‘Non chérie,’ Boissy St Quentin said to his wife Fernande, ‘You know that I am the opposite of a cruel man, but these niggers had better understand that I have no time to waste hunting for marrons on the Morne Brabant. I paid good money for them, and they owe me the duty of working their fingers to the bones for me if I so decree. They run away, I catch them, and only whip them as a warning to the others. I don’t want them dead. They are no use to me dead. A fit and healthy nigger cost me more than six cows. I am not one to cut my own throat. Will a single sane man kill six cows and throw them in the river? Last time was an accident. The fellow must have had a weak heart. The punishment needs to be carried out, pour l’exemple.’ Once he started he never stopped until he had said everything he wanted to. He would rather repeat himself than omit a single point.
‘Emilien mon chéri, I would not want to be your enemy,’ Fernande said with a pretend shudder of fright and a little laugh, beaming a smile of admiration on her man.
‘My orders are that the beating must be a serious one. No point pussy-footing. Antoine knows when they are pretending to be at the point of death and when they have really passed out. Which is why there’s always a pail of water ready to revive them when they faint.’
‘I know, chéri,’ Fernande said, ‘you need to to balance a proper punishment with the necessity to keep them alive. I know you have to do it, but I simply do not have the stomach for flogging.’
‘Then don’t watch,’ he said, unable to hide the irritation in his voice this time. With her convent upbringing she thought that she was the only one who had compassion. But her own father is well-known for organising sorties on the Morne with the same gusto as when he and the governor go deer hunting, and boast about how many blacks he has shot, with the same bravado as he discusses his cervine trophies at the Dodo Club. He is so rich that shooting half a dozen niggers is worth the expense to him.
Today Antoine will be dealing with Théodore. God knows he had bent over backwards to be kind to that dog, but those niggers are irresponsible, risking starving to death in their hideout on the Morne, or a bullet in the back, against the safety of two meals a day on the établissement. They’ve got no backbone, work is anathema to them. They’d do anything to avoid work. But he would tell Antoine to go easy on this one. He was not sure why.
Once the maroon slave was tied to the mango tree, he took one close look at him, and understood why.
The boredom at Le Chalet was unbearable. It was the sea-side campement or bungalow of the Boissy St Quentin family, in Blue Bay, where they spent week-ends and holidays. He had read all the biblical stories, the only books allowed at Le Chalet, ten times over, and there was nothing for him to do, nobody to play with. Philippe who had the vocation was on a retreat with Père Prosper in the Cassis Monastery. Since Madeleine met that Sorbinard boy she wasn’t much fun. All she wanted was creep across the stilts under the house with him, spending hours kissing or worse. the It was then that Baptiste had appeared. He was the son of Artémise Robinson, a slave of the same de Sorbinard family, who had emancipated him against his promise to convert and become a good Catholic. Baptiste was collecting seaweed in a large basket. Thank God Ambroisine had gone to Curepipe for a special mass. He was confused about his attitude to his mother. He loved her, feared her and hated her in equal measure. He was sitting under a coconut tree gaping at the sky when the black boy had appeared.
‘Eta Couillon,’ Émilien had ordered, ‘come here.’ Baptiste had grinned and taken three steps towards the little white boy. Eta Couillon is You idiot.
‘Ti missié,’ Baptiste had said out of the blue, ‘why don’t you come with me to the pond? We can find big big camarons .’ Fresh water prawns. Émilien did not want to confess to his new-found friend that he had never done any prawn fishing in his life, nor that he had promised that he would never under any pretext leave the perimeter of the grounds of Le Chalet. As Madeleine was nowhere in sight, he decided that it was safe for him to act recklessly. They had run all the way to the bassin, which was less than a mile away, and when they got there, Baptiste said they needed some coconut fibre to make nooses with. Émilien had never dared climb a coconut tree before, but seeing the black boy entwine his skinny arms and legs round one and heave himself up like a monkey, he had laughed himself silly. On an impulse he decided that he was going to climb a coconut tree too, or die in the attempt. That was real life. In his sham of an existence, all that seemed like fun was forbidden.
‘Watch me,’ he shouted imperiously at Baptiste, but the latter was too absorbed in what he was doing to hear. Surprisingly he felt no anger against his new-found friend, and shrugged it off. He knew that he was fat and and had clumsy limbs, but he was sure that his determination was going to be enough. He always had willpower. He put his arms and feet round the trunk of the tree like he had seen his new friend do and heaved himself up. It was hard work, but he had pulled himself up by a good arm’s length. The second step was much easier, and although he had no strength left in him at the end, and was panting like the bellows at the blacksmith’s, by sheer willpower he made it to the top. Baptiste, now precariously perched on a frond, was watching him, shouting encouragement and laughing merrily. He began unscrewing coconuts, and dropped them merrily and laughing heartily as they hit the ground with a thud.
Émilien did not feel up to the challenge of copying his friend fully and get to balancing himself on a frond like a monkey. Maybe his courage failed him when he realised how easily his frail companion might have lost his balance and fallen down to a certain death. Then he had thought himself a sensible boy for not taking risks, but now he regretted it bitterly. I am a coward. What would it matter if I did fall to my death on such a glorious day? It would at least save me a life of mediocrity and ignominy.
He could not now recall what they had done next. He seemed to remember drinking coconut water, but had no recollection of how they opened the shells up. But he did have a clear picture of two faces reflected in the clear water of the pond, one black and the other pink. He remembered clearly how the black face had suddenly become excited.
‘Now, ti missié, . Can you see him?’ He had not. ‘Put your noose in here, let me show you.’ And the black boy had gently seized his hand and directed it towards the right.
‘Now let go.’ And he did. It was only then that he saw the most glorious sight that he had even seen all his life: the most gigantic, the most glorious prawn that ever existed. He could see it now, standing beside the mango tree in his Mont Calme grounds, waiting for a black man to be beaten half to death, a miniature jewel, black crystalline eyes popping out of their orbits, its coat like jade, feelers and claws outstretched in front of it, with a pride that reminded him of Madeleine parading her newly acquired bosoms to all and sundry, black or white. But the creature seemed to be moving in the opposite direction to the noose. He was going to move the noose, but Baptiste stopped him, excitedly pointing out that prawns moved backwards. Didn’t ti missié know that? And true enough the magnificent and silly creature backed itself into his noose like in a dream.
‘Pull him out, ti missié pull him out.’ He did not much like a little black boy giving him orders, but did as he was told anyway. The skinny black boy was so full of admiration. Jesus_ he said zési_ had given ti missié gifts.
‘Ayo… me… me, never caught one so bloody big, zoto, he’s so pretty. How come you catch him first time?’
Baptiste ended up by catching half a dozen too, and they had lit a wood fire to grill their catch. He had travelled the world, had eaten in the best restaurants in Paris, in Italy, but he had never eaten with so much relish as he had eaten on that day. At first although he had thought that excellent though the crustaceans tasted, they lacked salt, and Baptiste had smiled. Without a word, he had stood up, put his hands under his sweaty armpits to moisten his hands, and had rubbed this salty moisture on the prawns before putting them back on the glowing charcoal embers. Now, many years later, he could invoke not only the ghost of that taste but also the smoky smell of those prawns, roasting on firewood, salted with the sweat of a not too clean black boy. Émilien had so much fun that he forgot Philippe completely.
He could not remember whether it was the next day or a few days later that Baptiste turned up again at Le Chalet but he remembered how they had gone into the sea together and had laughed so much that it had seemed sinful. Ambroisine did not approve of laughter. He saw plainly the torn khaki shorts of the black boy, which he had to take off in order to wring them dry before putting them to dry on the sand. The young Boissy St Quentin in his shiny Van Heusen trunk, had sat by his side, his hands round his knees, and found himself strangely drawn to the sight of the black boy’s small plump black rump. Although he had wiped this image completely from his memory, now a quarter of century later, everything came back to him in all its details. He could clearly see a shiny little scar on his new-found friend’s left thigh. For a fleeting second he had the urge to stroke it with a finger, but he did not give in to the temptation. Still he had his first erection on that day. He had no idea what it was. It felt strange, and at the same time both uncomfortable and pleasant. But later he felt guilty about it, and fearing for his soul, he had blurted it out to Père Prosper when he came back to Le Chalet with Philippe on the next day. The man of the cloth had not had a minute’s hesitation, and had sternly ordered him to have any more contact with the “Nigger” boy. Satan, he had explained, was full of guile, and took many forms in his quest for the perdition of young souls. Next time he allowed Satan to tempt him, the saintly man had warned, the angel Gabriel would tell him, and he would then be duty-bound to inform his mother, and the boy did not need Père Prosper to tell him how serious the consequences would be. In any case he would be damned for all eternity.
So he never again went fishing for camarons at the dyke with Baptiste. When the boy came to Le Chalet on the next day, Émilien shouted, ‘Va te faire foutre,’ at him, and saw the amazement on the skinny lad’s face. ‘Fuck off,’ he shouted again, ‘or I’ll set the dog on you.’ Baptiste, perplexed, turned back and slowly began to walk away. As he watched Satan disappear, tears strolled down his cheeks, melting his short-lived childhood away.
As Théodore stood there waiting for the whip, unbowed, Émilien noticed how like Baptiste he looked. He drew a quick intake of breath and saw Antoine waiting for his orders to commence.
‘Have you got that bottle of rum for him for after the eh …’ Emilien left the sentence hanging in the air. Yes monsieur, Antoine said.
All those damn blacks look alike, a little voice inside the white man’s head whispered to him.
‘What the fuck are you waiting for, Antoine?’