Watching the planes take off and land. It’s possible to observe them through a gap between trees. Little glimpses, a flash of light, a roar of the engine. Gone again, come again. I’ve watched so many, it puts me to sleep. It takes a while to realise those sausage tubes contain real people. Pilots and stewardesses in their perfectly tailored suits. When I turn away, the sound of traffic returns, the commotion on the street. Windows don’t close, except in monsoon season. Even then… Snakes slip between unguarded spaces. The monkeys set up a racket. The creatures lurking in the forest make their presence known. There are no trophy hunters; no men emulating Hemingway. The fish have buried themselves in the deepest deep, the wild game have found a habitat across the border more in keeping with their lifestyle. The forest will flourish until the loggers return. And then there will be mayhem.
Bobby liked it that way. He sold me on the idea of a tropical paradise. At first, I wanted to believe in voodoo. He had a way about him; a strong sense of self-belief. In comparison I got no strength. Those Christian faiths betrayed me. The bubbling pot and cackling hens scared me stiff. We’d go together, lay our ten dollar bills in the hat at the door. The old woman put on a good floor show, calling up spirit voices. I almost offered her the shirt off my back when she asked. She’d laugh, spread the entrails, split the bones. Talk in a voice not her own. I hated her; she’d stare and point.
“You bad man.” Hissing the words.
I’d nod and smile. There was no point arguing. Afterwards we’d go to the stadium to watch cricket. Men in white shirts observing ancient rules. Another form of devotion. Another way to lose your shirt. Bobby laid bets with the kind of people who’d cut a man’s throat for speaking out of turn; mostly we lost. And if we won, it would be celebrated; the money spent on whisky or women. The women here are another breed altogether. There isn’t an ounce of sentiment. It’s all sweetness and lies.
“Everything that smells of spice,” Bobby would say. “got poison wrapped inside.”
It wasn’t as if Bobby needed to pay for his women. He was a handsome man; there would always be a couple of women on the go. He’d keep them sweet. No point being morose. He’d keep them apart, so they never saw him with another and if they knew, he’d smile. ‘Easy come, easy go.’ And everything was fine until the day Bobby disappeared. It’s over a year since I last saw Bobby. Some say he owed the Cartel and they sank him ten fathoms deep. Others want to believe he made it back to Florida. Unlikely. He won’t be coming back; Bobby’s gone for good.
The sun beyond the window is sinking. The planes are roosting beneath the trees. A new batch of tourists throng the streets in the old town. Dollars burning a hole. The temperature is cooling. The sweat dries on the back of the neck. I’ve been alone now for seventeen weeks. Carla don’t call. She described me as the ‘surrender man’, because I won’t pick a fight. Police come around, two’s and three’s, looking for a bribe. I say nothing to provoke. They’re threatening to lock up all known associates of whoever; they don’t give out a name. Hard to tell, there’s been so many who could fit the frame. It’s a catch all – to be used against a man after the police determine the nature of the crime. Everyone is presumed guilty. Got no choice except to starve to death. Carla and I had one fight too many. She fought and I conceded. There’s no future in cowardice. She’s down in the harbour now, selling her scarves to the American women. She don’t look bad for a woman knowed a man like me. I’m no beauty; an average Joe. Bobby called me an ugly son of a bitch. He’s gone for good. Never did settle his debts. Everyone trying to get out. Watching those planes come and go. Jeezus, I can’t go back.
I’m deep into the bottle when there’s a knock at the door. I’m slow to answer. There’s more than one way to settle a debt. An angel is standing on the threshold.
“I saw the light.”
Angel staring; am I deaf or dumb or blinded by the overwhelming sense I’ve been selected to receive a precious gift. Why me?
“Come in, pull up a chair. This is open house.”
If I look again, it’s no angel. I see it’s one of those charity women. The light behind her head creating a halo. She’s anxious to remove the stain of sin, employing a caustic expression. I’m scoured.
“I’m drinking here.” I tell her.
She isn’t impressed, places a leaflet on the chair just out of reach. Turns, ready to walk away.
“I’ve been a sinner all my life.” I remark.
If I was hoping to deflate her I failed.
“I know.” She smiles. “You’re the kind regrets nothing.”
I don’t really have an answer. The woman closes the door and I place the bottle to my lips. The cheap sweet mystery of alcohol collides with my blood. I want to throw up. Pick up the leaflet. It’s full of words. Words making promises. Promises I know will never be kept.
Down on the street, men in white shirts, women in their bright colours. Music is everywhere. I’m out there, wanting to believe. Standing beside the fountain in the square. Nowhere to go. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I’m sure to find it eventually. Taxi’s cruise. Women stroll arm in arm. Men on their own, prowling beneath the moon. The essence of cheap perfume stirs the breeze. There’s a whisper in the air which seems to hang at the edge of conversation, wanting to butt in. ‘What about me’, it seems to say.
The woman isn’t perfect. They seldom are. She said some words and I laid my money down. Now we’re lying back examining the character of events. She wants me gone. I want to leave. Nothing left to say. There’s a parrot in a gold painted cage hanging in one corner; it’s got its own repartee. There’s a green door leading into another room. A child asleep beneath a mosquito net. A single lamp burning on a table set for one. A half finished bottle of wine. The woman is smoking a joint, passes it my way with ring encrusted fingers.
“You’re quick.” She smiles. “It’s a blessing.” A compliment?
There’s a tray containing Bonbons. She helps herself.
“Want a drink?”
She smashes ice; there’s the sizzle of coke and the scent of whisky. Her flesh is moist. She squeezes my hand. For a moment, it’s almost as if she cares.
“You been here before?”
A shake of the head.
“You seem familiar.” She says.
I wonder what she means by that. I get off the bed. “I’ve got somewhere to be.”
“I knew Bobby.” She smiles. It’s not the opening to a complete narrative. She smiles again. “He was ok. Bit of a bastard too.” She pulls on the joint, settles back. For a brief moment I wonder if she’s going to say more.
A thought is percolating inside my head and I’m wondering if this way of life isn’t the ideal way to live. I’d like to ask her, but know she’d lie. We’re both whores in our own way. I smile.
“What you smiling about?” She asks.
Should I tell her? Maybe turn her into a friend. We both had Bobby in common. She isn’t perfect, but neither am I. I sip the whisky and coke. “I’ll tell you something, but first you got to promise me something.”
Now she’s suspicious and I can’t blame her. She shakes her head. “No.”
And there it is. “Life is beautiful.” I smile, trying to be mysterious. It’s a meaningless gesture; she isn’t even looking. I put on my shoes. “Will I see you again?”
She shrugs. It’s good enough.
Overhead I’m hearing jet engines. There’s a siren on the street when I eventually sit up. This is the time of morning when the bodies come to light. If I look outside I’ll see taxi’s cruising and the women by the fountain selling fruit. My body is stiff. Rigid with dawn. There are scars on every limb. The sore bones. All healed up, but the memory persists. It’s why I sit in dark corners; keeping myself apart. I’m remembering the angel from the night before. I never really saw her face. Perhaps it was wise. There are memories buried and like Bobby, wherever he is, I don’t need them resurrecting. It’s why I don’t visit churches. Sometimes the voices break through. I’m sure you heard them too. Most often the voices are still.
The bottomless bottle is speaking to me more and more. Every day I set out to become a different man. And each evening I’m disappointed. It’s the same hill I’m climbing. And standing alone on the summit the view is impossible to describe. Planes take off every hour of the day. I watch them come and go. If I got on board would it take me some place better? The people in the street do not see me; they see whatever it is they came to observe. I try to understand the need in others to transport themselves far and wide. I’m here, living in the shadow of Bobby and trying to be the person he believed I could become. I just can’t get a handle on who that person was meant to be. Maybe I should just get out. This town don’t hold no charms.
The yellowing sky is starting to tinge with grey which foretells another rainy day. Rain isn’t like we get at home. It’s relentless and unyielding, out to destroy whatever it touches. It drowns life, suffocates. It rains endlessly. I sit on the bed, trying to work. I’m paid to translate French into Spanish. Spanish into English. And the reverse. It’s how I survive. The University faculty is the only place in town where they respect me for my knowledge. It’s enough to get by and serve the inner man’s need for an occupation. If they knew the way I spent the money it might make them look at me another way. Life is a series of contrasts, I’ve discovered. Bobby called me slow. Perhaps I am. I don’t rush at anything. I want to live another day. Am I an optimist? There’s a psychology book on the shelf, one I haven’t finished. I read a few pages from time to time. It impresses the women if I bring one home. Self-analysis. It don’t change a thing.
Another day, the sun is out. The earth drying slowly. The dead and drowned dragged out. We live on the edge, here in the tropics. Paradise is surely overrated. The streets are overrun with tin pot gangsters and part time whores. The politicians are sleazy. The cops are corrupt. The hotels are bursting with tourists come to gawp. The beaches are beautiful but just beneath the surface, the razor edges protrude. I like to say, don’t come here empty, you’ll go away full. Some days are more familiar than others. And then again, what kind of surprise is there left to fill the void. Perhaps I should try to care more? Would it make me happy? Words. Promises. Excuses. I live along these lines.
The planes are warming up. Hear their roar against the ocean. The waters are breaking along the lush shoreline. There are women walking with children. All very scenic, until you understand they are collecting shells and polished stones to sell to the tourists.
“Hey lady. Buy my pretty shells, so I can feed my child.”
The artificial smile; a squalid world swept aside. Birds high up in the currents swoop down upon their prey. And everyone is eager and all are excited to be where they are. The bottle is empty. There are very few dreams that do not cost your soul. I’ve been here too long, living in Bobby’s shadow. He ain’t coming back.
Image by Stefan Parnet from Pixabay
8 thoughts on “Bobby’s Shadow by Desmond Kelly”
The melding of character to the setting is first rate. And the repeat mention of the planes measures time and creates a sense of anxiety. Well done.
Thank you for your kind remarks. Des
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Atmospheric – the lassitude coupled with a sense of oppression, of characters trapped, is nicely set out.
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I see this as a 1940s movie (or a new movie set in the 1940s) with an American or Englishman somewhere in the Caribbean. Steven French nailed it, so no reason to repeat.
As already mentioned, this is brilliantly atmospheric.
A really tight piece of story telling.
It’s great to see you back!!
Thank you Hugh. It means a great deal to be published these days. The competition on this site is extremely good.
Pulls me into the world of Bobby’s shadow. We know Bobby’s name, but not the narrator’s. Bobby’s shadow continues on after a fashion, after Bobby disappears. Bobby believed the narrator could become “something,” the shadow seems to be a bit of a linguist, but unfortunately he’s kind of spiralling into the bottle in front of him.When the shadow says to the woman “Life Is Beautiful,” that kind of sums up his ambiguity, given his observations before that. The ending, for me, gives a slight hope… I was rooting for the shadow!
This is an example of a really solid character telling us a compelling story with plot and atmosphere in abundance. Super solid writing in my opinion which gives such a strong sense of time and place. So many great lines too. One that really stood out for me is ‘The cheap sweet mystery of alcohol collides with my blood.’ – genius!