THE AGNES: A SHORT STORY

It was an old, redbrick building with the words ‘Arts and Crafts Society of Warburton’ etched in stone and blurred by cobwebs between the ground and first floor. The windows were surrounded with flaking white paint and there seemed to be dark corners everywhere, scarcely illuminated by desultory street lighting. Railings accompanied worn steps down to a basement, and up to the main door, painted dark green. Across the arch over the front door was an off-white sign with grey capital letters, “AGNES WARD CENTRE”. A smaller sign pointed round the corner to an “Annexe” in the next street. The building was situated near the centre of Warburton, a medium-sized city, part of the conurbation referred to as Mercia Metropolitan County, in the English midlands.

Agnes Ward had been the most eminent personage in Warburton in the second half of the nineteenth century. I knew a lot about her, because my closest friend at school was her great-great-grandson Edison, “Eddy” Ward. I also did a local history school project about her. Agnes had been the widow of one Jacob Ward, who had passed away in 1865 at the age of 47, a victim of tuberculosis but man who had become very rich, having made his pile out of industrialising England’s unending desire for heavy machinery. Warburton in its heyday was an engine of Mercia’s contribution to the industrial revolution. A wag had written, quite unfairly it seems to me, that it was called Mercia because of the mercenary nature of its inhabitants. Almost as though to prove the untruth of this, Agnes Ward devoted herself and her husband’s fortune, which she curated with intelligence and foresight, to good works, including the Arts and Crafts Society. The trust she established was able in the 1920s to open the Agnes Ward Centre as a place for what was called the betterment of the working classes, both male and female. By the time I was a kid, in the early 1960s, “The Agnes”, as it was called, had come to take the form of two hostels, one male, one female, and a community centre with sports and “improving” activities such as night classes and a tenants’ advice bureau.

The Centre as I knew it became the second most important building in my life. Second, after my own home, that is. But a place that gave me almost as much. It was a place that attracted hostellites internationally, and socially involved people locally. From here projects were planned, friendships made, and life pathways determined. My mother was the manager of the female hostel in the Annexe, and as a result our house was just a couple of hundred yards from The Agnes’ front door. My father managed the male hotel and was also responsible for operating what we would now call a social enterprise concerned with housing rights. They were loving and, as far as they were able, attentive parents to me and my elder sister Amy, who was by that time off to university. Both of them had demanding jobs that took up many more than their contracted hours, with numerous crises and emergencies interrupting a normal family life. For this reason, I was in the unusual position of both being well provided for and at the same time having relatively little supervision of what I was doing or when or where I was doing it. School kept me very busy with classes, homework and sports, but as I grew past ten years old I came to spend more and more time at The Agnes.

At first it was the attractions of a comfortable sofa in the lounge and the tea and hobnobs with which Mrs Hammond, the Scottish cook, plied me. There I could read books from the library, and even watch TV when it was working. More than that there was a sense of things happening which made it more attractive than my own quiet room at home, where I would normally be waiting for my parents to come home. The Agnes was after all my parents’ workplace, so it felt as though one of them at least would normally be near at hand. There people would come and go, talking of Michelangelo, as the poet says, or at least talking of lots of things which I didn’t understand but felt I should. As it turned out The Agnes gave me more education than I bargained for. The Annexe also had a nice lounge, but it was a bit closer to Mum’s office and carried the risk of either a homework nag or a few time-consuming chores. But occasionally I would visit there to see the female residents, especially a blousy, funny Australian girl called Rosie, who was especially attentive to me, and this was pleasing given my sister’s increasingly long absences. Rosie was a trainee social worker with the city council.

The male hostellites mainly consisted of students at the local police academy, or the teacher training college, or Warburton University. Some were doing apprenticeships or holding junior positions with local companies. As a result of my regular visits in the afternoons or evenings, I became some kind of a mascot. I was, I suppose, to them, intelligent, cutely cheeky, and for those from non-English speaking places, a good source of inconsequential English conversation. Kem, from Ghana, would draw attention to my speech. “This boy, his English is so p p p p p!” Ravi, a research student from India, had excellent English and would teach me to form paragraphs and avoid local slang. He regaled me with astonishing stories about India – its transport systems, its religious rituals, its variety and ungovernability. Ogut, a trainee pilot from Turkey, was full of scientific and geographic revelations. Karim, a metallurgist from Iraq, explained with passion the beauty of Islam, its art and culture. Kwokkie from Hong Kong was a studious young lawyer, who explained the mysteries of Chinese civilisation. I was growing apace in knowledge and sophistication.

Yet with all this to entertain, instruct, and amuse me, nothing was so remarkable as the arrival of Themba.

One day Themba appeared, looking lost, at the reception desk. He had two leather suitcases and wore a huge raincoat. I ran over as there was nobody else around. “Hello, I will just find somebody to help you, if you don’t mind waiting”. “OK, that’s fine, kiddo, thanks.” He sat down as though he had come a long way.

Themba was duly checked in and emerged an hour or two later. He made a very impressive figure. Themba was a huge man. He seemed about seven feet tall, but I suppose he would have been about six foot three or four. He was very powerfully built, with enormous shoulders and biceps that seemed about to burst his short sleeves. His skin was shiny and very black, and his head completely shaved. A small fuzzy beard adorned his chin. His face betokened somebody of intelligence and experience. There was something sad in his eyes, but they would light up at the slightest provocation. His conversation, begun on that wet wintry night in 1960, was lively and playful. I was bewitched and wanted to ensure he was my friend before anybody else could claim the title, and so I showed him round The Agnes. His eyes would open wide at every new discovery. “Oooh, that is nice!”, he responded to the coffee machine, the gym, the library.

“And so”, he asked mock-sternly, “who exactly are you, precocious young man?”

“I am Jimmy Emmett”, I replied. “I am happy to meet you Mr Themba, and I am not whatever you said I was.” His mighty laugh filled the corridors.

Themba was from Johannesburg, South Africa. I gather he came from a prominent family and was in Warburton to learn journalism. I was not aware until later about the apartheid regime, but it seems Themba had managed to come to England only because his family was able to afford it, and, as I also later learned, his intention was to learn skills to oppose the regime as virulently as he was able. But at the time, although he seemed immeasurably older than myself, he was about twenty-four years old. He seemed older due to a certain pride in his bearing that suggested somebody established and confident, strong and masculine.

Themba settled in quickly and I spent a lot of time with him. Despite the large difference in years he was my friend, and had a way of treating me as though I deserved the respect accorded to an equal. Themba, I learned, was a man of scrupulous attention to principles and to the English language, who took everyone seriously, even, it seemed, an ten-year-old boy. While showing much respect to me as though I was a highly educated person with opinions, he assumed an avuncular role in relation to my homework and my language. But condescension it was not. He was unremitting in his critique of my homework. “What on earth is this nonsense?”, he would laugh. “Do it … again. And this time get it … right!” He was similarly unremitting in his critique of his own journalism, and would ask my opinion on it as if I were his editor or his colleague. I think his pieces had already in fact been filed, and this was for my benefit, not his. Occasionally I would find fault with the use of a word or his punctuation, and he would nod seriously and thank me far too much.

Themba, it turned out, was a sportsman extraordinaire. He was a considerable heavyweight boxer. He played rugby as a forward, and quickly made a local league team. He could throw the javelin and the hammer immense distances, and he could hit sixes and bowl fast when playing cricket. Boxing was his favourite. He also spent much time lifting weights in the gym at the back of The Agnes, outside in summer. I talked to him as he panted and blew, lifting weights under the elm tree, the sweat descending his muscular frame in rivulets. He would laugh heartily at my questions and observations. “Oh, Jimmy, you have a great deal to learn, young man”, he intoned. It seemed as if there was nothing Themba could not do, and this induced in me a sense moving from admiration to near hopelessness. I could never, I reflected, be as strong, as wise, as knowledgeable, or as simply good and effective in the way Themba always was, however hard I tried. It seemed that whenever there was anything difficult to do, Themba was first in line to sort it out. If it was the awkward task of taking down an old chandelier in the lounge, he had it figured out and done within a few minutes. If it was a suspicion of rats in the attic, he had that sorted within a day. If it was a nuisance drunk at reception, he was sent packing before anyone in authority even noticed. One miscreant, a grown man, was delivered to the police like a noxious wet rag, held off the ground by his collar. “This, officer, I believe, is for you”.

I started to wonder if he had any weaknesses. In fact, he had two. The first was that he had what one might call a long-burning fuse. He was patient and stoic in the face of all manner of difficulties. Of that there can be no doubt. He experienced racism routinely, rebuffs more than deserved, assumptions that he was far less than he was, daily, yet never showed any real sign of distress. But when pushed too far he would explode with a rage that was truly frightening. Faced with really persistent or obnoxious racism, or especially dense bureaucratic obstinacy, he would deploy a stentorian voice and if need be would come with fists flying. I saw this happen notably on two occasions, and shrank into a corner to avoid being inadvertently crushed. But when this occurred, Themba was always in the right, and he never apologised for one of his admittedly rare outbursts of rage.

The other weakness was women. Being an attractive and very masculine figure, he had no shortage of female interest; but his girlfriends came and went, and he never stayed with one for more than a couple of months. I could hear him crooning gently to one of them for ages on the phone, or see him charming her over coffee across the road at Dom’s cafe. But they would never last, and Themba didn’t ever appear to be upset when the inevitable break came. Kwokkie and Ravi were especially scurrilous in relating Themba’s “conquests”. I often assisted Themba by assuming the role of mascot, and amusing his new girlfriend while praising Themba to the skies in ironic mode as the greatest man I knew. In fact, if I had considered it, he was. I would sometimes challenge him. “Themba, that girl was so nice, why did you let her go?” I was greeted with a shrug and a clear desire to change the topic of conversation. Fortunately, however, these two weaknesses of his never came into collision with each other. His rages were over principle, never over love or fortune.

As I moved to the next educational level, my friendship with Themba was unwavering, and in fact deepened. I became friends with Eddy and introduced him to Themba. Themba liked Eddy too, and he would take us both for bus rides at the weekend to outlying places of historical or natural interest. We were frowned at by middle-aged ladies on buses. They clearly thought this group of two white boys and one back man was not in the right course of things. By now Themba had acquired a certain cache around The Agnes and in the city. His journalism was regarded as cutting edge in some quarters and as outrageously impudent in others. In one instance he attacked my school as ‘a bastion of racism’, which did not go down well with the governors or the city fathers. On another occasion he lambasted the city council for its cuts to services he argued were essential for ethnic minorities. Dad was very pleased with this, and came to see Themba as a considerable resource. He also reported on developments in his native South Africa, which were disturbing. Themba had been deeply distraught when the Sharpeville incident occurred, and left South Africa shortly after that. A man I regarded as made of flint was crying as he explained to my father what had happened and what it meant to him. By this time he had graduated to being a fulltime journalist on the Warburton Tribune, and in left-wing circles, whose centre, one might say, was often The Agnes itself, Themba was regarded as a fearless warrior. Dad joked of Themba that he would either be president or spend most of his life in jail. “Or both”, added Themba. This puzzled me, because I did not understand why anybody would put Themba in jail. To me Themba was perfectly admirable, an ideal I could not even aspire to, and certainly could not criticise. More than that, I trusted Themba implicitly, because he always had my back. If I defaulted on homework, Mum was treated to an excuse on my behalf. If I was late back, Themba would call and apologise – it was his fault I was late, we missed the bus.

As a result of some planning over Mrs Hammond’s tea and hobnobs, and at the instance of Themba, Ravi, Kem, and my parents, The Agnes started evening classes in English for non-English-speaking migrants. Themba was tireless in organising this and sought my help (I was very much flattered) in conversing in English with Pakistani, Indian and African kids. We would talk to the kids until quite late at night and their grateful families would come to collect them. These evenings were enormous fun and Themba was delighted with our progress. We laughed, we talked, we drank Vimto and ate Mrs Hammond’s calorie-swamped cupcakes. Kem was always hilariously funny, taking off well known figures, including Dad and Themba himself.

At the same time, we lived in a part of the city that was well-known for its ethnic mixedness, and at around that time racial tensions began to emerge. Incidents involving police action involving migrant communities – usually attacks on them - were on the rise. One of Mum’s girls from the Annexe, who was Italian, was accosted by thugs and raped in a back alley. Themba and my father addressed the city council on this. The chairman of trustees, Eddy’s grandfather, was deeply concerned and was interviewed on the BBC concerning ethnic tensions in Warburton. Dad said we should all beware, although I didn’t really know how to beware.

One night we finished late and I left The Agnes to walk home, a distance of only about two hundred yards. Turning right out of The Agnes one chilly wet night I saw part of the road was bathed in a jaundiced light revealing a heavy drizzle. I pulled my collar up and my cap down and continued on my way home. On the other side of the road in semi-darkness I noticed a huddled group of older boys. One of them looked round at me as I passed. After a few seconds he called out to me. I didn’t quite hear what he said, but I didn’t like the look of these boys, who seemed like the skinheads I had seen hanging around the city centre, apparently looking for some sort of trouble. I ignored them. Then I heard them crossing the road. They were after me. I quickened my step but they soon caught up with me. My collar was jerked round to face the group. They looked in an ugly mood. I recognised one of them who had been in The Agnes before, and was called Decker. They were skinheads with chains, dirty jeans, and leather jackets.

“’Ey, where yow off ter, rabbit?”. A strong Mercian accent. It was Decker. “This kid ‘ere, he’s a nigger-lover, he is. Let’s teach ‘im a lesson, lads.”

“Look, I am just minding my own business, Deck. What do you want?” I tried to appear unruffled, using Decker’s nickname to assume some kind of social norms were operating.

“Oh, nah then, Jimmy’s mindin’ ‘is own business, lads”, he jeered. “Well, it ay the kind of business yow can ger away with, sonny Jim. We don’t approve of you, sonny Jim. Yow’m a nigger-lover aintcha, sonny Jim?”. He joshed me, and I fell back against the wall, almost losing my footing.

“Black ‘is balls fer ‘im, tharr’ll learn him”, said another skin behind him. A third and fourth boy laughed.

And with that landed the first blow - to my ribs on the right side of the diaphragm, taking my breath away and doubling me up just as the second blow hit me in the left eye, my head knocked back and my cap sent flying.

The third blow, to my chin, never landed. I was aware of a large black fist appearing from the right of my vision. It hit Decker square in the mouth and as if in slow motion I saw a couple of teeth and a spurt of blood as he staggered backwards into the gutter.

“Fokk me!” “Fokkin’ bastard nigger!”

“Shut your disgusting mouth, kid, or you will get more of the same!”, said Themba calmly, menacingly. “Next time, man, pick someone ya own size”.

The other boys gathered round Decker as if protecting him. Decker held his mouth while blood seeped between his fingers.

“Now off with you, back home, and don’t you come near here again, hear, or you will have me to answer to.”

“And who the fokk are you, yer black bugger?’”

“I am Themba. Remember the name. I’ll be waiting.”

The boys were clearly considering whether five of them could take on Themba. They wisely decided against, and slunk off down the street. I retrieved my cap from the pavement, a clutch of pain as I bent down.

Themba, watching the skins slink away, turned slowly to address me. “Are you OK, Jimmy?”

“Yes, Themba, I am OK. My ribs hurt. Thanks for dealing with them. I was really scared. I don’t know why they wanted to pick on me.”

“That is something we’ll look into later, Jimmy. Let me take a look what’s gone on here.” He held my head up under the street lamp, clucking his disapproval. “We’ll get that fixed first. Then your ribs. Don’t worry. It was a good job I followed you.”

He took me home. My parents were horrified and Mum was, by the standards of her normally calm, crisis-immune demeanour, beside herself. I was washed and bandaged. I saw that Themba’s fist was badly bruised but he said nothing. He looked quiet and sad, rather than angry or worried.

“This is very serious, Themba”, said my Dad, “I am going to report it to the police. We know who did this. We have to stop these damn thugs, it’s just going from bad to worse.”

“It’s already worse, Mr Emmett. It is like Jo’burg now.”

After that Themba carried me upstairs and placed me carefully  on my bed. “Don’t worry none, Jimmy, I won’t let anybody hurt you.” “I know that, Themba. Thanks, friend.”

I slept, but my sleep was a very troubled one.

It was the following day in the late afternoon that the police came for Themba. My mother was there and tried to explain everything. Unfortunately, I was still at school and unable to explain how Themba was protecting me. Dad was angry beyond anything I had seen. Themba was carted off in handcuffs, resigned it seemed to his fate, just as if he were guilty. It was surprising he did not fight back. He certainly could have.

The arrest of Themba was devastating to me. I could not believe that the police whom I had been taught protected us all from crime could arrest my hero, a man so good that he should be a model for anyone. I cried in sorrow. I cried in fear and frustration. Over the following days I persisted in arguing with Dad and others that I must be able to tell the police what happened. In fact they did come to interview me in front of my Dad, and I told them how the thugs had accosted me and beaten me. They could see my black eye and my bruised ribs, but they just took notes. They thanked my Dad but not me as they left without a word. I asked them as they left if they were going to charge Decker. They said Decker was the complainant, and I shouted, “Who do you think punched me, then?”. They ignored me and Dad told me to be quiet.

The same day, Dad arranged for Themba’s legal representation, and a day or two later Themba appeared in court charged with affray and aggravated assault. He pleaded not guilty and his trial day was set. Bail was not granted so Themba remained in custody. This seemed an outrage to me. Could they possibly imagine that Themba of all people would escape, would just run away. It was laughable. Themba had never in his life backed away from a problem. He always confronted it head on. The word got round. The word became “racism”, and people started to organise.

I was beside myself with feelings of betrayal, anger, and sheer disorientation. I tried but failed to concentrate on my school work, and lay wake agonising over what Themba was feeling and what was going to happen. I made myself very annoying to Dad, who I am sure was doing his best, pestering him with questions, why this and why not that and how could they think that? In particular I felt I wanted to just tell a judge or somebody in actual authority what happened that night. The newspapers, except for the Tribune, which naturally took Themba’s side and questioned the motives of the authorities, painted the case as one where a large black man had assaulted, on a flimsy pretext, a smaller, younger white British man. “Our man held without bail because he is black”, railed the Tribune in righteous anger.

Rosie, however, was bullish about the matter. “It’s a load of shit, honey, they will never convict him. Don’t worry, he will be back with us soon”. I was not inclined to believe her. Others were non-committal. Some even said it was a shame, but Themba needed to learn to control his temper. In fact he had kept his temper very much under control. To make matters worse, it turned out that Decker was in fact seriously injured. He had lost three teeth and had a broken nose and stitches in his lip. It made Themba look like a big bully, a heavyweight boxer taking on a mere kid. This was all so frustrating. It seemed the world was turned upside down, where right was wrong and wrong was right.

Themba’s barrister refused to allow me to take the stand and give evidence at Themba’s trial. I overheard Dad telling Mum that he thought the prosecution would make sure my evidence was turned to their advantage. I did not see how this could be so, although I was at the same time relieved not have to go through what seemed a terrifying ordeal, and I accepted the outcome, especially as I knew that I failed completely to understand what was involved. I suppose I agreed that I was too young. But I wanted to see Themba, although I was convinced I would cry like a baby if I saw him behind bars. They refused to take me to see him in any case. I realised how Themba’s friend was actually just a child, and I felt my reactions were childish. Yet I didn’t know how to elevate them to adult status, like Rosie and the others did.

The delay before the trial was excruciating. I felt the pain of it all the time like a huge lump in my chest, which was only tolerable because I imagined how much worse Themba felt, accused of a terrible crime that was actually an act of selflessness. I felt guilty that it was my back that Themba was protecting when he hit Decker. It was all my fault, and I should have been able to just run away to my home only a few seconds’ away, saving Themba all this grievous trouble. I also puzzled how Themba came to be there. He had been nowhere to be seen when I left The Agnes, so how did he know I was in danger and how did he get there so quickly? I had no answers to these questions, except that I just knew Themba always looked after me. I discussed the case with Eddy continuously. We concluded there was nothing to do but be patient and await the adult-determined outcome of the case. I also shared my distress with a sympathetic teacher, Mrs Rawlings, who taught us English and had noticed my poor attention and troubled countenance in class. She said she would find out more, but nothing came of it except that she ensured other teachers were aware and would go easy on me – I was grateful for that. My eye healed up, and my ribs were not broken.

I was not allowed to attend the trial when, several weeks later, it began in the Warburton Crown Court. But I devoured the accounts of it in the Tribune. I gleaned from these accounts and from Kwokkie a picture of what was happening. It appalled me. Decker was painted as the victim of a vicious attack, and his attack on me was described as “an altercation with Jimmy Emmett, a younger boy whom he knew from The Agnes Centre”. It was not an altercation, for heaven’s sakes, it was a beating that would have been far worse if Themba had not come to my aid. It seemed as though Themba’s evidence was twisted into a story that he had gone into the street specifically to beat up Decker. Decker, in turn, was portrayed as a good boy who had perhaps fallen into some bad company. This was odd to me, as Decker was clearly the leader of this noxious little gang of young thugs.

The tension during the trial made me physically sick, and I was sent home from school for a couple of days. This made matters worse, because at least at school there was some distraction from the awful facts that hung over me like a large, heavy, dark cloud. Dad reported that Themba was in a bad way, and had not assisted his case when he swore at the judge. I was in total despair. The Agnes was by now in a ferment, and demonstrations were organised emphasizing racism in the legal system and the evils of apartheid. But to me it was not really a principle at risk, it was my friend, somebody who meant so much to me that I cried myself to sleep almost every night.

When the defence began things began to improve a bit. It was said that the barrister was doing an excellent job unravelling the prosecution’s case. Mum was called as a character witness, and so were Ravi and Rosie and Themba’s editor at the Tribune. Themba himself made a great show, so I was told, when giving his own evidence, and was calm and firm under cross-examination. He was, I learned later at his best, dignified and impressive in his responses. The jury finally got to see the Themba I knew and loved. This contrasted rather well with Decker’s cross-examination, in which he appeared confused and unconvincing. Ravi and Kwokkie became enthusiastic and hopeful Themba would be acquitted.

By the Thursday afternoon the jury was out. I rushed home from school. As I got off the bus the newsboy called out “Affray Case, Jury’s Verdict!”. I ran to The Agnes as fast as I could, and as soon as I arrived I knew all was well. I could have kissed the ground in gratitude. The entrance and lounge were crowded. Rosie came running out. “Themba is acquitted, Jimmy! He’s free! How about that for size, Jimbo?”

Tears of joy fell from my eyes as I hugged her. I couldn’t even rejoice, I was just speechless. Then came Dad, smiling broadly, and Ravi, palpably excited, whooping and singing.

An hour later came Themba himself, laughing and smiling, a man who had carried a huge weight now lifted from his great shoulders. Themba picked me up and swung me around until I was giggling dizzy. He hugged me. He hugged Mum. All he would say was “Well, well, well, there is a God. And there is justice in the land.” Dad cracked a bottle of champagne and the celebrations went on til late in the night. Themba danced with Rosie and Mrs Hammond as the juke box went into overdrive. The Agnes had never been so happy, and that is how I like to remember it, in the throes of celebrating the blessed release of the great Themba.

Despite the joy of the outcome, I still felt a bit shy of Themba. I felt I had let him down, because I had been ineffectual in helping him in distress. It seemed to my childish mind as though Themba had always been there when I needed him, but in his hour of need, far from my assisting him, it was he who had to suffer to avoid me giving evidence in court. This thought grew in my mind like a nasty ailment that got worse you more you tried to suppress it.

The next evening I sought out Themba and awkwardly told him of my feelings. I said I wanted to apologise to him, and that I had let him down. I sobbed my sorrow for my uselessness, and begged forgiveness. This was the only other time I saw Themba cry, apart from about his beloved South Africa. His eyes filled with tears as he hugged me to his chest. “No, Jimmy, no, Jimmy. That is not it. It is the opposite of what you think, boy. What kept me going was the thought of your love and the love of everybody here and my family and my people at home. You didn’t let me down, Jimmy. You kept me alive. And you got the scar to prove it.” I cried and cried, but I didn’t know exactly which emotion it was that made me do so, there were too many. Themba held me tightly and shushed my tears.

The next few weeks were as blissful as the few weeks before had been dismal and distressing. We went fishing and cycling. We went to the football match and cheered. Themba allowed me to drink from his pint of beer, but stopped me from smoking.

When the time eventually came for Themba to go back home, my mood changed into deep sorrow. I suppose I always knew I would lose this friendship with Themba, but it was a bitter blow. He tried to comfort me by promising to write often. But I knew it was over.

The last I saw of Themba was when he was sitting in a railway carriage grinning at me through the glass. He opened the top window and told me to be good, and he would be watching. “Never forget, never lose hope”, he said. “Sure, Themba”. And the train pulled slowly away as Themba waved his goodbye. I stood there forlorn. I knew I had lost him for good and he would never come back.

Themba wrote to me regularly for a year, and I also wrote some quite stupid letters to him, which I regretted. Then the letters stopped coming, and I wondered what was happening. Dad said the news from South Africa was not good. There were speeches and meetings about it even in Warburton.

One day after a few months had passed, Dad called me to come to his office, and asked me to sit down. “Jimmy”, he said, chewing his lips, “I am sorry to say there is some bad news. I just received a letter from Themba’s father. He informed me that Themba was arrested a few weeks ago in Johannesburg. It was to do with his opposition to the regime. It is a terrible thing but it seems Themba was badly beaten in police custody. Jimmy, look at me.” I looked up, fearing what was to come. “Themba is dead. They beat him to death. I am so sorry.” He held my head as my tears came like a burst dam. I could feel that Dad too was sobbing.

The pain of Themba’s death, now many years ago, remains with me like a wound that never heals. One more thing. Later I received a letter from his girlfriend, Marie, whom Themba had briefly mentioned earlier in a letter. She informed me that she had had Themba’s baby, a boy also called Themba. I wondered if little Themba would grow up to be like his great and noble father. I hoped one day I could see him and tell him everything.

Decker became a judo instructor and claims that the blow he received from Themba was the best thing that ever happened to him. Rosie succeeded Mum as manager of the girls’ hostel. The city council, assisted by Dad, developed policies to fight against racism and discrimination. The Agnes is still there. It isn’t quite what it was, but it contains all the good memories of my childhood and teenage years. The spirit of Themba somehow lives on in me and guides me constantly through my life. I often ask myself, what would Themba have said?

When I took up a teaching position at Warburton University, many years after Themba’s death, in my second year a young black man came to my office. He had a striking appearance, being tall and broad-shouldered, with large, intelligent eyes.

“Sir, my mother asked me to come and see you when I got here. Her name is Marie, and she sends her greetings to you. My name, sir, is Themba”.

 

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