Excerpt from Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton - August, 2013)
Barrington Walker: aged 74, Antiguan and a closet gay Londoner has been married to his deeply religious wife Carmel for fifty years. He has also been lovers with his childhood friend Morris for 60 years. Barrington wants to divorce Carmel and live with Morris, but will he manage to break away.
The Art of Marriage
Saturday, 1 May 2010
Morris is suffering from that affliction known as teetotalism. Oh, yes, not another drop of drink is goin’ pass his lips before he leaves this earth in a wooden box, he said just now when we was in the dancehall, Mighty Sparrow blasting ‘Barack the Magnificent’ out of the sound system.
Last time it happen was when he decided to become vegetarian, which was rather amusing, as that fella has spent the whole of his life stuffing his face with every part of an animal except its hair and teeth. Anyways, all of a sudden Morris started throwing exotic words into the conversation like ‘soya’, ‘tofu’ and ‘Quorn’ and asking me how I would feel if someone chop off mi leg and cook it for supper? I didn’t even disdain to reply. Apparently he’d watched one of those documentaries about battery chickens being injected with growth hormones and thereby deduced he was goin’ turn into a woman, grow moobies and the like.
‘Yes, Morris,’ I said. ‘But after seventy-something years eating chicken, I notice you still don’t need no bra. So, tell me, how you work that one out?’
Get this now: within the month I found myself walking past Smokey Joe’s fried-chicken joint on Kingsland High Street, when who did I see inside, tearing into a piece of chicken, eyes disappearing into the back of his head in the throes of ecstasy like he was at an Ancient Greek bacchanalia being fed from a platter of juicy golden chicken thighs by a nubile Adonis? The look on his face when I burst in and catch him with all of that grease running down his chin. Laugh? Yes, Morris, mi bust mi-self laughing.
So there we was in the dancehall amid all of those sweaty, horny youngsters (relatively speaking) swivelling their hips effortlessly. And there was I trying to move my hips in a similar hoola-hoop fashion, except these days it feels more like opening a rusty tin of soup with an old-fashioned tin opener. I’m trying to bend my knees without showing any pain on my face and without accidentally goin’ too far down, because I know I won’t be able to get up again, while also tryin’ to concentrate on what Morris is shouting in my ear.
‘I mean it this time, Barry. I can’t deal with all of this intoxication no more. My memory getting so bad I think Tuesday is Thursday, the bedroom is the bathroom, and I call my eldest son by my younger son’s name. Then, when I make a cup of tea, I leave it standing ’til it cold. You know what, Barry? I goin’ start reading some of that Shakespeare you love so much and doing crossword. What is more, I goin’ join gym on pensioner discount so I can have sauna every day to keep my circulation pumping good, because between you, me and these four walls …’
He stopped and looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was eavesdropping. Right, Morris. Two old geezers talking about the trials and tribulations of being geriatric and the whole room of gyrating youth wants to know about it?
‘I suddenly noticed last week, mi have varicose vein,’ he whispered into my ear so close he spat into it and I had to wipe it out with my finger.
‘Morris,’ I say. ‘Varicose vein is what happen when you is ole man. Get used to it. As for forgetfulness? Likely you got early dementia and nothing you can do about that except eat more oily fish. As for staying sober …’
I shut up because Morris, with his eyebrows scrunched up pitifully, suddenly looked like a puppy dog. Usually he will banter right back, whack me on the head with the proverbial cricket bat. Morris is a sensitive fella but not hypersensitive, because that really would make him more woman than man – especially at a certain time of the month when they get that crazed look in they eyes and you better not say the wrong thing, or the right thing in the wrong way. Actually, even if you say the right thing in the right way they might come after you with a carving knife.
‘Don’t worry yourself. I is joking, man.’ I punched him in the chest. ‘If you was goin’ off your head, I would be the first to tell you. Nothing to worry about, my friend. You as sane as you ever was.’ Then I mumbled out of the side of my mouth, ‘Which ain’t saying much.’
Morris just stared at me in that wounded way that he really should-a grown out of about sixty-nine years ago.
I worked out he must be in the throes of alcohol-withdrawal symptoms. Not that I got direct experience of this withdrawal phenomenon, because I ain’t never gone a day without the sweet sauce blessing my lips. Difference between me and Morris is that most days that is all I do, wet my lips with a taster, a chaser, a little something to warm me up. A sip of Appleton Rum, a swig of Red Stripe or Dragon Stout, mainly to support the intemperance industry over there on the islands. Call it an act of benevolence. Only on a Saturday night do I give in to my bacchanalianese tendencies. In Morris’s case, he don’t consume the drink; the drink consumes him. Pickled. That man is pickled. The ratio of alcohol to blood in that man must be 90 to 10, a-true. Not that he should worry, he’s one of those pissheads who looks good on it.
Finally, he decided to lighten up and crack a smile. Nobody can be depressed around me for long. Yesss. I am the Great Mood Levitator. I am the Human Valium.
‘We veterans now,’ I tell him. ‘We have to adjust. What is more, we must believe that our best years are ahead of us, not behind us. Only way to deal with this non-stop train hurtling towards oblivion is to be positive. Is this not the Age of Positive Thinking? You know what they say, glass either half full or half empty. Let we make it half full. Do we have a deal, my man?’
I hold out my hand for a shake but instead he gets the wrong end of the stick and starts acting like a teenager, attempting one of those hip-hop, fist-pump, finger-flick handshakes that we both get all wrong and anybody looking will think we are a couple of pathetic old dudes trying to be cool.
Morris, oh, my dear Morris, what I goin’ do with you? You have always been a worrier. Who is it who always tell you ‘Morris, take it off your chest and put it on mine’?
Now look at you, that welterweight body of yours – selfsame one that used to do the ‘Morris Shuffle’ around your opponents in the boxing ring to become Junior Boxing Champ of Antigua in 1951 – is still mighty strong in spite of a piddling varicose vein or two. You still the chap I used to know. Still got impressive musculature on your arms. Still got a stomach more concave than convex. Still got no lines except those around your neck, which nobody will notice anyways except me.
But, Morris, there is one thing I does know for sure about you – your heart and mind has always liked to travel on that sea-goin’ vessel them-a-call Lady Booze. No way are you goin’ jump ship for dry land at this late stage in life and end up marooned on a desert island called Sobriety.
This I know without a doubt because I, Barrington Jedidiah Walker, Esq., have known you, Monsieur Morris Courtney de la Roux, since we was both high-pitched, smooth-cheeked, mischief-makers waiting for we balls to drop.
I ain’t complaining, because, while Morris is planning on bettering himself, he chauffeurs me home in his Ford Fiesta, as I am too plastered to get behind the wheel of a car and negotiate the high roads and low roads of East London without getting arrested by the boys in blue. That’s one thing I does miss – drinking, driving and getting away with it, as we all did in the sixties and seventies. No CCTV cameras silently ogling you with their Cyclopean eyes three hundred times a day as you go about your business in London Town. Soon as I leave my door I watched. Big Brother come into we lives and none of us objecting. I can’t even pick a booga out of mi own nose without its being filmed for posterity.
Morris drives me up to my yard, No. 100 Cazenove Road, Stoke Newington, waits to make sure I go in the right gate and don’t collapse in the gutter, then drives off quietly in first gear with a cheery backhand wave.
He should be coming in for some spiced cocoa and some ole man’s gentle comfort.
Instead, my heart sinks because I goin’ into the lion’s den.
This is the story of we lives.
Hellos and goodbyes.