Authors: Lawrence Scott
“The true stories of our time have to be able to reconcile a pile of clothes in a drawer with world historical upheavals.”
Afterword, Nineteen Nineteen
Come on in.
It’s the stories that I remember, the telling of stories.
On returning, I’d come upon it much as it had been left. The doors were hanging off their hinges. The windows banged in the breeze. The fire had not taken all the buildings. Collapsed jalousies allowed the light to paint in broader strokes. There were shards of shattered glass on the floor. The weather had since intruded on the rooms and corrupted the papers, damp and mildewed, lying on desks and in drawers, dusty with woodlice. Rain and light had done their work. The surfaces of windowsills and tables were sticky and grainy with salt. Cupboards still held bottles and vials of medicine. The contents had spilt, or evaporated. Others were still there, lurid and labelled.
. Filing cabinets had been rifled, thrown to the ground, with their personal records pulled out and strewn on the floor. Syringes were now glass dust. It crunched under my feet on the pitch pine floors.
Was this the way of the exodus, or had this happened in its aftermath? A bit of both, I supposed. This was the kind of thing I saw in the offices and the stores.
Scraps of bandages, like cotton on the cotton trees outside, hung in the fetid air with the dust.
A net of mosquitoes festered like the noise of discordant violins.
On the wards, the iron beds were upended, some had had their springs knocked out, their struts and posts collapsed. Fibre from the disembowelled mattresses was sodden and rotting. Feathers from gutted pillows stirred in the air, floating in the light. Despite
this almost total exposure to the elements, a lingering hospital smell filtered through the scent of decay. Human residue and chemicals. Faeces were smeared on the walls. There was the stench of urine.
Somewhere, still, there was that other smell, creeping out of everything.
Two iguanas scuttled among the dry leaves beneath the old almond tree. The mauve mimosa,
, crept to the door with her thorns, closing her leaves to our passing touch.
The bush had encroached on what had been the clean yards around the huts. The pink coralita vine scrambled over
, rusty galvanise fences. I could see broken crockery and corroded pots and pans. The gardens had joined the wild, but their purple, red and orange bougainvillea, the chalices of yellow allamanda, still broke out, overburdening the other bushes in the enamel-like jade which was the green of this place.
Butterflies hovered and attached themselves to the wild flowers. The garden ticked with insects. It screamed, the
scream, that incessant pitch of the cicada’s sawing whine. It rustled and creaked. In the breeze, it scratched at the wounded galvanise roofs which bled their rust.
A wild, white orchid exuded its perfume.
The place was unusually still. Then, there were the gusts of wind, the soft touch of sea breezes, and the waves breaking repeatedly, with their particular monotony, on the beach below, where I’d left the pirogue. I wandered back to the boatman on the jetty.
In the distance, the ocean was swollen and smacked against rocks on the point beyond Salt Pond and Bande du Sud. It rolled on in an unstoppable tide, coming through the
between the islands and the continent.
I felt that much had been preserved in the camphor of time, but time had also picked holes in the fabric of this place; a place which had been home for each of us for a period which had seemed as if it would never end.
Leaves fall from a library of leaves in a dry season.
And, now, I think, why do the stories repeat themselves? Where do they really come from, anyway? What really lies in them for me, the stories about the doctor, the nun, and the ones of the boy who keeps interrupting? There are those about Krishna Singh, Jonah the boatman, the other boy Ti-Jean, and the crowd from Galilee congregating under the almond tree, waiting to be healed. What is my interest in them? Was it fear, gossip, adventure? Was it the stories they all told me? A fascination with an island: its geography, its dangers, its mysteries, its history!
It was where I became what I am, asking the big questions about love and death.
An island always blazing in my mind.
And the time, that particular time we all lived through! We must not forget that. It’s that time which lays down a challenge to me to be imagined, urgent with its danger, its unspeakable cruelty. And, there were.
Yes, you were saying
Well, there were always the iguanas and orchids.
And the stories.
Yes, of course, the stories, what they reveal.
They may hide more than they reveal.
What do you mean?
We must stop there today.
The boy was still sleeping. The door of his room was open. Vincent noticed him as he came out onto the landing and walked over the creaking floorboards. âTheo.' He was dead to the world.
Dawn had broken in his room at the back of the house. The light created a shadow-play of leaves and branches of leaves. It flickered upon the white muslin curtains, throwing its
show upon the walls and bed. The bush at the windows, with the incessant ticking of its teeming life, pressed against the wooden house.
At intervals, the scream of the
filled the brightening distance outside with its detonations and decibels high above the island. Water, water, the cicada cried. Rain, rain! This was a dry island.
Vincent noticed, as he stared at the boy, a strip of bright, hot light pick out a spot on the pitch pine floor at the side of Theo's bed and dazzle it. As he watched this, his mind was lost in the frightening events of the night before.
A soft, cool breeze lifted the curtains, and a more neutral, yellow light flooded the floor, showing the grain of the bare wood on which the small iron bed stood, holding the sleeping child.
Theo moved his brown legs and arms, lying beneath the mosquito net, scratching with his toes the white cotton sheets, dishevelled on the fibre mattress. He kicked the feather pillows to the floor. Shadows of leaves tattooed his skin and mottled the canopy of net above his sleeping body. Vincent continued to stare at the child, sleeping among the shadows of leaves, trapped in a net.
âTheo,' he called again. The boy did not stir. He wanted him awake, the assurance that he was all right.
He lay curled on his side, with his back to Vincent. At some point in the night he had shed his blue and white striped pyjamas which were now stuck down at the bottom of the bed.
Along his spine were stitches: a suture, a stitched wound, running from the base of his neck to the coccyx. The engine of his breathing caused a sense of rippling along the spine. Vincent could feel each of his separate vertebrae under his fingers as he ran them along that ridge in his imagination. He had touched them in the night, when the boy had turned away from him, as he lay across the bottom of Vincent's bed on his stomach, exhausted from his tale.
calypso, you know, doctor?
The boy had whispered a question which was a statement. His night-time voice still echoed into the morning.
The sea muttered beneath the window on the pebbled beach, sucking its teeth,
, shifting the pebbles, sifting the sand.
Adolph Hitler, Adolph Hitler, how you looking at the Bntish Empire?
' The fishermen were singing their calypso, hoarse with bush rum, beating bottle and spoon, coming over the water after their night-time trawl off Point Romain. Their songs mocked the time.
As a child, Vincent had rolled his rosary beads through his fingers.
. Each of the boy's vertebrae had felt like each bead on his chaplet, rolled between the thumb and index finger, while he had meditated on the mysteries, catechised by his devoted mother. Prayer had been her remedy. Something now reminded him that that instrument might have worked last night. But, it had not suggested itself either to him or to the crazed boy. There was no return to those childhood mantras, once a sceptical adulthood had emptied them of all their innocent faith, passion and meaning. They would not do now. They could not, he told himself. No, the way of the friars had not worked. The boy had had enough of prayer and exorcism. It would have to be reason and love now.
Vincent could not pull himself away from his sentinel's post, and yet, he would not have wanted the boy to wake and find him. He might be embarrassed and feel that Vincent had betrayed his
privacy as he lay there, naked. It might startle him, bring on some deeper fear.
Theo turned again in his sleep. Vincent could see his face. A slight frown crinkled the already pronounced scar on his forehead, just above the nose bridge.
from a stone Jai throw in the yard when we climbing the water tank. Mama say, it need stitches, but I never go and see no doctor. So it heal up so. All crooked. So.
He had put a finger there, pointing at his childhood scar. He had retraced it on his brow as he frowned in the night, rewriting a boy's adventure, a fight with a
. It was a childhood accident, told in a voice that had come to haunt the night. A flood of words.
A voice like a drum, but it had not told the story of the scar on his back which had also healed,
. Vincent wondered if a doctor had ever attended to the original wound.
The perspiration on the boy's upper lip and brow glistened like small crystals. His slightly reddish hair, the colour of Demerara sugar, glinted in the light which flooded the room under the billowing curtains.
Vincent could not stop staring and wondering. He noticed Theo's slight frame, small bones. He was eleven going on twelve maybe, and young for his age. When the doctor had first seen him, he had thought immediately that he needed to put on some weight. But he was a strong boy. He had noticed the strength in his feet, as they gripped the boards of the deck on the journey over, balancing himself, and pulling on the rope which held the pirogue moored to its anchor about twenty feet off the jetty. He saw the muscles in his arms, calves and thighs tighten. He was a bare-backed, country boy, in khaki pants, like a boy from the estates Vincent had known as a child; one of those who played cricket in the savannah and lived in the barracks beneath the house at Versailles.
He was a child abandoned now to the innocence and demons of sleep. His legs stretched and fell apart, his pubescent penis was slightly erect in the bush of his newly sprouted reddish pubic hair. Vincent's doctor's mind said, a full bladder.
âDoctor, doctor!' A cry, stuck in the throat filled the whole house. It ripped through the floor-boards and walls. It seemed as if it echoed across the bay. âDoctor, doctor!' Rows and rows of beds along an interminable ward, each ringing with an agonised cry came before Vincent's mind. But, it was only one cry from a young boy, on a single iron bed in front of him.
Vincent stood at the door and watched Theo writhe on his bed. His small, brown body twisted and arched as he cried out in his sleep. This was what he had been told about by Father Dominic at the friary of Santa Ana. This was Father Dominic's devil, he supposed. He pulled up the mosquito net and lifted it over the boy's naked body and dragged him onto his lap. âThere, there. Is okay now, boy. Is a dream, a bad dream. Is all been a bad dream.' He patted his back, stroked his shoulders, pulled his fingers through his hair. Then his fingers travelled the ridge of the boy's spine. âSleep, sleep, go back to sleep.' The childhood song of Vincent's own nurse, Sybil, came to his mind. â
Do Do, petit popo.
' He heard Sybil, her plaintive tune, as she swung the hammock under the house at Versailles, and with her voice in his, he found a fathering to comfort the boy. â
Do Do, petit popo
It was a tune the boy recognised and hummed. Accustomed to comforting himself, he sucked on his thumb. Vincent's fingers read the braille on his back. It was a story for those who were blind. âWho did this to you, Theo?'
Theo opened his eyes and looked up. âMama?'
âDoctor Metivier, Theo.' He did not think his answer, framed as a question, was the boy's accusation. It was, rather, a desire for his mother, on opening his eyes.
The boy closed his eyes again. Who and where was his mama, Vincent thought, that she did not want this beautiful boy, had not come, asking for him?
How had this started? It started the day that Father Dominic's letter arrived from The Priory of Our Lady of the Rosary, Santa Ana, Porta EspaÃ±a, February 12th 1938. “Dear Dr. Metivier, You'll remember that Mother Superior asked me to come and bless the
foundation stone of the new hospital you want to build at Saint Damian's. I'm writing to ask a favour of you. I was very taken with your attitude to healing, how you worked with children at the leprosarium.
“There's a young boy in our care. He came to us a year ago from one of our missions, where our Father Angel de La Bastide is the parish priest. Father Angel sent him to us. There was some trouble and we were prepared to help. But, it has not worked out. The trouble gets worse every day, with serious consequences.
“We need the boy out of the island for a number of reasons. There's little money. Then, I thought, ah, Dr Metivier on El Caracol, just the man.
“He's a very intelligent boy. He's had a thorough and sound elementary education. He was to make the Exhibition Class, but that had to be terminated abruptly. He has told me part of
“When he first came to us, he would not talk at all. He was practically dumb. âStruck dumb, by the devil,' is what Father Angel de La Bastide said. That's the parish priest's explanation, with more lurid accounts about his mother Emelda, and a man going under the name of Spanish. Is he the father? Who knows, with these people. We coaxed. We worked together. He has been sacristan. Dresses like one of our lay brothers. We thought it best to do that. His hair was shorn, but has begun to grow again.
“Truly, it has not worked out. Then I thought of you with your attitude to healing, to healing and the stigma of disease, healing the whole person. That was the subject of our conversation on your delightful verandah looking out onto the beautiful bay. Such a good rum punch, Doctor! Remember?
“By the way, give my kind regards to the chaplain, Father Anscar Meyer. I remember his Wagner.
“The boy does not talk anymore. He will not talk here. He cannot stay here. I believe that you can get him to talk. When he does, his story will go in fits and starts, wander here and there, but it will return. It does return to the main road, if you see what I mean. He'll repeat so that you can hear, and remember. It is too much for me now.
“Please get in touch with me when you next come to town.
Come and have
. I shall endeavour to get this to you by the next steamer.
“Greetings to the community on El Caracol from all of us at Santa Ana. My best wishes to you. God bless, Sincerely, Father Dominic Le Febre.”
Vincent had been struck by the statement that he had to get the boy off the island, that he would not be able to stay at the friary. There was an urgency in those words.
A week later, he went and had the priest's lunch. Then, they went to the guests' parlour to where Theo was brought. Just before the boy was introduced, Father Dominic said, âRemember, he's dumb. Cannot get a word out of him for weeks. We've tried everything.'
The door opened a crack and a slender child dressed as a novice of the friars of Saint Dominic entered the parlour. âThis is Dr. Metivier, Theo.'
Vincent put out his hand to shake the child's, âHello, Theo,' but there was no response. The boy kept his hands under his black scapular.
Father Dominic looked embarrassed and irritated. âYou see what I mean,' he said, under his breath.
What were they doing, these friars, hiding this boy? What a crazy idea. His shortened hair gave a pronounced distinction to his features: his high cheekbones, his slender nose, slightly flared, his determined chin, his full lips. He was a handsome boy. Vincent studied him. He needed some feeding up.
He did not answer any of Vincent's questions which were polite pleasantries. âTheo, are you enjoying your work? Are you keeping up with your reading?'
He kept his eyes downcast. It was either shyness or religious training. Only once did the boy look up and glance at the doctor with his green eyes. This was when Father Dominic, amidst many patronising statements, said, âBut Doctor, Theo's a very bright boy.'
Vincent could see in the boy's eyes that he had looked up to see what the reaction to that statement would be. But it was as if he could not wait to see. The shutters came down as quickly as they had been lifted.
But he noticed him scratch his left leg with the sandalled foot of his right, lifting his habit indecorously to show his naked legs, which made Father Dominic fidget with his rosary beads hanging down his side, muttering, âCoco, Coco.' The boy winced at the name.
Vincent thought it odd that the priest should be calling him Coco. Was it a nickname?
The boy's actions showed him that he had also relaxed, and that he had found in the twinkle of Vincent's eyes, and in the smile on his lips, a response to the mention of his intelligence that he had been looking for. âThat's wonderful Father, I'm sure Theo's a bright boy. You are, aren't you, Theo?' But there was no reply.
Vincent concluded the painful interview, trying to avoid the friar's patronising tone, by asking âTheo, would you like to come and stay on El Caracol?' He risked this invitation, but was almost sure that the boy would say yes. He turned smartly on his heels. They could hear him, the clatter of his sandals, pelting down the corridor.
Father Dominic looked at Vincent with raised eyebrows. In no time at all, Theo had arrived back at the parlour door and stood waiting impatiently, holding a bulging brown grip, which seemed about to explode at any moment. His eyes darted Vincent a glance which said, Get me out of here, explanations will come later. Vincent noticed all these signs.
As they were leaving the friary, Father Dominic said to Vincent, âDoctor, there's more to this than meets the eye.'
âOh, I'm sure there is, Father. Would you like to tell me the relevant details?'
âSee how you get on with him. We've tried everything, all the might of Mother Church and the Grace of God.'
âI see. You're admitting failure in this regard.'