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Juicy Slices of Island Life

Stories from the Recent Past, a collection of short stories,
by Bob Berlinghof. �2020.
152 pages. ISBN 9781716662188

Eagle-eyed readers of the regular Compass book review column will be familiar with the name Bob Berlinghof. He was for many years the editor�s �go to� book reviewer � insightful, fair, and teasing enough to always pique your interest.

Following in the substantial flip-flop footsteps of the big man is somewhat daunting, not just because of his way with words, but because he was my verbal sparring partner, musical mentor and friend.
Bob � writer, musician and maker of ice cream � went to that great gig in the sky on July 14th. He had been receiving medical treatment in the USA but expected to return to his beloved Bequia very soon. His untimely death was a sudden shock to the small community in which he loomed large.

To while away some of the hours in isolation in the US, Bob occupied himself by digging out some unpublished short stories he wrote in the late 1980s. The time on his hands enabled him to refine and re-tune this literary evidence of his love affair with the Southern Caribbean � a place he arrived at over 40 years ago as a wide eyed, Yale graduated, peace lovin� hippie 20-something sailor with big hair and no real plans.
Bob completed the edits of the story collection to his satisfaction just before he passed away. It was his wish that it be published. I designed the book cover utilizing a photo of Bequia street art by LD Lucy, and the book was recently published with the help of his friends.

 Stories from the Recent Past contains eight short stories of varying length and even more varied subject matter. The compendium touches on rum shop arguments, regatta racing, mysterious vehicular misadventures, hurricanes, unrequited love, chartering chores, stupid rich people, and catching up at dinner with old friends.
There�s also a rather random mixture of writing perspectives too: third person, first person (including that of a woman), even stories re-told within stories. When I was playing guitar with Bob, he taught me about different �voicings� � the musical principle that means the same guitar chord can be played in a number of ways depending on the assembly of the notes it contains, resulting in a divergent feel. He loved the scope you got with choosing the right �voicing� and he plays with that concept in this collection of stories. What is the same chord is the location � the islands of the southern Caribbean; the �voicings� are the different ways the tales play out and sound.

One of the strengths of Berlinghof�s writing is his mastery of description. There�s a visceral quality that appeals to the senses. You can hear, touch and smell the environments in which his characters exist. Take the start of �Rainy Season Blues� for example:
Twice since dawn it had teemed with rain, and the air reeked of a thousand rotting guavas and the harbor town�s effluvia. The trade winds died; by 9:30 steam could be seen rising off the island�s main road. An insistent sun poked through high clouds and pushed the temperature in to the low nineties. The morning air hummed with hatching mosquitoes, damp, dense, and so close it seemed to congeal; walking felt more like swimming, if you could sweat while you swam.

By the time you settle into the rum shop where that story is set, you too are feeling the weight of the energy-sapping humidity.
Bob felt no qualms in writing about characters from all walks of island life. From charter newbies, to long-time expats with shady pasts, loquacious locals and anything in between. They were all fair game for his pen. As a consequence, in these stories you get a rich tapestry of island voices.
It�s well-known local lore that if your �navel string isn�t buried� on an island, you�ll never be from there. So it�s a brave man who uses local patois in his stories, but again, Bob finds no problem with this and rises to the challenge. Some of the stories are so liberally laced with �island speak� that the best way for non-locals to digest them is to pour a shot of rum and read them out loud. Like these two excerpts from �The Race�:
�Well, shite,� said Bully. �Old Massa�s come back to Bequia disguised as white trash.�
�Times done change up,� said Bacca. �First shall be last, and last shall be first, the good book says,� he said, looking at Wilbur.
�That is scripture,� said Wilbur. �It don�t apply to me. I start believin� scripture, pretty soon I be gwan church.�
�Fine day for a race,� he said to Johnny.
�Plenty wind,� said Johnny without looking up.
�Good luck, you go need it.�
Johnny refused to answer. He had a hundred dollars riding on the outcome. He was thinking, why�s this guy wishing me luck? He�s the one going to need it with crew like that.
�By the way,� said Wilbur. �You got a fast boat here. She a bit longer than Lady M., you know. But you didn�t get de stern quite right, up here so,� he pointed to the shape of the transom. �You nuh get by me once I pass.�
�What�s that?� said Gumbsy, a crewman.
�He say he go win we,� said Johnny.
�Like fock!� said Gumbsy.
�Case of beer,� said Wilbur. �Overall I go win you.�
�You gone mad and your head bad. You on,� said Gumbsy. The king of the bettors had struck again.
�See you on de upwind leg,� said Wilbur Grant.
�We ain� lookin� back,� Gumbsy retorted.
This ain�t your classic Antigua regatta, this is real local � the banter, betting and bravado are as essential as a well-trimmed mainsail. I found myself thinking this story would make a great radio play.

Berlinghof was adamant that the stories were fictional. �None of the stories are true. Any resemblance to any characters living or dead is therefore complete rubbish. Don�t go there,� he declares in his foreword to the book. But the way I read them, they seem like re-arranged recollections of varying degrees of reality. And that�s good. It gives them a sense of vivid reality often lacking in observations written by those who watch from the sidelines but never fully live immersed. Bob considered himself a real Vincy man and was proud of it.

What you get from this collection of short stories are juicy slices of island life. There are occasions where nothing really significant happens, despite all the talk (arguably that in itself is quintessentially Caribbean!). Then some tales give you the sense you�ve eavesdropped on private moments, where you lean in to catch the gossip, and others where the narrative is more fully formed with meaning and consequence. It�s akin to a box of assorted chocolates, all are worth eating, but there�s no doubt you�ll like some better than others, as did I.

Similar to the feel of the warm tradewinds on your skin, the sounds of the tree frogs chirruping in the dark and the heady scent of jasmine after evening summer rain, Bob Berlinghof�s Stories from the Recent Past evoke feelings and sensations unique to the Caribbean. Lean back and savour the flavour.

Paperback copies are available via print on demand from bookstore and for purchase at the Bequia Tourism Office. All proceeds go to his family.


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