Pulp.net - The Death of a Girl

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Nii Ayikwei Parkes
The way I was told it, until 1950 the entire city of Accra had it on good authority that GeeMaa and FatherGrandpa, my grandmother and grandfather, were the greatest lovers ever. The perfect couple.

He was a wily bookkeeper for His Majesty’s government; as dapper as they come with his flash suits. She was a pioneering nurse; one of only two fully qualified native nurse midwives. The native was added as though it was a surprise. As though the traditional midwives who had delivered countless generations of the country’s inhabitants worked by some heavenly ordained serendipity.

In any case, my grandfather and grandmother mingled with the colonial appointees escaping the post-war gloom in Europe to lord it over the locals. They pirouetted through the nightclubs and chatted to the local intelligentsia. The local intelligentsia tended to be descendants of settled Brazilian traders (FatherGrandpa was one of these), indigenous royal offspring sent to England and France with scholarships to keep their families sweet and cooperative, and immigrants from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

In 1950 everything changed. Maybe because in 1950 FatherGrandpa decided he had had enough of being a lackey and was going to start his own business. Maybe because the start of the Korean War unsettled everyone because the British were jittery. Maybe because that year GeeMaa built a house of her own to rent out. Maybe because it was the year FatherGrandpa turned 40. Whatever happened, they were no longer seen seeding their unusual brand of glamour around town, so in the eyes of Accra they stopped being in love.

It simply wasn’t true. GeeMaa maintained until she died that they were childhood sweethearts and would always be in love. The crisis in their personal relationship didn’t even occur until 1957 when FatherGrandpa took the independence celebrations of Ghana too literally and began to plant four-children-a-year in selected wombs around the world. Prior to that, the odd infidelity had resulted in six children out of wedlock: Yves in France, Kirsten in Sweden, Madeleine in England and a set of twins, James and Jerry, in Wales.

GeeMaa had gracefully overlooked these since none of the children was in Ghana and it didn’t affect her social standing. But on the 6th of March 1957 – Independence Day – FatherGrandpa celebrated by exploring the virginal body of an orange seller who did her trading outside his office building. He was perhaps the only man who went to work on that important day. This celebratory ribaldry was followed by three successful business trips abroad, each of which would later tell its own story. By the time he returned from the last of the trips in Sweden one December, GeeMaa had delivered his local illegitimate child, installed his orange-selling mistress in his house for him, and moved out. She gave him no other Christmas presents.

All counted, FatherGrandpa had thirty children out of wedlock in seventeen different countries.

• • •

My father devised a double-tiered classification system for the children, his siblings, based on FatherGrandpa’s business and their countries of origin. First there were the Import babies who were the European and Caribbean babies, and the Export babies who were from Africa, South America and South Asia. Under these two general categories, my father named them by products. His Scandinavian siblings, for example, were the paper children. To call my father’s family complicated was an understatement.

Yet, in spite of all his philandering, FatherGrandpa claimed that GeeMaa was always his number one. This was why we were stunned by his absence.

• • •

GeeMaa died the way she lived. Simply. She went to bed and didn’t wake up. Until she died she insisted that she never stopped loving FatherGrandpa. ‘When you are a woman you will understand and you will laugh.’ She held my hand between her papery palms. ‘I love him, but I just can’t live with him,’ she said. ‘He is a slave to all women.’

Because she was over seventy years old, GeeMaa’s funeral was of a light mood.

‘She had all her time on earth.’

‘She has gone to a better place.’

‘God called her.’

‘She has gone to help HIM.’

Condolences wore clichéd chrysalides. People came wearing white smiles on black faces. Clothed in black and white; black to signify the death of a friend, white to celebrate her passing on to a better life. Some of the women had glittering white damask and chiffon with black lace scarves thrown artistically across their shoulders.

Head-shaking personages of all ages came. Bearing nothing but their empty bellies, which they proceeded to fill with food bought with my father’s hard-earned savings. Some claimed GeeMaa had delivered them as babies. Others claimed she had healed them. Every last person had a story to tell. Not always believable, but a story nonetheless.

‘Oh, she was a great woman. Always smiling…’

‘Ei, she was good oh! Better than some of the doctors.’

‘I have a photo of her with my Kwame when he was born. Look at him now.’ The black and white clad bundle of mothering flesh pulled the poor boy towards her by the sleeve. ‘Isn’t he handsome?’

Another reluctant teenager was displayed to the world in a place he would rather not be. Kwame smiled one of those smiles designed to support the social efforts of preening mothers. Lifting his cheeks slightly as though he were swallowing a bitter pill.

By 9a.m. our courtyard was full of chattering mourners. Our square cream-painted house was like a piece of sponge cake besieged by flies. If my sister, Naana, hadn’t pulled me aside, I wouldn’t have noticed FatherGrandpa wasn’t there.

‘Did you hear about FatherGrandpa?’

‘No. Is he dead too?’

‘No, silly. He couldn’t come because he was too sad.’

‘Good excuse.’ I shook my head. ‘He didn’t care about her.’

‘No. No. Daddy went to see him. Every time he looked at Daddy he would start sobbing. He couldn’t control himself.’

‘Too sad? What about us? Ah, these men!’

Naana had a pained expression on her face. It brought to mind one of those days when the heavens wouldn’t rain or shine; they just shimmered with indecision. What we knew of FatherGrandpa was his insensitive teasing, and expectorant laugh – a sound that followed his jokes like a shadow, regardless of the listener’s reaction; the idea of him being too sad was too absurd to contemplate. I chuckled at the ridiculousness of the situation. All I could see was an image of FatherGrandpa slapping his left shoulder to kick-start his faulty laughter and finding only tears.

Naana pushed my head and laughed too. ‘Daddy said he just has a great capacity for love. That’s why he never stays with one woman.’

‘Poor fool!’

We laughed and laughed. Then we cried. All the tears I’d carried since GeeMaa died came rushing down my cheeks. I hugged Naana and we held each other like promises.

• • •

On the large veranda that led to our front door, GeeMaa’s body lay in state. As the extravagantly clad visitors glided past the neat corpse, they stopped and shook hands with my father and his siblings. Auntie Patience, Auntie Ama and Uncle Kojo had all insisted on a big funeral, yet none of them offered to help with the cost of organising it.

‘But she died with you,’ they said.

As though my father had somehow killed GeeMaa.

I overheard my father telling my mother that they were already arguing about who would inherit GeeMaa’s two houses in Adabraka. Yet they sat there, looking fashionably solemn in matching fabric permutated into different outfits. Matching envelopes of discontent. To be opened after the funeral.

• • •

My mother’s family sat in one corner of the courtyard where my mother’s aunt, Mansa, visiting from the US, had commandeered a stock of refreshments. I noticed that Naana was already with them, and I headed towards them to get away from the sullen collective of my father’s siblings. Auntie Mansa could drink more than anyone I knew. She drank Guinness exclusively and unearthed more and more tales with every sip. Beside her sat my mother, my mother’s sisters – Auntie Stella and Auntie Sally, and Francis – Auntie Sally’s brother-in-law. Auntie Mansa was already merry, all gestures and exaggerated laughter.

Nothing brought Auntie Mansa more joy than talking about the past. While she talked she entertained; she fed you, tossed you in drink and cried for you. She relived every experience of her past with the intensity of the present. I can’t claim to know anyone with a better memory. As the evening wore on she turned her attention to Uncle Francis. Uncle Francis was a priest but he was no saint. He had propositioned Auntie Mansa in the 1960s when they both lived in London and she had turned him down. Now she had chosen GeeMaa’s funeral to analyse the incident much to his embarrassment and everyone else’s mirth.

‘Ah, Francis, how can you try to touch the breasts of a woman whose niece is married to your older brother?’ She nudged his shoulder. ‘Eh?’

Uncle Francis, alone in the sea of women, was unperturbed. He grinned and placed his hand on Auntie Mansa’s fat thigh. ‘It’s not too late to change your mind, Mansa.’

‘Oh, shame! Shame!’

It was all the women deriding him in unison, then the first real explosion of laughter since GeeMaa’s death. Every upset and tragedy was momentarily forgotten as Auntie Stella’s shoulders began to rock. All the pain receded as Auntie Sally started to choke and my mother held her side. FatherGrandpa and his gutless sorrow faded into irrelevance as Naana shook her head; laughter loosed itself from my tight throat and I felt myself becoming a woman.

© 2007 Nii Ayikwei Parkes 2007