from As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni

BOMB 125 Fall 2013
BOMB 125

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


Antoni 1

Robert Antoni. Photo by Maria Jose Furio. Courtesy of Henry Holt.

Disembarkation

 

As Kings Wharf remained congested with packets off-loading the first class—and the morning slipping away fast—Papee made arrangements with a fisherman, hailed over to the side of the Rosalind, to row us ashore in his small pirogue. Now we climbed down a rope ladder, one after the next, stepping cautious into the rocking rowboat. A sailor tossing down we hastily prepared bundles of belongings. Wrapped up in blankets and tied tight with twine. They contained the things we’d brought along for the voyage. All our other possessions packed into the trunk in the hold, to be forwarded to our place of residence after a day or two. Exactly what this place might turn out to be, none of us knew. Not even Papee. Because prior to the previous night, when Mr. Carr and the deceased Captain Taylor had informed us of the state of our ‘cottage’ at Chaguabarriga—a dozen bamboo poles stuck in the mud—all of us, including Mr. Etzler and Mr. Stollmeyer, had expected to arrive in Trinidad to find some kind of accommodations. For this reason the agents had preceded us to Trinidad with the Society’s funds in they pockets. So despite all of those interminable days and nights aboard ship—only dreaming about this very moment when we would, finally, set foot in Trinidad—none of us, not even Papee, had thought scarcely a moment beyond it.

I can assure you it wasn’t the enchanting moment we’d envisioned neither. The fisherman rowing us ashore perched atop a mound of mullet he’d spent the morning seining. Some still alive, occasionally flapping up they tails in little explosive fits—like a cornered batimamselle beating her wings against a screen. Finally, with a crunch, he beached his pirogue on the gravelly shore. Now, one-by-one, we jumped down from the pointed bow, bundles clutching under our arms. Bracing weself against each other as we traipsed awkward up the steep embankment. All our knees and ankles wobbly for the first few steps. Like we’d forgotten how to walk. Son, I could only recall the comte’s sheep—we were them now—stumbling up the seafront. Yet hardly could we reach the boardwalk at the top when a handful of bareback young boys approached. Surrounding us, smiling, grabbing our bundles from out our arms—

Me to tote dis load for you, suh! one says.

Please feh carry dis parcel, mis’ress! says another.

And before we could utter a word in response—even if we had understood the boys’ singsong—each of them had hoisted a bundle up atop he head. Holding it balanced with a single spindly arm, or no arm a-tall.

They led us onto the wide-open expanse of the Plaza de la Marina. Lined on both sides with dusty almond trees. Son, they’re not there again, those trees. But in the old days we used to call it Almond Walk, so prevalent were they round the periphery. At one end, facing the bay, we saw the hard stone structure of Customs House, with the harbourmaster’s office inside. The boys leading us over to the nearest patch of shade. They took down they loads to rest a minute, passing round a corked bottle of water. Papee searching his pockets for something. We didn’t know what it could be. Eventually he produced a folded slip of paper, opening it out careful, showing it to the eldest of the boys.

This same boy squinching up his brow, staring down at the piece of paper—

Vin-cent! he calls out. And the smallest and skinniest of the boys jumped up and hurried over.

Vincent squinched his brow in a similar manner, head cocked to the side, staring at the note holding in Papee’s hand. Then he took the piece of paper heself—raising it up to the sun like he’s verifying a bank-bill—slowly mouthing out the words.

Yessuh! he says at last. Only a lil temporary cumbruxion. Everyting undah control, suh!

He paused, smiling up at Papee— Me knows de house good-good, suh. Numbah nineteen Duke Street—Mastah Johnston res’dence. Scarce 15 minutes footin from here!

Son, only then did I recall the prime minister back in England—suddenly it seemed so far away—sitting behind his big disheveled desk. Writing out that address with his delicate fingers.

Now the boys hoisted they bundles up atop they heads again. And Vincent led us off like the Pied Piper, Papee’s note holding out before him like if it’s a map.

He directed us round the perimeter of the plaza, in and out the patches of shade cast by the almond trees. Turning up onto Abercrombie Street, off to the side of the Customs House. Now we entered the metropolis of the town itself: a careful checkerboard of treelined boulevards, each laid out parallel or, like Abercrombie, perpendicular to the sea. With a fresh breeze off the bay filtering along it. The street itself paved over in a thin layer of pitch, softened by the sun at this hour. So with each step we felt its surface sinking a little beneath our boots, waves of heat rising up. Yet our porters walked over the hot pitch barefoot, without even a flinch.

They turned right after a block onto Queens Street, tall tower of Trinity Cathedral rising up before us. But not before we crossed Chacon could we view the building from in front like it was meant to be seen. Only then could we take it in, in a single breath—the gothic-styled tower and intricate front façade, modeled after Westminster Hall itself. Son, I don’t have to tell you how there isn’t another church in the West Indies—nor few others elsewhere in the world neither—could give you that kinda impression. That feeling inside you stomach of soaring splendour.

Eventually we turned and continued down Fredrick Street, entering Brunswick Square, sidewalks radiating out the middle like a giant ship’s wheel. Sir Woodford’s statue standing there at the centre like if he’s Ulysses heself.

Following Vincent’s lead we veered left, proceeding down the main walkway to the middle of the square. Passing beneath Sir Woodford’s upraised sword. Now we veered right at a 45-degree angle, turning east onto the walkway bisecting the square, leading us onto Upper Prince Street. Which we followed for another three short blocks, crossing Henry and then Charlotte Street.

We passed the first private homes—sparse, inward-looking, constructed in the Spanish style. They thick stone walls enclosing musty courtyards. Further along we saw the more modern, timber-built, French-style homes. Erected on groundsills, with deeply shaded galleries at the top of elaborate filigreed stairs.

Only a few pedestrians out walking the streets in the midday heat, the town still adhering to the old Spanish custom of an afternoon siesta. Even the potcakes lay sprawled in patches of cool shade, paying us little mind as we walked past. Even as Amelia stooped beside each one to give it a patting.

A block beyond Charlotte Street Upper Prince Street intersected George Street. From there we could peer slightly downhill to the public market, beneath a handful of carrotroofs. But at this midday hour the market appeared all but abandoned. Now we turned left onto George Street, for the slight uphill march of a single long block. Walking perpendicular to the shore again, cool breeze blowing against our backs. Finally coming to the intersection of George and Duke streets where—turning right again behind our porters—we saw the first ostentatious, noticeably wealthy homes. Set a good distance back from the road. Surrounded by lush foliage. And only a few hundred yards beyond the crossing, scarcely 15 minutes from the time we’d left the harbour—though to us it felt like we’d been wandering through the town all afternoon—we arrived at our destination: #19 Duke Street, the Johnstons’ residence.

 

 

Entr’acte

7 September 1881

 

Cumbruxions

 

My father paused here a moment. He reached into his pocket for his old-fashioned watch, attached to his vestcoat buttonhole by its long goldchain. That same watch that had once belonged to Mr. Whitechurch—and had somehow been passed down to my father—but he hadn’t reached that part of his story yet.

He clicked it open. Then he stretched the watch forward, into the glow of the pitch-oil lamp, studying its face—

Twelve o’clock already.

My father clicked the watch shut and slipped it back into his pocket, taking up his cigar box—

Son, I have a map somewhere inside here, showing you just how the old town was looking in those days. Because I don’t have to tell you it’s changed up plenty since then!

He paused, looking over at me—

Once, when I was giving somebody this story—I can’t even remember who-the-arse it was—I marked out the exact path we walked through old-time Port of Spain that afternoon. With a red pencil. The Tucker clan following young Vincent like a string-of-squids. Walking from the old Plaza de la Marina, up the hill to Mr. Johnston’s house on Duke Street.

My father turned to his box again. Ruffling through the papers.

I sat trying to imagine what the city must have looked like. Back then, when my father first saw it, at 15 years of age. That first night when he arrived from England.

The incoming tide held the Condor steady, her stern still facing the shore. It hadn’t turned yet. Neither the tide nor the ship. I looked up at the moon, standing there above the dark mountains, cut with a knife down the middle into a perfect half. So somehow you saw the moon’s other side, even though that half was caught in the earth’s shadow and blanked out completely. You saw it—like a kind of reflection—even though it wasn’t there. Plenty stars in the sky.

All-in-a-sudden Captain Vincent appeared, shaking us from out our solitude. Striding forth from the dark shadows by the side of the wheelhouse. My father and I turning together, startled.

The captain cleared his throat—

Ah-ham!

He approached us with a half-full bottle of rum tucked under an arm, stack of three tumbler glasses holding in his other hand. Still in full uniform, even at this late hour.

Look the devil-self! my father said, putting down his box. I was just telling R-W here about you!

The captain came to a halt before us. My father turning now to give me a sly wink—like if he’d orchestrated this appearance of Captain Vincent, at this particular moment, to coincide with the telling of his tale too—

You know who Captain Vincent is, don’t you, son?

It must’ve been clear from the look on my face that I didn’t have a clue.

Well, he said, he happens to be that same bareback young boy who met the Tuckers when we arrived here in Trinidad. Thirty-six years ago it is now. My father turned to point his chin over the water. Right there on that boardwalk at the top of the shore. The same young Vincent who directed us to Mr. Johnston’s house.

My father turned back to the captain—

Though it looks like he’s putting on a little bit of a paunch these days, eh, Vincent?

He smiled at my father—

I was hearing some kinda ole-talk giving out behind here. I figured it couldn’t be nobody but you, Willy. At this damn hour!

The captain crouched to take a seat on the deck between us, reclining against one of the coils of rope too. He recognised my father’s briefcase, there beside the pitch-oil lamp—

Like you boys having youself a business meeting!

He uncorked his bottle and poured us out a finger each, the three of us taking up our glasses, touching them together, firing them back.

We sat in silence a few seconds, feeling the soft burn of the rum at the back of our throats, contemplating the moon and the handful of lights that remained tinkling round the curve of the bay. With the two brighter lights at the end of Kings Wharf reflecting at us over the water.

The captain rose to his feet again, yawning—

You boys could tief Bazil time if you want, but duty calling pon me foreday-mornin!

With that the captain reached down for his bottle and poured himself out another finger. But he didn’t drink it. He turned and walked to the edge of the deck, tossing the rum cleanly over the stern. So quiet we heard it splash down below into the water—

Sleep good, ole lady! Don’t give me no cumbruxions tomorrow, you hear?

He came back and set his bottle and glass down at my father’s feet, turning on his heels and striding off towards the wheelhouse again, disappearing into the shadows.

After a minute my father took up the bottle and poured us out another finger. We touched our glasses together and fired them back.

Then he reached to his feet again for his slightly battered cigar box. With me still studying the extra empty glass sitting there at my father’s feet, cupping its neat little fistful of light. Like an invitation. Or a promise.

My father took up a folded and ragged-looking piece of paper from his box. He opened it out, careful—

Here, he said—

 

 

* * *

 

 

We passed between the two wrought-iron gates, left propped wide-open. Now we followed our porters down the long drive, gravel crunching beneath our boots. Carefully manicured gardens at both sides. At the end of the drive a roundabout circled the trunk of a mammoth tree, perfectly symmetrical. It stopped us in our tracks, this tree. We’d never seen nothing like it before. The thick lower branches stretching out horizontal, covered over in lush lichens and lacy ferns. Brightly blooming orchids and bromeliads sprouting from the forks of each branch, a giant mushroom-cap of leaves overtopping the massive trunk. Son, not even the grandest oaks back in England, the loftiest pines, could raise up a finger to this tree!

Behind it stood the Johnstons’ home. Modest in size, though highly elaborate in the island’s French style. Its roofed-in front gallery framed by gingerbread fretwork, potted ferns hanging at intervals between the posts. Our porters coming to a halt at the bottom of the steps, shifting they loads to the ground. Now—having directed us successfully to our destination—Vincent returned Papee’s slip of paper. Like if it’s a ticket he needed to get inside the house.

Papee stepped up onto the front gallery, the main door left open like the front gates, only a rusty screen blocking the entrance. Papee attempting first to sound the brass knocker, managing only a silent, awkward shifting back-and-forth of the big door. Flustered, he proceeded to scratch his fingernails cross the screen, two or three times. Making a startling set of racket.

Papee removed his straw hat, holding it behind his back, navy ribbon round the brim dripping down. And after a second a woman appeared, opening out the screen door with a rusty squeal. Revealing to us a hefty figure clad in black down to the flooring, starched white apron tied up round her waist. Beneath the frock’s hem we saw her yellow toes peeking out.

Vincent was the first one she addressed, which struck us as odd enough—

Best carry you lil bamsee round to de kitchen, hear, Vincen? she says. Let you mummy give you one good cut-tail. Runnin roun de place since foreday-mornin, n’ bareback too!

She steupsed—a long loud suck-teeth.

Now, in a more reserved tone—yet speaking as though she’s known him all his life—she addressed Papee—

Come come come, she says. Mastah Johnston been waiting pon you all geegeeree since yestaday-evenin-self. Soon as news come de Rosalin reach! She turned again, looking down the steps at the rest of us—

Come, everybody. Toute famille! Leh-me run wake Mis’ress Johnston, fix all-you-all up wid some nice cool guavajuice!

In the same breath she addressed Vincent again. Altering her initial instructions—

Vin-cen, you hurry you bamsee quick-quick to Mastah Johnston office. Tell him de Tucker family done reach. Tell him dey waitin pon he up to Samaan Repos.

Now she addressed the other boys—

N’ de rest of you whatless scoundrels, carry dem bundles in de back. Let Vincen mummy give you each a fie-cent. Fix you up wid a piece of hot dinner!

 

 

* * *

 

 

We took our seats round the settee in the front parlour, waiting for Mr. Johnston to come from his office at Brunswick Square, Mrs. Johnston to descend from her bedroom. According to Berty—as we now learnt the housekeeper was called—she’d been taking her siesta. Meanwhile, Berty brought us out a tray of icechip-tinkling glasses of guavajuice.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnston arrived at the same moment, approaching the parlour from opposite sides of the house. All of us standing together—a small confusion following, everybody turning this way and then that to shake each other’s hands. Papee pronouncing each of our names two times in succession. They introduced theyself as Reg and Heather. Mr. Johnston resting his hand cordial on Papee’s shoulder—

William, he says, Sir Robert’s instructed us to give you a good welcome.

He paused—

N’ we shall endeavour to do our very best!

Lunch followed in the Johnstons’ formal dining room, served by huffing Berty. Fricassee chicken & fried plantains & steamed christophene. Little mounds of rice shaped like overturned bowls, leaves of shadowbenny pressed in at the top. Soursop ice cream for dessert. All these flavours new and exotic to us—and I couldn’t tell you how good they were tasting neither—after our weeks and weeks aboard ship. Only at the end of we lavish meal did the cook, Vincent’s mum, make she appearance. So that we all can sing her our lavish praise.

Now, under Mr. Johnston direction, we went for a tour round the grounds. Mr. Johnston offering Papee a cigar, lighting up one for heself as well. So now we were followed by they puffs of smoke. Floating up amongst the tall trees. At one side of the house he showed us the vegetable garden and orchard. Then Mr. Johnston led us between two cedar trunks at the back of the property, into the entrance of a hidden path. Winding down the hill in several switchbacks, passing beneath thick wet forest. At the bottom we stepped out from under the canopy of leaves, into hot sun again. Arriving at the banks of St. Anns River.

In the late afternoon the water was coloured a gilded olive-green, deeply black in the shadows of the overhanging trees. Long limbs reaching down like fingers scratching at the still surface. We continued behind Mr. Johnston, along a path that followed the river upstream another hundred yards. We crossed over, stepping careful from one boulderstone to the next, the women and girls with they skirts bunched up in they arms. We climbed the bank on the far side by another steeply switching path, Mr. Johnston directing us first to the Stone Quarry—and after another still more strenuous climb, to the Observatory at the peak. Right the way up at the very top.

Winded, we turned round to look down over lower Port-Spain. Past the La Basse, with its handful of cobos circling perpetual above. All the way down to the bay in the distance—a dazzling blue.

And amongst the ships at anchor there, like toy boats, we made out our tiny Rosalind.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The sky already turning a soft pink as we arrived back to Samaan’s Repos. The temperature, even at this hour, still considerably warm. We’d worked up a good thirst—though by now we’d accustomed weself to the tropical heat. Mr. Johnston led us first to the small grotto at the side of his property, with a siphon splashing down into the pool beneath it. And we each took a turn hopping onto the boulderstone at the centre of the pond, leaning forward to drink from out our cupped palms. My sisters shrieking with the first touch—the water so cold it burnt our fingers and lips.

We wandered round the house again, up the front steps, onto the wide gallery. Now followed a moment of awkward confusion, the Tucker clan looking round at each other bobolee. Not knowing what to do next, where-the-arse to go: all-in-a-sudden our afternoon had come to an abrupt halt.

Mr. Johnston turned to Papee—

One moment, he says. Whilst I go n’ fetch …

But he interrupted heself—

Heather, now where did I leave that blasted key? Twice already today I’ve misplaced it!

He looked round at Papee again—

Some small arrangements I’ve taken the liberty of making on Prime Minister Peel’s instructions. And, I daresay, the Crown’s expense. A small home, round the corner from here on Charlotte Street—I trust you’ll find it suitable.

He paused, padding the pockets of his shirtjack—

If I can just find that confounded key!

It was Mum who broke the silence now, smiling at the flustered look on Mr. Johnston’s face—

Reg, she says. I’ve a feeling you and William are going to get along très bien.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Only Vincent remained in the kitchen at the back of the house. Berty sending him straightway to round up the others. And after a few minutes they’d formed they train again, smiling Vincent out in front. Ready to lead us off to #7 Charlotte Street.

A small, French-style house, considerably more modest than the Johnstons’ own. But son, I don’t have to tell you that this house was bigger and fancier than any we’d ever lived in. Including our country cottage at Ventnor, much as I remembered it. Of course it’s long gone, that little house halfway up Charlotte Street—knocked down to make space for something bigger—even before you were born.

But in those days it stood five steps up from the street. Furnished by its previous tenants, Mr. Johnston’s former secretary and his family. With a settee in the front parlour, two tall wicker chairs, a writing desk with another chair. Three small bedrooms behind. Mrs. Johnston had seen to it that all the coconut-fibre mattresses were made up with fresh linens, Mary and Amelia smiling up at the mosquito nets funneling down from the ceiling. At the rear of the house was a screened-in porch with a dining table and benches. Behind it—five steps down—a small garden with only weeds at present. Two paths cutting through to the back corners. Standing in one, the little kitchen, privy in the other.

Having shown us the house, Mr. Johnston took his leave. Reaching out to shake our hands one-by-one. And clasping his arm round father’s shoulder he asked him to stop by his office in the morning. After we’d settled in proper.

He left us standing there, in the small front parlour, all our twine-tied bundles occupying the settee and chairs. Like they were our first houseguests. We watched the screen door clap shut behind Mr. Johnston. And he started up Charlotte Street again, into the falling dusk, surrounded by his little band of porters.

Papee took off his straw hat for a brief wave through the window. Then he turned round to embrace Mum, holding his hat behind her back, its navy ribbon dripping down. And in silence, one-after-the-next, slowly, the rest of us approached. First Amelia. Then Mary, Georgina, me following behind. We wrapped our arms round our parents’ backs, and round each other. Still too stunned to smile. Listening to the little house creaking round us.

Robert Antoni is the author of the novel Divina Trace, for which he received a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and an NEA grant. His other books include Blessed Is the Fruit, My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales, and Carnival. He was a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow and recently received a NALIS Lifetime Literary Award from the Trinidad & Tobago National Library. He lives in Manhattan and teaches in the graduate writing program at the New School University. As Flies to Whatless Boys will be out from Akashic Books this fall.

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Originally published in

BOMB 125, Fall 2013

Featuring interviews with Amy Sillman, Paulo Bruscky, Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello, Gonçalo M. Tavares, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Ben Rivers, Julia Holter, and My Barbarian.  

Read the issue
BOMB 125