My Royalist mother must have been smiling down at me from her seat on the right-hand side of God, as the taxi arrived to pick me up to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Today would have been her seventy-third birthday, so I hope she’s still smiling down at me as I write this little missive.
The idiot Eastern European driver parks his car at a bus stop two hundred metres from my flat. So, I am forced to stride up to him suited and booted with dreadlocks flowing in the cold evening wind. He looks almost straight through me just as I reach the stationary Mercedes, and starts the engine to pull out into the street. I quickly knock on his window and manage to open the passenger door as he steps on the brakes.
“Are you the car for Buckingham Palace?”
“Hurry up and get in, man,” he shouts back at me, “I’m parked in a bus lane. It’s a fifty pound fine!”
“I didn’t tell anyone to ask you to park here. I told your controller exactly where my flat is.”
“I was looking at Beaufort Mansions,” he offers up as feeble excuse.
“That’s your problem, mate, that’s not where I live.”
“My problem?” he says with a snarl. “If I had known there was a problem parking, I would not have accepted this job.”
Well, naff-off then, I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t want to be late to meet Her Maj. So, I got in the car and uncharacteristically bit my tongue. “Just drive on, will you!” I said, in my most obnoxious tone.
He turned to look at me then, and slapped me in the face with a breath so foul that I immediately had to open the window. “Damn!” I said, but even the chill in the air couldn’t kill the stench.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing,” I replied. “I’ll need a cash-point on the way.”
Had he been a little friendlier, I might even have offered him one of the mints in my pocket. However, by the time we reached our destination to be guided through the main gates of Buckingham Palace by the security police, he had completely changed his attitude.
“Are you a little nervous about meeting the Queen?”
“I am a bit,” I reply, grudgingly.
“Don’t worry, my friend, you won’t be alone.”
‘My friend’ now, is it? I thought he must be gearing up to charge me that bit extra, now he thinks I have friends in high places. He was, and he did, £20 from Chelsea to Buckingham Palace just down the road, and I couldn’t even be bothered to argue with him.
“Will your driver be returning to fetch you afterwards?” said a policeman opening my door.
“No,” said I. “He can go.” And I smiled to myself at the absurdity of it.
We are welcomed into the palace and ushered up stairs and through halls into the Picture Gallery, a long top lit room about 50 metres deep, which serves as a corridor linking a series of smaller state rooms. I’m certainly among good company here.
There are people I’ve known and worked with in the past, plus some others I’ve only read about or seen on television. Newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald; Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri (making what seemed like a staged entry armed with an ornate Zulu walking cane); fashion designer Ozwald Boateng along with his following; the effervescent Linda Bellos, and many more recognisable faces whose names escape me.
While others are furiously networking, what strikes me most about this central area is not the imminent guest list but its gallery hung with classic works of art. There are paintings by Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens, Vermeer, and other multi-million pound masterpieces by painters I’ve never even heard of before. Leading from here are the Throne Room and the Green Drawing Room in which I can just about glimpse paintings of various royal ancestors because we are not allowed too much wandering around just yet. It is in these very formal rooms – used only for ceremonial and official purposes – in which we will be entertained on Champagne and canopies for the rest of the evening.
We don’t know why but for some reason the room falls strangely quiet as guests starts to form a queue leading into one of the stately side rooms. I’m chatting to a former Miss Universe contestant, the ex-Miss Zimbabwe, when we too decide to get in line. In front of us is a blonde from the Foreign Office who suddenly starts to hyperventilate the minute we draw closer to what seems to be the focal point of everyone’s attention.
“Oh my God…Oh my God! It’s her. She’s there. You go first,“ she says.
From where I’m standing, I can see the Queen alongside the Duke of Edinburgh through a crack in the door ahead. “Calm down, woman,” I try to tell the Foreign Office blonde. “It’s only Her Maj. Ladies before gentlemen,” but my own heart was racing now, ten to the dozen.
“What do you say to the Queen?” she says.
“I couldn’t tell you, but I’ve heard you wait for the Queen to talk to you.”
“I thought they’d made a mistake when I got the gold-embossed invitation. I wanted to scan it and put it on my Facebook profile, but my friends would only accuse me of attention seeking.”
“I had the same thought,” I said, “but I’ve gone one better. I’m going to have mine framed in the bathroom opposite my throne. So when I’m sitting on the throne, I can remember back to when I met the Queen, who sits on the throne of England.”
The woman from the Foreign Office laughed out loud, but in the course of events, the Queen passed her by with a quick handshake, and then it was my turn.
From what seemed like a great distance away, which in fact was less than two metres, a man in a silly looking uniform announced, “Mister Paul Bo-a-che, ma’am.”
I had half expected him to pronounce my name incorrectly, and so as I walked towards the Queen and she extended her hand, I took it, and shook it, and said off the top of my head, “Your majesty, ma’am, I’m delighted to meet you.” As I did so, I bowed, and my dreadlocks swept forward. The Queen pulled back her head almost unconsciously and eyed me with a sideward glance. Then in that peculiar high-pitched Spitting Image tone inside my head, she said, “Oh – and what do you do here?”
That’s when I started to stutter. I’d understood each word the Queen had spoken, but I was having difficulty computing the question. “I was born here. I live here. I don’t work here, your majesty,” I wanted to say. “So what do you mean?” But in the end I simply answered, “I…I…I…I’m a writer, ma’am,” just like it said on my gold-embossed name-tag. “Oh, really,” the Queen replied, in the same deadpan tone in my head, and that then was my cue to move along. I was now standing before the Duke of Edinburgh.
“Good evening, Your Royal Highness,” I said.
“So what kind of things do you write?”
“I am originally a playwright but these days I’ll write just about anything I’m paid to do.”
“Do you have anything on at the moment?”
“Not at the moment, but I am currently writing my first novel.”
“Very good,” he says, and turns towards the ex-Miss Zimbabwe. “So do you write with him?”
“Oh – No!” she says. “I’m a model.”
“Right you are,” says the prince with a devilish smile.
The rest I didn’t hear because I was being directed back into The Gallery Room where we were now able to get up close and personal with all the paintings on display. It all happened so quickly anyway that I felt slightly giddy. Everything around me looked surreal, as if I had just fallen down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland. Not a drop of alcohol had I touched so far, but now I needed a drink, if only to get things into perspective.
“What would you like, sir? A glass of Champagne or some freshly squeezed Sandringham orange juice?”
“You have your own orchards?”
“Yes, sir. Only the best for the Queen.”
“I’ll try a mix of both, may I?”
“Certainly. Thank you, sir.”
How the blued-blooded idle rich live, huh? You’d think that they would all be stuffy and boring, but I had just had a great conversation with one of the Ladies in Waiting who talked very eloquently about living in Washington DC and the poverty and racism she witnessed there. Then this very charming Edward Griffiths talked to me for a good long while about how they selected the guests for this evening’s event. They had come across me because of my sexual health promotion work around HIV/AIDS, Drum magazine, and my stint on BBC1 covering the newspaper reviews on a Saturday morning. Apparently, the Royal Household have a team of researchers who go out looking for distinguished people from all walks of life (arts, sports, music, science, and so on) to attend these types of functions. He himself had been a high-flyer in the hotel industry before being hand-picked to head the hospitalities team. I was impressed.
So there I am, minding my own business and checking out the paintings, when up walks Prince Michael of Kent; arguably, the most regal of the royals.
“It’s good to see a Rastafarian here this evening,” he says.
“I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Rastafarian.”
“I’m just a humble writer with a hairstyle that I like. I may have certain sympathies, and like Samson, my hair may symbolise my deeper roots and culture, but that’s as far as it goes, I’m afraid. In my eyes, even you could grow some dreadlocks.”
“Not with my hairline.”
“I never thought I’d still have hair at my age. But I’ve just been admiring these amazing paintings on your walls. It must be a great pleasure to wake up each morning and come down to see these in natural daylight.”
“You must be only about one of five people in this room who have taken any notice of the art.”
“I can’t think why.”
“Are you an artist?”
“Not in the sense that I paint or sketch, but I’m a great admirer of beauty in all of its forms.”
“My wife is a great admirer of art.”
“Is she here tonight?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, I’ve always thought her a very handsome woman.” Then just as I thought I’d said too much, I changed my tracks. “It’s funny, I’m currently writing a book based partly on my mother’s diaries, and it’s amazing just how much people of her generation knew about your family. I’m amazed because I know so little about the royal household.”
“How far have you got with your book?”
“Not as far as I’d like, but it’s coming along.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s going to be just great.”
“Can I put that as a quote from you on the back sleeve?”
“It’s nice talking to you,” he smiles. “Have a good evening.”
“And you, Prince Michael.”
He saunters off into the middle of the room where the Queen is surrounded by all and sundry, just as I decide that it’s about time for me to be heading home.
An old man walked into the 37th Military Hospital in Accra early one morning. He had known all his life that the 37th Military Hospital in Accra was a place for deserving Ghanaians, and so he had travelled there from far, obviously very sick and in need of emergency care.
Several hours passed as he waited for medical attention and care, while chaos reigned in the emergency ward. Doctors and nurses stepped over him in passing, and although reminded by several other patients, “the old man has not been seen to all day,” they merely waved a dismissive hand and disappeared along corridors lined with the sick and dying. “We’re busy ooo,” they crooned, for there was no one waiting who looked important enough to them. And so, they continued with business as usual.
Some people began to wonder if the old man had any family at all. What heartless relatives they must be to leave him sick and alone like this, they muttered to themselves and each other. Then at around 5pm, a worried-looking young man turned up from work distraught to see his father slumped half-dead by the emergency ward entrance. The old man had clearly urinated himself, and the son immediately pulled off his own jeans to replace his father’s soiled trousers. Standing there in boxer shorts for the entire world to see, he began to clean up his father as best he could. Then, when he was through, he turned his attention to the hospital staff.
So furious were the young man’s words that a junior doctor immediately flew into action with two or three ancillary staff. They checked the old man’s pulse and concluded that he needed a drip and emergency care. He had lost a lot of fluids. He was coughing up blood. They would see to the drip right away, they said, but they could do nothing further until the son paid up two hundred Ghana cedis in cash. That’s roughly £51/$85 or much more than large sections of Ghana’s population earn each month. The young man protested, but he seemed to have come prepared. He eventually pulled out the notes from a battered wallet, and reluctantly handed them over.
He would rush out, he explained, to get his father a drink and possibly some light food to eat. He asked that the emergency care team find a spare bed and set up a drip for the old man on what was already an overcrowded ward. The son left them at it, and walked outside in his boxer shorts. He had not been gone ten minutes when the old man coughed up a puddle of blood, and expired right there on the spot, exactly where he had sat unattended since morning. Other patients on the ward and their families fell silent.
When the son returned, about 20 minutes later, he knew immediately that his father was dead. He could tell it in the attitude of the people around him, in how they hung their heads in shame and prayer. He did not look across at the now lifeless body of the old man. He marched straight up to the duty officer’s desk and shouted, “What happened to my father?”
“Oh, sorry, he passed away while we were taking care of him,” the duty officer lied.
“I-want-my-money back,” the young man demanded.
“Calm down, brother,” begged the duty officer, attempting to quash the situation.
“I-WANT-MY-MONEY BACK!” the young man repeated, deliberately this time. “Cos I can’t pay for the treatment to come back thirty minutes later and find my father dead.”
“The money has been processed,” said the duty officer, apologetically.
“What? You let my father sit here all day outside this door, waiting. Now he’s dead. And you want to chop my money?”
Then leaping at the duty officer, the young man grabbed him by the throat and shoved him up against the wall. The whole place heaved and held its breath. “Don’t let me do anything I will regret,” the young man warned.
Just as other patients and their families looked on in admiration and horror; footsteps came rushing into the emergency ward. Two guards rushed pass the old man’s dead body to find their colleague dangling by the neck and choking up against the wall.
“My brother,” one of them said, holding on his truncheon like a gun. “This is the Military Hospital. You don’t have to do this.”
The young man turned to look at him and it seemed as if the “military” word brought some sense in his head. Releasing his grip from around the duty officer’s throat, he allowed the elder man to slide down the wall and onto his feet.
Again, the room sighed a sense of relief. One of the guards, the bigger, uglier one, took the angry young man by the elbow. He could tell that the boy was about to cry and gently escorted him from the emergency ward, as the other two men calmly followed. They stepped across the old man’s body with the son gently weeping and asking for his money back. That was the last anyone on the ward saw or heard of him as the room erupted in excitable chatter.
He had sat outside waiting all day in life, but it was only in death that an attendant came to wheel the old man away. They would take his lifeless body to the hospital morgue, where his family would pay to keep him on ice until the funeral.
It was about two hours later that a woman on a makeshift stretcher was rushed in through the same open ward doors. Flanked by a bevy of activity and a whole lot of praying, it was clear from her grey dangling dreadlocks that the latest patient was a senior citizen. However, under the cover of a thick red, gold and green blanket, it was neither possible to see her body or her face. From the conversation, it appeared that the woman had fainted. Above her uneven breathing stood a divot Rastafarian sister, waving arms and chanting obsessively, while a younger man speaking in Twi sought to get attention from the hospital’s emergency care staff.
The commotion had brought four or five of them out, peeking from around a closed door. When the man rushed up to them, it soon became apparent that he had not brought with him the right paperwork to have the sick woman seen to immediately. He tried to explain. The woman had suddenly taken ill. They had panicked, and rushed to the hospital for treatment. Could the emergency care team not see her first, while he rushed home to get the forgotten papers?
No, they said. That’s not how we do it. He was to return home to fetch the correct paperwork first, before they could see to the sick elderly woman he had brought in for emergency care. He could either take her with him, or leave her waiting on the overcrowded ward alongside the rest of the sick people. The choice was his. He chose the latter.
The hours passed. For it was to the mountains of Aburi that the young man had to travel. Luckily, at night, the roads were clear by Ghanaian standards. So, he collected the appropriate paperwork, took a puff on a spliff to claim his nerves, and drove nonstop all the way back to the 37th Military Hospital. As he entered the ward, he could see very well that his employer was alive. He walked straight to a room at the end along the corridor, where the group of doctors had spoken to him so abruptly. He was not even going to knock this time. The spliff had given him new courage. As he held out the forms in his hand, impassively, the doctors and others turned to look at him surprised.
Eyeing the young man with a mixture of scorn and irritation, a senior doctor who recognised him from earlier, took the papers, grudgingly. He glanced at the document in his hands, and when his pupils focused on the name written there, he did a double take. His eyes clearly bulged. It was as if the papers had suddenly become too hot to handle, and he quickly passed them to another colleague, indicating that she too should look. “Rita Marley,” the woman said aloud. “The Rita Marley?” she questioned again. And on hearing the name spoken aloud twice, a sudden clarity rushed to their brains.
They had left Rita Marley, wife of legendary reggae singer, Bob Marley, unattended on a stretcher in a corner of a dirty, overcrowded ward for more than three hours now. With the magnitude of what they had done etched across each one of their faces, they ran blindly from the room to attend to the sick woman. No longer was she just a nameless Rastafarian elder, whom they naturally assumed to be poor and worthless. She was the former wife of an international superstar, a legend in her own right, and a long-time friend of Ghana. They went to work with gusto. To save this woman’s life was now their ultimate concern. How would it look to the outside world, if Rita Marley should die from neglect in their emergency care?
What is it with black women and wigs? All over the internet ads now appear for ‘wigs for black women’ aimed at an African American audience. Even Google have got in on the game. Right across West Africa today, the majority of women wear wigs or weaves as part of daily life. And the same is true of black women in the Caribbean and parts of Europe, making wigs for black women big business for someone.
My own mother wore a wig for all 47 years of her life in England. I still for the life of me can’t understand why. Why at twenty-one years old she would suddenly decide to hide her own natural hair and start wearing any one of a dozen Winnie Mandela-style curly afro wigs in public?
It wasn’t as if she didn’t have hair to style in a reasonable fashion. For in the early years, at least, before too much wig wearing ate away at her scalp like a cancer, she had a head full of “good hair.” But the more she wore wigs was the more she grew wedded to the idea of never being seen in public without her “hat-on,” as she called it.
Growing up in my mother’s house, there was always the faintly musky whiff of real human-haired wigs in the air. I developed an aversion to false hair early. “Work with what you’ve got,” I’d tell her. “What are you ashamed of?” But she wasn’t one for hair salons or other vain excesses; she’d have you know. She had two kids to feed and a mortgage to pay all on her own, and the state of her hair was hardly the most important thing on her mind.
“Look how great that lovely actress Carmen Monroe looks,” I’d plead. “And she’s practically your double. Try a crop.” But we spent years fighting that particular battle, my mother and me. And still, whatever argument we got into, invariably ended with me trying to persuade her to dump the wigs, and free her mind. What are you ashamed of? But it never worked. As the years rolled on, she grew to despise my dreadlocks even more than I still hated her ‘real human haired’ wigs.
Then after the cancer took hold, and the chemotherapy had taken its toll, she became even more psychologically dependant on the wig as a kind of crutch to feign normality, while she laid up in bed wasting away.
We even buried her in a damn wig in the end. Against my better judgement, it was, but “Sis” begged and persuaded me that “the mum we knew and loved, wouldn’t have wanted a seat on the right-hand of God, without her hat-on.” Too true, I suppose.
So, there you have it. My mother, wigged-out all the way from England to the grave. I wonder how many other sons or daughters have said as much. What say ye?