AS FLIES TO WHATLESS BOYS – EXCERPT
EXCERPT FROM AS FLIES TO WHATLESS BOYS
I couldn’t tell you, my father said, and I knew I was in trouble. I had a long night of listening ahead of me.
There weren’t any furnishings on this back deck. Not even a railing round the side. Only some enormous coils of weathered rope my father and I reclined against while he smoked his cigar. It was the highest part of the ship, and so isolated we could have been the only two people aboard. We couldn’t even hear the noise below of the other passengers getting settled for the night, sailors still preparing to go to sea in the morning. Everything quiet. The sea quiet too without scarcely a ripple, the ship having swung round with her stern facing the shore. The two lights at the end of Kings Wharf had come on in the distance, reflect- ing at us in wavering lines across the flat water. With a few other lights already tinkling round the curve of the bay, a handful more in town and higher up in the hills. The mountains behind them had turned to such a dark green they were almost black, sky smoky gray without a cloud or a star yet. Flat and still as the sea. Whatever lights there were below on the ship you couldn’t see them. Here on deck there was only the glow of my father’s cigar.
First one he mongoosed was another German inventor named Roebling. His friend longsince childhood. As young men, these two left on the same ship bound for New York. But that was still a good while before the start of this story. Etzler was on the run because the authorities were taking a lag on he tail over something-or- the-other—they’d jailed him once already—and he was running from his creditors too. Etzler never went nowhere that he wasn’t running from creditors. But he had he friend Roebling bamboozled, as I was telling you, and together they led a group of working-class emigrants on this ship. Yet by the time the ship disembarked the two leaders had fought. Half the group went with Etzler, other half with Roebling. They went they separate ways, despite remaining friends. Roebling to start a cultiva- tion in Pennsylvania, Etzler to begin a expedition exploring the western frontier, looking for the suitable place to establish he own experimental community. But as it turned out Roebling would be the one to leave he mark in the history book. Not Et- zler. Understand, Etzler’s public life occupies only a few years, before and after which everything looks hazy like you seeing it through a gauze. Roebling, on the other hand, wasted little time deciding he wasn’t no kinda weed-puller a-tall. He converted his farm to a factory to mass produce his newest invention: steel rope. He became obsessed with this thing. And he remained obsessed with it the rest of his life. Same steel rope that eventually enabled him to design and erect the grandest, most mag- nificent madman-monstrosity ever imagined to we present day: the Brooklyn Bridge.
My father had brought a pitch-oil lamp but he hadn’t lit it yet. For now there was only the glow of his cigar. He’d also brought out his leather briefcase, the same one he took every day to work. Which didn’t make any sense to me—what could he want with this briefcase in the dark on the back deck of a ship? And it wouldn’t be until a good while after he’d launched into his story—after he lit the lantern—that he’d open up his briefcase to take out a slightly battered pasteboard cigar box. With a single word handprinted in hard capitals cross the cover: CHAGUABARRIGA. I’d never seen the word before. Didn’t know what language it came from. Or languages. Even the box was a mys- tery—when my father first took it out I’d thought he wanted to smoke another cigar.
Inside was a collection of old papers, smudged and ragged-looking round the edges, that he would ruffle through occasionally and select one to illustrate something from his story: maps, letters, clippings from some ancient newspaper I’d never heard of called The Morning Star. He’d take one out and we’d squint together to decipher it beneath the glow of the pitch-oil lamp. But the main thing he wanted to show me— the principal ‘artifact’ as he called them from out of his box—was the little notebook that had once belonged to his own father. It told of the twenty-three days they’d spent together on some estate up on the north coast. A commune where all the labour would be done by machines of Etzler’s own invention. Machines powered by Mother Nature: by wind & water & waves.
The notebook measured four-by-six inches square. On the tattered cover, printed out by the hand of a grandfather I’d hardly heard of or knew anything about, was the same mysterious word: CHAGUABARRIGA.
Whatever-the-arse Etzler was doing leading his band of emigrants stumbling round the American West, like Moses leading the lost Israelites, nobody knows. Presumably he was evangelising his machines and ideas. But he couldn’t convince those frontier yankees not-for-nothing, and before long he’d lost he handful of German followers too. They were simple people looking to improve they lives with a few simple creature comforts. They didn’t give a pum about changing the world and turning it into a earthly paradise. But Etzler’s biggest problem beginning-to-end was his inabil- ity to accept contrary opinions. Especially when those opinions were coming from people he considered both backwards and boobooloops. He abandoned the West, turning now to explore the South. But there he bounced up face-first with American slavery—which of course his conscience could never condone—and he’d run out of money again.
And here is where history begins to play she hand. Because that same day that he published Paradise, he travelled to New York for the birthday celebration of a famous Frenchman-socialist by the name of Fourier. And it was at this birthday fête that Etzler met the man who’d become he biggest acolyte ever—C.F. Stollmeyer. (Yes it is, son. The same Stollmeyer who built that big, crazy-arse house round the Savannah, known to us as Killarney Castle. Complete with turrets & towers & Italian stained-glass windows & balustrades of purpleheart-wood lugged out the jungles of Guyana. Same man they used to call ‘Shit-Slinging-Stollmeyer’ because he went round the place collecting up cowshit & horseshit & goatshit & any other kinda caca he could get he hands on, only to compress it into fuel and sell for 5¢-a- brick. But what he eventually made he fortune from was refining pitch he got gratis out the lake at La Brea (that same pitchlake where Columbus heself went to fetch tar to cork the hulls of his ships), and Stollmeyer dug it out & refined it & sold it off as kerosene—what we call pitch-oil. Because that’s the kinda men we talk- ing about here, R-W. That’s the kinda characters peopling this story. Because as it turned out Stollmeyer never followed Etzler back to America, when he went running from Trinidad with he stones shriveled up between he legs. After the TES had gone to hell and the whole bloody thing was dead and done with. Even Stollmeyer had he fill of Etzler by then.)
Last ferry ashore till mornin!
Yet even as I heard the captain’s hoarse voice I knew I was in trou- ble. I didn’t have a chance to escape. Not a chance. I was here for the night. Thing is, only the other day I’d asked my father to tell me this story of how the Tuckers ended up here in Trinidad. My family. It was the first time I’d made the request. Oddly enough, before I turned eigh- teen, I’d never even thought to ask. Suddenly I had this itch that wanted to be scratched. But my father put me off, giving me some excuse, like he didn’t feel I was ready. Then, a few nights ago, he asked me to help him writeover a couple letters concerning his impending trip to Lon- don—not exactly business letters, either—and those letters made my itch scratch me even worse.
Now, despite my curiosity, I was the one who wasn’t sure. Suddenly my itch was gone. Washed away clean. Suddenly I wanted to be some- place else—out liming with my friends, busting bamboo round the Sa- vannah, or down in the pit at Roxy Theatre. I did not want to be sitting here listening to this. But I’d asked him for it, and now I was hearing it. My story. In the most unexpected of places—on the back deck of this ship, reclining against some big coils of weathered rope. Because my father hadn’t even begun yet.
Stollmeyer was a fellow German who’d emigrated to Philadelphia a few years before. He was a publisher and he edited a German newspaper too—which only leads you to wonder how he hadn’t run into Etzler already. But that was history taking in a deep breath. Getting sheself ready. Because now at this birthday fête in New York he not only met him, he read Etzler’s Paradise. Stollmeyer became a instant convert. More important, he became Etzler’s business-partner. Stollmeyer brought him back to Philadelphia, and there the two began to scheme. The place, they decided, for Etzler to propagate his ideas, was England. Not America amongst a bunch of backwards country-bookies and racist slave-owners. England was the place. But that was only the first step. And here Etzler added the twist: he’d get his British followers to emigrate to the Caribbean. To they own West Indies. A place where land was available, free for the asking, closer to the equator where the powers of Mother Nature were a hundred times more potent. Only waiting to be harnessed by Etzler’s machines. And now it was as if he reached into he hat or a sack-of- pommeracs and pulled one out—Trinidad, he decided. With its unlimited natural resources and expanses of available fertile land. Perfect for cultivation with he own Satellite.
That’s what snagged Stollmeyer. And eventually it would snag the whole of England too. That’s the difference between Fourier’s airy philosophizing and Etzler’s practical plan—machines. Understand, like all these men we talking about here, this Stollmeyer fancied heself a scientist and mathematician too. And although he didn’t have no formal university training in engineering like Etzler did, he saw the potential for he new friend’s machines. Whether or not it was potential to make them a bloody fortune, or save the labouring-masses from toil and starvation, or both, I go leave up to you to decide. Thing is, here was Etzler with he machines already proven. Not practically, mind you—not in real life—but mathematically. And that’s all that mattered: numbers speak the truth. They could not lie. And let me tell you, Etzler had plenty plenty numbers propping him up.
Within days of arriving in London they formed a joint-stock company called the Tropical Emigration Society. Now not only the British aristocracy and wealthy capitalists could pour they pounds into Etzler’s open purse, but the destitute labour- ers could dump they handful of sticky pennies in as well. At last Etzler had the two things he’d always needed. Two things he always dreamt about: a disenchanted popu- lace ready to embrace his ideas for change and emigration, a people anxious to line he pockets too. Everybody-and-he-brother only buying up shares of the TES like tanyafritters, one-penny-at-a-time, with hopes of immediate emigration to Trinidad.
Here, son, in a relatively minor way, is where the Tuckers enter into the pic- ture. But via a circuitous and rather unprecipitated route. Understand, my father, together with his closest friend—a Scotsman-ironmonger named Thomas Powell— Papee and he friend were former members of a underground group based in London known as the Chartists. They’d been radical & militant & until the end, secret. Fighting down the Crown for all these charters to improve working conditions for the labouring poor, in addition to voting rights. But the movement had been crushed by the government. And Powell heself—their spiritual and elected leader—Powell turned informer in the middle of the scrimmage to save the skins of he comrades. The authorities turning round soon as the deal was brokered & busting him & toss-ing him in jail. Papee only narrowly escaping Newgate by the skin-of-he-tail heself. So as you can well imagine, this group of just-defeated and still hotted-up Chartists fell straight into Etzler’s hands. All-in-a-sudden Papee and he friend be- gan talking about nothing more than the TES and emigration to Trinidad. In they
My father had reached the end of his cigar. He took three last pulls to send the tip glowing red. Then he touched it to the wick of the pitch- oil lamp, closed the glass, tossed the zoot over the stern. It was so quiet we heard it hiss as it plopped down into the water. And as the pitch-oil lamp flared to a dim glow, he took out his old-fashioned pocketwatch, fastened to his vestcoat buttonhole by a long goldchain. He clicked it open—
Almost eight o’clock already.
He nodded his chin at the watch—
I might have mentioned to you, son, that this pocketwatch once belonged to a
My father paused a beat—
That niece became my first love. Marguerite. Only woman besides you mum I’ve ever been bazodee over my whole life.
He paused again—
You never imagine telling you own son such intimate details that took place even before he was born. But I couldn’t give you this story without telling you about Marguerite. I couldn’t make a start. Couldn’t finish neither.
My father clicked the cover shut and slipped the watch back into his pocket, reclining quiet a moment. By now more lights had come on, tin- kling round the curve of the bay. More lights in town and the hills and up in the mountains too. Plenty stars in the sky. But the moon wouldn’t
rise from behind those mountains for another hour. Cut with a knife down the middle into a perfect half. So somehow you saw the reflec- tion of the moon’s other side, even though that half was caught in the earth’s shadow and blanked out completely. You saw it. Even though it wasn’t there. But that wouldn’t happen for another hour. Now there was only the pitch-oil lamp glowing faintly at my father’s feet, there beside his briefcase containing the still-unopened cigar box, the lights onshore reflecting across the flat water and the stars. As the Condor hung on her anchor ready to go to sea, nothing left to do but wait for morning and the tide. And I had nothing to do but listen.
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