NOTE: “The Story Of The Month” changes every month and might also have been featured in my collection DOWN INDEPENDENCE BOULEVARD published by MiddleRoad Publishers in 2017 and available on Amazon, or might be an Extract from my two novels RACING WITH THE RAIN and JUNTA.
Down Independence Boulevard: and other stories
by Ken Puddicombe
December -The Touch Of Peace
Jan – The Interview
Feb – The Underground
Mar -Welcome To Punta Canada
APR – Return Of The Prodigal [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL ©
It was all over.
Father Martin had come around, extended his sympathy to Carl and left for another function. The undertaker took off in his hearse, leaving a gravedigger to complete the job. People started to make their way out of the cemetery.
Soon, only Carl and Uncle Jules were left standing on opposite sides of Augusto’s grave. And there was someone else there too, standing next to Uncle Jules, someone whom Carl had not seen in over sixteen years. But, weren’t faces like scraps of information imbedded in the subconscious, stored away and not forgotten, recalled in an instant when a connection was made? It was John.
John was looking at their mother’s grave. What was he thinking? Was he reflecting over the many times Augusto had told him about his birth: One life moving on, a new one starting? Carl was just seven when their mother passed on, tired and exhausted from child bearing. Carl had done the calculation: eight children over sixteen years of marriage, averaging one every two years. Quite a feat for a small framed, delicate woman. A baby factory is how someone had described her. Four of the children had passed on: one died shortly after birth, two were stillborn, one—James, died in the 1964 Georgetown riots. Four were still alive but scattered to the four winds. And she, not surviving to hold her youngest in her arms or see him grow to the man he was today.
Carl looked at his younger brother. John was considered the runt of the litter, someone who always needed to be sheltered and protected, but he was far from that now. When Carl left British Guiana in 1964, John would have been twelve and still stretching. Now, he was at least six feet tall. His boyish features had changed considerably. The face bore strains of a life lived on the edge: it was gaunt and riddled with pockmarks, and there was a long scar on the left side of his forehead.
John finally looked up in Carl’s direction and they made eye contact: John smiled and Carl nodded.
In a few weeks, a dome would be cast. In accordance with Augusto’s wishes, Uncle Jules had selected a marble headstone to be carved with the words: Augusto Dias 30 August 1910 –24th November 1980. Died as he lived. No more, No less.
The gravedigger slowly made his way out of the grounds with his shovel on his shoulder. Carl walked the few yards that separated him from his brother and uncle.
There was a certain amount of reserve in John’s demeanour. Carl sensed it, as he got closer. His brother had an upright bearing, stern features, and a look in his eyes that suggested he would rather be someplace else at the moment. Had the sixteen years of separation between them created an unbridgeable chasm?
Carl did not hesitate. He reached out, grabbed John and embraced him.
“I’m so happy to see you,” Carl said.
At first, it was like taking hold of something rigid and unyielding, like holding on to a mannequin. As they swayed back and forth, Carl felt a firm body: well-developed arm muscles, a bulging chest and wide shoulders. Then, Carl felt the tension drain out of his brother’s body as his shoulders slumped and his being relaxed.
“I know,” John said. “’Been a long time.”
“Much too long,” Carl said. “We have much to catch up with.”
“I just know he would come,” Uncle Jules said. “John always find his way back home sooner or later.”
They went back to the house in the Walk, sheltering under Uncle Jules’ huge black umbrella. It was late afternoon, the day being swiftly transformed into evening, a light breeze filtering through palm fronds and mango leaves.
By the time they arrived back at the house, it was packed. Carl steered Uncle Jules and John up the stairs to the top floor. The three of them stood on the veranda.
“I have to sort out the Old Man’s things,” Carl said. “I have no idea what he’s got stored away in the portico. Do you know if there’s a will, Uncle Jules?”
“Do you know how many times I talked to your father about making a will? He always said that these things take care of themselves, so I don’t know whether he make one.”
Only a man who’d given up all hope would take an approach like that, Carl thought. Somewhere back in time, his father had decided that he simply didn’t care what happened to the property after he died.
Carl turned to John. “If there’s no will, what do you think we should do with the property and his stuff?”
John’s response was instantaneous. “As far as the property goes, I don’t want a share, never did—I told the Old Man this the last time I saw him.” He snorted. “And as for his stuff, whatever it is, I want no part. It means nothing to me. You and the others can have it or throw it out in the garbage, for all I care.”
Carl was startled at the passion in his brother’s voice. Death didn’t seem to have eased John’s pain or softened his attitude towards their father. And yet, Carl could understand his brother’s feelings. After years of detachment from their father’s affairs, why should he start taking an interest now?
“I’m heading back to the countryside,” Uncle Jules said. He pulled off his tie and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. “I hope both of you will come up to see us before you leave.”
John shook his head. “I’m leaving early tomorrow morning. I have to catch a bauxite ship heading to the U.S.”
“Well, keep in touch. Write me when you can.”
“I’m catching a flight out back to Toronto on Sunday, Uncle Jules,” Carl said. “But I will visit you before I leave.”
Uncle Jules seemed pleased. “Okay, I will be expecting you.”
From below, sounds of the people under the tent rode on pockets of breeze up to the veranda. It was a steady caress, men discussing the strategy that someone had adopted in playing a hand of cards, someone calling out for more ice, a man’s voice imploring for a chance to be in the game.
On a table in the centre of the veranda, the housekeeper had placed a bottle of rum, glasses and an ice bucket. Carl placed ice in two glasses, poured a drink for himself and one for John. He watched as his brother emptied his glass with a swift movement and poured himself another drink.
John pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his jeans and placed them on the table. He extracted a cigarette and lit it.
Carl said, as he sat down: “Sixteen years—it’s a long time. Where have you been?”
John sighed and a look of resignation crossed his face. He shrugged and took a seat. “Here and there.”
“Were you always at sea, or did you settle down somewhere?”
“Never stayed in one port for more than a few weeks at a time. Whenever there was a ship going someplace, I was on it.”
“How about marriage?”
A faraway look overtook John’s face, as he looked into his glass, at the two shrunken cubes of ice, then, outside to the front yard and back to Carl.
“Came close to it, once,” John said. “There was a woman, in Port Of Spain, a mixed up cook-up rice for a woman with a bit of everything in her, Chinese, Portuguese, Black, Indian, you name it. We really hit it off great. She wanted marriage and children.” He shook his head. “Is this the kind of world for anyone to bring up children?” The question was rhetorical. He continued: “Even if I could get my head around that, I realized, after a while I would be on my way again, and it wouldn’t be fair to her. She’d see me perhaps once a year, if that much.”
A wandering man—his brother seemed to be always on the go. Had things grown so hopeless between him and their father that John wanted to be as far away as possible?
John took a long drag on his cigarette, contorted his lips and released smoke in the air. He had a habit of rifling through his short hair and his left hand was constantly caressing a scar on his forehead. He must have seen Carl looking at the scar.
“It’s nothing. Got it in a bar in Port of Spain a long time ago. Somewhere I shouldn’t have been in the first place. Someone hit me with a bottle. He ended up with a broken nose and a fractured jaw.”
“He singled you out, just like that?”
A trace of a smile wrinkled John’s face. “Actually, he claimed I was trying to pick up his girl. Truth is, I was, only I didn’t know she was his girl at the time. So, we ended up in a big fight.”
“Did that happen a lot to you?”
Lines creased John’s thin face and his light brown eyes lit up.
“What? Picking up someone else’s girl, or the fighting?” John said.
“A few times in the early years, when I was much younger and rash. I guess I had something to prove, to myself, to everybody else. I don’t know. Not anymore, though. I try to keep out of trouble even though, with my size, there’s always someone out there trying to test how far he can push me. After a while, you realise, it’s not worth it. Anyway, I’m getting too old for that kind of stuff.”
Carl smiled. His younger brother no longer needed looking after. But, there was a time when John was notorious for skipping school and hanging out on street corners or around the cinemas. He’d even taken to gambling once. Carl had to hunt him down on many occasions and escort him back to school.
“Did you ever finish school, after I left?” Carl said.
John shook his head. “Dropped out back in sixty-eight, just before I was going to write the Primary School Leaving Certificate. Saw no real need for it. What would I do with it? I took a job in a sawmill cutting lumber, worked for a while as a stevedore on the docks, hung around for a while. The Old Man was mad as hell over the whole matter. But, I didn’t’ really care at that time.”
How much had he himself contributed to John’s lack of direction and aimless roaming, Carl wondered. Up to the time he had left British Guiana, he was the only one of the three brothers who took an interest in the youngest member of the family. The age gap between John and Joseph and Thomas was so huge that they barely knew John existed at times, so busy were they with their own careers. And Augusto was too obsessed with the political situation to pay any attention.
“Was that the same year you went to sea?”
John nodded. “I heard later that the Old Man was even madder over that. He must have been sorry that he ever signed my passport application. He had no idea where I was going or what I’d done.”
“How did he eventually find out?”
“I signed on through a shipping agency on Water Street. I just turned up there one day. They were looking for able-bodied seamen and my size impressed them enough to give me a try. I heard later from Uncle Jules that the same agency used to handle the Old Man’s customs paperwork for his wine imports. Maybe that’s why they gave me a chance in the first place. But, someone there mentioned it to the Old Man one day. How’s your son doing on that ship he signed on to? You can imagine how it must have floored him! Hearing from a stranger that his son was out of the country!”
“So, you decided to do another one of your disappearing acts?”
John turned away. He sucked long and hard on the cigarette and exhaled, the fumes spiralling upwards from his tilted head. He passed his hand through his hair several times, always ending up on the scar. “I figured no one would care, or miss me,” he said. “Everyone was too taken up with his own problems. Besides, they didn’t owe me anything, and I didn’t have to give them an explanation.”
There was another time: John was no more than eight or nine. He’d hopped on a punt going to the cane fields in the Backdam and was missing for two days. Everyone in the family was frantic, searching all over, not knowing whether he’d been kidnapped, drowned in the Canal, or in an accident, lying hurt someplace. Late the next day he came home, just wandered in, like a stray dog coming in after a day’s foraging, as if what he’d done was the most natural thing in the world.
There were other incidents.
“Like the time you ran away and caught the train to the country estate,” Carl said. “And you actually told Uncle Jules that the Old Man knew you were going up there to spend some time. Uncle Jules knew better, of course. He brought you back down the next day and the Old Man was mad as hell. I think that was the time he came closest to strapping you with his belt.”
“I remember that,” John said. He laughed. “I did give him some hair raising moments over the years, didn’t I?”
“We all did, at one time or the other,” Carl said. “It’s not easy for a single father to raise four boys. I know something about children now and can appreciate that. But, to give him credit, he took most of it calmly. Boys will be boys, he often said.”
John nodded. “Can’t deny that,” he said, after a while, almost as if he were reluctant to admit there had been any redeeming qualities in their father. Then, he said: “You’re married?”
Carl shook his head. “I’ve lived with Natasha for many years. We have two kids—a boy and a girl, Alexei and Irina.”
John looked at his cigarette. The tip glowed in the dark. “You’re right, though,” he said. “It can be a bitch of a thing to raise kids in this world. All four of us proved that, in many ways.”
“It’s questionable who was the worst of us. Did he ever talk about me after I left?” Carl said.
John was still looking at the tip of his cigarette, as if it held answers to questions plaguing him. “Not a word, as far as I know, but we didn’t talk very much about anything, anyway.”
Sometimes silence says enough, Carl thought.
“Uncle Jules said you kept in touch with him over the years,” Carl said. “I’m sorry the two of us didn’t do the same.”
“I wouldn’t call it keeping in touch. I sent him the occasional letter, saw him whenever I came back here, which is not more than three times over the years.”
“Do you think you will still come back, now that the Old Man’s gone?”
John shook his head. “I doubt it. There’s nothing here for me, never was when I think about it. I remember Joseph saying that there’s no future in this country—It’s the reason why you all left, isn’t it? And just when you think the worst is over, you hear stories about how bad things have become. It’s like diving into the ocean and hoping to hit bottom, you never can. Not that I’ve got big plans for the future right now. The only reason to return would be for Uncle Jules—I don’t know how long he will last. He was always kind, about the only one who took an interest in me, apart from you. I’d like to be here for him, when the end comes. But it all depends on where I am and what I’m doing.”
“How about the Old Man, did you see him when you came back?” Carl said.
“I saw him twice. The last time was just last year.”
“That was a lot more times than I saw him over the years I’ve been abroad.”
John poured another drink. He looked through the jalousie slats. “You didn’t miss much,” he said.
“How did the last visit go?”
“He was the same. In the end, I was even sorry that I came to see him.”
“Why? What happened?”
“You know how he was, always talking about his father and grandfather and what they went through to get to this country. He’d go on and on, about his business, the riots and the looting.”
Moths circled around the kerosene lamp and mosquitoes buzzed around Carl’s ears. Outside, candle flies darted back and forth, their iridescent glow punctuating the dark night.
John raised his glass and paused. He said: “Then, the Old Man started out about our mother, that she was the sweetest, kindest person he’d ever known, and for a minute or two, you know, I actually thought he’d softened his attitude towards me, that it was a pleasant memory, and not a painful one as I’ve always believed.”
“Maybe it was a pleasant memory that he was trying to recall. You did resemble her most of all, from what I remember.”
There was a film of moisture clouding over John’s eyes. He sighed and looked through the jalousie again. The noise from below had not abated. There was a blackout in effect and the flickering glow of lamps and candles seeped into the black void up and down the Walk.
“That’s what everybody keeps telling me. What do I know?”
“You came along at a time when there were problems in the colony. On top of that, the Old Man was still struggling with his business.”
“I didn’t ask to come into this world, you know. He was the one who couldn’t keep his hands off her. Why didn’t he use some kind of frigging contraceptive if he didn’t want more children?”
Carl shook his head. Contraceptives were not widely used by the older generation back then, and even so, how do you tell dedicated old-school Catholics to use them?
“Why did he have to start up with it again?” John said, when he turned back to face Carl. “Hadn’t I heard enough of it when I was here? I came to see him, not to go through the same old story over and over again.”
“I think it’s something we’ll all be thinking about from here on—the motivation and reasoning for the things he did. For what we all did, for that matter. I’m sure, like me, that you look back at some of the things you did when you were young, and ask yourself, what in the world could I have been thinking? They were so senseless and downright stupid, with so much potential for harm. But, the fact is none of us was here in his final days. We’ll probably be carrying around the guilt of that for some time to come. I’d like to think that it was the memory of good times that the Old Man carried to his grave. It’s how I would like to remember him. Sure, he must have had regrets. It couldn’t have been easy, with none of his sons around him in his final years.”
It had grown late. The oil in the kerosene lamp had diminished and the flame was just a flicker waving in a cool sweeping across the veranda. Carl had watched people exiting, saying long goodbyes, some of them staggering and reeling from the night’s imbibing.
The bottle of rum was almost depleted and there were the stubs of a pack of cigarettes in the ashtray. Carl was still nursing his first drink, but he’d watched John pour drink after drink, and yet, it seemed to be having very little effect on him. His brother was a seasoned drinker with a cigarette always between his lips.
“I did try, you know,” John said, after he’d poured a drink and lit another cigarette.
“I’m sure you did,” Carl said.
“After you left, there were still lots of demonstrations and picketing going on. The Old Man was always there with other anti-government supporters. I joined him, waving banners against the government. I thought he would be pleased. I wanted so badly to gain his approval. It never happened. One morning I woke up, I asked myself, what am I doing with all this crap that was going on? I frigging didn’t even know why they were picketing and what they were hoping to achieve. I just gave up.” He snorted. “I doubt if he even noticed I was missing.”
“And so it ended,” Carl said. “I left in 1964, Thomas the same year, Joseph in sixty-five, you in sixty-eight. From that time on, the Old Man had none of his children around. How about Joseph and Thomas, did you ever get in touch with them?”
John shook his head. “Never knew where they were, or where I would end up most of the time.”
“I’m sorry that you were not able to make up with the Old Man on your last visit.”
John shook his head. “I knew it would eventually lead to that same old story about how she died when I was born, and about how much I reminded him of her. And sure enough, it did. There’s just so much you can take, though. Everything he told me always came right back to the day I was born, the day our mother died. Why did he have to keep on reminding me about it? Wasn’t it enough that I knew she died the same day? Did he have to make me feel as if it was I who killed her? I swore at him and left without even saying goodbye.”
John’s voice seemed to be reaching a breaking point. He must have realised it. He took a deep breath, held it and slowly released the trapped air out of his lungs. It was ironic: the one having the greatest conflict with their father was the last of the brothers to see him alive.
And that’s how it would probably continue, Carl realised, with a great deal of sadness. John seemed destined to roam the world for the rest of his days, going from port to port, looking for something that would explain why things turned out the way they did. And in the end, what would happen to him? Would he finally shack up in a room in some run-down port; would he die and be buried at sea, his body consigned to the depths? Would they even know what happened to him?
Far from easing his conscience, Carl’s long conversation with John had only succeeded in making him feel even more guilt that he hadn’t been back to see his father, and how lonely Augusto must have been in his last few years. It was no way to die, with none of his loved ones around him.
“So, tell me,” Carl said. “How did you manage to get here so quickly for the funeral?”
John seemed surprised at the question. “I didn’t,” he stammered. “I just happened to be on a ship heading here. I dropped in at Uncle Jules’ place and heard the news.”