The Accidental Seaman
Abbey turned from Moss Lane East into Princess Road without realising. His mind was elsewhere. The more he thought about his situation the more lightheaded he got. The irony was sickening. He now had his passage back to Africa, he even had savings to start a business in textiles, but he could not go home. Moses, his one month old son, could not make that kind of journey. It was 1954 and Abbey knew that if he left Britain without his boy, he would lose him. And losing him would render Moses one of those anonymous children of the empire who grew up asking, “Who? Where? Why?”. It was especially painful because Abbey never intended to become a seaman, let alone be stranded in Britain.
As he crossed Princess Road, he caught sight of The Merchant Navy Club. From his side of the road it looked like a lazy woman waking up late. A slick of resentment crept on him. It was as if the club had conspired to entrap him. The Merchant was at the centre of his life in Britain. Africans who ran it had lived in Manchester for a long time and looked out for each other, especially the newcomers. They tipped each other off on available jobs and housing; they were there in sickness and (God forbid) in death. When a ship arrived from Africa, The Merchant Club got wind of it first. When seamen Abbey knew arrived from Mombasa it felt like home had come to visit. To hear stories from familiar places and to feel Swahili words roll off his tongue made him feel alive again. He always gave the seamen his photographs to take home to reassure his family that he was still alive. The December before a ship had brought records from South Africa, including The Manhattan Brothers, with a woman, Miriam Makeba, who everyone said would be the new sensation. Sometimes they brought Lingala records from the Congo as well. And when Nelson played African records, the cadence in lyrics swept Britain away and at once Abbey was back home without care. Now, as he walked past the club, the first time he brought Heather Newton, Moses’ mother, to The Merchant flashed in his mind. Heather Newton. He wondered where she was.
Princess Road was alive. Outside Nelson’s Electrical Repairs, a group of men formed a circle talking in Patois. Abbey quickly walked around them: standing in groups was the quickest way for a stint at Greenhey’s Police Station but West Indian men were defiant. He walked past the BP petrol station and crossed Great Western Street.
Now, Kwei’s drunken warning when Abbey and Ruwa first arrived in Britain came back to taunt him. On hearing that The Montola, the ship Abbey and Ruwa worked on was to be scrapped, Kwei had warned, “Don’t settle in Moss Side if you want to return to Africa; go somewhere like Stockport.”
At first, Abbey thought it was Kwei’s clumsy attempt to get rid of them, but then Kwei explained:
“Moss Side is a bad mistress, pa! She treats you so right this wretched place feels like home.”
Abbey had laughed. The idea of staying in cold Britain with soil as black as soot was absurd. Ruwa, who saw himself as a son of the sea, shook his head.
“Me, I can’t stay. The ground still feels wobbly.”
“You see,” Kwei had carried on drunkenly, “in Moss Side people smile so wide you see all their teeth. In summer, black folks are like ants crawled out of earth. And people talk so loud, pa!”
True to his word, Ruwa had moved to Liverpool, claiming that the smell of the sea was stronger there. Abbey gave himself two years to save for his passage and return home. That was four years ago.
He crossed Claremont Road. The clock tower on the Princess Road Bus Depot said it was 8.30 pm but it was still bright and warm. In Britain the sun had moods. It barely slept in summer yet in winter it hardly woke up. Abbey had thirty minutes before his shift at the depot started. He was contemplating going to Mama Rose’s place to eat when he heard, “Abbey my friend.”
Berry came towards him, his hand stretched out. “Is your name still Abbey, as in Westminster Abbey?” Berry teased.
Abbey smiled nervously, looking for something witty to say. He was about to say that it was all the history he had learnt in school when Berry added, “Did your mother really call you Abbey Baker?” Abbey turned slightly, his mouth twitching. “I’ll not hold you my friend: but be true.” Berry shook his hand again.
That is the problem with Berry, Abbey thought as he walked away. He had a way of making him feel horrible about his name. But what would he say, that it was better to be West Indian than African? People like Berry did not realise that being black, African and Muslim was too much. He was lucky that his adopted name, Abu Bakri, had easily turned into Abbey Baker (Baker as in Sir Samuel Baker from his history class). There was no reason to mention his real name.
He stopped outside Henry-George’s Garments. Another glance at the tower clock said that he had fifteen minutes left. Going to Denmark Road to Mama Rose’s was now out of the question, but he still had ten minutes to burn. He peered into Henry-George’s Garments and caught his ‘almost-white’ wife’s eyes. He quickly looked away. Berry had once sneered,
“That name Henry-George is the closest them haughty couple will ever get to the royal family.”
That was before King George VI died. On the Queen’s coronation, Henry-George’s wife had carried on all euphoric and fluffy, decorating and flag-waving like she was a proper white. In the window of their shop, a large portrait of the former Princess Elizabeth in a brown dress with her children Charles, in a white shirt and red pants, and Anne, in a pink dress, was still displayed. Now Abbey stared at it. The children were laughing with their mother. Abbey remembered that Princess Anne was born five months after he arrived in Britain. Now, looking at how grown she was, he shook his head; “If you don’t watch out, that boy Charles will become king before you go home.”
Just then Henry the husband stepped out of the shop. He saw Abbey and smiled,
“Too early for your shift?”
“Good man. No good going late to work, it’s thieving and it gives them reason to say we’re lazy.”
Henry wheeled a railing of children’s clothes that had been on display into the shop. Henry is not bad, Abbey thought, it is that the wife of his that turns him. Henry-George’s wife did not associate with blacks, she showed off by shopping at Lewis’s and pushed her children in a pram and taking them to Belle Vue Circus.
Abbey looked at the clock: he had five minutes left.
He ran across Bowes Street and peered through the main entrance of the depot. Neville, the supervisor, was talking to some drivers. Rather than walk past them, Abbey decided to use the side door. The moment he stepped on the cobbled stones of the alleyway his heart jumped. His eyes avoided the leaning willow near the third block of terraced houses. Something was wrong with that tree – the way its branches hung mournfully like a widow! He should have known it was a bad omen. He tried the door: it was locked. Rather than walk past the tree, he turned back to the Princess Road entrance. Luckily, the men were gone.
The vastness of the depot never ceased to overwhelm him. Rows and rows of buses stretched as far as he could see. Yet others were still arriving to park in rows 17 and 18 at the back. Abbey turned to the right and walked down Row 2 parked with No 42 busses. He took the ramp to the sluice to pick up his tools. He knew Neville would assign him Row 8 with No 53 busses. They were the dirtiest because they went to Belle Vue. But Abbey liked it – the dirtier the bus the more chances of coming across lost property. Often times, he found half-penny coins here and sixpence there. He once found a purse with sequins and pearls all over it and slid it into his pants. Throughout the shift, it had weighed heavily against his crotch. He only took it out when he got home. There was forty-two shillings. Abbey had patted the purse on his forehead feverishly thanking family spirits. He had never realised that Ganda gods worked in Britain.
Abbey arrived in Britain aboard The Mantola, a Dutch merchant ship. On the 17th of March 1950, The Montola limped into Manchester canal on one engine and docked in Salford. It was on its way to Amsterdam when it ran into engine problems. They hoped to stay for a week or two for repairs and set off again.
He was hiding in the engine room when Ruwa, a Chagga friend from Tanganyika, came down from the deck excited. “Come up, Abu, England is here.” Since getting into cold climes at sea, Abu had kept in the engine room, which was hot. The unnatural heat had puffed his fingers and feet. At the time, his name was Abu Bakri because it was easier to get jobs in Mombasa with a Muslim name. But his father had named him Ssuna Junju. He was neither Moslem nor Christian because his father could not make up his mind.
Wrapped in a blanket-coat Ruwa lent him, Abu stepped out to see the heart of the empire. An icy blade sliced right through his lips and nose, and his puffed body deflated. Though it was early in the morning, England seemed to be at dusk. Abu had never seen so many buildings stacked so close together, some on top of the other. There seemed no space left.
“They are rich,” his voice choked with awe.
“You’ve seen nothing yet.”
“Nothing yet?” Abbey was alarmed.
Manchester Canal was lined on either side by brick buildings with a lot of windows. Smoke came out of every rooftop and disappeared into a grey heaven. Won’t the buildings catch fire? Streaks of soot ran down the walls. A few trees, here and there, were skeletal.
The sun had refused to rise. The sky was a dark mist as if the gods were angry. A few more trees looked dead. British soil was black. All he could see were buildings, people, ships, trams, cars.
Abu wanted to stay on the ship but Ruwa who had been to Manchester before, held his hand and led him into Salford. As they walked past glass windows, Abu caught their reflection. Suddenly, against the multitude of white people, he saw how horribly black he and Ruwa looked. He hung onto Ruwa’s hand despite Ruwa’s attempts to shake him off. They were looking for a seamen’s club, The Merchant’s Navy Club in a place called Moss Side. There they would find out where Ruwa’s friend Kwei, a Fante from Gold Coast, lived. They walked all the way to Manchester city centre because Abu would not get on a tram. He had whispered,
“I know how to behave around whites. I’ve been to South Africa.”
“The British are different from Boers.”
“Their mother is the same,” he hissed.
Abu was so frightened that for the first time he regretted running away from home. To remember now that it was about a stupid war poster – OUR ALLIES THE COLONIES – was painful. To his childish eyes, the African man in the picture was regal in a fez with tassles falling down the side of his face. His uniform was bright red with a Chinese collar of royal blue gilded with gold. There was a palm-tree trinket on the fez with the letters T.K.A.R. He wanted it all. He had wanted it so desperately that he could not wait four years to make eighteen and enlist. That was in 1943 and the war could be over by the time he made eighteen. He had heard his father talk about the white man’s war with breathless awe. Apparently, all the wars the world had known were child’s play. At fourteen, Ssuna was taller than most people. White men were notoriously blind. Sometimes they could not tell girls from boys. There was no chance they could tell his age.
Unfortunately when he turned up to enlist, a friend of his father saw him and pulled him out of the queue. When his father found out, he warmed his backside, saying that the only army he would ever join was the kabaka’s. That was when Ssuna swore that he would show his father. He would enlist in Kenya. After the war he would come home elegant in the red uniform and fez. Then they would choke on their words.
With a few friends, Ssuna had jumped on a train wagon and hid among sacks of cotton. What he remembered about that journey was the itching of sisal bags; he had scratched all night. No one warned them that Nairobi was chilly in the morning. But even there, the white man had turned him away. He told him to come back in two years, thinking that he was sixteen.
Abbey smiled; the white man was blind by two years.
But Ssuna could not return home to Uganda. His father wanted him to stay in school yet he found school slow. As far as he was concerned, sitting in class all day reading and scribbling was for dreamy girls. He wanted to fight in a proper war, come home a warrior and marry the most beautiful girl. While he waited, Ssuna found work in Mombasa as a deckhand on ships sailing at first to Eastern and Southern Africa, then later to West Africa.
But by the end of the two years, Ssuna had lost interest in the European war. He had seen Indian coolies, Kenyans and Tanganyikans return on ships from Burma maimed. It was not the stories of horror they told that broke his resolve but the fact that many of them never actually fought. They were porters. To him, coming home maimed for carrying someone’s luggage was obscene. A warrior needed to hold a gun and feel its shudder as it exploded.
Now his wish had come true in a twisted way: he was in Manchester, terrified. The city’s infrastructure of brick and stone was overwhelming. The skyline was dotted by sharp church steeples and tall round chimneys. No doubt this was Christendom. There was a church at every turn. There were arches on doors, windows and on walls. To Abu, while Muslim heaven was made of domes, Christian heaven had arches everywhere.
Manchester town centre was beautiful and scary at the same time. There was more stone but less soot. They were surrounded by such high buildings Abu felt dizzy looking up. He saw the buildings collapsing on top of him. The gods would not make him go up there. Huge posters hung up above. What if people fell as they hung them up? On the ground, beautiful shops sold beautiful things he had never seen. On the walls, grey devils and lions sculpted in stone snarled at him. Statues frowned like guards on the lookout for heathens. White women dressed in smart blanket-coats and wide hats walked with their hands linked with their men. They looked like pictures in magazines. They stared at him and Ruwa with curiosity, wonder and aversion. He tried not to aggravate them by walking away from pavements but Ruwa pulled his hand impatiently. Once they came to Princess Road, away from the overpowering spectacle, Abu whispered the questions that had been itching him.
“Why do the men hold the women’s hands?”
“Because it’s cold: that’s how they keep warm.”
Abbey was silent for a while, then he asked, “If this is Manchester, what is London like?”
“Kdt,” Ruwa clicked his tongue. “Compared to London, Manchester is rags. London is where King George lives. London blinks like a woman.”
Abu pondered this for a while.
“Why are their houses similar? You could get lost.”
“Stop asking questions, can’t you see the numbers on the doors?”
Later, after Abbey had settled into Manchester, he would go to Albert’s Square on a Sunday and sit on a bench. He loved staring at the arched patterns in the cobbled stone in the square. Looking at the intricate designs on the walls of the Town Hall, Abbey tried to imagine Albert’s life. He wondered what his mother would make of Britain if she saw it, what she would say about the food. Once in a while, a man or a woman caught his eye and smiled discreetly. That little gesture, the acknowledgement of his humanity, gave him strength. In fact, one day he was so emboldened he walked into the Town Hall. Inside, the building was art. With intricate designs of arched stone hanging low above his head and with mosaic beneath his feet too good to walk on. Abbey realised that he stood at the centre of the empire. He closed his eyes to feel the power. The room went quiet. He opened his eyes. The air was nervous. A sense of being out of place overwhelmed him and he fled through the side door.
When Abbey arrived home after the shift at the depot, his landlord’s light was still on. This meant that he was unhappy. When Abbey opened the door the smell of cow-foot hit him. Keith stood on the landing. Keith was Irish and did not mind having Africans for tenants but he said he had his limits.
“What’s that horrible smell?”
“I don’t know, Mr Keith, I’ve just returned.”
“Well, don’t you smell it?”
Abbey sniffed the air and shook his head.
“How can you not! The house stinks.”
“I don’t hear it, Mr Keith,”
“Tell your friend, Quway, (white people could not say Kwei) that I’ll not have you cook tripe or any of the horrible stuff you people eat.”
“I’ll tell him, sir.” Abbey ran up the stairs to the bedroom he shared with Kwei. He heard Keith muttering, “They lie like children.”
Kwei sat on their bed pulling his shoes on. Abbey was surprised. Normally, by the time he came home, Kwei was gone for his night shift.
“Keith is complaining again,” Abbey whispered as he hung his coat.
Kwei sucked his teeth loudly. “He knocked on the door and I ignored him.”
“Thanks for cooking.”
“How is Moses?”
Abbey’s smile fell. He opened his hands in helplessness and shrugged his shoulders.
“You didn’t see him!”
“He was asleep again.”
“What? Twice now you go all the way to Macclesfield for nothing?”
“What could I say, wake him up?”
“Yes. Wake him up to see his father.”
“Heather told them she wanted him adopted. What can I do?”
“You’re his father, you decide. You’re too soft.”
Abbey sat down on the bed and sighed. “I don’t know, Kwei. She said she did not want her child going to Africa because of snakes and lions.”
“Stupid woman! Didn’t we grow up there? Next time you go, we go together. You’re too soft. Now I am late for talking to you! Oh,” Kwei seemed to remember something, “do you still have any Blue Hearts?”
Abbey gave Kwei two of his awake pills. He had no use for them anymore. He used to take them when he and Heather went out all night. Kwei tossed them into his mouth without water and ran down the stairs. Abbey fell back on the bed.
Abbey met Heather Newton at the Whit Knitwear Place on Wilmslow Road. She was a temporary machinist while she waited for her nursing course to start in Scotland. At first, Abbey did not notice her. She was one of the girls and there were over fifty girls and women in the main hall. The only girls he looked out for were the nasty ones. Besides, Abbey was so weighed down by being African that he would never assume with white girls. Heather was walking past one day when she said hello. Abbey looked up from the mop and smiled. He thought it was kind and brave of her to smile at him. She seemed like a good girl: not loud, did not swear and he had never seen her smoking.
Months later, Heather stopped to talk to him. She asked what he did after work. Abbey explained that he had a second job at the Princess Road Bus Depot and that he was trying to raise money to return home.
“Where is home?”
“Is that in the West Indies?”
“No, East Africa.”
“Really, I didn’t think you were African, you’re a bit pale.” Then, as an afterthought, she asked breathlessly, “Did you kill a lion to become a man?”
“No, we don’t do that.”
For a moment, as Heather walked away, Abbey wondered whether he should have lied, but he had never seen a lion. Two weeks later, he bumped into her. The other girls had walked on ahead and Abbey expected her to run and catch up with them but she stopped and smiled.
“So where does Abbey from Uganda go on a night out?”
Not to sound backward Abbey said, “At The Merchant, it is…”
“The Merchant? I hear you blacks get up to all sorts there,” she punched his arm playfully.
Rather than protest that nothing untoward happened at The Merchant’s, Abbey smiled. He held, in either hand, a bin full of material cutting, thread and other rubbish. He had been on his way to the outside tip.
“I would like to see The Merchant, Abbey. Would you show me?”
“Of course,” Abbey smiled self-consciously.
Though they agreed to meet that Friday night, Heather ignored him for the rest of the week. Abbey begun to doubt she had meant it. He was therefore surprised to find Heather waiting outside the depot when he arrived for his shift that Friday. When she saw him, she had motioned him to follow her and they went into a side corridor next to the depot called Passage No 1. There, standing under the willow, she told him that they would meet at The Merchant’s entrance at 11 pm and she disappeared.
Abbey arrived ten minutes early and fretted. Heather would walk into the club, wrinkle her nose and walk out. Now The Merchant seemed grubby, the people coarse: the smell of toilets at the entrance was garrotting.
Heather was already excited when she arrived. When they went in and the music was so loud and it was crowded and smoke was everywhere she shouted, “You people know how to have fun,” and Abbey relaxed. They danced until Nelson turned off the music at 2 pm. Outside, Abbey was wondering what to do when Heather suggested that they go to Wilbraham Road; someone she knew was having a party there. When they arrived Abbey was surprised to find other white women with black men, mostly black Americans. There was a lot of American alcohol as well. “It’s from the American air base,” Heather had whispered. She even introduced him to her friends. One of them remarked,
“So this is Heather’s African.”
“Are you a prince?” another woman asked. Before Abbey answered the woman turned to Heather and said, “Most of these fellows claim to be princes.”
Abbey shook his head even though his grandfather was Kabaka Mwanga whom the British had exiled in Seychelles. Once, he heard a shine girl make fun of her own father who claimed to be a prince. Abbey had stopped himself from spitting in her face; how would she know that on the one hand princes in Africa tended to end up as fugitives fleeing assassination, and on the other they had the privilege to travel to Europe?
There were no black women or shine girls at the party but Abbey did not ask why. A door to an exclusive world of acceptance had opened to him. At The Merchant, when people saw him with Heather they had looked at him with concerned surprise. Here, no one cared. They danced until six in the morning when Heather caught the early bus back home.
The following weekend she suggested they go to The Mayfair. Abbey asked,
“How do you know about black people’s clubs?”
“Girls say the most exciting things about black people’s clubs. You must take me to The Cotton Club and Frascatti. I insist.”
Kwei was worried about him. He told him that for a seaman saving to return home women were expensive, but for soft Abbey a white woman would devour him like mashed potatoes.
“It is a story to tell though, when I return home.”
“If you return.”
Abbey and Heather went out another three weekends touring, even the West Indian clubs on Oxford Road. Heather was nice to him. When he was out with her people noticed him. When white men glared at him Abbey felt alive. But black women, even shine girls, kissed their teeth and looked away. When Heather said, “You’re painfully tall,” he walked at his full height.
One Friday, after 2 am, rather than go partying, Heather said she was tired and wanted to lie down. As she could not go home, she asked him to take her to his flat. Abbey could have died of anxiety. Firstly, people said Africans smell; didn’t Heather know? Secondly, what if their room smelt of offal?
It was too late to worry because they were walking past Greenheys Police Station, down Great Western Street where he lived. Mercifully, the room was clean and tidy. He had been ready to spend his savings on a hotel room if he saw Heather wrinkling her nose. She seemed too tired to notice any smells. He offered her their bed while he slept on the floor. After a while, Heather asked him to get in bed with her and hold her. When he told Kwei about it the following day, Kwei said, “You’re not going home.” Abbey started looking forward to Fridays. At work, it started to hurt when Heather ignored him.
They had been seeing each other for five months when Heather stopped coming to work. Abbey could not ask why; people would get suspicious. Two months later, when he had decided that Heather had started her course in Scotland but had not bothered to say goodbye, she turned up at his house. It was a different Heather. She was fearful and angry. She needed somewhere to hide.
Abbey was confused. Heather needed a room but she would pay her own rent. She did not want him to look after her but she needed him to go to the shops for her. Yes, he was responsible for her condition but she was giving up the child for adoption. She shouted at him when he turned up at her flat. “What will the neighbours say, first being pregnant and then with a black child?” Abbey insisted that as long as she carried his child he would come to see her.
It was by chance that Abbey found out when Heather went to have the baby. Her landlady told him that she had been taken to St Mary’s Hospital the day before. Luckily, when he got there Heather had not been discharged but the baby had been taken. Abbey made a scene. That is how he found out which home the baby had been placed in and got his name on the child’s birth certificate.
For a month now, Abbey had been visiting the home twice a week to see the baby he had named Moses. It was only a month since he last saw Heather but, in the absence of her picture or an article to remember her by, the most vivid memory Abbey had of their relationship was that freaky willow whose limp branches, rather than look up the sky like normal trees, drooped to the ground. Heather always waited under the willow.
When Abbey and Kwei arrived at the children’s home in Macclesfield two days later, the matron pretended not to see them. This made Abbey more nervous but Kwei went up to her and said,
“We want to see our son.”
“Who is your son?”
“You’re not his father.”
“In our culture my brother’s son is my son.”
“Moses is up for adoption. A nice couple have finalised the adoption process.”
“Ah?” Abbey, who had left Kwei to do all the talking gasped. “But you say he’s sleeping every time I come. Why lie?”
“His mother wanted him adopted.”
“Which mother, the woman who would not put him on her breast?”
“We’re doing what is best for Moses.”
“Ooh, you see them, Kwei? They’re taking my child.”
“I am only following instructions.”
“Taking him from his real blood to make him anonymous?”
“Bring his records. We need to see his records first.” Kwei banged the desk.
“You need to calm down, both of you! I can’t listen to both of y…”
“Calm down, calm down, when we are losing our blood, would you calm down?”
“I’ll bring the records.” The woman found a way out. “But you need to calm down.”
When she left the room Kwei turned to Abbey and whispered, “They don’t know how to deal with us angry. We frighten them. If you stand there all orderly and soft then they’ve got you.”
The woman returned with a blue folder. ADOPTED was stamped across the cover. Abbey and Kwei stared in disbelief.
“He has been taken, Abbey.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Hmm? Why didn’t you tell me every time I came?”
“He was only taken this morn…”
“Thieves, why don’t they make their own?”
“I want my child back.”
“There is nothing I can do, Mr Baker.”
Now Abbey broke down and wept. “How can I go home Kwei, How can I leave my blood here?”
Even the woman softened. “Look, I am really sorry but in this country…”
“Don’t tell me about this country, you’re not good people.”
“Abbey,” Kwei started quietly. “Write, write everything. Our blood is strong, Moses will come looking.” He turned to the woman, “You have made Moses an anonymous child. You must take that to your grave.”
Abbey picked up a pen and opened the file. First, he changed the child’s name from Moses Baker to Junju Juuko. Under father, he changed his name from Abbey Baker to Ssuna Junju. In brackets he wrote “(son of Mutikka Juuko of Kawempe, Kampala Uganda)”. He paused for a second and then added “Junju’s father wanted to keep him” and he signed it. He put the pen down and walked out. He heard Kwei say, “I’ll write down Uncle Kwei’s contacts as well,” but Abbey did not stop.