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This Side Jordan

This Side Jordan

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback
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Excerpt

One  The six boys were playing the Fire Highlife, playing it with a beat urgent as love. And Johnnie Kestoe, who didn't like Africans, was dancing the highlife with an African girl. Charity's scarlet smile mocked his attempts to rotate his shoulders and wriggle his European hips to the music. Her own fleshy hips and buttocks swayed easily, and her big young breasts, unspoiled by children and only lightly held by her pink blouse, rose and fell as though the music were her breath. Johnnie grinned awkwardly at her, then he jerked his head away. 'Fiyah, fiyah, fiyah, fiyah- ma,Fiyah deah come – baby!Fiyah, fiyah, fiyah, fiyah- ma,Fiyah deah come – ah ah!I went to see my lovely boy,Lovely boy I love so well –' At one of the tables around the outdoor dance floor, a young European woman watched thoughtfully. At another table an African man watched, then turned away and spat. Both were angry, and with the same person.  Music was the clothing of West African highlife, but rhythm its blood and bone. This music was sophisticated. It was modern. It was new. To hell with the ritual tribal dance, the drums with voices ancient as the forest. The torn leaves of the palm trees shivered in the wind and the strings of fairy lights glittered like glass beads in the musty courtyard. The dancers themselves did not analyse the highlife any more than they analysed the force that had brought them all together here, to a nightclub called 'Weekend In Wyoming', the wealthy and the struggling, the owners of chauffeur-driven Jaguars and the riders of bicycles. They were bound together, nevertheless, by the music and their need of it. Africa has danced pain and love since the first man was born from its red soil. But the ancient drums could no longer summon the people who danced here. The highlife was their music. For they, too, were modern. They, too, were new. And yet the old rhythms still beat strongly in this highlife in the centre of Accra, amid the taxi horns, just as a few miles away, in Jamestown or Labadi, they pulsed through the drums while the fetish priestess with ash- smeared cheeks whirled to express the unutterable, and the drummer's eyes grew glassy and still, his soul drugged more powerfully than the body could be. Into the brash contemporary patterns of this Africa's fabric were woven symbols old as the sun- king, old as the oldest continent.

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The Braver Thing
Excerpt

Obed Coffin sat with his hand on the till and his eye on the sail. The launch slipped through the shadows of the tall masts of a man-of-war and beneath the barred windows of the fort, from which some prisoners shouted invective, and others called out for help, and still others sang:

Did not you promise me
That you would marry me

They glided over the clear green water towards the pier, where the hangman erected tarry corpses encased in iron gibbets. Past the crowd of spectators, in the town, it was as if there was a carnival, drunk men wheeling, whores laughing, peddlers shouting, and music. 

While the boat was being moored, the master tossed Coffin a canvas bag.

“Count it, it’s all there,” he said.

Coffin felt the coins in his hands, raised his eyes, and looked around the boat. The master did not meet his eye. None of the sailors objected to him being paid and discharged before the boat was unloaded; rather, they looked relieved. Coffin had served aboard three different merchant ships since his convalescence in the Cape Colony and so it had been every time. He knew (how he knew!) that he deserved their opprobrium, yet how dreadfully it stung, how terrible it was to know yourself a sinner, past redemption, how monstrous it was to be so alone.

“My thanks,” Coffin said.

He climbed the ladder and walked to shore. Behind him, the master crossed himself, and a sailor made a sign against the evil eye. 

The sharp boys, who lurked in a school by the dock, noticed Coffin. A short, subdued fight took place. Once it was resolved, the victorious boy (a tall, thick lout with a cast in each eye) materialized before Coffin.

“Hello sir, what do you need? Something to eat? Drink? A woman?”

The boy turned his head to accommodate his crazy eyes and look over his prospect. Coffin wore a straw hat, a cloth shirt, duck trousers, no shoes. He was emaciated, except for his jutting stomach, and he was missing teeth. Ill luck radiated from him like heat. In his too-large eyes, nascent tears, wild grief, madness.

“Good afternoon,” Coffin said, in a strong Nantucket accent.

“A Quaker!” the boy said, regretting his reference to drink and women. “You must be hungry, Brother.”

“Aye,” Coffin said.

“Right this way,” the boy said. “You don’t want to eat down here, sir, they’ll cheat you, all the cheats are in town on account of all the hangings. They hang three or four a day, and it’s been going on for days, and it will go on for days to come. I don’t imagine you heard of the Governor’s victory?”

The boy took Coffin by the hand, and he misliked its heat, its boniness, but prattled on.

“Yes, Governor Rogers, him that banished the pirates. Well, them rascals that didn’t take the King’s Pardon was holed up in North Carolina. Governor Rogers caught ’em drunk and asleep, and killed a score of the rogues, and took three hundred prisoners. They’ve all been condemned, and now they are being hanged.” 

As the boy led him through the ribald crowd, a woman threw her arms around Coffin and gave him a beery kiss, and the boy screeched and grabbed her wrist, for she held Coffin’s purse in her hand. The whore tried to slap the boy with her free hand, but he bit her arm.

“Oy, you rotten son of a bitch!” the whore cried.

“Let go, you cunt!” the boy returned.

The purse fell, the boy scooped it up and took Coffin (who had made no move to defend his property) by the arm and said: “Lively now.”

They skirted a small sea of bloody vomit and dashed past two men kicking a third and came at last to a public house bearing a sign with three ships above the door, inscribed The Duke, the Duchess and the Marquis.

“Here we are, mate!” The boy grinned so broad Coffin could see the whore’s blood on his teeth, then returned the purse and ushered him through the door.

Inside, it was dark and cool and empty save for one table where three men sat. Their conversation ceased as they looked upon Coffin.

“Hello mate,” one of the men said. “How d’you do?”

Coffin took off his hat and nodded and sat.

“What’ll you have, sir?” the boy asked.

“I do not know, I . . .” Coffin’s throat worked, and he looked as if he would cry. “Perhaps, perhaps I should . . .”

“We’ve some sea pie,” the boy said, cutting him off. “D’you care for some sea pie?”

“I do not know.”

“I’ll bring you a slice, and we’ll see if it answers.”

“The whole pie,” Coffin said.

“It’s quite a large pie.”

“Bring it, please.”

“Well sir, if you want the full pie, that would be,” hesitating, gauging, “a crown.” 

“Very well.” 

“Very well, sir.”

The boy scampered through a door, behind which he and a woman screamed at each other with shocking vehemence. 
The three sailors, each with a tin mug of punch, watched him. He stared at his hands and, after a moment, commenced to weep.

“You all right, Brother?” one of the sailors asked. 

The one who had spoken was young and fair-haired and handsome, and though he was slender, he had a powerful voice. The second sailor was older, with a grey-and-red pigtail, and toyed with a fine gold watch in his hand. The last was tall, and powerfully built, and bald, with burn scars around his mouth. 

Coffin shook his head.

“There now,” the handsome sailor said, and came over and clapped Coffin on the shoulder. “Can’t be as bad as all that, can it?”

Coffin only put his hands in his face.

“Can’t talk about it?” the handsome sailor said. “I’m sure it will all come right.” Then: “Come here about the Cruise, have you? The Adventuring Cruise?”

“Suh-Suh-Scudder,” the red-haired man called to the handsome sailor.

Coffin looked through his fingers.

“I . . .” Coffin began. Guilt, self-hatred, choking him. “I am hungry,” he said, and looked down.

The boy emerged with the pie, and the three sailors, noticing its size (easily enough for four men), its thick brown crust, the greasy juice that oozed from its edges and pooled in its centre, brightened expectantly.

“There now,” the boy said, “I told you it was a large pie. I’ll fetch the . . .”

Coffin pushed a golden sovereign towards the boy and then, with a whimper, began to shovel the pie into his face, while the others watched, wincing. In less than two minutes, a time both terribly short and horribly long, the pie vanished, and Coffin (whose stomach expanded visibly as he ate) was overcome with nausea. He pushed the plate away and looked 
at the men, but they looked away, for Coffin’s eyes seemed to ask them for something that they could never, ever give. 
The boy vanished with the coin. 

The young sailor, Scudder, backed away with a nervous smile and rejoined his friends. 

Minutes passed with no sound save for the bustle from the street. Merchants calling, distant fiddles, all playing the same song (did not you promise me / that you would marry me), a sudden collective laugh, the screech of a whore: “You will not, John Robinson, you will do no such thing!”

The three sailors leaned in and continued their conversation in hushed tones. 
Coffin, bloated, laid his head on his folded arms and made no attempt to listen, but the voice of the handsome youth, Scudder, carried across the room. 

"We weren’t drunk, I tell you,” Scudder said. “Every jack aboard was sober enough to answer the call of all hands, but there was nothing to be done.”

“There ain’t nothing so tuh-tuh-terrible as a lee shore,” the red-haired man said. “Must have buh-been horrible, especially for a buh-boy.”

“I don’t remember too much of it,” Scudder said. “A great big jolt, all the rigging went slack, everything came apart, and I was in the water. I got hold of a barrel and washed up with Johnny, a Mosquito Indian who’d been with Bellamy since they was Adventuring in canoes. Sold into slavery, the poor bugger. Eight men were hanged in Boston, but I was indentured on account of my youth. That’s where I met Billy.” Scudder nodded at the big man. “It was a rough place, that plantation, weren’t it, Billy? But we stuck together then, and we stick together now.”

The big man, Billy Quantrill, said nothing, but his approval was evident.

“So you ain’t nuh-never gone out Upon the Account, then?” the red-haired man asked Quantrill.

“No,” Quantrill said. “I told you, I was a marine.”

“And you’ve never met Kuh-kuh-Kavanagh, yourself, then?”

“No, never,” Scudder said. “I heard his name once or twice.”

“Ah well,” the red-haired man continued. “He was never muh-much of a sailor. Buh-but he was always liked by the men, that’s how he buh-became Quartermaster for Buh-buh-Blackbeard, and he was clever with his coin. After a successful Cruise, many a Gentleman of Fortune gave him some of their earnings, fuh-for to lay aside for ’em, you understand. And he’s duh-done very well for himself, and for all the men who gave him their muh-money. He calls ’em his Investors.”
“That’s all well and good, Johnny,” Scudder said. “But if Kavanagh ain’t much of a sailor, then who’s to be Captain on this Cruise?”

“He’s buh-brought Huh-Hornigold with him,” John O’Brien, the red-haired man, said.

“The same Hornigold that turned pirate hunter?” Scudder asked. “How could we trust a man like that?”

“I ain’t suh-saying we can, Buh-buh-Brother,” O’Brien continued. “I ain’t saying we should go on this Cuh-Cruise at all, but we duh-duh-duh-damn well should go to the Meeting. There ain’t no guarantee a buh-better Cruise will come along. And . . .” O’Brien’s eyes locked with Coffin’s.

The other two turned to look as Coffin stood and staggered out the front door into the sun. Outside, he bent over, hands on his knees, struggling not to vomit, the sun pressing on his neck as the shame hit him, wave after wave of it, the shame. For although he knew he was not fit to live, every time his life was in danger, he shrank away. Why? Why did he cling to this shameful life? 

The door opened with a bang and Coffin started, but it was only the boy, holding his purse.

“Come now, sir, you cannot leave your purse unguarded on the table!” the boy said, pressing it into Coffin’s hand. “Count it, count it, it’s all there!”

And so he did, three little golden Spanish coins, each worth, approximately, one pound, and the change provided by the boy. 

“I believe the men inside are pirates,” Coffin said. 

The boy looked embarrassed.

“Thou said thy Governor ended piracy?”

“Well,” the boy said, “yes, he did.”

“And captured pirates in North Carolina?”

“Well, yes, yes, but here is the thing, sir, the Governor took three ships as prizes, the largest of which you see there in the water. A fifty-two-gun French ship, not two years old. We all believed such a fine ship would be sold into the Service. Instead, as you may have heard, the Governor sold it to Mr. James Kavanagh, who sailed with the Governor during the War of the Spanish Succession, and afterwards went out Upon the Account. As many men did! But he took the King’s Pardon three years ago and has been an honest merchant ever since. Some have said that he means to go back out Upon the Account, and so many of these sorts are in town. So many that they outnumber the citizens. Do you see?”

Coffin looked down the gentle slope to the massive ship on the sparkling water.

“Sir, perhaps you ought to come in and have a glass with our other guests,” the boy continued. “You could stand them a drink. Then you will see that they are not so bad, and they will see that you are an Honest Fellow.”

“How can I get on that ship?” Coffin asked.

“The Saoirse? Every man in the Bahamas wants to sail upon her, on account of the rumours, you understand.”

“I must get on that ship,” Coffin said, and turned his eyes upon the boy, who felt the grisly radiance of the man’s ill luck. 

“Sir, I must say again—”

“Here,” Coffin said, and pressed the purse into the boy’s hands.

Three guineas, an unthinkable fortune to a boy who scraped for every farthing. Still, a voice whispered don’t take it, it’s cursed. And yet . . . the heaviness of the little coins.

The boy’s off-kilter eyes looked at nothing. 

“I implore thee, my friend,” Coffin said, tears in his eyes. “Please, I must, I must sail upon that ship.”

“But why?”

“I cannot . . . I have nowhere else . . . I must . . . I must be Damned. I am Damned. Only bring me to the ship, I ask nothing more of thee.”

Unlucky, unlucky, the voice whispered to the boy, but his whole life, his worldly effects, his person, his past, present, and prospects, were not worth three guineas in ready money. 

“Very well, sir,” he said. “Come with me.” 

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