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Authors: Lawrence Hill

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Some Great Thing

BOOK: Some Great Thing
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Some Great Thing
Lawrence Hill

To my parents, Donna and Daniel Hill

“What! discouraged? Go do some great thing.”

Crawford Kilian

Go Do Some Great Thing;

The Black Pioneers of British Columbia

PROLOGUE

His son was born in 1957 at the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg, before men had to start watching their wives give birth. Asked about it years later, Ben Grafton replied, “What’s a man to do in a place like that, except grow all bug-eyed and wobbly and make a shining fool of himself?”

On that windless January night, Ben Grafton didn’t enter the delivery room. He didn’t consider it. He waited until Louise was “finished,” poked his head in the door and shouted “atta way Lulu!” Wearing a blue woollen cap that stopped short of his huge brown ears, he followed two nurses who took the infant to the nursery. Ben Grafton was not invited. Nor was he self-conscious. He was a forty-three-year-old railroad porter who had coped with all sorts of nonsense in the past and had long stopped wondering what people thought of his being this or that. They turned to tell him he couldn’t stay in the nursery. He said he wanted to look at his little man.

“So cute, this little baby,” one nurse cooed, turning the brown face toward Ben.

Ben touched a tiny cheek. He didn’t understand all this hospital nonsense. Why couldn’t the nurses just leave the boy with his mother? Or with him? But he wasn’t going to raise a ruckus. He was going to take it calm and easy. But then something happened. The nurse crossed the baby. With her thumb. She actually touched his forehead and made a sign of the cross. Then she started mumbling a prayer. “Hey,” Ben said.

The nurse continued.

“No praying.” Gently, but firmly, Ben poked the woman in the ribs.

She turned on him, eyebrows raised. “Please,” she hissed.

“No praying,” Ben repeated.

The woman’s jaw dropped. The nurse beside her stared at Ben.

“That’s right,” Ben said, eyeballing both of them. “This little man is a Grafton. And Graftons don’t go in for devils and angels and heaven and hell. This little man will believe in humanity. Humanity and activism. You can leave him here till his mother wakes up but I don’t want any more of those rituals. Is that clear?”

The praying nurse nodded, the other one blinked. Neither spoke. They lay the baby in his bassinet. Ben backed out of the nursery but watched through the window. He stayed there for an hour or so. He had some thinking to do. Thinking about a name. A
good
one. This child was destined for great things. No ordinary name would do.

PART ONE

On his way to the men’s room, which he considered a refuge, since in all his years at
The Herald
nobody had run in there to dispatch him to the scene of an accident, Chuck Maxwell spotted a memo from the managing editor. “
Mahatma?
” Chuck muttered. Staring at the message board, he read the news again: “I am pleased to announce that Mahatma Grafton of Toronto will join our reporting staff on July 11, 1983.” Chuck let out the news with a shout. Colleagues surrounded him. They found the recruit’s resumé appended to the memo. Mahatma Lennox Grafton. Age: twenty-five. Education: B.A. double honours, History and French, Université Laval. M.A. Economics, University of Toronto. Languages: English, French, Spanish. Marital status: single. Work experience: reporter for
The Varsity
, U. of T. Interests: literature, languages, squash.

“What kind of name is Mahatma?” Chuck asked.

“Indian,” someone said. “East Indian.”

“Maybe it’s Spanish,” Chuck said. “Hispanic or something.”

Reporters argued about it all afternoon. One said he had heard the new reporter was a Pakistani, but Helen Savoie challenged him. “Who told you that?”

“Don Betts.”

Helen snorted. Don Betts was the city editor. “What does he know?”

“Somebody might have told him,” Chuck said. “Maybe the guy is a Pakistani. Maybe he’s coming to live with his family here.”

“Do you know how many Pakistanis there are in Manitoba?” Helen said. “Hardly any. But Betts is such a pea-brain, he’d call every East Indian a Pakistani.”

“How can you say there’s hardly any Pakistanis?” Chuck said. “There’s tons of ’em.”

“What do you mean, tons?”

“Thousands.”

“Thousands in Manitoba?” she asked.

Chuck held Helen in high esteem. Sure, she was stagnating at
The Herald
just like him, never getting a decent assignment, but the woman knew more than anyone else on staff. Still, Chuck went after her on this one. “They’re everywhere you look.”

“Where, exactly, have you been looking?” Helen asked. “Do you see any on the police force? In politics? Delivering mail? You see three driving cabs and you say they’re everywhere.”

Chuck said, “I’ll bet you twenty bucks the new guy is Pakistani.”

“You’re on.”

A white bungalow. A closed-in porch with yellow trim, six steps off the ground. Tyndall stone exterior. A living-room window looking out on American elms on Lipton Street. His old bedroom window faced a garden plot, an alley, trash cans, electric wires and, further back, the rear ends of houses on the next street west. Mahatma Grafton took the stone path by the south end of the house. He set down his suitcases and dug in his pocket for a key that he hadn’t used in six years. He wouldn’t stay long with the old man. A few weeks, maybe. Then he’d find an apartment. A cheap bachelor that he could abandon easily if the job didn’t work out. The doorknob turned all by itself. The old man must have been watching from the window. He swung the door open, smiling. Wearing the same burgundy bathrobe, the same heel-beaten slippers. He was not a tall man. Five-seven, maybe. Mahatma was surprised. He had remembered his father as being taller.

“Welcome home, son.”

“Thanks.”

They shook hands. Mahatma gripped loose flesh around old bones. Dark grooves slanted down his father’s cheeks, and others cut across his forehead. Mahatma glanced at his father’s mahogany irises. Ben asked, “So you’re going to work for
The Herald
?” Mahatma started to tell him about it, but Ben cut him off. “Let me take one of those bags. Is your old bedroom okay?”

Magazines and newspapers covered a chair in the living-room. A cherry desk, which Ben had bought at a garage sale fifty years ago, played host to scraps of paper—phone
messages, memory prods, shopping lists. Mahatma tugged up the old blanket on the couch and saw boxes on the floor. The same old boxes stuffed with documents. Documents Ben collected. (“Did I ever show you this?” Ben had asked a thousand times. “What?” “This picture of your mother…This picture of your mother’s mother…This picture of railway porters. These are history.”) Mahatma wondered if the old man had touched the boxes in years. Did he still log details about the family, lecture about race consciousness and think Mahatma had forsaken his people? Ben asked, “You had lunch?”

“On the plane.” Mahatma felt six years of silence rising between them. “But thanks, abuelo.”

Ben smiled. Mahatma watched the dark lips lifting. He studied the ears: huge half-hearts running from eyes to jaw. The old man still liked to be called
abuelo
. It reminded him of union days; it reminded him of long-ago lessons from father to son:
hermano
means brother,
libertad
freedom,
papá
father,
abuelo
grandfather.
Uno dos tres cuatro cinco
: one two three four five. I’m your papa but you can call me
abuelo
. Our little secret. What’ll you call me, Daddy? Mahatma. No, something else!
Gran alma
, then. What’s that, Daddy? It means great soul, it means Mahatma. Ben said, “Glad to have you back, son.”

“Glad to be back.”

They didn’t touch. Mahatma managed a smile. “I’m going to have a nap.”

“Good idea.” This surprised Mahatma, who had expected the old man to squawk, “Nap? I’m three times your age and I don’t nap.”

Mahatma closed the door. He sighed. Ben had dusted the window ledge, swept the floor, stuffed four boxes into the closet. Mahatma flipped one open and saw pages and cards and brochures and hand-kept journals. He dropped the box lid back in place. He lay back on his old bed. There was a desk in the room. A new desk and a lamp. Nice of the old man, that. Mahatma would have to keep in touch after renting an apartment. It had been understandable, not writing or calling from Toronto. His father hadn’t written or called, either. But it would be wrong to return to Winnipeg and fall out of touch again. He wouldn’t do that to his father. No matter what had come between them.

Mahatma chose to walk. He remembered the way. It was on the east side of Smith Street, just north of Graham Avenue.

Lyndon Van Wuyss, the managing editor, had confirmed it all three weeks ago by long distance. But Mahatma still found it hard to believe that he was going to work for
The Winnipeg Herald
. An establishment newspaper. He and his friends had poked fun at it when they were in high school.
The Winnipeg Hare-Brain
, they called it. Mahatma’s father used to call the newspaper racist. By the time Mahatma was old enough to understand the word, he had stopped listening to his father. But he could still remember the old man’s complaints:
The Herald
ignored the Indian community, except for its criminals; it ignored Martin Luther King, except for his death…Mahatma hadn’t consulted his father about the job with
The Herald
. He merely sent a three-line letter, saying when he’d be arriving and why. ‘Why’ was a question
Mahatma had asked himself a lot. The first thing in life was to be true to oneself. And there was no reason for Mahatma to be a journalist. He could think of a million places he would rather be than at a political convention, deafened by the dim-witted ranting of five thousand Young Conservatives. He felt no urge to report the bloody details of a court case, or to interview brokers about the stock market. And isn’t that what reporters did?

Well, why not? The fact was, he had nothing better to do. Mahatma was an intellectual bum. No. He was worse than a bum. He was an M.A. graduate over his head in student loans. He had no particular job skills and no goals in life. What thinking citizen would place his life, or his liberty, or even his bank savings in the hands of an economics major? What Mahatma had discovered about journalism was this: it was the only pseudo-profession left in the world that still hired bums. Mahatma found it scandalous that one of Canada’s biggest newspapers would hire a reporter—him!—on the basis of a ten-minute interview that focused neither on Manitoba’s fiscal deficit nor on its tensions over French rights, but on the nocturnal carousing of one of Mahatma’s professors, a friend of the managing editor. Sure, he was on a four-month probation. But Mahatma wasn’t worried. He was putting them on probation too. Giving journalism a try.

Here goes freedom for twenty-five grand, Mahatma sighed, pushing through the revolving doors of
The Winnipeg Herald
. Three people were ahead of him. All of them walked by the security guard and waited for an elevator. Mahatma got stopped. “Sir,” the guard said. Mahatma looked at him blankly. This sort of thing happened twenty
times a year. Store detectives suspected him of shoplifting, border officials thought he was carrying contraband and security officers believed he came to foment trouble. The guard asked, “Where are you going, sir?” Mahatma detected a note of sarcasm in the word ‘sir.’

“Fourth floor.”

“For what purpose?”

“I work there.”

“You work there. Funny. I’ve never seen you before.”

“Funny. This is my first day.”

“Name?”

“Mahatma Grafton.”

“What?”

“Grafton,” he repeated. “Tell them it’s Mr. Grafton.”

The guard picked up a phone. He spoke, waited, listened. Then he hung up the phone. He didn’t apologize. He just said, “Fourth floor.”

“Is that a fact?” Mahatma rode the elevator alone. He rushed a pick through his curls, which held close to his angular head. He saw his own dark eyes in the mirror, gauged the shade of his copper-brown face, stood tall to straighten his tie and lingered on a depressing thought: he was going to have to read
The Herald
. Regularly.

When Mahatma entered the newsroom, he saw a rectangular work space with two long columns of eight desks each. He also saw twenty or so filthy orange and yellow computer terminals, Styrofoam cups smelling of cold coffee, garbage cans as big as oil barrels and blinds that barred all natural light. The blinds were caked in dust. They blocked the windows as if life outside were a military secret. It could have been 100
degrees outside, and not one reporter would have known. But the newsroom did have one good point. It seemed like an acceptable shelter in the event of nuclear attack. Mahatma saw phone books on the floor. Reports. Filing cabinet drawers yawned wide and leaked letters, envelopes and pencils. He didn’t see one clean desk. Nor did he see a receptionist. Nobody greeted him as he stood there. Nobody noticed him at all. Mahatma walked up an aisle, past a switchboard operator, and toward the biggest desk in the room. A police radio babbled but nobody listened. Messages had been jammed onto a spike anchored in a block of wood. A telephone rang. Nobody answered it. A man sat with his feet up, leaning back in a swivel chair, talking on another phone. He was forty or so. His sandy blond hair gave way to advancing columns of baldness. He had blue eyes and thin lips, and didn’t appear to be discussing newspaper business.

“I don’t care!” he shouted into the receiver. “You said those stocks would go up but they’ve gone down. I want you to sell ’em before they sink.” Slamming down the receiver, he leaned back a little further, eyed Mahatma and said, “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for Don Betts.”

“You’ve got him.”

“I’m Mahatma Grafton.”

“Mahatma Grafton!” Betts swung his feet off the desk. “You’re fucking Mahatma Grafton?”

“You could put it that way,” Mahatma said with a grin.

“What happened to the Pakistani guy?”

“I beg your pardon?”

Snickering broke out among editors working around a long, horseshoe-shaped desk.

“Don’t mind those cowboys,” Betts said. “They thought…”

Again the men broke into laughter. So did Betts. When he calmed down, he shouted across the newsroom, “Hey, Chuck, you sharing that desk with anybody?”

A man in his mid-thirties shook his head in the negative, staring at Mahatma. He then yelled at a woman typing at a computer terminal, “Hey Helen! I owe you twenty!”

“Chuck,” Betts called out again, “could you show, uh, uh…,” he said, turning to Mahatma, “what should I call you, anyway?”

“Mahatma. Hat.”

“Good enough. Chuck, show Hat around, would you?”

“Sure.”

Chuck guided Mahatma by the elbow, as if they were old friends. “Welcome aboard.” Before Mahatma could answer he added, “Could you hang on a minute? I’ve got to finish something.” He began typing on a computer keyboard. “By the way, what’s ‘acronym’?”

“Beg your pardon?”

“‘Acronym,’” Chuck said. “What’s it mean?”

“It’s a set of letters that stands for the name of an organization, like NATO or FIRA.”

“Thanks.” Chuck typed a little more. “You must be a brain. Knowing a word like that, straight off—I admire that in a person. I always use the dictionary. Betts says I oughta use it more.” Chuck turned to face Mahatma. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“Are you black?”

“It’s hard to say,” Mahatma said. “My heels are pink.”

“I mean, I know you’re black,” Chuck said, “but from where? You’re not from Pakistan?”

“Do I look like I’m from Pakistan?”

“Just checking,” Chuck said. “There was sort of a disagreement about all this yesterday. Anyway, lemme show you around.”

Chuck gave Mahatma a brief tour of the library. “I try to spend as little time in there as possible, but you’ll probably be different. You’re an intellectual.” They visited the cafeteria. It was as ugly as the newsroom: fluorescent lights; tables stained with coffee; armless, plastic chairs; steam tables and vending machines. They returned to the newsroom. “We’ve got forty reporters on staff,” Chuck said. “About half do city news. See that guy? That’s Norman Quentin Hailey. But we call him No Quotes. You see his copy, you’ll know why. B-O-R-ing! And watch out! He chews garlic. Calls it a natural antibiotic. Takes all kinds, eh? And that’s Helen Savoie. She’s French but she spells her first name the English way. You know, she dumped the accents and the extra ‘e.’ And her last name? You gotta pronounce it Savoy, okay? Very touchy!”

Don Betts approached them. “Hey, buddy, let’s have a chat,” he said to Mahatma. They entered the office of the managing editor, who was apparently out of town. “So,” Betts said, “where are you from, anyway?”

BOOK: Some Great Thing
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