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Lawrence Scott - “Chameleon” - Short Story (Trinidad and Tobago / United Kingdom)

Chameleon

Monty was born in a large old colonial house in the town of Villahermosa near Merida, through which the Magdalena seeped, muddy and clogged with waterlilies. It was a town inhabited by tall men, renowned for its generals and young men who were trained to be generals because their fathers wanted it to be so. Monty’s father had wanted to be a general. He admired Sir Winston Churchill in England and he had wanted Monty to be a general one day too.

But he himself never became a general, but continued all his life to dream of becoming one. When Monty was born, at his baptism he was named after General Montgomery - Monty, the desert rat - for which a special dispensation had to be granted by the Pope in Rome through the Apostolic Nuncio in Caracas. His mother would have liked to have christened him Jesus.

The little boy grew, but he was pale. His legs were thin and cold like a lizard’s which made him seek the naked stones in the sun to warm his cold reptilian skin. ‘Come, Monty, sit in the sun, his mother Emelda called. Sit by the geraniums.' The boy turned and smiled at his mother as he sat next to the pot of red geraniums.

But when his lather saw him he said, `Straighten your back.' This was something that his father would often say. Monty got up and stood like a little Napoleon with his hands behind his back and looked out over the plain below the walled town of Villahermosa towards the Magdalena whose source was in the Andean foothills. ‘Now walk like a man,’ his father said. In the end his father relented.

The thin-legged lizard showed no signs of becoming the kind of boy who would one day be the kind of man who would become a general, though each day his father told him to straighten his back and to walk like a man.

Monty learnt to play the harp at Senor Figuera’s, an old man who at the time of the civil war had not wanted to be a soldier or become a general, but preferred to sew and to be a tailor. Playing the harp had been passed down in Senor Figuera’s family and he decided to pass it on to Monty because he had never married and had no sons. ‘Send him after school,’ he told Emelda. ‘I will teach him to pluck the harp.’ Monty learnt to play the harp well because it was a serious business for Senor Figuera. He also learnt to play the cuatro and could play a joropo and an aguanaldo and he even learnt to play the rumba and samba which came up the rivers on the barges with the travelling black musicians and circus people from Brazil and Colombia.

Monty, with his long lingers for plucking the harp, grew to have long legs; thin long legs which he still used to lay out in the sun on the naked stones near the pots of red geraniums even though he was now sixteen and his father’s impatience with his undeveloping physique was now irreversible. Instead, he was turning his attention to his young nephew to see if he would fulfil his dream of becoming a general.

However, it had been some years before this final turning away that there was an occasion of much greater disappointment for Monty’s father.

At one end of the patio of the large old colonial house there was a trellis of white lattice-work through whose filigree lacy shadows played on the stone floor. This was particularly true at siesta-time when the house was completely silent and the heat sizzled outside and there was a scherzo of lizards among the dry almond leaves. If you were standing on the verandah, looking out over the plain of Villahermosa, you would not have been able to see the Magdalena because of the blinding glare. The only sound was the cry of the cigale calling for rain, and the lizards, ‘In this vale of tears, this lacrimarum valle,’ as Emelda was accustomed to repeat.

Monty had kept the secret before his First Communion which took place when he was seven years old and the parish priest Father Rosario thought that he had truly arrived at the age of reason and could distinguish between good and evil.

When he was six Emelda allowed him to take his siesta on the patio in the hammock which hung between two banyan trees. He had been afraid of the dark in the shuttered room, and of the web of the mosquito-net. Monty never muttered a word, not even to his nurse Ernestina who together with Emelda looked after the boy and would leave him alone to sleep when she had seen him dozing safely in the hammock. ‘Now sleep my Montyquito,’ she whispered as she tiptoed into the house.

When it first happened it seemed like a dream, partly caused by the strange unreality created by the peculiar silence of the siesta- time, the heat which turned the head and the glare which mesmerised the eyes. The day Monty first told me his tale he said that it had been the sound of splashing water which had first alerted him; splashing as it were into the basin of a fountain over and over again with the same force and regularity (like the fountain in the middle of the square at the centre of Villahermosa), but he admitted that these associations must have most certainly been created by the madness of the siesta. I remember now that when he first told me the tale we had been sitting in the botanical gardens and there had indeed been a fountain playing in the dip near the bougainvillaea arbour, and at the time he had pointed to it in recognition. Also, it had been siesta time, but we were not asleep because it was now a different culture in a different place. This was the island of La Trinidad off the mainland, where the British had ruled for so long bringing their cold habits.

While I wonder about these things now, I didn’t at the time.

He was awakened from his six-year-old slumber by the sound of water splashing over and over again, so that hardly had it awakened him, than it seemed to he hushing him back to sleep again. This was how he had begun his story. What seemed to be a kind of regularity stopped and it was this sudden change which eventually startled him and made him sit up in the hammock more alert than usual. He then slipped out of the hammock and stumbled in his cotton chemise towards the sound of splashing water which seemed to be coming from behind the trellis of white lattice-work. He walked over the lacy shadows which fell from the filigree on to the stone floor.

This trellis of white lattice-work was an unusual feature of the old colonial house which had been in the Monagas family since fifty years before Emancipation. It was unusual because it was a break in the quadrangle of the patio and was in effect a window into the patio of the neighbouring old family house.

Monty pulled himself up on to the edge of the geranium pots and tried to peep through the diamond~shaped lattice. His small fingers gripped where the old paint crumbled. Monty held fast and stared at the little girl Bernadetta who was sitting in a metal bathtub and pouring water over her head and over her naked body with a calabash. Then he became embarrassed and got down off his perch and went back to the hammock and tried to keep his eyes shut.

He said that it happened like this for years. It happened every day for six years and then it stopped abruptly on Bernadetta’s twelfth birthday. Every day for six years he would pretend to sleep at siesta-time, when Ernestina thought that he was dozing safely in the hammock, but instead he would climb up on to the geranium pots and peep through the latticework at Bernadetta.

Bernadetta was no stranger to Monty. Indeed, they had grown up together and had been taken for walks along the walls of the town by their nurses after siesta-time when the sun had gone down. They had played as small children do, innocently. But, now, some new sensation (he called it that when he first told me the story), some new feeling stirred in him because of the clandestine nature of the experience, peeping through the lattice-work, standing on the edge of the geranium pot. Yet, on the other hand, his peeping had been an act of innocence, He felt it to be so at the time and still did now many years later, though he could see the possibility of an alternative interpretation. He was then only six years old, and when it stopped, twelve or fourteen. He could never quite remember how much older he was than Bernadetta. He could have called to her, but he did not and he never told her and kept it a secret always.

At the end of our first meeting Monty insinuated that the naked Bernadetta was only part of the secret and that if he felt eventually he could trust me, he would tell me the rest of the tale. Clearly, there had been the initial curiosity of the small boy in the naked body of the little girl, but in the end it was not the young girl’s nakedness which continued to fascinate the young Monty.

As she grew older, Bernadetta, thinking that she was entirely on her own, would spend time dressing slowly after bathing: towelling, powdering and massaging her body with eucalyptus oil. She used to hang her petticoat and dress over a small bush which was in the sun. Monty would lie in the hammock until he heard the splashing of the water stop and then he knew that she would soon begin dressing. He stared in wonder as she slipped on her silk petticoat and pulled on her crinoline which had been lying on the grass ruffled like the petals of a wild white hibiscus, Then she would pull her dress over her head, put her arms into the sleeves and then fluff the skirt out making it stick out like a star. He loved it when she then twirled around and laughed to herself, throwing back her head and looking up into the frangipani tree blossoming over her, golden and white. Monty ducked at this moment, in case, looking up, her eyes might fall on him peeping through the lattice.

This was all there was to it, he insisted. I did not press him any further, but I did not at the time believe him and felt that there was some other dénouement to the tale of the little boy whom they called Lizard and whose lather had wanted him to be a general. I believed that with time and trust he would tell me the rest of the story.

This was all there was to it: the meditational trance each siesta as he viewed Bernadetta Montero dress herself after bathing in the silence of the siesta.

We had taken to strolling opposite ‘Mille Fleurs’, the house of a thousand flowers, where there was an avenue of yellow poui and where the coconut~sellers and oyster-vendors set up their stalls at night under the flickering flambeaux.

It was the day of Bernadetta’s twelfth birthday and it was an unusually hot day for Villahermosa, and instead of the bedroom shutters being closed, they had been thrown open in frustration by the would-be sleepers who could not rest because of the interminable heat. Monty could have stayed in his room that day, because originally it had been the closed shutters in the daytime which had made him go on to the patio for the siesta because he was frightened. But the habit was now so well-established that no one thought he should change after all these years because of the heatwave.

So as usual Monty lay in his hammock trying to read Cervantes which his mother thought would be good for him. He lay as usual until he heard the splashing of Bernadetta’s bath cease and then he crept as usual to the pot of red geraniums, and because now he was quite tall he didn’t have to stand on the edge of the pots, but could look over the trellis quite easily. And today he noticed particularly the shadow of the filigree which played with his own shadow on the terrazzo floor of the patio.

Because it was her birthday, Bernadetta had a new dress, a birthday dress spread out over the hibiscus hedge. It was white broderie anglaise and the hem and edges of the puffed sleeves were trimmed with red ribbon. He longed to reach out and touch it and pass the satin ribbon through his fingers. He remained silent - as silent as at the moment of Consecration during mass - during the towelling and powdering of Bernadetta’s body: bit his lip in concentration as she played with the dress pressed against her naked body and twirled, pretending to dance and Monty ducked as she threw her eyes up to the canopy of frangipani as she had done every day since she was a little girl and he had first seen her at that very first siesta when she was six or five, when he was frightened and could not sleep behind the closed shutters in the dark and Ernestina had brought him to the hammock and told him to sleep and he had been awakened by the splashing of water as if it were from a fountain. He turned at the sudden crack behind him which he thought was a locust falling from the roof. At that moment, he told me, he remembered that he could hear the distant cry of the cigale, and he thought how good it was that the rain was coming. His father was standing directly behind him. In his concentration he had not felt the older man's presence. In his meditational trance he had not heard him. The crack was not the crack of a locust falling from the roof, but the crack of his father’ s boot stepping on to a black beetle and breaking its back.

The man who would himself have liked to have been a general and who had long given up hope that this lizard of a son would ever be a general and had pinned his hopes on his younger nephew because he had no other sons, looked past Monty and stared at Bernadetta dancing under the frangipani bush with her white birthday dress pressed against her naked body. He turned away and went to the edge of the patio and looked out over the plain of Villahermosa and strained his eyes to see the Magdalena, but instead had to shade his eyes from the glare.

That evening, as we came to this point in the story, Monty broke off abruptly and said that he would have to go as he had an urgent appointment with a student to whom he was teaching English and that they were reading The History of the English Speaking Peoples, Volume 2 : The New World by Sir Winston Churchill.

Later, as I watched him disappear round the corner of Cipriani Boulevard, I smiled as I mused on his reading and felt the oyster from the oyster cocktail slip down my throat.

It was with a certain urgency that I met Monty the following week having had the chance to speculate on where his story might lead. I tried to push Freud to the back of my mind, indeed, to banish him altogether. I did not feel that the doctor of Vienna had a place in the New World and could explain the psychic mythology of a young boy whose dreams were the screams of conquistadorial genocide and whose demons were the lizards of the Galapagos: whose fantasies were in the romantic adornment of a young girl.

Quite unexpectedly Monty invited me back to his small apartment in the old town behind the walls of Lapeyrouse Cemetery. On the way there we talked about the changing town and how some of the balconies still existed at the front of the old town houses which reminded him of Villahermosa and Cartagena where he had been taken every year by his parents for a holiday.

We sat in a small room of the small verandah which was at the top of the low steps just off the pavement and the green moss-furred drain. The old woman from whom he rented the room kept plants and they grew in cut-down kerosene tins painted red and green and stood on the ledge of the wooden verandah. The plants were mostly anthuriums, seed ferns and asparagus fern which climbed the lattice and fell over the front, tangled where it could get a hold.

The room was bare. In one corner was a harp with a stool next to it and on one wall a fairly large family portrait in sepia of a man and a woman sitting on the low wall of the verandah of an old colonial house. The woman had a baby in her arms and standing in the background was a black servant, the baby’s nurse. Monty saw my preoccupation with the portrait and identified the man and woman as his mother and father and the black nurse as Ernestina. The baby was himself. We sipped rum with cubes of ice and talked.

Or rather, Monty talked and I listened. Often he would pick up his cuatro and strum a chord.

I had left with the vivid image of his father’s boot crushing the back of the black beetle on the patio of the house in Villahermosa overlooking the plain and in the hazy distance the River Magdalena. On the other side of the trellis Bernadetta was putting on her birthday dress trimmed with red ribbon. Monty’s father continued to strain his eyes in the glare towards the Magdalena. Then without turning he said, ‘Go to the tamarind tree at the back of the house and pick me a switch.' Monty did not look at his father but went down the steps and round the back of the house to the back yard where the tamarind tree grew and in whose branches he had played as a small boy. He broke off a thick switch from one of the lower branches and on his way back to the patio cleaned off the twigs and leaves with his penknife. He signalled to me with two fingers joined together to indicate the thickness of the switch.

He told the story methodically now. There were no embellishments. He did not digress to tell me of the cigale, of the River Magdalena, or of the trellis or how the water falling from Bernadetta’s calabash reminded him of the fountain in the middle of Villahermosa. He stood behind his father and waited. He told me that when he recalled this moment, as he had done on many occasions and in many dreams which had found their own metaphors, he remembered that his mind was a black hole of nothing. Again I tried to banish the doctor of Vienna, Thebes, the crossroads, the murder, the plague. This was a new world. Occasionally, he said, there was a ripple of white and red. This tender image was fleeting and did not bring much solace at that precise moment, though it did . subsequently. His father then said, ‘Take off your trousers and bend over. He pulled down the boy’s pants and whipped him sixteen times and then told him to pull up his pants and trousers and go to his room.

At that point I got up and went out on to the little adjoining verandah with the old lady’s anthuriums and seed ferns. I looked out into the silent and empty street. I heard behind me in the room, the harp, plucked twice. I was holding my glass with rum and ice and I brought the glass up to wet my lips, but I did not swallow the alcohol. My throat was tight and I found it difficult to swallow. When I re-entered the room Monty had his back to me: a small back of a slight man caught in the act of plucking the harp for the third time. I sat behind him.

He turned and smiled.

He then got up and came towards me and took my hand. 'Come,’ he said, 'come and see. I think I want to show you. I think I can show you. I think I can trust you'. He led me into his bedroom, knelt next to an old chest and lifted the lid, resting the back gently against the concrete wall. ‘Look,’ he said. From the chest he lifted a white broderie anglaise dress, the hem and puffed sleeves trimmed with red ribbon. He handed it to me and began laying out on the floor lingerie, satin scarves, lace handkerchiefs and a white mantilla, ‘Look’ he said, ‘my treasure, my solace.' I smiled.

‘He whipped me, but he cannot take them away from me,’ he said.

© Lawrence Scott 2012

Previously Published in Ballad for the New World and Other Stories, Heinemann, 1994.

 

 

Lawrence Scott is from Trinidad & Tobago. His novel Aelred’s Sin (1998) praised for “the exploration of various possibilities for male relationships” was awarded a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book in Canada and the Caribbean, (1999). His first novel Witchbroom (1992) was short-listed for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (1993), Best First Book. This was followed by Ballad for the New World (1994), including the Tom-Gallon Award prize-winning short-story The House of Funeral’s (1986) His novel, Night Calypso (2004) was also short-listed for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book Award, Long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2006), and translated into French as Calypso de Nuit (2005). It was the One Book One Community choice in 2005 by the National Library of Trinidad & Tobago. His most recent publication is as Editor of Golconda: Our Voices Our Lives, an anthology of oral-histories and other stories and poems from the sugar-belt in Trinidad (UTT Press, 2009) His new novel Light Falling on Bamboo will be published by Tindal Street Press this September, 2012. Over the years, he has combined teaching with writing. He lives in London and Port of Spain, and is at www.lawrencescott.co.uk

Photo Credit : Eugene McConville