In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)10

Later, lying down, I hear Dayo tiptoeing in and switching on his light.

And it was the next morning, leaving Dayo sleeping in his room, and taking the Underground to the market, it was then that I see the advertisement in the carriage: PREPARE YOURSELF FOR TOMORROW’S WORLD WITH A COURSE IN COMPUTER PROGRAMMING.

I understand. I am not surprised. But the hate fill my heart. I want to see his face get frightened again. I get off the train after a couple of stops. I walk about the platform, I don’t know what I want to do. I smoke a couple of cigarettes, I let the trains pass. I feel people start looking at me. I cross over to the other platform, not many people waiting that side, and take the train back.

The smart labourer boy. He only smoke good cigarettes. Oh God. I see myself going down to the basement to that room with the dirty sheets and the saucer with the expensive good cigarettes. I see myself lifting him out of that bed and hitting him on that lying labourer’s mouth.

But I can’t bring myself to go down the basement steps. I stand up for a long time looking down at the dustbins and the breakdown fence with two or three hedge plants that grow too big, like little trees, nobody trimming them, the basement window dull with dirt, scraps of wet-and-dried paper and other rubbish scattered about the little garden where somehow a type of grass is still growing.

The moon-mad white woman open the front door. Her face wrinkled and yellow, and you get a glimpse of the blackness behind her. The woman is dazed; the monthly madness tire her out; you can see that every night she is fighting in her sleep. As she bend down to take the milk, I see her yellow hair thin like a baby’s. She look at me and I can see that she recognize me but she isn’t sure. I nearly say good morning. It is the only thing we say to one another after five years. But then I change my mind and walk away fast to the corner. And I think: Oh my God, I am glad I change my mind.

But I can’t leave and go to the market. I can’t face that now, I feel I have to settle this thing first. I wait and wait at the corner, I don’t know what for. I don’t know what I want to do. Until I see Dayo stepping out, in his suit, with his books.

I know the bus stop he is going to. I turn left and walk to the stop before. The bus come; I get on and find a seat on the righthand side. At the next stop Dayo is waiting. It is funny, studying him like this, as though he is a stranger, and he not knowing that you are studying him. You could see that he just throw some cold water over his face this morning, that his shirt is dirty, that he is not taking care of himself. He get on; he go upstairs; he does smoke good cigarettes.

He get off at Oxford Circus, and at the traffic lights I get off and follow him down Oxford Street through the crowds. At the end of Oxford Street he buy a paper and go inside a Lyons. I wait a good time. It is getting late now, the morning half gone. I follow him down Great Russell Street, and now I can see that he is idling in truth, looking at the window of the Indian food-shop, the noticeboards outside the newsagent selling foreign papers, crossing the road to look at the dusty books outside the bookshop. A lot of Africans knocking around here, with jacket and tie and briefcase; I don’t know what good the studies they are taking will ever do them.

No more shops, only tall black iron railings beside the pavement, and then Dayo turn in the big open yard of the British Museum. A lot of foreign tourists here, in light tourist clothes. It is like a different city, and he is like a man among the tourists: watch him going up the wide steps with his suit and his books. But these people come for the day; they are happy, they have buses to take them back to their hotels; they have countries to go back to, they have houses. The sadness I feel make my heart seize.

He go inside. I know I have no more to see, but I decide to wait. I look at the tourists and walk about. I walk about the portico, the yard, and out in the street below the trees. One time I walk back nearly to Tottenham Court Road. The Indian restaurant is hot and smelling. It make me think of my own shop, the way I trap myself and throw away my life there. Lunchtime, I nearly forget. I run back to the Museum and I run straight up the steps through the tourists coming and going and I nearly run through the door. But then I see him outside, in the portico, sitting on a wood bench and smoking.

He still have the books with him, and he is sitting very sprawled. The hate rush in my heart, I want to punish him in public, I want a big thing right there in the open, in front of everybody. But then I catch sight of his face, and I stay behind the pillar and study him.

It isn’t only the sadness of the face. It isn’t only the way he is smoking, letting the cigarette hand drop from his mouth like a man who don’t care. He is not sprawling to show off. He is like a man who break his back in truth. It is the face of a tired, foolish boy. It is the face of someone lost. It is the same face of the boy who wake up in the room and look at me with terror. And I feel that if anything happen now to frighten him that mouth will open in a scream.

The sun shining bright now. The grass green and level and pretty. You can see the edges of the lawn black and rich, like the first time you clear a piece of bush and you know anything will grow: you can feel the damp with your foot when you walk, you can see the seeds coming up, splitting and tiny, growing day after day. The school-girls sitting young and indecent on the concrete kerb in their short blue skirts, laughing and talking loud to get people to look at them. The buses come and go. The taxis come and turn, and men and women get out and get in. The whole world going on. And I feel outside it, seeing only my brother and myself in this place, among the pillars, me in my working clothes, he in his suit that is so cheap it can’t hold a crease or a shape, smoking his cigarette. I would like him to smoke the best cigarettes in the world.

I don’t want him to turn foolish like Stephen’s son. I don’t want that to happen. I want to go to him and embrace him and put my hand on his head and smell his body. I want to tell him that it is all right, that I will protect him, that he must take no more studies, that he is a free man. I would like him then to smile at me. But he wouldn’t smile at me. If I go to him now I will frighten him and he will open his mouth to scream. This is what I do, this is what I bring on myself. I can’t go to him. I can only stand behind the pillar and watch him.

He put out his cigarette. Then with his books he walk out through the gate between the big black railings. Lunchtime now, pub, sandwich, people coming out of offices, walking below the trees. He mingle with them. But he have nowhere to go. And after I watch him leave I feel that I too have nowhere to go, and that the life in London is over.

*

I have nowhere to go and I walk now, like Dayo, where the tourists walk. The roti-shop: that noose I put my neck in. I think how nice it would be if I could just leave it, leave it just like that. Let the curry from yesterday go stale and rotten and turn red like poison, let the dust fall from the ceiling and settle. Take Dayo home before he get foolish. If a man could do that, if a man could just leave a life that spoil.

To leave the basement with the moon-mad woman upstairs, to leave the windows that look out on nothing back and front. Night after night in the basement the rat scratch. One time, when I did take away the box to stop up the hole with Polyfilla, I see where the claws scratch and scratch in the dark. Something like white fur cover that part of the box. Let the rat come out. The life is over. I am like a man who is giving up. I come with nothing. I have nothing, I will leave with nothing.

All afternoon as I walk I feel like a free man. I scorn everything I see, and when I tire myself out with walking, and the afternoon gone, I still scorn. I scorn the bus, the conductor, the street.

I scorn the white boys who come in the shop in the evening. They come to make trouble. But it is different tonight. I am fighting for nothing here. They are provoking me. But they give me strength. Samson get back his hair, he is strong. Nothing can touch him. He is going back on the ship, and no matter how black the water is at night, in the morning it will be blue. Just for a little bit more he must be strong, and he will leave. He will go away and let the dust fal
l and the rats come.

The glasses and the plates are breaking. The words and that laugh are everywhere. Let everything break. I will take Dayo on that ship with me, and his face will not be sad, his mouth will not open to scream. I am walking out, I will go now, the knife is in my hand. But then at the door I feel I want to bawl. I see Dayo’s face again, I feel the strength run right out of me, my bones turning to wire in my arms. These people take my money, these people spoil my life. I close the door and turn the key, and I know then I turn around and I hear myself say, ‘I am taking one of you today. Two of us going today.’ I hear nothing else.

Then, always, in the quiet, I see the boy’s face surprised. And it is strange, because he and Dayo are college friends and Dayo is staying with him in this old-fashioned wood house in England. It is an accident; they was only playing. But how easy the knife go in him, how easy he drop. I can’t look down. Dayo look at me and open his mouth to bawl, but no scream coming. He want me to help him, his eyes jumping with fright, but I can’t help him now. It is the gallows for him. I can’t take that for him. I only know that inside me mash up, and that the love and danger I carry all this time break and cut, and my life finish. Nothing making noise now. The body is in the chest, like in Rope, but in this English house. Then the worst part always come: the quiet dark ride, and the sitting down at the dining-table with the boy’s parents. Dayo is trembling; he is not a good actor; he will give himself away. It is like his body in that chest, it is like mine. I can’t see what the house is like. I can’t see the boy’s parents. It is like a dream, when you can’t move, and you want to wake up quick.

Then noise come back, and I know that something bad happen to my right eye. But I can’t even move my hand to feel it.

*

Frank is sitting beside me on the bus now. I am on the inside, looking down the road. He is on the outside, pressing against me. We will go to another railway station and take a train; then we will take a bus again. And at the end, in some building, in some church, I will see my brother and the white girl he is going to marry. In these three years Dayo make his own way. He give up studies, he get a work.

I used to think of him going back to the basement that day and finding nobody there, and nobody coming home; and I used to think of that as the end of the world. But he do better without me; he don’t need me. I lose him. I can’t see the sort of life he get into, I can’t see the people he is going to mix with now. Sometimes I think of him as a stranger, different from the man I did know. Sometimes I see him as he was, and feel that he is alone, like me.

The rain stop, the sun come out. In the train we go past the backs of tall houses. The brick grey; no paint here, except for the window frames, bright red and bright green. People living one on top of the other. All kinds of rubbish on top of the flat roofs over projecting back rooms, and sometimes a little plant in a pot inside, behind windows running with wet and steam. Everybody on his shelf, in his little place. But a man can leave everything, a man can just disappear. Somebody will come after him to clean up and clear away, and that new person will settle down there until his own time come.

When we come to the station it is as though we are out of London again. The station building small and low, the houses small and neat in red brick, the little chimneys smoking. The big advertisements in the station yard make you feel that everybody here is very happy, laughing below an umbrella in the shape of a house-roof, eating sausages and making funny faces, the whole family sitting down to eat together.

As we wait for the bus, for this last lap, my nervousness return. The street is wide, everything is clean, and I feel exposed. But Frank know me well. He edge up close, as though he want to protect me from the little cold wind that is blowing. The wind make Frank’s face white and it lift a little of his thin hair, so that he look a little bit like a boy.

I see him playing as a boy in streets like this one. I don’t know why, I see him with a dirty face and dirty clothes, like those children asking for a penny for the guy. And as I am thinking this, looking down at Frank’s big shining shoes, a very little girl in very small jeans come right up to Frank and embrace his knees and ask for a penny. He say no, and she hit him on his leg and say, ‘You have a penny.’ She is a very young child; she don’t know what she is doing, rubbing up against strangers; she don’t even know what money is. But Frank’s white face get very hard, and even after the girl go away Frank is nervous still. He is glad to get on the bus when it come.

Now on this last lap to the church I feel I am entering enemy territory. I can’t see my brother living in this sort of place. I can’t see him getting mixed up with these people. The streets wide, the trees without leaves, and everything is looking new. Even the church is looking new. It is of red brick; it don’t have a fence or anything; it is just there, on the main road.

We stand up on the pavement and wait. The wind cold now, and I am nervous. But I feel Frank is even more nervous. A woman in a tweed suit come out of the church. She is about fifty and she have a nice face. She smile at us. And now Frank is shyer than me. I don’t know whether the woman is my brother’s mother-in-law or whether she is just someone who is helping out. You think of a wedding, you think of people waiting outside the church or hall or whatever it is. You don’t think of it like this.

Some more people come out, not many, with one or two children. And they looking hard at me, like an enemy, these people who spoil my life.

Frank touch me on the arm. I am glad he touch me, but I shrug his hand away. I know it isn’t true, but I tell myself he is on the other side, with those others, looking at me without looking at me. I know it isn’t true about Frank because, look, he too is nervous. He want to be alone with me; he don’t like being with his own people. It isn’t like being on a bus or in a café, where he can be like a man saying: I protect this man with me. It is different here outside the church, with the two of us standing on the pavement on one side, and the other sad people standing on another side, the sun red like an orange, the trees hardly throwing a shadow, the grass wild all around the brick church.

A taxi stop. It is my brother. He have a thin white boy with him, and the two of them in suits. Taxi today, wedding day. No turban, no procession, no drums, no ceremony of welcome, no green arches, no lights in the wedding tent, no wedding songs. Just the taxi, the thin white boy with sharp shoes and short hair, smoking, and my brother with a white rose in his jacket. He is just the same. The ugly labourer’s face, and he is talking to his friend, showing everybody he is very cool. I don’t know why I did think he would get different in three years.

When he and his friend come to me I look at my brother’s eyes and his big cheeks and the laughing mouth. It is a soft face and a frightened face. I hope nobody take it into their head one day to break that face up. The friend looking at me, smoking, squinting with the smoke, sly eyes in a rough thin face.

I can feel Frank stiffening and getting more nervous. But then the nice woman in the tweed suit come and start talking in her very brisk way. She is making a noise, breaking up the silence rather than talking, and she take my brother and his friend away and she start moving about among the people on the other side, always making this noise. She is a nice woman; she have this nice face; at this bad moment she is being very nice.

We go in the church and the nice lady make us sit on the right side. Nobody else there but Frank and me, and then the other people come in and sit on the left side, and the ugly church is so big it is as though nobody is there at all. It is the first time I am in a church and I don’t like it. It is as though they are making me eat beef and pork. The flowers and the brass and the old smell and the body on the cross make me think of the dead. The funny taste is in my mouth, my old nausea, and I feel I would vomit if I swallow.

I look down, I do what Frank do, and all the time the taste is in my mouth. I don’t look at my brother and the girl until it is all over. Then I see this girl in white, with her veil and flowers, like somebody dead, and her face is blan
k and broad and very white, the little make-up shining on cheeks and temples like wax. She is a stranger. I don’t know how my brother allow himself to do this thing. It is not right. He is a lost man here. You can see it on everybody’s face except the girl’s.

Outside, the air is fresh. They take a lot of pictures, and still it is more like a funeral than a wedding. Then the nice lady make Frank and me get in the photographer’s car. He is a businessman with worries, this photographer. With his gold-rimmed glasses and his little moustache, business is all he is talking about, and he is driving very fast, like one of our mad taxi-drivers. He is talking about the jobs he have to do, about how he start in the photography business, his contacts with newspapers and so on, and even as he is driving he is digging in his breast pocket and turning round to smile and give us his card.

He drive us to a sort of restaurant and straightaway he is busy with his camera and he forget us. It is an old-fashioned building and you go inside a courtyard in the middle, galleries all around. A lot of crooked brown beams everywhere, like in some old British picture, and they take us into a crooked little room with some very crooked beams. In that room everybody gather again and get photographed. Everybody can fit in that small room, everybody at the wedding.

Some of the women crying, my brother looking tired and stunned, the girl looking tired. His wife. How quick a big thing like that settle, how quick a man spoil his life. Frank stick close to me, and when the time come for us to sit down he sit next to me. Nobody talking too much. You get more talk at a wake. Only the pretty waitress, so nice and neat in her white apron and black dress, is happy. She is outside it, and only she is behaving as though it is a wedding party.

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