Thursday, May 04, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:8

He waited an hour in the lounge of the Georgetown Club for a cup of coffee, while his headache ripened. The kitchen often treated requests for things like coffee as inconsiderate surprises. The waiter, when he brought up the cup on a tray, was sullen and silent, and the coffee was weak and lukewarm. He drank it quickly, and felt a sudden longing for greenery, for fresh foliage on which he could rest his eyes.

He walked down Camp Street and across Regent Street, and the air felt heavy with dust and the exhaust of cars. At Vlissingen Road he waited many minutes before he could cross to the entrance to the Botanical Gardens.

Just outside the old green-painted iron gate there was a huddle of hucksters with trays of biscuits and sweets, and three or four taxis waiting to whisk tired visitors away, their drivers asleep on their half-reclined seats, all the cars radios on at low volume. He was flushed and thirsty from his twenty-minute walk in the late afternoon sun.

From the gate, a long avenue lined with tall royal palms stretched down the length of the gardens, at least a mile, it seemed; he couldn't see to the other end. Not many people were here today. The hedge along the avenue seemed dusty, and the lawn that sloped on one side towards the famous manatee pond was muddy, with big, dirty puddles in the grass. Two or three children stood beside the pond flinging handfuls of grass into the water, but the manatees didn't appear; the uprooted grass floated slowly to the middle of the pond, and the children wiped their dirty hands on their clothes.

On the other side of the avenue of palms was a sort of paved terrace with a ring of six pools around a seventh pool in the centre, where water lilies and water hyacinths grew in the murky water. This terrace led in turn to a set of low steps and a strange low pavilion: President Burnham's mausoleum.

He'd heard this pavilion described as spider-like, with its concrete buttresses like legs jointed to the roof, but he thought it looked more like a crab, paused in mid-scuttle, watching motionless until the observer looked away, when it would race for the safety of its hole.

The northern and eastern sides of the mausoleum were open. He walked up the steps and into the pavilion's shade. The southern and western sides were enclosed with thick walls, decorated with bronze reliefs maybe eight feet tall and sixteen feet wide, depicting events from Burnham's life. He appeared as a political prisoner, watched over by British soldiers, talking politics with fellow captives; as an orator, standing at a podium blazoned with the initials of the political party he founded; as the author of Guyana's system of proportional representation. In the second relief the grateful people of Guyana--farmers, miners, soldiers, all bearing the implements of their trade, tools or weapons--paid homage to their leader.

The mausoleum's pillars were painted purple, which someone had told him was the colour of Burnham's personal livery. But the sarcophagus that stood in the centre of the pavilion was the most striking thing. It was faced with slices of quartz or some other glass-like rock, green so dark it was almost black; the pieces of rock looked dangerous, wet and sharp as a knife. Set in the stone base was a bronze medallion with a palm tree and a black caiman; this was Burnham's personal seal.

He had read that Burnham had wanted to be embalmed and displayed in a glass coffin, and when he died, twenty years before, his corpse was flown to London for this purpose, for the attentions of expert embalmers. But someone thought better of this plan, perhaps, or else the embalming had somehow failed, and now Burnham, if he really was entombed in the sarcophagus, was sealed inside concrete and solid rock, protected by the slices of dark quartz and an ornamental chain barrier.

He had heard many stories about Burnham, about his eccentricities and brutalities and the whims by which he ruled Guyana in the last years of his life, and every day in Georgetown he heard new stories; everyone old enough to remember Burnham had a story. At state dinners, he was told, Burnham would ask his wife in Latin to pass the salt, just loud enough for all the guests to hear. He had renamed the chief bauxite mining town, fifty miles inland, after himself, giving it his first name, Linden--a name that suggested green delicate trees, not the dull orange of bauxite dust. And there had once been a rumour, he read later, that Burnham also planned to rename the mango; in Guyana it would thenceforth have been called the Burnham apple. Or perhaps Burnham never thought of this at all, but it was close enough to what people believed about Burnham for the rumour to have spread in spasms of excitement.

On his deathbed, someone else told him, Burnham had asked--his last request--for a taste of sweet condensed milk, a few drops on his lips. In the worst years of his rule, condensed milk was banned; no one knew how to make it in Guyana, and merchants were not allowed to import it. Other imported things like wheat flour and powdered milk were banned also, in the name of national self-sufficiency.

"And that was all because the American ambassador got Burnham angry one day, you know. You ever heard that? It was when Burnham was pretending to be this big socialist leader, and travelling everywhere talking about solidarity with this and that, and nationalising all the big firms. The American ambassador had a meeting with him and said, Mr. Burnham, you better stop talking like this. Remember you depend on imports from America to feed your people.

"Well, that was the wrong thing to say. Burnham was a haughty man and he didn't like anybody to feel they could dictate to him. Burnham said, I depend on America? Not any longer. And then he banned the importation of all those things--we used to say he banned all the white things, flour and milk, and even cement to build, and white paint for houses, and toothpaste. You couldn't buy Colgate in Guyana. People used to smuggle it from Suriname or Brazil.

"We had to make bread and roti and everything with rice flour. If you got a little bit of wheat flour, you would save it for a special occasion, to bake a birthday cake or something. And milk was the worst. Because we hardly have dairy cows in Guyana, and in those days we didn't have refrigeration to store it. People used to line up for hours at the shops if they heard they had some milk, just to buy a little bit for their children."


Anonymous said...

I am enjoying your writing, your "Imaginary Roads" and the recognizable landscapes and observations of Guyana. Hope that you write the whole book.

Anonymous said...

And after the Gardens, did he visit the Zoo? Did he meet the lion with nothing more ferocious than a cough? The homicidal stork, fixing the curious with his beady eye, before plunging a beak through their hearts? The escaped spider monkeys, mocking their cousins? The parents leading by example by feeding the animals? And did he trace their afterlife at the National Museum? Sign his name in a huge ledger, under duress? Did he ever drink coffee again and never think of Fat Boy?