Jabbie was a tailor from Sierra Leone, whose gradual and tragic descent from master craftsman to unemployed alcoholic I witnessed, and attempt to record here. There are many like Jabbie, who fall into the abyss of the city. But this is hindsight. When I started writing, about a year ago, it was simply an attempt to capture the cool, enigmatic essence of the man. It took shape gradually; as the sketching of a portrait. Firstly, some of its rhythm and melodic form was captured, and over subsequent months and drafts, expanded. Then the words had to be wrestled into form and sequence. The poem is an attempt to capture the vibration of Jabbie; an impossible task, of transcribing life, and one only approachable by transcending the limits of the page. I believe the poem has to have a tangible reality, a substance, texture, a muscle in the air/ear, like sculpture, a vibration conjured by the alchemy of words. I have tried to avoid abstracted or figurative sentimentality, while still giving pure evidence of my friend Jabbie, as he staggered through Rye Lane, and as he grew dark and grimmer each time, until he disappeared into the streets.
Jabbie the Tailor
In Kroo Town in Freetown, Jabbie
watched the old tailor line lapels
in his shed beside the river,
and day by day the needle and the trade
moved closer to Jabbie’s hand. That pale
stub of chalk pressed shut between his fingers,
was to mark patterns and where to cut:
serious cloth with scissors with jaws
like young cutlass blades.
In the shop, where bespoke waistcoats
were stitched between steam iron and
ironing board. The radio, hung on a nail,
to treble and buzz, while Jabbie learned
to rim button holes by hand and flawlessly neat.
I found him stitching agbadas
on the Old Kent Road, as one of
two tailors working in that whirring
back room at ‘Afro Design’. He was
recommended, and as he showed me
the shirts he had crafted to mannequins,
‘Don’t worry Joseph, and I will make you,
He measured my limbs, my neck, my hips
with hard fingertips from fingerless gloves.
‘And I will design you this myself,
no pattern, no book, no scheme.
Ah hah! Now you say Fela,
I know exactly what you mean!
Don’t worry, from jacket to trouser
go be fitting correct.’
And even though it took Jabbie three weeks to stitch,
when it finish plot it suit and fit me fancy in truth,
with epaulets and pointed collars, in Vlisco wax green
and blue, except the trousers, which were too
exact in length – as if that were possible,
and known to be shrunk when I wore them in rain,
walking from the stage to backstage in Brittany.
I found Jabbie a month later on Peckham Rye.
He had moved to a seamstress’s shop
in the covered market of little Lagos,
and was presser footing hard on his wasp waist machine,
among soon-finished dresses and scraps of fabric
shaved from gowns and wedding capes –
Jabbie, red eyed at his engine, with pins in his mouth,
he rubbed my shoulder and said,
‘You are my best customer.
They jealous me here for my customers,
they jealous me my skill, so now
you see me here, but another place,
maybe I somewhere else, I go be gone,
the next day. In any case,
I call you, when this finish stitch.’
The cloth I brought Jabbie this time was psychedelic
orange and brown, but three weeks gone
and Jabbie phone ringing down to flatline tone.
When I pass to see if my thing done sew, he say,
‘It nearly finish.’
But that man was now marking out the shirt back
with chalk. He even took my address and promised
to deliver the garment by hand that night,
that it was different, a special design, slightly looser,
longer, and fuller in the fit, the hem cut straight this time,
the pattern lining up at placket and button shaft,
and that’s the reason why it taking long time.
He also had twenty geles to stitch.
That night Jabbie never came to Camberwell,
but later next week the thing was made and fit
like he had sewn it onto my body. I had always meant
for him to build me a long red kaftan
with a Nehru collar and billowing sleeves,
something that Richie Havens might have worn
on a subway platform in old New York City,
but Jabbie was staggering on Rye Lane, that time.
And he took me by the hand,
he said, ‘Ask for me
in the chicken shop
and they will find me.
I stop working for people now.’
But his eyes stared out from a deep narcotic hum,
and the socket rims were waxed with dirt and black
and that was the last time
I saw Jabbie.