Send off for Stilly

Philip Nanton –

I thought that I had arrived early for the send off. But already large SUVs with darkened windscreens and 4×4 pick ups were clogging the small road leading to Belleview Catholic Church, in his home village of Byrea. Some distance from the church I was directed to an empty lot serving as an overspill car park. The boy directing the cars was no more than nine or ten years old. He had dark freckles, a broad smile, thin arms and legs and a thick mass of tangled hair. His parking directions were elaborate with large arm movements. Then he jumped from one side of the car to the next to be certain I was in the right spot and finally he raised his arm, policeman style, for me to stop.

The send off was a grand affair for Byrea, not least because he was popular and well known across the island.  The church was packed long before the service started. Family in front followed by big up friends all the way to the back. Suits for the men, broad black hats and new dresses for the women. Chanel and Ralph Lauren mingled with a touch of old frankincense. Outside, latecomers stood around chatting in different corners of the churchyard. Women kissed amid rising chatter and laughter. Young men greeted each other with elaborate handshakes, older men huddled in small groups, catching up on family gossip or business deals gone well or badly.

In the centre of the church his mahogany casket rested on a shiny collapsable aluminium frame. Four burly black men in dark suits, shades and shiny shoes stood around as guards of honour. In that location they gave off a slightly sinister undertone. No matter, friends queued to take a last look at the old fellow. He was made up with his eyes closed, his exposed torso clad in an expensive light brown suit jacket with carnation, shirt and neck-tie – clothing that I had never seen him wear. It seemed an unlikely place for him to be asleep. No matter, this was his last show, held somewhere very different from his night-club with different music and different performances to orchestrate.

To cater for the overspill, two tents with TV screens were erected in the churchyard for the outsiders to catch every gesture and word. From inside the church I could hear occasional loud sighs and moans while we waited for the service to begin. Events were delayed for the Prime Minister to arrive.

………….

He abandoned the therapy sessions when Simon, his chemo buddy, stopped attending.  The benefit of the sessions was mutual encouragement. This took different forms from cajoling to gentle persuasion to rough humour. Backgrounds and identities were increasingly irrelevant here. Of the eight to ten men the group comprised he gravitated to Simon, the over-sized seasonal Newfoundland logger from out of town. By chance at their first session they sat next to one another. Perhaps they thought it would be bad luck to change their seats once fate had assigned them. After all, fate was already playing rough with their lives, no need to tempt it further. In a few weeks the white seasonal Newfoundland logger and the black night-club owner had formed an unlikely duo. A double act. Even so, it amused him that Simon could never remember which island he was from, though he had told him many times.

Simon always avoided naming his island and would ask vaguely: so down the islands, you guys eat a lot of lobster? And what’s the pussy like? It didn’t matter, this was pretend normal, the show had to go on.

But the same day that Simon failed to show up he decided that the game was up. He had had enough. He would return home to die on the island that Simon could never identify.

We said our goodbyes some weeks before it happened. Gaunt and weak he trundled painfully to and from his bathroom, or lay in an improvised hammock/bed in his living room with the TV shouting its rubbish from the corner. A home care nurse rubbed his feet with nutmeg oil while he muttered inaudibly under heavy sedation.

We were from different sides of the island. Our relationship was an unlikely one and I was never sure why he took an interest in me. He had driven trucks packed with sugar cane from field to factory before he emigrated to Toronto. There he worked all hours to finance his first nightclub. Soon after he returned home he bought a failing venue and made it his island’s most popular night spot. Week-ends were the busiest times when musicians and singers from across the region came to perform.  He operated his business not so much with a philosophy as the pragmatic world view of a bar owner. Is a living, he would say, arranging entertainment in the island. It probably keeps them from revolution. So what if folks get a little excited? You going to blame a man for that?

After work on weekday evenings his friends would gather at his night-club to lime: gossip, talk politics and brag. Around them I soon learned that performance was a necessary part of the scene, how you established your status and maintained it if you were to remain in the group, a member of the crew. One evening a few of the regulars had stopped on their way home for a drink at his bar. It was open most hours to his friends. A dot of an aeroplane could be heard passing overhead.

Avro late again, Tall Boy lobbed into the group of civil servants and small business men around a table covered in rum glasses.

Marcus heard him and just as quietly observed Nah, Avro don’t sound so. Dat a little private plane. Got to be a Cessna.

Tall Boy leaned forward, Marcus, carry you’ backside. What you know ‘bout how plane engine sound? You don’t know plane engine from car engine.

Marcus took up the challenge. He stood suddenly, his chair cart-wheeling back behind him. Backside.The only engine you know, Tall Boy, is lawn-mower engine. And you only know that from when the wife tell you is time to cut the grass on your lawn.

By now Tall Boy and Marcus were standing facing each other across the table. Don’t bring my wife into this, Marcus, or you’ arse going cut.

Try it nah, Tall Boy, just try it! By now fingers are pointing, voices raised and more names for each other are called. And Marcus and Tall Boy are shouting, begging the others to hold each of them back to avoid serious damage to one another.

But this was entertainment. When it became serious he frog-marched off his premises anyone he felt was becoming a nuisance. For back up he kept a boutou or small truncheon under his bar. This he would bang on the counter if he felt he was not being heard, or to show who was boss. House rules were his rules.

I believe that what he saw in me was an effete academic, into books and such, a returnee who needed to be informed about the real world of the island, that is, his view of that world. Someone on whom to nurture tough love. I was also a convenient butt for his jokes.

He enjoyed teasing me about my background – Give me a piece of your Daddy land, nah – although he had amassed a tidy self-made fortune from his various clubs. Another of his jibes was you supposed to be a writer, so write my story. I have better story than all them intellectuals, politician, big shot business men you write about.

I couldn’t give him any land, so I agreed to write his story. When, in his last days I showed him my version of his life he complained, Philip, you tief my story. The incident that I recounted concerned one of his employees who confused his precious smoked salmon for “red salt fish” and ate it for his lunch.

How else am I to write your story? I asked.

Nah, nah, you tief my story. And with that admonishment he turned his face to the opposite wall. In the throes of dying it remained his show, his house and his rules.

………..

It had been a long day in the House but the P M was up to it. None of the other politicians could match his turn of phrase, his grasp of world history. And if things got sticky, he could always throw in a quotation from the Eighteenth Brumaire or even Grundrisse about the science of history. A big man, formally dressed, he carried a lot of weight in front. When he walked through the church yard his eyes twinkled above large sloping shoulders, a Castro beard and broad showman smile. He’d decided that for this occasion, marking his personal and family loss, his role was to bring some cheer, man-of-the-people style. These folks were his constituency, his base, his people. As he worked the outside audience he took his time shaking hands, holding on to each hand for a while and greeting each person with Hello Comrade. Then he raised his voice and decreed Stilly would want this to be a celebration. And he added, you all know that is what he would want. 

I sat in one of the outside tents. It was then that I noticed the boy who had made such a performance of the car parking procedure. He wore an old pink tee shirt and fraying blue jeans cut off at the knees. One back pocket was a bright patch of colour made from household curtain material. His zip was open and he walked about the church yard in bare feet. A lollipop stick protruded from his mouth. He patrolled each row of the outer chairs back and forth and then approached men to shake their hands as they queued for a last look or a whispered send off. He waved and smiled to those he could not reach when he caught their eye. Around this time I realised the reason for the boy’s larger than life performative gestures. He was both deaf and mute.

With all the important people in place the tributes began. One sister consoled herself and stood to testify how pleased she was that at the last he took the opportunity to come into his redemptive state and that he embraced the outcome. The PM celebrated how the old fellow had overthrown a white controlled colonial institution opening his club to everyone who could pay, while praising his showmanship and contribution to the entertainment industry. His brother, describing himself as the family’s “Top Don”,  elaborated on the considerable effort and expense required to keep his brother alive. (Long ago Stilly had told me that he had enough and was ready to give up.) And so the tributes rolled on. The deaf-mute boy kept weaving in and out of the outside congregation, touching people, waving at others, sucking his lollipop. In his own way getting in on the act.

When the eulogies were finished and the pall bearers carried the coffin out of the church a man standing nearby embraced the deaf-mute boy. The boy pointed to the pall bearers and the coffin and opened his hands to ask where the coffin was going. The man pointed to the ground and made digging motions with both hands.  The boy smiled and gave him a thumbs up.

I skipped the interment and went round the corner to the nearest rum shop. It was a large converted garage heaving with dishevelled over-dressed men and women having their say.  In the cacophony of the bar, jackets were removed, neck ties askew and hats safely stowed out of sight. On my way to the bar I overheard:

…If you go away you do either of two things – you study or you work. If you don’t do either of these and you come back then you on the street. That man worked….. 

…What he had was vision. That’s what’s missing today. I cry for young people, I don’t know how they going to develop themselves….

…I don’t know how much money he lend to people to go England, Canada, Trinidad, all over. He give so much loan he could have opened a bank….

At the counter the bar owner complained that his beer deliveries were late and that’s why the beer was hot, but the ground was damp with libations. Several rums later and with darkness falling I began to weave my way back to where I thought I’d parked. I walked unsteadily along lines of cars, but couldn’t find the spot. In the distance obscenities rose above the din of drinking. All around me were the kind of vehicles the island’s elite felt it was incumbent on them to drive, their shadowy hulks massed like whales in the strait between one island and the next. Lost, I fumbled for my phone and finally turned on its torch-light. The beam fell on a ragged boy, zip open, a long-empty lollipop stick in the corner of his mouth. He grinned as he beckoned me to follow him through the deepening dusk to the spot he’d guided me into many hours earlier. In a reverse ceremony of arm waving he guided me out. The last I saw of him was a theatrical thumbs-up in the rear-view mirror as I drove away.