Read Chapter One of Mr. Loverman!
To celebrate the release of Mr. Loverman, Bernardine Evaristo’s groundbreaking, hilarious novel about two elder gay Caribbean men coming to terms with being closeted in a changing world, we’re very pleased to feature Chapter One in its entirety!
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The Art of Marriage
Saturday, May 1, 2010
Morris is suffering from that affliction known as teetotalism. Oh yes, not another drop of drink is goin’ pass his lips before he leaves this earth in a wooden box, he said just now when we was in the dance hall, Mighty Sparrow blasting “Barack the Magnificent” out of the sound system.
Last time it happen was when he decided to become vegetarian, which was rather amusing, as that fella has spent the whole of his life stuffing his face with every part of an animal except its hair and teeth. Anyways, all of a sudden Morris started throwing exotic words into the conversation like soya, tofu, and Quorn and asking me how I would feel if someone chop off mi leg and cook it for supper. I didn’t even deign to reply. Apparently he’d watched one of those documentaries about battery chickens being injected with growth hormones and thereby deduced he was goin’ turn into a woman, grow moobies and the like.
“Yes, Morris,” I said. “But after seventy-something years eating chicken, I notice you still don’t need no bra. So tell me, how you work that one out?”
Get this now: within the month I found myself walking past Smokey Joe’s fried-chicken joint on Kingsland High Street, when who did I see inside, tearing into a piece of chicken, eyes disappearing into the back of his head in the throes of ecstasy like he was at an Ancient Greek bacchanalia being fed from a platter of juicy golden chicken thighs by a nubile Adonis? The look on his face when I burst in and catch him with all of that grease running down his chin. Laugh? Yes, Morris, mi bust mi-self laughing.
So there we was in the dance hall amid all of those sweaty, horny youngsters (relatively speaking) swivelling their hips effortlessly. And there was I trying to move my hips in a similar Hula-Hoop fashion, except these days it feels more like opening a rusty tin of soup with an old-fashioned can opener. I’m trying to bend my knees without showing any pain on my face and without accidentally goin’ too far down, because I know I won’t be able to get up again, while also tryin’ to concentrate on what Morris is shouting in my ear.
“I mean it this time, Barry. I can’t deal with all of this intoxication no more. My memory getting so bad I think Tuesday is Thursday, the bedroom is the bathroom, and I call my eldest son by my younger son’s name. Then, when I make a cup of tea, I leave it standing till it cold. You know what, Barry? I goin’ start reading some of that Shakespeare you love so much and doing crossword. What is more, I goin’ join gym on pensioner discount so I can have sauna every day to keep my circulation pumping good, because between you, me, and these four walls . . .”
He stopped and looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was eavesdropping. Right, Morris. Two old geezers talking about the trials and tribulations of being geriatric and the whole room of gyrating youth wants to know about it?
“I suddenly noticed last week, mi have varicose vein,” he whispered into my ear so close he spat into it and I had to wipe it out with my finger.
“Morris,” I say, “varicose vein is what happen when you is ole man. Get used to it. As for forgetfulness? Likely you got early dementia and nothing you can do about that except eat more oily fish. As for staying sober . . .”
I shut up because Morris, with his eyebrows scrunched up pitifully, suddenly looked like a puppy dog. Usually he will banter right back, whack me on the head with the proverbial cricket bat. Morris is a sensitive fella but not hypersensitive, because that really would make him more woman than man—especially at a certain time of the month when they get that crazed look in they eyes and you better not say the wrong thing, or the right thing in the wrong way. Actually, even if you say the right thing in the right way they might come after you with a carving knife.
“Don’t worry yourself. I is joking, man.” I punched him in the chest. “If you was goin’ off your head, I would be the first to tell you. Nothing to worry about, my friend. You as sane as you ever was.” Then I mumbled out of the side of my mouth, “Which ain’t saying much.”
Morris just stared at me in that wounded way that he really should-a grown out of about sixty-nine years ago.
I worked out he must be in the throes of alcohol withdrawal. Not that I got direct experience of this withdrawal phenomenon, because I ain’t never gone a day without the sweet sauce blessing my lips. Difference between me and Morris is that most days that is all I do, wet my lips with a taster, a chaser, a little something to warm me up. A sip of Appleton rum, a swig of Red Stripe or Dragon Stout, mainly to support the intemperance industry over there on the islands. Call it an act of benevolence. Only on a Saturday night do I give in to my bacchanalianese tendencies. In Morris’s case, he don’t consume the drink; the drink consumes him. Pickled. That man is pickled. The ratio of alcohol to blood in him must be ninety to ten, a-true. Not that he should worry, he’s one of those pissheads who look good on it.
Finally, he decided to lighten up and crack a smile. Nobody can be depressed around me for long. Yesss. I am the Great Mood Levitator. I am the Human Valium.
“We veterans now,” I tell him. “We have to adjust. What is more, we must believe that our best years are ahead of us, not behind us. Only way to deal with this nonstop train hurtling toward oblivion is to be positive. Is this not the Age of Positive Thinking? You know what they say, glass either half full or half empty. Let we make it half full. Do we have a deal, my man?”
I hold out my hand for a shake but instead he gets the wrong end of the stick and starts acting like a teenager, attempting one of those hip-hop, fist-pump, finger-flick handshakes that we both get all wrong and anybody looking will think we are a couple of pathetic old dudes trying to be cool.
Morris, oh, my dear Morris, what I goin’ do with you? You have always been a worrier. Who is it who always tell you, “Morris, take it off your chest and put it on mine”?
Now look at you, that welterweight body of yours—selfsame one that used to do the “Morris Shuffle” around your opponents in the boxing ring to become Junior Boxing Champ of Antigua in 1951—is still mighty strong in spite of a piddling varicose vein or two. You still the chap I used to know. Still got impressive musculature on your arms. Still got a stomach more concave than convex. Still got no lines except those around your neck, which nobody will notice anyways except me.
But Morris, there is one thing I does know for sure about you—your heart and mind has always liked to travel on that seagoin’ vessel them-a-call Lady Booze. No way are you goin’ jump ship for dry land at this late stage in life and end up marooned on a desert island called Sobriety.
This I know without a doubt because I, Barrington Jedidiah Walker, Esq., have known you, Monsieur Morris Courtney de la Roux, since we was both high-pitched, smooth-cheeked mischief-makers waiting for we balls to drop.
I ain’t complaining, because while Morris is planning on bettering himself, he chauffeurs me home in his Ford Fiesta, as I am too plastered to get behind the wheel of a car and negotiate the high roads and low roads of East London without getting arrested by the boys in blue. That’s one thing I does miss—drinking, driving, and getting away with it, as we all did in the ’60s and ’70s. No CCTV cameras silently ogling you with their Cyclopean eyes three hundred times a day as you go about your business in London Town. Soon as I leave my door I watched. Big Brother come into we lives and none of us objecting. I can’t even pick a booga out of mi own nose without it being filmed for posterity.
Morris drives me up to my yard, 100 Cazenove Road, Stoke Newington, waits to make sure I go in the right gate and don’t collapse in the gutter, then drives off quietly in first gear with a cheery backhand wave.
He should be coming in for some spiced cocoa and some ole man’s gentle comfort.
Instead, my heart sinks because I goin’ into the lion’s den.
This is the story of we lives.
Hellos and goodbyes.
I tiptoe up the noisy gravel path and, as Carmel has the hearing of a bat, I am in the Danger Zone. I turn the key in the lock, push open the door, and wait, cock-eared. In the old days Carmel sometimes used to bolt it, forcing me to haul my arse over the side-gate and sit on the lawn mower in the shed, waiting for the dawn to rise and for her wrath to descend. Until I kicked the garden side-door down one time to show her that she can’t keep the king out of his castle no more.
Once safely inside, I take off my jacket and throw it so it hoops over the coatrack to the left of the door. It falls on the floor. Rack must-a moved. I try again. It lands on the stairs. Third time—back of the net! Gotcha! Yesss. You go-wan, Barry. I high-five myself to the cheers of the multitudes meanwhile catching sight in the hall mirror of the “dashing gentleman,” as the English ladies used to coo back in the day. The ones with polite manners that is, as distinct from those trollops who hurled less flattering epithets at a man innocently strolling down the road minding his own business. Never no mind. Those days long gone. I’ve not been called no names by nobody except the wife for at least twenty years.
I am still a Saga Boy. Still here, thanks be to God. Still spruced up and sharp-suited with a rather manly swagger. Still six-foot-something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely clipped mustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly) older Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on, Barry. Bring it on . . .
Seeing as I been acting like a cat burglar in my own home for fifty years, climbing the stairs toward her lair is fraught with anxiety.
The bedroom door is ajar.
I squeeze myself through and creep inside.
First thing I do in the darkness is slide out the gold clip that holds the two tongues of my blue-striped tie together. Only decent thing I got when I retired from Ford Motors in Dagenham. After forty years at the coal face mi get a tie, mi get a rubbish-engraved plate, mi get a watch that is more Timex than Rolex, and mi get a clammy handshake and patronizing speech from the managing director Mr. Lardy Comb-Over in the staff canteen.
“It is with tremendous sadness, Mr. Walker, that we say goodbye to an employee who has given us such dedicated service over such an extended period of time. Your presence on the factory floor has greatly endeared you to your colleagues. You are quite the joker, I hear, quite the anecdotalist, quite the raconteur.” He paused to study me, like he wasn’t so sure I understood words of five syllables or ones that was a bit Frenchified, then added, “Oh, you know, one who regales others with stories.”
Oh boy, I catch so much fire when people talk down to me like I’m some back-a-bush dumb arse who don’t understand the ins and outs of the Queen’s English. Like I wasn’t educated at Antigua Grammar School, best one in the country. Like all my teachers didn’t come from the colonial mothership. Like this here Little Englander can’t speak the Queen’s as well as any Big Englander over there—I mean here. And so what if me and my people choose to mash up the h-english linguish whenever we feel like it, drop our prepositions with our panties, piss in the pot of correct syntax and spelling, and mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our postmodern, postcolonial prerogative?
Anyways, when I arrived here on the good ship Immigrant, I brought with me a portmanteau of school certificates, and the only reason I didn’t go to no university was because I didn’t score highly enough to get the single government scholarship to a university in England. I been taking evening classes since 1971 to make up for it.
Sociology, psychology, archaeology, ologyology—you name it. English literature, French language, naturellement. Don’t even get me started on Mr. Shakespeare, Esq., with whom I been having the most satisfying cerebral relationship, sirrah. I know my artology too: Miró, Monet, Manet, Man Ray, Matisse, Michelangelo, Murillo, Modigliani, Morandi, Munch, Moore, and Mondrian, not to mention the rest of the alphabet. I even dragged Morris to that controversial Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997 to see Emin’s slutty bed, Ofili’s elephant dung, Hirst’s pickled shark, and Quinn’s bloody head. Morris scoffed, “I can do better than that.”
To which I replied, “It might be more concept than craft, Morris, but art would be boring if artists still only painted buff male bodies with rock-hard buttocks, juicy lips, and dangling protuberances in the style of the Renaissance.”
Although . . . come to think of it, perhaps not . . .
Morris’s final word on the matter? “In that case I’m goin’ piss in a bucket and exhibit it as Art with a capital A.”
Morris’s problem is he don’t like to go too deep. It’s not that he’s not capable, because that man is smarter than most. He’s the one who got the scholarship to study maths at Hull University, but when he got there he didn’t like the cold, didn’t like the food, didn’t like the course, didn’t do the work, and, when he was sent down at the end of his second year, didn’t want to go home. Lucky fella found work as a bookkeeper for a textile wholesaler in Stratford, which was pretty good, seeing it was hard for we people to land such jobs. His boss was a Mr. Szapiro, a Polish Jew who’d escaped the Warsaw ghetto. Morris liked his boss but was bored brainless by the job. Nonetheless, he stayed forty-three years.
All the while, I was getting intellectualized. This here humble engine-fitter can pontificate about all of those chin-stroking armchair philosophizers with the best of them. How Socrates believed we should know ourselves and question everything, break through the limits of we own beliefs. Plato said being a moral person meant not just knowing what is right but choosing it as well. But I eventually realized that if you spend too much time with these Ancient Greek eggheads, your mind will spin off into the stratosphere. They are so mentalist, you goin’ end up demented. So I dropped my philosophy class at Birkbeck and reverted to the most ancient and most reliable kind-a wisdom: homespun.
If only I’d told Comb-Over I’d not even needed to work at Ford’s for years, because I’d been building up my property business since the ’60s, buying cheap, doing up, getting Solomon & Rogers Estate Agency to rent out. The only reason I continued clocking in at the factory was because I actually enjoyed the work and liked working with my hands. Man must work with his hands, not so? And I would-a missed my workmates too bad: Rakesh, Tommy, Alonso, Tolu, Chong, Arthur, Omar—the United Nations of Ford’s, as we dubbed ourselves.
I place the tie clip inside the small bowl on the bedside table, the one with blue storks painted on it à la Chinese porcelain of the Ming Dynasty period, I do believe. Its stem-cup design with peony scrolls is certainly recognizable from my numerous expeditions to the Victoria and Albert Museum, to which I frog-march Morris. Only difference between this bowl and the original is that Carmel bought this one in Woolworth’s for 99p in 1987. That’s never no mind, because God will not be able to help me should I ever break the damn thing. Selfsame bowl used to hold all of those lemon sherbet sweets I loved exploding in my mouth before I decided to stop taking my pearlies for granted. Just as well, because I can still bedazzle with my indestructible ivories. Must be the only seventy-four-year-old in the land with his own full set, not a single one extracted, capped, veneered, or crowned.
Next, I unloop my tie and drape it over the doorknob of the wardrobe just behind me, twisting my torso away from my hip a bit too sharpish. I freeze, turn back, and allow my muscles to realign, everything facing in the same direction: head, shoulders, hips. Gotta be careful, because at my age something that should stretch might snap instead.
I ease the gold cuff links out of my starched white shirt and pop them into the perfect O-shaped mouth of the bowl. I unbutton said shirt and pull its tail out of my baggy gray-green trousers with a permanent pleat down the front and turn-ups at the bottom that always end up full of cigar ash after an all-night bender. It’ll soon be time to get Levinsky to make a new suit. Worth the trek across London to Golders Green, because he’s the only one I know who can still make suit in authentic ’50s style without charging Savile Row price.
Then I wriggle out of the sleeves of my shirt, bunch it up in my hands, and throw it into the corner by the window for Carmel to wash.
It lands like . . . an exhalation of breath.
I like that. Derek Walcott? You listening over there in St. Lucia? Mi no care if you did get the Nobel Prize for poetry, you better watch out, because Barrington Walker’s goin’ steal the linguistic march on you, fella.
In spite of my efforts, Carmel’s deep-sea breathing stops and she comes up for air with a kind of watery spluttering, as if she’s just stopped herself from drowning.
Wifey rolls over and turns on the flowery bedside lamp with a click that sounds like the cocking of a trigger. The skin on her underarm sways off the bone.
I goin’ get a right reprimandation.
“Is morning time already, Barrington.” She is using the three-syllable version of my name . . .
“You know how time does pass, dear?” Statement, not a question.
“Does it?” Threat, not a question.
“Why don’t you go back to sleep, dear?” Instruction, not a question.
“Oh, I’ll have plenty of time to sleep when the Good Lord comes for me, and that won’t be long now, I am sure.” Emotional blackmail—pure and simple.
“In which case, I hope He comes for me before He comes for you, dear.” A lie—pure and simple.
“Unless that one with horns and a pitchfork catch you first.”
I try and concentrate on the job at hand, but when I sneak a glance at Carmel I see she getting ready to invade Poland.
I take off my three rings and pop them into the bowl. My ruby beauty is like a thimbleful of blood that’s been poured into an oval mold of gold. Bought it for myself when my first rental property went into profit. The golden truck tire was given to me by that German construction worker in 1977. Bit of a knuckle-duster, he was, “rough trade.” My favorite is a coiled serpent with diamond scales and glinting sapphire eyes, its head poised, ready to take a bite of the apple.
As for my wedding ring? Only a pair of metal cutters could get it off of my fingers. Many times I have resisted a trip to the hardware store.
“Bringing the stink of cigars into my bedroom again.”
“And that renk rum narsiness.”
“When you goin’ mend your ways?”
“You could-a called, at least.”
“I know, I . . . am . . . sorry.”
“I told you to get a mobile phone years ago.”
Am I truly bonkers? A mobile phone so the ole girl can track me down any time of day or night?
Carmel been playing this game a long, long time. Sometimes she let it drop for a few months or even years, like in the 1980s, when she seemed quite content, enjoyed her work, made more of an effort with her appearance, started socializing with her work friends. Me and she settled into a détente. Then, out of the flaming blue, she decides to get the hump, when all I want to do is crawl into bed and sleep.
Far as she’s concerned, her husband is a womanizer. Out sowing his seed with all those imaginary Hyacinths, Merediths, and Daffodils. On what evidence? Alien perfume? Lipstick on my collar? Ladies panties in mi jacket pocket?
I can honestly say to my wife, “Dear, I ain’t never slept with another woman.”
She chooses not to believe me.
Her big eyes are almost popping out of her head. If she don’t watch out, I goin’ make a grab and play ping-pong with them one of these days.
What Carmel should be grateful for, what Carmel should realize, is that her man here is one of the good ones, because he been coming home to her bed for fifty years. All right, all right, sometimes it’s the next morning, maybe the afternoon, occasionally a day or two might pass . . .
“Yes, my dear. I go get a mobile phone if it make you happy.” My face said, Don’t you go breaking our Nonaggression Pact, dear.
I release my big brass belt. The one with the buffalo-head buckle that splits into two.
We have come to the point in the proceedings where I drop my trousers. For the first time this night. (Un-for-tu-nate-ly.)
I got to get my socks off somehow, but I don’t feel like bending over, because I might just throw up all over the molting shag-pile carpet Carmel bought thirty years ago for her knees when she’s praying morning, noon, and night, and even out loud in her sleep. Nonetheless, if I dare sully it, she’ll get a rifle from wherever she keeps her arsenal of metaphorical weapons and blast me out the window.
I cross one leg over the other and, wobbling like an out-of-practice yogi (and feeling Carmel willing me to fall over), I manage to whip them off.
We have reached an impasse.
She is the Sphinx guarding the city of Thebes. Head of a woman, body of a lioness, wings of an eagle, memory of an elephant, bite of a saltwater crocodile with two thousand pounds per square inch of pressure, ready to snap my head off.
In order for me to get into bed, I got to give the right answer to the riddle she not even asking, because she think she know the answer.
On the wall opposite is the damned wallpaper she loves so much. It has a certain theme: garish flowers, jungle vegetation, tropical animals. It begins to sway, and I steel myself for the herd of elephants that’s about to stampede all over me.
I’m so tired I could sleep standing up in my white Y-fronts and string vest.
That’s when I realize I still have my hat on. I take it off and bow with grandiose hat-waving flourishes, like an eighteenth-century gentleman being presented at court. When we first married this would-a been enough to send Wifey into forgiving giggles.
She used to tell me I was the funniest man alive.
Now her heart is so cold you can snap off a frozen shard and cut a diamond with it.
When did I last make that woman laugh? What decade was that exactly? What century? What millennium?
She staring at me like I am a complete imbecile.
What I supposed to do? Walk toward the bed and risk the wrath of her forkin’ fury? Curl up on the floor? Sleep in another bedroom? Put on my Derek Rose silk monogrammed pajamas and go downstairs? The very same pair I have to hand-wash, otherwise she’ll ruin them as she did my new cashmere dressing gown that was made from wool sheared from the Golden Fleece. Lady-Wife managed to shrink it three sizes in the washing machine before the month was out.
Just what the flaming heck am I supposed to do when I is too tired and blasted drunk to do anything except sleep?
Carmel rolls out of bed in that blue nylon nightie with ruffles at the cleavage that sticks to her various body parts when she walks. (Un-for-tu-nate-ly.)
She slips into her foamy orange slippers with bobbles on the toes and halts right up in-a my face. “I just heard today that my papi’s had a second stroke and is in hospital and I been thinking how I should-a never let you turn me against him.”
Whaaaat? That was only when we first married; rest of the time she did it herself. Past thirty years I been begging her to take extended trips back home.
“Pray, isn’t this the man who pummeled your mother so often there was a bed with her name on it at the hospital?”
Morris is not the only one showing signs of dementia, clearly. For long as I known Carmel, the words bastard and daddy been hyphenated; just as husband and bastard been similarly conjoined. She’s a revisionist, like those Holocaust deniers.
“That was a long time ago . . . I sure my mother has forgiven him now she’s up there with the Good Lord . . . otherwise they wouldn’t-a . . . let her in.”
“He nearly a hundred years old and I’ve not seen him for nearly thirty of them. He asking for his little girl.”
Man had good innings, considering.
He was a big man over there, but soon as I started work for him I saw how small he really was. Broke practically every bone in her mother’s body. I begged her to leave the brute, but what she tell me? “Barry, this don’t concern you.”
Too many women was like that: no matter how much beats they got, they feel say they gotta put up with it. And when they dare go to the police, the police tell them a-go back to their husbands.
My own mother’s mother got chopped up by her second husband so bad with a billhook she ended up in surgery at Holberton, and thereafter never walked again. She died from internal injuries before I born. My mother always drummed it into me, “Treat women good, yuh hear?” And that’s what I been doing: never once laying a finger on my wife, and staying around to raise my children. No way was I goin’ create space in my wife’s bed for some shady stepdaddy character to sleep in the same house as Donna and Maxine.
No sah, my girls was protected.
Anyways, Carmel better hotfoot it over there to secure that big house she grew up in before the will-contesters change the locks. Her father’s had over eighty years to spread his seed.
She still standing up in my face with her morning breath. “Listen to me good, Barrington. I flying home to see my father on Monday, and when I return, things is goin’ change round here. I am not putting up with you putting your thing about with those trampy cows no more.”
I cut my eye at her, but she don’t flinch.
Give me some freeness, woman. I am so fed up with having to face your miserable face after a night of conviviality.
“Let me tell you something, Carmel. The only cow I know is the one giving me blasted cheek when I don’t deser—”
Before I can finish my sentence, she delivers a bone-crushing ba-daow across my chops.
Oh Laaard, we have come to this, ehn? We have come to this again?
“God will damn you,” she says, shouldering past me.
I spin around, remembering those heavy potion jars on the dressing table are now within reach of her paws.
“You and your narsiness,” she says, plucking her yellowy flannelette dressing gown from the hook and wrapping herself up in it, flinging open the door.
I step out after her, repressing the overwhelming desire to help her hooves down those very steep stairs, all twenty-three of them.
Calm yourself, Barry. You better than that.
I go to open my mouth instead, but it feels like I goin’ retch: a projectile vomit of fifty years of deception, disillusionment, and self-destruction hurtling down the stairs onto her back.
A bouillabaisse of vomit.
A banquet of sick.
A bucketful of shit.
Carmel . . . Carmel, dear, you know what? I tell you what? You right. Yes, you right. God a-damn me a-ready. Never you mind yourself, I was fast-tracked down into the Eternal Flames a long time ago. God a-damn me the day I chose to enter this hellish so-called marriage instead of following my Morris-loving, sweet-loving, full-blooded, hot-blooded, pumping-rumping, throbbing organ of an uncontainable, unrestrainable, undetainable man-loving heart.
BERNARDINE EVARISTO has been hailed as one of Britain’s most exciting and original authors. Her books have been chosen as Books of the Year nine times by British newspapers. In 2004 she was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2006 of the Royal Society of Arts. She has written drama for theater and BBC Radios 4 and 3, collaborated on a multimedia performance with the musicians Joanna MacGregor and Andy Sheppard for the City of London Festival. Based in London, England, she frequently tours worldwide. Mr. Loverman is her latest novel.
Posted: Apr 1, 2014
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