Read This Side Jordan Online

Authors: Margaret Laurence

This Side Jordan

THE AUTHOR

MARGARET LAURENCE
was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, in 1926. Upon graduation from Winnipeg’s United College in 1947, she took a job as a reporter for the
Winnipeg Citizen
.

From 1950 until 1957 Laurence lived in Africa, the first two years in Somalia, the next five in Ghana, where her husband, a civil engineer, was working. She translated Somali poetry and prose during this time, and began her career as a fiction writer with stories set in Africa.

When Laurence returned to Canada in 1957, she settled in Vancouver, where she devoted herself to fiction with a Ghanaian setting: in her first novel,
This Side Jordan
, and in her first collection of short fiction,
The Tomorrow-Tamer
. Her two years in Somalia were the subject of her memoir,
The Prophet’s Camel Bell
.

Separating from her husband in 1962, Laurence moved to England, which became her home for a decade, the time she devoted to the creation of five books about the fictional town of Manawaka, patterned after her birthplace, and its people:
The Stone Angel
,
A Jest of God
,
The Fire-Dwellers
,
A Bird in the House
, and
The Diviners
.

Laurence settled in Lakefield, Ontario, in 1974. She complemented her fiction with essays, book reviews, and four children’s books. Her many honours include two Governor General’s Awards for Fiction and more than a dozen honorary degrees.

Margaret Laurence died in Lakefield, Ontario, in 1987.

THE NEW CANADIAN LIBRARY

General Editor: David Staines

ADVISORY BOARD

Alice Munro

W.H New

Guy Vanderhaeghe

In Memory of my Mother
Margaret Campbell Wemyss

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

HIGHLIFE

FIRE, FIRE, FIRE
– Calender and his Maringar Band (
Decca
).
CLUB GIRL
– E. T. Mensah’s Tempos Band (
Decca
).
ESTHER ELDER
– E. T. Mensah’s Tempos Band (
Decca
).
EVERYBODY LIKES SATURDAY NIGHT
(
Decca
).
ALL ANGELS PRAY FOR ME
(
Decca
).

AKAN DRUM PROVERBS AND DIRGES: SOURCES

‘Whom Does Death Overlook’ – Rattray, R. S.,
Religion and Art in Ashanti
– Published by Basel Mission, Kumasi, 1927. Reissued by Oxford University Press, 1954. ‘As We Pass Here, Hate!’ – Rattray, R. S.,
Religion and Art in Ashanti
. Drummers’ Group Funeral Dirge – Nketia, J. H.,
Funeral Dirges of the Akan People
– Achimota, 1955. ‘Thou Speeding Bird’ – Meyerowitz, E. L. R.,
Sacred State of the Akan
– Faber & Faber, London, 1951. Other Akan proverbs – Danquah, J. B.,
The Akan Doctrine of God
, Lutterworth Press, London, 1944.

‘Until the Lord have given your brethren rest, as he hath given you, and they also have possessed the land which the Lord your God giveth them; then ye shall return unto the land of your possession, and enjoy it, which Moses the Lord’s servant gave you on this side Jordan toward the sunrising.’

(
Joshua
I:15)

The Day Will Come
Authority Is Never Loved
Flee, Oh Ye Powers Of Darkness
Rise Up, Ghana

(
Slogans from African ‘mammy-lorries’
)

‘Oh God, there is something above, let it reach me.’

(
Akan proverb
)

ONE

T
he six boys were playing the Fire Highlife, playing it with a beat urgent as love. And Johnnie Kestoe, who didn’t like Africans, was dancing the highlife with an African girl.

Charity’s scarlet smile mocked his attempts to rotate his shoulders and wriggle his European hips to the music. Her own fleshy hips and buttocks swayed easily, and her big young breasts, unspoiled by children and only lightly held by her pink blouse, rose and fell as though the music were her breath. Johnnie grinned awkwardly at her, then he jerked his head away.


Fiyah, fiyah, fiyah, fiyah-ma,
Fiyah deah come – baby!
Fiyah, fiyah, fiyah, fiyah-ma,
Fiyah deah come – ah ah!
I went to see my lovely boy,
Lovely boy I love so well –

At one of the tables around the outdoor dance floor, a young European woman watched thoughtfully. At another
table an African man watched, then turned away and spat. Both were angry, and with the same person.

Music was the clothing of West African highlife, but rhythm its blood and bone. This music was sophisticated. It was modern. It was new. To hell with the ritual tribal dance, the drums with voices ancient as the forest.

The torn leaves of the palm trees shivered in the wind and the strings of fairy lights glittered like glass beads in the musty courtyard.

The dancers themselves did not analyse the highlife any more than they analysed the force that had brought them all together here, to a nightclub called ‘Weekend In Wyoming’, the wealthy and the struggling, the owners of chauffeur-driven Jaguars and the riders of bicycles.

They were bound together, nevertheless, by the music and their need of it. Africa has danced pain and love since the first man was born from its red soil. But the ancient drums could no longer summon the people who danced here. The highlife was their music. For they, too, were modern. They, too, were new.

And yet the old rhythms still beat strongly in this high-life in the centre of Accra, amid the taxi horns, just as a few miles away, in Jamestown or Labadi, they pulsed through the drums while the fetish priestess with ash-smeared cheeks whirled to express the unutterable, and the drummer’s eyes grew glassy and still, his soul drugged more powerfully than the body could be.

Into the brash contemporary patterns of this Africa’s fabric were woven symbols old as the sun-king, old as the oldest continent.

Johnnie Kestoe was thin in a sharp, almost metallic way, like a man made of netted wire upon which flesh has been inadequately spread. He had the extreme whiteness of skin that sometimes accompanies dark hair, and although he was not tall, the thrusting energy with which he invariably moved gave him a passable substitute for height.

He held the brown girl’s hand tightly, their gearfingers meshed to synchronize their separateness. His other hand rested on her shoulder; his fingertips received the tremor of her upstretching muscles, the delicate levering of bones, and he was guided by her through the highlife’s gradual frenzy.

The music was languid on the surface. The main beat was lazy and casual. Then the second and third rhythms – the racing inner pulse, the staccato heartbeat in the slow flesh.

Oppressive and stifling, the air seemed to be hung with hot unshed rain, and the leaves of the palm trees crackled like breeze-fanned flames. But the African dancers were unaffected by the heat. They moved to the new-old drumcall as though it were their only purpose.

Johnnie was still new enough to want to stare at them. He looked forward to the time when he would be as blasé as the other Europeans in the Firm: that attitude marked the men of experience from the green boys.

A fat old mammy, purple-swathed, enormous of buttock, squealed with laughter as she bounced her melon breasts up and down. And the young man with her laughed too, perhaps at himself.

Around the edge of the dance floor, in a huge shuffling circle, African couples danced without touching one another. The rhythms of the highlife seemed to make each body an extension of the other, of every other. To Johnnie’s mind there was something weird about it, like a sexual experience with
more than two. But his arms tightened around the girl. Her moist skin and the smooth-oiled twisting of her body caused in him an itch of curiosity.

And over there was his wife, sitting with the others, seeing him make a fool of himself.

The touch of the highlife was growing more rough and demanding, as though building to an unimaginable climax.

The climax was never reached. The music stopped – more than stopped. It went out like a puffed-at match. It broke with the suddenness of cracked china into silence. The vibrant bodies sagged, ceased, turned to clay. The women who had danced so magnificently, flames of the forest, clumped off the dancefloor heavily, clumsily, shoulders stooping, bellies protruding. Human voices began, chattering nonsense, trivial noises in the night.

Johnnie drew away from the girl and looked at her. The brown girl, still laughing, leaned against him, her breasts brushing his arm.

She was drunk. He hadn’t noticed before. She giggled, and her head, bent close to him, reeked of the penny perfume the native markets hawked. She wore a headscarf, and it was disarranged, ridiculously askew. Sweat lay wetly between breasts that were partly exposed by her wilted pink drawstring blouse.

Johnnie dropped the girl’s hand and walked away from her, feeling a vague sense of righteousness as he did so. The curious itch of desire had gone out with the music. Like sweat in the hot night, the excitement had turned to chill.

In that gutterstreet of his childhood there had co-existed, but not peacefully, some Jamaicans. Children learned young there. Stick, stone, shod foot in belly, knee in crotch, and – when you had filched enough from shop or barrow to earn one – knife. The streetchildren’s creed, more powerful and obeyed
than that of the Apostles, did not admit the brotherhood even of siblings, but even in anarchy there must be some order. All despised all, but some were despised more than others. Those London Irish were low in the social scale, but lower still were the Jamaicans, blacks, heathens. They lived cheaper than anyone else could, a dozen to a room, big-muscled men with a crazy fear of being deported. A slow-witted Irishman, a halfman with a bone disease, a limping clown who went by the name of Dennis Kestoe and who earned his two quid a week slopping out the Men’s lavatories in the tube stations with bucket and rag – he lost his job to a man-ape Jamaican who, being whole of bone, could swab down twice as many urinals in a given time. The Irishman’s son was ten, and small, but he had his blade-friend. The buttocks of the Jamaican’s son bled profusely like life turned to mere meat, and the nigger, who was thirteen and a head taller, bawled like a raped nun, each huge tremulous tear setting off an orgasm of laughter in the bitter Irish bellies of young bystanders. But the big Jamaican had caught them at it, and the others fled girlish into the night. In a fury of paternal tenderness, the Jamaican had hit with his clenched fist, and when the white boy had finished spitting blood into the gutter, the black man had picked him up and he could feel the big dark body trembling. He had spat again, in loathing, and the black father dropped him abruptly onto the cobblestones. The boy, crouching, terrified, had hissed – ‘bastard, bastard, black black bastard –’.

Johnnie straightened his bony shoulders and shook back the hair from his forehead. He was tight, or he would never have danced with a black woman. He wondered if there would be any lifted eyebrows.

And then, there was Bedford, standing beside him, looking embarrassed.

‘I think you should know,’ Bedford said. ‘Bags of umbrage being taken.’

‘James?’

‘Yes. I thought I’d just have a word with you, you know, so you could think up something soothing to say.’

Shame made Johnnie aggressive.

‘What business is it of James’? I’ll dance with whoever I –’

Bedford gnawed at the grey moustache that sprouted like a clump of elephant grass under his nose. His handsome red-veined face looked vaguely troubled.

‘Don’t upset yourself,’ he said with gigantic calm. ‘Bad for the blood-pressure. Does no one any good. I’ve been knocking around the East half my life. Don’t take it amiss if I pass on a friendly word or two –’

‘Sorry,’ Johnnie mumbled. ‘You’ve been very good. You mustn’t think I don’t appreciate –’

‘A chap is seen with an African woman, and soon his own servants or clerks get cheeky – won’t work – laugh behind his back. Even your little flurry tonight – your own boys will know by morning. Bush telegraph. It doesn’t do. That’s what upsets James, you know. God knows there’s no love lost between James and me, but I will say this for him – he won’t stand for any nonsense.’

‘It won’t happen again,’ Johnnie said. ‘I don’t know why the hell I did it. I don’t like Africans any better than you do.’

The grim humour of exile showed in Bedford’s grey eyes.

‘You couldn’t possibly dislike them half as much as I do, old boy. You haven’t been here long enough.’

Johnnie made a half-hearted attempt to neaten his hair, dishevelled and sweat-damp. His fingers came away smelling sour. Sweat had seeped coldly through his white drill dinner jacket, and he shivered a little in the sultry air.

The occupants of the table did not look up as the two men slid into chairs. Cora Thayer, who could never sit still, was picking at her nail varnish with agitated skeletal fingers, peeling away shreds like red scabs. Beside her, Helen Cunningham, Bedford’s wife, fixed blue amused eyes on the middle distance. Miranda Kestoe leaned forward, listening to James Thayer holding forth about Africa.

Johnnie sat back in the flimsy canvas chair. One thing about the Squire – he had been here a long time, and he knew.

‘When I first came here,’ James was saying, ‘insolence was practically unheard of. Even today, the bush African is all right. If his belly’s full, that’s all he’s worried about. But when they move to the cities – look at them! They get cheeky as the devil, and every boat-boy thinks he has a right to a Jaguar. That’s Free-Dom for you.’

James was frail and gnomelike, with tufts of grey hair circling a crown so bare it seemed tonsured. The skin of his face was soft and creased like a piece of chamois. He looked unprepossessing enough – a hearth-dweller, waking only to mourn fretfully the dead years, the better years when things were done in the right way. But the gentle whining voice could snap and snarl when it had to, and the eyes, so nostalgic after the first sundowner, were shrewd and uncompromising by day. Allkirk, Moore & Bright thought enough of him to keep him on for thirty years and to make him, finally, manager of the all-important Textile Branch.

‘I don’t dislike Africans,’ James went on, ‘but they’re children, and if we forget that fact, we’re liable to wrong both ourselves and them.’

He turned to Johnnie.

‘Don’t you agree?’

‘Do you mean – politically?’ Johnnie asked.

‘Oh yes – that,’ James said, ‘and other things.’

Johnnie felt fresh rivers of sweat pouring from him.

‘An hour ago I might not have known what you meant,’ he said, ‘but now I know.’

‘Good,’ James said quietly. ‘I rather thought you would.’

Expertly, Bedford and Helen took over the conversation and began recounting anecdotes about their servants. Relieved that he had been let off so easily, Johnnie turned to his wife.

Miranda – his affectionate, well-mannered Miranda – was looking at him as though she detested him. He hadn’t thought she would be this angry. He was startled, but he found himself, as well, admiring the look of her. Her face wore a haughtiness that suited it. She wasn’t pretty. He wouldn’t have married a pretty girl. Her face was thin, almost whittled down to its bones. The skull of her was more beautiful than the flesh. Fine-shaped as glass, but strong, her bones were the bones of Deirdre, that long-dead queen the poem said no man now can ever dream to be her lover.

He leaned close to her so no one else could hear.

‘Manda – I’m sorry.’

She looked away.

‘For what?’

‘For dancing with that whore – for whatever made you angry.’

‘You don’t have to apologize. Not for that. Did you think I cared that you danced with an African girl? The only thing I minded was that you – you thought there was something dirty in doing it. That’s all.’

‘Oh Christ,’ Johnnie said, angry now, too, ‘so that’s it. What’s the use of discussing it? Ever since you got pregnant, you’ve been so damned unreasonable –’

‘Of course,’ she said furiously, ‘blame everything on that.’

But now he had made her conscious of the smock billowing unprettily around her. She smoothed at it and adjusted the collar. Johnnie watched. As though a twist and a tug here and there could make a piece of cloth conceal more effectively the mound that had once been a body belonging to her, and to him. Now it belonged to neither of them, but only to the half-formed sluglike thing inside her, straining food from her blood.

‘Day after day,’ Bedford was saying, his moustache quivering with laughter, ‘the wretched cook kept saying to Helen, “Madam, my belly humbug me.” She got herself all worked up about it. Expected him to conk out with peritonitis any moment. But d’you know what it was? The stupid oaf was constipated.’

‘So I gave him some mag.sulph. in a bottle,’ Helen said, ‘and told him to take a dose at night. The next morning I thought he looked a bit wan, so I asked him. He said, “Madam, medicine he be fine too much.” It turned out he’d taken the whole bottleful.’

Helen was like a Viking woman, big-boned and about five-foot-ten. She always looked sluttish in the daytime, but in the evening she shed her untidy daytime self. Tonight she wore a green cocktail frock with a white Kashmir shawl. Her hair, genuine blonde, yellow as sunflowers, was brushed back and held with fancy jade combs that might have been the loot of a seafaring ancestor.

‘Speaking of the well-known African cluelessness,’ Bedford said, ‘the other day I found one of my clerks reading a speech of Nkrumah’s. So I said to him, “Now, Quansah, tell me truthfully – what the devil do you think you’re going to get out of Independence?” You won’t believe this, but I swear it’s absolutely true. He said, “I have been told, sah, that every
citizen of the new Ghana will own a car. I would like an Opel Kapitan.” What can you do with a chap like that?’

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