In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Lance Dowrich’s ‘Ethelbert and the Free Cheese’ is the winner from the Caribbean.
Ethelbert G. Sandiford was the happiest man alive. The second son of Tantie Lucy Ethelbert had just come out of the managing director’s office where it was announced that he had been promoted to the position of Assistant to the Packaging Foreman. Ethelbert was convinced that he was now in management.
‘Sixteen years,’ thought Ethelbert to himself. ‘All ah them who used to laugh, cyah laugh now’, he said aloud to no one in particular.
Ethelbert was an employee of the Sunshine Caribbean Cheese Company, known across the country as the Cheese Factory. He had started out in the freezer and had shown real mettle in outlasting most of the men who had been recruited with him. The only visible sign of his tenure in that section were his chattering teeth. Ethelbert’s teeth chattered incessantly. So much so that he had to replace his treasured enamel cup with a soft plastic mug from Harrysingh’s Dry Goods and Haberdashery. The dented enamel cup maintained pride of place on a shelf next to Franklin’s thermos, in the employee lounge and recreation room.
This promotion was certain to improve Ethelbert’s standing on the street. For years, it was a point of contention that Ethelbert would retire in the freezer. People began referring to the freezer as though it was a landmark, like Lapeyrouse Cemetery. On the block, Joe Kelly used to address Ethelbert as he passed on his way from work wearing his yellow raincoat, and make comments like, ‘How tings in Freezer today? Ah hear they extending. Ask for a back door.’
So everyone knew about the freezer. Everyone knew about Ethelbert. As a matter of fact everyone had certain fixed views about Ethelbert. Most people were cagey about him, as he never seemed to have friends. Even his own brother and sister shunned him. Jackie, his sister who worked at the meat shop during the day and made fares as a prostitute at night, used to avoid him during the day on her way to and from work, but she would encourage the sisters in her nocturnal trade to make catcalls at him.
His brother Earl, who sold corn soup from a shopping cart all over town, would refuse to sell him any soup, always saying to anyone who was in earshot, ‘The sancoche too thick for he. Eef he eat this he go snatch ah woman and den allyou go blame me.’
That was the trend. Only Tantie Lucy seemed to love her son. She professed to all who dared to shop at her parlour that ‘My buoy go mek it. He fadder was a strong man. He is he fadder chile. Eef he fadder didden geh lash by dat baax on de poort he wudder be jus as proud ah he as me.’
The truth was that Ethelbert wanted to be loved. He was tired of all the ridicule and castigating, by family and people on the street. It started in school where the focus for far too long was on his middle name. The ‘G’ stood for ‘Gladstone’.
Ethelbert’s mother was originally from St Vincent where she had a treasured uncle by the name of Gladstone. In a small island he was a well-known superintendent at the prison, had always taken a hands on role in prisoner rehabilitation and had died under dubious circumstances. Rumour had it that he was supervising a prisoner peeling carrots in a uniquely conceived Carrots to End Recidivism Project and was attacked when his back was turned. The room was not well ventilated and a pungent smell flavoured with a wisp of fresh carrots greeted prison officers as they broke down the door and carted off the still undressed carrot-peeling prisoner.
All rumour and conjecture, according to Tantie Lucy. ‘He was ah good man who uses to take care ah dem prisoner and dem,’ she said.
So Ethelbert was chosen to be his dead uncle’s namesake. Unfortunately this was the source of much banter in the Piccadilly Street Government School. He was called ‘Gladstones’ and ‘Happystones’, and other such derivatives of the dead uncle’s now infamous name.
That in itself was not too bad and could have been passed off as schoolyard fun, but it took a decidedly different turn when Mopsie-head Kate rallied the entire top floor one lunchtime, and in unison they shouted ‘HAPPY BALLS!’ at the top of their lungs. Ethelbert had just emerged from the courtyard urinal and was encountering difficulty in adjusting his zip.
The impact was monumental. Children from all classes surged forward to see who was receiving the brunt of this verbal onslaught. They never forgot him after that. Years afterwards Ethelbert would meet men and women who would call out to him as ‘Happy’ or simply ‘Stones’. He never recognized the faces but the tone was always familiar.
Family members heard about it and every Christmas his first cousin from Fyzabad, Auntie Melba’s son, would send him a bottle of Stone’s Ginger Wine.
The recovery process was slow. Over the years Ethelbert tried to improve his stock by burying his head in his work. The Cheese Factory had given him that opportunity. But he had longed for the day when he could be in management. That would be the day. He would walk tall.
Work in the Cheese Factory was demanding but honest. Most of the workers were drawn from in and around Port of Spain, with a few drifters from south Trinidad turning up every so often. Ethelbert had drawn a rough crowd in his workmates – men that worked bareback in the freezer. This was a sign of real masculinity. During slow periods there were ice and cheese lifting and tossing competitions to keep things lively. Ethelbert had developed a reputation among his peers as a formidable champion in the 320lb Parmesan cheese dead lift.
It was inevitable that the freezer staff had the highest turnover among all the departments of the factory. Three years in the freezer were like eight years loading containers on the docks. But management favoured those who were loyal. Ethelbert’s loyalty was unrivalled.
Afterwork assignments always came his way as he was prepared to stay and work late. Ethelbert’s intention was to stay in as late as possible in order to avoid meeting people on the streets on his way home, so he volunteered for odd jobs after hours. Many of these jobs were in the packaging department. The foreman here was a hard-working fellow from Carenage in the west, by the name of Douglas Rojoco.
Rojoco brought a fierce street-fighting reputation with him to the factory. He was built like a brick toilet and was as stout-hearted as they came. He was proud of his reputation but was as fair and impartial as a judge.
Carnival Sunday would find Rojoco in his jab jab attire, whip in hand and some babash – Carenage-brewed homemade alcohol – in his back pocket, as he prepared to wage war on the devilish Carapichaima jab jabs venturing into town from central Trinidad for the J’Ouvert clashes early on Carnival Monday. People left their homes, sacrificing the Dimanche Gras performances on Carnival Sunday night, to witness these brutal clashes at Green Corner in Port of Spain.
A woman who had sold pig-foot souse on the corner since Globe theatre first opened told the story of one of Rojoco’s most heated battles. ‘De fight was with a man called Samlal who did used to live in de Plannings on Nelson Street,’ she began. ‘When he did come out dat year he bring everybody from behind De Bridge. Dem wajang people try to tief mih souse and eat free but ah did walk wid ah lil protectshun so ah force dem to pay.’
‘Samlal make de challenge, he did draw he whip and crack it, whap!’ She continued. ‘All dat time he doing he dance, boy he was pretty!’
‘But Rojoco brave for so. He stand up and jus wait. People did start to bawl out, move nah man, de man will lash you! But de old Rojoco was only watching. Ah did watching careful too as de extra bucket ah souse was in de way and a big bam bam jamette did try to sit dong on it!’ she exclaimed.
‘De whole ting happen fas fas,’ she said. ‘As Samlal shashay, and try to wheel round Rojoco, ah only hear Crataks! Next ting yuh know Samlal lying dong in de drain by de Globe signboard and he false teeth by mih sugarcake. Good ting ah did keep it covered. Ah remember because it was ah Gary Cooper flim showing,’ she recalled.
It was Rojoco who had made a pitch for Ethelbert to come into the packaging department full-time. His experiences made it easy to spot the hard workers.
He approached Mr Jesus Dunstan, the managing director – a French Creole who had a penchant for the rough life in Port of Spain. Dunstan had befriended Rojoco simply because they were alike. The streets were his calling and save for his colour and family, he may have gone the exact route as Rojoco. Rojoco also kept some secrets for Dunstan as he, Dunstan, had sought assistance to deal with the aftermath of a love affair gone sour, with a sultry dougla temptress from School Street in the heart of seedy Carenage.
By and large, Rojoco had the ear of Dunstan, and Ethelbert’s case was one with substantial merit as his penchant for hard work had long filtered its way up the grapevine to Dunstan’s office.
The promotion came through. With it came an enhanced salary and the perks of the packaging department. The packaging department was directly responsible for the proper wrapping, boxing and labelling of the cheeses coming out of production. There were cheeses of all varieties, decorated with swirls and patterns, giving an artistic finish to a culinary staple.
Cheeses were meant for both domestic as well as foreign consumption, so the packaging had to follow strict procedures. There was a pride among the workers that was unmistakable. Over the years, as the status of the Packaging Department grew, this turned to contempt for workers of other departments. This arrogance was fuelled by the attitude of the packaging supervisor, Carlton Kaster. It was left up to Rojoco to keep the peace with the other departments.
Ethelbert was introduced to the workers, issued a white hat, apron and elbow length gloves and taken on a short tour by Rojoco. The cheeses were brought in still frozen for slicing, separation and wrapping. The feature that caught Ethelbert’s interest was extra slices being made available to workers. These slices were not offered for sale to regular customers. Saturday morning cheese-clearing was therefore popular among the shopkeepers in and around town, but the workers were given first preference.
It was instantly clear to Ethelbert how he would win his spurs back in his neighbourhood. His ticket to acceptance would be in the free cheese.
For all his life he had lived with his mother in the house at the end of Samson Street. It was an old two-bedroom house that did not allow for much privacy, especially when Jackie had customers calling on her at home for a lagniappe or extra services. Ethelbert decided that to achieve his mission he must move out.
And move he did. He took an apartment across the road by Auntie Tiny. She wasn’t his aunt but everybody called her Auntie Tiny. He was set up with a one-bedroom apartment with a window overlooking the street.
So Ethelbert started his new job and at the end of the first week he brought home a good-sized chunk of Italian cheese. This he gave to his mother. This strategy served two purposes. Firstly, it was an indication of gratitude to his mother and secondly, it was a sure-fire way to alert the womenfolk of that side of town that ‘Stones’ was in a position to dispense some largesse. The unassailable fact was that Tantie Lucy was as effective as a town crier in the days of old, even if you did not want the word to spread. She was unable to withhold any new piece of gossip.
Without fail, women turned up by Auntie Tiny’s calling for Ethelbert. Unemployed housewives, girlfriends and married women all came. It was against the understood traditions of society to prepare Sunday lunch without macaroni pie. Macaroni pies were graded by the cheese content: the cheesier the better. It was alleged but never empirically proven that the quality of macaroni pies in some households was the primary cause of family breakdown.
Women jealously guarded their pie making ability, as it affected how long they were able to keep their men. Pies varied according to the notch of the societal ladder on which a family stood: foreign cheeses were prevalent in the Goodwood Park homes to the West of Port of Spain, whereas cheddar was king downtown and behind the Bridge.
It was against this background that Ethelbert wielded his new-found advantage. Women saw in Ethelbert an easy way to gain culinary ascendency. Ethelbert was prepared to oblige, but at a price.
Ethelbert began to play it fast and loose, and Auntie Tiny’s place developed a reputation as a den of iniquity. Women came from all over to benefit from Ethelbert’s free cheese. To cater to the growing demand he had to use more ingenious ways to allocate himself more cheese slabs.
Ethelbert’s life changed when he began smuggling out cheese meant for regular customers. He was now popular. People called out to him and shook his hand in the street. Men envied his new status and most significantly, no one called him ‘Stones’ anymore. Everything was based on cheese. Anyone else would have sold the cheese, but profit was not Ethelbert’s motive.
One day a full-bodied women knocked on Ethelbert’s room. She was dark and attractive, but with a brooding look that gave her an aura of strength. She was dressed in a close-fitting dress with matching shoes and accessories. As Ethelbert opened his door he was overwhelmed by the fragrance of her perfume as it forced its way through the doorway. She seemed familiar but he could not place her. She seemed to float as she walked, so gentle and measured were her steps. She sat on his bed, one of those new spring types from the furniture store on South Quay. He had bought that with his first week’s wages.
‘You’re the cheese man?’ she inquired.
He looked at her from head to toe, licked his lips and then slowly drawled out, ‘You wha some?’
She ignored him and pulled out a card. It was a card from the Mohmed brothers, a well-known crime family, which tried to cover their operations with legitimate activities. The boss was Danny Mohmed. They were third generation descendants from the Middle East living in San Juan not too far East of Port of Spain, who sponsored cockfighting in the Sea Lots gayelle in Port of Spain as their way of giving something back to the community. ‘Danny send me to get some cheese, he have to hold a small function for some big pappy and dem,’ she explained. ‘He tell me talk to you.’
‘Dat is not my kinda action,’ Ethelbert responded. ‘Ah only want what you offering, not Danny and dem.’
‘Dat we could arrange, organize Danny cheese first,’ she said.
‘You serious?’ asked Ethelbert, with a quizzical look.
‘Last time ah see rust was on an iron bed by a man name Ossie in Tru Macac. Of course ah serious. You and me go do ah little something after you fix up my boss nice and decent,’ she countered staring him in the eye.
Ethelbert was suddenly entranced by this strange woman and foresaw a new and exciting romantic interlude. Maybe it was her husky, confident tone, or perhaps her seductive curves, teasingly revealing in her tight dress. She brought back memories of a block of blue French cheese scented with Musgrove olive oil that Ethelbert had lovingly wrapped in his first week in the packaging department.
So he agreed, and they established a time and a place for delivery before she floated out onto the street and disappeared into the darkness. Ethelbert sighed to himself and quietly resolved to make this the final chapter in his cheese-sex-capers.
‘Boss, dis is ah real cheesy pie. Dis woman cannot afford dis cheese,’ Rojoco explained to Dunstan. ‘Dis is de Mozzarella dat gone missing las week.’
Rojoco and Kaster sat opposite Dunstan in the latter’s office sampling a piece of macaroni pie made by one of Rojoco’s many women. The pie was soft, moist and exceptional due to the quality of cheese used, and with a consistency that defied the social standing of the woman in question.
The disappearance of cheese meant for overseas markets caused some ripples in the Cheese Factory, and security measures were stepped up. A special cheese police squad was hired but to no avail. No one was apprehended. Dunstan then summoned both Kaster and Rojoco to his office when word of this wondrous pie got to him.
‘It has to be an inside job,’ said Kaster. ‘Dem riff-raff sneaking out de bloody cheese.’
‘What do we do?’ inquired Dunstan. ‘We cannot afford to continue losing any more of our special cheeses.’
‘Boss lemme check out mih oman fus, to see whey she geh she cheese,’ said Rojoco. ‘We go take it from dey.’
‘Right,’ agreed Dunstan. ‘Then we will set up a trap . . . a rat trap for a big rat.’
The wharf was dark and damp. The waves breaking against the hulls of anchored fishing vessels provided a constant backdrop to the creaking of tired metal. Warehouses lined the seafront and stood guard over the shadows created by the weak lighting of the high ceilings.
Ethelbert struggled with his haul of cheeses – the most he had ever smuggled out and was nearly drenched in sweat when he stopped at the rendezvous point. Lifting this amount of cheese would have been an easier task when he was in the freezer. He was immediately outside Warehouse Number Six; the woman had indicated that the door would be open. He checked.
‘De ting really open boy,’ he thought to himself. ‘You know ah don’t even know dat woman name. Someting telling me ah know she from somewhere.’
He pulled the door wide enough to drag his box of cheese inside. He shut the door and tried to get his bearings. ‘She say to put it in de container in de centre,’ he thought.
A standing lamp, the only light in the dark warehouse, illuminated the container. He placed his haul of contraband cheeses in the container and started to mop his brow when a voice said, ‘Why Ethelbert, why?’
Then the lights in the warehouse suddenly came on. Ethelbert was surrounded by Rojoco, Kaster and the woman, about twenty officers from the cheese squad, his brother Earl, the corn soup vendor, and about a dozen other miscellaneous grim-faced men, some of whom were sipping corn soup, slurping aggressively.
Rojoco repeated the question, and the woman said, ‘Stones, ah didn’t want to believe but when Buck teeth Nancy say she give you a lil taste ah she sugar, ah had to check it out for mihself.’
The voice chiselled away the layers of forget that Ethelbert had cemented in his memory and carried him back to Piccadilly Street Government School. ‘Mopsie-head Kate, is you?’ he asked.
‘Of course is me,’ she replied ‘You feel people forget you?’
‘You take plenty cheese Ethelbert. It have plenty man out here who eh happy how they woman get all dat cheese’, said Rojoco. ‘Look some ah dem here now.’
Ethelbert looking around slowly watching menacing faces staring at him. The only smiling face was that of Earl. ‘Well boy Stones, you could eat ah soup now. But ah don’t think you go have any more cheese to give out,’ he said, beaming widely. ‘You is ah cheese pimp.’
‘Cheese pimp?’ Kate asked mischievously. ‘That is Stones . . . but ah feel from now on we go have to call him Cheese Balls!’
With that everyone cried out in unison, ‘CHEESE BALLS!’
Two days later, as Ethelbert walked down Samson Street clad in his yellow raincoat, Joe Kelly called out to him, ‘How things in de Freezer today? I hear they renovating. Ask for a bed.’
Photograph © MIKI Yoshihito