The King of Settlement 4
By Kevin Jared Hosein
Open to citizens of the fifty-three Commonwealth countries, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction each year. The 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize attracted nearly four thousand entries — a record number. The regional winners for Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific regions were announced on 28 April, 2015.
In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, The Caribbean Review of Books is publishing the winning story for the Caribbean region: “The King of Settlement 4”, by Kevin Jared Hosein.
To listen to podcasts by all the regional winners and read the other regional winning stories, please visit www.commonwealthwriters.org/2015-commonwealth-short-story-prize-regional-winners
I gon start this one off by tellin you that I was born and raise along a backroad that always seem slightly more Trinidadian than the rest of the country. Settlement 4 is that old-timey, grassy, carefree type of Trinidad the illustrators adore. Open any Caribbean primary-school readin book and you gon likely see it there.
We have it all.
We have the little black boys bathin by the standpipe. We have the no-teeth man who rock-hard gums could cut through cucumber like butter. Take a walk down this mucky stretch of asphalt and look to your right. You’ll see a young, pregnant Miss Lady combin the lice out of the locks of she first-born. To the left, you’ll see a sunburnt savannah where children still fly mad bull kites next to a posse of nomad goats. Walk further down and you gon find a rusted sedan with chipped bricks for wheels, and weeds growin outta the glove compartment.
But then there’s the features that we illustrators would omit. Features of boys like Foster and me who had plans to spend the better part of we teenage years sittin on a crate and paint bucket. Makeshift lookout points, you could say.
Foster is two years older than me, and when free education wasn’t cutting it for him no more, I decide it was time for me to sever my ties too.
I hope you know, I ain’t no fool. I could speak proper when the time come. Not all of we could do that, you know. I could even solve an equation or two. Free education is a nice concept, but it seem that free paychecks is a better one. When the teacher absenteeism rate start rising higher than the students’, it was time for plenty of we to try to tip the scales. To me, it was the wisest decision. It just much quieter out here on the backroad than in that classroom of unsupervised howler monkeys.
Foster was out for entirely different reasons, though. Less articulate reasons. At school, you see, it was very hard to gargle a cloud of marijuana smoke every two hours or so. Despite this, he always seem to have it all figured out. I tell you, for some reason, I was always lookin up to that boy.
I realise I never coulda figure out what I was doin and always fell in line with those who did.
It was all simple to Foster. Droppin outta school was just a nervous impulse to him. Snatched right outta the Vincey weed vapours one evenin. For me, I had to spend sleepless nights convincin myself that I was teachin the damn Ministry of Education a lesson.
See, I was lettin the system know.
I had to feel like I was showin them.
Foster never had to show nobody nothin. Never had to prove he could be a big man without a father in he life. Never had to put he chin up to nobody. Never had to answer to nobody.
Except one person: The King of Settlement 4.
As did I.
And as did everybody else, if the time come.
The King is the King, after all. And when the war finally decide to get we busy, what better company to be in than among all the King’s men? What better place to be than on the winnin side?
He live at the top of the highest housin project — four storeys up. Scattered out between there and the shadows of the fenced-off perimeter of the complexes was all the King’s men. Each one strategically placed at corners and blind spots, like rooks and bishops.
It have a reason this place is filthy, you know — why the walls is always stacked the hell up with garbage bags, waterlogged wood palettes, and old steel pipes. It have a reason some planks seem to be loose along the dog kennels. And that the lawns is never mowed. The more pockets to hide the kush, the better. A lot of detail is in this painstakin scheme behind the unsightliness, the uncleanliness . . . the ungodliness of Settlement 4.
This is why when every Thursday morning come, and the men in grey roll up in trios, they always go back home with jack. They blare their sirens and flash their bright blue lights under the bright blue sky, like they is gods of sound and thunder.
And the entire settlement never miss a beat.
Because we all know, as determined as any man in sweet T-and-T is, the salary of a policeman just ain’t paying enough to sift through a dozen piles of tetanus-laden rust and steel at seven in the mornin.
At seven in the mornin, no man jack know nothin bout no dealins or monkey business. No, sir; only good boys live in this settlement. Good boys with good mothers. And when the questions drop bout the few bad ones, everyone in the settlement develops – as the older folks and them say — a case of spontaneous laryngitis.
You ain’t sorry till you sorry you get caught.
But when that time come, nobody ain’t know nothin. Nobody ain’t want to know nothin. Nobody dare fuck with the monarchy of Settlement 4.
So, as I was sayin — when the war decide to get busy, what better place to sit your ass on than the winnin side?
Our jobs was to do that, exactly — to sit. Sit and keep we eyes open. Not much change in scenery except the cars passing back and forth. I imagine the drivers shakin their heads behind their window tints. Saying to themselves, Look at them young fellas wasting them life.
But for me, it was always the opposite. Them people behind the tints was on their way to cubicles and screens and dusty storage rooms. To tap away, lift till their backs break, and get paid in shillings.
To me, them was the suckers.
Unfortunately, even with easy money, a lack of challenge quickly shift into boredom. Being a lookout was worse than sittin through school assembly. Foster had already predict this, so he start bringin his dog with him. A small, brown, fluffy dog name Bodie. Foster always look funny playing with this small dog, combin its fur, but he didn’t care much what people said. The dog meant more to him than anybody else. So, it was the damn best-treated dog in the settlement.
The dog look like a prince among the mange-ridden, matted-back pothounds that climb in and out of the ravines. It was probably one of the only dogs in the settlement that had a collar, even, and probably the only one to ever taste a store-bought dog treat.
I ask him one day, “What’s the story behind that dog and you? You like to spoil it bad, boy.”
“Well, this was actually Bailey dog — you remember Bailey, right?” He scratched Bodie’s ears.
“Bailey, your big brother, you mean?”
“Well, how you mean — remember? Yes, damn right, I remember.”
He scrape his rubber slippers against some loose gravel. He reminded me of a little boy all of a sudden, sulkin over a schoolyard brawl. He then say, “Don’t get me wrong, eh, Bug. The dog is the dog, and Bailey is Bailey. I don’t keep the dog around to remember the man or anything. I just like the dog.”
At first, Foster used to chain the dog to an old fridge at the side of the road where we used to sit. But eventually, he figure that he didn’t need to. The dog never roam far. All Foster used to do for the whole day was smoke weed and pet that dog.
When the evenins set in, the other boys used to come by and rally at Foster’s sittin place. They pull out the cards, drag up some stools and small crates, and play wappi and all fours under the streetlights for hours. I never used to stay for long. Couldn’t stand most of them.
Another corner boy one street down — used to refer to heself as Bone — was the one I couldn’t stand the most. He was in Foster class back in school. But about two years back, he get heself kick out for sticking a shiv into another boy’s leg. It was in all three major newspapers. But heinous acts of violence come dime a dozen, even in a small place like Trinidad. News have a short shelf-life. One week there and it gone stale.
Bone’s crime was quickly dwarfed by other blood-red headlines. Bone’s only regret was that he was too young to have he name printed in the articles.
“I coulda be a big name in these parts, boy!” the asshole went on for a month straight.
Bone always went on and on about meetin with the King. It was his sole badge of merit. The one thing he depend on for respect and honour, barely keepin him one step up from bein vermin. The way he mumbled his words, the way he twitched he nose when he stared you down — everyone coulda tell he had the morals of a red-eyed drain rat.
“Lookin like you fellas doin some good work here,” Bone said, grinnin. “Maybe I could put in a word with the King. How that sound?”
I wanted to say no, just because he expect me to say yes. But Foster quickly agree for both of us. Bone put his arm around my neck and jab my side with his finger. I jump. He laugh at me and say, “Maybe not you. You soft as fuck, young’n.”
Foster shook his head. “Give the boy some time, Bone.”
Bone lift his chin up and say to me, “When I stop seein the milk on that cherry-face, and start seein some blood, then we could talk.”
When I went home, I was greeted the same way as every evenin since I drop out of school. My mother puffing smoke at the clock, sayin that I was just as worthless as my father. “One of these days, you ain’t gon come home, you know,” she said to me, shakin the cigarette at my face. “You long gone, Bug. Your ship done sail!”
Boy, I hate that saying. If I live till eighty, it still gon make my blood crawl then as it does today.
For the first week that I was absent from school, I was always lookin out to see if someone from the staff would bother to come see me. The Principal. The Dean of Discipline. Maybe Ms Simmons from English class. But not one soul ever reach. The energy wasn’t worth it for a couple of ragamuffin boys from Settlement 4, it had seem.
The Principal always drop his mantra at the beginnin of every boring assembly for each new school year. “You ain’t have to fraid the storm if you learn to sail the ship.” I used to suck my teeth every time. Sailin ships always get pull into the storm if they out there in the damn water, you know.
So, how I would put it?
You ain’t have to fraid the storm if you is the storm.
Make more sense? It have no place better to be than the eye. And that was where I was. No matter how big the storm get, how far it stretch, it have no better place to be than in the direct centre of it all.
A few days later, it seem that Bone actually pull through for Foster. He get him moved to the snack kiosk at the intersection near the tail of the backroad. “You movin up in life, dog!” Bone said, pattin Foster’s back.
When Foster left, I was alone. The sun used to sting a little more. The dust trails rose a little higher. The car parts strewn across the grass rusted a little faster. I had a radio, but the radio was never somethin that you actively listened to. You listen while you drive, while you cook, while you do homework, while you getting through with your girl. Not like this.
I used to play a game. I used to try to predict when the deejays would interrupt the song to yell something stupid like, BOOM! or, BLA-DAW! or to make their trademark tongue- rollin Zulu chants.
I did start bringin my textbook with me. I know, I know. I know how that sound. I like science. Was just hard luck I ain’t see my fuckin science teacher in two months. So, yes, I was readin about science and lookin out for police at the same time. And I was thinkin, Aye, ain’t this the perfect cover? Who gon think a boy with a big old science book in he hand dealin with them other badjohns in Settlement 4?
But whenever any of the other boys used to walk past, I make sure to hide the book behind the paint bucket I was sittin on. But mostly, I ain’t bother much with the other people who walk past me. In two days, I think I finally figure out levers, boy.
Load. Effort. Fulcrum.
Equilibrium. Balance. Advantage. The works.
A little girl walk past me one day. I didn’t know who she was. But she had the gall to tell me, “My mammy say you corner boys is slaves who ain’t know what they is. She say, ‘Why you ain’t get a blasted job?’”
I twist-up my face and told that girl, “Tell your mammy she better watch out when a black car roll up slow-slow in front she house.” From then on, she never walk on this backroad again.
On the evenins, I walk over to the snack kiosk. The weed smell strong as I step up. I half-joke with Foster, “You lucky the police ain’t come to buy no soft drinks, boy. They gon sniff you out in no time.”
He step out of the kiosk and pat my shoulder. He untie the dog from a metal pipe and let him wander about with the other dogs. Bone was standin there with Foster. Bone say to me, “Fuck away with that. Let the man blaze in peace.”
I play like I ain’t hear him. Foster laugh and say, “I could do with some peace right now.” He shift aside a board from the base of the kiosk and pull out a crumpled ball of aluminum foil. He unfold it and start to roll up another spliff.
I could only watch in amazement, yes. I chuckle nervously and ask the boy, “You sure you could take from there?”
Foster look at me serious all of a sudden. “The deal is, we cut it from the next pay slip. You need to calm yourself, Bug.”
“You is the man mother now, boy?” Bone say. “This is perks of the job, young’n.” He grab the spliff from Foster and took a long drag on it. He then blow the smoke in my face. I tried my best not to cough, but end up chokin still. He then bring it towards me.
“Take the t’ing,” he say to me, grittin his teeth. I just look at his hand and give him a blank stare. He push it towards me again. “You too good for it, young’n? What kind of man you gon make?”
I could only shake my head and walk off. I ain’t no fool.
On my way home, I pass by the King’s building. Even if you was from the outside, you coulda know which one it was. It was the one populated with gangsters with shirts wrapped around their mouths like niqab veils. They had cutlasses hidden in the bushes and guns stashed in hollowed planks of wood, long discarded and forgotten by the Ministry of Housing.
As I walk inside my house and close the door behind me, my mother say, “The Principal call for you today, boy. He want to know why you skipping school.”
“What you say?”
“I say, if you want that boy, mister, you go and find him by that backroad he so fond of.” She give me a long, hard look. Then she went on, “I ain’t have time to deal with your shit, Bug. How long I ask you to help me clean this house? Shit, man, at least help me clean. But you too big for that, ain’t that so? Me, a old lady, and you’s a big man. Ain’t that so? You’s the big man of the house. Ain’t that is you?”
I inhale hard and scowl. “I feel like you want to give me some competition.”
She got up from her recliner and flick she cigarette at me. Sweat was pourin down she puffy cheeks. The veins in she yellow eyes throbbed. “Don’t pull that shit with me, eh, boy. You want to try shit with me? You want to fuck with me? You done gone and drop the fuck outta school and feel you could say something to me? Boy, don’t let me —“
She yank off she slipper, hoppin on one foot, and pelt me with it. As she move to take off the other one, I brace myself. I thought she was gon chase me with it. But she was suddenly calm. She grasp she nightie and rubbed the middle of she breasts slowly. Then she sat down, facing away from me.
She spoke slowly now, hoarse from the yellin. “You getting too old for me to beat your ass. Because you’s the big man now. You do what you fuckin want, but not under my fuckin roof, Bug.”
I left the house and slam the door. I decide to go back to the snack kiosk. On my way back, I notice that the men outside the King’s building was chatting with Bone. I kept on my way to the kiosk and saw Foster still there. Foster was sittin at the heel of the shack, scratchin the dog’s chin.
“You pullin a double shift tonight, boy?” I ask him, faking a laugh.
“Just manning the front before Bone take over,” he say. “He coming back just now. I thought you was gon home?”
I smile at him. “Moms work she damn self up into a fury. That old beast.”
“Waiting for the old lady to breathe out the fire?”
“I don’t want to be in the house when she burn it down, is all.”
Foster laugh. “Right, right.”
“She better be careful. The fire hydrants this side don’t work so good. But I ain’t fraid no fire,” a man say, appearin behind us. His voice was like a cold wind. We both turn we heads to him and gasped when our eyes fell upon his.
It was him. It was fuckin him.
The King was wearin a tattered vest and cargo pants that had rips near the waistline. His clothes look as old as he did. His elderly smile was cloaked in a scrim of cigarette smoke. He blew two snakes of smoke out of his nostrils. The slanted sinks along his cheeks tightened and sharpened like knife wounds from some Amerindian rite of passage. Straggly grey hair lined his jaw. A horseshoe pattern of hair stippled his bald head. The man radiated a cancerous heat, like I imagine the Devil always does.
We had no words to say. There was nothing to say. That spontaneous laryngitis again, you know?
“I ain’t fraid fire,” he say. He extend his hand to us and accept our limp handshakes with glee. “Ice is what you must fraid,” he say to we. His voice was strong, but smooth. It didn’t crinkle like brown paper, like most other men his age.
He continue, “Sadly, no way it all gon go down except with ice. Everything preserved in its naturally ugly state. World wouldn’t be destroyed, you know. It gon just slow down to a stop. Until nothing moving. Trapped in ice.”
He narrow his eyes. “That is how I see it. Everything becoming a mirror. Ice mirrors reflecting off each other. The frozen people in Russia would be able to see all the way over here in Trinidad, through them mirrors.”
He paced around, kicking gravel as he did. He continue, “Everyone gon frozen in their sins. Sons frozen with knives to the necks of their fathers. Fathers frozen with their little pricks in their daughters. Mothers frozen with their fists against their babies’ teeth. All for the world to see. All reflecting through eternity.”
He scrape the back of his heel with his shoe. This motherfucker’s eyes cut right through me. I didn’t want to look. He turn to Foster and ask, “What sin you think you gon be frozen in?”
“I don’t know, sir.’” Foster tremble.
“You don’t know?” The King furrow his brow. “You believe me to be a fair king?”
“You know how long I’s King now?”
“I’s King of Settlement 4 before it ever had a Settlement 4. Before there was buildings here to speak of. I claim this place long time when it was just grass and cow shit. I know how to be a king since before you was in your daddy’s balls.”
He took another drag and then ask, “What you think the other kings back in the day would do if they know you was stealin from them?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
The King turn to me. “What you think they would do, young boy?”
I spat out, “Chop off their hands, sir.”
Foster look at me, eyes widened. The King laugh.
His eyes jump to the dog. The King look at the dog with a startlin carnivorous hunger, boy, I can’t describe it any other way. I didn’t catch it at first, but Foster knew. It was only when Foster turn to him that I realise what he was gon do.
“Sir, please.” Foster’s voice start crackin.
The King’s calm expression suddenly contorted into intense fury. Fury like I only imagine coulda be on the face of the Almighty of the Old Testament. His upper lip curl and twist as his eyes flash sharp like mirror shards. He grab Bodie’s leash and curl it around his fist. Foster start breathin hard. I open my mouth to say somethin, but I just couldn’t.
My teeth was chattering. Muscles was all jelly. Spit growing sour in my mouth fast. I knew what was gon happen before it did. I don’t know how, but I did, boy. I did.
The King lift Bodie from the ground. The dog start kickin and barkin wildly, until his voice winded down to a muffled wheeze I never hear any animal make. “Sir, sir, sir, sir, sir, come, come, please,” Foster pleaded in a quickenin voice, droppin to his knees. The boy began to sob like mad.
The King was swingin the dog like a clock’s pendulum. The dog let out a shrill shriek with each oscillation. The King then finally tie the leash to a nail at the top of the kiosk.
He let the dog hang there.
The dog’s scruff was pushed over its mouth as its neck tilted and began to slowly fracture. Mouth hangin open like carite caught on a fishin hook.
We couldn’t tell exactly when the dog died. It was kickin long after the life in his eyes disappeared. The King then take out his gun and shoot the dog once in the head.
It didn’t take me long to figure out why he would shoot the dead dog. When Foster cradle him, I knew. It was just to make a fuckin mess. Just to get blood on his clothes. Just to get brains on the road.
I look around. No one came out of their houses. There was nothin to see and nothin to say. There was nobody to call. And even if some fool decided to, there was no policeman that was gon try to hold the King on charges of animal cruelty. The salary of a policeman didn’t call for it.
Shit, I tellin you, at that moment, I realise we was all dogs here. Nobody payin any of them people enough to do anythin but drag we tails off the road, dead or alive.
Foster press his forehead against the asphalt. The King knelt beside him and rub his back gently. He ask him, “What’s your name?”
“Frederick Foster,” he manage to reply through the guttural snivels.
The King then say to him, “Next time I catch you getting high on the supply, Frederick Foster, it’ll be your ass. That’s how things work round here. Don’t be fuckin with the programme, young’n. Because I can do anything. You could understand that? I can do anything to unfuck it. That’s why I’m King.”
The King tip Foster’s chin upwards and looked him dead in the eye. “Now, say thank you.”
Foster’s face was shrivelled with tears. The King repeated, “Thank me for my mercy.”
The words came out slowly. Subdued. “Thank you.”
“For your . . . mercy . . .”
“You’re welcome.” The King grin and dust himself off. He hobble past me without even a glance. No acknowledgement. He step over my feet like I was shit. As he approach the corner, I try not to keep my eyes on him. I hope to never see that face ever again. Not even in a dream.
Foster sat in the road, sobbin still. Tears collectin in a pothole. First time in my life I ever see that boy cry. I didn’t know what to say. What was there to say? Shit, man. I never had no trainin for this. I try hard to find the words, but they never came.
A week pass and man, I still tryin.
We ain’t speak since that night.
As soon as I reach back home, I clean that fuckin house from top to bottom. Crack to crevice. I sweep every dead cockroach from under from every mat. It had so much, you coulda make a bonfire with them. I was on my knees, scrubbin every floor. My kneecaps had dents by the time I was done, I swear. I exfoliated that bathroom, sir. The Virgin Mary woulda be proud to come take a shit in it. Three o’clock in the mornin, I was still sandpaperin muck from the walls.
I’ll tell you something — housekeepin ain’t no joke.
My mother didn’t thank me. She didn’t apologise either. And neither did I. That’s just how things is. I have no trainin and she ain’t have none neither. I know this, and I ain’t care.
The next day, I didn’t go back out to my point. I wasn’t gon fuck with that no more. But Foster was right back at it. I walk right past him every day. We don’t look at each other. That’s how it is. A mutual feelin of defeat and shame. The difference is, I could admit it. I ain’t cut out for this shit. He still dealin with it.
Shame is a hell of a thing to feel in a place where there ain’t much to help unshame yourself but by shooting the motherfucker who made you feel it.
That evenin, I notice that Bone was promoted. He wasn’t a lowly lookout or dealer no more. Now, he held his head high as a soldier of the fortress, now with a cutlass buried in the bush and a gun hidden in a plank. He see me lookin at him. And started barkin like a dog at me, and cacklin like mad. I just keep walkin.
There was nothin nobody coulda do to him now. No revenge. No comeuppance. Not when he had all the King’s men on his side. Not one thing you could do. Not one fuckin thing — if you valued your life, anyway.
You could pray for karma. You could pray for him to catch some lead. You could pray for him to choke on a chicken gristle. Not much else to rely on for comfort. That boy gon die repeatedly in my dreams, and that there have to be good enough for me to carry on with my life.
Told you, I ain’t no fool.
There ain’t much of a conclusion to this story. That still to come, I say. There ain’t much else to tell. Ain’t gone back to school yet, but that ain’t stoppin my studies. I guess I could end by tellin you bout what happen yesterday. It have this old broken-down playpark at the edge of the savannah. A depressin collection of pee-stained slides, wobbly swings, and a decapitated rocking horse as the centerpiece. But the see-saw was working tip-top.
Two boys was trying to use it. One was much fatter than the other, and they couldn’t figure out how to balance it. The smaller boy was yellin and cussin at the fatter one. And before I know it, a fight break loose. I rush in and hold them back.
After I was finish calmin them down, I told the fatter one to sit nearer to the middle of the see-saw, and the smaller one to sit further away. It finally balanced and they was both able to have fun.
Load. Effort. Fulcrum.
Equilibrium. Balance. Advantage.
Now, if you can derive some meaningful, symbolic shit in that scenario I described, then I tellin you — maybe somewhere in there, we could find a solution to all this nonsense. But I know for sure I ain’t findin a single scrap of one while sitting on a damn paint bucket.
Kevin Jared Hosein is a poet, writer, and science teacher in Trinidad and Tobago, and a graduate of the University of the West Indies. He illustrated and published a book for younger audiences, Littletown Secrets, in 2013. His short stories have been featured in Caribbean anthologies such as Pepperpot and Jewels of the Caribbean.