JAMES WITTROY Mc RAE
Short Story by Royden V. Chan
Allan Agard was diagnosed with a terminal illness almost two years ago and had now passed away. The viewing was being held today at Osgood Funeral Home on Sheppard. Allan and his wife Gladys, both came from a family background of teachers and professional civil servants, which traditionally influenced their preference for academic vocations. They both graduated from the University of the West Indies and worked in the Caribbean for several years. In 1970 they responded to the “back to home” call from Guyana’s Prime Minister Forbes Burnham.
Allan was appointed as a senior lecturer at the University of Guyana and Gladys was attached to the Ministry of Education.
They rented a house in Belair Park — a residential area where we were living and our families became close friends. It was through them that I met and became acquainted with some of their university colleagues and was stimulated and impressed by their learned discussions. I was overwhelmed by their erudition, and although I had acquired, at that time, some knowledge on a variety of subjects, I sadly realized how deficient I was in scholarship. Whenever I would mention any of my ideas, which I earnestly considered to be original and pragmatic, it was disregarded as naïve;not learned enough or supported by academic dogma.
Although I enjoyed their company and their conversation, I was somewhat humbled by their subtle condescension and frustrated by my own inadequacy.
I had wanted to go to university after graduating from high school, but my father who had his own business was opposed to this.
“It’s a damn waste of time and money” he would snort at me with dogmatic finality “because you will eventually come to work with me, and will be better off for it too.”
So I had no choice; I had to forego university and join his business. It did afford me a better financial life than those with academic degrees, but I often wondered if I would have become more intellectually accomplished had I continued my schooling to university level.
After I had expressed my condolences to Gladys and the children, I looked around the room and noticed some of their university friends, who were now retired and living in Canada. It struck me how much their appearance had deteriorated since I had last seen them, so many years ago in Guyana. Their stature of self-importance had now declined to resigned humility and their intellectual self assurance had all worn off.
I wondered what could have caused this degeneration.
Was it the frustration of having to contend with negative social and economic pressures, in consequence of living in a predominantly white-controlled society, or was it the deflating reality they had to confront; that obsolete scholarship was no longer adequate, unless you can keep abreast with evolving ideas and changing technologies. I am not sure, but I was saddened to see these proud, accomplished persons reduced to such passive diffidence.
It was then that I noticed him. They were all standing around as he talked, paying attention to every word, with singular reverence. His features were familiar, but I could not recall him. He looked as if he might be Guyanese, but his accent was more international, with a hint of English undertone, and his attire was more Continental than North American. He had an attitude of comfortable detachment and his gestures and tone were positive and authoritative. He exuded an aura of discipline and self-assurance and his persona was a stark antithesis to those standing around him.
“Who is that guy?”
“He is Doctor James Wittroy Mc Rae; one of the most internationally acclaimed academics of our Guyanese diaspora”
James Wittroy Mc Rae? Was this Witty Mc Rae, who was once my boyhood best friend? That carefree, adventurous, happy-go-lucky boy with whom I had shared so many memorable and happy times together when we were preteen kids back in Guyana in the middle forties.
I got closer and observed him. Of course it was him. He had changed. His dark walnut brown complexion had become lighter, and the rust coloured freckles had become more pronounced. His unruly black matted hair was now silver grey and well groomed. His large eyes had lost their youthful excitement, but they still had the ability to project the meaning and soul of his words, whether spoken or not.
As I listened I also detected that intriguing sound he used to make whenever he spoke — like sucking a soft juicy ripe fruit — while trying to ingest the saliva that saturated his mouth because of his overbite. His face was now lined with age but that merely added a touch of sophisticated maturity to his features. The most remarkable change, however, was his demeanour; he was no longer that spontaneous, unrestrained wild spirit but was now a very dignified and deliberate person, staid and decorous.
It was 1944 when my family moved from our small cottage on Charlotte Street to a bigger house at the corner of George and Leopold Streets. It was a white, wooden two-storied building that stood about 10 feet off the ground on brick columns. It had a steep gable roof which was covered with green-painted, corrugated galvanized iron sheets.
The eaves were decorated with trims of hand made wooden fretwork. The windows were sloping wooden louver shutters,known as “Demerara Windows”. They afforded security and still allowed the free circulation of air throughout the house.
The wooden jealousy panels, which were at the front gallery, provided additional ventilation and their attractive design added charm to the building.
Like most of the well-kept houses on George Street, it was enclosed by a white fence of vertical wallaba palings. The yard was landscaped with flowering plants of bougainvillea, frangipani, hibiscus and other varieties of colourful tropical blooms which were planted in garden beds that were neatly edged with antique Dutch stoneware bottles.
There was a large genip tree at the front of the house. Some of its branches, laden with fruit, hung over the front door landing. A flight of wooden stairs, complete with bannisters and vertical side rails, descended from this landing to the front gate on George Street.
A wide compact gravel path led from that gate, along the northern fence, to the back of the house where there was a large wooden vat.
Those vats were once used for storing rain water that drained from the roof, before purified water was piped to all the properties in Georgetown. The entire area under the house was paved with concrete and there was a small room in the center which was referred to as the “servant’s room”, an architectural anachronism — it was used for storage.
As I walked around the yard, feeling happy and proud that I would now be living in such a splendid place, I heard his voice.
“Hi! My name is Witty, wha’s yours?”
He was peering through an opening in the fence, at the back of the yard, where two palings were loose and pushed aside.
“My name is Ron.”
“Hi Ron, yuh going be living in this house?”
“Aw-right! We going be friends then, okay?”
His eyes were large and lively and he seemed to be smiling all the time because his top lip never completely covered his teeth. He had an unusual but pleasant sounding voice, and his friendly dark-brown face was covered with rust coloured freckles. I took an immediate liking to him.
Witty’s father had worked all of his adult life as a bookkeeper for a small business in Water Street. He died from an unknown illness when Witty was only four years old, leaving his wife and child with no pension or savings. Mrs. Mc Rae, who was a domestic servant at that time, was unable to maintain her family’s current living standard and had to move from their small cottage to a row-house apartment in a tenement yard on Leopold Street.
The buildings on Leopold Street were small rented properties. Some of them were unpainted and most of them were in a state of neglect and disrepair.
There were no well kept houses or flowering gardens, just dilapidated buildings and fences, and open tenement yards; a stark contrast to George Street, reflecting the obvious disparity of social and financial status.
Witty and his mother lived in the tenement Yard which was adjacent to the back of our house. There were two row-house buildings in this yard — each facing the other on opposite sides. These buildings were raised about two feet off the ground on greenheart posts with unpainted rotting boards on the outside and rusted, corrugated galvanized iron sheets on the roof. Each building contained four small connected apartments, and each apartment was divided into two sections — a small bedroom with a window at the back, and an even smaller living room with a window and a door at the front. The windows and doors were all made of wooden boards.
At the front of each apartment a flight of three bare wooden steps connected the door to the ground, and attached to one side of these steps was a small cubicle, which was used for cooking.
Witty’s apartment was in the row-house building that backed on to our house.
There were no water connections or toilet facilities in these buildings. Washing and bathing had to be done at a common standpipe, which was installed in a large, square concrete sink, located in the center of the yard. There were three latrines at the back of the yard which were used by all the tenants for their toilet purposes. They were erected side by side on a single concrete base, separately enclosed by corrugated galvanized iron sheets.
The yard had a dirt surface which was always slushy with soft mud because of poor drainage and constant traffic, especially in the rainy season. Pieces of boards and logs had to be placed all along the entrance way in order to facilitate getting in and out.
From that very first day Witty and I became best friends and were inseparable.
We spent a lot of time together doing whatever we felt like doing at the moment.
Sometimes we played cricket for hours; just the two of us.
He knew a lot about the mechanics and history of the game, and a remarkable memory of the names and records of all the local and international players. We both agreed that we would become famous cricketers when we grew up. Sometimes we read comic books; he did the reading and I listened with ecstatic delight. His voice and his facial mannerisms were so expressive that he made the characters come alive.
He adored the ‘Phantom’
“Yuh know he was born in Bangalla in Africa” he would say with a hint of racial pride.
“But he was white not black” I would carry on, completely ignoring the fact that we were talking about a person and place that were both fictitious.
“Duh’s not what I talking about…he still from Africa and as far as I is concerned, he is the greatest super hero of all ah dem.”
“Anyways, I still prefer Superman.” I would argue. “He more powerful than de Phantom.”
“Ah! But he got to use supernatural power to make heselfstrong, but de Phantom is different, he is a ordinary man like any of we, an he depend only on he own strength, an he own brains for de power he got”
“I doan see nothing wrong with having supernatural power, as long as it make you mo powerful than anybody else.”
He paused for a while, nodding his head slightly. Then with a professorial tone in his voice, and his expressive eyes projecting the significance of his thoughts and words, he lectured me.
“Boy! Yuh gotta learn to use yuh own inner strength to get de power to deal with life, because if dat power only come from outside, yuh don’t have control over it, an when it gone yuh cork duck. An another thing yuh gotta learn is that when yuh have that power, an if anything going make it weak, yuh gotta get rid of that thing fast…it don’t matter what that thing is, an whatever thing going make that power stronger, yuh gotta grab it and hold on to it with all yuh mite.”
I was always amazed by the amount of things he seemed to know and how intelligent and judicious he sounded to me for his age; he had no father and his mother was not an educated woman. We were both the same age, and we were both in sixth standard at public school, (he was at Saint Phillips and I was at Saint Mary’s RC) and yet he was so much more knowledgeable and pragmatic than I was.
Every Saturday morning I would hear his familiar whistle calling me — our own whistle. It sounded like the tweet of a Kiskadee.
With his head jutting out from his bedroom window, which was about ten feet from mine, he would shout,
“What yuh want us to do today Ron?”
“I doan know, what yuh got in mind?”
And he would always come up with something exciting, like swimming in the ‘Punt-Trench’ or ‘Forty-Feet’ or catching fish at the back of the ‘Botanic Garden’ or picking Jamoons in the backdam — always something out of the ordinary.
I remember, one day when we were playing football in my school’s playground, at the corner of Camp Street and Brickdam, we joined with the other boys who were taunting a mentally challenged local character by the name of ‘Blue Beef’ He came after us and we ran off on different directions. Unfortunately ‘Blue Beef’ perused me. He finally had me cornered at the back of Dolphin’s school yard, where there was no escape. I fell to the ground covering my head. I was crying and waiting for his blows when I heard Witty’s loud voice cursing and shouting at him, and hitting him with a broken paling stave.
To my surprise! Blue Beef ran away. I felt so ashamed to be crying like a baby and cowering like a coward, but Witty helped me up and bolstered my spirits by saying,
“Hey Ron! Boy, we scared the shit outta that ass-hole bully.”
He never mentioned anything about my shameful behaviour.
Long after our lives had drifted apart I would still be touched by that brave and unselfish act; his courage and loyalty and his kind consideration for my feelings. We were kindred spirits who liked and enjoyed each other’s company, and for many years I would reminisce about those happy boyhood times we spent together.
We both graduated from Public School with our School Leaving Certificates in 1945 and went to separate HighSchools; he went to Tutorial High and I went to Enterprise High.
Our friendship continued as usual, but sometime in November of that year, I had not seen or heard from Witty for a few days. I noticed that their apartment was locked up. When I enquired, I was told that they had moved, and no one knew where they had gone.
I never saw Witty again since then. He never did say goodbye.
As I stood there before him, with all those memories playing havoc with my emotions, I was filled with conflicting impulses. I wanted to reach out and let him know who I was, but decorum and the presence of those around us restrained me.
I moved closer to him, hoping that he would recognize me,and that we would acknowledge each other, and recall the glorious times we spent together way back in 1944, but he never looked at me. It was as if I did not exist.
A short while later, when he was about to leave and was saying his farewells to everyone, I could not restrain myself any longer. I touched his arm and said,
“Hi Witty, do you remember me…I’m Ron.”
He stopped talking and looked at me for a while, with a hesitant look on his face.
“Ron Chung from George Street.” I continued, sounding a bit nervous.
“Remember! I lived at the corner of Leopold Street, and you lived at the back of our house.”
He still looked blankly at me. I was beginning to feel uneasy and embarrassed, but I had to continue.
“Remember…we were friends and we played cricket at the side of my house…and went swimming and all those things.”
“Oh! Yes, the Chungs.” he said, nodding his head, but still showing no emotion whatsoever.
“Your father had an agency business in Water Street. How have you been doing?”
And without waiting for an answer, he turned away and continued bidding the others goodbye.
I felt an awful void within my body, from inside my head to the pit of my stomach. I was engulfed with embarrassment, surprise, disappointment, and anger, all at the same time. I just wanted to disappear, but stood there numb, watching him walk away.
As he reached the exit door, he paused for a moment, turned around and looked at me.
The expression on his face was no longer aloof and inscrutable but somewhat contrite and apologetic.
His expressive eyes were fixed on mine; they were talking to me without words. They seemed to be saying unequivocally; “forgive me Ron; I do remember you and the close friendship we once shared. But, that was a period of my life that does not have any value or relevance to the person I have become; it would only diminish the status I have achieved, therefore it can no longer exist for me. I will never forget you, but since you reflect that part of my rejected past, I cannot acknowledge you”
He waved to me, turned and left.