The ministry of hope : a novel /
Roy Heath.
London ; New York : Marion Boyars Publishers, 1997.
320 p.
More Details
London ; New York : Marion Boyars Publishers, 1997.
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A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

Life seems to accommodate certain people, while others are forever kicking against the pricks and end up by cursing fate for its unbending attitude. Kwaku belonged to the first group; however low he sank circumstances would conspire to raise him up again. Having endured the pain of seeing his wife go blind, brutalized by his twin sons, toppled from his perch as a healer of repute--at least in his own backyard--he had become, once again, the laughing stock of all and sundry. Even the children of Winkel began throwing stones at him, and the dealers in pig food kept lowering their prices for the vegetable scraps he delivered. Yet, once again, Fate intervened. The disastrous condition of the national economy, which reduced many to being eaters of ungarnished rice, provided the base from which Kwaku's fortunes were resurrected. And it all began with a conversation he overheard in the New Amsterdam rum shop he frequented.

`I hear in town things bad!' a well dressed man had said to his companion. `But I'm telling you, there's money in hard times.'

The man went on to explain how he had made his fortune as a dealer in old things: old clothes, old books, old shoes and old utensils, the last of which he sold under the description of `Antiques'. He specialized in old chamber-pots.

`It's the pos the tourists like. Enamel pos, glazed earthenware pos, especially if they're decorated with a floral design. I even got hold of a brass po that one Englishwoman paid a hundred and thirty pounds for--in real pounds. I said it wasn't for sale. That's the best way to make their mouth water, you see. Not for sale!--and genuine brass, too!'

Kwaku felt himself trembling at the simplicity of the scheme, which could have saved his family from going to the dogs in those years of penury. Tourists did not come to New Amsterdam, but nothing stopped him from going to Georgetown. He was not sure what antiques meant, but he certainly knew about chamber-pots, having prescribed and carried out scores of enemas on his patients in the good old days.

Kwaku, while turning over the scheme in his mind, thought of the small boy who could read upside down and whose father was a skilled pan-boiler and carried his expertise to the sugar estates in the islands, before computers were installed and made his skills redundant. What a pair he and that boy would have made! There was no point dwelling on his poor education now at the age of thirty-eight, with a lifetime's experience and seven children behind him. The problem in hand was how to go about acquiring fifty chamber-pots, arranging their transport to Georgetown and finding a place to store them.

Mr Barzey, God rest his soul, had spoken at length about the capital, so that Kwaku felt he was sufficiently well acquainted with the place to survive there once he had a roof over his head. Had he not managed to conquer New Amsterdam as a raw countryman who walked with his legs so far apart people must have thought he was afflicted with hydroseed?

Since his decline Kwaku had conceived numerous plans to raise money for an operation on his blind wife's eyes, but to no avail. Miss Gwendoline, his wife, had long ago lost confidence in his powers of recovery as a breadwinner, and had come to terms with the fact that she was obliged to depend on handouts from her children, all of whom lived away from New Amsterdam.

`I don' believe you no more,' she had told him time and time again. `One time you use to have power. One time. Now you gone to the dogs.'

So he learned to keep his plans of recovery to himself, or rather confided only in the old shoemaker who was in the habit of bursting into song at certain times of the day. He would confide in him whenever he picked eddo leaves and took them round as a gift, in gratitude for the time he had put him up, a complete stranger in New Amsterdam.

`I got this plan,' he said, the last time he was convinced that his luck was about to change.

And Kwaku exposed his scheme to the shoemaker: he would become a professional matchmaker, advertising his talents on a sign which read: `Happiness to order. Success or money back'. But no one would seek happiness from a man living in a hovel near the Canje Creek, who could not even go walking with his wife because she was so poorly turned out. The plan had foundered, like most of its antecedents, on the serious shortcoming of his poverty. In order to make money one had to have money.

The po plan was no different in this respect; yet its simplicity and the extraordinary prices on offer for receptacles that deserved to be hidden away under beds had fired Kwaku's imagination.

But with each passing day his enthusiasm waned. Finding no way to raise enough money for his fare to Georgetown, let alone transport his receptacles, he all but abandoned the project.

`Is why you in such a bad mood?' Miss Gwendoline asked him one morning.

And in a fit of candour he told her why.

`Go and see one of the old clients you did heal when you was practicing,' she suggested.

`What? Woman, you know you right!'

`Borrow, well, ask to borrow some money to buy the pos. Then, go to town with only two pos and see if you can sell them. If it turn out to be easy you can look for a room to live. Then come back for as much pos as you can carry.'

Kwaku could not believe his ears. Not only did she approve of his plan, she had come up with an original suggestion. In all his life he had met only one woman to match her, and that was Blossom, an old school friend who now ran her own taxi service from Georgetown to New Amsterdam. These women!

Kwaku had always seen his relationship with his few women friends as magical, a kind of unusual growth that surprised those who knew about it. Nearly all the other ladies of his acquaintance despised him for reasons he had never been able to fathom. Most of them would give him one glance and then flee as though he was the bearer of some dreaded pestilence. Whenever he attended a dance as a youngster his approach to the girls standing by the wall would have the effect that Moses had on arriving at the Red Sea: half of them would make for the front door while the other half scurried towards the back, leaving a large empty space where, a moment before, there had been a mass of chattering females. But then the village dogs used to give him a wide berth as well. Indeed, the young ones, those too old to be described as puppies, yet too young to be taken seriously, added insult to injury by howling as they took to their heels, especially at night. Women, dogs and his uncle, they all preferred to do without his company.

What mystified Kwaku above all was the gap between his own view of himself and those that others entertained of him. Apart from his tendency to exaggerate he gave no cause for offence. He would even describe himself as considerate and, without doubt, the possessor of an unusual intelligence. Mind you, he did appreciate his uncle's reluctance to have him in his home after he found him a wife. If his haste in building him a house was frenetic--a term used by Mr Barzey, their neighbour, God rest his soul--his uncle's desire for tranquility seemed to be understood by everyone, from the policeman to Mr Barzey's obstreperous daughter. Having brought up Kwaku single-handed since his mother disappeared mysteriously after dolling herself up in her Sunday best and depositing him with her brother `for the day only', this uncle had done his Christian duty and was entitled to live out the rest of his days without the constant alarms and crises that afflicted his home and any home Kwaku frequented.

Kwaku understood. For, curiously enough, if his insight deserted him where most things were concerned, there were moments when he displayed a rare understanding of his place in the scheme of things. Did he not lay down the qualifications for any wife his uncle might choose for him, impossible to fulfil if the older man was to be believed? And did he not eventually find Miss Gwendoline, who possessed all the qualities he demanded, and more?

Pursuing his wife's advice to borrow money, Kwaku first went to look up Mrs Duncan, one of the first clients who, in those heady days, helped establish his reputation as a healer. She lived in Stanleytown, near the cemetery, and was related to the sexton, a sprightly young man whom he once met, but whose appearance he could not recall. The house, a modest cottage that from all appearances had never been repaired since its erection decades ago, leaned so alarmingly that Kwaku hesitated before venturing up the stairs. At the door he decided to call out rather than rap, for fear that the slightest pressure on the wooden facade might bring the house down.

`Mistress!' he called through the jalousie.

Immediately came the response.

`Is who? You in' got manners?'

The door flew open and Kwaku was faced with the truculent figure of an old woman who bore no resemblance to his erstwhile client.

Assuming a humble expression Kwaku asked if Mrs Duncan was in.

`Mrs Duncan? She dead! Is who you?'

`My name is Kwaku, mistress.'

`Kwaku? I in' know no Kwaku.... For a minute I did thought I recognize you. You look a lil' bit like the man that send she to she grave. A healer by the name of Haku or Paku, something like that. This man come out of the blue an' fill she up with garlic. She pay through she nose for the treatment! Poor thing. She was my younger sister and she did want to live till she was a hundred.... Come in an' let me treat you to a drink.'

Kwaku, trembling from head to foot, was too agitated to reply.

`Is what wrong to you?' she asked, apparently concerned by his inability to speak.

`Mistress,' he declared finally, `I....'

`You din' come to dun my poor sister for money she owe you, eh?' asked the old lady, resuming her hostile posture.

`No, mistress. Not me. I did come to look her up, 'cause she helped me out once.'

`Well you got to come in then,' she declared, grabbing him by the arm.

`Oh me Lord!' Kwaku muttered, thinking that once more he had succumbed to his old weakness of saying the wrong thing.

`Sit down in the easy chair. I goin' fix you a drink.'

His instinct for flight yielded to the reflection that his fugue would arouse suspicion. Besides, should the sexton get to hear of his visit he might put two and two together and remember he was indeed the man who had filled the dead lady with garlic. And what with him handling corpses every day, who can tell what he might get up to?

Mrs Duncan's sister left Kwaku alone to reflect on her accusation that he was responsible for her sister's death. Taking comfort from the knowledge that patients of trained medical doctors and their relations rarely turned on them where injury or death at their hands was suspected, Kwaku deemed it only just that he should be accorded similar exemption from blame. But if his defiance was thereby roused, his fear that his identity could be discovered and dismay at the consequences that might follow determined him to put on a show of humility, however much it went against the grain of his rebellious nature.

`Oh life! Why I didn' bring a kerchief?' he thought, wiping cascading sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.

It occurred to Kwaku that some old people practiced a peculiar brand of terror when they took it into their head to stand up for themselves. He shuddered to think what Mrs Duncan's sister would be capable of if she had a good memory.

The dead Mrs Duncan came back vividly to his imagination. A quiet, trusting lady, she never once mentioned a sister. Kwaku recalled how he disliked treating patients with many relations or friends. If, on his arrival at a house, there was a gathering in the bedroom or drawing room he would usually decline the invitation to treat, giving as his reason--once he had examined the patient--that the sick person was too far gone. Among the relations of the most docile patient there lurked, occasionally, a difficult customer who knew all about his or her rights. What might this sexton be like, for instance? He knew him to be sprightly; but what lay behind his sprightliness? One by one Kwaku looked over the furnishings, of which he had little recollection. The room resembled so many others he had visited the length and breadth of New Amsterdam, except for a fluted pedestal--nowadays regarded as a redundant extravagance--which was installed by a window in the corner, and on which a maidenhair fern stood grandly; also a Berbice chair with its extendible arm carefully folded back. Perhaps that was reserved for the sexton. Calling the nephew to mind, Kwaku resolved to leave as soon as decency would permit. It would be the height of folly to ask Mrs Duncan's sister to lend him money in memory of his tenuous and fatal association with her sister.

`Ah!' Kwaku exclaimed, as Mrs Duncan's sister came back with her hospitality tray, in the middle of which was a glass with a red liquid.

He rubbed his hands, pretending to be very much at home. In some countries the guest did well to fondle the host's dog or cat. Kwaku had learned that in his own country you ingratiated yourself by fondling a proferred glass. Before carrying it to his lips he stroked it, kissed it, flattered it and finally enquired whether it was old cut glass, the kind you could no longer buy in the shops.

`Cut glass?' asked Mrs Duncan's sister, `I couldn' give you glass that cut. What you take me for?'

And once again that fierce expression came over her face.

Kwaku explained what cut glass was, even though he would not recognize it from the humbler variety; and for all he knew the glass might be cut or uncut.

Once more he wiped his brow, anticipating great difficulty in judging what to say in order to humour the lady, whose sister he was supposed to have sent to meet her maker with the smell of garlic on her breath.

Mrs Duncan's sister settled in a chair and at once began questioning him about the kind of work he did, and his marriage. Luckily she did not bother to wait for an answer to any questions she put, so that when she wanted to know if he was in the habit of beating his wife he only opened his mouth, pretending to be embarking on an answer. Mrs Duncan's sister waited for none, impelled by some bug that demanded an everlasting flow of words.

`You're a well bred young man.'

`Not so young any more,' Kwaku confessed.

`How old you is?'

`Thirty-two, mistress,' lied Kwaku, who felt the old capacity for improvisation return with such force he could not resist adding a coda to his false statement.

`Thirty-two next month.'

`You's a youngster. When I had thirty-two I was so frisky ... yes, very frisky. I never married. Couldn' stand being tied down. But my sister! She couldn' live without a man and was off at sixteen. Eleven children she had. Funny number eleven. You ever hear of somebody with eleven children? It jus' don' happen. But she always do things different to everybody else. You know something.... What you say you name was?'

The noise that came out of Kwaku's throat resembled that of a young crapaud learning to croak. Something between `peep' and `caugh'. Fearing that by repeating his name Mrs Duncan's sister might suddenly remember that it fitted the man who had sent her beloved sister to Heaven with an overdose of his garlic concoction, he only uttered it reluctantly.

`Kwaku is my name, mistress.'

`How you spell it? You see, since my sister dead the memory going. I can't understand it; I does drink my cod liver oil every day without fail. Anyway, I got to write your name so that when the sexton come I can tell him 'bout your visit.'

`O life!' Kwaku exclaimed.

`What? You can't spell your name? And you look so respectable!'

`No, no,' Kwaku added hastily. `I just had a thought ... as ... like something trampling 'pon my chest. My name spell K-w-a-k-u.'

`And your title?'

`Cholmondeley.... Look, I feel a little faint, mistress. Is the sun. It so hot! Is this global warming. You didn' notice? They say.... What they say? Mistress you got me so confused, I better be going.'

`Going? You drink my sorrel and two minutes later you say you going?'

Kwaku, desperate at his predicament, wondered if it was not best to get up and leave without ceremony. But he reflected that, living in a small town like New Amsterdam, he would almost certainly meet her again when, with her character, it was not inconceivable that she would raise a hue and cry against him and inform everyone that he had drunk her sorrel drink and would not even repay her the courtesy of conversation. In fact, his experience of old ladies persuaded him that she might even invent some story about him and thereby destroy any chance of resurrecting his status as a decent man.

`I'm not going, mistress. I changed my mind.'

`Good!' she declared.

And the laconic `Good!' in such contrast to her voluble style unnerved Kwaku more than anything she had said until then.

`What I was talking 'bout before you say you was going?' Mrs Duncan's sister asked. `Let me see.... Oh yes! I was telling you 'bout this healer who snuff out her life.'

`No, mistress. You been talking about something else. My name. You did want to know my name.'

`But you tell me your name. What wrong with you? You tetched or something?'

`I can't take any more of this, mistress.'

`Of what? What you can't take more of?' Kwaku's tormentor asked.

`Mistress, do you know what?'


`I got a bad heart.'

She looked Kwaku up and down as if heart trouble was contagious.

`A young man like you got a bad heart! ... I don' believe you. The way you come up the stairs, with your hand swinging... no. You don' got a bad heart. I'd say you got something to hide.'

The smile had disappeared from Mrs Duncan's sister's face and her staring eyes put the fear of God into Kwaku who, now more than ever convinced that flight was the most sensible course, decided to leave as soon as she went aback. He must persuade her somehow to abandon him for a while.

`Can I have a drink of water, mistress?' he asked with a great show of respect.

`So that's what you did want all the time,' she remarked, her expression softening markedly at the thought that at last she knew what his problem was.

`You want another sorrel? Is nicer than plain water.'

`Anything, mistress; sorrel, water, anything wet. Is my throat. Do it quick, please.'

Kwaku hung his head, a posture that had often brought him sympathy in the past whenever he sought a way out of some predicament.

Mrs Duncan patted him on his shoulder solicitously before leaving him on his own. But just as he was about to get up and steal away she put her head round the corner and said:

`The sexton should be coming any time now.'

`You din' ... you din' tell me he was coming today.'

`Mr Cholmondeley, he does eat here! Where else he going to eat? He's my nephew!'

Mrs Duncan's sister did not know what to make of her guest's desperate look.

`Mr Cholmondeley, some people think 'cause he does deal with corpses every day he's funny. Is that what bothering you? If that's what bothering you, you can set your mind at rest. Raymond was devoted to his mother; he's a normal man with normal feelings. You should've see him mourn when she leave for the great beyond. Grieve? You never see somebody grieve like that. One time I did read about a man who grieve for his father. He grieve so bad he end up taking the cloth, so he could take part in lots of funerals. But Raymond make him look like a picture of happiness. Is after he done grieving that he become a sexton at the burying ground.'

Now, at the revelation that the sexton would be visiting that day some men would have shown the house a clean pair of heels. But not Kwaku! Struck dumb by the news he remained in the half sitting, half standing position in which Mrs Duncan's sister had caught him, apparently unable to revert to his sitting position or stand upright. In short, flight was impossible.

Not that Kwaku was unaccustomed to stress. When, as a young man, the villagers were looking for him after he had damaged the conservancy, he remained holed up in Blossom's cottage, to the chagrin of her husband, who was for disclosing his whereabouts to the police. There was a stressful situation! But then the deed had been done and he was, so to speak, staring danger in the face. Now it was the threat of danger which now turned his legs into two sticks, the uncertainty, the knowledge that his destiny could be decided either way. The sexton might remember him, then he might not.

`Now I believe you got a bad heart, Mr Cholmondeley. I did hesitate 'cause I not as trusting as my departed sister. Sit down, ne?'

And coming over to the hapless Kwaku, she eased him gently into a sitting position before taking a fan from her cabinet, with which she began to fan him slowly.

`You so faint-hearted!' she said, half reproachfully, half indulgently. `I got more balls than you.'

Kwaku nodded agreement with her, while his mind raced on in search of some method of getting away without losing her goodwill. Whatever he did now, he was a marked man, for his long conversation with her had created the bond that facilitates memory.

He watched her go back into the kitchen and recalled how Miss Gwendoline, his wife, used to walk with the same authority and how she lost that authority when her world went dark. His fortunes began to wane as well and he was finally reduced to a condition of such pity that the twins took to thrashing him behind a shed at least once a week. Kwaku reflected that he had gone through a great deal and was now entitled to some luck from above.

`Mr Cholmondeley,' Mrs Duncan's sister said when she returned with the second glass of sorrel drink, `you don't know me, but I know you.'

She waited to see the effect her words would have on Kwaku.

`You should see yourself now,' she continued. `Not so cocky, eh? Your hands not swinging like when you climb my stairs. I been watching you before you come through the gate posts. Well, I know you, Mr Healer, and I been watching you for years. Oh yes! And I tell you something: I know your wife, but she don' know me, because whenever I help her cross the road she can't see me, so she go tap-tapping with her stick away in the distance. And if it wasn't for her I would deliver you to the sexton without batting my eyelids. We women got to stick together, Mr Cholmondeley, 'cause is we does do the work and you men does reap the reward. I did tell you nobody does have eleven children 'cause that would be a abomination. And they don' got lazy women neither, 'cause that would be another abomination.'

And she went on talking, caring nothing for the terror in Kwaku's eyes and the way he kept looking at the front door.

`When you find a lazy woman,' she continued, `is like finding a faithful and honest, yes, honest man. People does look on a lazy woman as if the whole nation going to collapse because of her laziness. I was like that once, the despair of my mother's house. I used to sponge on my family and lie around the house all day smoking menthol cigarettes and reading those American love story magazines. What bother my parents was not the laziness in itself, but that I was a lazy woman. But my sister was a hard-working, blameless woman. You think I don't remember you, but I remember you good, wearing new clothes and walking like countryman that never put shoes 'pon his foot. Who you think you was fooling? Not me! I did tell my sister; "That man up to no good. Look how he does walk and talk. I bet he can't even spell the word `medicine', yet he practicing as a healer." But she was trusting, poor thing. She heard the word healer and thought you know what you was doing. One time I did say to her, "Effie, they got good surgeon and bad surgeon." But she say, "I never hear 'bout that. I can't believe that." Yet she had a appendix scar 'bout a foot long. Whenever I lost my tape measure I used to make her lift up her blouse so that I could measure the cloth from it. And you pull the wool over that trusting woman eyes! ... As soon as I set eyes on you I remember your face. "He must've fall on hard times," I say to myself. "Look how he dress." And if I didn' rush downstairs and strangle you, is because I'm a Christian and 'cause I feel sorry for your blind wife. Anyway, Mr Healer, you got to thank woman solidarity for leaving this house in one piece.'

Kwaku opened his mouth to thank her profusely, but she cut him off with a sharp reprimand.

`Don' come with your sweet talk in this house! I don' got no time for men like you. And if you want to know the truth I don' got no time for men! You better piss off before I set the sexton 'pon you!'

Kwaku was not sure whether to leave at once or indulge her by remaining a few more minutes; at all costs he must not offend her.

`Well, what you waiting for? Christmas?' she asked, in her most truculent tone. `Haul your tail from my house and look for work!'

Kwaku leapt up from his seat and in his confusion bowed so deep he nearly knocked over the pedestal with its maidenhair fern.

Once outside he looked up the road in the direction of his home and in the distance caught sight of a tall, sprightly man walking towards him. Turning round like an automaton he hurried away in the opposite direction. Although from that distance he could not recognize the stranger's face he was taking no chances, telling himself that it would be a supreme irony if, having escaped the aunt's clutches, he were to fall foul of the nephew.

`Was no point asking her to lend me money,' he reflected.

Copyright © 1997 Roy Heath. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1996-11-15:
Guyanese English novelist Heath here continues the life of Kwaku, a down-on-his-luck hustler and dealer who first appeared in Kwaku; or, The Man Who Could Not Keep His Mouth Shut (1982). Hoping to regain his wealth and the regard of his abusive family, Kwaku emigrates to the city to sell antique chamber pots. Instead, he finds an impersonal, corrupt culture and employment with an ambitious, ruthless government official. Kwaku's fortunes rise, but the morals and sanity of those around him couldn't be lower. Billed as a comic novel, this is really a dark, psychological study of the ways corruption, prejudice, and superstition infect all layers of society. No one is spared, not even Kwaku's blind wife or the Indian woman whose children are stolen by her own family. Heath has a keen ear for dialog, but his characters and prose are distant and emotionless. For libraries with a stong interest in Caribbean literature.‘Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L., Ind. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1996-11-18:
With a fine ear for comic dialogue and an eye for the ironies of clashing personalities, Heath (The Murderer), who was born in Guyana and emigrated to England, follows the fortunes of the trickster hero of Kwaku, or The Man Who Couldn't Keep His Mouth Shut. Reduced to destitution after losing his status as village faith healer, Kwaku Cholmondeley starts over in Guyana's capital city of Georgetown under the double-edged patronage of an enterprising civil servant nicknamed the Right Hand man at the Ministry of Hope. The Right Hand man has a specious reputation for honesty and a talent for gathering toadies, including a onetime firebug who's now a currency smuggler. After numerous embarrassments suffered in adjusting to city ways. Kwaku escapes from the ranks of the hangers-on, returning to the healing racket with a talking cure. Unfortunately, he finds his material success still caught up in the fortunes of the Right Hand man. With a superb supporting motley crew, Heath freely orchestrates a vibrant, idiomatic chorus of comic exchanges, gossip and boasts. Whether talking about the thriving business of selling antique chamber pots to tourists or the rumored lootings of graveyards, whose residents were employed in the last fraudulent election that brought the Right Hand man's party to power, the voluble cast chatters about everything under the sun. Heath ably steers his charming ship of fools and knaves through a sea of picaresque corruption to a generous-hearted conclusion. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, November 1996
Publishers Weekly, November 1996
Kirkus Reviews, December 1996
Booklist, March 1997
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Bowker Data Service Summary
In this bright and comic novel, Roy Heath deals vividly with the social and political conflicts and conundrums facing the nouveaux riches and the staggeringly poor, emerging into independence and unheard-of-prospects.

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