Thinking about death, he slipped away from Lapeyrouse cemetery through the Tragarete Road gate and began to make his way home. He knew that they would miss him, even see him go—he didn't know. What he did know, however, was that he did not want to stay through to the end and hear the thud of the earth falling on the mattress they always put on the coffin to cushion the sound.
Robbie had been his friend from the time they were about three. He had lived right across the street. They had seen each other every day ever since. It had come as a surprise to realise that his partner, his buddy, was gone. For eleven years they had gone to school together, fought in the road, both been in love with Janice Lockhart, shared food from the same plate, slept in the same bed, "brothers of the spear" all the way. Now this boy just gone and dead—wow.
In the facing evening light he walked up Stanmore Avenue. The streets seemed empty and bathed in a pale gray glow. It would be good if he could make it to the tram stop opposite Marli Street. Then he could ride the Savannah car all the way home, or nearly.
As it turned out, he missed the car, and decided to walk through the Savannah. The night came on quickly. The setting sun blended with the rising moon, which appeared fully mature, accompanied by an icy wind and the smell of wreaths and newly-turned earth.
The wide stretch of the Queen's Park Savannah lay before him. He was from around here, so he knew that many cows grazed in the park. He knew too to avoid the cemetery and how to jump the racetrack railings. He was at home.
He remembered how he and Robbie used to break l'ecole biche in the Savannah, spending the whole day up in a big tree, eating hale filé and cowature pocham. He remembered the kite-flying days, kicking ball, turning out in white flannels to bat for St. Francis and blaze Robbie's bowling. Robbie went to Mr. de Four's school. He could remember everything, everything.
They had a whistle, their own code to call each other. If you put words to it, it would go "Monkeeeee eric! Monkeeeee eric!" He whistled it now, loudly, over and over, as loud as he could, then again even louder, to the echo this time. That startled him—he looked around the clear, lit ground, almost expecting—what? Ahead, on the Circular Road, the tram that he had missed passed with a clang. It passed the big silk cotton tree, the café and the Overseas Forces' Club. At the corner of Cadiz Road, it stopped to let off a flock of pretty girls in big hats, lacy dresses and white stockings. He vaulted the Savannah rail, sprinted across the street and headed for Industry Lane, where he lived with his granny, never noticing the little fellow who had appeared with the echo, and who now hovered just a little off the ground with knees slightly bent and feet facing the direction from which he had come.
He didn't know why, but after that evening he often walked through the Savannah from Marli Street to Cadiz Road. Many a night he used to whistle, "Monkeeee eric!"—loud, until the sound of his whistling would come back as an echo which never failed to startle him a little. Then, with queasy sort of fear, a slight panic, he would run, vault the Savannah rail, and head for Industry Lane and home. The little fellow would fly unseen behind him, taking with him a whiff of old flowers and stagnant water.
In the morning, he would wake up to the smell of the smoke from the coal-pot, blending with the rich aroma of chocolate boiling. He and his grandmother lived in a little two-bedroom house on a small plot of land under the shade of a very large breadfruit tree. As an only child, he was accustomed to be by himself and, although he really missed his partner Robbie, he was busy attending Mr. Pantin's school for Pitman's shorthand and bookkeeping. He liked to go to the cinema, Olympic, Royal or Rialto, to the 4.30 matinee.
One afternoon in the Royal, alone in "house", watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the second time, he heard the whistle. It made him jump. It seemed to come from very close, almost in his ear. He looked around the darkened space—no one, except quite up in the back, two people kissing. The huge beam of the projector was slicing through the dark.
Rain was drizzling as he left the Royal that night. Not a cat in the road as he walked quickly up Charlotte Street. As he crossed Oxford Street, he looked back. He thought he saw a strange reflection in the wet and shiny street. Just beyond the streetlight a white shape flashed on the ground. He quickened his step. He knew the town had strange things aplenty, but he was not in that. As he turned into the lane, almost at his gate, he heard the whistle, low, from far off. He ducked inside and went to bed.
That night he dreamt that he and Robbie were playing "bloké", standing side by side, pitching marbles into a hole in the wall behind his grandmother's kitchen. Robbie had hundreds of bright, glassy marbles. All he had were some dull gray "codens" and two blue "quiawoue". He turned in his bed and halfway woke up and thought he was dreaming that he was hugging a little, naked baby with icy cold feet.
The next morning he woke up late and there was a funny smell like pee. He spent the day alone; his grandmother had gone by train to San Fernando and would come back about midday the following day. That afternoon he went for a walk on the pitch round the Savannah. He sat in the Botanical Gardens, looking at the children playing, and he whistled his habitual whistle, "Monkeeeeee eric!" Later he took his tea in the little gallery, enjoying the haunting zither music that was the theme of a radio programme about a man called Harry Lyon, who had been shot in Vienna. That's when he heard the whistle. It sounded like it came from inside. As he rose to look, he saw the little fellow hovering just inside the gate. A fat little baby with his feet turned backwards and a wide old-time straw hat on his head. His whole body went cold. He knew it was a duenn.
Quickly the vision faded. That night he stayed up until Rediffusion went off the air with a prayer at eleven o'clock. He kept all the lights on in the house and sat in the tiny drawing room until sleep overtook him in the wee hours. Sure enough, he dreamt of the little fellow floating around, whistling "Monkee eric".
The next morning he couldn't stay alone. He took a tram down to the railway station to wait for his grandmother. Because he knew old Mr. Popplewell, the ticket collector, he was allowed to wait on the platform for the train. With a rush, much hissing and great clanging, the big old train filled up the station. There was his granny, nice and plump and real, with a bag of paw-paw balls for him and lots of news from Auntie Leone. That afternoon he told her about the duenn. She became quite still and looked long and hard at him.
"He was your friend. You called him back," she said. "You know Robbie came from China when he was little. He came to the Lees, he was their sister's son. I don't think they baptised him."
It occurred to him that the one thing he and Robbie had not done together was First Communion. That very afternoon his grandmother set to work. She swept the house and yard with a new cocoyea broom. She turned his bed around so he now slept with his head to the west. That night she prayed, "Out of the depths we cry to you...", and as he went to bed she sprinkled holy water, which she always kept in a little bottle in the cabinet, around his bed. Then, she sat in the rocker at his side to wait, her chaplet in hand.
He stayed up as long as he could, but the orange peel tea she had given him eventually took effect and he drifted off to sleep. She was just dozing when the cocks in the breadfruit tree started to crow. Their noise woke her, but what brought her to her senses was the little fellow who hovered just inside the door. "Monkeee eric," he whistled softly, "monkee eric!" Making the sign of the cross, she got up and went to him.
"He can't play with you again, Robbie, you have to go back now where you come from." She raised the little bottle with the holy water, letting some drops fall.
"I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen. Go home now, Robbie, go home."
To prevent similar experiences with duennes, never call your children's names out loud in the open, as a duenn might overhear and lure them away. Also, you shouldn't whistle in the middle of the Savannah, or whistle in the dark night. Robbie might be looking for a tree to climb...
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