Black and white photograph of London buses in the smog, c. 1960

Homesick Blues

A short story by Paul Boakye (formerly Paul Ranford Pettigrew), inspired by his father’s decision to return to Jamaica.

Thomas Ranford Pettigrew left England on 6 June 1966 after 13 years in that country. He was never happy there. In fact, he hated it. What clinched it for him may seem trivial to some, but it meant a lot to ‘Small Island’ folks like Tom.

He had taken his feverish young son with him to their local doctor’s surgery one morning. The surgery was full of people. All white. Where they lived in Leytonstone near the Green Man pub was an all-white area then, although the local GP was an Indian chap.

Tom pushed open the door, saw all these sad, pale faces sitting around snivelling, and said, ‘Good morning!’ No one answered. ‘Good morning,’ Tom said again, loud and clear enough this time for everyone to hear him. A few heads shifted to glare up at the tall, elegant black man with the small boy, entering the waiting room, but still, nobody said a word.

Tom looked around, sheepishly, clamped his mouth shut, pushed out his bottom lip as was his habit whenever he got annoyed and found them somewhere to sit near the back. He never spoke another word as they waited. No reply did he give to his precocious son’s questions: ‘Why didn’t they say hello to you, Daddy? What’s the matter? What’s wrong?’

He couldn’t find the proper words in English to explain it to the boy. What came to Tom’s mind were the broken slang and unschooled phrases from his poor man’s Jamaican patois. For back home, even maaga dawgs running street fe nyam food would greet each other with a friendly sniff at the rise of a brand-new day. It was just common courtesy.

Even hungry dogs scavenging down by a stinking gully had more manners than these blasted people. You didn’t even have to like somebody back home to wish them a hearty ‘Good morning’. That’s what his father Maas Nate always taught him. That dear old man, his pupa, he was a perfect example of good manners and civility – God rest his gentle soul. These people!

Tom sucked his teeth and pressed a finger up to his lips, instructing silence from his son, and neither of them said another word until they entered Doctor Singh’s office. For all his faults, Tom was a shy, polite man, and he felt insulted. He took it personally because he was the type who liked to please. His wife, on the other hand, she was different.

Mrs Pettigrew would never have said a word to any of them. She worked with an all-white group at Goodman Glass for years when she first came to England. The young ones called her ‘Miss P’ and talked to her in the office, but out on the streets, they cut her dead. From that moment on, Verona never spoke to a white person first unless her life depended on it.

‘Since it’s their country and guests must be respectful, and respected,’ she’d say, ‘they should break the ice. I am very friendly from then on.’

But if the truth were told, Miss P would never give anyone the opportunity to cut her dead, twice.

While Tom looked on attentively, the young Indian GP examined their boy. Softly-spoken Harvinder checked the boy’s chest, his ears, eyes and throat. The child showed some discomfort but offered up no objections to being medically prodded, poked, measured and mapped. It was all a bit of a game to him. He was out to ride on top of a double-decker bus today. His father had promised him.

‘I’ve got a brand-new coat,’ the child said to the doctor, displaying a brown hooded parker.

‘So I see,’ Dr Singh replied. ‘And very handsome you look in it, too.’

‘My mummy bought it from Marks and Spencer.’

‘Did she now? Well, your mummy has very good taste.’

‘I’m going on the big red double-decker bus today.’

‘Well, well. You want to be a bus driver?’

‘He has a thing about double-decker buses,’ Tom beamed with pride. His son was not yet three years old, but even poorly, the boy was still bright as a bulb and just as intense. His ultra-expressive eyes followed the doctor’s every move. If Tom had stopped to consider, he would have seen in his son the eyes of his own father, but 13 years away from home had dimmed the old man’s memory.

‘It sounds to me, Tom, as if your boy has a weak chest,’ Harvinder Singh said after careful deliberation.

‘Meaning what exactly, Doctor?’

‘Meaning his lungs are frail, Tom, prone to colds and flu. Maybe even to asthma and tuberculosis, too, in this weather. Your boy won’t be a sprinter.’

‘You mean because-of-all this damn smog?’

‘This British weather won’t help him, Tom. I’ve prescribed some Cod-liver oil. One teaspoonful – taken twice a day. It should help to build up his strength.’

‘Is that all you can do for him, Doctor?’

‘I wish I could bring out the sunshine, Tom. But the best tonic for his little lungs would be pure fresh air, warm weather and exercise. Don’t keep him cooped up indoors. Give him plenty of milk, butter, cream and fresh eggs. Soup with spring vegetables will help develop his chest. He lacks some Vitamin D, but he may grow out of it. He looks a spritely lad.’

Doctor Singh ruffled the boy’s hair and turned quickly toward his prescription pad. The child pulled away sharply with a fiery look of contempt in his eyes. He did not like his hair being touched – especially not by strangers. It was a struggle with him each morning to get his mother to comb it. He was at that age now when everything was a fight. To get him to eat was murder. To put on his clothes was war. Bath time was an act of betrayal.

To get him to do anything he didn’t want to do, especially since his baby sister was born, was a game of strategies and tactics. His parents believed that he was special. He showed ‘an unusual’ interest in his surroundings early, uttered his first word, ‘Daddy,’ aged just three months old, and took his first steps two months later and never looked back. Between them, Tom and Verona were convinced that they had on their hands a real child protégé.

Tom was like a bull with two tails months before the birth. In his mind, he had achieved the impossible. Over seven years of marriage, his wife had not once conceived. He longed for a boy. She wanted neither boy nor girl. Then on the last Saturday morning in September 1963, a baby boy was born with his eyes wide open. For Miss P, it was a bitterly cold spell nine months before. To Tom, ‘I would have bred a mule that year just to have a son.’

‘So, how’s Mrs Pettigrew?’ Doctor Singh asked, looking up from his paperwork.

‘She all right, Doctor. She get a new job.’

‘Good. Good. So, you sold the shop?’

‘Not yet – but, you know, we trying.’

‘I thought business would have been good in that spot, Tom. Right there on the high street beside the pharmacy.’

‘It’s not the spot that’s wrong, Doc. The spot fine. I’m thinking of putting a young English girl in there to serve the English customers. We can’t survive on just the West Indian trade. You know how these people stay – pure struggle-struggle, envy, and jealousy. How you manage it here, Doc?’

The doctor looked somewhat surprised by the question posed but quickly decided he’d be lying to pretend that he knew nothing of what the tall West Indian man seated before him was asking.

‘Well, you see, Tom,’ he began, ‘sometimes our patients here don’t want my hands to touch them. But we have a remedy for that. We have a young English doctor on hand for such occasions. I send those types to him. They often think he’s the senior practitioner, but he’s actually my junior. I hope you won’t give up too soon, Tom. You have another mouth to feed now. How old is the little girl?’ he asked, expertly changing the subject.

‘Oh, she just turn one,’ Tom said. ‘Tuffy, we call her – cos she strong like Queen-a-Sheba – but we name her Jacqueline.’

‘Well, tell Verona to bring little Jacqueline in for a follow-up. We thought your wife wouldn’t have any children because of a retroverted womb. But if you’re not careful, Tom, you could be having a child every year from now on.’

‘I don’t think so, you know, Doctor.’

‘What are the odds?’

‘Miss P and me, you know, we don’t get on – if you catch my meaning.’ Tom winked at the doctor, who caught the message.

‘It only takes one time, Tom, as we doctors like to say,’ he smiled. ‘You’ve got a good woman there...but she’s no baby breeding machine.’

‘I know that, Doc. And you just you keep your eyes off my wife.’

Doctor Singh chuckled and started to blush more out of embarrassment than good humour. ‘Nice to see you again, Tom,’ he said.

‘And you, too, Doctor.’

‘You’ll keep the young one wrapped up now, won’t you?’

‘Yes, sir. Say, bye-bye.’

‘Bye-bye,’ said the boy.

‘Come on, then, son. Let’s be getting your haircut.’

‘Are we seeing Uncle Louie? On the buses? Yippee!’

Tom eased the door shut gently but firm, and as he turned the handle and stepped into the main waiting room, it was as if he was shutting off access to a former life. He was taking his son back home to Jamaica. In that instance, he had decided. He was ready to sell up and ship out. It didn’t matter to him what the boy’s mother might think about his actions. It was his decision to make. ‘At least if I take my son back home, my boy can become prime minister of Jamaica. If I leave my son here in England, what can he be, another bus driver?’

Tom stopped to catch his breath. At the top of Leytonstone Road, he paused, just as the promise of rain turned to sleet and the shadow of a dense cloud masked the face of the sun. A violent wind hit father and son in the back, almost lifted young Paul from the ground, and as Tom reached down to carry his son, he wondered how on earth he had let the boy persuade him to take public transport this morning.

His van was still parked less than 50 yards from their house, and although he had just sold the van to his cousin, Terry, Tom knew that if he asked, Terry would have shot out to bring it. He was looking at what was only a 20-minute bus ride across town to Louie’s Barbershop over on Dalston Road in Hackney, but as he braced himself against the cold, it felt like a hundred miles away.

‘Come on, my boy. Let’s be getting you home.’

©  Paul Boakye (formerly Paul Ranford Pettigrew).

Banner: © Fox Photos / Stringer / Getty Images.

  • Paul Boakye
  • Paul Boakye is a writer, editor, campaigner and marketing executive. He has written for theatre, radio, film, academia and magazines. He recently attended ‘WriteNow’, a Penguin Random House programme to find, mentor and publish new novelists from communities under-represented on the UK’s bookshelves. He is creative director at Paul Boakye Associates.