A visit to the Margetson Memorial Home is not for the faint of heart. It is quite jarring to witness once-strong men now broken, incoherent and incontinent. The former bad-word bishops have become ailing acolytes, slumped over, waiting to die, some hoping to die. It is a depressing departure lounge and a harrowing glimpse of mortality.
For more than eight years, this was the home of William Murrain, the Montserrat calypso legend better known as the Mighty Ruler. He was sent there in 2012 after suffering a stroke and having a portion of his right foot amputated amid his battle with diabetes.
Whenever I visited Montserrat, I made a point to visit Ruler at the Margetson home. He and I are not related. We are not contemporaries. But I felt an obligation to check in on him.
I’ve known Ruler my entire life. He lived in Cork Hill Village. I grew up in Byer, about a mile up the hill, but I frequented Cork Hill virtually every day. It was the location of my primary school, and my dad owned a popular bar on the main corner in the village.
Ruler was a frequent patron of my dad’s bar. He was vocal. He loved calypso and would break into song unprompted. He carried around a blue “exercise book” – the classic ones that featured an image of the Queen on the cover. He would fold it vertically and place it in his back pocket. I recall snatching the notebook one time and running away to get a peek of what he had written. I glanced at some of the lyrics before he caught up to me. He was usually jovial, but that day he turned serious. “Don’t do that again,” he said sternly.
I feel an affinity toward Ruler the same way I feel it toward cricket legend Jim Allen. I rooted for both while growing up. They played a memorable part of what remains the happiest time of my life: my childhood in Montserrat.
Ruler was a great fan of Antigua calypso star King Short Shirt. In 1977, Short Shirt visited Montserrat. He was in his prime, coming off his classic album Ghetto Vibes that was released a year earlier. I vividly remember seeing Ruler walking up the Cork Hill main road from Plymouth. He strolled into the yard of my dad’s shop, where many of the regulars were hanging out: “Fireheart,” “Marshall,” “Harper,” “Piggy” and others. Ruler was holding a half-full bottle of Heineken.
“Me just meet de great Short Shirt,” he announced. “He was drinking this beer, and he gave me the rest. I brought it to show all of you proof that I met the great man.”
ROOTING FOR RULER
In those days Cork Hill had two main calypsonians who entered the Festival competition each year: Ruler and Winston “Young Warrior” Christopher. My family would huddle next to the radio to listen to the calypso show, hoping Ruler would finally wear the crown. Each year brought more disappointment, with Ruler’s fans chanting the usual refrain. “Dem tief Ruler!”
After I migrated in 1978, I lost touch with the calypso competition in Montserrat. When I returned in 1985, I was impressed to hear that Ruler was still competing. That year he sang Demons Pon Me and No Mash Up Me Big Toe, going full-fledge with a jumbie theme. I watched him thrill the crowd at Sturge Park in the calypso finals, but once again he came up short on the judge’s scoresheet.
Over the years, during my frequent visits to Montserrat, I would see him around Cork Hill. Later on, post-volcano, I saw him in Salem. He would often greet me by using my Dad’s nickname: “Showl, put subben na mi hand.” I always obliged, even if I didn’t have much in my possession.
In 2012, the 50th anniversary of Montserrat Festival, I decided to conduct video interviews with many of the luminaries of Festival. At that time, Ruler had been relocated from Salem to the Assisted Living Ward in Lookout. I visited him on Monday, August 27, 2012 and had a 10-minute video interview. Afterward, I noticed he was limping.
I said: “Ruler, you a hep, man.”
He replied: “Yeah boy, dem cut off some of mi toe dem.”
About a month after, I received news that Ruler had suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. He was later transferred to the Margetson home.
I visited Montserrat that December and went to see him. When I arrived, he was sitting in a chair at the entrance. As soon as he saw me he said: “Showl, me want to go home.”
For the next seven years or so, I would visit him each time I went to Montserrat. He would always ask me for cash. I always gave something, even though I knew he was not in a position to spend it even if he wanted to.
In March of 2017, Cork Hill had a village reunion. The activities included a friendly cricket match at Lansen Park, directly across from Ruler’s former house. I asked the manager of the Margetson Home if it would be possible for me to take Ruler to Cork Hill. She said yes, but then she explained the stipulations. A nurse would need to accompany us, plus Ruler needs to take medication at a certain time. I also had to consider that if Ruler encountered a medical emergency we would be miles away from the hospital. I eventually decided it wouldn’t be worth the risk.
In March of 2018 I went to see Ruler while he and fellow residents were having lunch on the verandah. I assisted him with his lunch and had a brief conversation with him. Although his speech was slurred I could understand most of it.
I asked him what his father’s name was. “Henry Murrain,” he said clearly.
How many kids do you have? He raised one finger.
I told him that I knew some of his family members who live in America.
“Tell dem fu write me,” he said.
During my 2018 visit I brought him a gift. I gave him an iPod on which I had uploaded about 10 of his songs, plus some other calypso hits by Sparrow and others. I placed the headphones over his ears and watched his eyes light up when he heard his own voice.
Before I left, I told the staff that the iPod would need to be recharged every now and then, and I explained how to do it by attaching a USB to the staff computer. Months later, the iPod was gone. I never got an explanation about its disappearance.
Ruler was not a perfect man. He loved his liquor, and when he consumed a fair amount he could be crude and lewd. Many have opined that Ruler was denied the calypso crown several times because it would be an embarrassment to send someone like him to represent Montserrat regionally.
They say he lacked decorum. But how many men in our society – politicians, businessmen, “upstanding citizens” – comported themselves in public but behind the scenes destroyed lives through their abuse of power? Ruler didn’t hurt or kill anyone. Most of his wounds were self-inflicted. And last time I checked it was not a cardinal sin to be impolite.
Following Ruler’s death on May 12, I saw countless tributes on social media. I wondered: Where were some of these people when Ruler was drooling uncontrollably and wearing a diaper? Where were they when Ruler would go months without a single visitor?
The crocodile tears are now flowing.
It’s a crying shame.