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Ghost in the Machine

Published: 
Friday, July 24, 2015

Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed the large group of men in long white garments standing under the wide, covered pavement of the National Library building. Several women sat on the concrete benches, covered in black cloth, veils and headscarves, looking like oversized plastic garbage bags. Something was going on, he registered, but his mind was on matters more important to him than even a gang of burly men in Muslim garb gathering outside the CID building, with the anniversary of the 1990 coup attempt just days away.

In another mood, his own survival instincts would have caused him to pay more attention to what, in Port-of-Spain post-1990, New York post-9/11, London post-7/7, any city in the world post-Charlie Hebdo, were serious danger signs. 

But his mind was agitated by other thoughts: would she be all right? What happened, if she weren’t? He walked through the southwestern gate into Woodford Square and the cries of, “La-il-aha-il-Allah!” faded into the background.

It had been a long week and his attention span was short, unless riveted on her. There are no worries like health worries, not even financial ones—though those two were tied together nowadays. When he was a boy, if you were sick, you went to hospital, and doctors and nurses flurried about to make you better. 

Now he was a man, if you were sick, your first visit was to your insurance company, to ensure your premiums were paid up.

For months, they had watched batteries of medical men send her through glittering chrome machines that made small noises and extracted large payments. No two doctors agreed on anything, other than, whatever they did, it would cost as much as a house in Diego Martin. 

His friend, Morris, when he heard about the tests, said: “You ever seen video of killer whales tossing a seal from nose to nose? Well, that is you and firetrucking doctors! And they don’t stop until the seal is dead or your wallet is empty!”

But, this morning, everything would pan out, one way or the other. The receptionist buzzed him through the door and escorted him directly to the doctor, who was smiling like a pig in ordure or a politician in the treasury. 

He slumped into the chair, not hearing anything other than that she was all right. The complete financial implosion the family had just sidestepped didn’t even arise: she’d be around a bit longer.

Relief swept over him but, oddly, was immediately washed over by rocking waves of regret. The doctor droned on, good news getting better all the time, no need for this or that, straight back to normal life…but he felt more and more bothered when he should have been feeling increasingly better.

And then it hit him: the instant they heard the good news, they’d all dismiss the last year: they had not been worried at all; they always knew she would be fine. And then they’d turn on him. You were making us all tense for no good reason. You are just a pain in the neck. 

So it had always been: him trying to get them to open up to one another, all of them happier to close ranks against him. With him always on the outside, everybody else had all the proof they needed that they were together.

And they all then felt safer.  

No matter how real or immediate the danger.

When they buried her, it would finally hit them it was too late to hug her or tell her the things they always wanted to. He was almost back at the car park when he realised that, after her funeral, they would turn, not to, but on him. He chuckled.

Shouts of “Allahu-akbar!” arose and he looked up to see the tall man emerging from the CID doorway, as he had from TTT 25 years before, but without a gun raised above his head this time. He stopped to watch the throng of supporters mob their hero.

Most people on his side of the social fence saw the tall man as a villain; but here were people who were ready to die for him; who had once been ready to kill for him; who might well be still. 

They had camped out at the Nalis building since his arrest, visibly adding tension to an unnerving situation. The police had kept the tall man locked up for three days; could a reemergence have been engineered to be any more messianic?

Only now, with his personal worries abated, did he think about what this might have meant for everyone else. 

And he felt a rage building in him that was not unconnected to the way he was treated by those around him, perhaps, but had much more to do with how this tall hero/villain was treated by the police who surrounded him: if there was evidence to detain the tall man, he should not have emerged; if there wasn’t evidence to detain him, he should not have been arrested. 

Port-of-Spain might have burned again because somebody wanted to “make as eef” they were doing something when they were doing the same old nothing.

And anyone who pointed out the glaringly obvious dangers was treated like a traitor.

And he stood stock still as the understanding rocked him: the people who did the most harm here were not the ones who actively schemed, but the ones who went about their business, day in, day out, unthinking.

 n BC Pires is making it clear that wife, daughter, mother, everybody is alive and well and the death-threatened individual is just a short story device for the threatened nation—but he will still accept Best Buy gift cards as condolences.

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