It was a cold morning in the old grey city. End of March, with dirty snowbanks on the streets and the sun hiding out somewhere behind the clouds.
The three of us took a large black taxi to the hotel and told the driver to park on the street. We were not sure what was going to happen. Jackson had received a phone call early that morning, and he asked Thomas and me to come with him.
There is a problem, Jackson said when he called me, a problem with the Big Man. I knew he meant the famous singer who spoke out on all the right things — world peace and the racism that deformed the life of his home country. Jackson sure knew that last part. He was a light-skinned man but he had grown up with it.
We sat in the car, smoking cigarettes and watching the big hotel, where the drab walls were decorated by an unlikely set of ornate glass doors. An acre of pavement stretched in front of us, dotted with splashes of ice and patches of snow.
I wondered, said Thomas, why he come here so sudden. Thomas knew him from the days when the Big Man was making the film about a man named Goliath who found a new life among coal miners in Wales. Thomas was a young man then, assigned to follow the Big Man around and lend a hand.
I knew him too, from the times when he used to come up to a little park in Washington State on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and right on the border. He stood there in the back of a truck and sang to the thousands of people on the other side. I was always amazed by his dignity in the face of all that persecution at home.
What do we do when he comes out? asked Thomas.
Take him to my flat, said Jackson.
Maybe take him to see Pushkin first, I volunteered, meaning the statue in one of the city squares. I knew the Big Man thought of the Russian poet as family, part of the extended family of people with African heritage.
Good idea, Jackson said. Then he suggested we get out of the car and stand on the sidewalk.
Something else I wanted to mention, said Jackson, when we were huddled together in a group. When he called, he was confused. He thought I was his son. Then he thought I was his agent. Then he thought I was Du Bois.
Sorry I had to be none of the above, Jackson said, shaking his head. Most of all, he kept asking me, when do we leave? Africa, and Cuba. He talked to me in his slow, deliberate way, said Jackson, as if we had been discussing these things all along.
His son is coming from New York, Jackson added. It will be a day or two. Doctors told him the best thing was to have familiar people around. That’s why I called you two — he knows you from better times.
Right you are, said Thomas. Are you sure he is coming out to meet us?
That’s what he said, Jackson replied, looking hopefully at the front of the hotel.
We stood around with our hands in our pockets for the better part of an hour. I figured it was up to Jackson to go and see what was happening. I kept an eye on the door and wondered if the Big Man could see us from the windows up there.
Finally, two men in long coats came out and held open the doors of the hotel. Then a big ambulance came tracking across the open pavement in front of the hotel. Silent. No siren, just the bumping of shocks and tires as it crossed the ice and snow and came to a stop.
Jackson ran ahead in long, loose strides, and Thomas and I were not far behind.
We saw the Big Man step out into the dull morning, a long coat buttoned up to the top and a scarf around his neck. Two women followed, guiding him towards the ambulance. I wondered about the way he was holding his arms around his chest, as if he was trying to keep his sides in place.
Briefly, the Big Man turned to look at us, and flashed a smile.
My friends, he said warmly, my friends. Look at that sky, my friends, he said looking up at the clouds and saying, as if he was quoting something, A small world that has such people in it.
Then he was speaking another line, the same words he had played hundreds of times on stage.
But soft, he said, A word or two before you go.
He stopped and looked around, as if unsure where he was. He turned away from us and sat down in the front seat of the ambulance. He nodded to the driver and the attendants. The doors closed and he was gone.
I did not see him again. He was hurt, they told us, hurt and still hurting. Thomas travelled with him back to Britain, and Jackson was with him in New York after that. He was home with family. There was nothing more I could do, but I always think of how helpless we felt on that long ago day.
A few weeks later, in April, there was a man in space — the first one — and there were springtime celebrations all over the streets of the old grey city. From space, they told us, from up there in the sky, you could see that the whole world was shrinking.
A small world, just like the Big Man said.
Morris Alexander is a Canadian writer.