Saturday, February 18, 2006

miss u and son of s

Minshall's queen, Miss Universe, heads for the Savannah stage, while his king, Son of Saga Boy, awaits final assembly on the "track", at the Carnival kings and queens prelims

I buy a ticket for the Grand Stand, but I have no intention of staying there. It's the night of the Carnival king and queen competition preliminaries, and the action is all on the "track"--the once-dirt, now-paved route from Queen's Park South to the foot of the ramp leading up to the Savannah stage. Georgia has her all-access media pass round her neck. At the track barrier we tell the NCC official, a middle-aged man in a red t-shirt, that I've "forgotten" mine. Well, it's true--I forgot to apply for one this year. After some light banter he lets us both through, and for the rest of the night as we go back and forth he gives me knowing little smiles.

The track is lined on one side by little wooden huts housing vendors of food and drink--smoke drifts overhead from the jerk hut--and on the other by big empty tents which I suppose are meant to serve as dressing rooms. But the real dressing room is the open air. On the grass on either side of the asphalt, dozens of kings and queens sit in ranks--fluttering, glittering, besequinned, bejewelled, beribboned, befeathered, bespiralled; strange, surreal confections, the smallest costumes not much bigger than their masqueraders, the largest twenty or thirty feet tall or wide, constructed around frames of metal or fibreglass. Wings, sails, tails, shields, stars, dragons, bulls.

One costume sports a "Greek" statue standing in what looks like an arbour of grapevines. Another has two giant snakes with bloodcurdling green eyes. There are variations on fancy Indians and fancy sailors; a man standing in a chariot pulled by a rearing horse, the entire costume apparently made of cardboard; and a fascinating king called "The Pot from Hell", a fifteen-foot-tall saucepan surmounted by tongues of flame, guarded by three imps.

We are looking for Minshall's queen, Miss Universe, and we find her sitting serenely behind a pickup truck on a sheet of black plastic, a group of women reclining at her feet. She is supposed to be "Tan Tan's girl child"; dressed all in white, with a gauzy cape descending from her shoulders, she looks like a bride-to-be, or the effigy of some goddess.

Alyson Brown, Minshall's longtime queen and the original Tan Tan, is Miss Universe's chief attendant, a yellow utility bag round her neck. She is waiting for Jenna-Marie Andre, the new queen, the former Miss Universe contestant who will be a different kind of Miss Universe tonight.

We walk down to the far end of the track, through the throngs of NCC officials, band supporters, and ordinary people who have slipped past the barriers. Cameras flash; a film crew is interviewing Brian MacFarlane, the designer who many think was angling to take Minshall's place until Minshall surprised everyone and came back this year.

When we get back to the Callaloo camp, Jenna has arrived and is already in her black bodysuit, her limbs exaggerated by wire-spiralled hoops. She looks extraordinarily calm, but then she's used to facing audiences and spotlights. Miss Universe is now the centre of a small swarm of activity--last-minute adjustments to her fibreglass skeleton, the drape of her veil. She is, essentially, a giant puppet of a species invented by Minshall sixteen years ago, designed so that her limbs mimic the movement of the masquerader half hidden inside her frame.

The music from the stage seems to get louder. The first queens are already crossing. People are starting to gather round, waiting for Miss Universe to stand. A man with a clipboard calls out: "Tan Tan, get your outside child ready."

Alyson is helping Jenna with the black discs that decorate the front of her bodysuit. She looks like a mother preparing a daughter for some ritual, then like a monarch passing the insignia of her reign to her successor, then like a stagehand dressing a performer.

Miss Universe gazes into the night.

Her supporters raise her to a crouching position; it is time for Jenna to be strapped into the harness. She disappears into the cave of white frills. Everyone's movements are suddenly more urgent. From behind Miss Universe I glimpse Jenna through the translucent veil, a princess or a priestess in a sanctuary tent.

Now Minshall is here, and a ripple goes through the crowd: a pickup truck has pulled up, with the king, Son of Saga Boy, riding in the back.

Miss Universe is ready. Gracefully, she rises; she takes her first steps. Silence. She shimmers in the light of the arc-lamps. And for many of us who remember Tan Tan's dance half a generation ago, the moment has a heart-swelling poignance; we are watching a spirit rise to remind us of the beauty of an age irretrievably past.

As Miss Universe glides towards the stage, the crew is unloading Son of Saga Boy from the truck, his black feathers glistening as though wet.

We are through the barriers and at the foot of the ramp, in the full glare of the lights but hidden from the Grand Stand audience. Minshall and his black-clad lieutenants and the crew are huddled around. Peter Samuel, Minshall's longtime king and now the leader of his own band, walks up and grabs the masman by the shoulders. "Relax!" Jenna's been released from her harness; she stares up at the stage, waiting for her cue.

Then someone gives the signal. We run round to the Grand Stand so we can see her make her entrance.

Back at the Callaloo camp, Son of Saga Boy sits grinning, his mask-like face etched with symbols: hearts, stars, crescent moons, and a red AIDS ribbon in the middle of his forehead. Kerwin Paul, the young king, is standing nearby. Alyson Brown goes up to him, fixes him with her eyes. "You frighten? Tell me."

The Callaloo team has been working on Son all last night and all today, and he still isn't quite finished. When they try to strap Kerwin into the frame, something doesn't sit right, doesn't fit. A stepladder, tools: the builders are frantically making adjustments. Tension is building. More and more people gather round to see. The head is crooked; one of the long plumes trailing behind has been fixed at the wrong angle. Minshall is looking on grimly. He turns and says to the person behind him, "To cut a long story short, I'm going to start doing mas on wheels."

They try a second time to get Kerwin into his harness, to make Son stand. Again, something is wrong. Kerwin emerges drenched with sweat. Everyone is exhausted. After the apparent ease with which Miss Universe came to life, Son's birthing pangs are almost painful to watch. But this is no new story with Minshall: how many kings and queens were assembled only on the track here at the Savannah, with minutes to go before their cues?

Then it's finally finished: the last bolt is tightened, knots adjusted, the engineers have done their job. Son of Saga Boy stands--pauses--takes his first careful step, then another and another. The crowd gasps and now people are running to see him, but he's already heading for the stage.

One of the other bands has brought a tassa side, and they're playing not too far off, drowning out the music from the stage. And one of Son's handlers starts to clap in time to the rhythm--this is the first time Kerwin has worn the costume, there's been no time to practise, he's literally just learning to walk. And Son starts to chip along and then it just happens: he finds his stride, he starts to move, he's alive, and a spasm of joy hits us all. Big, tired, hard-bitten men and women start to laugh and cry out and skip with delight, and the drums are rolling and Son is prancing, and I'm speechless and my heart is in my throat and I nearly want to sit down and cry. But everyone is following him to the stage, and I hear Alyson say to somebody, "You not proud of your boy?"

At the ramp, once again, everyone has to wait, and I can't tear my eyes away. Behind the barrier some of Kerwin's friends are screaming his name. He hears them and gives them a quick smile. As he waits for his cue, it feels like everyone's heart is beating in time, and he edges up the ramp, his handlers helping him support the weight till the very last moment, and all the photos I'm taking are ruined by the trembling of my hands. I remember I want to see him from the Grand Stand, so I run, and I just make it.

As he lunges onto the stage a roar goes up, and I'm shouting too. And all I can think is how beautiful he is, and then I think this thought as well: whatever else I've never managed to do or have or see, I saw Son of Saga Boy take his first joyful steps, here, tonight in the Savannah.

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