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Cloth Girl - extract

 

Part One

The Gold Coast, British West Africa. March 1937.

Chapter One

Robert Bannerman, still happy to display his body in the privacy of his compound, walked on to the upper veranda of his house with a towel wrapped around his waist. Later on in life, he would put on weight, but for now his body still showed the benefits of having led an active life in England, where he had participated eagerly in most sports, making up for his mediocrity with fervour. In his opinion, his only personal sporting failure was that he had never learned to swim. The truth was that he was afraid of water. When he was a boy, he witnessed a childhood friend drown in the sea, which scarred him with the unwavering respect that comes from recognising one’s uselessness in the face of a vast unconquerable. What a peaceful death once the waves had silenced the screams. Anyhow, it would be inappropriate for a man like Robert to be seen swimming in public. There were things that he could not do here that he might have done freely, without a care in the world, back in England, where he had been anonymous and unaccountable; here, he was a pillar of society, respected by many, and the least he could do was try to live accordingly.

He stood gripping a cup of tea in one hand and surveyed his household while his extended family and servants carried out their tasks. He had always wanted his work and play in one place, and as he watched the stable boys and trainer working with the horses and his children playing in the yard, he felt he had achieved that. It had definitely been worth returning home; he belonged here.

He had turned to go back into the house when he noticed a girl whom he did not recognise in the courtyard below. He was transfixed. He did not want to stop looking at her, and for a while took no notice of his wife, Julie, who had appeared beside him and was talking to him. Reluctantly, he turned his head towards Julie, allowing his eyes to linger on the girl as long as he could. He looked at his wife fleetingly, long enough to recognise the contempt in her face, and then turned back to look at the girl again. Julie stood and stared with her husband for a few moments. Then she took the unfinished cup of tea from his hand and stormed into the house.

Matilda stood in Lawyer's compound looking around anxiously for Uncle, clutching the bundle of documents in her hand. Her brow was glistening with sweat, and her palms were damp. She transferred the bundle from one hand to the other so she could wipe her palms on her dress. There was a strong scent of warm horse manure, which mingled with the smell of burning coals and cooking food. The smell of sweet, thick cornmeal made her stomach rumble.

She had never been inside the grand house or its compound before. Built on a corner plot, the house and compound were bigger than they seemed from the street. She squinted to protect her eyes from the glare of the sun, which was rising confidently in the sky, and looked around slowly. The house was a two-storey wooden rectangular building painted the colour of dirty honey. It had a low-pitched roof covered with corrugated-iron sheets, which glittered like a mirage. On both levels, two huge glassless windows, flanked by big blue shutters, opened on either side of a door on to a covered veranda that ran along the width of the building. From where she stood in the light, the rooms upstairs seemed to be in darkness.

Along the far side of the compound, opposite the gate, were stables for Lawyer’s cherished racehorses, which Matilda had often seen being ridden to or from the racecourse. One horse had stretched its neck to rest its head on the stable door as though in exhaustion. There were several people in the yard. A thin man with a wizened face sat on a shaky wooden bench in the middle of the courtyard underneath the shade of a gigantic neem tree giving instructions to two boys who were grooming horses. The boys moved slowly in response to the man; the heat from the tropical sun, even though it was still early in the morning, discouraging any hurried activity. Two mongrels with tick-infested, patchy fur, one of them with oozing eyes that were plagued by flies, lay on the ground perilously close to the man's feet. One of the dogs neglectfully allowed a stray paw to touch the man's leg and received a sharp kick from him in return. The dog yelped in disgust and moved away the offending limb but failed to move far enough to ensure that he would not intrude in the same way again. Next to the man, an old woman sat heavily with a fat, happy baby on her lap. Whenever the woman shuffled her feet and readjusted her bottom on the hard seat, the bench wobbled, although neither the man nor the woman seemed to notice.

A woman was washing a little girl underneath a running tap close to the house, paying no attention to the child’s screams as she scrubbed her all over with a sponge, covering her entire face and body with foamy soap. Soon, she would have talcum powder doused all over her just like her brothers, who had survived their wash and were now playing on the lower veranda in the shade of the house, their smooth bodies still streaked with white powder, like blackboards smeared with chalk. Several dazed chickens wandered around the yard, pecking at the dry brown earth, hoping to find the kind of juicy worm that did not thrive in Lawyer’s compound. They clucked persistently in a self-assured manner that was irritating, unaware that they were only ignored because one day soon they would form a special meal for the household.

Matilda was eager to keep a safe distance between her and the dogs. Breathing in deeply through her mouth, she moved cautiously towards the old woman and stood close enough to her to avoid having to speak loudly and risk being told off for being disrespectful.

'Please, good morning. I am looking for Uncle Saint John. Please, do you know where he is?' she asked in her polite voice.

'Lawyer’s clerk?' replied the woman in a hot, bored voice, without really looking up. Before Matilda could reply, she continued, 'In the office,' pointing with her chin in the direction of an alleyway that ran towards the front gate.

'Thank you.' She nodded and walked in the direction the old woman had indicated.

As she approached the office, Matilda could not help wishing that Lawyer would be there. She was curious to see what he was like close up. She had seen him occasionally as he drove past in his car, and she had heard a lot about him, in tones often covetous but always reverential. Outside the office, she paused to look at the sign that stood at the front gate with the inscription in peeling paint: 'Robert Bannerman, BA (HONOURS), Cambridge University, ENGLAND, Barrister-at-law & Commissioner for Oaths.' Matilda knew what the sign said because her uncle had told her many times. He often recited the words, merged together but with the appropriate emphases, in his singsong, heavily accented African-English, not pausing until he had reached the full stop at the end.

She went round the corner and up the steps leading to the office. She saw through the open double doors that Uncle was alone. He was hunched over a desk covered with piles of books and papers, studying a document and looking bewildered. The office was dark and gloomy, a serene haven from the noise and brightness outside. An unlit bulb hung from a lead in the ceiling. The only light in the room came from an old green lamp on the desk. Shelves, heavy with rows and rows of hefty, dusty books, lined the walls. The gold lettering on the book spines was fading, but apart from the big Bible that the minister had on the pulpit at church, these were definitely the most impressive books that Matilda had ever seen. The cement walls of the room were cracked in several places and had probably once been white, but with time, dust from the earth outside had yellowed everything, enhancing the dimness of the room. Piles of paper and folders tied with pink ribbons covered most of the floor and every surface in the room. In the corner was a large dark-brown leather armchair that had seen better days. It looked comfortable. Matilda was amazed; she had never seen such a grand room or so many books in one place.

'Excuse me, Uncle,' she said softly.

Saint John looked up, and when he saw her, he grinned with his whole face and took a deep breath, pushing back his shoulders as if shaking off some imaginary burden. 'Oh. It's you,' he said. 'Come in, come in. Lawyer is not down yet. Come and see my lovely office.' He gestured welcomingly. He was sweating, constantly wiping his brow with a folded handkerchief that had once been white. Saint John was short and eager. If it is ever fair to generalise, then he had a typical fisherman's physique – stocky with well-defined strong arms and oversized calves. His head was shaped like a cocoa pod with a conveniently positioned bald patch, which he did not yet have to confront on a daily basis. He had a moustache to emulate his employer's and wore the same brown-flecked, gabardine wool suit to work each day. It was one of Lawyer' s old Oxford baggie suits – oversized pleated trousers with a three-inch waistband and wide lapels on the jacket – which Saint John's wife had altered, taking up the sleeves and trousers a little crookedly and a little enthusiastically, so that too much of his socks now showed above his shoes.

Matilda walked into the room, relieved after all that Lawyer was not there, and turned to look at the wall behind her, which was covered in framed cartoons of men in red gowns and wigs. There were several gilt-framed photographs of Lawyer. Matilda breathed in the cool musty-paper smell, relishing the calm of the room, and peered closely at the grainy black-and-white paper, wondering how much it would cost to have such enormous pictures taken. The album at home had two small pictures in it. On special occasions, Matilda's mother carefully took the album out of its protective box and proudly showed off the small, shadowy photographs, which were now browning with age and desperate to curl in submission to the humidity. In one of them, Matilda's parents, Ama and Owusu, looking uncomfortable and dressed in their best clothes, smiled uncertainly, almost quizzically, into the lens. The second portrayed Uncle Saint John and his wife looking startled. Matilda and her sisters joked secretly about how Aunty Amele was staring slightly agape, with a hint of fear in her face. And at every given opportunity, Matilda's mother reminded Aunty Amele exactly what it had cost the family to capture this unrefined expression, which was, to be frank, quite upsetting, apart from being a waste of good money. But to destroy the photograph would have been even more shameful, so it remained in its rightful place in the family album for all to see.

Matilda wondered when she would be able to have her portrait taken, and if she would look as nice in print as Lawyer did. She noticed her reflection in the glass of the picture and focused on it. She had recently reluctantly become aware of her appearance. She had been told she was fine-looking and shapely, and everyone commented on her complexion, which was a shade lighter than her sisters, a colour that her mother, who constantly reminded her to avoid standing in the sun unnecessarily, had told her was a distinct advantage for a girl. Her face was round, childish, with dimpled cheeks, large brown trusting eyes and a full mouth with a lower lip that curled downwards somewhat, revealing the soft pink of her mouth. All her friends and female relatives praised her neck; it was long and had two rolls of flesh, a beautiful neck, they said. Embarrassed by what she saw, she blinked and concentrated on Lawyer's image again.

But the man on the wall looked at ease, like someone used to having his picture taken. In one shot, he was sitting on a chair, probably in a studio, smiling comfortably and holding a roll of paper tied with a ribbon. His other hand was majestically positioned on his thigh. Matilda took an imperceptible step closer to the wall and examined his face. It was not black-black, as very dark children, likely to be alternately pitied and teased by their friends and families, were described. He was a refined brown-black, the colour of the bark of a neem tree, a little lighter than Matilda herself. His face was square, and his head, covered in black hair, had looser curls than anyone Matilda knew. She envied his sisters if they had hair like his. Hair like his grew fast and long, lending itself to the more intricate hairdos that Matilda longed for: long braids that would reach her shoulders, or, better still, which would venture down her back. But her hair would never grow that long. Unconsciously, she reached up and stroked her head just behind her ear with her fingers. As a schoolgirl, Matilda's hair had to be kept short, just a little longer than was acceptable for a man. Her tight, springy curls, which when pulled straight at least trebled in length, was the most inflexible of African hair and could not be combed into submission without some pain. She thought her friend Patience would think Lawyer was handsome, but she thought that he had stern eyes. They were bulbous and sleepy, and his long nose and mouth – accentuated by a trim moustache, which made him look quite distinguished – were much thinner than Matilda's.

'Please don’t touch anything,' warned her uncle.

Matilda walked over and handed him the papers.

'These are the law reports. They contain important cases that Lawyer reads when he is preparing for court,' Saint John explained, waving grandly at the books. 'Lawyer is a very clever man.' He told anyone who would listen to him, and many who would not, about Lawyer's qualifications, emphasising their exceptional brilliance – the sign of a great man, a good man, actually. Saint John Lamptey believed emphatically that the fact he worked for such an outstanding individual was an indication of his own importance. Look how his place in society had been raised to a level which, it had to be said, was far beyond where one would have expected the son of a fisherman to reach! That Saint John should take pride in his employer's achievements was simply not something to be questioned.

Matilda turned back to the wall.

'Uncle? Please, what does that say?' She pointed to the caption at the bottom of the photograph.

'Cambridge University, 1928,' he replied without hesitation. 'The best university in the world.'

She turned to look at another photograph, a group of men all wearing similar gowns to the one Lawyer wore in the individual portrait. Matilda counted four rows of six or seven people. She leaned further forward and saw that one of the people in the front row, who were all seated, looked like a woman. Lawyer was not hard to find. His face, the only black one, was there in the third row, right in the middle of the picture. Everyone in the photograph looked happy, but he looked ecstatic. He seemed to be smiling more energetically than most of the others, who Matilda assumed were his classmates. She wondered whether it took a particular type of courage to be the only one of a kind. But the expression on his face was not that of someone who thought he did not belong.

Matilda had only seen whites from a distance. The colonials did not live near Jamestown, the part of Accra where Matilda lived. Jamestown, named by the English who originally settled there, was a neighbourhood, not a town, on the Atlantic Ocean, just south-west of Accra proper, inhabited almost solely by the Ga tribe. The Ga people were renowned for their fishing skills, and they often lived up to their reputation for being aggressive, but they described themselves as sophisticated, mainly because they had had hundreds of years of exposure to Europeans and also because Accra, the administrative centre of the Gold Coast, which was part of British West Africa, was Ga territory.

The Europeans had since moved on to leafier suburbs nearer to Christiansborg Castle, the Governo's base, and Matilda, who rarely had reason to go anywhere beyond her immediate environs, had never spoken to a white person. Looking at the photographs, she wondered what whites were like, whether their skin felt as it looked, cold, translucent and fragile, and whether, amongst themselves, they too had colour distinctions indiscernible by her, such as white-whites or even yellowwhites, or whether they were all simply white. She also wondered whether there was any truth in the rumour that white women were happy to be thin and that they did not mind being flat.

'Well, now you have seen the office, you’d better get back to help at home and let me get on with my work,' said Uncle, interrupting her thoughts.

Dismissed a little sooner than she would have liked, Matilda set off.

 

 

Robert Bannerman belonged to the educated elite of the Gold Coast. Unusually, he came from a family of educated men. His great-grandfather had been sired by a British merchant and a local girl and had been sent to school in England. Through the generations, the Bannermans had continued to educate their males in this way. After primary school in Accra, Robert too had been shipped off to boarding school in England, and then to obtain a law degree at Cambridge. He had been away from his country and family for many years when he returned as a barrister to claim his rightful position of privilege and power.

Robert had loved his time in England unashamedly, and he still esteemed anything English, but he knew that there was really only one place where he would be able to be the man that he was destined to be. Now, only five years after his return, he was one of the most respected lawyers in the colony.

No one, least of all Robert, was sure where the Bannerman family's money came from, or questioned how there was enough to educate its sons in this lavish manner. There were rumours that their progenitors had been involved in the slave trade, but this was not something that Robert gave much thought to.

He turned to go back into his room when he saw the unfamiliar girl walking towards the back gate. He caught only a glimpse of her face as she walked past. He watched, transfixed. She had big hips that swayed from side to side as she glided in a way that belied her generous proportions. She walked lazily, scraping the heels of the unwieldy sandals as she moved, scooping up dust and dirt to sit moistened between her toes. Robert didn't want to stop looking at her. He wanted to know in which direction she would go, hoping for some clue as to who she was, but she disappeared behind the big wall.

He remained distracted all morning, wondering about the girl. He was slightly more irritable than normal with Julie and with the maid who brought him his breakfast. Surely his reaction to the girl was the usual excitement that precipitated the chase he would embark on as soon as he knew who she was.

'Lawyer, it is time to go or we will be late.' Saint John was running up the stairs to the veranda where Robert sat contemplating his breakfast.

Robert noticed that they were already nearly an hour late. 'Morning,' he replied gruffly.

Saint John hovered next to Robert while he drained his cup, then the men made their way down to Robert's car, a dark-blue Austin 16 four-door saloon with maroon leather seats, footrests and picnic tables that folded out from the back of the front seats, which had arrived from Liverpool only a few months ago. On a day like today, typically sunny and hot, the sun visor above the front windscreen was a wonderful accessory. The driver spent a considerable amount of time polishing the car each morning, and today it gleamed in the sunlight as though in gratitude. The driver held the door open while Lawyer climbed in and sat behind Saint John, who was seated in front, tall and puffed with pride. As the car eased slowly out of the compound and on to the unmade road, several small children stopped playing and started waving at it. They saw the car almost every day, but it had lost none of its magic, and some of them ran beside it until it reached the main road, waving all the while and trying to catch a glimpse of their toothy grins reflected in the sleek hulk of the car as it rolled along gracefully.

Robert and Saint John, ignoring the children as usual, were engrossed in a discussion when Robert saw the girl buying something from a street vendor at the edge of the road just ahead of them. His desire was unmistakable and oddly overpowering. He leaned forward and shook Saint John’s shoulder vigorously.

'Do you know that girl in the green dress? She was at the house this morning.' The driver had slowed down close to where Matilda was standing and was preparing to turn into the main road. Robert continued to shake his clerk's shoulder as though that would force a reply from him. 'That girl there. Do you see her? Find out who she is.' No one in the car could have misunderstood the excitement in his voice.

Saint John looked out of the window in the direction Lawyer had been gesturing. The frown on his face lifted in recognition. 'Lawyer, that is my niece Matilda. My favourite. A good girl.' He was nodding his head to emphasise his words and grinning with idiotic pride, taking more than his fair share of credit for the girl's allure.

The driver crept on to the main road and increased his speed a little. He drove gingerly, even though there were few motorcars on the streets.

Robert could not stop thinking about the girl, whose name he now knew. His usual style would be inappropriate. To seduce his clerk's niece and then walk away would fall outside the behavioural code by which he strove to live. But he was overwhelmed by how fiercely he wanted her. Certainly, she would not be the first such girl to have this effect on him. Yes, he had married well and had acquired precisely the sort of wife for the kind of man he was: stylish, educated, bright, and with the right background. Julie was very English in her ways, which Robert liked. In some ways, she was even more English than he, which was an advantage for their children. They would attend English-speaking schools from the start, none of this vernacular nonsense to confuse them. He wanted them to be brought up well, to acquire the superior tastes he had, and Julie was the right mother for all that. And she was presentable, which helped a great deal. She knew what to wear, what to say and how to comport herself without his input. Even her name, Juliana, had always impressed him with its ring of imperialism, but he too had succumbed over time, albeit unwillingly, to the abbreviated form that she preferred. So why, as soon as he had returned to the Gold Coast from his studies, and ever since, it had to be said, had he needed to dally with girls so far beneath him? Girls he usually met in secret, girls who satisfied something in him that Julie, with all her finesse, was unable to. He shrugged and stared out of the window, allowing his thoughts to return to Matilda. He began to consider where and how they could meet in a way that would be best for all concerned. There had to be a solution; he just had to think of it. Or, alternatively, he thought, I could simply allow this desire to run its natural course unaided. There was, after all, no likelihood that he would cross paths with the girl again soon.

 

 

Two days later, Robert was fed up with being plagued by exciting thoughts of her. While they were preparing for a case, he asked his clerk to send for Matilda.

'Tell her to find the papers for the Acheampong case, which you took home.

Bewildered, Saint John asserted that he had not taken those papers home. They had to be in the office, although he had to admit that had not seen them in a while. Anyone looking at the piles of papers and files in the office would be suspicious of Saint John's claims that he always knew where any particular piece of paper was. Yet, time and time again, he astounded Robert by the speed with which he found the necessary documents.

The message was dispatched. Robert was edgy with anticipation. He wondered whether the girl would be as he had remembered. Time passed slowly. Robert wondered whether the girl would come. And if she did come, what would he do? He would cross that bridge when he got there, he thought eagerly. For the third time, he called for the boy who had taken the message to Saint John's house and again asked him, 'And when you got to the house, who did you talk to?'

The boy's answer had not changed since he was last asked the question. 'Please, I saw Sister Matilda and asked her to find the papers that Uncle left in his room and to bring them here as soon as possible. I told her that if she cannot find them, she must come and tell Uncle.'

There was nothing to do but wait. The silence was tense. Saint John continued to search the office, visibly concerned that his filing system should let him down so decisively, particularly in circumstances where he could not share the blame with anyone if the documents were indeed missing.

Robert continued to pace up and down the office with a mixture of exhilaration and intense irritation. How preposterous was it that this young girl had rendered him so weak over the past two days? He had intended asking Saint John how old she was, but something had prevented him from wanting to know. He convinced himself that her school uniform wasn't necessarily a true reflection of her age. Girls in this country go to school at all ages, he reflected. There is no legal age limit for schooling, no legal start date. In fact, he would have to stop thinking of her as a girl; she was probably a woman; it was quite possible that she was already eighteen. When the girl's outline appeared in the doorway, he was walking away from the door with his back to her. He reached the wall, turned round and saw her standing there. He smiled. She was lovely.