The cereus in the yard will bloom soon. We planted a slip from the original cutting at least a year ago. That is how long it has been since I left my village on the other side of the island and moved to Paradise. I had to cajole Mr. Hector, the gardener here, who thought the plant nothing but an unruly network of limp, green leaves. Too gangly, he said, to be kept in a garden under his charge. When, recently, deep alizarin buds pushed through, his curiosity was piqued and he now visits the cactus daily and pats the cow manure around its trunk.
Judging from the way things turned out, I am sure you will agree it was no coincidence that I and the eye of the scandal happened upon Paradise, Lantanacamara on the same day.
The town seemed empty and quiet when I arrived. That was because everyone had left what they were doing and taken off to the house on Hill Side to see for themselves what was happening.
Even though Paradise is spreading out, inch by inch, and taking over the sugar cane fields that surround it, it remains one of the smaller towns in Lantanacamara, so small that merely the news of one stranger passing through can be enough to ignite a wild fire of curiosity and jabber among its citizenry. But my arrival was eclipsed by the scandal on Hill Side, the discussion of which quickly became Paradise’s most favoured pastime. Even the days following brought me little notice; Paradise was clutched by a menacing cloud that hung low over the town for several days and would not budge. The only sources of light in the town were the electric street and house lamps that remained lit all day. In a situation like that I could not have expected to be noteworthy.
Being an outsider at that time—and I suppose I still am and may well always be—I thought it best to exercise propriety. I was well aware what was unfolding but refrained from taking part in the daily dissections of new gossip and from helping its spore-like dispersal. By the time interest in the scandal had abated I was past being a novelty. Hardly any fuss was made of me when, in fact, I might well have been celebrated! I was, after all, the only Lantanacamaran man ever to have trained in the profession of nursing. I had taken courses abroad, in the Shivering Northern Wetlands where, to my astonishment, there were a number of men, albeit a small number, in attendance. But I was and still am the only man in the profession here. Not just in Paradise but in all of Lantanacamara.
Nevertheless, despite all my formal training abroad, and considering that nurses in Lantanacamara generally receive their sole training on the job, the matron of the Paradise Alms House, when assigning me my first chore, pointed toward a bucket, a square of cobalt-blue soap and a scrub brush, and sent me off in the darkness of the day to scrub the residents’ shower stalls. So was the tone set for my duties. Later I was called by this one or that one to run errands and do menial chores. Regardless, every morning I presented myself wearing a freshly washed, starched and pressed white shirt and meticulously pleated trousers, both of which I had made from the same cotton as were the nurses’ uniforms, all in the hope that I would be sent to tend a resident. What I really wanted was to make at least one old person smile or feel that she or he was of some value.
It is an interesting quirk of fate, I think, that for all the prattling by almost everyone at that time, sowing and tilling and reaping idle rumours about the Ramchandin family, and for all the scant attention paid my presence, I am the one who ended up knowing the truth, the whole truth, every significant and insignificant bit of it. And I am the one who is putting it all to good use by recording it here in the hope that any existing relatives of Mala Ramchandin, be it her younger and, to this day, most treasured sister, Asha, or anyone else, might come forward and pay the old lady a visit.
Three weeks after I arrived—the suffocating cloud had mysteriously lifted by then—I was out in the yard at Sister’s request, sweeping the path. The home’s regular yardboy, Toby, stood watching from afar, sucking his teeth and shaking his head and spitting low curses in my direction, when a black automobile pulled up. The arrival of any motorized vehicle was still cause for a gathering in this place, where people had not easily let go of donkey carts for labourers and broughams for gentler folk, but an austere, black police vehicle brought an added element of excitement. The gathering of nurses and residents—those alert enough to notice—watched anxiously as two slender men alighted, walked to the back and opened the rear doors. Even the gossipmongers among the nurses were silent when the stretcher slid out. On it lay the home’s newest resident.
Mala Ramchandin was never tried in court. Judge Walter Bissey had dismissed the case in minutes. Several times he asked the prosecution, “I’m sorry. I can’t seem to follow your logic. Tell me again, what is the evidence? What is the charge?” He shook his head in disbelief that his time was being taken up in such a manner. He thought for a minute how to avoid insulting the police and the prosecutors, and finally said, “But you say you cannot present a victim. No victim! You say that there are no witnesses. No witnesses! And there is no evidence that a crime was ever committed. Regardless of what the police reportedly saw? And you want to put a crazy lady on trial. You don’t have a case. Am I missing something here? Hmmm?” Had there been any evidence as alleged by the police, he explained, it would, in any case, certainly have been inadmissible due to contamination by the ravages of time. He was not about to have an old woman, a crazy old woman, tried in his court based on a lot of words and no hard-and-fast proof of anything. No victim, no evidence, no witnesses—no crime. A waste of the court’s time and taxpayers’ money.
However, out of compassion for her health and welfare, he ruled that Mala Ramchandin be taken into the alms house in Paradise to receive proper care and attention until the end of her days. It is said, incidentally, that on the day of Judge Bissey’s ruling, the life-robbing cloud began to break up and shift south over the ocean, letting light shine in Paradise once again. Even now a handful of people remain disgruntled about the dismissal and the ruling. They felt cheated of the rare opportunity to have a woman criminal in their midst. Some citizens believe that a crime was committed and that she was its perpetrator. Come to think of it—they scratch their heads, think a moment and pronounce—they remember this and that and the other. And for the constable in charge, the mystery of an unsolved death, evidence of which he himself saw, is like an infestation of ripe mites swarming under his skin, and the judge’s ruling a cruel disallowal of his craving to scratch.
Sister, too, on hearing that hers was the chosen home for Miss Ramchandin, Sister went to Judge Bissey in protest. She was forced to accept his decision.
Now Sister’s hefty heels clopped down the path toward the police vehicle. The two officers carried the stretcher, which appeared to be empty except for a white sheet strewn across it.
“Yes, we knew she was coming, but not when,” I heard Sister say. “I should have been given fair notice. I was not notified. There is no room ready. You can’t just come and drop people off like that. This is not a train station, you know. She is an extra mouth to feed. We have to plan for these kinds of things.”
“Ah! No, no, no” an officer responded. “That would be the least of your problems, in truth. Look at her. She does hardly eat. They leave a plate of fowl for her one day and when they came back, they find the plate and all the food scatter all over the floor. Then another day they give her salt fish and she didn’t even go near it. She don’t eat, in truth. Even a biscuit and some hot tea would be plenty enough for her.”
The two men carrying the stretcher approached me. They could not have been much younger or older than I, and they looked heroic in their uniforms. Observing the narrowness of their waists where their close-fitting khaki shirts slipped neatly into slim-belted khaki pants, a fiery heat rose on my cheeks. I felt diminished by these two officers of the peace but rather pleasantly so. As they passed I averted my eyes and looked at the woman on the stretcher. Only her head was exposed. Except for a fan of yellowed silver hair, I was unable to see more because she faced away from me.
Sister kept pace with the two men, ranting that there was no room ready and no security in place. “This is an alms house. This is for poor people. This is not the place for psychiatrics. There is no room . . .” When she reached me she grabbed my arm and pulled me along. At the entrance to the main office, the officer said, “Well, Sister, we have to leave her here with you. Those are the orders. Later, I advise you, go and talk with the judge if you want. But right now we have orders. If you have a bed, we will carry her to it and save you the trouble. In any case she is not heavy, a child could lift her with one finger, she so light.” He spread his legs slightly and let go of one of the rods to show that, even with one hand, he was capable of hoisting the stretcher. He gave the impression of having Herculean size and strength, and a rustle of not-so-discreet ooohs and ahhhs came from the gathered nurses. I was in full agreement with their admiration but I, more prudently, merely smiled good-naturedly.
Still perturbed, Sister watched the men gently rest the motionless body on the floor of her office. She reluctantly penned her signature on the court receipt.
On his way out, a policemen turned to Sister and said slyly, “Don’t ‘fraid she. It have nothing to be afraid of. Unless, of course, you used to go and pelt her house and tief she mango!” Sister’s head spun around so fast and her face paled so instantly that I guessed his arrow had hit its target.
The crowd of nurses, babbling low at the office door, parted to let the officers through. I was happy to see them leave. One can engage in the act of admiring for only so long before the frustrations of desire, envy and self-criticism begin to cast shadows across one’s vision—or turn one’s knees to jelly.
Sister dispersed the nurses, except for two whom she took to arrange Miss Ramchandin’s accommodations. I was told to stay in the office to “guard” the strapped-down figure. I had rested my broom against the wall but before Sister left, she grabbed and placed the broom in my hands. “Keep this handy!” she told me gravely. I took the broom, proud that it was not assumed that I, the only man among the nurses, ought to be strong and fearless and without need of protection.
It was the first time I had been given such an important assignment, the first time I was asked to care for one of the residents. I had spent most of the past three weeks on my hands and knees scrubbing the concrete paths around the residents’ bungalows. I had prodded and poked at spiders’ webs in the high corners of all the rooms on the property. Out in back yard I hosed down the garbage pails. I was assigned—only once, thankfully—to assist Toby with fixing a leak on the roof. (I will refrain from dwelling on the verbal rocks he tossed in my direction and say only that he made no effort to hide his disdain for my ways. At the end of the ordeal he told me plainly that he was going to leave the job if he was ever put to work with this pansy again.) Another time I helped Mr. Hector move heavy furniture from one bungalow to another. I saw him watch curiously as I struggled with the weight of some items and the awkwardness of others. He kept a distance but at least he was more helpful than most. When I tried to fix a broken stool, he showed me how to hold the hammer’s handle lower to get more leverage, and he watched to make sure I was not about to hurt myself or ruin the stool. But I was anxious to begin nursing again.
For such a tiny spectre of a being, the new resident breathed deeply and loudly in her drugged sleep. I squatted at the side of the canvas stretcher, peering at her. I expected her facial skin to be grey but it was ochre, like richly fired clay. Her skeletal structure was clearly visible, her thin skin draped over protruding bones and sagged into crevices that musculature had once filled. Even so, it did not take much imagination to realize that she must have once had a modest dignity. She slept on soundly. If she had slept through the trip over Paradise’s dreadfully pockmarked roads, my peering was unlikely to awaken her.
The urge to touch overcame me. I rested my palm gently on her silver hair. I expected it to be coarse and wiry, qualities that would have fit the rumours. But her hair, though oily from lack of care, was soft and silken. This one touch turned her from the incarnation of fearful tales into a living human being, an elderly person such as those I had dedicated my life to serving. I needed to know the woman who lay hidden by the white sheet. Still clutching the broom, I inched the sheet off her shoulder. “Flesh and bones,” I thought, but it was the predominance of bone that truly caught my attention. I wrapped my hand around the ball of her upper arm where it met her shoulder. It was like a large marble, and cold like a marble. She did not have the sweet yet sour smell I had come to expect whenever close to an old person. Instead, an aroma resembling rich vegetable compost escaped from under the sheet. I felt the skin on her neck. It was an old person’s skin, in truth, nothing remarkable about its thinness or looseness, but damp and cold. I could feel the fear trapped in this woman’s body, even as she slept under sedation. I was gripped by fury as I remembered the officer’s words—“a biscuit and some hot tea”—and I wondered if, after she rejected fowl and fish, tea and biscuits were all that she was fed or all that she would eat. Either way, I felt as though I were witnessing a case of neglect.
I drew back the cloth further. A pile of fine bones, starling bones, on my dinner plate at the end of a Sunday meal flashed through my mind. I dropped the broom and unstrapped the thick leather bands that pinned her to the stretcher. I am not a very strong man, physically; I never have been. And neither am I known to anger easily or to express anger directly. But that day, I slipped one arm under her shoulders and one under her knees and lifted Miss Ramchandin off the stretcher. Having judged only by her frail looks, I was surprised at her weight, forgetting for a moment the density of bone. Nevertheless, outrage gave me the strength and courage to descend the office steps with her in my arms. Making my way along the path, I again became aware of her odour. She had a curiously natural smell. The words of the officer came to me again, that the plate of fowl had been scattered and the fish untouched. I realized she had likely not eaten animal flesh in a very long time.
Needless to say, when I arrived with Miss Ramchandin in my arms at the door of the room being prepared for her, Sister and the two nurses shrieked. None of them would approach me and my human bundle. Sister demanded that Miss Ramchandin be taken back to the office. I suddenly felt her weight and began to buckle under it. When it looked as if my bundle would fall, Sister again shrieked and ordered me to deposit Miss Ramchandin on the bed, which had not yet been made, and to strap her down again. I hardly had opened my mouth to explain that Miss Ramchandin was too frail to inflict even a bad thought when Sister screamed at me for being insolent and blatantly disregarding her authority. I placed Miss Ramchandin on the bed yet still hesitated to get the straps. Sister scuttled out into the yard and came back shortly with a length of rope from Mr. Hector. I raced back to the office, yanked the straps off the stretcher and returned in time to contain Miss Ramchandin myself. I made a production of pulling at the straps but in truth only loosely buckled them. Faced with the threat of losing my job, I agreed not to unbind her again. Sister did not want me anywhere near Miss Ramchandin’s room, but no other nurse would tread there and neither would she. Miss Ramchandin’s care was therefore left in my hands, and I was finally able to employ my nursing skills.
The sedative wore off slowly. As the weight of induced sleep lifted, sobs escaped my new patient. By evening she tried to turn but was too weak to fight the restraints. She had opened her eyes and seemed now to be almost afraid to close them again. Tears rolled from her face. I began to talk to her, to tell her where she was and who I was, but on hearing my voice she began a deep, fearful moaning. It did not take me long to realize that my movements, no matter how slight, terrified her. I sat still on a chair by her bed, and for an hour she watched as I tried to remain still, even as the room filled with attacking mosquitoes. The light outside faded and through the window I could see electric light bulbs shining in the valley. Still I did not move. Eventually I became dizzy from hunger and started to get up. She began to moan and pulled back into the bed, as though afraid that I might hurt her. I had no choice; she had to eat and it was clear that no one was going to bring her food. I inched out of the room. Her eyes followed me to the door and her breathing became heavy. I could not tell if she wanted me to stay or leave.
The other residents had already been fed and the nurses were finishing their meals in the dining room of the house we share. Sister regarded me coldly as I went toward the kitchen.
“It’s past the residents’ meal hour. And past the staff’s meal hour also. Exactly what are you up to?”
“I was in Miss Ramchandin’s room, Sister. She woke up and I detected what I think are symptoms of trauma so I did not want to leave her alone.”
“Mr. Tyler, I know that you had formal training and it was abroad and all of that kind of thing, but that does not give you the authority to make up rules for yourself. You will always find troublesome residents but in the end, at their age, they are all like children. And when children misbehave, you have to discipline them. Not so? Don’t get too thoughtful over that Mala Ramchandin. She committed—”
“Sister, I beg your pardon, but there was no trial and no concrete evidence that she ever did anything. She has not eaten for several hours. If she does not eat something now, she will surely slip away.”
I heard a sigh of exasperation from one of the nurses at the table. Sister remained silent for a moment to confirm her agreement with the sigh, and then she continued.
“She is old and may well slip away whether she eat or not. That is the nature of working in a home for old people, Mr. Tyler. It have dasheen soup and egg sandwiches for the residents. See if she will eat that. If she doesn’t, there is nothing else you can do. She will eat if and when she is good and ready. But if you go and make too much fuss of her, she will be no end of trouble for all of us. Is best not to start them off with bad habits. You understand me, Mr. Tyler?”
“You are assigned to her room tonight. Do not take the straps off until I take a look at her tomorrow morning. You understand me? I will judge when she is not a danger to herself or to any of us.”
Before going back to Miss Ramchandin’s bungalow, I went to my room to regain my composure. I could hear the nurses’ scandalous laughter and their chatter through the floorboards. I combed my hair back and tied a ’kerchief around my neck to ward off a chill from the night air. On my way out, I had to pass the nurses again in the dining room. Sister had already retired for the evening. The chatter fell silent and all eyes turned on me. One of the women spoke up.
“But, eh-heh, Mr. Tyler! Where you going dress up so?”
“You are referring to the addition of my neckerchief?”
“Eh-heh!” And she turned to the others and said, “But it nice, eh? You really know how to look good. What material it is?”
“It is nothing fancy, just a light cotton ‘kerchief against the cold.”
“But it suit you-well. Is a nice colour! I will have to consult you sometime, yes!” They nodded among themselves, making additional comments, all in the same condescending tone. It was the kind of notice one might shower on a child. But I am not a child and I knew there to be malice in their words. Behind the flattery, the edge of mockery was plain to anyone who must, as a matter of survival, learn to detect it. I could detail for you the number of times I have come across that same tone. I am aware of the subtleties and incremental degrees in a hostility—from the tight smile to the seemingly accidental shove—and I have known the gamut. But what would be the value of laying it all out before you? The temptation is strong, I will admit, to be the romantic victim. There is in me a performer dying for the part, but I must be strict with myself and stay with my intention to relate Mala Ramchandin’s story.
I will add this and nothing more: I employed then the one strategy of survival that has saved me time and time again, here and in the Shivering Wetlands. Since I couldn’t hide and knew better than to flaunt, I was quietly proud and did not enter into a façade of denial. I smiled at the nurse and said, “Yes, I would be happy to give you a pointer or two. I would quite enjoy that. Sorry I have to run now, though. Enjoy your evening.” I picked up the food before another word could be spoken, and considered the encounter a relative success.
From outside Miss Ramchandin’s bungalow I could hear nothing but squealing crickets and frogs. I knocked on her door, not expecting an invitation to enter, but to announce that I was back. When I entered, her eyes were already alert and on me.
I began a quiet chatter. “It’s soup. It smells good. I brought a cup for me, too. I thought we could eat together.” I did not watch her but could feel she had not taken her eyes off me. She made no sounds, even her breathing seemed consciously regulated.
“It’s cool outside. The frogs and the crickets like it when it is like this. Can you hear them? They sound like they are making music together. May I rest the tray here?” I set the tray with two cups of soup and some slices of bread (no eggs) on her bed and pulled up a chair. I noticed her eyes, wide open and expressionless, glued to my movements. I was afraid to look directly at her for fear that the spell might be broken. Without meeting her stare I looked at her hair.
“I’ll just smooth back your hair a little.” I stroked her forehead twice. There was no hair on her forehead to smooth back but I wanted her to feel in my touch that I would not harm her. Happily, she was no longer damp, though she was still rather cool.
“Miss Ramchandin, are you cold?”
“Well, I’ll just throw this sheet over your feet. If you get too hot, you can push it off. You know, just give it a little kick.” I felt awkward, not meaning to bring attention to the restraints. There was still no recognition that she heard me. I became acutely conscious of my movements and the subtleties of my tone, which may have been all that communicated with her.
“Mmmm, this smells so good. It’s dasheen soup. Only fresh dasheen leaves, water and salt. Nothing else. Just try a little.” I put a half-filled spoon to her lips, then realized her head needed to be propped up to avoid a mess. She did not make a move or even look at the spoon. She just continued to stare at me. Then I detected a slight change in her face, the slightest frown, perhaps perplexity or wonder. I put the bowl on the tray, found her towel and made it into a little roll that I placed under her head.
“How does that feel? If it’s uncomfortable, let me know and I will fix it for you.” When I brought the spoon to her mouth again, she turned her head away slightly and muscles around her mouth twitched. Still her eyes were locked on mine. Even though her actions suggested she did not want the food, I was overjoyed to have been given an indication of her will.
“All right. If you don’t want the soup, that’s all right. But it’s too bad to let it waste. It tastes good and clean. Just eat a little piece of bread. You must eat something. Look, I’ll just make it nice and soft for you.” I broke off a piece, the size one would give a baby who had just gotten its first tooth. I dipped it in the soup and mashed it against my finger. Balancing the morsel on the tip of my finger, I put it to her closed lips. She did not protest. The bread lay in her motionless mouth. I held my breath and busied myself preparing another piece, giving the impression that I trusted she would swallow and be ready for another. I made no notice when her mouth moved, but I took the opportunity to make the next piece a little bigger. She parted her lips this time, only barely. I prepared a piece similarly for myself. As we both chewed I looked up at the ceiling, aware that she was still watching me. Then I looked out the window, at the food on the plate, at my nails, and tried to come up with something to say that might elicit a response or at least help the trust building between us. Suddenly, however, the only things that came to mind were the very things I knew better than to bring up. Her father. The prison. The rumours. The thickness and quality of the leather straps that still held her firmly. Fowl. Salted cod.
My actions spoke more eloquently than any words. She ate a full slice of soup-soaked bread and took some sips of water. Then her eyes, still fixed on me, fluttered until they closed and she slept. Filled with a sense of success, I pulled the sheet up around her neck and quietly left.
I lay wide awake for more than an hour. My eyes ached with a gritty tiredness but my brain was giddy, joyous with constant recitations of the events with Miss Ramchandin. While they played in my head, I imagined further successes, immeasurable feats that I might accomplish with my great understanding and magnanimity. Finally, nausea at my own ballooning sense of self wore me down and I slept.
It seemed I had been sleeping for hours when I awakened to find Sister over me, a flashlight in her hand, shaking my shoulder.
“Something the matter with Miss Ramchandin. Listen! Come quick, quick.”
I heard a mournful wailing. How could I have slept through such an eerie and agonizing din? I threw on my dressing gown, even though I was well aware it would be commented on later. I hurried, fearful that Miss Ramchandin had become ill, and disappointed that this might be a major setback to the evening’s progress.
When I reached the bungalow, I found several night-shift nurses milling around outside. Residents had pushed their windows ajar and were peeping out. It was a frightful sound Miss Ramchandin made. Without knocking, I entered the bungalow. Sister, attired also in her dressing gown (plainer than mine), stayed at the door. I switched on a lamp. The wailing halted abruptly, only to be replaced with breathless gasps of fright. Miss Ramchandin’s hair was damp, pasted to her face and neck. Strands were in her mouth. I wiped away the wetness. Her head resisted my touch. She stared ahead, past me.
“Miss Ramchandin, what’s happened? What’s happened?” I whispered. The sweet smell of an old person’s urine was strong.
Now that she was certain the straps had not come undone, Sister tentatively approached. “What is all that noise about? You all right? What happen to you?” The loudness of her voice, as if Miss Ramchandin were hard of hearing, did not mask Sister’s nervousness. “You keeping everybody awake. You not feeling well or what? You want to see a doctor?”
Miss Ramchandin shifted her stare even farther away. I wanted to offer her an antidote to Sister’s harshness but I knew better than to oppose Sister. To convey my concern, I felt Miss Ramchandin’s neck and cheek, as though checking her temperature. Then I drew back the sheet. I gave her damp shoulder a quick and gentle rub. There was nothing to be alarmed about but I noticed her clenched fists and recognized in them a fighting spirit.
Under her breath, Sister muttered, “Hmm! This is not a place for crazy people. Hmm! I don’t know why they send her here, na!”
I jumped in quickly. “Sister, I think the straps might be uncomfortable. You know, lying for so many hours in one—” Sister glared at me and then I saw an idea crawl across her face. She spoke loudly and clearly to Miss Ramchandin.
“Miss Ramchandin, you can hear me? Listen to me. I will remove the straps tomorrow if you behave yourself tonight. You hear? You go to sleep now and don’t make no more noise. And tomorrow morning I will make sure they take them off, and that Doctor come to see you. But if you make any more noise they will stay on for another day. You hear me? Then Doctor will have to give you something to make you sleep. There are other people here trying to sleep, you know. Now you go to sleep and behave yourself nicely.”
Miss Ramchandin’s breathing deepened to a low growl.
One thing still troubled me. “Sister, one of the nurses must come and clean her up.” Not to offend, I made sure my tone was one of concern only. Sister inhaled deeply and let out a sigh. She stared at the wood floor as if waiting for me to solve this problem. I had no qualms about doing the job, but out of respect for the woman on the bed, and not wanting to bend house rules, I remained quiet.
Sister sucked her teeth. “I will never get any nurse to come in here.”
Still I offered nothing. Sister stormed out. I watched her speak at length with two nurses outside, awaiting, no doubt, further morsels of gossip. Although I could not hear their words, the nurses’ gestures were loud enough. They recoiled several paces. Sister returned.
“Please. If you don’t mind, I know you are not on night shift, and I realize that you are a man . . . but since you . . . well, what I mean is . . . the other nurses—” She paused, clearly hoping I would simply offer my services. It worried me that Miss Ramchandin could hear such a conversation. In the struggle of wills between Sister and me, my self-preserving prudence prevailed. I nodded my head in agreement to the unstated question. Relieved, Sister exited hastily.