Guyana Short Story: JAMES WITTROY Mc RAE – By Royden Chan

JAMES WITTROY Mc RAE

A  Short  Story by  Royden  V  Chan – 2005

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 Avenue in Toronto, Canada. 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 until 1970 when 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.      

Georgetown. Guyana. Click to enlarge

They rented a house in Belair Park, a residential area where I was 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 naive; not learned enough or supported by established 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 most of 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. Not only had they aged badly but 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 transformation.  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 the fast evolving  ideas and changing technologies of our expanding world. I am not sure, but I was saddened to see these proud, accomplished persons reduced to such resigned 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 colored freckles were now more pronounced. His unruly black matted hair was now silver gray 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, as his mouth was filled with saliva because of his overbite. His face was now lined with age but that merely added a touch of sophisticated maturity to his features. However, the most remarkable change was his demeanor; 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 the small cottage on Charlotte Street to live in the house which my father had bought, 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 corrugated galvanized iron sheets and the eaves were decorated with trims of handmade wooden fretwork. The windows which were sloping wooden louver shutters ,known as ‘Demerara Windows’ afforded security and still allowed the free circulation of air throughout the house. The wooden jalousie 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 and the yard was landscaped with flowering plants of bougainvillea, frangipani, hibiscus and other varieties of colorful tropical blooms, which were planted in garden beds, neatly edged with old Dutch stoneware bottles . There was a large genip tree at the front of the house whose branches, laden with fruit, hung over the front door landing. A flight of wooden stairs, complete with banisters 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. This vat was 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 mostly 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?’’

‘’Yeah’’

‘‘Aw-right! We going be friends then, ok?’’

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 colored freckles. I took an immediate liking to him.

‘‘Yeah! Ok.’’

Witty’s father worked all of his adult life as a bookkeeper for a small business on 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 working as a domestic servant at that time was unable to maintain her family’s current living standard and had to move from their small rented cottage to a row- house apartment in a tenement yard on Leopold Street.

The buildings on Leopold Street were mostly small rented properties which were unpainted and 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; one facing the other on opposite sides of the entryway and each contained four small apartments. These buildings were raised about two feet off the ground on greenheart posts, with unpainted, rotting wooden shingles on the outside and rusted corrugated galvanized iron sheets on the roof. Each apartment was divided into two sections; a small bedroom, with a window at the back and an even smaller living area, 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, installed in a large square concrete sink, which was 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, especially in the rainy season; because of poor drainage and the constant traffic. Pieces of logs and boards had to be placed all along the entryway 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 just doing whatever we felt like doing at the spur-of-the- moment. Sometimes we played cricket for hours; just the two of us. He had an expert knowledge of 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 rapt attention. 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 a place that were not real.

‘‘Duh’s not what I talking about, he still from Africa and as far as I is concerned, he is de greatest super hero of all ah dem.’’

‘‘Anyway, I still prefer Superman.’’ I would argue. ‘‘He more powerful than de Phantom.’’

‘‘Ah! But he gotta use supernatural power to make heself strong, but de Phantom is different, he’s a ordinary man like any of we, and he depend only on he own strength and 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, and with a professorial tone in his voice and his eyes projecting the significance of his words, he lectured me.

‘’Boy! Yuh gotta learn to use yuh own inner strength to get de power to deal with life, because if that power only come from outside, yuh don’t have control of it and when it gone, yuh cork duck. And another thing is yuh gotta learn that if anything going make that power weak, yuh gotta get rid of it fast, and what going  make that power strong, yuh gotta grab it and hold on to it with all yuh mite.’’

I was always amazed at the amount of things he seemed to know and how intelligent and judicious he sounded 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 the 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 want to do?’’

And he would always come up with something exciting; like swimming in the ‘Punt Trench’, or ‘Forty Feet’ or catching lukanani and sunfish 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 the other boys who were taunting a mentally challenged local character by the name of ‘Blue Beef’. He came after us and we all ran off in different directions, unfortunately, Blue Beef pursued me and 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 saying,

‘’Hey Ron! Boy we scared de shit outta dat blasted bully.’’

Long after our lives had drifted apart I would still be touched by that brave and unselfish act and the concern and loyalty he showed for me that day. We were kindred spirits who loved and enjoyed each other’s company and for many years I would often reminisce about those happy boyhood times we spent together.

We both graduated with our School Leaving Certificates in 1945 and went to separate high schools; 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 and I noticed that their apartment was locked up. When I enquired I was told that they had moved and no one seemed to know 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 somehow recognize me and we would acknowledge each other and recall with nostalgia those glorious times we spent together way back in 1944, but he never looked at me. It was as if I never existed.

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 puzzled 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 I 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. I wanted to believe they were saying; ‘’forgive me, Ron, I do remember you and the close friendship we shared, but that was a period of my life that has no value or relevance to the person I have become, therefore, it can no longer exist for me. I do not, and will never forget you, but I am so sorry; I cannot acknowledge you.’’ He waved to me, turned and left.

A  Short  Story by  Royden  V  Chan – 2005

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Comments

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On April 5, 2018 at 12:00 pm

    How sad!

  • walter  On April 6, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    Can’t be true

  • Clyde Duncan  On April 7, 2018 at 8:53 pm

    I have heard quite a few stories like that …. Some people would not even acknowledge their own mother or father. The one I have in mind is from Trinidad

    I know of a tailor who taught someone to drive in B.G. and when that person got to Canada, they would not acknowledge the tailor’s presence – Don’t know him.

    They both worked at Fogarty’s ….. the tailor was a contractor at Fogarty’s, the other person was an employee.

  • Clyde Duncan  On April 9, 2018 at 1:59 am

    Royden V Chan: After reading your disturbing essay and the trauma a childhood ‘best friend’ revisited upon you in adulthood, I wanted to get back to add:

    If you wrote the foregoing essay, your father was absolutely RIGHT: The eloquence and exact manner in which you expressed, in detail, the scenario and vivid recollection of that moment, and the pain of rejection from a ‘best friend’ who had left a more positive and indelible recollection of your formative years is compelling and believable – I believe you!

    Our childhood experiences influence who we become and remain burned into our brain and everything about our soul and being ….

    The word, ‘nostalgia’ comes to mind – the positive experiences leave such a feeling – no matter where we roam!

    Making an attempt, in your adulthood, to rekindle some of that warmth you felt in those school boy days – in those positive youthful experiences – only to be met with a cold, callous and painful rejection is chilling, to say the least.

    I am not going to go into my old computer to dig up material, but Godfrey Chin visited us here in Vancouver, shortly before returning to live in Guyana; if I recall correctly, he felt the same rejection. I believe he died of a broken heart – Stay Strong!

  • Jacquelyn Jones  On April 28, 2018 at 8:35 pm

    Oh my goodness…only today someone was remarking on the Biblical verse that “the heart of man is above all things deceitful and desperately wicked…who can know it”….in this case I would apply the deceitful part….the story is so very true to home that it hurts me, the reader, in a similar fashion as it hurt the writer. May we all come to realise the importance of the human over the appearance of things,,,WOW

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