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Nii Kwei Parkes

Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Parkes is a UK-based, Ghanaian performance poet and BBC radio host. His poetry chapbooks include Eyes of a Boy, Lips of a Man (1999) and M is for Madrigal (2004). His poem was recently chosen with other poems from some distinguished African poets as part of a public poetry initiative to feature African writing in the media spaces of the London Underground. He has worked with and written for children, and is an effective literary voice for African writing in the UK, networking and serving in various public initiatives for the arts. Parkes has just completed a novel, The Cost of Red Eyes.

 Socks Ball

It was true that the boys of Teshie were rowdy when they walked out of their school gates. They strapped their sandals to their belt-holes and ran down the street barefoot, throwing stones and grass spears. The entire town of Teshie was their territory. Every blue window frame, rusty tin roof, white-washed wall, dusty shack, bougainvillea hedge and gum bush had been touched by their eyes, hands, feet or the projectiles they had thrown. The streets were knots of footpaths and regressed roads but the boys knew exactly how to untangle the sandy twists. If you stood at the top of the red hill beside the roast corn seller, and the sun wasn’t in your eyes, you could see them running towards the taxi rank, their bodies framed by shifting hazes of brown dust, a cloud of moving chaos. They were loudmouthed too, the boys. Insults catapulted from their mouths like spat phlegm. All in the basest Ga, the language they dreamed in but were forbidden to speak at school.

“Your head like calabash.”

“Your mother.”

“Your mother, father and grandmother’s grandmother.”

Freed of the ‘international language’; the English they’d been told that they couldn’t get jobs without, they were effervescent. It was as though they had been canned for the whole day, left to ferment and bubble, and then been shaken and sprayed in the face of the world.

Okaifio, Tettey and Atukwei were part of the troop of boys. They had a rivalry as fierce as their friendship was strong. Okaifio had a scar on the left side of his face, just above the cheek, which he got from walking into the lowered tailgate of a pickup truck while thinking. He was quiet compared to Tettey and Atukwei who regularly tried out kicks from karate film posters to the sounds they overheard from outside the local film house. Initially playful, these stunts would become actual fights and Okaifio would step in. They would emerge from conflict, bruised and smiling, and proceed to their next act of rebellion.

Okaifio turned to face the other two boys. “Should we go to Mr Faisal’s factory today? The cocoa should be ripe by now.”

“As for you, you always want to steal fruit. One cocoa to share will only make us hungry.”

“Atukwei,” Tettey cut in, “Don’t say stealing. That cocoa tree was on that lawn before Mr Faisal came from Lebanon to build his factory. My father told me so. It belongs to us. It is the people’s cocoa and we are the people.”

“Your father is a politician.” Atukwei said it like an insult.

“My father is not a politician; he’s a driver for an assembly man. Just because he has met the Chairman of the Newer New Nkrumah Party doesn’t mean he’s a politician.”

“He’s a politician. Poli, poli, po-li-li-li, poli…” Atukwei made up a song, drumming on the sandals attached to his waist as he did so.

“Your mother sells cloth to Mr Sowah.” Tettey countered.

“So what?” Atukwei stopped drumming. “Your mother sells fish to Mr Sowah.”

“You smell like fish!”

Atukwei sprang into action like a waiting cheetah. He took off his shirt and turned to Okaifio. “Hold it for me.” Okaifio ignored him, but Atukwei continued to hold the shirt out as he glared at Tettey. “Are you insulting me? I swear my mother’s knee I will hurt you. Are you insulting me?”

They were now in the centre of Teshie, right beside the taxi rank, and Tettey had a nonchalant air as he answered. “You are insulting yourself. Look at you.” He switched his speech to English for the first time since he had left his school gates. “Bad boy from a good home. You can’t even keep your shirt on.”

At this, Atukwei flung his shirt in Okaifio’s direction and lunged towards Tettey. Tettey sidestepped to avoid impact and, displaying the quickness that had made his older brother a local football star, put his foot out, sending Atukwei sprawling. The mini-queues of adults waiting for taxis to Circle, Kaneshie and Tema Harbour cried “Aw” as one. Their voices merged with the honking of taxi-drivers acknowledging each other, the chugging of the abele mill where the kenkey sellers went to mill their fermented corn, and the cries of passing trotro mates promising to take passengers to Tema Community 2 quicker than anyone else. A tall man from the queue closest to the boys stepped between them, slapped Atukwei and Tettey on the backs of their heads and told them to go home and behave. The lady selling polybags of iced water commented that Atukwei was just like his father, always angry. The boy turned to retort, but the tall man slapped his head again and told him to go home.

It was true that the Teshie boys were rowdy when they walked out of their school gates, and most days were the same; a mischief-filled trip home, lunch if their mothers were there, homework, then football, played with a disintegrating ball made from stuffed socks. The girls played ampe at the side of the football park, an open space beside the local rubbish dump, and watched. In spite of the speed of the game and the swift tricks and acrobatics the boys displayed, there was always a sullenness in the mood unless the ball was new. Socks balls bounced best when they were freshly stuffed with plastic and paper, tied and twisted at the top, overlaid with the excess length of sock, and then sewn. After two days there was very little bounce left, but the care people took with their socks meant that there were rarely new discarded socks to stuff. Besides, to get a good sized ball, they needed a good sized sock and there was only one person in the entire Teshie who could provide that – Mr Sowah. He was a tall man with big feet and extraordinary calves the size of watermelons. Although he wasn’t from Teshie originally, everyone liked him. He wore pale tan political suits with black socks and brown shoes, and when he went to Alata Bar in the evening he would buy drinks for all the men and talk about football. The women, who were mainly traders, pointed him out to their customers as an example of someone who paid for goods on time.

“Why are you always asking for credit? You should be more like Mr Sowah. Ah, you haven’t paid me for last month’s corned beef; now you want another tin. No!”

OK, so maybe not everyone liked Mr Sowah, because he made it look like times were not hard. Things were tough. Many of the men, like Okaifio’s father, were fishermen, but these days more and more of them worked in factories in Tema. Atukwei’s father was different. He worked for the Customs Excise and Preventative Services (CEPS) at the port in Tema and sometimes he got a lot of money when his boss asked him to ‘look the other way’. He was cross-eyed in any case so it wasn’t difficult for him to follow those orders. It was understood in Teshie that when Atukwei’s father got these windfalls he would disappear for a week and reappear, slightly drunk, with a gift for Atukwei’s mother. Tettey’s father didn’t get any windfalls but he drove an assemblyman around in an air-conditioned Toyota Corolla so he had fans. Children chased the car when he drove it down the winding lanes of Teshie on the weekends. Mr Sowah, of course, was unique. Everyone knew you couldn’t wear pale tan political suits to work in a factory or at sea, but when asked what he did he smiled and said, “I’m a middle man,” moving his hands together as if he was about to clap but never letting them meet. Nobody knew of any windfalls but he always had money, and children didn’t chase him, they just watched his borla basket for the appearance of a discarded sock.

Mr Sowah lived next door to Atukwei in the only hall and two chambers house on their row. There was a big hole in the hedge between their two houses, so the boys often went to Atukwei’s compound, then crept through the hedge to rummage through Mr Sowah’s borla. They had been waiting for over four months for Mr Sowah to throw a pair of his famous black socks away, but the man hadn’t even been at home for three weeks. Usually they only had to wait about nine weeks for him to discard a pair. This was because Mr Sowah wore the same pair of socks everyday, washed them at night, and wore them in the morning. He didn’t rotate them like Tettey’s father did. Tettey’s father had six pairs that the assemblyman had brought him from a conference on Modern Socialism in Stockholm, Sweden; he wore one everyday and washed them himself on Saturday. He kept the sixth pair – a dark blue pair – for important functions. He had had the socks for three years. When drinking with his friends Tettey’s father often declared that the Swedish made the best socks in the world. The boys had never had any socks balls made from his socks. His feet were small anyway so his socks didn’t hold the same attraction as Mr Sowah’s.

As Atukwei, Tettey and Okaifio approached the pot hole strewn lane they lived on, Atukwei took his shirt from Okaifio and put it back on. Atukwei’s house was the first house in the row after Mr Sowah’s, which was on the corner. When they got to the gap in the hedge that framed the entrance to Atukwei’s house, he asked. “Do you want to come and check Mr Sowah’s borla?”

“No, chale, you do it,” replied Okaifio. “I’m still doing the elastic.” He took a ball of elastic bands he had been collecting in school out of his pocket and showed it to Tettey and Atukwei.

“Let me see.” Atukwei grabbed the ball of elastic and threw it to the ground. It bounced up high and nearly struck him in the face. “Ei,” he exclaimed. “As for this one, it’s the best. There’s nothing better.”

Chale, I swear,” Tettey added.

Okaifio smiled as he reached for the ball of elastic, put it in his pocket and held out his right hand. The other boys slapped his outstretched hand and said, “Oh yeah!”

Okaifio made the best socks balls. While most socks balls bounced well for two days, his bounced well for two weeks or more. His secret was that he made a central ball of elastic bands which was hard and bounced very well. Around the central ball he carefully wrapped old newspapers and waste polybags, taking care to ensure the ball remained as round as possible. When he had the right size, he tied the mass together and put it in a hole close to his mother’s coalpot, because he said the heat made the ball stronger. On the third day he would add one more layer of paper and plastic, wrap the ball in the sock and sew it. The problem with Okaifio was that he only made socks balls when Mr Sowah’s socks were available. That was another reason why the boys waited so eagerly for Mr Sowah to get holes in his socks.

Atukwei’s mother came to the door of their yellow house, tying her cloth tighter around her waist. The cloth bore the latest pattern; a repeated blue snail illustration on a green and orange background. Atukwei’s mother always had the latest patterns because she sold cloth. She wasn’t usually back from the market before seven ‘o’ clock but she came home early on the days when Mr Sowah bought cloth. The boys looked at each other; if she was home it meant that Mr Sowah was back from his trek.

Mr Sowah bought two full pieces of cloth a month. He bought them from Atukwei’s mother at home because he said he had to choose from her ‘full selection.’ Everybody knew that no traders took all their stock to market with them. Whenever he was asked how come he bought cloth and never wore anything but his pale tan political suit, he would smile and say, “It’s for other people’s wives. I’m a middleman; I have to keep many people happy,” and then he would move his hands in his non-clapping way. And it was true that he made many people happy. Whenever he went on trek to the villages, he would return with the back of his grey pickup full of foodstuffs, and invite his neighbours to take what they needed. He never asked for money. “It’s cheap in the countryside,” he would say.
So, although people complained that the government signing up for the HIPC programme was good for the government but was leaving their pockets dry because everything was now imported and so expensive, Mr Sowah occasionally brought them some local joy.

Atukwei’s mother called out. “Tettey and Okaifio, how are you?”

“We are fine.” The two boys yelled back.

“Atukwei, come inside and eat.”

Atukwei shouted, “yes, Ma,” did a slap handshake with Tettey and Okaifio and ran up the sand path to his brown door.

“Greet your mothers for me,” Atukwei’s mother shouted, before she embraced the boy and they disappeared inside.

Okaifio turned to Tettey and said, “Let’s go.”

When they had walked three houses down, two houses away from Tettey’s house, Okaifio slapped Tettey’s back with his callused palm and said, “Haven’t I told you not to fight him? You are stronger than him; it’s not fair.”

“But he jumped on me.”

“So, jump out of the way. There is no need to beat him. You know things are not good at home.”

Tettey frowned, but he knew Okaifio was right. It wasn’t fair. If Okaifio decided to fight him, for instance, that wouldn’t be fair either. Okaifio pulled nets with his father on Saturdays and, although all three of them were eleven years old, Okaifio had the hands and muscles of a man. Besides everyone knew that Atukwei’s father beat Atukwei and his mother at home. Atukwei joked about it and showed off his swellings but it was no good thing.

Tettey sighed, “OK, I’ll stop. I’ve been trying, but today he annoyed me. My father is not a politician.”
Okaifio laughed. “I know that, and you know Atukwei knows that, so why fight?”

Tettey shrugged. “Let me see the ball.”

A car honked behind them just as Okaifio handed the elastic ball to Tettey. It was Tettey’s father. He eased the Toyota alongside them.

“Do you want a lift home?”

They were only a few metres from home but they loved riding in the air-conditioned car so they said yes and jumped in the backseat.

Tettey’s father looked at them through the rear view mirror. “Have you heard?”

“Heard what, Da?” Tettey asked.

“Your brother is in London.”

“Tetteh? Oh, Jesus. How?”

Okaifio and Tettey stuck their heads in the space between the two front seats.

“You remember his friend Ayitey?”

They nodded. Who didn’t remember Ayitey? His mother sold kelewele at the taxi rank at night, but he was a football genius. He scored goals for fun.

“Eheh…” They waited for more details.

Tettey’s father pulled up outside Okaifio’s house and turned to face them. “A football club in London bought him and he took Tetteh with him.

“Why did he take him?” Okaifio looked worried.

“I don’t know. They’ll be on TV tonight. It’s big news.”

“Is it Arsenal? Manchester United? Liverpool?” Tettey put his hand on his father’s shoulder.

“I don’t know. I think it starts with C. Now get down. I have to go and drop your mother at Tema and rush back to work.”

“It’s Chelsea,” Tettey said to Okaifio as they got out of the car.

Tettey’s father did a U-turn, parked two houses down and ran inside. He re-emerged pulling Tettey’s mother who waved as she squeezed into the passenger seat. Like all the fishmongers, she was a wide woman. She was almost a head taller than Tettey’s father too.

Okaifio was still shaking his head. “Why did he go with Tetteh?”

“Maybe they bought Tetteh too,” Tettey suggested.

“I don’t know. We’ll just have to watch the news.”

Tettey nodded while juggling the elastic ball Okaifio had given him with his hands. It was good to hear Ayitey had been bought. When he had been in their Teshie school football team with Tetteh seven years earlier, the school became National Junior Secondary champions. The school still sang songs about them when they went to football matches. Songs about how Tetteh would dribble and pass the ball to Ayitey and Ayitey would ‘charm’ the keeper and score. Both boys went to St Augustine’s Boarding School in Cape Coast because it had the best Senior Secondary football team in the country. They had finished their final SSS exams and had gone to train with Ebusua Dwarfs FC while they waited for their results. And now this.

“We can watch at Mr Sowah’s,” Tettey said. “He has the biggest TV.”

“Yes. And we can steal his socks.” Okaifio laughed.

Tettey shook his head. “You are mad.”

“Give me my ball.” Okaifio snatched the elastic ball from Tettey and went inside his house, leaving Tettey staring at the red sand.

In the evening, at 7:30, Atukwei, Tettey and Okaifio knocked at Mr Sowah’s door. Since Tettey and Okaifio told him the news, Atukwei had been more excited than anyone. He knocked harder and harder on Mr Sowah’s door until Okaifio held his hand still.

Mr Sowah came to the door in green shorts with a red drawstring. He was bare-chested and had greying hairs at his navel. He smiled when he saw the boys and spread his arms wide.

“And what can I do for you young men?”

“Can we watch the news on your TV?”

“The news?” Mr Sowah raised his eyebrows and laughed. “So you have heard the news? Come in.”

They shuffled into Mr Sowah’s large hall and sat on the cane sofa in the middle of the room. Mr Sowah went to the TV and switched it on. The news had just begun so they knew they would have to wait. It was domestic news first, then the newsreader would say “and now the International news,” and after that, “here are the sports highlights.” Ayitey and Tetteh would either be in International or sports news.

Mr Sowah went to the kitchen and came back with two bottles of Pepsi and a bottle of Mirinda. He placed them on a small table in front of the boys with an opener and three straws and said, “So, maybe in a few years time I can do the same for you?”

Tettey and Okaifio knew Atukwei loved Mirinda so they left the bottle for him and took a bottle of Pepsi each. Then Tettey finally seemed to hear Mr Sowah and asked, “Do what, Mr Sowah?”

Mr Sowah smiled and did his hand movement. “Make an arrangement, like I did for Ayitey.”

The lady reading the news said, “and now the International news,” in a high nasal voice and Mr Sowah said, “I’ll let you watch the news,” and went outside. But Ayitey wasn’t on the International news so the boys just looked at each other.

Okaifio got restless, stood up and walked behind the chair. “Kwe,” he exclaimed, “look at how much cloth Mr Sowah has!”

Tettey and Atukwei stood up and looked behind the chair, and, sure enough, there were about eighty full pieces of cloth stacked behind it. Tettey opened his mouth to speak but just then they heard “here are the sports highlights,” and right there on the television was Ayitey, wearing a green and white jersey and speaking Ga to the English journalists.

“He’s speaking Ga,” Okaifio exclaimed.

Almost on cue, the camera shifted to Tetteh who repeated what Ayitey had just said in English. “I am very pleased to have signed for Celtic football club. I look forward to training with my new team mates and making our supporters proud. Hopefully I’ll pick up the language quickly so I can settle down properly.”

Okaifio and Tettey started laughing.

“My brother is his translator.”

Okaifio squealed. “Ah, these boys are smart, I swear Ayitey was the best English student in our school; he doesn’t need a translator.”

Atukwei didn’t say anything. He kept staring at all the cloth Mr Sowah had bought from his mother.
The lady on TV said, “And now we speak to their agent who recently returned from Scotland after negotiating the biggest deal ever for a Ghanaian teenage footballer.”
And suddenly Mr Sowah was on the TV talking with his hands.

As they left Mr Sowah’s house, Okaifio rifled absentmindedly through his borla and unearthed a pair of black socks with holes.

“Oh yeah!” He slapped palms with Tettey as they slipped through the hedge to Atukwei’s house.
Atukwei was still silent, thinking about all that cloth. He was silent until the next day at school when he raised his hand and said to Mrs Quansah, “Madam, I think you should let us speak Ga in school.”

“And why would I do that?” Mrs Quansah asked.

“Because it’s an international language”

Mrs Quansah frowned while Tettey and Okaifio shook violently, like bottles about to burst. Then the entire class started clapping and laughing and shouting Ayitey’s name and Mrs Quansah turned her head towards the glassless window beside her. The sun gleamed off the sweat on her enormous breasts, and she scratched her ear as though a cockroach had settled in it.

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