Without moving, the figure in the darkness seemed to have shifted forward. And it had to be his imagination, because there was no light in the corner, but for a second he’d seemed to see her eyes, and had seen that they were fixed on him…
“I remember the morning when she first come up here. She was more thin…skin more white. She looked around, smiled, and gave me four pennyweights and say: “I want the room at the top.”
By Michael Jordan
A power failure had hit the area. In the gloom, the Ritz looked like the old, abandoned shell that it sometimes appeared to be in his dreams. But the door was open, and Sealey saw a light flickering at one of the windows. His footsteps echoed as he climbed the stairs. The brothel was empty, save for the tall, fair skinned chap who seemed to be always bumming a drink. The barman was there, too, sitting near to a sooty kerosene lamp. He smiled as he saw Sealey. “Well, at least one customer ain’t desert me tonight.”
“What about me?” asked the fair-skinned chap.
The barman laughed. “You is a customer? I talking about people who does come up hay and buy.” He stood as Sealey came closer.
“What you getting, mister?”
“It gun be warm, you know.”
Behind Sealey, the red-skinned youth said: “Hey Desmond, I pushing off now,” and headed down the stairs.
The barman returned from the freezer with two bottles. He watched Sealey grimace at the taste of the warm beer. “Since morning,” he said. “Since morning the lights gone off. Doan know why they doan dump the whole Electricity Corporation in the flippin Atlantic.”
Sealey tried to smile at the barman’s good-natured grumbling, but the man’s voice, echoing in the empty brothel, added to his unease. He glanced at the corridor. He wondered if the girl would show herself tonight. Or maybe she wouldn’t because of the blackout. Maybe the blackout was a blessing, and now maybe he could go home and lie with Brenda and stop poking his nose into other people’s business…
“Like yuh girls desert you tonight.” The words were out before he could stop them.
The barman shrugged. “Well, they got to go where the customers deh.” He took a long drink from his beer, then placed the bottle next to a cluster of other bottles nearby.
“This is your business?”
The barman wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Nah. Running it for an old bush whore who buy it last year. Get it cheap, because nobody want it for business. They say it blight.” He smiled. “But I think business gun pick up.”
“Especially if you could get girls like that good-looking Amerindian girl I see here sometimes.” Again, the words were out before he knew he was going to say them. He felt a bitterness at himself, and yet an excitement that now he’d have to stay and see things out.
The barman shrugged. “I wouldn’t really say she is one of my girls.” He seemed to hesitate, then added. “She different. She renting she own room.” He stared down at the counter. “And I know she could do better, but I guess is not my business. I ain’t worrying, as long as she paying.”
But the barman was worried, Sealey sensed. Sealey removed his cap, placed it on the counter. “She coming here long?”
The barman frowned. “She start coming up here around May…no… June. She come up here, keeping to sheself, making styles on every man that rush she. And then, just like that, this baby-face boy come, and the first night … “He shook his head. “You know, I doan even think he paying?”
And why did he feel that he had heard this same conversation recently? “Maybe he know her before.” Sealey’s voice seemed to come from far away, and he wasn’t sure that he had spoken.
“You mean they had something going before? Don’t think so.” He grinned. “You ever see how worn out that chap does look when he come from she room?”
Again, that disturbing sense of deja vu.
“I hope he doan get too tied up with she,” the barman was saying, his voice dragging Sealey back from Kamarang. “Between you and me, they got something about that bitch…”
Someone smashed a bottle in the street nearby. A woman cursed shrilly, adding some normality to the night. The sounds reminded Sealey that there was a saner world outside that he could return to anytime he chose to. He looked at the barman. The man’s bearded, shadowed face; his voice, which had dropped almost to a mumble, reminded him of his grandfather, telling jumbie stories on a moonlit back-step.
Sealey sipped his beer. “You know where she from?”
The barman shook his head. “The people who might know is the boy…or that old woman she claim is she auntie or grandmother.”
The barman pulled at his beer. “A cripple-foot old lady she rent a room for near she own.”
“Cripple…how?” But he already knew. It hadn’t been a crippled woman at Kamarang, but a crippled, broad-shouldered man who’d done the girl’s chores; a man with one of his feet turned backwards…
“That girl is a really strange bitch, now that you mention it,” the barman said. “I remember the morning when she first come up here. She was more thin…skin more white. She looked around, smiled, and gave me four pennyweights and say: “I want the room at the top.” I carry she upstairs, and again she smile, and look around … and moved around—almost as if she been here before, which is impossible because—”
The barman broke off suddenly and stiffened. His eyes shifted.
Sealey felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise as he smelt the familiar, musky perfume, and before he could help himself he’d turned, and there she was, within touching distance, face yellow-shadowed in the lamplight. He watched, frozen in place, as she floated past him like he wasn’t there and stopped at the bar. A rustle of paper as she dipped into her handbag.
“Cider,” she said in that quick, sing-song voice, and it seemed to Sealey that the barman was darting to the freezer before the girl had finished speaking. She took the bottle and her change, then moved to the table nearest to the punch-box; her black hair, her black dress, swallowed up in the semi-darkness.
“Move like a flippin cat,” the barman muttered. He glanced over at the girl. “What the hell she doing sitting in the dark?” he sucked his teeth softly, then moved to the freezer; returning with another beer. He drank, grumbling about the blackout and pretending to ignore the girl.
Sealey’s eyes kept shifting to the girl. He wished he could see her face clearly. Was she watching him? Had she overheard their conversation? Had she been listening in the corridor? But what if she had? She was only a prostitute, damn it! What he should do is go over to her and demand the truth from her; shake it out of her if necessary—
Something in the girl’s posture had changed. Without moving, the figure in the darkness seemed to have shifted forward. And it had to be his imagination, because there was no light in the corner, but for a second he’d seemed to see her eyes, and had seen that they were fixed on him.
He shifted back against the step-rail; and though he hadn’t seen it do so, it seemed to him that the figure in the chair had shifted back into the shadows.
He expelled a long breath. No sense going over now. She’d only deny, or cause a scene, which would make him do something stupid. Now was not the time to confront her. He raised the bottle to his lips. It was empty. He put the bottle on the counter, told the barman he was leaving, then headed for the stairs. He cursed himself for chickening out, even as he wondered, again, whether she’d overheard them.
He was edgy, alert to every sound and shadow, and somehow, he wasn’t surprised when, half-way down the stairs, he saw a tiny woman coming up. She came up the stairs quickly, silently, and he continued down the stairs, because, after all, she was just a flipping old woman. But he was thinking that there was something wrong about the way she moved, because she wasn’t limping at all. He did not want to look at her feet, but he looked, anyway, and he guessed that it was too dark, because why couldn’t he see her insteps?
Quarter-way up the stairs she stopped abruptly, and stared at Sealey, her face a white blob in the murky light. She made a strange, sniffing sound—loud in the silence and the darkness. After a moment, she continued up the stairs, now gripping the rail to her right, and now she was limping, and now he could see the instep of her good leg. He shifted aside, praying that she wouldn’t brush him as she passed. She looked straight ahead, but she made the strange, sniffing sound, once more, as she passed.
He continued down the stairs, feeling a tingling at the nape of his neck as if someone was watching him. He forced himself to not look back; hurrying down the stairs, hurrying away from the brothel, hurrying into Lombard Street, past two women sitting on a stack of lumber near the White Coconut Tree brothel.
It was while he was approaching Stabroek Market that he realised that he had forgotten his cap. He cursed softly. He’d had that cap for years. It was almost like a part of him now.
He sighed. No sense turning back. Hopefully, the barman would see it. He could collect it when he returned.
But even as he entered a taxi, he thought of his cap; feeling now a vague unease at the thought of leaving a part of himself in the brothel, with its two women who seemed to prefer shadows to light.
(Taken from the Guyanese supernatural novel, KAMARANG by Michael Jordan. Cover design by Harold Bascom.)
KAMARANG IS BACK ON SALE FROM TODAY AT AUSTIN’S BOOKSTORE. The illustrated version is also available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.
You can also contact Michael Jordan for an autographed copy on +592 645 2447, or email address [email protected]
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