Anthony Trollope; English best kept literary secret

You have probably seen it around town but you cannot vividly recall where. It stands at approximately one and half meters long and is cylindrical in shape. It is cast in iron. It is red in colour and if you look close enough, you will see the words POST OFFICE embossed on it. It seems to smile for it has a slash in its upper body through which it swallows letter whole.  Dear reader, it is called the pillar box.

pillar box

A few years back, before the advent of internet and subsequently the entrenchment of email, the pillar box was a pivotal piece in communication. We dropped letters inside it and hoped the mail-man would pick them up in due time. A week or so was given for the letter to reach its recipient, then another week for the reply to be received. Yes, it was essential to communication. Now, it serves as a relic of an era gone by and to the nostalgic, of a time when we really communicated. Nonetheless, today I am not so concerned with the pillar box but rather its inventor, a little known gentleman called Anthony Trollope.

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope worked at the General Post Office in London where he invented the pillar box in order to make the collection of letters in bulk from far flung stations easier and consequently reduce the time it takes to send and receive a letter. Although he led a distinguished career at the GPO, Anthony Trollope was also a writer. I recently came across what many literature critics consider to be his masterpiece- The Barchester Towers.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of his novel, perhaps it is prudent to introduce its author properly.

Anthony Trollope was born in 1815, the third son of a barrister who ruined his family prospects by giving up law for farming. His mother, Frances Milton Trollope, supported the family through writing. She had fifty novels under her name. In 1834, Anthony joined the GPO workforce where he worked seven years for a pittance. In 1841, he was transferred to Ireland as a surveyor’s clerk, where he began to make good money which enabled him to marry in 1844 and settle in Clonmel. He tried his hand at writing but his first two novels which were devoted to Irish life were failures. In 1867, Anthony resigned from the GPO and spent his time travelling, fox-hunting, playing whist, socialising and of course, writing. He woke up at five thirty am everyday and wrote for two and half hours at the rate of one thousand words an hour. His average annual income from writing was £ 4,500. As elucidated in a foreword by Professor David Skilton, a professor of English at Lampeter University, his writing style was unique.

Anthony’s contemporaries such as Charles Dickens and George Elliot wrote of the world as they knew it a few decades earlier, and hence were able to draw on the enormous and fertile reserves of childhood and adolescent memories in themselves and their mature readers. Anthony Trollope, however, wrote about the world as it was around him at the time, trying to explain the functioning of the English upper-and middle class society in the very years he was writing. Furthermore, there was a proliferation of religious fiction during the time of his writing Barchester Towers. He could have maintained the status quo and gone on to deliver an excessively exaggeration of religion as other fiction writers were wont to do, However, Barchester Towers had its own comic ordinariness, which was found to be a breath of fresh air as was noted by the Saturday Review:

[Anthony Trollope] has the merit of avoiding excessive exaggeration. He possess an especial talent for drawing what may be called the second-class of good people-characters not noble, superior or perfect but still good and honest with a fundamental basis of sincerity, kindliness, and religious principle yet with considerable proneness to temptation, and a strong consciousness that they live, and like to live, in struggling, party-giving, comfort-seeking world. Such people are so common, and form so large a proportion of the betterish and more respectable classes, that it requires a keen perception of the ludicrous, and some power of satire to give distinctness to the types taken from their ranks by the novelist. Mr Trollope manages to do this admirably…

Now that we have a glimpse of who the creator was, let us delve into his creation.

The novel is centred on the question, who is to be the new Bishop of Barchester?’ Right from the first sentence to the last in the novel, this question looms large over the reader and the intriguing characters jostling each other for the position.

The Bishopric seat is left vacant following the death of old Dr Grantly who ‘died as he had lived, peaceably, slowly and without excitement’. His death marks the entry of other characters onto the stage: Harding, a man known for his stubbornness but good heart, Dr Proudie, an ambitious man of the cloth set to succeed the late DR Grantly, Mrs Proudie a no-nonsense woman who knew how to tug at her husband’s heart-strings to her favour, Mr Slope, Dr Proudie’s Chaplain and an intelligent slippery character whom all men of Barchester who considered themselves religious loved to hate, the hopeless Stanhopes, the intelligent but clueless about a woman’s love Mr Arabin…and of course Mr  Quiverful to whom the concept of family planning was dreadfully foreign.

Throughout the novel, the reader is treated to interesting twists and turns and is taken right into the heart of church politics. Of course, the characters stick to the script and do not resort to unholy means (read murder, sex, etc.) to acquire power such as their counterparts in Parliament may do. However, tensions rise and quite often, anger is expressed in the strongest of terms. Nonetheless, it does seem that there is an Unseen Hand that keeps matters from tipping over. Once in a while, the intrigues get to the press, and under the table arrangements are made to gain favour with the who’s who in Church leadership. These were all interesting but that really hooked me to the novel and reeled me in was the insight of Anthony Trollope on human nature. Sprinkled over the pages of the novel were gems of wisdom that were often delivered in a humorous, scathingly  tender tone that made me ponder awhile before resuming reading. Here are just but a few:

On lengthy Sermons bordering on falsehood

‘There is perhaps no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassionate eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law of physic find his place in the lecture room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well and he will talk but seldom…a member of parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergy man. He is the bore of the age, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God’s service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God, without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.’

On persistence in creativity

‘There is no royal road to learning; no short cut to the acquirement of any valuable art. Let photographers and daguerreotypers do what they will, and improve as they may with further skill on that which skill has already done, they will never achieve a portrait of the human face divine. Let biographers, novelists, and the rest of us groan as we may under the burdens which we so often feel too heavy for our shoulders; we must either bear them up like men, or own ourselves too weak for the work which we have undertaken. There in no way of writing well and also of writing easily. Labor omnia vincit improbus- Persistent work overcomes all things. Such should be the chosen motto of every labourer.’

On maternal love and it’s permitted excesses

‘As a general rule, it is highly desirable that ladies should keep their temper; a woman who storms always makes herself ugly and usually ridiculous also…but if there be a time when a woman may let her hair to the winds, when she may loose her arms, and scream out trumpet-tongued to the ears of men, it is when nature calls out within her not for her own wants, but for the wants of those whom her womb has borne, whom her breasts have suckled, for those who look to her for their daily bread as naturally as man looks to his Creator’

On love and appetite

“Don’t let love interfere with your appetite. It never does with mine.” 

On holier-than-thou personas

‘There are such men; men who can endure no taint on their personal self-respect even from a woman; men whose bodies are to themselves sacred temples, that a joke against them is desecration and a rough touch downright sacrilege ’

I obtained Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers from a street book vendor, one of the ubiquitous common sights in Nairobi. However, the literary style and wisdom exuded during my reading of it have been anything but common. It has been a pleasure reading Trollope and I highly recommend him to any reader of English literature. It is worth the while.

 

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The First Encounter

Irunya’s memory never fails him whenever he contemplates the day he first met Rege. He was in class four and rumours had it that there were new admissions in school. The bullies were very much elated. They viewed new admissions as a new supply of pleasantries during break time. Their eyes gleamed with pleasure whenever the subject of new comers was brought up. It was during Miss Waihenya’s class that the newcomers were introduced to the class. Irunya liked Miss Waihenya. Her skin was dotted with black spots. On any other person they would not have been noticeable. However, on the five footed, light skinned Miss Waihenya, one could not miss them. Other women would probably recoil at the thought of black dots all over their face but not Miss Waihenya. She walked with her head held up high. This air of confidence left quite an impression on all who crossed her path. Among those who were quite impressed was Irunya. Nonetheless, Irunya liked her more because she taught literature. It was the only subject that allowed his mind to roam beyond the four walls of the classroom. Nothing excited Irunya more than creating characters every time they were required to write compositions. Furthermore, Miss Waihenya had a way of bringing fictional characters to life. Besides she was kind. She treated the students equally irrespective of their backgrounds. No student got special favours because they were children of the local Chief. Yes, Irunya liked her very much. It only seemed fit that she would introduce the newcomers, add colour to an otherwise dull ceremony.

‘Class. As you are aware we have some newcomers joining us today.  I would like to introduce them. I hope you make them feel welcome’ said Miss Waihenya bringing the class to a pin-drop silence.

The students sat up straight in the chairs. The bullies were almost standing. They surveyed the newcomers as a Cheetah surveys a herd of Impalas; sizing them up, wondering who would make for easy picking. Irunya felt sorry for the newcomers but he was also excited at the thought of making new friends.

There were four newcomers in all; three boys and one girl. One boy towered over the others. He was restless. He fidgeted with his scrawny schoolbag. His sweater sat awry on his shoulders. His eyes shimmered with wonder as he passed them over the heads of the seated students He had a smile stuck on his face that remained unfazed even at the jeering look of the bullies seated at the back of the class. Irunya could not help wonder at this new boy. It wasn’t natural for newcomers to appear bright on their first day. In fact, if he was on the verge of shedding a bucket full of tears, Irunya would have been at ease. This was natural. However, this new boy beamed that everything and nothing. When Miss Waihenya asked the newcomers to state their names, he almost burst with joy. He should be trembling at the thought of speaking in a room with forty strangers, so thought Irunya. Irunya was intrigued by the new boy. It seemed there was something peculiar about him and Irunya had the peculiar feeling they would become very good friends. It was now his turn to introduce himself. While the other newcomers were shy and withdrawn, the new boy was loud and extroverted.

‘The name is Irege but my friends just call me Rege. It sounds easy to the ear’, said the new boy.

‘Well, Rege, we are not animals, are we now? I am sure you have two names. Out with the first.’ retorted Miss Waihenya while blessing the boy with the most genteel of smiles.

‘Why Madam, I believe it is James. I have not used it in the longest time that I thought I had forgotten it completely.’ the new boy rejoined with a slight bow of the head and that infectious smile still stuck on his face.

The class could not help bursting out with laughter. He was a charmer alright. Such fine English he spoke for a boy in class four. And with that single rejoinder he became the darling of the class including the gracious Miss Waihenya. As she showed the newcomers to their seats, all eyes were fixed on Rege. James Rege. He walked with an aura of confidence never before exhibited in the class nor the school at large. The girls giggled in a most silly manner. The boys beheld him with wide eyes. They worshipped him. Miss Waihenya allowed the performance to continue for a while before bringing the class to attention.

‘Right, let us now turn to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child’

Irunya fondled the novel while still eying Rege who now sat a few desks to his left front. Irunya could not help smiling. He foresaw interesting times ahead with Rege around. And indeed he was right.

The Convict’s Return

As I continue enjoying Charles Dickens novel, The Pickwick Papers, I thought it jolly good to whet your appetite with the short stories therein. Here goes the first…

Excuse me, sir, for making the remark on so short an acquaintance; but a gentleman like yourself cannot fail, I should think, to have observed many scenes and incidents worth recording, in the course of your experience as a minister of the Gospel.’

‘I have witnessed some certainly,’ replied the old gentleman, ‘but the incidents and characters have been of a homely and ordinary nature, my sphere of action being so very limited.’

‘You did make some notes, I think, about John Edmunds, did you not?’ inquired Mr. Wardle, who appeared very desirous to draw his friend out, for the edification of his new visitors.

The old gentleman slightly nodded his head in token of assent, and was proceeding to change the subject, when Mr. Pickwick said—

‘I beg your pardon, sir, but pray, if I may venture to inquire, who was John Edmunds?’

‘The very thing I was about to ask,’ said Mr. Snodgrass eagerly.

‘You are fairly in for it,’ said the jolly host. ‘You must satisfy the curiosity of these gentlemen, sooner or later; so you had better take advantage of this favourable opportunity, and do so at once.’

The old gentleman smiled good-humouredly as he drew his chair forward—the remainder of the party drew their chairs closer together, especially Mr. Tupman and the spinster aunt, who were possibly rather hard of hearing; and the old lady’s ear-trumpet having been duly adjusted, and Mr. Miller (who had fallen asleep during the recital of the verses) roused from his slumbers by an admonitory pinch, administered beneath the table by his ex-partner the solemn fat man, the old gentleman, without further preface, commenced the following tale, to which we have taken the liberty of prefixing the title of

  THE CONVICT'S RETURN

‘When I first settled in this village,’ said the old gentleman, ‘which is now just five-and-twenty years ago, the most notorious person among my parishioners was a man of the name of Edmunds, who leased a small farm near this spot. He was a morose, savage-hearted, bad man; idle and dissolute in his habits; cruel and ferocious in his disposition. Beyond the few lazy and reckless vagabonds with whom he sauntered away his time in the fields, or sotted in the ale-house, he had not a single friend or acquaintance; no one cared to speak to the man whom many feared, and every one detested—and Edmunds was shunned by all.

‘This man had a wife and one son, who, when I first came here, was about twelve years old. Of the acuteness of that woman’s sufferings, of the gentle and enduring manner in which she bore them, of the agony of solicitude with which she reared that boy, no one can form an adequate conception. Heaven forgive me the supposition, if it be an uncharitable one, but I do firmly and in my soul believe, that the man systematically tried for many years to break her heart; but she bore it all for her child’s sake, and, however strange it may seem to many, for his father’s too; for brute as he was, and cruelly as he had treated her, she had loved him once; and the recollection of what he had been to her, awakened feelings of forbearance and meekness under suffering in her bosom, to which all God’s creatures, but women, are strangers.

‘They were poor—they could not be otherwise when the man pursued such courses; but the woman’s unceasing and unwearied exertions, early and late, morning, noon, and night, kept them above actual want. These exertions were but ill repaid. People who passed the spot in the evening—sometimes at a late hour of the night—reported that they had heard the moans and sobs of a woman in distress, and the sound of blows; and more than once, when it was past midnight, the boy knocked softly at the door of a neighbour’s house, whither he had been sent, to escape the drunken fury of his unnatural father.

‘During the whole of this time, and when the poor creature often bore about her marks of ill-usage and violence which she could not wholly conceal, she was a constant attendant at our little church. Regularly every Sunday, morning and afternoon, she occupied the same seat with the boy at her side; and though they were both poorly dressed—much more so than many of their neighbours who were in a lower station—they were always neat and clean. Every one had a friendly nod and a kind word for “poor Mrs. Edmunds”; and sometimes, when she stopped to exchange a few words with a neighbour at the conclusion of the service in the little row of elm-trees which leads to the church porch, or lingered behind to gaze with a mother’s pride and fondness upon her healthy boy, as he sported before her with some little companions, her careworn face would lighten up with an expression of heartfelt gratitude; and she would look, if not cheerful and happy, at least tranquil and contented.

‘Five or six years passed away; the boy had become a robust and well-grown youth. The time that had strengthened the child’s slight frame and knit his weak limbs into the strength of manhood had bowed his mother’s form, and enfeebled her steps; but the arm that should have supported her was no longer locked in hers; the face that should have cheered her, no more looked upon her own. She occupied her old seat, but there was a vacant one beside her. The Bible was kept as carefully as ever, the places were found and folded down as they used to be: but there was no one to read it with her; and the tears fell thick and fast upon the book, and blotted the words from her eyes. Neighbours were as kind as they were wont to be of old, but she shunned their greetings with averted head. There was no lingering among the old elm-trees now-no cheering anticipations of happiness yet in store. The desolate woman drew her bonnet closer over her face, and walked hurriedly away.

‘Shall I tell you that the young man, who, looking back to the earliest of his childhood’s days to which memory and consciousness extended, and carrying his recollection down to that moment, could remember nothing which was not in some way connected with a long series of voluntary privations suffered by his mother for his sake, with ill-usage, and insult, and violence, and all endured for him—shall I tell you, that he, with a reckless disregard for her breaking heart, and a sullen, wilful forgetfulness of all she had done and borne for him, had linked himself with depraved and abandoned men, and was madly pursuing a headlong career, which must bring death to him, and shame to her? Alas for human nature! You have anticipated it long since.

‘The measure of the unhappy woman’s misery and misfortune was about to be completed. Numerous offences had been committed in the neighbourhood; the perpetrators remained undiscovered, and their boldness increased. A robbery of a daring and aggravated nature occasioned a vigilance of pursuit, and a strictness of search, they had not calculated on. Young Edmunds was suspected, with three companions. He was apprehended—committed—tried—condemned—to die. ‘The wild and piercing shriek from a woman’s voice, which resounded through the court when the solemn sentence was pronounced, rings in my ears at this moment. That cry struck a terror to the culprit’s heart, which trial, condemnation—the approach of death itself, had failed to awaken. The lips which had been compressed in dogged sullenness throughout, quivered and parted involuntarily; the face turned ashy pale as the cold perspiration broke forth from every pore; the sturdy limbs of the felon trembled, and he staggered in the dock.

‘In the first transports of her mental anguish, the suffering mother threw herself on her knees at my feet, and fervently sought the Almighty Being who had hitherto supported her in all her troubles to release her from a world of woe and misery, and to spare the life of her only child. A burst of grief, and a violent struggle, such as I hope I may never have to witness again, succeeded. I knew that her heart was breaking from that hour; but I never once heard complaint or murmur escape her lips. ‘It was a piteous spectacle to see that woman in the prison-yard from day to day, eagerly and fervently attempting, by affection and entreaty, to soften the hard heart of her obdurate son. It was in vain. He remained moody, obstinate, and unmoved. Not even the unlooked-for commutation of his sentence to transportation for fourteen years, softened for an instant the sullen hardihood of his demeanour.

‘But the spirit of resignation and endurance that had so long upheld her, was unable to contend against bodily weakness and infirmity. She fell sick. She dragged her tottering limbs from the bed to visit her son once more, but her strength failed her, and she sank powerless on the ground.

‘And now the boasted coldness and indifference of the young man were tested indeed; and the retribution that fell heavily upon him nearly drove him mad. A day passed away and his mother was not there; another flew by, and she came not near him; a third evening arrived, and yet he had not seen her—, and in four-and-twenty hours he was to be separated from her, perhaps for ever. Oh! how the long-forgotten thoughts of former days rushed upon his mind, as he almost ran up and down the narrow yard—as if intelligence would arrive the sooner for his hurrying—and how bitterly a sense of his helplessness and desolation rushed upon him, when he heard the truth! His mother, the only parent he had ever known, lay ill—it might be, dying—within one mile of the ground he stood on; were he free and unfettered, a few minutes would place him by her side. He rushed to the gate, and grasping the iron rails with the energy of desperation, shook it till it rang again, and threw himself against the thick wall as if to force a passage through the stone; but the strong building mocked his feeble efforts, and he beat his hands together and wept like a child.

‘I bore the mother’s forgiveness and blessing to her son in prison; and I carried the solemn assurance of repentance, and his fervent supplication for pardon, to her sick-bed. I heard, with pity and compassion, the repentant man devise a thousand little plans for her comfort and support when he returned; but I knew that many months before he could reach his place of destination, his mother would be no longer of this world. ‘He was removed by night. A few weeks afterwards the poor woman’s soul took its flight, I confidently hope, and solemnly believe, to a place of eternal happiness and rest. I performed the burial service over her remains. She lies in our little churchyard. There is no stone at her grave’s head. Her sorrows were known to man; her virtues to God. ‘it had been arranged previously to the convict’s departure, that he should write to his mother as soon as he could obtain permission, and that the letter should be addressed to me. The father had positively refused to see his son from the moment of his apprehension; and it was a matter of indifference to him whether he lived or died. Many years passed over without any intelligence of him; and when more than half his term of transportation had expired, and I had received no letter, I concluded him to be dead, as, indeed, I almost hoped he might be.

‘Edmunds, however, had been sent a considerable distance up the country on his arrival at the settlement; and to this circumstance, perhaps, may be attributed the fact, that though several letters were despatched, none of them ever reached my hands. He remained in the same place during the whole fourteen years. At the expiration of the term, steadily adhering to his old resolution and the pledge he gave his mother, he made his way back to England amidst innumerable difficulties, and returned, on foot, to his native place.

‘On a fine Sunday evening, in the month of August, John Edmunds set foot in the village he had left with shame and disgrace seventeen years before. His nearest way lay through the churchyard. The man’s heart swelled as he crossed the stile. The tall old elms, through whose branches the declining sun cast here and there a rich ray of light upon the shady part, awakened the associations of his earliest days. He pictured himself as he was then, clinging to his mother’s hand, and walking peacefully to church. He remembered how he used to look up into her pale face; and how her eyes would sometimes fill with tears as she gazed upon his features—tears which fell hot upon his forehead as she stooped to kiss him, and made him weep too, although he little knew then what bitter tears hers were. He thought how often he had run merrily down that path with some childish playfellow, looking back, ever and again, to catch his mother’s smile, or hear her gentle voice; and then a veil seemed lifted from his memory, and words of kindness unrequited, and warnings despised, and promises broken, thronged upon his recollection till his heart failed him, and he could bear it no longer. ‘He entered the church. The evening service was concluded and the congregation had dispersed, but it was not yet closed. His steps echoed through the low building with a hollow sound, and he almost feared to be alone, it was so still and quiet. He looked round him. Nothing was changed. The place seemed smaller than it used to be; but there were the old monuments on which he had gazed with childish awe a thousand times; the little pulpit with its faded cushion; the Communion table before which he had so often repeated the Commandments he had reverenced as a child, and forgotten as a man. He approached the old seat; it looked cold and desolate. The cushion had been removed, and the Bible was not there. Perhaps his mother now occupied a poorer seat, or possibly she had grown infirm and could not reach the church alone. He dared not think of what he feared. A cold feeling crept over him, and he trembled violently as he turned away. ‘An old man entered the porch just as he reached it. Edmunds started back, for he knew him well; many a time he had watched him digging graves in the churchyard. What would he say to the returned convict?

‘The old man raised his eyes to the stranger’s face, bade him “good-evening,” and walked slowly on. He had forgotten him.

‘He walked down the hill, and through the village. The weather was warm, and the people were sitting at their doors, or strolling in their little gardens as he passed, enjoying the serenity of the evening, and their rest from labour. Many a look was turned towards him, and many a doubtful glance he cast on either side to see whether any knew and shunned him. There were strange faces in almost every house; in some he recognised the burly form of some old schoolfellow—a boy when he last saw him—surrounded by a troop of merry children; in others he saw, seated in an easy-chair at a cottage door, a feeble and infirm old man, whom he only remembered as a hale and hearty labourer; but they had all forgotten him, and he passed on unknown.

‘The last soft light of the setting sun had fallen on the earth, casting a rich glow on the yellow corn sheaves, and lengthening the shadows of the orchard trees, as he stood before the old house—the home of his infancy—to which his heart had yearned with an intensity of affection not to be described, through long and weary years of captivity and sorrow. The paling was low, though he well remembered the time that it had seemed a high wall to him; and he looked over into the old garden. There were more seeds and gayer flowers than there used to be, but there were the old trees still—the very tree under which he had lain a thousand times when tired of playing in the sun, and felt the soft, mild sleep of happy boyhood steal gently upon him. There were voices within the house. He listened, but they fell strangely upon his ear; he knew them not. They were merry too; and he well knew that his poor old mother could not be cheerful, and he away. The door opened, and a group of little children bounded out, shouting and romping. The father, with a little boy in his arms, appeared at the door, and they crowded round him, clapping their tiny hands, and dragging him out, to join their joyous sports. The convict thought on the many times he had shrunk from his father’s sight in that very place. He remembered how often he had buried his trembling head beneath the bedclothes, and heard the harsh word, and the hard stripe, and his mother’s wailing; and though the man sobbed aloud with agony of mind as he left the spot, his fist was clenched, and his teeth were set, in a fierce and deadly passion.

‘And such was the return to which he had looked through the weary perspective of many years, and for which he had undergone so much suffering! No face of welcome, no look of forgiveness, no house to receive, no hand to help him—and this too in the old village. What was his loneliness in the wild, thick woods, where man was never seen, to this!

‘He felt that in the distant land of his bondage and infamy, he had thought of his native place as it was when he left it; and not as it would be when he returned. The sad reality struck coldly at his heart, and his spirit sank within him. He had not courage to make inquiries, or to present himself to the only person who was likely to receive him with kindness and compassion. He walked slowly on; and shunning the roadside like a guilty man, turned into a meadow he well remembered; and covering his face with his hands, threw himself upon the grass.

‘He had not observed that a man was lying on the bank beside him; his garments rustled as he turned round to steal a look at the new-comer; and Edmunds raised his head.

‘The man had moved into a sitting posture. His body was much bent, and his face was wrinkled and yellow. His dress denoted him an inmate of the workhouse: he had the appearance of being very old, but it looked more the effect of dissipation or disease, than the length of years. He was staring hard at the stranger, and though his eyes were lustreless and heavy at first, they appeared to glow with an unnatural and alarmed expression after they had been fixed upon him for a short time, until they seemed to be starting from their sockets. Edmunds gradually raised himself to his knees, and looked more and more earnestly on the old man’s face. They gazed upon each other in silence.

‘The old man was ghastly pale. He shuddered and tottered to his feet. Edmunds sprang to his. He stepped back a pace or two. Edmunds advanced.

‘”Let me hear you speak,” said the convict, in a thick, broken voice.

‘”Stand off!” cried the old man, with a dreadful oath. The convict drew closer to him.

‘”Stand off!” shrieked the old man. Furious with terror, he raised his stick, and struck Edmunds a heavy blow across the face.

‘”Father—devil!” murmured the convict between his set teeth. He rushed wildly forward, and clenched the old man by the throat—but he was his father; and his arm fell powerless by his side.

‘The old man uttered a loud yell which rang through the lonely fields like the howl of an evil spirit. His face turned black, the gore rushed from his mouth and nose, and dyed the grass a deep, dark red, as he staggered and fell. He had ruptured a blood-vessel, and he was a dead man before his son could raise him. ‘In that corner of the churchyard,’ said the old gentleman, after a silence of a few moments, ‘in that corner of the churchyard of which I have before spoken, there lies buried a man who was in my employment for three years after this event, and who was truly contrite, penitent, and humbled, if ever man was. No one save myself knew in that man’s lifetime who he was, or whence he came—it was John Edmunds, the returned convict.’

Room 13

He was warned a storm was coming. Nonetheless, Rick was bent on reaching the city by midnight. En route, he wished he had heeded them. Dark, shapeless and menacing clouds drifted into each other. Soon raindrops hit Rick’s car with such force that it seemed they might pierce through. Along the snaky road, trees involuntarily waved their arms to the strong wind’s erratic ways. Several yielded and landed on the road, right in front of the car. Rick swerved to the right and then to the left just in time to avoid plunging into the valley below. He brought the car to a sudden stop; driving in such weather was more akin to taunting the angel of death than bravery. Up ahead he descried a sign that wrought him much relief.

Bermuda Hotel

Safe Haven for the weary traveller

Turn left 50 meters ahead

 An all-weather road led him through the hotel’s humongous wrought iron gate. There, on each of the gate’s pillar, sat a lion with its mouth ajar and inside the hotel, at the heart of a luxurious lawn, stood an ancient moss-draped oak tree whereupon an owl perched one of its thick lowly branches.

A man, probably in his late sixties, sat at the reception. Another, considerably older, sat by the fire, lost in the pages of a book. The man at the reception greeted Rick heartily, all the while apologising profusely for the foul weather as if he was somewhat to blame for it.

‘Do you have any rooms left for the night?’Rick politely asked

The man explored the register while muttering, ‘Not room 13. Not room 13’. He then looked up and said in a loud voice as if speaking to another, not Rick.

‘Sir, I am afraid we have only one room left-room 13’

The man by the fire stirred.

‘Well, as long as it has a bed and the windows shut tight, I’ll take it’, Rick retorted.

He made as if to hand over the key but hesitated in mid-air. A quick glance exchanged with the man by the fire, followed by a surreptitious nod removed this hesitation. As Rick mounted the stairs, he felt the eyes of the man by the fire mount with him. The room was at the far end of the hallway. As Rick walked towards it, he still felt those eyes hovering over him.

It was not long before sleep overtook Rick.  Later, he was awakened by a draft that swept into the room. Thinking he must have left the window open, he plodded towards it to do the needful. It was tight shut. He was about to call for an extra blanket when he heard a low whimper. He stopped dead in his tracks. The whimper got louder with each passing second. Momentarily, it was punctuated with sobs and sighs. Rick turned around just as a flash of lighting tore through the dark night. What he saw made the hair at the back of his head stand on its end. There, on the main beam, a teenage girl hung with a noose round her neck.

He tried to scream but no sound proceeded from his mouth. He stepped back hastily towards the door, opened it and fled downstairs. Therein, the old man still sat by the fire, engrossed in his reading. Upon seeing Rick, he looked at his wrist watch to ascertain the time-ten past midnight. It seemed he expected Rick at that precise time. A steaming tea-pot, two cups and some biscuits were laid on the table. A blanket was thrown on the other chair by the fire. The old man eyed Rick for a while before beckoning him to take the seat. Trembling at what he had just seen, Rick mechanically obeyed. The old man threw the blanket over Rick then poured tea into the cups. Rick stared blankly into the fire. He nearly screamed when the old man tapped him and placed the cup of tea in his hands.

‘Lisa’ The old man whispered.

‘Pardon? ’

‘The girl you saw. Her name is Lisa Turner’

Rick returned his gaze to the fire. As he warmed up so did his curiosity typical of investigative journalists.

‘What happened to her?’

The old man looked at him over his reading glasses that sat awry on the bridge of his nose. He languidly removed them in anticipation of what might be the telling of an unwanted narrative.

‘Love son, forbidden love. You see, Lisa fell in love with the wrong kind if you know what I mean.’

‘I am sorry sir. I don’t follow’

‘Nigger! Lisa fell in love with a nigger!’ The word was hissed through clenched teeth.

‘I see.’

‘When his father got wind of the affair, he forbade her to see him again but she wouldn’t listen. So he arranged for the boy to be conscripted into the army. It was during that time when able bodied Africans came in handy in the war effort. Lisa did not speak to her father for weeks on end. The boy died in war. Lisa did not utter a single word to her father after that. One night, a loud commotion could be heard coming from Lisa’s room. The father went to find out what was happening. Horror of horrors!  There dangling from the ceiling was Lisa. She died at exactly midnight. On her bed was a note addressed to the father. It read…

 You took my love from me. Now, I take yours. We’re even.

Lisa

While Rick was taking in the story, the old man put on his glasses and resumed his reading. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe was the book and the face of the author with that characteristic moustache filled the front cover.

‘I suspect you would not want to go back to your room. You may sleep on the couch over there. You will be given half your money back at checkout’

‘Thank you’

Rick proceeded to the couch then turned back upon realising he had not introduced himself properly.

‘My apologies Sir, I do not believe I introduced myself. My name is Rick Wallace.’

‘John’

‘John…?’

‘Just John’

Years of experience told Rick there was no more he could get from Old John. Hence he bade him goodnight and had himself some shut-eye.

The next day, Rick woke up to a beautiful morning; the sun was out, sunbirds could be seen darting here and there, sucking nectar and chirping in their characteristic staccato manner. It almost felt like God was compensating him for the previous eerie night. He checked out without any hitches and was soon on his way out of the hotel. As he approached the gate, he noticed a white cross on the far end of the lawn. Across its arm were words he could not make out clearly. Once again, curiosity got the best of him. As he approached the cross he could see the mould of earth upon which it rested and the wreath of flower around its foot. It was a grave. He could now read the words clearly. He shuddered at their import.

Here lies Lisa Turner

Daughter to John and Mary Turner

 

 

Let’s go for a walk

senior-couple-walking-park-12404922

The year is 2044. The time is 12pm. The church service has just ended and so have the usual pleasantries. My wife and I set off for home.

We love to walk, my wife and I. It was a habit we picked up while we were young. There was something about walking that aided us think and plan for our future. Besides, we did not have the money to keep meeting in restaurants. Meeting in our rented bedsitters was not particularly encouraged. It was only a few months to the big day and we did not want to make sport of our chastity. Hence we walked. We have been doing so for the past thirty years of our marriage.

Our kids never understood why we insisted on going for evening walks. However, I have this peculiar feeling they now do. Several times I have descried Eric and his wife walking about town-hand in hand. It took a while for him to come around. Eric was introverted and incurably coy. When that time came for father and son to talk about girls, he flinched. This wrought me great relief for I too was not ready to delve into the subject.

Unlike Eric, Carol was the life of the party. She brought sunshine into every insipid room. Unfortunately, her sanguine nature could not distinguish between occasions. One time she turned up for a friend’s funeral adorning a pair of Bermuda shorts. You should have seen the look on her mother’s face. Bermuda shorts! Who does that? Well, Carol does.  Nonetheless, much to my happiness, Carol had an inclination for the outdoors. Chief among her past-times was bird-watching- a hobby we shared. I did not have to beg her to join us for a walk as I did Lance.

Now Lance was something. Eric and Carol never quite understood him. He was always on his computer working on a new app or another project beyond their comprehension. It wasn’t unusual for Lance to go on and on about a new technology that required the genius of Einstein to understand. His immutable manner of breaking the ice started with ’Did you know..?’ This did not go down well with the lasses who gravitated towards Eric whenever they visited. Lance was not the least bothered. He deemed girls to be a distraction. My wife and I encouraged this in his early years. In retrospect, I fear we might have erred. Lance is still single. And to answer your question, he still finds girls a distraction.

Yes, we love walking, my wife and I. I can see the gate to our home now. She has not spoken a word since we left church. Young lovers might deem this awkward. However, to old lovers, silence can be golden. Overtime, one can tell when silence is attributed to trouble brewing or a blissful state. In this instance, it was the latter. I stole a surreptitious glance at her. Old age was taking its toll; she walked with a slight bend and there was a noticeable tremor in her fingers; the wrinkles on her brow folded deep and the skin on her arms hanged loosely. Yet she still had her wits. Her quick witty rejoinders always reminded me of when we first met.

It was at the Supermarket. I did not immediately notice her for she was ordinary, so ordinary for one of my ilk to notice. You see, back then, I had the reputation of being something of a ladies’ man. In order to avoid tarnishing this fine reputation, I flirted with girls whenever and wherever, and more often than not, with no particular end in mind. I was always at the top of my game, never allowing the lass for a minute to get the best of me. Yet that is exactly what happened on that day.

The lines at the cashiers were excruciatingly long. In an effort to while away time, I took at my phone. Accessing the internet via a mobile device was still kind of a big deal. I tapped. I swiped. I smiled sheepishly. I moved along the line like a Zombie freely roaming the graveyards; placing one foot in front of the other without giving much thought to where it landed. Yes, I was one of the walking dead; dead to this world, alive to another in the palm of my hands.

A tap on my shoulder attempted to bring me back to earth. I ignored it. It came a second time with such vigour I could not possibly disregard. I turned around.

‘Please don’t,’ the lady behind me whispered.

‘Excuse me?’

‘It is unbecoming of a gentleman to pass a chance at good conversation. So please don’t,’ she said while pointing at the phone in my hands.

I slid it back into my pocket and scratched my head for something to say. I did not have to try so hard. She was at hand to help.

‘You could start with the weather’

‘Ha! The weather! Let us try books, shall we?’

‘Sounds good, which kind of books?’

‘Literature’

She smiled. Two tiny dimples formed across each side of her chocolate cheeks.  She raised her eyebrows revealing a pair of eyes that seemed to grow more beautiful with each passing second. There was something about her. I could not quite put a finger on it but it was there, somewhere. Her beauty was not striking. I took a while to notice it. It was hid under a facade of ordinariness and only rose to the surface after a considerable period of interaction. As I stared, she uttered these words that have forever been etched in my heart and mind.

‘I think we are going to be good friends, you and me.’

Scores of years later we are still good friends, my wife and I. She completes my thoughts. She knows when to intrude and when to let me be. She knows the rhythm of my steps for she can tell which part of the house I am in at any one time. Heck, she even knows the whiff of my interiors. She would scorn me whenever I broke wind during dinner and tried to blame the boys. She knows…

The year is 2014. The time is 12 am. A phone ringing startles me  from a deep slumber. I stare blankly at the uncompleted programme code on the computer. The Ministry of Defence will have to wait a little bit longer for its security software. I pick up the phone. I want to hit the red button. My thumb lands on green.

‘Hallo’

‘Hi, Lance.’

Hi, who is this?’

‘It’s Sheila. We met at the supermarket, remember?’

‘Ah, Sheila the Technophobe’

‘That’s the one. I was wondering if we could go for a walk sometime.’

‘You call me at midnight to invite me for a walk?’

‘Yes’

‘You do realise how preposterous that sounds’

‘Yes but it’s worth your while’

‘Ok. Sounds good’

‘Great. I’ll call you’

And with that she hung up. I went to bed that night with an ominous yet pleasant feeling that Sheila was going to be an integral part of my life.

Equiano’s Travels

Equiano

Sometimes, we need to be shocked into understanding the scourge of slavery. William Wilberforce, the Yorkshire parliamentarian was good at this. While advocating for the abolition of slavery, he organised trips for other parliamentarians into ships designed solely for the trading of slaves. The stench of death usually hung heavy in the air and in most cases, these elites joined the abolitionists in their noble cause. In recent times, we have been ushered into the vicious world of slavery by the movie 12 years a slave, an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s account of, well, his 12 years as a slave. It is a fact that motion pictures have been used quite efficiently to remind us of the scourge of slavery. Movies such as Amistad, Amazing Grace and the less dramatic Abraham Lincoln bring to the fore the plight of slaves and the horrors endured by those who clamoured for its abolition. However, there was a time when the pleasure of motion pictures was unheard of. In its stead, literature was used to paint the ravages of slavery to a most desired effect-shock the reader into action. Books such as Narrative of the life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slave (the one who quipped”I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong’), Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African are but a few of these. I recently came across an edited and abridged version of the latter. Despite finding some of the details overwhelming (a fact which the author acknowledges), I could understand why it was essential in the fight against slavery.

Equiano begins by narrating about his early life in Eboe, Africa. He was the son of a Chief and thus highly regarded in the community. Nonetheless, this did not deter his kidnapers from nabbing him and selling him. It is worth noting that ownership of another human being i.e. slavery was practised in that part of Africa as well. However, slaves were treated humanely. This we find true through Equiano’s own admission…

‘…the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty’

Equiano also offers the reader a glimpse, quite humorously too, of the culture shock that accosted him upon encountering the ways of the white man e.g. portrait paintings or the outpourings of a temperate climate. He articulates them as thus:

‘…when I immediately after observed a picture hanging in the room which appeared constantly to look at me, I was still more affrighted having never seen such things as these before. At one time I thought it was something relative to magic, and not seeing it move, I thought it might be some way the whites had to keep their great men when they died and offer them libation as we used to do to our friendly spirits.’

‘One morning when I got upon deck, I saw it covered all over with the snow that fell overnight: as I had never seen anything of the kind before, I thought it was salt, so I immediately ran down to the mate and desired him, as well as I could, to come and see how somebody in the night had thrown salt all over the deck.’

The buying and selling of slaves takes Equiano from one master to another. In between, there is much sailing. It is accounts of these that take the lion’s share in Equiano’s narratives. Eventually Equiano was able to buy his own freedom. Understandably, he was very much glad to be free. However, this freedom was under constant threat owing to assaults from those who believed that freedom for the slave was abominable.

While Equiano’s narrative offers an easy to read insight into slavery, it is Professor’s Ogude introduction to the new edition published by Heinemann, African Writers Series, which is chilling. The good professor gives several accounts which when read in between the lines reveal the then prevailing attitude of the European towards the African.

For instance, a report of a certain Captain Kingston with pirates at sea which was published in the London Weekly Journal, 24th June 1721, read as thus:

They fired at me being pyrates, one a ship of 36 guns, 250 men and 50 negroes, the other a brigantine of 18 guns, 46 men and 20 negroes.’

Do you see it? I did not at first but note the clear distinction between ‘negroes’ and ‘men’.

It does not stop there. Suspicion over the intellectual ability of the African permeated even the highest office in America. Thomas Jefferson, the founding father of the United States of America, to whom Americans-and the whole world-owe those famous words in the Declaration of Independence; we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; even he, Thomas Jefferson, doubted the African’s intellect. He noted that the ‘unfortunate difference in colour, and perhaps faculty, is a powerful obstacle to emancipation’ and explained it as thus:

Among the Romans, emancipation required but one effort. The slaves when made free might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us, a second is necessary unknown to history. When freed, he is removed beyond the reach of mixture.1

Wait. There’s more. It was this narrative that led to the founding of Liberia and consequently, the dumping of the first group of freed Negroes therein. Ironically, it was around the same time when America was encouraging emigration from Europe.

This ambivalent attitude towards the slave was to be found even in church. Professor Ogude notes that the church was anxious to win black souls for heaven but cared little for the tired body of the plantation slave. He narrates the story of a colonel Codrington’s bequest of a large estate to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel on condition that 300 Negroes be constantly employed to look after the estate2. And like the cattle and horses on the estate of Sir James Lowther3, the slaves were to be branded with the acronym of the society.

It is accounts such as these that should make us not only frown upon the remotest semblance of modern slavery, but also expose them, bring its perpetrators to book, condemn slavery in the strongest terms known in the human language and give dignity to its victims.

 

  1. Thomas Jefferson Notes on the State of Virginia In The Pocket Thomas Jefferson ed. Merrill D. Peterson, P. 196.
  2. The Letters of Horace Walpole, III. 249.
  3. Peter Hogg, Slavery: The Afro-America Experience (1979) pp40-41. An informative and valuable monograph on the African slave trade

Madness: A Refuge From The World

rege

He should have turned a deaf ear to Rege’s outrageous plan. Now there was no turning back. The wind howled incessantly and the dark clouds gathered.

The old man’s misgivings rang loudly in Irunya’s ear: “This trip won’t end well; the spirits are in a foul mood.” Rege had dismissed him —old men’s tales, he said.

Rege’s flippant ways had always enthralled Irunya for Irunya, himself had a serious outlook on life. He believed in education; believed it to be the key to success. Thus it was no wonder that he was the first in Shagala village to go all the way to the university; a feat that earned him a seat among the elders; a position that made the girls in the village take notice.

Even though he had every intention of marrying his long time fiancé, he had not the money to finance a wedding. He put off such ambitions in the hope that in due time he would land that plump job. This never came. He was turned down on many occasions. Overqualified, they said. Besides, most employers preferred diploma holders as they could pay them less and were perceived to hang around longer.

Hence, two years after graduating, Irunya was still jobless. On the other hand, Rege, his high school buddy, lived up to the appellation of the village drunkard. He could be seen staggering around the shopping centre singing patriotic songs or when he felt pious, old spirituals that his grandmother taught him when he was young. The girls loved him, as did their mothers.

A minute spent with Rege made one forget the myriad problems of Shagala village. Rege’s philosophy was simple: Drink hard, laugh loud. Life is hard enough as it is, why make it harder by being sullen? He seemed to hold it all together. But men spoke ill of him.

It wasn’t right for a man of 30 to be still living on his parents homestead. Rege could care less. He was assured of a hot meal after his drinking sprees. That was all that mattered.

Irunya lived a life of quiet desperation, Rege one of open dissipation. Alcohol became the medium through which they drowned their sorrows.

Mama Pima opened early on that insipid Sunday morning. Inside her thatched hut, strands of soot dangled freely; a solitary window faced away from the rising sun and smoke hung heavily in the air.

Irunya and Rege sat contemplating two tumblers filled halfway with a clear liquid, then quickly knocked back the contents and asked that they be refilled. An old radio on an old cupboard belted out an old sleazy song. Perhaps because it was the Lord’s Day, Rege changed the station to BBC.

Sometimes, Rege liked to view himself as the village intellectual hence once in a while he listened to international news. He also kept a map of the world in his back pocket. This he would fish out to explain certain phenomena about far flung countries to persons who had never stepped outside Shagala village. It was the top of the hour and the day’s news was read in a plummy British accent.

“This is BBC news. Dozens of African migrants are feared to have drowned after a boat they were sailing in capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, 100 kilometres south of the island of Lampedusa, off the Italian coast. The Italian Coast Guard said that around 200 people had been rescued by two commercial vessels operating in the area, but with many other people still missing, there were fears that the death toll “would rise significantly…”

Irunya folded his hands and leaned against the earthen wall in anticipation of Rege’s humorous mimicry of the British reporter.

Instead, all he got was silence. Rege’s eyes were watery and before he could help it, a tear streamed down his left cheek. Irunya was taken aback. He had never seen this pensive side of Rege before. He thought of putting his arm around his shoulder but stopped himself. The look on Rege’s face said it all. He had seen it before. He saw it every morning in his cracked mirror. It was the look of a man whose failures had caught up with him.

Somehow, news of illegal immigrants seeking a fresh start in Europe had removed the blinkers that veiled Rege’s eyes from the harsh realities of life. In that very moment he viewed himself as the village men did — the dregs of Shagala. Nonetheless, this moment of despair was short-lived. In a sudden rush of energy, Rege got down on his knees, fished out his old world map and spread it on the damp earthen floor.

His index finger on Kenya, he traced his way up into South Sudan, Sudan, Libya, paused on its coastline, crossed the Mediterranean Sea and tapped twice on Malta Island: all the while muttering softly. He then lifted his eyes to meet Irunya’s. A loud silence punctuated by joyful noises from a nearby church engulfed Mama Pima’s. It was Rege who spoke first.

“Let’s head out to Italy”

Irunya kept silent. He could not make out clearly whether this was one of many Rege’s shots at Hollywood or he was actually serious. The expression in Rege’s eyes convinced him it was the latter.

“You are mad”

Rege kept silent. A book by Doris Lessing he had read a few years back came to him. He quoted it verbatim.

“But then, what is madness but a refuge, a retreating from the world?”

Irunya was shaken to the core. At that moment, a bond beyond friendship was forged between Irunya and Rege; the kind that is common between friends who have been drinking together a long time and is made stronger by a common thread of desperation.

Land was sold; officials bribed; Passports and visas obtained, and tickets for two to Tripoli booked. Soon, Irunya and Rege stood on the Libyan shores waiting for the boat that would smuggle them into Malta. Azizi, a short, stout man who walked with a limp and had an insatiable greed for money, was their man.

Another old man stood nearby. He alternated between looking up at the skies and casting a far-reaching gaze into the sea, shaking his head in between. This ritual was sustained until Irunya dared to strike up a conversation. In retrospect, he wished he hadn’t.

The old man gave voice to his foreboding. It was this that Irunya recalled while aboard the rickety boat. The dark clouds, fierce winds and the raging sea lent credence to the old man’s warnings. As the boat rocked violently, Irunya eyed Rege for that dose of good humour that he needed so badly. He found none.

Rege gazed at a wave fast gaining momentum. It seemed he had resigned himself to fate and waited for Mother Nature to do her worst. Irunya drew nearer. If this was it, his final journey in this desolate earth, it was to be a noble one. He flung his arm around Rege giving him a brotherly pat. A rueful smile formed on Rege’s lips. It seemed to ask, “What is madness…

NB: This short story was first published in The East African, a newspaper by Nation Media Group which seeks to promote a greater understanding of the member countries in the East African Community. To submit a short story therein send a previously unpublished 1200-word fictional short story to eastafrican@ke.nationmedia.com with ‘Magazine Short Story’ as the subject.