O stay and hear

A previously unpublished short story by Phyllis Shand Allfrey; introduced by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

Phyllis Shand Allfrey

Phyllis Shand Allfrey. Photograph courtesy Papillote Press

The name of Phyllis Shand Allfrey evokes contradictory images. Born in 1908 into a family of white colonial officials in the colony of Dominica, she built a political career through an alliance with the labour unions and peasantry that threatened the interests of her own class and race. A promising writer whose first novel, The Orchid House (1953), opened bright prospects for a successful literary career in England, she renounced all expectations in order to return to the Caribbean in 1954 to found the Dominica Labour Party. A committed Fabian Socialist who worked indefatigably to uphold voting rights and safeguard the peasantry’s participation in Dominican politics, she found herself expelled from the party she had founded and excluded from island politics when the demands of black nationalism made it expedient. She found a place for herself in Dominican society, nonetheless, as a newspaper editor and spokesperson for the political opposition, roles that allowed her a lasting public life and through which she eked out a meagre living. She died in Dominica, in 1986.

Towards the end of her life, as she pondered the choices she had made during her long political career, Allfrey came to regret her choice of politics over writing. “Politics ruined me for writing,” she would muse wistfully, when she despaired about having failed to earn the lasting legacy to which she aspired through her political work. It was then that she turned to the writing she had abandoned in favour of politics, struggling in the last few impoverished years of her life to see The Orchid House return to print for the first time since 1953, gather her scattered short stories into a book, reissue her four collections of poems, and finish “In the Cabinet”, the autobiographical novel about her years as a minister during the West Indies Federation, which she had started in 1961.

In all but the first of these goals she failed. She lived to see The Orchid House reissued in England in 1982 — a second American edition appeared in 1996 — but illness, poverty, and eventually death conspired against her efforts to claim her position as a pioneer among women writers in the Caribbean. “In the Cabinet” remained unfinished; her poems remain out of print. The best of her stories, many of which had appeared in the 1940s and 50s in English journals and newspapers such as Pan Africa, The Windmill, Argosy, and the Manchester Guardian, are now about to be collected for the first time, in It Falls Into Place, forthcoming from Papillote Press.

Like her published and unpublished novels, these stories have a strong autobiographical foundation. Allfrey wrote best about what she knew well — that which she had experienced herself or come to know first hand — and her subjects follow the trajectory of her peripatetic career. Writing from a profound sense of her own West Indian identity, Allfrey centres her plots on the epiphanies that result from chance encounters between characters of different cultures, classes, outlooks, and — above all — races. As a writer, she was endlessly fascinated by the transformations brought about by juxtaposing perspectives that clashed — and occasionally crashed.

The delicate mockery of tone and wistful empathy that characterise her fictional renderings of the complexities of social life in Caribbean islands are her cultural legacy as a Dominican writer. Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s short stories reveal a new dimension of a literary talent that was never allowed to reach full fruition. Subordinated as it always was to her political career, her published writing never reached in volume a level comparable to that of most West Indian writers of her generation. The stories in It Falls Into Place, by showcasing a new facet of her literary gifts and adding considerably to the sum of her known oeuvre, uphold her claim to a salient place in Caribbean literary history.

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

They are walking in the flower garden, and what are they singing? Something rather merry and mocking; the veering breeze blows up a few words now and then to the ears of a lady behind green bathroom blinds. Now the lady raises a long pale arm and applies a little soap to it, at the same time peeping through the slats without raising from her cool bath water.

Samedi après-midi,
Madame-là tombait malade:
Voyez, cherchait l’Abbé . . .

The brown girls’ arms are intertwined like snakes; yet somehow the plump hand of Melta, who is a maid by profession and fond of arranging flowers, reaches out with a sharp carving-knife and lops off half a bush of crimson roses between one stanza and another; both girls dip in a flying curtsy, and the thinner fingers of Ariadne, eighteen-year-old cook, brush grass and come up with the dazzling spray.

Monsieur l’Abbé venait.
Il dit, Rome Saeculorum.
Madame-là comprend c’est “rhum”.

But I thought they said the patois was common and that they disdained it, says this English Madame-là to herself, standing on a rush mat and dabbing off rivulets absently. To think of me, me myself, indulging in a cold bath at four oclock in the afternoon! she comments inwardly.

When she told them about the sudden dinner, they had taken it very sweetly. “A business friend of the Master’s.” “Oh yes, Mistress: understood.” “He is a director, but has quite a simple appetite.” “Flying fish,” says Ariadne. “And fried plantains,” adds Melta.

“Oh no, I think not fried plantains — too hot. Something green. Perhaps a little stuffed avocado?”

“Stuffed with what, Mistress?” asks Ariadne bluntly.

“Oh, I don’t know . . . perhaps some parsley?”

“The hen and the weeding boy have taken the parsley,” Melta says.

“Then I leave it to you.”

They are pleased: they like things being left to them. They take up the carving knife and go out into the garden. But instead of hunting for a last blade of parsley or a handful of chives, they dance around in the high soft breeze, lopping off roses. Their aprons lift and swirl, and they look like ballet dancers dressed as probationer nurses: the full skirts of their uniforms are covered with a flight of multicoloured wild ducks. Their little song has come to an end, so they begin it again:

Samedi après-midi,
Madame-là tombait malade . . .

It is Saturday afternoon; and if I had fainted in my bath I could have drowned, I could have died, and those girls wouldn’t have been in the least concerned, thinks Madame-là anxiously. She is envious of them, because they have each other for gay company. Now they are advancing on the lonely house, using their bouquet to shoo before them a brown hen with well-clipped wings. This is the pullet, which had the temerity, in the middle of a sweltering West Indian summer, to lay one egg in a secret place and hatch out a solitary cream-coloured chicken.

The girls drive the hen, the hen cups the chick with her shortened wings, all rush in a giggling, clucking posse towards the kitchen steps, under which the hen and chicken disappear. Something about the hen and chick has a secret power of mirth over the girls: they sit on the bottom step, laps full of roses and arms round each other’s necks, laughing fecklessly.

Madame-là has her own method of attracting attention: she leans out of the window with a small brass bell suspended on a string, and tinkles it above the white-capped heads.

“Melta! Ariadne! Don’t forget Mr Whitborough is coming to dinner!”

“Yes, Mistress,” says Melta in her deep, harsh contralto. “We forget ourselves. The hen makes us laugh.”

But they are speaking to an empty window: Madame-là has slipped downstairs to greet them on the landing. She wants to know what there is about the hen . . .

About the hen? Ariadne starts to laugh again. It is really intolerable. At last Melta says: “It is the hen and her child.”

“The hen and her child is like ourselves,” says Ariadne, rising to full copper height.

Melta is engaged in slicing off the rose stems, for all the world as if she is going to stuff Mr Whitborough’s avocado pears with the trimmings. Madame-là notices how pretty both girls are, and that Ariadne is the one with the crisp, scornful upper lip.

“She takes pride in her chick, which is of a lighter complexion than herself,” volunteers Melta.

“Just as we do,” says Ariadne. They both laugh again, to see the amazement and appeal on Madame-là’s face. It is giving them great pleasure to satisfy her curiosity tormentingly, bit by bit.

“I have a daughter, of very pale colouration,” says Ariadne. “It is a girl. She is name Dolores.”

“I also have a child, a boy name Ah-but-not. He is even so light as Adné’s child, and born in the same month,” says Melta.

“And how old are these children?” asks Madame-là, sounding lost. When she says the word “children” she looks wonderingly at their continuing childish arabesque against a background of roses.

“Two years at Epiphany,” says Melta, and Ariadne echoes, “E-pi-phan-y.”

“But where are they?”

“Where?” ask the girls together, astonished. “With our mothers in the country, Mistress, naturally.”

Ariadne declares, “We were raised up as neighbours. We do everything together.”

Madame-là makes an effort, and collects herself. “You must bring the children to see me.”

“Yes, Mistress.” They undulate evasively.

“But don’t forget the dinner. Perhaps I could arrange the roses, to save time?”

Melta lays down the stems reproachfully. To create a diversion, Ariadne exclaims with cunning: “I can hear the Master’s step, Mistress.”

So Madame-là goes back upstairs and finds that Rodney indeed stands, steaming with recent energetic action, on the upstairs veranda. A strange redness overlays his sun-browned face. “Have you been playing tennis?” she asks him.

“No, darling,” says Rodney, turning his back to reveal that his shirt is torn to shreds. “I’ve been fighting.”

All her life she has been wanting Rodney to be successful and masterful, and now she is not sure that success really suits him. Is he, after all, getting too tough?

“With the skipper of the Douce Hélène,” he answers her question tersely.

“Oh Rodney! That poor black man!”

“He nearly made me two thousand pounds poorer, by tipping our new engine into the sea. I had practically to stun him to get it eased back into the boat until we could land it.”

She is silent, envisaging the horrid scene, a large lump of tangled steel perilously rocking, and Rodney springing at the skipper’s gleaming torso. But Rodney appears unconcerned: he removes his shredded shirt and makes for the bathroom.

To soothe him further, she calls through the netted swing door: “I have a theory about the social aspects of —”

But Rodney calls back: “Oh lord, no theories! Not with Whitborough coming to dinner!”

She is hurt, because really her theory is quite delicate and distinguished. She believes now that people in this tropical island do not make love for romantic reasons, but as social and evolutionary means. She is thinking of Melta and Ariadne and their children of light colouration, and the hen and the chick; it all seems to link up.

Fastening her pearls above the surf-green voile, she sighs, and then she begins to hum the catchy little song the girls were singing in the garden; going downstairs a moment later to see how Mr. Whitborough’s dinner is progressing.

If there is any dinner at all, it must be incarcerated in the frightening iron oven. Even the open coal-pot has disappeared. So have the girls.

Madame-là runs back upstairs in distress. “Rodney! I can’t find the maids — and the coal-pot has gone, too.” She hunts for her little brass bell.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “They are probably ironing out each other’s hair with flat-irons. They always do before a dinner-party. Look out of the back window and you’ll see them at it.”

He is quite right. Ariadne is stretched on a piece of sacking outside the maids’ room; Melta is applying a sizzling iron to her short, crimped hair, pulling as she presses. It is a painful scene, like an operation, and is transforming the girl into a sophisticated Arawak.

“And I can’t think,” cries Madame-là, “why they should want to have hair as straight as ours, when they mock at us so!”

Rodney laughs. He goes to a cabinet and pours out two long frosted drinks, to fortify them against their guest.

Yet, after all, the evening turns out smooth and gracious. Mr Whitborough does most of the talking; as Rodney has hinted, he is a man of theories. He is a much-travelled man, and makes a good story of how he found an almost untarnished button of his glorious regiment on a high slope in the Himalayas. Once, too, he entered an African chieftain’s hut and was surprised to see the pennant of his yacht club fluttering above a four-poster.

“Fluttering?” Madame-là cannot resist exclaiming, thinking of the draught on the dying chieftain — she having imagined African huts as windowless as igloos . . .

“But not the least charming of my adventures,” says Mr Whitborough, over the crimson roses — he is quite handsome for his age, and his quivering nostrils seem to devour the flying fish before he lifts his fork . . . After all, the dinner is superb, though it seems to have been cooked in ten minutes, and the mysterious stuffing which inflates the yellow-green avocado pears must always remain a secret — “. . . when I visited this island once, not so awfully long ago. My friend Arbuthnot and I went up the Rivière Fantasque: he was trying to net rare birds for his tropical aviary, and I was after edible crabs. We sat there on the river bank, enjoying the scene and contemplating a plunge, when suddenly —” The memory is so sweet, so incomparable, that Mr Whitborough’s nostrils meet his upper lip in an unusual smile.

“Suddenly there was this voice, coming from the depths of what I can only describe as a jungle; and we saw that higher up the river two comely girls, clothed only in a series of patches, were beating some cloth against a rock in the water and singing. At least, one of them was singing: and I am sure you will never guess what the words were.”

“A song about a sick lady on Saturday afternoon,” Madame-là puts forward, startling Rodney by her sudden vivacity. She has taken advantage of Melta’s absence with the emptied plates: but she knows, she is positive that behind the glazed screen two interlinked forms are panting against each other with suppressed giggles.

Mr Whitborough stares at Madame-là in astonishment.

“And how the Abbé was called in —” she starts to explain.

“Oh no!” Mr Whitborough states firmly, authoritatively. “Nothing as ribald as that. Something very strange, almost, one might say, moving. A Shakespearean song to an Elizabethan air. We distinctly heard it: O stay and hear, your true love’s coming . . . and the other voice took it up: That can sing both high and low. I remember how it echoed down the valley. Both high and low. It quite put poor Arbuthnot off his game. He dropped the net, and three rare specimens escaped.”

“That’s a beautiful tale, Whitborough — one of your best,” says Rodney.

“And the most beautiful thing is that it’s quite true,” says Mr Whitborough.

“I believe it,” says Madame-là sparkling.

“But surely that’s not the end of it?” says Rodney.

“Ah, my dear fellow,” says Mr Whitborough, “I have learnt by long experience as a raconteur that there is a point at which one ends a story. That little tale has an element of pure, unexpected romance. To carry it further would be crude. Since you press me, Arbuthnot went up the river, after his birds or after the girls — I don’t know which.”

“And did you ever find any edible crabs?” asks Madame-là, borrowing an inflection of mockery from somewhere. She does not expect Mr Whitborough to reply; besides, Melta has just come in with a crystal bowl full of fruit jelly. The night is so hot that the bright, rainbow-coloured mound wobbles dangerously, on the brink on disintegration.

It looks as if it is shaking — shaking with secret laughter.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2004

Phyllis Shand Allfrey was born in Dominica in 1908. Her novel The Orchid House was first published in 1953. She lived in New York and London before returning to Dominica in 1955, when she founded the Dominica Labour Party. She was minister of labour and social affairs in the government of the short-lived Federation of the West Indies, after which she became a newspaper editor and owner. She died in Dominica in 1986.

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert is professor of Caribbean culture and literature in the department of Hispanic Studies at Vassar College. Her biography of Phyllis Shand Allfrey, A Caribbean Life, was published in 1996. Born in Puerto Rico, Paravisini-Gebert is also the author of Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion and co-author of Creole Religions of the Caribbean. She lives in Poughkeepsie, New York.