There was a time when the world was nothing but blazing sun. Other people measured the passage of days in terms of wet season and dry, cane planting and burning, but none of that meant anything to me.
What I knew was sun and dark, the latter a nothing, a time in which I slept and did not exist, but the former an invasion by God’s eye, his blinding, relentless eye, which illuminated everything, turning the water in the bay a strange graphite blue and making every object leap from its background as if outlined in ebony pencil. The sun-world was extra-dimensional, unnaturally bright. A world of holograms. I used to think the sun could see right through me, exposing the bones inside, like Mother’s X-rays. Mother said God’s eye is everywhere.
She never said his ear was everywhere. Maybe because she didn’t like to remind herself that hers were dying. That’s how I thought of them, anyway – fainting, withering little cochleae in the twilight chamber of her head, coughing their last in the penthouse sickroom atop her thin, tough, indefatigable body. Nothing else about her ever stopped. Certainly not her expectations. But the ears languished on in a kind of permanent invalidism that only made her vision sharper.
We lived in those years on Duke of Gloucester Street, near the end where it almost touches South Cove. Ten feet beyond our hedge, the pavement turned to sand and became a path through the scrub palms that cluttered the shore nearly to the water’s edge. The palms weren’t tall enough to provide shade, but because I was so small, I could hide behind them and peek through their spiky fronds as if through my own fingers, sheltering a little from the prying sun when we went to bathe. I would watch Mother and my father sitting on a blanket with the radio they always brought down to the beach: my mother impassively upright in the wooden chair she preferred to sit on – small and unyielding, just like her – my father sprawled on his back with his shirt unbuttoned, exposing his soft, always-pasty stomach, his arms crossed over his face.
They listened to opera. Mother could barely hear even the loudest voices, but in spite of that, she could tell when my father was humming along and would shush him curtly, as if seeing him enjoy the music offended her. She would guess at the names of the arias and he would grunt very softly – an almost imperceptible laugh in the sound – if she were wrong. She couldn’t detect it; it was his refuge, for no one wanted Mother to hear that she was wrong.
But if she guessed right, he would reach up and pat her knee, and there was still tenderness in the touch. I remember that he patted her very gently.
We went down to the beach nearly every weekend, as soon as my father had dismissed his last class and carefully dusted the harp and two pianos, locking the room behind him. He wouldn’t permit the janitor to touch the instruments; instead, he kept a stack of soft cloths in a cabinet and polished the smooth, black wood, the yellow keys and the ornate, gilded harp frame himself, singing a little or stopping to strike a few chords. When I was finally old enough to attend school, I would report to him at the end of the last day each week and watch him do this, impatient to get home and change and sink my feet into the sand at the water’s edge.
I was eight when I stopped being able to remember his face.
Before her hearing took to its bed, Mother had been something of a singer herself, a soprano with a small, clear, Christmas-carol sort of voice. She and my father met when she was 20, after he became choirmaster of her church. I have always imagined them eying each other over their sheets of music, their want heightened by the film-score effect of the hymns and motets pulsing around them. I frankly don’t know what the attraction was, at least on her part – probably because I can’t recall him clearly. All I see of him in my mind anymore is those moments on the beach and in the schoolroom. He remains now too shadowy to exude any sexuality perceptible to the adult me. A mood is what he has become – a mood of reassurance that has irrevocably disappeared.
Most likely, Mother was drawn in part to his musical gift and to his position of relative authority. I asked her once why she had married him and this is what she said: “Conducting.” That’s it. Conducting. I feel pretty sure she wasn’t implying that he conveyed any electricity.
I never heard her say she loved him. I never heard her say she loved me, either. It seemed to be one of those things she thought no one needed to actually say, such as why it was important to practice scales. If you had to ask, you were an irredeemable ninny for whom an education was a waste of her effort.
I did hear her say once that she missed him. Or something like it. I had wanted her to explain, shouting as I had to, how to count the 5/4 rhythm of a passage I was practicing. I was 11, I believe. She started to reply and then stopped. “Your father would know,” she finally said. It’s the only time I remember her even obliquely admitting that she didn’t have every atom of the ability necessary to raise me to manhood.
It gave me a curious feeling, half triumph, half terror. Even though I deeply resented her know-it-allness, even then, and knew it to be a dominating, arrogant pretense that she maintained through sheer, implacable, unpleasant will no matter how often we both confronted her fallibility, the sham had gradually become as dependably normal as it was irritating to me, and surely sustaining to her.
To admit of a chink in this titanium armor was to suddenly face the possibility that the sun could burn out or that playing the piano could become boring. It was startling and unthinkable. Mostly unthinkable.
I practiced a great deal after my father died. Mother didn’t have to urge me, although she did, of course, constantly. Playing accomplished a number of things at once – kept me on good terms with her, made me feel near to my father, allowed me to stay out of the merciless sun. I wouldn’t go to the beach anymore, which suited Mother, as well. She now sat in that small wooden chair just outside the parlor door, on the screened porch, pretending to read Scripture. Mostly, she listened to me endlessly play exercises and recital pieces.
Well, listened. Felt me play was probably more like it, although I think, for a long time, she could pick up some of the forte right-hand tones. She had lost the left-hand ones years before, but for their vibration.
When I was angry with her, I would play lightly, so she couldn’t feel them.
She was determined that I would be a prodigy, I guess, and I obliged her by becoming one. A pale enough distinction – there wasn’t a lot of competition on our island, naturally, although the church had a good boy choir, most of whose older members had studied with my father. Still, even most of those boys practiced football a lot harder than they did their music. I might have, too, had Mother permitted me to play sports.
I suppose you could say that I had an inclination for piano at that age, and it certainly helped me later. It was something I could do that Mother couldn’t. Not well, anyway. And it wasn’t singing, which she could. Once.
I was taught by Simon Brownlea, the man hired to replace my father. By the time I was 14, I could play better than he and we both knew it. Mother would invite him home to dinner occasionally and he would play for her afterward, his graying blond hair falling over his spectacles as he thumped his way through the Grieg – again – or some Mozart. If he hit a wrong note, I would call out the right one and the sound of my voice always made him flinch.
Which I enjoyed, of course. Oh, it wasn’t that I didn’t like him, exactly – I rather did. He was a good, encouraging sort. I learned a great deal from him. But he had the inescapable misfortune not to be my father, and by the time I surpassed him, I had begun to feel contempt for the smallness of his life and ambitions.
I suppose I was beastly to him. I always teased him about his great success with the ladies. He wasn’t married, and as far as I knew from my teenaged snooping, had never even taken a girl to the movies. Of course, I hadn’t either, yet, but I was certain I had the potential, whereas he lived alone on the second floor of an old house owned by an old lady and took most of his meals with the spotty young biology teacher at Tantie Rhetta’s Tea Room, a fusty place that served stew and scones no matter how hot the weather. I had no use for such a pathetically dreary existence and let him know it.
He was in love with my mother, you know. Maybe because she couldn’t hear how bad his playing was.
Whenever he came to dinner, he would always bring her a bouquet of hibiscus that he’d probably pulled off his landlady’s hedge, or a packet of the dark chocolates she liked from the chemist’s, and she’d smile a tiny, dry smile at him and say loudly, the way she did, “You’re too good, Simon,” and he’d blush. I found it unbearable.
Once I said, “Oh, he’ll spare no expense to make you happy, isn’t that right, Mr. Brownlea?” and he blushed in an altogether different way. Mother just looked at me. Her look could chemically alter bone marrow.
Between her gaze indoors and God’s eye outside, I felt more and more like a lab creature in mid-dissection, held fast by two pins. I took to practicing at school every afternoon, even on Saturdays – there was always a match of some sort and the door nearest the shower room would be open. Brownlea was often about, performing odd chores in the music room, but he left me alone, generally.
One afternoon, after he had gone out for his dismal daily tea with Mr. Dampson, I started poking about in the cupboards and found a stack of yellowed song books with my father’s name written on each one. They were all tenor arias, many of them ones I suddenly could remember my father singing at home. After I had gone to bed, as a small child, I would hear him singing at the piano – bits of “Messiah,” Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina” from “Boheme,” Almaviva’s parts, some Verdi and Donizetti. I had forgotten that. I had forgotten the tunes until I saw them on the moist, rippled pages, the notes immediately singing for me what I had known before only by ear.
So I took the books to the piano and played them all, all my father’s songs. I found I knew every bit of the Bizet, “The Flower Song.” It must have been his favourite, I knew it so well. Even when I tried the words, in bad French, I recognized them. I had not sung at the piano since my long-ago lessons with him, had not sung at all, and was oddly surprised to hear something like an adult sound exit my mouth in place of the boy soprano I had been expecting.
I sat there in the sterile, humid choir room, as the light grayed with a pending rainstorm and the atmosphere thickened to the consistency of porridge and sang “The Flower Song” over and over in a voice like a balky transmission – now stalling out, now cracking and skipping into an unwanted higher gear, the brittle waver of it disappearing into the smothering tropical air and the sticky wood of chairs and walls – and what I heard were the voices on the radio and my father humming along.
I didn’t tell Mother I had found the books. And I didn’t sing at home – home, where the predatory sun endlessly forced its way through every slit in the shutters and Mother sat with wire-tight sinews, seeming to sense every quiver of motion in the room.
Very rarely now, I look at pictures of her from that time and realize all over again that she was pretty, fiercely pretty, with no soft, embraceable loveliness to her, but a taut intensity of angled bone and burning gaze, of sharp, black lines of eyebrow, hair and iris against the white of skin and eye – the kind of girl who would gladly go to the stake for what she believed. A dark Joan. And though she believed all too much in God, music was her real religion and the piano was the altar on which she sacrificed me. There was no singing in her house anymore.
She made her announcement right after my third-year recital, when we were back at the house with Brownlea and a crowd of other boys and parents, drinking lemonade. It had been rather a grand day, as these things go. The hall at school had been packed: men in pale jackets, women in their silks and linens and hats hushing the squirming, noisy younger brothers and sisters – all of them sweating like cane cutters in the April heat, even though the drier winter was only just turning back into the swamp of sultry air that, by late May, would have everything on the island coated in tacky moisture. The hall, with its fissured plaster and dark, scarred, wooden seats, usually looked somber in spite of the light that came through its arched windows, but the mums had all donated bouquets from their gardens and so the place looked positively festive. There was even a bunch of oleander sprays from Mother, in a vase beside the piano.
Five of us performed: two singers, a violin player, a cellist and myself. Mother had seen to it that Brownlea put me last on the bill. The others weren’t much to speak of – oh, the violinist did all right and the one baritone was passable, I guess, even though he flatted out most of the low notes in the Schumann. I didn’t bother to listen much. I remember sitting in the room backstage, playing my piece over and over on the tabletop and wiping the sweat off my face with brown paper towels. I was performing the Beethoven “Appassionata,” and my fingers constantly repeated the relentless, tricky arpeggios of the last movement. I had good pianist’s hands – large, even then, with long, slender fingers. Rather like Mother’s, but ringless. I never could bear the feeling of anything on my hands.
She came backstage a few minutes before I was to play, appearing at the door like my own personal Roman legionnaire, marching imperviously across the room full of boys and teachers to ask, in her very haute voix while she straightened my tie and collar, if I had pared my fingernails so they wouldn’t click on the keys.
She, whose radar could pick up the slightest tremor of human movement, appeared not to notice the convulsions of snickers this produced. I flung her hands off and walked out to the corridor, where the next-to-last recitalist was just coming off the stage, followed by an entourage of parents and aunties and toadies. I remember his name: Colin Atcheson. One of those graceful, good-looking, all-round boys – his family let him play football as well as violin, despite the danger to his precious hands, and he did both pretty well. And here he was, surrounded by mates and his healthy father and his soft-spoken mother, calling “Good luck, then,” to me as I walked past and I wanted to impale him on his own rosewood bow. I muttered “Piss off!” under my breath as I climbed the stage stair.
Brownlea was waiting at the door and he immediately looked alarmed at my expression. “Here now, what’s wrong? Can’t you tell me? Well, you can’t go out there with that ferocious look on your face, you’ll frighten the tots.”
A man of humor as pallid as his personality.
“Come on now, manage it a bit. Use it for the music, you know? Give Ludwig a good, controlled kick. I emphasize controlled.”
I looked at the floor.
“Come on, no sulks. You’re good at this – go show them.”
He tried to pat my shoulder. I jerked away from him and threw open the stage door, hurrying to the piano bench. I barely bowed to the collection of mediocrity watching me and seated myself at once, almost simultaneously crashing out the first chords as if the keys were the triggers of so many guns.
I played with vicious precision for the next 25 minutes.
When it was over, I just sat there until some of the crowd ventured a timid handclap or two, and then I was on my feet and the audience was, too, looking a little windblown and stunned, as if I had diverted a hurricane through their tea party, but applauding madly as I took my bows. I finally went off and Brownlea thumped me on the back, saying “Marvelous!” over and over and even Colin Atcheson came down the corridor and whispered “Bloody great job” in my ear and I could tell he meant it.
Mother said, “Shall we go?”
How Mother. But at the house, she picked up her glass of lemonade and tapped on it with a spoon and I scarcely dared to breathe for hope and disbelief that she might compliment me at last.
“I welcome you all to my house,” she announced. Her voice had never sounded so toneless. “Especially the boys who performed today.”
“I can think of no better occasion to tell you all that I have decided to send my son to the States at the end of the term. He will be studying piano in Chicago with my husband’s friend and colleague, Gunter Hellman, and beginning what I am confident will be an unsurpassed professional career.”
I think there was a gasp. I think it might have been my own. I don’t really remember. I know that she sat down without looking at me and that people crowded round to shake my hand and offer ever more puzzled congratulations as they saw my face. I suppose I said thank you.
Brownlea finally got close enough to take my elbow and pull me into the kitchen. He scraped his hair away from his glasses with an oddly helpless gesture and stared at me.
“I begged your mother to tell you sooner, to talk it over with you, but she wouldn’t and she made me promise not to, either. She said she wanted it to be a surprise, but I was afraid it would be a bad one and I can see that I was right.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I know you’re shocked now, but after you’ve had a chance to think about it, if you really don’t want to go, perhaps I could talk her out of it.”
A gate seemed to fall open inside my head.
“Don’t you speak to her! Don’t you ever speak to her at all! Why would I want her to talk it over with you?”
My voice cracked, making me even more furious.
“What have you got to say about it, anyway? It’s up to me, isn’t it? To decide my own future? I should think! I’ll be the one who says if I go or not, but I’ll tell you something, if Mother thinks I should go, then perhaps I should, because she’s a lot smarter than you, a lot smarter, and so am I!”
Brownlea took a deep breath.
“I didn’t say you shouldn’t go, only that if you didn’t want to, I would try to reason with her. Of course, it’s not my decision.”
“You’re completely right, it isn’t! It’s none of your business and my mother is none of your business! And she never will be!”
Drops of pure hate ran down my cheeks. Brownlea’s face contracted with an anger I had never seen in him before.
“Here now, that’s quite enough of that. In fact, I’ve had quite enough of your wretched temper altogether and you’d better belt up right now. I’m trying to help you, you know? I’ve always tried to help you because I think you’re very talented and very lonely and you need someone to stand by you, but all you’ve ever done is jeer at me like a nasty little sod. You keep that up and all your fears are going to come true – no one at all will care what the blazes happens to you. So go to the States or don’t go to the States – it’s all one to me – but at least think rationally about it before you decide. And talk to your mother yourself.”
He slammed out the back kitchen door. Through the window, I could see him striding up the street like a frumpy, middle-aged Horatius heading for the bridge.
Talk to Mother.
I don’t believe I had ever talked to Mother, just shouted and listened and watched. It was all she had ever seemed to allow.
In order to be talked to, would she not have had to hear what I was saying? And I do not refer to her Camille-like cochleae.
I dried my face with my sleeve and got some ice water from the refrigerator. No one else had come into the kitchen and it occurred to me that they all – well, Mother excepted – must have been able to hear the quarrel and were either afraid to enter or had fled the house entirely. I hoped they had. I didn’t want to see any of their alarmed, stupid pudding-faces ever again. Let them all run away from this house, this appalling, silent house that I, too, must leave, evidently. Well, the sooner the better.
I suddenly wanted to go after Brownlea. I still don’t know why. Not to apologize, certainly, and not to ask his opinion. What would he know about plotting international success? And I didn’t want him ever again to mention my mother. But I wanted to walk with him.
There was still no sound from any other part of the house. I quietly stepped out the back door and went round to the road. In an instant, my white dress shirt began to cling to me and my skin to sting from the violent sunlight and the fine mist of sweat it produced all over me. I had forgotten a hat.
I slowly passed up the line of bungalows that led toward town, feeling separated from myself and curiously objective. Would I miss these houses, after living here nearly all my life? This was all the home I’d got, after all – I barely remembered the mother country we’d come from. Sand and heat and salt and rank vegetation were what I knew, sticky piano keys and the slight carbon smell of the heater inside the piano case that was supposed to keep down the damp. Mold that grew on shoes and belts in their closets. Coarse weeds that grew overnight through the pavement and insects that fell out of books when you opened them. A crawling, seething, primordial world whose prim, manmade structures secretly rotted under nature’s relentless attack.
I knew no temperate places. Even as I put one foot in front of the other, stirring up the bleached earth, the sun crushed and disoriented me; all color, sensation, thought became both painfully heightened and enervating. The sight of thick, fleshy leaves on a vine irritated me beyond endurance. The smell of the sludgy ponds that simmered everywhere on the island offended me to the point of madness with their bacterial stink. And the ocean – I could no longer look at it, nor wished to.
No, I would miss nothing. I would go to a bitter place and thrive.
I had reached the center of town. It was the hottest part of the day and few people except the bazaar merchants and some tourists were about. The cobbled street appeared to undulate with the slow-rolling waves of steamy air. The usual cacophony from the wharf echoed off the stucco walls of shops – conch vendors, their small boats piled high with huge, spiral shells, shouting at each other as they vied for position near the market stalls, the pilots of pleasure craft calling out for people to board their catamarans and glass-bottomed boats, the shrill laughter of the natives who hawked pineapples and bits of coral and whatnot to the hungry and the souvenir hunters. There weren’t many travelers on the island this time of year. Most came in the winter, when the weather was relatively cool and dry. By mid-spring, the heat could slay anyone idiotic enough to spend all day shopping, climbing the falls or sunning on the beach. And yet some still came after Easter, intent on tans and loading up a year’s supply of duty-free rum and Royal Doulton.
But ours was not the main island, where the casinos and nightclubs kept the night air throbbing with hideous noise until dawn. Ours was dull – picturesque and terribly authentic, if decaying colonial buildings and a dirt-poor indigenous population were the authentic you wanted. It was popular with the artistic crowd, hence the ready availability of good teachers for the school. You could spot them instantly – they tended to go native a lot, or what they thought was native, wearing bright cotton clothes and straw hats and abandoning their shaving habits. The women, too. They were seasonal folk who returned home in the summer and, to them, their time here was simply a biggish holiday.
Not so for the year-round residents, the Anglo ones. Our little society rigidly preserved the standards of the old life back home, as terrified of contracting island ease and indolence as if those were blood diseases. Arrayed in the armor of leather armchairs and church services and, apparently, underwear that pinched, my group vowed stern, silent oaths of social rectitude and cultural purity, to embalm the dowdy, reserved, middle-class existence it had known since the war and cling to it as if to a holy era that must be honored unceasingly by repetition. Time seemed to have stopped for our parents 25 years ago and on another continent. They wore cardigan sweaters and listened to the old songs on the radio in the evening, complaining when their deliveries of digestive biscuits and knickers from Marks & Spencer didn’t come through on time and threatening to write letters to the royal governor.
Mother belonged to all that. Yet she remained apart from it, as well, and not only because she was isolated by her inability to hear.
A ferocious otherness possessed her, a sense of mission that surrounded and separated her like an electrical field from the ordinary folk in our community. She wandered into the grocer’s and the wool shop like the others, nodded and smiled at her neighbors in church of a Sunday, was as thoroughly English as they.
But theirs was the England of eel pie, while hers was the England of Excalibur.
I turned into a small lane off the Queen’s Way, at the far end of the marketplace. It connected the more elegant main street with the wharfside along the curve of the Bay Road. In it, a row of shabby wooden cottages sat close to the stone kerb, with bits of overgrown garden behind, crammed with metal bins and broken pots, hurricane shutters askew at the windows. For a block, the world on the cottage side of the street from earth to sky was solid brown and green and grey, like a section of strangely configured jungle, with vines made of clotheslines connecting one tree-house to the next.
Across the lane, as if across the border of a tropical Oz, lay the rear grounds of the bayfront hotels, their thick pink- and yellow-painted walls and expanses of stone terrace barely visible through the fiery cumulus of poinciana, bougainvillea and oleander, the rainbow striations of hibiscus and alamanda, the dark spires of banana and royal palm trees.
Divided by their no-man’s-land of pavement, these worlds opposed each other like reality and subconscious. I wondered if Brownlea sat on his landlady’s porch in the evening, staring out from the framework of peeling clapboards that would blinker his peripheral vision, and yearn for the color and mysterious privilege of the life on the other side of the street.
He was just turning into the garden of the block’s largest and most dilapidated dwelling, walking less fiercely now, with more than the usual slump to his shoulders.
He didn’t turn. I jogged a few steps. My clothes were sodden with sweat.
He stopped then and looked at me without replying, simply waiting for me to catch up.
“You didn’t … you never told me whether you thought I’d managed that bit in the last movement all right.”
A spark of something – amusement? – flicked across his spectacled gaze and burned out.
“That was a long walk in the sun to ask a question I think you already know the answer to.” He raised an eyebrow. “If you walk back now, you’ll get sunstroke, judging from the color of your face. You look like a geranium. Come inside and have some water.”
I had never been in his rooms, had never desired to see them. The thought of entering them now was still far from enticing, but I nodded and followed him up the creaking stair.
The walls were covered in grimy paper printed with cuckoo clocks, the expanses broken here and there by framed photographs of long-ago people whose images were too dim to make out in the half-light. At the top of the stair, a short corridor ended in a flimsy wooden door that Brownlea opened, gesturing me inside.
The place was, in most ways, quite what I had expected – a threadbare settee, a narrow bed in an alcove by the window, a small table near a gas ring and kettle, dusty stacks of sheet music – but not entirely. On nearly every surface – every bookshelf, on the windowsill, the chest of drawers, even on top of the tiny refrigerator – were rows of brightly colored toy cars, miniature racing and sports cars.
I picked up a red one and looked at Brownlea.
“Yes, I was absolutely mad for them as a boy and have collected them ever since. My mother made me take every last one with me when I moved out of her house. Said she couldn’t bear to have them underfoot, like a lot of enameled mice. That’s a ’59 Corvette you’ve got there.”
I spun the little wheels with my finger and replaced the car in its spot.
“I didn’t know you liked cars.”
Brownlea’s glance was dry.
“There are rather a lot of things you don’t know about me. You’re welcome to look at those, if you like. I’ll get us some ice water.”
I went round the room examining the flashiest and the most curious of them while Brownlea removed his jacket and filled two glasses from a bottle in the ’fridge. He handed me one and sat on the single wooden chair near the table.
“One of the things you don’t know about me that I’m sure will amuse you is that, when I was growing up, I wanted more than anything to be a race-car driver. I imagined myself going to America and driving the most exotic formula cars and breaking land-speed records and all sorts of rubbish. Of course, I didn’t think it was rubbish then. And I still like the cars.”
I sat on the arm of the settee. “Why didn’t you try?”
He paused for a moment and seemed to decide that I was not being scornful, but truly wanted to know. He nodded once or twice.
“I did. For a while. I actually did learn to drive and used to lurk about a small race-course not far from where we lived. There were some great chaps there, they all treated me well. They’d even let me get behind the wheel once in a while to drive the cars off the track and into the shed. Very slowly.”
“But my mum and dad wanted me to go to university. They never had and I was the great hope of the family, you see” – again that quick and quickly gone spark of humor – “and I couldn’t disappoint them. And by the time I went down after all that music study, racing cars seemed a bit outlandish, even to me. But I still enjoy following the sport. Ever been to a race?”
“No, I guessed not. Have you ever collected anything?” He indicated the cars.
“No. Well … when I was little.” For some reason, I didn’t want to tell him.
“Well, what was it?”
I struggled with myself. “Bird feathers,” I finally blurted. “And American baseball cards. After my … after my mother and I were on our own, she made me throw it all away. She said it was a sin to waste time and money on such nonsense … that if I wanted to collect anything, it should be something useful.”
“And do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Collect anything useful?”
I laughed, just for a second. The sound was ugly to me.
“No, I don’t collect anything at all now.”
“I know you like sports. I’ve seen you on weekends, before you come in to practice, watching the footballers and cricketers play. But why bird feathers?”
I shrugged and picked up another car. “They were pretty.”
Neither of us spoke again for a while. Brownlea slowly finished his water. Bored with the cars, I poked through the books on his shelves. He favored Dickens and detective novels and someone named Wolfe whom I’d never heard of.
I turned to him. Brownlea, not Wolfe.
“Do you think I ought to go?”
He didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he reached into his pocket for his handkerchief, took off his glasses and slowly polished them. His face looked surprised and blank without them, as if he were a rabbit down whose burrow someone had suddenly shone a light. He sighed as he put them back on.
“I would like to ask you a question,” he said.
“Very well, then: Before you heard this idea of sending you to Chicago, what had you planned for yourself?”
“You mean, for my life?”
“I really hadn’t thought much about it.”
“Well, what I mean is, I’ve thought about a career in music, of course. A real career. But not so much how to go about it, actually. I suppose I thought I’d return to England for university and start getting engagements at the Albert Hall straight away.”
“So you saw yourself staying here for another three or four years?”
“Yes, I guess.”
“Studying with me?”
The words startled me. I didn’t know how to reply – my impulse to say “of course” was shamed by my acute awareness that he knew how little I now respected his ability.
“Well, who else?” I finally answered.
“Aha. Who else, indeed?”
He stood up and gathered the empty glasses, placing them in the tiny sink beside the refrigerator.
“Did you want more water?”
“Right. Well, that’s the real crux, isn’t it? The fact is, if you stay here to finish school, you’ll have to keep on studying with me because there’s no one any better in the islands. And I’m not saying that I have nothing more to offer you – though I suspect our opinions differ on that – but my immodesty is not so great that I believe I am the best teacher you could have. I’m not. And your gift is so remarkable that it deserves the very best teacher you can find.
“So. You must think about whether staying here is so important to you that you are willing to waste four years in which you could be making brilliant progress with another instructor.”
He picked up his jacket.
“But … ”
“But what?” Brownlea continued inserting his arms into his jacket sleeves.
“But Chicago … it’s … I know nothing about it or about this Hellman fellow. It’s so far, and what about my … my family?”
“Your family” – Brownlea put just the most microscopic emphasis on the word – “can best advise you about that.”
He opened the door. “The sun’s started down and you look a good bit less inflamed than you did. Think you can make it home all right?”
“Good. I’m off to have my tea, then. Mr. Dampson gets fretful if I delay his plate of stew too long.”
We creaked down the stairs and stepped from the house into the long shadows of the royal palms. Brownlea paused before leaving me for Tantie Rhetta’s, squinting at me through the orange and pink light of a sunset so vivid, it gave everything, including him, an atomic glow. He shielded his eyes.
“I know this won’t be an easy decision for you. There’s a lot to consider, for and against. But if it all seems too confusing, just think about this: You don’t want to grow up to be me, now, do you?”
He smiled at me with a faint, sweet malice and walked away. I made my way home under a sky indistinguishable from the indifferent blue sea.