Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Short Story

Not Marooned, Only Hanging About

By Hassan Ali Ganda

In the summer of 1956 James Addo-Mensah had arrived in London. He had already been accepted by Lincoln's Inn and was armed with a government scholarship; opportunities unimaginable at home littered the streets and he was prepared fully to take advantage of them.

At first he had stayed in a hostel near the Edgware Road but there had been no privacy and too many restrictions. One Saturday he had trudged the length and breadth of the city and had eventually found a flat in the vicinity of Hern Hill. It was warm and relatively cheap and the landlady seemed pleasant. She was a garrulous individual, the widow of an old colonial hand and she prided herself on her ability to get on with everybody. It was an ability she had apparently put to good use when her husband had been in the service.

Those were the good days. They were the days of the highlife and the calypso. The first thing he had done was to purchase a massive Blaupunkt radiogram and to install it in the flat. He had a flat mate, a fellow from Sierra Leone but it appeared as if the Uhurus, the Ramblers, Derek Morgan, Slinger the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener and other lesser giants lived with them. Before long his place had become the rendezvous. On the eve of Gold Coast independence there had been a party. It had gone on forever. Neither Mrs Wright, the landlady nor any of the neighbours had complained. They had all been invited and had each staggered away a lot less than sober.

As for his course it posed no problem. He thought that he had mastered it and even his friends called him Professor in recognition of his command of Roman Law, tort, equity and the like. But the examination results had been published and his name was not on it. He had been in a panic. "There must have been a mistake", he had thought. There had been no mistake and despite the fact that he would stare for hours at the results as published in the newspapers his name would not be conjured into the lists.

At last he had come to terms with his failure but that had also brought its own peculiar consequences. His mind would reverberate with the jeers of mocking and taunting voices, the disembodied apparitions of successful candidates. They had laughed at him. They had gone on and on and on even into his nights so that he would awaken suddenly sweating profusely and dry as dust in the mouth. They were terrible days.

He had decided to resit the examination. But whilst others with half his wit and none of his purpose had hopped, skipped and jumped effortlessly over the barrier he had become ensnared by it. Again and again he had tried to wrestle free but like a fly in a spider's web his struggles deepened his crisis. In the end he had given up. His scholarship was gone. Mrs Wright had found another fresh student to 'get along' with and was less understanding of his difficulties. In the end he had been forced to give up the flat. Being a lawyer seemed less important..

Once he had met a man who had encouraged him to resume his studies "Try marketing. It's easy, you know, and there is big market for it." That man had offered him hope and he could hardly wait. He had bankrupted himself in paying the fees but he had seemed glad to be back on a course. He had worked hard, very hard indeed. But the examination had become an obstacle course.

Nevertheless he had persisted and had passed each and every stage until the final. Four times in two years he had been felled by it. He had become desperate. He would spend hours in the library but had learnt nothing. The voices would return and seize his mind. He would flee into the street, a prisoner in search of freedom but the taunts would not go away. In the end he had taken to drink.

Janet had saved him. They had once been friends and on one bitterly cold winter's day she had found him in the street. They had become friends again. Her family had not taken to him but she had not seemed to mind. She had got him to stop drinking. She used to take him on picnics. She got him interested in studying again. It was a slow process but he had begun to feel confident. Then one day she had come back from work and revealed that she was pregnant. He had not known what to do but she had been happier than he had ever seen her to be.

He had known then more than ever before that he had to make something of himself. In the morning he had gone out and bought some flowers. He had been barely able to afford them but he knew that Janet would love them. English girls liked such things.

They had married and Michael had been born. But their happiness had been short-lived. He had become obsessed with his quest for a qualification and his obsession had become their only life. He hardly saw his wife. His child had become afraid of him and the terrors inflicted on all of them by the finals. One day he had come from the library only to find a note. It was from Janet. She and Michael had gone.

He had strayed from one job to another. He had thought of going home but he had no qualification, no profession and no money. It even seemed as if he had no family. They seemed to have forgotten him and to write only when they had illness, death and debt to report. He had worked for railways, sold ice cream and even been a rent-collector in order to have the use of an attic. When he had been sacked and evicted he had in turn become a porter at a house of some disrepute, a cleaner in a hotel and a barber.

He had always been good with his hands and had cut the hair of many of his friends. Unfortunately, he had developed arthritis. "It's the weather, it eats at your very bones" he explained. He could not now practise his trade and was now at a loose end.

In his own words he was "only hanging-about" waiting...

The middle-aged man was shabby and a grey stubble covered his chin. His skin had that grey palor blackmen develop when they escape from the sun. We were in my office at the Advice Bureau and he had brought a complaint against the local office of the DHSS. He felt that he was entitled to a clothing allowance but his application had been rejected. I contacted the office and arranged to have him collect the allowance the next day. He thanked me and left.

The next day he was back clutching a copy of the Talking Drums. "I thought you would like this" he had said. I had been surprised but had thanked him and offered to pay for it. I knew that he could hardly afford it. He had refused to accept the money. He told me that he had noticed a copy on my desk on his first visit and had merely wanted to show his appreciation of what I had done for him.

I asked him about his allowance and he assured me that he had collected it. There had followed a period of embarrassed silence. We seemed to have nothing to say. The only sound was some music coming in the streets. I think it was Bob Marley wailing about some injustice or other.

"I don't care for it myself..." I thought he was referring to the music but he meant the magazine, "... bad news on every page. Things weren't like that in the old days". I had to say something and so I asked him about the old days. He replied with his life story. He seemed to have been primed to unburden himself on someone. Once, towards the end of his tale, I had asked him why he could not have gone home instead of persisting here.

"Yes, I suppose I could have..." he had replied "but would life have been any better?... Look at Ghana now" He had looked at me but I had said nothing.

"What about you?" he had asked. Did I like my work? Was I married? Did we have children? I answered every question. Then he had asked whether I also intended to go home.

"Of course..." The answer had slipped easily off my tongue. I had been working for nine years and I had already made plans to go back home.

"But when...?" I had been drifting away and had hardly heard the question. I had been searching for what it was that kept me here each year despite my yearly resolve to return. I replied. "soon... yes, very soon" He looked at me and smiled. There was something about his smile and about his eyes which seem suddenly to have become larger and brighter. Perhaps he did not believe me.

I saw him off at the door. I looked at my watch. If I delay any longer I would miss my train. I came back into the office, collected my things and set off. It was snowing and the weather was grey and bleak. The traffic was as bad as always. Though I was hurrying away, driven by habit and an unstoppable timetable I knew that I was going nowhere; tomorrow would be an exact replica of yesterday and I mattered not a whit in the scheme of things. It dawned on me there and then that in the end James Addo-Mensah was not marooned alone. He was not the only one hanging about.

talking drums 1984-03-05 Ghana immature at 27 - why buhari must declare assets publicly