Jan 13, 2020 News
By Michael Jordan
The area where the brothels were located seemed to hold a darkness of its own, despite the presence of the same intermittent streetlights that were characteristic of Georgetown. It was the same with the street where he now stood. He looked up at the building that they had once called The Ritz. He still wasn’t certain what had brought him here, only that he had felt drawn to the place the first time he had seen it, just a week ago.
He could hear music upstairs. He saw the silhouette of a woman at a window, a glowing cigarette dangling from one hand. And like that first time, he sensed eyes on him.
Michael Jones would later wonder whether he would ever have come to the old hotel-turned-brothel if he hadn’t broken up with Shonette. He’d planned to stay the night; himself and Shonette in her bedroom in the old house in Bent Street; her big sister—knifed to death a year later—in another room with the boy that she sneaked in when her husband worked the night shift at Sproston’s wharf.
But Shonette was dressed to go out when he arrived. He suspected that she was going out with her ex-boyfriend, who played in a steelband, and who had blackened her eye once over him. He stuck around for a few minutes, mumbled goodbye, kissed her even as she turned her lips away, and left.
He thought of going to the movies, and he let the taxi stop in Charlotte Street opposite the Strand Cinema. But it was already nine-thirty, which meant that the first show was almost done.
Dressed up and nowhere to go…
It was then that he remembered the place he’d seen for the first time a week ago.
He hadn’t thought that he would have found The Ritz so easily at night. With nightfall, the area approaching High Street seemed to take on a sordidness that he wasn’t conscious of in daylight. As he approached the end of Charlotte Street, heading to High Street, someone emitted a cat-call from an empty lot. He glanced in the direction of the sound, and found himself staring at two young men with tight shirts and broad-belted, bell-bottom pants hanging girlishly on their hips.
He glanced away quickly and hurried on. Further up, near the Avenue of the Republic, a grotesquely fat woman in a denim miniskirt sat on a fire hydrant opposite City Hall. Even in the semi-darkness, he could see the knobs of fat on her thighs.
“Doing business, Reds?” she called to him in a hoarse voice.
What the hell was he getting himself into? He thought of heading to Stabroek Market, and catching a bus that would take him home. But he felt drawn on by a sense that something extraordinary was about to happen to him. He stepped into High Street and headed south. There were fewer streetlights now, and the ones that existed seemed to emit a weak, yellow glow that the darkness absorbed. The sound of strident Indian music came to him from a large, two-storied building.
He walked further on… and there it was. The pagoda-style building on the opposite side of the road.
It wasn’t empty this time. Someone was playing a corny old tune by Paul and Paula. The lights were on in the second storey. The door to the entrance was open. Again, for the briefest of moments, he sensed someone watching him from that empty window at the top. He took a deep breath, and stepped inside.
A brief flight of wooden steps took him to a hallway that had been converted into a sort of beer garden. Men and women sat drinking at wooden tables and benches. A slim, tallish-looking woman with a low afro, and a dab of powder between her breasts, sat between two men. An older woman with a similar hairstyle, and with a sulky mouth, dragged on a cigarette, while a man spoke to her. A fair-skinned woman, whom he estimated to be in her twenties, put ice into a glass; a sullen-looking man had an arm around her.
The music that he had heard came from a punch-box in a distant corner. To his right, a bearded man in a red, gold and green toque served drinks from behind a meshed-in bar.
Michael sensed eyes on him as he entered the brothel. To cover his self-consciousness, he walked over to the bar and ordered a beer. He then stood, bracing against the rail of the inner stairs.
He glanced at his watch, surprised to see that it was already eleven. His parents would want him in church tomorrow. Maybe he should leave after he finished his beer…
But then he heard light footsteps coming down the corridor, and the most beautiful woman he had ever seen stepped into the hallway, and he knew, somehow, that this was the woman who had stared at him from the brothel window.
The woman entering the brothel was about his height. She was fair, with long black hair, and high cheekbones and eyes that marked her Amerindian heritage. She seemed to check her stride as their eyes met, and he thought he saw the hint of a smile at the edges of her lips. She passed close to him before she headed for the bar, leaving behind a faint, musky scent. He sensed a perceptible lull in the now-familiar noises of the brothel; sensed eyes on the woman; furtive, hostile. He thought he heard someone suck their teeth.
The woman had a small handbag slung over her shoulder. She opened it and handed the barman a dollar. He handed her a bottle of Woodpecker Cider and a glass of ice, and, without looking in his direction, but with that same hint of a smile, she headed to the other end of the hallway, disappearing in a corner that was concealed by the bar.
The older woman with the short afro threw a barking, humourless laugh in the direction in which the girl had disappeared. A man who had punched another tune into the punch-box stared at the corner where the woman had disappeared, then moved to a table.
Again, he sensed that he was on the verge of some strange experience that was linked to this woman. He had sensed again, in that brief stare, the hint of a game being played.
Was she a prostitute? None of the men had even made a pass at her, though he sensed, from the way she had approached the bar, that she was not a stranger here. Was she alone? Was she waiting for someone? What was she doing in that corner?
Why not come and find out? a voice said in his head.
And if he went to her and she caused a commotion, maybe he could get thrown out. If he didn’t, however, he would never know the truth of this mystery.
He took out his handkerchief, wiped his face. He resisted the temptation to pat his afro. He took a deep breath and, feeling as if everyone was watching him, and knew what he was up to, walked on legs that seemed to be someone else’s, to the girl’s corner.
But he didn’t go directly to her. He went to the punch-box, which was about twelve feet from the girl’s table. He peered at the selections, conscious of the girl to his right. Mr. Editor, by Brook Benton…I’m Aware of love…Jerry Butler…The Answer To Everything…Del Shannon….more oldies…some Ernie Smith reggae tunes that had gone out since he was in first form….no Donna Summer…nothing from Thank God It’s Friday…nothing from Bob Marley’s latest album…nothing from Max Romeo or…
Hotel California…The Eagles
That was okay. He took a twenty-five-cent piece from his pocket, fumbled it into the slit at the side of the punch-box…listened to it tinkle, then heard the introductory guitar-piece for Hotel California. Heart thumping, he turned from the punch-box, as if he was about to return to his position by the stairs. Then, as if suddenly changing his mind, he headed for the girl’s table. She was staring out of the window.
She turned to him. Just stared.
“Excuse me,” he said again. “Is alright…if I sit here? I wouldn’t be disturbing you—”
He thought he saw the hint of that same mocking smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
Finally, she said: “Is alright.” Not hostile; not welcoming, either. Her voice had a strange lilt. She turned back to the window.
He edged himself into the bench facing hers, sitting with his body turned slightly away from her. His legs were trembling, the way they had when he had first danced with a girl. He tapped his fingers on the table, a man just interested in music and a few beers…
He tried to not stare at her, but her persona was magnetic. He watched her as she continued to stare indifferently out of the window. She had a proud, haughty profile. He sensed that she was older that he had first thought…twenty-five, at least. He saw tiny crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes and other lines on her long neck. Skin paler than he would have liked, as if she seldom saw sunlight. Her hair, loose and jet black, long past her shoulders, combed back from a high forehead. But the most arresting thing was her mouth. Full, pouting lips, made more prominent by her high cheekbones; a mouth that seemed to evoke several emotions at once: amusement, cruelty, sadness.
He could smell that strange perfume that made his thoughts spin, that made him want to reach across and touch the too-pale skin of this girl, who was staring outside at heaven knows what in Lombard Street.
But with that thought came an image of her screaming obscenities at him, and his humiliating exit from the brothel…
Something touched him under the table. Something soft, smooth and warm, touching his left leg just below the knee.
He felt his face becoming hot. It couldn’t be…He gave the girl a quick glance as he took a sip at his beer. She was still staring out of the window. He sensed that something was different, but could read nothing in the haughty profile.
He shifted his leg away slightly, while pretending to glance at his watch. Almost immediately, the leg was touching his again; and not just touching, but pressing and rubbing slyly against his. He stole a glance at her. Her right hand was griping the window-sill. Her eyes were almost closed. Her face seemed to glow with more colour.
He began to press his leg against hers, felt her pressing back.
He glanced at his watch. Eleven-thirty. Now! he thought. He turned to the girl. “Ah…excuse me..”
The slanted eyes focused on him, yet, there seemed to be a strange blankness to them. Then she said: “Yes?”
“Ah…can I buy you something to drink?” The words came out in a tone that was too high and tremulous—too anxious. He dropped his eyes from the girl’s, his face hot, braced mentally for a blunt refusal.
“Yes,” she said.
Michael returned to the bar, noticed the barman’s surprised and questioning look when he ordered the cider. He thought of buying another beer, but opted for an ale instead.
She smiled her thanks when he returned with the cider. He sat closer to her this time, and though she still stared out of the window, he still felt the slow, intermittent rubbing of their legs under the table. The play was burning him up.
She was staring at him now. “First time you up here?”
Again, he caught that strange inflection, almost as if she were speaking a language that was foreign to her.
“Yes,” he said.
“You from town?”
God, he could listen to that voice all night. “Yes,” he said again, and, thinking he should say something further added: “My name’s Michael.”
“Mi-kal,”she repeated thoughtfully. “Michael…” Then, before he could ask, she said “I am Lucille.”
He had expected something more exotic; Spanish-sounding, perhaps. But Lucille was okay, exotic in its own way.
She seemed to hesitate, then said, “North-West.”
Silence for a while, just staring, the touching of legs, his mind spinning at her closeness, wondering at this strange, coiled tension that he sensed behind the smile playing around the edges of that wide mouth; wondering where this was heading, thinking he knew; thinking why me? as he remembered the face at the window at the top of the Ritz; wondering at the dreamy and almost disquieting feeling of having done this before…
Suddenly she reached for her hand-bag. She stood, and he watched her head to the now-silent punch-box. She pressed the buttons, then returned to the table. From the punch-box came the crackling sound of a record that had been played too much, then the husky and wistful voice of Helen Shapiro floated to them…
Somewhere beyond the sea
Somewhere waiting for me
My lover stands on golden sands
And watches the ships that go sailing
He felt his skin break out in goosebumps. An unbearable loneliness swept through him. Her hands were on the table, fondling her half-empty glass. He saw his right hand stretching out to hers. He couldn’t stop it. It was as if it belonged to someone else.
He touched her fingers, held them, drew her hand gently away from her glass. Her fingers were damp, cool, the feel of her scattering his already jumbled thoughts. Her fingers tightened around his.
“Come upstairs with me,” she said.
The words brought back the memory of the pale face at the window, and with that memory came a churning disquiet. But then she rose, and he was following her past the staring patrons, then to the end of the corridor, up long, dark, twisting uneven stairs, up one storey, then the next, then down a short corridor, and finally she stopped at a room at the middle of the corridor. She opened her handbag, pushed a large key into the door and entered.
The light was off, but some light filtered through the window facing Harel Street and the other small window to the east. In the light, he saw a chair, a warashi slung on a wall, a small bed, and a large and apparently new mirror, which seemed out of place in the sparsely decorated room.
As they entered the room, he heard a rustling sound rushing to his head. He ducked, and emitted a cry of surprise, as something that looked like a large moth fluttered close to his face, then darted to the eastern wall where the warashi hung. He heard the rustling of wings for a moment, like cockroaches among old paper, then silence.
The girl laughed softly. She stared towards the warashi and said something in a dialect that he couldn’t discern.
He joined in her laughter to cover his embarrassment, though his heart was thumping, and the incident brought back a niggling sense of disquiet. But then she moved to the bed, and everything that happened after that had the mixed-up quality of a dream…
Someone was shaking him. He awoke, to see a woman with a pale face and long, loose hair smiling down on him. For a moment, he wondered what this strange woman was doing in his bed. Then the memory of his crazy night came back to him.
He sat up. How long had he spent here? He realised that he hadn’t removed his watch. The luminous hands said two-fifteen. Sunday, and here he was, lying in this brothel, with day-clean creeping up on him…his father had said something about church today…
“You going now,” she said.
The sound of her voice, the scent of her, brought back a surge of memories, and he thought of just lying there, maybe just for another hour…He kissed her, then, reluctantly, sat at the edge of the bed. He peered in the darkness, saw his trousers and jersey, slung on the chair. The girl rose, touched a switch near the door. He got a flash of the small, strange tattoo on her left thigh; something that looked like a scorpion with wings. Another surge of lust hit him as he watched her nakedness. She smiled as she caught him staring.
He stood, surprised as a sudden bout of dizziness struck him. He blinked, and the dizziness subsided. He went over to the chair and retrieved his clothing.
He pulled on his jeans, feeling the afro-comb in one of the side pockets, now remembering that he had walked with it in anticipation of his tryst with Shonette. He put on his jersey, combed his hair quickly in front of the mirror. He put on his Hush-puppies, then looked up to see the girl standing near him.
He felt a sudden wave of depression at the thought of leaving. He pulled the girl to him, hugging her tight, inhaling her scent. Her arms encircled him, and he caressed her back, pausing as his fingers encountered a small depression just above her left hip.
She flinched away from his fingers. “I will follow you downstairs,” she said. She shifted out of his arms and headed to the bed. He watched her retrieve her clothes from the bed-rail, puzzled by the sharpness in her voice, the sudden shift in mood. But when she came over to him, fully dressed, she was smiling, the sudden, strange moodiness apparently gone. She caressed his face, then opened the door, and he followed her back down the long, uneven stairs.
She lingered at the bottom to give him a long, sweet kiss. “I will see you soon,” she said. She stared after him as he made his way back down the corridor.
The hall was empty now, the barman nowhere in sight. He half-wondered if he had dreamt it all, because when he looked back up the corridor, the girl was gone, too.
THE tiredness hit him as he turned into Lombard Street. His eyes burned; his legs felt heavy. Had he just left the bed of a beautiful prostitute, who had demanded nothing from him? The feeling that he had dreamt it all returned. He felt the urge to turn back to see if the Ritz, and the girl, really did exist.
You crazy, dread. Of course, she was real. The scent of her was still on him. The memory of her harsh breathing was still in his head.
As he passed the Pakarima Guest House near the end of Lombard Street, he saw a tall, square-shouldered man coming towards him. As they neared each other, the man fumbled in his shirt pocket and took out a cigarette. He stopped, patted his pockets, sucked his teeth, then stared at Michael.
“You got matches, friend?”
“Nah,” Michael said, and continued on his way, his thoughts only on sleep.
And so he failed to see the man turn to stare at him; sniffing the air, brow furrowed in what seemed like surprise and consternation.
The man, a pork-knocker named Vibert Sealey, stood for a moment longer, his unlit cigarette dangling and forgotten in his mouth. He sniffed the air again. Nothing now. But he could have sworn that he had smelt perfume. But not just any perfume. Her perfume. He had smelt it when he had passed the boy. He shook his head, trying to push away the sudden rush of dread, mixed, as always, with a stirring in his old loins.
Nerves, Vibert Sealey…just nerves!
He continued south down Lombard Street, then headed into Harel Street. Now the smell came to him again. He stopped. Yes, there it was…he had always had a keen nose. He looked around. He was standing near The Ritz Guest House.
It was his old watering hole, before Josephine and his fight with Johnny Perreira. Now he recalled that someone had told him that The Ritz had reopened. Hadn’t the person also said something about it being a brothel now?
The windows were shut, the building in darkness, but now he suddenly sensed hostile eyes on him. He stared up at the building. Stared up both sides of the street. Nothing.
So why was his skin crawling?
“The hell with it,” he muttered. “The hell with it.”
Then he hurried east down Harel Street, walking as fast as he could from those unseen eyes, and from that smell, that maddening smell…
(Taken from the supernatural novel Kamarang by Michael Jordan.
Copies of the illustrated edition of Kamarang will be on sale again this week at Austin’s Book Store. Kamarang (Kindle and paperback, with illustrations) is also available on Amazon
The author can also be contacted for autographed copies on +592 645 2447 or by email: [email protected])
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