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NII AYIKWEI PARKES

Wood

W

E HEARD of Uncle Harry long before we

met him. He was Da’s older brother, older by ten years and a legend in Da’s eyes. My big sister, Ayikailey, said it was odd that Da loved him so much since Grandpa preferred Uncle Harry to Da, although – she always paused for emphasis at this point – Uncle Harry wasn’t even Grandpa’s own son. Grandpa was a fan of men who spoke with their fists and laughed with their mouths. Da spoke with his mouth and laughed with his fists; Uncle Harry was the opposite, and thus he was the epitome of the son Grandpa always wanted, although he was really Grandma’s son from a previous marriage. Da said Uncle Harry was the first Ghanaian to go to the US on a full sports scholarship – for boxing, which he dropped after his freshman year to play football, American football. While he couldn’t figure out where Grandma had put it before she died, Da swore there was an Ebony TM magazine that featured Uncle Harry as an African boy made good – he was pictured complete with helmet and pads in garish colours with a bold logo, but no shoes. My sister said that was exoticism if she’d ever seen it, no wonder the Afro-Americans think they’re better than us, and besides he’s Ghanaian, not African. In fact, she wanted a copy of the magazine so she could write to the editor, Mr Johnson, because she had something to say about the advertising he carried anyway. With all this history, bolstered by the faded brown pictures of Uncle Harry with a large side-parted Afro, we never expected Uncle Harry to be bald, but he was. He also had a huge vibrating laugh and wore a fragrance called Kouros by a French guy called Yves Saint Laurent. He had four rings on his left hand and two gold chains round his neck

NII AYIKWEI PARKES is a Ghanaian writer and senior editor at flipped eye publishing. A 2007 recipient of Ghana’s national ACRAG award for poetry and literary advocacy, he is the author of the novel Tail of the Blue Bird ( Jonathan Cape, 2009) and a former International Writing Fellow at the University of Southampton. In 2009, his short story “Socks Ball” was highly commended by the judges of the Caine Prize for African Writing. Queen’s Quarterly 117/1 (Spring 2010) | 3


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from where the pendants disappeared into the thick mat of hair on his chest. He arrived in the middle of the rainy season in 1990, on one of those days when an intense sun had dried the previous day’s mud into cracked patterns and many-sided cookies in the ground. I was playing table tennis with my sister on a makeshift table of thin plywood propped up on four of our mother’s broken flower pots. In fact, I was about to beat her for the first time ever, and I was getting ready to call Da to come and watch, when I heard a car honking at our gate. I hesitated because I didn’t want to stop the game, but I was the youngest so I was expected to go. I sprinted to the gate, jumped to free the clasp that held it closed from the top, pushed the left gate open and swung out with the right gate, hanging onto it like a chameleon. By the time the silver nose of a Chrysler had appeared over the rise of the slope that led into our compound, catching the light of the setting sun, Ma and Da were standing at our front door. Da jumped, then yelled Harry and ran towards the car as though there was no one else in the world who could possibly drive to our house in a powder blue Chrysler Cordoba. The man in the car braked as soon as the car had cleared the closing arc of the gate, leaving the car at an odd angle as his shiny brown head emerged from the two-door saloon. He met Da with a bear hug and lifted him clean off the ground, even though Da was at least two inches taller. When Da was back on his feet and Ma was standing just behind him, Uncle Harry said, “Jimmyfio, is that a pot belly you’re growing?” That’s when I looked at my sister. It was, without doubt, Uncle Harry because only Da’s siblings called him Jimmyfio, little Jimmy – with reference to Da’s father who shared Da’s name – and we knew Da’s seventeen other siblings. “I’m trying to be like my big brother,” joked Da, pointing at Uncle Harry, who had, excuse me to say, quite a big paunch. Uncle Harry threw his head back and laughed, then he pushed Da to one side and hugged Ma. “Atuu, NaaNaa.” He held her an arm’s length away and smiled. “Do you ever get less beautiful?” Ma laughed the same laugh that my sister laughed when she got phone calls late at night and went to her room to take them. “Is this the ’76?” Da ran his hand along the roof of Uncle Harry’s car and slapped it once. “Yes.” Uncle Harry’s moustache twitched as he smiled. “Ei, my brother, still no car but you know every car in existence.”

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“Nii Ayi, come here.” Da signalled to me then turned to my sister. “You too, Ayikailey.” I sprang from the gate and ran to him, grabbing his arm before my sister could reach him. “This is your Uncle Harry who lives in Liberia,” he said. “Ayikailey, do you remember him? You were six when he last visited.” My sister shook her head. “Well, I remember you,” Uncle Harry opened his arms for a hug. “Atuu, you were a pretty little thing then and you’re even prettier now. And you,” he said, turning to me and inclining his head so I would go to him, “were an ugly baby, but look at you now ! Atuu.” Da and Ma laughed, then Da pointed at the car. “Nii Ayi, this car is five years older than you.” “Really?” I ran to the car and peered at the wooden dashboard as though it could tell me the truth. My sister came to stand beside me and whispered, “And I’m one year older than the car.” “Show off,” I said, and pushed her, suddenly upset that our game had been interrupted, because it would have been so good to beat her and somehow I knew she wouldn’t allow me to continue the game later.

A

YIKAILEY took a jug of water to the living room to

serve Uncle Harry, Ma and Da, then we sat near the door, just in case we weren’t allowed to stay and listen to their conversation. Ma said that even when Nelson Mandela was in jail he saw his family more regularly than Uncle Harry saw his. Uncle Harry and Da laughed. Uncle Harry shook his head and said that we were lucky this time because he was staying with us for three days because his wife, Auntie Mati, was moving back to Ghana with the kids so he had to sort out a house for them. Ma looked at Da and the two of them laughed. Uncle Harry asked why, but that just made Ma and Da laugh harder. I looked at my sister and she leaned towards me and whispered that whenever Ma asked Da about Uncle Harry, Da would say that Uncle Harry never asked to visit or stay, he just turned up and did it. I laughed too, even though I didn’t understand. Uncle Harry turned to us. “The two of you, go and get my bag from the back of the car.” Wood | 5


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“OK Uncle.” I ran ahead giggling, knowing I had been naughty and listened to grown up conversation and got away with it. I was also looking forward to playing with the cassette player in Uncle Harry’s car. That night, when I padlocked our gate, I slipped into the car again and fumbled with the knobs before I rolled up the windows and locked it. I looked back at it before I went indoors; it glowed in the pale light and I wished that Uncle Harry would leave the car with us.

T

HE next morning Uncle Harry and Da were sit-

ting outside, under our guava tree, talking, when I nearly beat my sister at table tennis; she won by just two points. Uncle Harry whistled when Ayikailey’s last shot whizzed past my bat. “You guys are pretty good, you know. Have you tried lawn tennis?” “Harry,” said Da, “racquets are expensive. Please don’t encourage them.” When Da said racquets, I said, “Oh, long tennis. I have played twice at Kaneshie Sports Complex. I want to be like Frank Ofori or Andre Agassi … or …” I stopped because my sister was laughing. “What?” “Nii Ayi, it’s lawn tennis.” I saw that Da was trying not to laugh so I knew she was right. Uncle Harry’s moustache twitched before he said, “Don’t worry about the name. I’ll get you both racquets myself. The company I work for supplies wood to the companies that make racquets.” Uncle Harry, it seemed, had studied forestry in his college in La Mirada, California, and now he worked for a consulting firm that found suitable West African woods for different companies in the US . “Your Uncle used to be college champion.” Uncle Harry shook his head, rubbing the stubble beginning to appear on his clean-shaven chin, “I wasn’t college champion; I used to beat the college champion when I played him, but I couldn’t play college tennis because I was playing football.” Ma came to our front door waving the telephone. “Harry, a call for you …” She paused. “From Delores.” Da looked at Uncle Harry and rolled his eyes. “You gave her our number to call you?” Uncle Harry shrugged. “I don’t have another number here yet.” Delores was Uncle Harry’s ex-girlfriend who lived in Virginia. She was one of several girlfriends he had during his years in college. By 6 | Queen’s Quarterly


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the time he was vice-captain of his college football team in his junior year, he had fifteen girls on the go and he kept them sweet by telling them that his tribe in Africa forbade him from sleeping with one woman more than twice between each new moon. Surprisingly they believed him, and since a hard-working wide receiver like him obviously needed sex, they happily contributed to his yard gain. All fifteen of them would watch him impatiently bobbing at the split end until he received his first pass from TC , the quarterback, then they’d start screaming. Uncle Harry made his name by scoring a touchdown each time he received his first ball so there was always a palpable excitement when his team moved into an offensive formation. On two rare occasions Uncle Harry showed off the skills for feinting and dancing that he had held on to from boxing, scoring touchdowns when his team received kickoffs; the first was in his junior year with the fifteen girlfriends watching, the second was in his senior year when he made the 1964 California All-State team and his fame spread beyond La Mirada, California – that was the year he met Delores, the year he made it into Ebony TM magazine. Delores was different from the other girls. She didn’t buy the story about Uncle Harry’s tribe, because she said her ancestors were from Africa and she’d never heard anything like that before, but, more importantly, she managed to get pregnant. Since it was Uncle Harry’s senior year she thought their life together was assured, until Uncle Harry said he was coming back to Ghana to find work. Delores couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go back to Africa, no; she wouldn’t go back with him. She called him a savage and Uncle Harry lost his temper and called her a calculating whore. Before long she was throwing glasses and plates at him. Uncle Harry walked out and didn’t speak to her for a year. When they next saw each other Uncle Harry was married and Delores never forgave him.

W

HEN I was twelve, three years after Uncle

Harry visited us, Delores called looking for him. We hadn’t heard from Uncle Harry for eighteen months but Da said that was the way it was with Uncle Harry so it was better not to worry. Uncle Harry would call; he was always in the forest anyway so there was no point in us calling him. Ayikailey and I had already given up on receiving our tennis racquets; we had even stopped playing table tennis, but

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I felt let down by Uncle Harry. I had told my friends that we were going to get some brand new racquets from the USA and they had later called me a big fat liar. The last time Uncle Harry called he told Da there was political instability in Liberia because of rebels under the command of Charles Taylor, but key workers like him had been guaranteed safety. He said we weren’t to be too concerned by the images of fires and vicious gun and cutlass combat on the news – he was alright. I picked up the phone when Delores called. “Is Harry there?” At this point the voice just sounded like a lost American’s so I said, “I’m sorry Madam you’ve got the wrong number,” and put the phone down. The phone rang again. It was the same voice. “Listen, this is Delores. If that no-good man is trying to avoid me, tell him I’ve got news …” I remembered who she was and passed the phone to Ma. “Delores.” When Ma finished talking to her, she quickly dialled the number for Auntie Mati, Uncle Harry’s wife in Dansoman, and found out that she hadn’t heard from him in two months either. When Da came home from work that day he couldn’t speak for hours. Ayikailey came home from university and sat with him until he began to talk about Uncle Harry’s life as though he was mourning him. Three months later we still hadn’t heard from Uncle Harry and Da was beginning to despair. Uncle Harry hadn’t sent money to Auntie Mati in six months so Da and Ma had started to help her support her kids. On some days Da would take out pictures of Uncle Harry and suggest to Ma that maybe we should organize a funeral for him because it was unnatural for Uncle Harry not to contact his family for almost six months; his brother wasn’t like that. One night, Da started sobbing when we were watching Rainman with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise as brothers on the road together. Ma held him and cried too. Ayikailey was away on campus and I didn’t know what to do so I stopped the video cassette. I also thought about the powder blue Chrysler and the tennis racquets that never came and cried. That night I slept deeper than death. The next morning when I went to unlock our gate, I found a beggar curled at the foot of the gate. He stank of sweat, grime and urine, and was covered from head to foot in a stained wax print cloth. His head lay on a cloth bundle, which was grasped tight in his bony right hand. I nudged him with my foot but he didn’t move. I shouted hey and 8 | Queen’s Quarterly


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nudged him again, but his body just settled back into position when I removed my foot. I ran inside to tell Da that, excuse me to say, there was a dead man at our gate. Da was half-dressed for work, with a clean white shirt and his tie hanging loose around his neck. He wrapped a tie-dye cloth around his waist and I followed him outside. He covered his nose when he saw the body, then squatted to remove the cloth covering it. The face was covered with hair; a matted beard and a moustache encrusted with snot and dust. Da and I both gasped when we realized that the bald head with knotted tufts of hair was Uncle Harry’s; his paunch was gone, so were his rings and chains, but there was no doubt it was him. I felt a tug in the pit of my stomach when I remembered how I prodded him with my foot earlier. Da shook him, then screamed, “NaaNaa, bring me some water.” He put his hand on Uncle Harry’s chest and whispered, “Thank God.” When Ma brought the water some of our neighbours were gathered round, but Da ignored them. I wanted to scream at them to get away, because I was a little ashamed that my uncle was lying there looking like a beggar. Also, some of them had seen me kicking Uncle Harry earlier. Da sprinkled some water onto Uncle Harry’s face and Uncle Harry stirred. Da pried Uncle Harry’s mouth open and poured some water in his mouth. Uncle Harry coughed, and opened his eyes as Da sprinkled more water on his face. “Oh, Harry!” Da hugged his brother, covering his crisp white shirt with mud in the process. Ma and Da helped Uncle Harry up and led him up the driveway as the neighbours dispersed. Uncle Harry mumbled that he’d come to us because he couldn’t let his family see him this way. His voice was shaky and his eyes were wet like a dog’s. “It’s OK,” said Ma, “we’ll call them.” Then Uncle Harry started laughing. “Charles Taylor.” His teeth were all brown and the alien material in his beard and moustache made him look like a crazed maniac. “Charles Taylor is waiting for me.” He ducked behind Da as though someone might try to shoot him. Da was crying, but Uncle Harry kept laughing and ducking, with his bony arms gesturing in all directions. “Warlord.” Uncle Harry pointed to our guava tree and screamed. “Look, a tree. Psidium guajava.” His science gushed from somewhere deep inside. “I told him I was going to negotiate a timber contract for him. He’s waiting. Charlie!” Uncle Harry laughed until he choked and started coughing. Wood | 9


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I giggled into my hand, because I hadn’t heard anyone call a guava tree Psidium guajava before. Da turned to me as we reached our front door. “Nii Ayi, go and bring his things.” I was sure that Da wanted me to leave because he had seen me giggling. I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t Uncle Harry that I was laughing at but he had already gone inside. Just because I wasn’t eighteen like my sister … I was angry but I didn’t say anything.

I

went back to the gate to collect the cloth and the bundle. As the gate swung open I noticed that the things had moved further down the slope than they were before. It looked like someone had tampered with them. The bundle had come undone to reveal two pale, wood tennis racquets, unbranded and unvarnished, catching the light of the rising sun.

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Wood  

an excerpt from my short story, Wood, published in Queen's Quarterly (Canada) and due for inclusion in my in-progress short story collection...