Chin Music

There had been a violin in the corner. So Clement had believed that the orchestra was where his grandfather wished him to be. Or perhaps a dance band of some kind?

“Nothing like a bit of chin music,” Tata Bud had said. “That’s where you should be, Clath, bringing some of that to them quarshies.”

Clement had been OK with his nickname when his grandfather had used it but, in the early days, he hadn’t been happy when the others had. When he was five or six and the old man had called out “Where my Clathman at?” and Clement had come running, the little boy had been subjected to months of taunts about nappies, baby shit and every connotation of a name that made him, essentially, a diaper man. But it wore off. His irritation … and eventually the insults, but not the nickname. Almost everyone he knew had a nickname.

Except his mother.

Dolores was not the kind of woman who accepted diminutives.

Her father, though, had been Ginnal Bud forever.

“I like to keep things,” Tata Bud had told Clement. “My treasures. Like the bird that collects trinkets in his nest. So my daddy called me for the trickster man but made me that bird at the same time. ‘Cos he know I meant no harm. And so I’m Bud – Ginnal Bud. Leander only to my mother until-she-left-us-when-I-was-nine-year-old-god-rest-her-sweet-soul,” he said, and he raised his watery eyes to the heavens with the habitual blink of acknowledgement.

“I haven’t made much of my life, Clath,” he would say. “But you can. I see it. You have it in you. The build … lanky, … maga, that’s what you need to be the best.” Tata Bud smiled. “You will make them dance – you see if they don’t.” His smile was the best sight Clement had seen. Toothy and rough – but there was nothing more joyful than the grin of the Ginnal Bud. He might not have made much of his life but he always found ways to enjoy what he had. So Clement wanted to make that smile appear as often as he could.

So Chin Music would be his future. He had no other plans anyway. Some dreams perhaps. But no real plans.

When he asked his grandfather if he might borrow the ancient violin that sat in the corner of the pokey living room, the old man had frowned. “That old thing. What you want that relic for?” But he hadn’t paused to allow any kind of answer then – instead, going on to reminisce about his father-in-law, the original owner of the instrument. “An old bastard he was, Clath, even Ceeley could see that. But he could play that fiddle like nobody else. So she kept it as his one good thing and when he was long gone, he became as good and pure in her head as the sweet music he could make. But he weren’t. No one less sweet than that old war boat. So you have his one good thing if you want it, bwoy. I got no use for it.”

Clement tried his best – but he couldn’t make the violin sing. It couldn’t even speak with a steady tone. Even with lessons, it lay stiffly on his shoulder squawking for mercy. The music teacher would roll her eyes and, each time Clement had released the instrument from beneath his chin, her breath would escape like that of an endurance runner whose marathon was finally at an end. She suggested the piano. Singing perhaps. But Clement wanted only to bring that smile to the face of his Tata Bud – so he persisted.

And then he would reward his efforts with a game of cricket with his friends in the street. Or at the beach. They’d play until it got dark. And then they could imagine that the buzz of the cicadas was the filled stands at Queen’s Park and that the entire West Indies team was a group of boys from Port of Spain who’d all grown up together.

“One day …” Arto would say, “I’ll be there in the middle … hitting sixes from every ball of the fifty overs …” He’d look at his quiet friend, The Clathman, and respond to the shaking head with venom. “Don’t you shake at me – Test cricket is dead, man. We all know it. It’s the ‘one day’ now. And me, just like Gus Logie, Larry Gomes … I’ll play there … for the West Indies. The tall skinny ones they get from Jamaica … Barbados. They come to Trinidad for fast-over-the-ground, the ones with nothin’ spare wavin’ in the air …”

“Listen, Po-po,” Clement would laugh. “They got enough chinkee. That new guy, Lara, he’ll fill the quota. So now it’s only tall they looking for round here.”

Clement was a bowler. A fast bowler. He had a run-up like Michael Holding and a temperament to match. His languid grace belied his speed and his short ball was unleashed when it would have the most effect – a new batsman at the crease, a cocky visitor who had thought his four over Arto’s head was something other than beginner’s luck. Clement didn’t relish the occasional bloody nose or rattled jaw that were the result of his bouncer – but skill was a requirement of this street game. Everyone in Sea Lots and Laventille knew that. And if they didn’t, they learnt soon enough. As did their visiting cousins and any over-confident newcomers.

But it wasn’t simply the marked contrast between something that he did well and something for which he seemed to have no aptitude at all that made Clement so elated as he ran from his violin lessons to the dusty street pitch. He felt at home when he loped in to bowl – the movement seemed to fit his body and there was a kind of freedom when he got into his stride that he didn’t experience anywhere else. He loved his part in the game – watching each batsmen for his vulnerabilities, placing his field to fit his strategy against Ravi or Maco or The New Kid. Clement could feel both his mind and body being used to their optimum. So time battling with the violin was easily tolerable when his days could be balanced by a period where he could focus on a stretch of ground between a brick and a crate (or whatever had been assigned the role of makeshift stumps for the day).

So Clement persisted with his music lessons. He hoped that one day he might produce something from the implacable instrument that would not be unduly traumatic for his grandfather’s ears so that, in time, he could make the old man’s dreams come true.

But as Clement got older, Ginnal Bud got truly old.

And one day, after school, Dolores met Clement with puffy eyes and sunken cheeks to reveal that her father had taken his last breath.

Clement ran. He ran and ran.

He was sad and angry and frustrated. He had failed. He had let down the only man who had ever had high hopes for him, who had seen potential. But potential that Clement had wasted because he hadn’t brought it to life.

But when he stopped running, Clement knew what he had to do.

That day and each one following, in every free moment, he practised. In the music room. In the old shed near the docks. Any place that he could find away from everyone. The days were bright and sunny but he ignored the calls from the street game and did all he could to be ready for Nine Night.

And when it came, he knew he was still incapable of anything close to music but that he would have to do what he could anyway.

Everyone came. From Sea Lots. From Laventille and Beetham Estate. The old Jamaicans who had known Ginnal Bud when he was a boy were there. And there were even some ancient looking men surrounded by whispers about the gang of Boysie Singh – a man whose legend was unable to outdo the reality of his murdering pirate ways.

“One of them butchered the donkey, Clath. That they threw to the sharks to get them eatin’ so that Boysie and his boys could get rid of the bodies,” Arto hissed as they filled their plates with food.

But even talk of ghoulish murder and the proximity of notorious gangsters couldn’t distract Clement from his impending moment.

The set-up followed the traditional pattern – feasting, dancing, the mopping of eyes from mournful wails and raucous laughter. And when Dolores had sung her throaty tribute to her beloved father, Clement knew the time had come. Everyone assembled was nestled in a reverend hush, their gazes misty and their voices numb. So Clathman lifted his musical weapon from its hiding place under a table and honored his Tata Bud in the way the old man would have wanted.

He played as well as he could play. And to say that cats had died under cars with more harmony was not an exaggeration. But the humiliation could not be a consideration for Clement. He had to do what Ginnal Bud had dreamt for him.

When he finally lowered the violin, there was a stillness unlike the one that had preceded the performance. This was no spiritual veneration but the aching absence of just that. Clement stood. And finally, through the silence, the voice of one of the elderly Jamaicans seemed to echo through the vacant pause. “Well man, that what we here for – that ol’ Bud duppy won’t hang around and mess with us after that cuss-cuss nize!”

And they laughed. Everyone laughed. They slapped Clement on the shoulder and grinned. They bellowed at their own hilarity. They chuckled at thoughts of their old friend and the jolly times they’d shared together. And although there was some relief at the positive response of the grieving assembly, Clement still couldn’t help but feel that he had let his grandfather down.

The next day, the mourners rallied when the street game took shape outside. And when they called to The Clathman to bring his fast ones, he couldn’t resist. He caught the ball thrown to him and paced out his run-up. And then he turned to face his opponent who was waving the bat with misplaced confidence from the crease.

“Give it to ‘im, Ginnal’s Bwoy!” one of the old pirates called from a reclining position near mid-wicket. “Right up to him. A little bit o’ chin music is what this fella needs. You built right for it – give it to ‘im!”

Clement stopped. He looked at the old man as comprehension took its time to settle. And then he laughed. He laughed louder than the whole gathering had the night before.

He didn’t care that the fielders were baffled and confused. He didn’t care that the batsman has taken up his stance minutes before. He just laughed. And when he was finally able to wipe the tears from his cheeks, he found his mark again. And he began to run.

And when he bowled that bouncer, Clement had never felt so good. And he knew he never would again. It was the perfect moment.

(Except for Arto whose cheekbone was broken in two places and who was given out for stepping back onto his stumps.)

*  *  * 


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