Wednesday, October 10, 2007

family (2)

I wrote letters to my estranged father and other newly discovered half brothers over the next 6 months or so and then the correspondence dried up.

Just before Christmas of the following year, I had a large chunk of funds from the Arts Council deposited in my bank for a short film. My friend Penny wanted to go on holiday and so did I. Casablanca sounded intriguing but then I thought - hey Sierra Leone, why not? My friend was eager to meet my re-discovered family.

It was 1990 and after booking flights, I fired off four telegrams to relatives at various addresses in the hope that this was enough notice.

We stepped off the plane at Freetown airport down the rickety iron stairs on to the runway where a small crowd of African men waited in the 40 degree heat. Some held hand written placards. I felt a surge of panic as I surveyed the faces - seeking out the one that might be my father.

Over the years me and my sister has speculated about him. We had a few faded photographs of my mother's wedding in Edinburgh. The summer after we'd first arrived in the UK over 20 years ago, our father sent my sister a birthday present - a small, illustrated book on Roman ruins with cellophane separating each page. After this, communication stopped completely. We moved numerous times. He moved too.

Years ago he was in government or something - in forestry and we'd heard all sorts of rumours - about diamonds and the like. I now knew from recent letters that we had a half-brother - just a bit younger than me - who'd spent 18 months in Pademba Road prison. Four of his uncles had been executed for planning an attempted coup.

At the bottom of the iron steps I suddenly saw it - a placard with 'Barbee Surname' written on it. Penny shrieked. I stared at the man holding it - he was tall, well built - but not old enough to be a father. It was my half brother. There was another young man next to him- squirming.

We greeted one another. He tried to mask his disappointment. We went to collect our luggage. Mine had gone astray - to Russia - and during the 3 weeks stay, it never turned up. My brother led us to a shiny, white Mercedes parked in front. We chatted. He had expected me to be wealthy and be bearing gifts. Here we were - looking like student backpackers. His friend drove us to the largest hotel in Freetown. We went inside and discovered the prices were way beyond our budget. At this point the friend became fidgety and told us we had to pay for the Mercedes. We handed over some pounds and then asked him to take us to the cheapest B & B in town.

There was a B & B opposite the dilapidated City Hotel (immortalised by Graham Greene). Downstairs was the bar and upstairs the small, dank, smelly rooms were separated by sheets of plywood. We were tired and thankful. I fell asleep straight away.

After a couple of hours, there was a hammering on the door. It was my brother again telling me that my father was now outside waiting to see me. I pulled on smart clothes and went outside. It was night time. A thin man reached out to me and I clutched at him but I couldn't see him in the dark, narrow corridor. Penny followed. We went down stairs.

In the dim bar, I sat across the table from a thin, stern man with a deep frown. We sat and stared - a twenty year gaze. He told me; 'You look just like your mother.' We talked. He asked after my sister. He was vague - sweeping his hands through an unknown past; he hadn't expected questions. He was still cross with my mother and said she'd 'taken all the furniture' and never told him she wasn't coming back.
I told him I had hoped he was going to be rich and have lots of diamonds. He laughed.

Penny and I travelled round Freetown with my brother - we saw the prison, the cotton tree, the bars and schools. Sometimes a wave of memory came in the smell of food - 'sakitomboy' or palm oil and I was five again.

Five and remembering. There was the uncle whose house was packed to the rafters with empty, green bottles. There was Holy Rosary school and the nuns. There were the pitanga cherries in our huge garden in Kenema. There were the animals that my father brought home regularly from the forests - the owl that stayed up in the tree for a week before it fell down from the branch like a plum - dead. Monkeys, tortoises.

We had to go to Sendumei - the village where my grandfather -the Paramount chief came from.

We took a coach. My brother and father travelled ahead and said we would get a lift back. It was more than 40 degrees. On the ride I developed 'freshblood' a bumpy heat rash under my knees. After 5 hours, we arrived at the small village.


Here everyone was related to me in some way. In the small huts, the women fawned over us, plucking the earrings from our ears. We heard their life stories. 'I am Bintu Tonye' an aunt told me, 'I have had thirteen children and only one survived.'

We went to meet the village leaders - my father's elder brothers - in the central hut. There were speeches and I was presented with 'Barbee' a mask and given a gown to wear. Penny was given one too. Then together with numerous aunts and relatives and children, I had to lead a shuffling pied-piper dance through the village. It went on and on and on. I'd stepped into Indiana Jones. Later the devil dancers came out - men decked in fringes of straw whirling round and round.

The aunts cooked for us and cleared out one of the houses in the middle of the compound especially for me and Penny. Tonye pointed out of the window and told me 'That is where your brother is buried.' I knew my mother and father's first child was a boy who had died as a baby - before I was born. It was only now I found out, he was buried here.

When I tried to sleep, I felt an overpowering, ancestral quickening rolling me backwards into the past. Terrified, I got up - I didn't want to join them. I told Penny to not let me fall asleep, because I knew I would die. She had a travel alarm clock by her bed and she set it to go off every half hour. We stayed awake - our whispering punctuated by the half hourly shrills - until the morning.

The next day we went back to Freetown.

10 comments:

Pillock said...

You are a woman of many worlds. Sorry if that sounds cheezy.

Far away said...

bloody hell that was quick Pillock I only just posted!

wcdixon said...

Sad yet fascinating...thanks for sharing.

Elinor said...

How strange to have feet in both worlds (as it were)! Absolutely fascinating FA.

potdoll said...

Wow. That fed my soul.

far away said...

Thanks all!

James Whyle said...

This is an extraordinary story. You have to write the book.

Lianne said...

I'm hooked.

martin said...

Me too, great stuff.

and re "an uphill slog, knocking it out" keep at it, you know it'll be worth it in the end, and the view from the top of the hill is fantastic.

That's er, supossed to be the feeling of satisfaction when you finish a draft. Before you see the mountain ranges of rewriting. Sorry this metaphors starting to get out of control!

Far away said...

Yes James!
Ta Lianne!
and I hope so Martin