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By Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Dateline, Manchester, United Kingdom, 1951-

 ’Where is home?’ 

‘Uganda.’

‘Is that in the West Indies?’

‘No, East Africa’

‘Really? You don’t look African at all.’

Abbey beamed at the compliment.

‘You don’t have those big downturned lips, your eyes are not too close together and’ – she felt his hair – ‘your hair isn’t wiry’. Then she went, breathless, ‘Did you kill a lion to become a man?’

‘No, we don’t do that in Uganda.’

For a moment, as Heather walked away, Abbey wondered whether he should have lied, but he had never even seen a lion. Two weeks later, he bumped into her again. The other girls had walked on ahead and Abbey expected her to run and catch up with them, but she stopped and smiled.

‘So where does Abbey from Uganda go on a night out?’

At the Merchant Na—’

‘The Merchant Navy? I’ve heard about it. Apparently, you blacks get up to all sorts there.’ She prodded his chest playfully.

Rather than protest that nothing untoward happened at the Merchant Navy, Abbey just smiled. He held in each hand a bin full of cloth cuttings, thread and other couture rubbish.

11′ had been on his way to the outside bin.

‘I’d like to see the Merchant Navy. Would you show me?’

Of course.’

Though they had agreed to meet that Friday night, Heather ignored him for the rest of the week. Abbey understood. Other girls would shun her if they found out she

had fraternised with a black. Even then he began to doubt she had really meant it. He was therefore surprised to find Heather waiting outside the depot when he arrived for his shift that Friday. When she saw him, she motioned him to follow her. They went into a side corridor next to the depot. There, she told him that they would meet at the Merchant Navy entrance at 11.30 p.m., and disappeared.

He arrived at the Merchant Navy twenty minutes early and fretted. Suddenly the club seemed grubby, the people, especially their speech, coarse; look at that litter! Was that a whiff from the toilets at the entrance? He was sure that Heather would walk into the club, wrinkle her nose and walk out.

Heather was already excited when she arrived. She did not seem to notice anything amiss. Abbey was most attentive, buying her drinks he would never dream of wasting his savings on. The music was so loud, the hall so crowded, smoke everywhere, and Abbey was tense. It was not until Heather shouted above the music, ‘This is fun,’ that Abbey relaxed. They danced until Nelson turned off the music and forced the crowds out after 2 a.m, Abbey was wondering what now? – he had not expected Heather to stay this long – when she suggested that they go to the social centre on Wilbraham Road. Someone she knew was having a bash there. It was not a long walk. Then they arrived in a different world. White women with black men, mostly black Americans (who could not get over the fact that there was no segregation in Britain) and African students. Though there was a hall, the party was outdoors in the gardens. There was a lot of American alcohol as well. ‘It’s from the American air base’ Heather whispered.

Then she introduced him to her friends. One of them remarked, ‘So, this is Heather’s African.’

‘Are you a prince?’ another woman asked. Before Abbey answered, the woman turned to Heather and said, ‘Most of these fellows claim to be princes.’

Abbey denied being a prince even though his grandfather was Ssekabaka Mwanga. He denied it because once he had heard a shine girl call her African father, who claimed to be a prince, a liar. Abbey had to stop himself from spitting in her face because how would she know that, on the one hand, princes in Africa tended to end up fugitives in Europe fleeing assassination, and on the other, they were privileged to travel abroad? He had developed an unhealthy hate for shine people who seemed to hate the black in them, who presumed to be superior because of the whiteness in them.

He noticed that there were neither black nor shine girls at the party. The white men present were waiters, but Abbey did not ask why. A door to an exclusive world of white women going with black men had opened to him and he was going to enjoy it, however ephemeral. At the Merchant Navy, when people saw him with Heather, they had looked at him with concerned surprise, others with hurt astonishment as if it was an act of betrayal. Here, no one cared. They danced until six in the morning, when Heather caught the early bus back home.

The following weekend she suggested they go to the Mayfair. Abbey  asked how she knew-about black people’s clubs.

‘Girls say the most exciting things about black people > clubs. You must take me to the Cotton Club and Frascati. They even went to Crown Kathy on Oldham Street, the only pub which admitted blacks.

When Kwei found out about Heather, he warned Abbey that for a seaman saving to return home, going out with a woman was an expensive venture. And for timid Abbey a white woman would devour him like mashed potatoes.

‘It’s a story to tell though, when I return home.’

‘If you return.’

Excerpted from Manchester Happened, a collection of short stories by Jennifer Mansubuga Makumbi. A Oneworld Book, Manchester Happened was first published in Great Britain and Australia by Oneworld Publications in 2019.

 

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