, I walk up and down the streets, looking.

Even when I went back to the railway station I couldn’t make up my mind to leave. The waiting-room empty, the seats cut up with long knife slashes that set your teeth on edge just to see them. I try to think of all the days that Dayo spend alone in this town, all the times he too see the day turn to evening, and he don’t know who to turn to. And as the train take me back to London, I hate everything I see, houses, shops, traffic, all those settled people, those children playing games in fields.

At the station I wait again and take a bus and then another bus. Then there, outside my house, when I turn the corner with that heavy suitcase, I see Dayo, in the suit he went aboard the Colombie with.

He look as if he was waiting a long time, as if he nearly forget what he was waiting for. He is not thin; if anything, he is a little stouter. As soon as he see me he get sad, and the tears run to my eyes. When we go down to the basement we embrace and we sit down together on the sofa-bed. I am ashamed to notice it, but he is smelling, his clothes are dirty.

He put his head on my lap and I pat him like a baby, thinking of all those days he spend alone, without me. He knock his head on my knee and say, ‘I don’t have confidence, brother. I lose my confidence.’ I look at his long hair that no barber cut for weeks, I see the inside of his dirty collar. I see his dirty shoes. Again and again he say, ‘I don’t have confidence, I don’t have confidence.’

All the bad things I did want to say to him drop away. I rock him on my lap until I come to myself and see that it is dark, the street lamp on outside. I don’t want him to do anything foolish because of false pride. I want to give him a way out. So I ask, ‘You don’t want to go through with your studies?
’ He don’t answer. He only sob. I ask him again, ‘You don’t want to take any more studies?’ He lift his head up and blow his nose and say, ‘It is all right, brother. I like studies.’ And I can tell he is happier, that he was only a little worried and lonely and down-couraged; and that it is going to be all right in truth.

In the kitchen, as soon as I turn on the light, cockroaches scatter everywhere, over dirty old stove and mash-up pot and pan. I bring out bread and milk and a tin of New Brunswick sardines.

It is full-moon night, and the old white woman upstairs start getting on the way she does always get on when the moon is full, shouting and fighting with her husband, screaming and cursing until one of them shut the other one outside.

I light a little fire, more firelighter and newspaper than coal, and Dayo and I sit and eat. I just regret the basement have no bath. But Dayo will go next day to the public baths, sixpence with the smooth old towel. Right now the little fire make the room more than warm, the damp dry out a little. The rat smell the food right away: I hear him scratching at the box I put over his hole. It is like living in a camp, in this basement. Not long after I move in I make a joke about putting a tiny lady’s hand mirror right in the centre of the wall over the fireplace. Now Dayo is here to appreciate that joke.

We pull out the bed part of the sofa-bed and make it up. I even forget the smell, of dead rat and old dirt and gas and rust. Upstairs, the old woman shut her husband out. When I wake up in the night it is because the husband is either shouting from the pavement or banging on the door. In the morning all is calm. The monthly madness is over.

*

So, suddenly, the sadness and the fright pass, and the happy time come. The happy time come and it don’t go away, and I start forgetting. Stephen and his family, my father and mother, the sugarcane and the mud and the rich man’s rotting house, the ship at night and the mystery land in the morning, all of that I forget. It is far away, like another life; none of that can touch me again. And in that basement, with the old mad woman upstairs, I feel as the London months pass that I get back my life, living with Dayo alone, knowing nobody else.

0

Leave a Reply