What he brought for me

A poem by Puerto Rican writer Loretta Collins Klobah, inspired by Notting Hill Carnival

Loretta Collins Klobah. Photograph courtesy Bocas Lit Fest/Savant Media

a verray parfit gentil knight
— Chaucer

Mighty Tiger, draped in scissor-frayed knee-pants,
prevails upon prime movers of Parliament
to honour their public duty to society’s poorlings,
cause we catching hell, but it’s high-fête season
and the audience isn’t cheering vexation and complaint
this bacchanal night in the prelim heats of the London Calypso Tent
in the packed hall of Yaa Asantewaa Arts and Community Centre,
Chippenham Mews, off Harrow Road, where, in other rooms, a mas band
sews parrot feathers and bends fiberglass and PVC tubes into a Queen’s exoskeleton.

His rival ushers Tiger off-stage when the ABC Band strikes up.
Lord Cloak strolls as he sings in trim crème-coloured suit.
Ten-time champion, the reigning Monarch, he is pure charisma and enthrallment.
He sings for peace, an end to war in Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Middle East.
We wake and warm to his jollity and swank, his rich, playing voice,
which conveys that despite a fare of perpetual war,
he is still a Trini, a born-calypsonian, a bon vivant.
The new Monarch has not yet been named, but he is King of the tent,
everybody giving him back-pats and calling him Cloak.

I meet Errol Brown on a Sunday afternoon in Tavistock Gardens.
I sit on a park bench in that spare, green neighbourhood space.
Cloak pulls out a folded notebook paper, where he has penned lyrics
for the Monarch Final, singing me a preview of drafted bits.
“What You Bring For Me?” — Cloak cannot fail;
the audience is bound to love this one,
for everybody who travels home to the Caribbean must fill a grip
with electronics, shirts, music, brassieres, and panties for family and friends,
and must never, never arrive
with just one small bag of their own travelling clothes.
I love them, but it’s true, you know. It is true.
When I go back home to the West Indies on holiday,
“What you bring for me?” I suppose if I was living there,
it’s the same when someone come from abroad, I might have said to them,
“What you bring for me?” They don’t really want to know if I’m healthy,
but “what you bring?” That’s why I making that song.
Brothers and sisters, but they are like shark.

At twenty-one, he left Trinidad for Britain,
begged a fellow to loan him a cloak
in that first rain-bone-cold summertime.
The name stuck. West Indian fellows called him Cloak,
so he added on Lord for his first competition in a Calypso tent.
In Carnival season, he is Lord and often Monarch,
but at his day job, he is a squire at White Knight Laundry,
where hotels and restaurants hire linens for special occasions,
and employees wash, iron, mend, pick-up, and drop off.
Later, walking Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, I stumble, surprised,
upon the White Knight on Kensal Road — on the signboard a White Knight
in full white armour, waving his white spinneret flag, mounted on his rearing white horse.

But now, I tag along to a pub, for a rendezvous with Cloak’s best pal,
a Trini who has brought his Irish matey, a tall, plain, long-legged, aging, red-haired gal,
who likes bold, roguish jokes, long drinks, and thigh-smacking laughs.
They invite us to the friend’s apartment for a night of merriment.
He has a grand reel-to-reel audiotape player, spools of Lord Cloak’s calypsos,
and cartons of Carib beer stacked under the stairwell of his front room.
The friend disappears and then returns with a big calabash gourd full of Carib
to pass around, This is how we used to drink at home, he says.
Lord Cloak sings to us, along with the reels, recounting until six
in the morning his days in the Grove. I lurch to my bed-sit afterwards,
but he must greet the White Knight at eight o’clock.

At the Monarch Final, he slays the Mighty Tiger and all other pretenders.
On Carnival day, a few million people jump up in Notting Hill.
I run into Cloak near the Westway Flyover. Wait! He tells me.
Wait right here, I have something for you! My apartment is close by.
Wait now, I coming back. Twenty minutes later, I see him chipping
through the police barricades and mas bands. This is Carnival!
You must have a flag, eh? You must wave a flag in the air!
He ceremoniously hands me a sealed plastic package.
It contains a pre-moistened white terry-cloth washcloth folded, tightly rolled,
the kind that might be warmed and handed steaming hot
to a patron in some posh hotel or restaurant —
now a Carnival flag, courtesy of the King.
This warm and simple act of bachelor noblesse—
this love of Carnival and calypso, he shares with me.

I accept the token. All day long I wave that flag in the air.
Throughout my errant and vagabond life, I remember what he brought for me.
He invites me to join him for a lime in the forecourt of his friend’s apartment,
but I want to walk on Carnival day, see all the bands, and look out
for friends on the lorries of the mobile sound systems and steel pan bands.
I am leaving London for the islands after two years here.
When I jump and wave my flag, I am waving goodbye.
He watches the bands for a while next to me, and then,
with a nod, he disappears back into the soca multitudes.
Thus, I lose a proffered chance to play a becharmed milady to milord,
to chum together, simpático, make merry with his friends for one last Carnival day.

Mr Brown, it has been almost eighteen years now since that day.
We not getting young, sir. I see that the Mighty Tiger has retired from the Tent.
From Puerto Rico, I surf to see how you getting on over there in cold England.
In an Internet video of a recent Monarch Final at Tabernacle in Powis Square,
you sport a dapper brown bowler hat and a brown dandy suit —
you say the youngsters coming up now in the Tent are cutting you out.
You are listed as a twelve-time winner. Many years, then,
you did not win the crown. Yet, you continue calypso
because it is in you, all the time, it is in you. I — no Nobel yet —
continue poetry because it is in me, too, all the time in me, same way.
I want to thank you good and proper, Cloak. How’s your health? You healthy?
What a ting you do for me, eh? What an amazing thing — that flag you bring for me.