In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)9

I fix up the little back bedroom for Dayo, with a reading-light and everything, and he start taking some regular studies. He get back his confidence and it looks as though what he say is true, that he really like studies, because as fast as he finish one diploma he start another. In the new clothes I buy for him he is looking nice, even sharp. He develop his way of talking and he is looking good to me, like any professional. I know my own ignorance and I don’t interfere with his studies. I let him go his own way and take his own time. I don’t want anything to happen to him again. It is enough for me that he is there.

And you could say that I begin to like big-city life. At home, where people treat you rough and generally get on as though work is a crime and a punishment, I did always prefer to be my own boss. But here I get to like the factory. Nobody watching you; you lower nobody; nobody mock you. I like the nice sharp tobacco smell, and I get to like the machine I mind, with the cigarettes coming out in one long piece, so long and strong you could skip with it. I never think work would be like this, that it would make me feel good to think that the factory is always there and I could always go to it on a morning.

Every Friday they give you a hundred free cigarettes. These cigarettes have a special watermark, but those fellows from Pakistan don’t always appreciate this and some of them get catch. A white fellow start walking out one day like a cowboy on high heels. When they stop him they find his shoes stuff up with tobacco. Things like this always happen. The factory is like a school that you don’t like at first but then you like more and more.

No hustling with the lorry, nobody beating you down all the time, and you get your money in a little brown envelope, as though you are some kind of civil servant or professional. Regular work, regular money. After some months I finish paying off the moneylender at home, and then I even start saving a little for myself. I am not keeping this money at home, as my father used to do with his few cents. It is going straight in the post office; I have my own little book. One day I find I have a hundred pounds. Mine, not money I borrow. A hundred pounds. I feel safe. I can’t tell you how safe I feel. Whenever I think of it I close my eyes and put my hand to my heart.

*

But it is so when you get too happy. You forget too much. That hundred pounds make me forget myself. It give me ideas. It make me forget why I am in London. I want to feel more than safe now. I want to see that money grow, I want to see the clerks writing in my book in their different handwriting every week. That become like a craze with me. I know it is foolishness, and I don’t tell Dayo about it; but at the same time I enjoy the secret. And it is because I want to see this money grow week after week that I take a second job. I look around and I get a night work in a restaurant kitchen.

So I start stunning myself with work, and my life become one long work. I get up about six. By seven, Dayo still sleeping, I leave for the cigarette factory. I come back about six to the basement, sometimes Dayo there, sometimes he is not there. By eight I leave for the restaurant, and I come back about midnight or later. London for me is the bus rides, morning, evening, night, the factory, the restaurant kitchen, the basement. I know it is too much, but for me that is part of the pleasure. Like when you are sick and thin, you want to get thinner and thinner, just to see how thin you could get. Or like some fat people who don’t like being fat but still they just want to see how fat they could get: they are always looking at their shadow, and that is like their secret hobby. So now I am always tired when I go to sleep and tired in the morning, but I like and enjoy the tiredness. That is like the secret too, like the money adding up, fifty, sixty pounds a month. And the tiredness does always go in the middle of the morning.

I feel Dayo would mock me if he get to find out what possess my mind. He don’t say anything, but I know that he, as a student in London, can’t really appreciate having his brother working in a restaurant kitchen. But as the months pass, as one year pass, and two years, as the life hold out and the money add up, I find the money making me strong. And because the money make me strong I can put up with anything. I don’t mind what people say or how they watch me. When I didn’t have money I used to hate the basement, and I used to daydream about buying nice clothes not only for Dayo but for me too. But now my clothes don’t matter to me, and I even get a thrill to think that nobody seeing me in my working clothes, on that street, coming out of that basement, would believe that I have a thousand pounds in the post office, that I have twelve hundred, that I have fifteen.

I scarcely believe it myself. Life in London! This was what people say at home, to mean everything nice. I didn’t look for it; it wasn’t what I come for. But I feel that that life come now, and if I was frightened of anything it was that my strength wouldn’t hold out, that Dayo would finish his studies and leave me alone in the basement, and that the life would end.

It is true. This was the happy time, when Dayo live in my basement and I work like a man in blinkers, when I have the factory to go to every morning and the restaurant every evening, when I can enjoy a Sunday the way I never enjoy a Sunday before. Sometimes I think of the first day, and those men in yellow oilskins in the deep green water in the morning. But that to me is now like a memory from somewhere else, like something I make up.

*

Craziness. How a man could fool himself like that? Look at these streets now. Look at these things and people I never did see. They have their life too; the city is theirs. I don’t know where I thought I was, behaving as though the city was a ghost city, working by itself, and that it is something I discover by myself. Frank will never understand. He will never see the city I see; he will never understand how I work like that.

He is only querying and probing me about foremen who insult me at the factory, about people who fight with me at the restaurant. He is forever worrying me with his discrimination inquiries. He is my friend, the only friend I have. I alone know how much he help me, from how far he bring me back. But he is digging me all the time because he prefer to see me weak. He like opening up manholes for me to fall in; he is anxious to push me down in the darkness.

His attitude, in the café and then at the bus stop and then in the bus, is: keep off, this man is weak, this man is under my protection. When he is like this he have the power to draw all the strength from me, he with his shining shoes and his nice tweed jacket. As though one time I couldn’t go in a shop and buy twelve tweed jackets and pay in cash.

But now the money gone and everything gone and I only have this suit, and it is smelling. But everything does smell here. At home, at home, windows are always open and everything get clean in the open air. Here everything is locked up. Even on a bus no breeze does blow.

Somewhere in the city Dayo is getting married today. I don’t know where he think he is.

*

I work and work and save and save and the money grow and grow, and when it reach two thousand pounds, I get stunned. I don’t feel I can go on. I know the life have to stop sometime, that I can’t go on with two jobs, that something have to happen. And now the thought of working and saving another thousand is too much for me. So I stop work altogether. I leave the cigarette factory, I leave the restaurant. I take out my two thousand from the post office and I decide to use it.

It is ignorance, it is madness. It is the madness the money itself bring on. The money make me feel strong. The money make me feel that money is easy. The money make me forget how hard money is to make, that it take me more than four years to save what I have. The money in my hand, two thousand pounds, make me forget that my father never get more than ten pounds a month for his donkey-cart work, that he bring all of us up on that ten pounds a month, and that ten by twelve is one hundred and twenty, that the money I have in my hand is the pay of my father for fifteen or sixteen years. The money make me feel that London is mine.

I take my money out and I do with it what I see people do at home. I buy a business. It is the madness working on me, the money madness. I don’t know London and I know nothing about business,
but I buy a business. In my mind I am only calculating like those people at home who buy one lorry and work that and buy a second lorry and buy another and another.

The business I had in mind was a little roti-and-curry shop. Not a restaurant, something more like a stall you get at a racecourse, two or three little basins of curry on the counter on this side, a little pile of rotis or chapattis or dalpuris on that side. A lot of women at home do very well that way. The idea come to me just like that one day when I was still at the cigarette factory, and it never leave me. And because the idea come just like that, as though somebody give it to me, I feel it is right. Dayo wasn’t too interested. He talk a lot in that way he have, talking and talking and leaving you guessing about what he mean. I don’t know whether he is ashamed or whether he find the idea of a roti-shop in London too funny, a reminder of home and simple things. I let him talk.

The first shock I get was the price of properties. But I didn’t get frightened and stop. No, the madness is on me, I can’t pull back. I am behaving as though I have a train to catch and must spend my money first. And the strange thing is that as soon as that first piece of money go, for the lease for a few years of a rundown little place in that scruffy street, as soon as that piece of money actually leave my hand, I know it is foolishness and I feel that all the money gone, that I have nothing. I feel the business bust already. I feel I start to bleed, and I am like a man only looking to down-courage himself.

So in just four or five weeks the whole world change for me again. I am no longer strong and rich, not caring what people say or think. Now, suddenly, I am a pauper, and my shabbiness worry me, and I begin to pine for the little things I didn’t give myself, like twelve-pound tweed jackets, which now, after I pay decorators, electricians and the catering company, I can’t afford.

Then I run into prejudice and regulations. At home you can put up a table outside your house any time and start selling what you want. Here they have regulations. Those suspicious men in tweeds and flannels, some of them young, young fellows, are coming round with their forms and pressing me on every side. They are not leaving me any peace of mind at all. They are full of remarks, they don’t smile, they like nothing I do. And I have to shop and cook and clean, and the area is not good and business is bad, and no amount of hard work and early rising will help.

I see I kill myself. The little courage that still remain with me wash away, and the secret vision I had of buying up London, the foolishness I always really know was foolishness, burst. Without my two thousand pounds in the post office, without my real cash, I was without my strength, like Samson without his hair.

When the men in flannels go, the young English louts come. I don’t know what attract them to the place, why they pick on me. Half the time I can’t understand what they say, but they are not people you can get on with at all. They only dress up and come to make trouble. Sometimes they eat and don’t pay; sometimes they mash up plates and glasses and bend the cutlery. That become like their hobby, a lot of them against me alone. That is their bravery and education. And nobody on my side.

Before, in the days of the hard work, of the two jobs, in the days of money, this was the sort of thing that didn’t bother me at all. But now everything is hurting. I can’t bear the way those louts talk or laugh or dress, and I feel my heart getting full of hate again, as it used to be for Stephen and his family, that hate that make me sick.

*

Dayo should have helped me. He was my brother. He was the man I make the money for. He was the man I went aboard the ship for. But now he leave me alone. He is there with me in the basement; sometimes we still eat together on a Sunday; but his attitude is that what I do is my business alone, he have his own things to do. He is going his own way, pursuing his studies or doing whatever he is doing. Sometimes the light is on in his room when I come in; sometimes he come tiptoeing in afterwards; in the morning I always leave him sleeping. He is there. You can’t forget him. And then my heart begin to set against him too.

I begin to hate the way he talk. I begin to look at him. Once he was the pretty boy, using Vaseline Hair Tonic and combing his hair like Fairley Granger. Now you could see the face becoming just a labourer’s face, without even the hardness that my father’s face get from work and sun. And when he start talking in that way he have – and he can start talking about anything: all you have to say is ‘Dayo, give me a match’ – he make me feel that something is wrong with him, that someone who is using words in this way is not right. He still have his accent, but he is like a man who have no control over his speech, as though it is the first time he talk that day, as though he have nobody in London to talk to.

So in these days I start worrying about Dayo. The roti-shop is always there to worry about, but that to me is in the past now. I do my hard work, I waste my money and my reward. I can’t start again. I can’t go back to the cigarette factory and those insulting illiterate girls and that long ride in the cold morning to the factory. That finish. Now I concentrate on Dayo, my brother. I watch his face, I watch the way he walk, the way he shave. He don’t understand; he is just talking in his womanish way. I don’t tell him anything. I don’t even know what I think. I just look at him and study him.

*

I wake up early one morning with a wet-dream. It was the second wet-dream I had; the first happen when I was a boy. It leave me exhausted and dirty and ashamed. I want to go to Dayo and beg him to forgive me, because this, the thing that just happen to me, is something I never did think about for him. I feel I let him down, that I betray him in my heart, and I feel I would like to go to him and make up and talk as in the old days. I feel I must show him that I always love him.

I go in his little room at the back, the early backyard light showing through the thin curtains, and I look at the boy with the labourer’s face sleeping on the narrow iron bed. On the table, that I cover with red oilcloth for him, is the reading-lamp I fix up for him for his studies, and his big books, and the paperbacks he read for relaxation sometimes, and the little transistor radio he get me to buy for him so that he could listen to his pop music.

A labourer’s face. But the sadness of the sleeping face hit me, and the smallness of the room, and the concrete wall outside the window, and that yard where no sun fall. And I wonder what it is leading to, what will happen to him and me, whether he will ever take that ship back and get off one bright morning and take a taxi to the junction and drive through places he know.

I notice the saucer he is using as an ashtray, and the expensive cigarettes. I notice the dirtiness of his finger-nails and hands, the fatness at the top of his arms. Once those arms was so strong. Once he used to walk so nice, I used to think like Fonda.

I stand and watch him in the cold room. He twist and turn, he open his eyes, he recognize me. He get frightened. He jump up. And how dirty the sheets he is sleeping in. How dirty.

He say, ‘What happen?’

He talk without his accent. He look at me as though I come in the room to kill him. He say nothing else; he suddenly lose his way of talking. The labourer’s face.

Sadness, but my sadness. It flow through my body like a fluid.

I say, ‘What course of studies you are now pursuing, Dayo?’

The fright leave his face. He try to get vexed. Try. He say, ‘Somebody make you a policeman or what?’ He is not talking with his accent now, he is not going on and on. He is like a child again, back home.

I say, ‘I just want to talk with you. You know I am busy with the shop. It is a long time since we talk seriously.’

He say, and as he talk he get back his accent, ‘Well, since you ask, and you have every right to ask, I will tell you. It isn’t easy to take studies in this place as you and other people believe. A lot of people come here with their own ideas and they think they will start taking studies –’

I had to stop him. ‘What you are taking?’

‘I am preparing myself for the modern world. I am taking a course in computer programming, if you
want to know. Com-pu-ter pro-gram-ming. I hope this meet with your approval and satisfaction.’

I lift up the pack of cigarettes from the table. I say, ‘Expensive.’

He say, in his accent, ‘I smoke good cigarettes.’

The labourer’s face. The labourer’s backchat. I feel that if I stay in that room I would hit him.

And yet I went to his room with love and shame.

The shame stay with me all day. In the evening, after a bad time in the shop, more trouble with those white louts, my arms getting the feeling that there is stretched wire inside them, I travel back by the night bus. When I get off, a black dog with a collar round its neck start following me. The street lamps shining on the trees, those trees with the peeling bark that is a little bit like the bark of our guava trees. The pavements damp, footmarks in the thin black mud. The big dog is friendly. I know it is making a mistake and I try to chase it away. But it only look at me, wagging its tail, and as soon as I walk on it follow me again, really close, as though it want to feel me all the time.

It follow me and follow me, right down past the rubbish bins to the basement. You would think that it would know now that it make a mistake. But no, it slip inside as soon as I open the door and it run up and down the hall, happy, wagging its tail, leaving footmarks everywhere.

I look for Dayo in his room, and the dog look too. I just see the dirty bed when I switch on the light, the sheet gathered up in the centre, the sheet and the pillow brown with dirt, the saucer full of cigarette ends. Oh my God.

I am hungry, but I can’t stand the thought of food. I make a little Ovaltine. When I start to drink, the dog come right up to me again, wagging its tail. And wagging its tail, it follow me to the hall. I open the door. The dog know now it make a mistake. It race up the steps, not looking back at me, and run away in the night. It leave me feeling lonely.

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