In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Brian S. Heap’s ‘Mafootoo’ is the winning entry from the Caribbean.
The people at Number 24 are lovely. They’re Jamaican. Which is not unusual in itself given what’s happened to immigration in this country since the War. But they are lovely. They have fitted in so well. On this road at any rate. We did have our concerns at first. But they are very quiet. Well you hear such stories. Look at what happened in Tottenham. But you hardly ever hear or see the Grandisons at all.
Evadne stands at the window looking out at the two conspiring women in their shapeless coats, each clutching identical oversize shopping bags. Oh, the aesthetic duplicity of lace curtains! Designed to grace these bland front windows, they largely serve to prevent people looking into your private space. On the other hand they are equally useful as camouflage when you wish to look out unobserved. Evadne thinks about how her Maroon ancestors once donned the cacoon vine as camouflage to ambush the English Redcoats. ‘Mafootoo’ her Uncle Wentworth called it. The net foliage of the curtains is now serving a similar purpose.
Not that their coats are red. More a sickly beige colour. They’re out there talking about us. She can tell by the way they keep looking sideways in the direction of her house. Chat too much. And when you and them buck up its, ‘Good morning, Mrs Grandison, lovely morning.’ Old hypocrite dem.
The house is silent. Evadne likes to have the radio on as a rule but she’s dressed and all ready to go, though the taxi won’t be here for another half hour. The front room is chilly for September. Hubert would be furious. He always keeps the house at around the same daily mean temperature as Jamaica, even in summer. But she is the one who has to worry about paying the heating bills and she really doesn’t mind the cold. Maybe something to do with growing up in the mountains. She was descended from the Africans who fled to the most remote parts of the interior after it became clear to the Spaniards that the British would now be the ones to preside over the island’s continued exploitation. She used to complain bitterly about the heat when she first moved down from the hills into Kingston. The government office where she worked was not air-conditioned, just so-so ceiling fans careening wildly off kilter above the workers’ heads, with little effect beyond churning the daytime heat like molasses.
She first met Hubert when she was having lunch in Times Store on King Street one day. The restaurant was heaving with the midday crowd of shop girls and office workers and she was sitting at a table for two by herself and he asked pardon but did she mind if he took this seat. She didn’t mind even though she was slightly annoyed at having to share her space with this ‘bwoy’. He introduced himself as Hubert Grandison, and soon they were meeting for lunch on a daily basis. Then he took her to Carib to see a movie. Phaedra it was, starring Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins. That must have been just after all the Independence excitement in ‘62. ‘I don’t care if the whole world burns down. I’d sacrifice anything to kiss you.’ Evadne chanted Melina’s lines like a mantra. Hubert didn’t like the show. How could a woman dash away a man’s man like Raf Vallone for a softie like Perkins? Damned Greek foolishness!
The romantic part of things was not so easy between them at first. Evadne liked sex. She was a country girl. She wasn’t promiscuous or anything like it but she was from the hills and simply took sex in her stride. She enjoyed it. Hubert liked the idea of it but if she was honest he was a bit of a prude. And like a lot of men he was better at the chase than the delivery. She shocked Hubert when she finally suggested to him that they should fuck. Even the word stunned him for a minute. But she was not one for beating about the bush and she even unnerved some of her own family with how forthright she could be. Hubert was non-Maroon, obroni, somebody from beyond the horizon, an outsider, which is why her Uncle Wentworth opposed the match from the outset. Evadne’s father was more supportive, believing that Hubert would offer his daughter a better life away from Jamaica, since the boy had made it very clear that he planned to move them both to England at the earliest opportunity.
The clock ticking. The smell of lemon furniture polish. The faded print of an African girl above the fireplace. Evadne’s eyes wander around the tidy front room until they land on a small wooden bowl with the words ‘Port Antonio, Jamaica, W.I.’ that somebody had burned into it with a hot metal spike.
I remember when we bought that, she thinks. It was when we went back home for Daddy’s funeral. Uncle Wentworth still didn’t like Hubert, but in deference to his niece he put on his best face. Even liveried in the Mafootoo withe over his best suit, his white shirt dazzling against his dark complexion, he was still diminished. Wentworth’s loss of his only brother hung on him like that same cacoon vine, as though the little trailing bush around his shoulders were reaching to the earth below, to draw him into the ground to rejoin his lost sibling, his fellow warrior.
There had been a lot of drumming and singing; as men and women, with agility belying their years, moved gracefully around the specially constructed booth, woven from bamboo and coconut fronds in honour of the deceased. An abundance of overproof rum, with coffee, hard dough bread, crisp fried sprats, jerked pork and curried goat served at different intervals throughout the night – the wake had gone on till morning. Evadne as chief mourner had struggled to stay awake that afternoon during the extended funeral proceedings. It seemed as if everybody in the parish needed to get up and make a tribute to her father. It had been an exhausting week, what with the grave digging, nine nights, and a constant stream of visitors to deal with. That’s why Hubert had taken her to the hotel in Port Antonio for a few days to recuperate. She wouldn’t be coming back for the tombing. She would send some money of course, but that was a ceremony that would have to take place without her.
Startled by the ringing of the doorbell, Evadne gets up from her place on the couch and peeps around the lace curtains and waves to the young Asian taxi driver standing by the porch. He’s early. She quickly puts on her coat and picks up her handbag, checking that she has her taxi fares and door key. By the time she gets outside she realizes that the two beige coats and big shopping bags are still there craning their necks to see who she is leaving with. Evadne softly kisses her teeth before nodding almost imperceptibly in their general direction as she gets into the back seat of the waiting car.
‘As-salamu alaykum, Zafar.’ Evadne greets the young driver. ‘Wa ʿalaykumu s-salām, Mrs Grandison.’ Zafar expresses no surprise at her use of the Muslim greeting. ‘Where to?’ Evadne gives him his directions, and clicks on her seat belt. The first time she heard the salaam in England she had been startled to hear a greeting she had often heard used by her father, Uncle Wentworth and the members of the Maroon Council. Its familiarity immediately connected her to the Asians with whom she came into contact in the area of London where she and Hubert had first settled. One or two were quite surprised to hear the greeting from a Jamaican woman who was not obviously of their faith. But now it was not unusual for Evadne to even send a ‘Happy Eid’ card to the waiters at the local Bangladeshi restaurant at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. She had forgotten to ask Uncle Wentworth about the salaam when she went back for the funeral. Now she would probably never know where it came from among her own displaced people. Settling back into these and other thoughts, Evadne suddenly begins to feel a slight uneasiness about how this particular taxi journey is going to end.
When they had first come to England, Hubert had travelled ahead by himself to sort out his work and their accommodation, before sending for Evadne and their infant son, Basil. They had named the baby after Hubert’s father, a police officer who was said to have died tragically in the line of duty when a fully laden truck rolled back and pinned him to a wall as he patrolled the market. At their wedding, Evadne had discovered something Hubert either hadn’t told her or didn’t know himself. A drunken relative, lamenting that the older Basil wasn’t there to see his one son get married, had told her, ‘You know them say he died in the line of duty. But Basil had no business to be patrolling in the market that day. Is one young higgler gal from country he was checking when the truck mash him up.’ Nevertheless, Evadne went along with it when Hubert decided that he wanted to name his son for his long-dead father, and continued to keep that secret, along with many others, to herself.
There he lies in the hospital bed, hidden among his own camouflage, his Mafootoo now a thicket of tubes and wires, the tendrils of some alien species. She hardly recognizes Hubert among the maze of coils and cables. The only sound emanating from this entanglement is the regular beep of the machine that monitors his life signs. Evadne suddenly remembers something she heard in a Sunday school lesson in Jamaica sixty years before. She can’t be sure, but she thinks it might have been a version of the Apostles’ Creed.
He ascended into Heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty,
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead
In her juvenile mind Evadne had visions of hordes of her classmates making some slick manoeuvers, scattering in all directions out of harm’s reach, so as not to be caught up with the dead in the judgement thing. It was years later that her son had explained to her that ‘quick’ meant ‘alive’. ‘Well, Basil, I wasn’t that far off,’ she had said irritably.
She now looks at her husband of fifty years, trussed up like a bewildered Christmas tree, all trailing streamers and twinkling lights, undecided about whether he is quick or dead.
When she first got the phone call from the hospital and realized how serious it was, the rage that hit her took her by surprise. Look at how long he’s been planning to retire. Why are we still here? Because of the house? The pension? The healthcare? Or because if we go back, some unconscionable scamp is going to rob us of everything we have spent our lives accumulating? Hubert’s voice comes to her now as clear as the day it had been when he had called her out of the kitchen to read to her from the Weekly Gleaner. ‘Evadne, you know what them bad man in Jamaica are saying now? That when they go out and kill people, they making duppy. Can you imagine, Vads? Making duppy! You never hear nuttn’ so in all your life?’
She looks across at Hubert in the bed. ‘Is that what I am here to do? Make duppy? Is that what this is?’
Evadne’s outlook on death is not unlike her approach to sex. Direct. Sometimes disconcertingly so to others. She studiously avoids the plethora of euphemisms enthusiastically adopted by those around her.
‘Evadne, what year was it that your dear father passed?’
‘Passed what? Urine? His Common Entrance exam?’
Evadne is not a big churchgoer. In the early days she and Hubert had gone for worship in the private homes of other Jamaicans, as much for the social and moral support as the spiritual. Later on she began to find their company tedious. ‘I didn’t come all this way here with you to create Jamaica all over again in foreign’, she told her husband. Instead, choosing to struggle against a ferocious headwind, she worked her way through the bigotry, rejection and racism and did her own thing. How else was she to have a career, or ever to make her own way in this grey and alien place?
Her Maroon ancestors had been labelled as traitors by some other Jamaicans for their Treaties with the British and for returning runaways to the very masters who enslaved them. But Evadne was having none of that. You needed to ally yourself with those who knew the ways to survive, who knew how to become invisible, how to merge with the landscape. So she went to an Anglican church. Blended into the mixed congregation. Detached. No pressure to join in any hearty fellowship. Evadne attended mainly for the hymns which she enjoyed singing in her rich contralto voice, noted more for its volume than for its tunefulness. A voice better designed for calling across wide valleys, or for bouncing off sheer mountain slopes. Nevertheless, she was enthusiastic and was particularly fond of the Charles Wesley hymn ‘And can it be that I should gain?’ She liked it because it was a hymn that posed questions, unlike so many others that made enormous assumptions about the depth of one’s faith. ‘Amazing Love, how can it be, that Thou my God, should’st die for me?’ And the imagery of chains falling off with the accompanying release into freedom held a particular resonance for her.
At this time in her life, many of Evadne’s friends were now ‘transitioning’, another euphemism for death that she had actually grown to associate, thanks again to Basil junior, with something called gender reassignment. So she continued to alarm people with her unfiltered, disarmingly forthright condolences. ‘Sorry to hear your husband dead’, to an already distraught widow, or ‘The man all healthy and doing his daily jogging one minute, and next thing you know him is as dead as a nit.’ Not for her those lofty, evasive expressions like ‘moving to another phase of life’, or ‘elevating to a higher plane’, or ‘entering into glory’ or even ‘returning to the Ancestors or Mother Earth’.
‘Him dead?’ The question is directed to a slightly plump and freckled nurse with red hair, and dressed in a navy blue tunic and matching trousers
‘Well, Mrs Grandison,’ replies the nurse, after quickly composing herself, and continuing in a lowered tone, ‘We’re not seeing any significant brain activity.’ An Irish lilt, confirmed by her badge that reads, ‘Nurse Phelan’.
‘It’s the machine keeping him alive, nuh?’
‘Indeed, yes, Mrs Grandison. Mr Grandison is on what we call a respirator.’
‘I know what it is. Plug him out.’
‘I beg your pardon, Mrs . . .’
‘Me say, plug him out.’
‘But, Mrs Grandison, I’m not authorized to do that’.
‘So find me somebody who is. I am the next of kin,’ (who shall come to judge the quick and the dead . . . steals into her head as an afterthought.)
At first Nurse Phelan is uncertain what to do next, but responding to Evadne’s commanding stare and the fierce set of her jaw, she disappears through the door in search of reinforcements.
Evadne moves slowly towards the bed, searching for something of Hubert and his personality that she can address directly. Eventually, she begins to softly intone his name.
‘Hubert, Hubert, Hubert. How you could do me like this? No warning? Nothing? Look how me stick by you all these years. Letting you follow your ambitions even when they never seemed like a good idea to me. Working your long, long hours. For what? More stress? Well, you get the stroke that you worked for. Four holidays in fifty years, not counting Daddy’s funeral. A week in Cornwall when Basil got into Grammar school. A long weekend for the two of us in Stratford-upon-Avon. A few days in the Lake District after Basil did his Duke of Edinburgh Award. And an overnight stay in Brighton one bank holiday. You never even went back for your own mother. Left it to your sister to bury her. Look how me and you nearly parted when Basil brought his first boyfriend home. You were like a baby. Taking to your bed for the best part of a month. Couldn’t deal with your shame. There were times when I really didn’t like you. But I did know that in your own mind you were seeing yourself as somebody honorable. A good provider. A successful businessman. Upstanding citizen. More British than the British. But you were selfish Hubert, always limiting yourself to what was most familiar to you. Sending parcels back to Jamaica for community projects but never dealing with the real issues. I have tried with this country, Hubert. I’ve tried with you. Basil will make his own happiness, with whoever makes him happy. But right now I don’t know what to do. I feel like I stayed too long. I don’t feel like I belong here. And I don’t belong anywhere else. I never told you this, but when we first came here, even though we were struggling, I would save a little back each month and go to the post office and buy a postal order to send to your mother. Even though things were not great for us, I just felt that she had to eat a food too. And do you know what happened, Hubert? One day, before she died, a brown envelope came from Jamaica with some papers in it for me to sign for a Land Title issued in my name. She had taken all those trifling postal orders and saved them up and bought a small piece of land in the hills above Kingston, and got somebody to build a neat little cottage on it. One of your nephews lives there with his girlfriend, but they know it’s mine. Basil took his friend there one time. But we had to keep it a secret, we couldn’t let you find out. You weren’t ready for that. So, Hubert, I think what I’m going to do is go and have a nice long holiday there by myself. And maybe then I will be able to decide where it is that I really belong. Or I will just straddle the Atlantic and simply come and go whenever I feel like it.’
‘Excuse me, Mrs Grandison. This is Dr Patel.’
‘As-salamu alaykum, doctor’, a distracted Evadne replies.
Dr Patel was born into a Hindu family in Glasgow and replies with a polite ‘Yes, quite.’
The process of switching off the life support machine proves to be rather more taxing than Evadne has envisaged. It involves having to be counselled by the care team, visits from a number of people in the hospital administration, the need to prove kinship, signing numerous forms, as well as calling on the services of a medical technologist. When the deed is finally done, Evadne waits for the beeping machine monitoring Hubert’s vital signs either to stop beeping altogether or to flat line into a continuous high-pitched whine just like she has seen on television or at the pictures.
Only it doesn’t.
Like a spite, Hubert keeps on breathing on his own.
The care team, Nurse Phelan, Dr Patel and a technologist, appear to be almost embarrassed by this unexpected turn of events. Evadne just looks stunned. Slowly the team members begin to drift away, leaving Nurse Phelan to bring a chair for Evadne to sit on and keep vigil.
Eventually, Evadne sits alone listening to the monotonous beeping. She is in unknown territory now.
‘Stop your fooling, Hubert,’ she whispers. ‘Just be quick and dead.’
The overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020 will be announced during a special award ceremony which will be broadcast online at 1pm BST on 30 June 2020. See here for further details.
Image © Sharon Mollerus