When Mama Icylda came to Beryl Hampton in the form of a river mumma, he thought with a pang that his time had come. She was young-young like those pictures he had seen of her singing and dancing in the Pantomime in the forties, not at all like the old woman that had left the known world when he was a boy.
In the dream, he was at the Rio Cobre’s edge, just looking into the glassy green water, blanketed by a thin mist. When it lifted, there his grandmother sat on a stone, seeming to float out there like the famed golden table.
“Berry, you wasting time, mi son,” she had said quietly, the water taking her voice to him in waves. It was the same voice she had used to hush him to sleep when his stomach ached from eating green mango and salt when they had little else to eat one year.
“You wasting time,” she said again. “I need you to cross this river, but I need something from you first, mi son.”
At first, he did not yet understand her meaning. He knew that river maids and water spirits required a sacrifice of something, of what he did not yet know.
Perhaps, he thought, he had drunk too much of the homemade pomegranate wine the night before.
Yet, standing there watching her wade toward him, it felt good to see the one good adult of his youth before him again, even as he eclipsed her now by at least two decades, her taut skin making her appear as she did in her twenties, her wild hair crowned with a strange array of Spanish needle and cerasee bush placed high on her head as though they were the very crown jewels. He couldn’t see clearly if her fingers were webbed or if it was the varicose veins he used to trace up and down her limbs.
“What you mean, mama?”
When she reached up and touched his face, he awoke with the words still on his lips.
* * * * *
He was still pondering the dream when he went to the supermarket to get himself a custard cake for his birthday. As he left the mart, he retrieved the handbill the supermarket bagger had stuffed in his scandal bag.
The neon orange flyer had a message in bold, black font. At first, it made his chest tighten in fear like all words did. Slowly, he made himself read them.
“Do … you … want … to … be … a … star?”
He looked at the image of the man with a microphone and the Island Records logo he had seen many times on local television and recognized that this was the annual singing contest. He studied the picture of the man posed with his eyes closed, one hand extended, and his mouth wide as though belting out a sustained note.
Beryl smiled as it dawned on him what he must do.
What did it matter that he had never even so much as sung a word in public before an audience? The conviction grew in him. It swelled and expanded across his chest.
Yes. This was what he would do.
To Beryl, it felt like an omen that on his birthday he should receive a handbill with words he could actually read, words that signaled his looming stardom the day after his grandmother had seen fit to cross the bridge between his world and hers to tell him just as much.
* * * * *
Presently, he blew out all forty-six candles and looked at the neon orange flyer again, lying there on the kitchen table beside his cake. It stood out in the sparse room where the only other bright spot was a vase of bougainvillea he had impulsively placed on the table that day, flowers he’d cut from the neighbor’s plant hanging into his yard. Beryl often felt larger in this small room that was part kitchenette, dining, and living room, with the brown sofa facing the 14-inch television near the table where he sat.
He shifted in the wooden chair that squeaked under his weight, noting to himself grimly that he finally had reached the age his father had died of cirrhosis of the liver.
He looked at the flyer again and thought of the little he had accomplished in his own life. Each year, he had watched dispassionately as tweens, teenagers, and twenty-somethings paraded across his television screen vying for a singing contract with Island Records and the grand five-hundred-thousand-dollar cash prize.
The year the contest debuted when he was twenty-eight, he had stood on the fringes of Parade Square in downtown Kingston with the crowd of would-bes and hope-fors. Until the recent moment outside the supermarket, back then in his youth, it had never occurred to him to go up with those in line to be considered. He had simply watched the auditions for a moment, then turned and walked home without another thought about it.
Music had been a part of his youth but in the way that there were sound systems playing in the distance on Sundays, a soundtrack to the neighbor cutting the overgrown grass in his yard, the housewife hanging white bush jackets on wires propped up by bamboo stalks, or boys in his lane playing football in the street. This music was for everyone to enjoy but certainly not something for him to pursue.
In primary school days, he would listen to his father’s Peter Tosh and Barrington Levy tapes on an old cassette player. He listened while sprawled underneath the little brick house that was propped up on spokes, all done while he should have been completing his lessons.
Once, two boys who had heard him from the street bellowing the words to “Mystic Man” came into the yard and stooped to find Beryl there on his back, warbling.
“You sound like some donkey dem-a torture over slaughterhouse,” one of them said, laughing wildly.
“No, like when some cat inna heat,” the other said and slapped his friend’s shoulder.
And after Beryl had chased them away, he went back to listening to his tapes, shaking off the dejected way their proclamations had made him feel. What did they know, anyway?
Now that he was much older and wiser, though, he could not let a little thing such as having no experience deter his ambitions. And what did it matter that he was twice or even three times the average contestant’s age now?
It was his time now.
* * * * *
He looked up at Eden, the twenty-something cashier from the Island Grill with whom he had commenced a dalliance of the past two months and smiled at her round, young face, beaming in that way she had when she was pleased with her own joke. She had squeezed the forty-six candles onto the misshapen coconut custard cake, announcing what was for Beryl a steady approach to a half a century of life.
“Did think you would need my help blowing out all them candles,” Eden said and chuckled.
“One candle would-a be enough. Is a safety hazard you causing just to make fun that I getting old?” Beryl said, shaking his head as she removed the candles and cut a wedge of cake for him.
“Never mind. You are my old man,” she said and handed him the slice. He felt her lips kissing the bald spot at the top of his dome.
The wedge had his name in small loops of sugar-free icing Eden had added, the “y” from “birthday” still attached. When he was six, Mama Icylda had sat with him out in her backyard in Eltham Acres under the broad tamarind tree and taught him how to write the five letters of his name. It took her weeks and weeks and where other children called him a dunce bat, she had called him her “sharp little Berry” and patted his head with his every effort. He remembered her bony fingers, her warm, cloudy eyes, and the coconut drops she made when he could finally do it, long after other children his age were reading about white children like Dick, Jane, and their dog named Spot, or the local readers the Ministry of Education was bringing in that had stories about Boysie and Anancy.
“You too sof’ wid him, mama,” he remembered his father saying in one of his rare lucid moments. “The boy need a firm hand. Him not paying attention when he at school. That is him problem.”
“But him need the help, Desmond,” she had said. “Him need plenty help. I think he just don’t see or understand things like you and me. I been trying to find out what really wrong.”
Perhaps if she had lived to see him turn seven, Beryl would not have spent the next four decades unable to read much else, managing only to get by with knowing common one and two syllabic words whipped into him by the woman his father married when Mama Icylda died—his stepmother, Eve.
Maybe it had been Eve’s constant scowling that made her fearsome to him or that, despite her short stature, her limbs seemed long and menacing. She would strike him for his every mistake. The onslaught began one day when he brought back the wrong type of cigarettes.
“You don’t know this?” She held up the Craven ‘A’ carton. “The next time you bring no Matterhorn come here, I beat you until you soft.”
She demanded he look at her, and when Beryl swallowed hard and looked up, she grabbed the grade three reader from his hands and flipped through the pages.
“Read me something!” she had commanded.
Beryl stumbled over the words and got a stroke for every word he missed. That day he learned “bat” and “boy” and “look” and “give” and “mango” with every blow. He would spend years relying on his memory. It would have astonished and saddened his grandmother, he knew.
Still, there was much in his life and the sporadic manner he was raised that had led to this end, but music made him feel better inside. Once, he burrowed a hole in the back yard and crawled in it, partly to escape one of his stepmother’s whippings while his father lay drunk and oblivious and partly so he could listen undisturbed to the neighbor playing the entire album, Right Time, by the Mighty Diamonds. And when at sixteen he ran away, he would play Yellow Man and Gregory Isaacs and listen in the solitude of a tiny little back room and quietly sing along.
Beryl did have one skill that had served him well in the beginning, at least. He learned the art of topiary when he was eighteen and had just graduated high school, albeit with no external CXC or GCE exam passes but a mere school leaving certificate.
One day, when he was delivering oranges, the only job he could manage to get without any extensive filling in of forms, he saw a man sheering the hedges in a stately uptown yard on the better side of Kingston. He watched the man for hours as he transformed the bush into a pig shape, Beryl noticing too the row of human forms in the backdrop—even lingering on one section that looked like floating breasts for which Beryl later learned the client’s neighbor had reported him to the police.
Intrigued, Beryl started shouting questions at the man, eventually asking if the man would be willing to train him.
“Why I mus do that for a street boy like you?” the man had said stopping his labor to regard Beryl with a look that made him feel every bit the pauper, standing beside his handcart in his faded t-shirt and thread-bare jeans.
“I is not a street boy, sah. I was saying if I could do half as good as you, sah, be like your assistant or something, I could make myself useful for once.”
He had wanted to curse the man for putting him down, his hands tightening on the steering wheel of his cart to restrain himself, but he had long learned that honey worked on most everyone much more than a mouth full of vinegar would.
Besides, he may not have had much, but he had lived on his own from age sixteen in a church lady’s back room and had prided himself on never becoming one of the boys harassing motorists at stoplights with their squeegees and buckets of dirty soap water to smear across windshields for spare change.
Beryl did not know if it was the promise of his free labor that made the man, Ezra Cunningham, change his mind, but soon, when they agreed on his six-week unpaid apprenticeship, it was like Beryl had been born with a pair of sheers attached to his hands, exhibiting what Cunningham said was the eye of a true artisan. Whenever they went out to work at Devon House in those first few weeks, an audience of at least ten children and adults watched him and Cunningham transform the dense foliage, with the help of wire-frames, into flamingos, peacocks, and miniature elephants with tusks to scale.
It did not take long for Cunningham to realize that Beryl could only decode information such as logos through their shapes or colors or referential pictures and not by reading the actual words, save for the few he had learnt wholesale like hieroglyphics courtesy of Eve.
For a time, Beryl did not realize how much of his wages Cunningham had syphoned off. It became apparent in the fourth year when the older church lady who had given him the room—and had become more lover than host—asked him why his pay was less and less each month.
“Is just that tax gone up,” Beryl had said. “He show me some papers and things and say it was just inflation and how it does affect everyone pay.”
Beryl did not keep many women for long, and he had not always been sad to see them go, but this first time had been a harsh lesson.
“Somebody cannot so damn fool,” the woman had said, tossing his tool bag and sparse clothing onto the steps.
So, Beryl had to find another warm bed and make his way again. He seemed to attract the ones who came with their hands extended, who endured his simple ways and his vigorous lovemaking only for a time.
It would take them two months to figure out Beryl’s secret shame as semi-literate, and he would endure their looks of pity or rage and ask themselves why they had bothered to be around such a simpleton. He learned to craft excuses of weak eyesight, blurry vision, and migraines as explanations for his inability to read his own mail and to keep them around for just a little longer.
Now, there was Eden and they would see.
* * * * *
The day Beryl met Eden had not been particularly remarkable. He had walked into the Island Grill off Half Way Tree Road during their busy Wednesday lunch hour and pointed to the picture of fricassee chicken and seasoned fries and she had rung up his order with no fanfare or real notice, but he had noticed her, the dimpled smile she gave customers, and the way she held herself erect. Perhaps he liked her because she hummed while she made change for the customers and sang along to the Tanya Stephens ballad blaring in the restaurant. Her voice was sweet and calmed him.
“You the one to be singing on the radio,” Beryl said, getting up with his tray, once he had finished eating and the crowd had thinned.
“What?” She looked over at him and back at the coins she was counting.
“I say you should be singing for real, like on the radio,” Beryl said, emptying the remnants of his meal in the nearby trash bin and walking over to her register.
“No. I serious,” he said. “Where you learn to sing like that?”
“I used to sing in church when I was little,” she said, her dimples flashing at him.
Before he could continue, a man with a headset walked up to them from the rear of the kitchen and, looking not at her but at Beryl, he said, “Eden, we need someone to go clean up the grease on the grill.”
“You buying something else, sah?” he asked Beryl directly, and something in his tone made Beryl agitated, as though his patronizing the establishment moments before had meant nothing.
Still, Beryl shook his head and walked away to wait for what would be hours for Eden to emerge at the end of her shift.
“You know I should call police and say this strong-back man out here lay-waiting me,” Eden said with a good-natured smile, removing her apron to reveal a blouse and jeans pants that hugged her like a second skin.
“Couldn’t let a pretty little song bird like you fly away,” Beryl said, pleased he had said the line he had been rehearsing as he waited.
She had looked at him, Beryl thinking how he must appear to her with his thinning hair, stocky build, and bushy eyebrows, and yet, her smile appeared to him to mean she liked what she saw.
“Buy me a drink over at Red Bones and maybe I sing you a song,” she said.
* * * * * *
Now, Eden was looking over his shoulder at the flyer.
“Is what this?” Her bosom pressed against his back and he thought of the special lovemaking she had promised to give him that night.
“Is the singing contest,” Beryl said, taking another bite of cake and wishing he could enjoy real sugar and not this pasty substitute Eden had insisted he buy to safeguard against diabetes. He knew it only because of its red packaging she had purchased before.
“You know, maybe … maybe the both of we can enter together,” he began tentatively, using the fork to crush the rest of the cake and not looking back at her right away.
“What you talking about, me and you?”
She reached over and took up the flyer. Beryl did not like the way she had said it, her incredulity still hanging in the silence.
“But with these contests, regular somebody like you and me don’t stand no chance,” she said coming around to face him again. “Everybody know is biased them biased. Look how last year, the singer that win is only because she did know the judge family member personally.”
“This year is my time though,” Beryl said with a finality, and yet it sounded strange outside his head. He thought again of his grandmother’s words, You wasting time, mi son, and the warm feeling that flooded through him when he first read the flyer. How could he let go of it now?
“This is my time,” he said again, quieter, more to himself.
At that Eden had looked back at him. This time, he did not find her dimpling cheeks endearing. He did not find it amusing that her whole frame trembled with suppressed laughter.
“Berry, stop talking nonsense. I don’t even hear you sing in the bathroom. Where you get this idea?”
The laughter escaped her in ripples until her large bosom shook as she appeared to give herself over to it completely.
“You know what? We could …” She caught her breath between laughs. “We could … go old school like those songs you always playing. I would be J. C. Lodge and you would be Shabba Ranks, right? We could sing ‘Telephone Love’ for the judges, don’t?”
Perhaps it would have bothered him less that she laughed if he hadn’t already begun to visualize himself on stage, that people would look at him again in awe as they had done in his youth when he could still create his lavish green sculptures. He had even been in The Gleaner once.
Then, when Cunningham abandoned him in the light of confrontation about money, and more high-profile clients refused to pay him only in cash, finding it odd that Beryl did not wish to create or sign contracts or accept checks, things had begun to wane.
It had taken some years for him to get back to the job with a much smaller clientele albeit paying him less for no probing questions and his own peace of mind, and even then, people had not sought after the art as much, finding creating shapes with their vegetation a frivolity that was not justifiable with the ever-rising cost of flour driving the price of everything sky high.
By then, the joy had gone out of what little work he could get, but Beryl did not know how to do much else.
Eden had given him some hope in those last few months sating his disappointments and sorrows in the warmth of her body at night, but that fondness now too had begun to fade with the sound of her giggling grating on his nerves. He had never felt as old as he did then, realizing how far apart they were now, that somehow, she could not recognize how he had needed this one possibility.
“Well, Berry, at least there is no age restrictions,” she was saying now, winded from laughing, using a paper napkin to dab away tears. “So, I mus call you Beres Hammond now?” she continued to tease. “You have the same initials and everything. Sing something for me, nuh Beres?”
He let her laugh her fill and when she was quiet, Beryl took up his plate and stoically went to the sink. He turned on the tap, ignoring her, letting the water run and pulse through the room.
“You not angry,” she had said, sobering only for a moment, her laughter still there like a percolating teapot on a lowered flame. “You was serious, Berry?”
“It was just a stupid likkle thought,” he murmured, picking up the sponge to wash the plate.
How easily she had done it. The idea had lived and died in one afternoon and now he could see the stupidity of it. It filled him with an old self-loathing that hung on, festering. He moved the sponge around and around, watching the remnants of the cake wash down the drain, feeling a familiar heaviness settle on his chest.
He tried hard to remember what his grandmother had looked like in the dream and failed. More vivid was the memory of her lying cold in the house, her head wrapped in white and hands folded across her white dress in the cedar coffin while Beryl’s father sang sankey after sankey at the set-up, aided by white rum and grief. To Beryl at that age, it had appeared a spectacle, the contrast of the somberness of her body in repose while people gyrated as though they were at a dance and not a dead yard. Perhaps that is why she had come to him, that somehow, she was not at peace.
He listened now to Eden singing a few bars of Beres Hammond’s Can You Play Some More. He knew it was to mock him and felt the pulsing at his temples.
A terrible thought flittered through his mind. What would it be like to wrap his soapy hands around her neck until she stopped laughing? He would look down on her silent and still and perhaps he would be the very one to sing a sankey for her so her spirit could travel away from him in peace at her own wake.
“But Berry, you never read the whole of it?” she asked, coming into the room again with the flyer. “Them say no duets, groups, or bands, and plus, you never see the date already pass for the Kingston auditions. The next place is all the way in MoBay.”
Beryl turned off the tap and turned to look at her. All of the excuses were ready in his mind to reel off quickfire as he had done many times before.
“I can’t read it,” he said instead, surprised at how the words came out of him, fluid. Perhaps since they were motivated by a bid for her to leave him now, they had come more easily, but when she stood looking at him, all the traces of mirth gone from her face, he had regretted such bald honesty.
He turned back to the sink and turned on the tap to wash the plate again.
“I was wondering about that,” she said quietly.
Beryl hated the silence that hovered like a palpable thing.
“I can help you if you want,” she said finally.
Beryl did not look at her right away, blinking back moisture springing in his eyes.
“But Berry, if anyone is entering that contest, is me because we both know you not a singer,” she said, coming to wrap her arms around his pudgy midsection.
He stood still for a beat longer, letting her embrace him. Then, slowly, he reached up a wet hand to pat hers.
“Maybe you can help me wid that too,” he said.
“One thing at a time,” she said. “I never say I can promise miracles.”
This time when he felt the vibrations of her laughter, he let it infect him, dissolving something hard in his chest.
Cover Art by Sarah Hussein