A car approached, creeping toward me at a congaree’s pace, headlights on high beam intensifying the darkness around, blinding me. I waited for it to speed up and pass, but it just kept crawling closer, and closer… I prepared to scream and take to my heels. But where would I run? Who would hear me? What would they do if they heard? No one got involved any more—too many good Samaritans had not survived their helpful impulses in this place.
The car kept coming, drawing nearer as I forced myself to keep walking, to keep cool. It drew abreast, stopped—then revved twice and sped off.
What—what was that about? Feeling hysteria coming on, I stopped for a moment, two, hyperventilating. Come on, come on. Not too far again…
This little town, a village really, is called Blue Basin. Sounds magical, doesn’t it? Conjures visions of sparkling pools reflecting azure skies, nestling amidst protecting hills of lush primeval forest. Here, bird calls greet the dawn and accompany the day. Feathery streamers of impromptu cascades appear on the hillsides after heavy showers to visit their half-sisters, the permanent waterfalls that grace the valley.
This is a rich valley—and I’m not referring to the commercial success of the weed fields over on Cameron Hill. The north-east trade winds washing over the mountains have the tang of the Atlantic that lies just beyond. At night, across this valley, drift constellations which most pitiful earthbound dwellers of towns and suburbs never see, except when the power company stages a blackout, prising them away from the television by force, and there’s darkness all around to remind them that there’s a world out there, with a sky, and stars, unbounded by living room walls. Yes, it’s a rich valley, a beautiful place, but that is just part of the picture; the power outages reveal other things too, the not-so-pretty ones that burgeon in the dark alongside all that natural beauty.
I live in Blue Basin, and I need to get to the shop that’s a mile away in the village. The old car won’t start. The short-drop taxis are unreliable at night. It is Saturday evening and I need to move, to breathe, to escape from this house where my thoughts are closing in on me—thoughts of unpaid bills, overstretched budgets, and the tightrope I walk every day to make it from one paycheque to the next.
I must get to the shop, need to get to the shop.
So I leave the house, a few dollar bills grasped in my fist. I soon leave my neat neighbourhood behind and venture on to Blue Basin Road, then turn on to Cicada, passing some appreciative loiterers on the corner. I gaze down this road and my steps slow: the road resembles a dark tunnel with no light at the end. Where are the streetlights? I begin to recall the daily newscasts: murder, rape, mutilation and grisly combinations of the three, sashaying through my memory like a phantasmagoric parade, each more horrifying than the last. Screaming headlines. Photographs in which blood is the dominant chroma. Video clips that make me turn my head away, footage of the bawling bereaved, innocent of the cold corneas of the cameras recording their raw grief. Bodies strewn across the country in death-sprawls, sometimes in pieces. Neighbours stuttering: “But—but—that boy don’t be in nothing! How they could shoot him just so, just so?” And, “Why he had to kill she? So woman can’t leave man again? Who going to mind the children now he in jail and they mother dead?”
I want to turn back; I keep going. I console myself: at least there are several houses along that dark road that I must pass. If I scream, someone will hear. If I am given time to scream, that is…
There is a house on the right. Someone is sitting on a porch, in the dark, but I cannot see him. I can see the tiny red glow of his cigarette, though. I wrinkle my nose as the acrid perfume drifts over. Correction: his ciga-weed.
“Helloooo. Psst. Psst.”
I quicken my stride.
“Aye, goodnight! Aye, psst...”
I leave the unseen man and his friendly overtures behind. The road stretches longer than my memory of it. I hurry along, sometimes passing groups of people speaking in undertones, relaxing when I discern female voices in the dark, side-stepping parts of the road that seem more impenetrably black than the rest, listening for steps behind me, peering into bushy areas, unable to see the pebbly, potholed pitch on which I tramped, hoping that no steaming pile of gobar awaited my scantily sandalled feet. That would be the least of my worries, I can’t help reflecting, remembering the mapepire I had killed just that morning in the yard. I entertain myself by attempting to recall the body count in this little valley for the year to date. Five? Six? More?
I try a different angle on the numbers game: how many drug dealers had I passed plying their trade in the dark? What were the odds in favour of a police car appearing to make a bust? Would the goodly gentlemen in blue buy my story that I just needed to get to the shop, surrounded as I was by weed and crack-cocaine commerce in all its shadowy glory? I considered the odds of police appearing and felt better: the authorities had better sense than to come up here at this time of night. I plodded on, finding strange comfort in the annihilating darkness, letting my thoughts drift along their chosen paths, itinerant.
Ten minutes after Ornella left the staff room, shoulders set in a determined square and weariness crinkling the corners of her eyes, she tramped back in, a lone student in her wake with a deflated backpack flopping from his shoulders.
“They gone,” she replied to the query in my raised eyebrows. “Crawled through a hole in the fence by the football field. Except for this one.”
The boy shuffled from one foot to the next, looking virtuous.
“Miss, I remind them that the test is today, Miss.”
“Well, you are going to sit right here and do it.”
“Miss, you have a extra pen?”
“I can’t find my copy book, Miss. You have a page to lend me?” He gave up the pretence of rummaging through the empty bag.
Ornella placed one hand on a hip and looked at the boy.
“Allyou jokey, yes.” She took two pages from a binder on her desk and thumped them down in front of the boy who was now fiddling with a mobile phone.
“Oh gosh Miss! Is mih modder who BBM-in’ mih about something important!”
“Put. Away. The phone.”
“Miss, this test is for course marks?”
Ornella looked at me, and I looked at her. She turned back to the boy. “Yes, Andrew. I told you that last week. And the week before. And…”
An uproar broke out from the direction of Block Y. Students began to stream past the doorway shouting, “Fight! Fight!”
I bent my head and focused on the unintelligible script, titled “S.A.”, in front of me. Andrew half rose from the chair. Ornella’s glare froze him.
“Oh gosh, Miss! Is fight!”
He wilted and picked up the question paper but his attention was on the louvres, or rather, the commotion somewhere outside the thin grey metal slats. There were screams, and shouts. Shrill laughter. Mr. Mahabir, the biology teacher, rolled into the staff room, wiping perspiration from his face with a wrinkled kerchief. I glanced up just as he flopped down on the battered armchair, slipped a metal flask from his briefcase, took a sip, twisted the cover and put it away again. Coffee, he claimed. No one was fooled.
“I don’t know what the ass going on in this place. A student just run past my lab waving a Chinese chopper.” He slumped deeper into the faded cushions and closed his eyes. “Two more years,” he intoned to no one in particular. “Two more years!”
I did not look up this time. I was tackling the “S.A.” from the top again, my red pen poised in midair, tremulous, unsure where to begin its campaign on the incoherent scrawl on the page.
“That’s the third fight this week. Two yesterday. Like we going to break a record this term.” Ornella was looking through the louvres at the scene in the car park.
“I wasn’t here yesterday.”
“So you missed the blood-letting, then. A girl from Garment Construction stabbed a girl from Home Ec. With scissors.”
“Yes. I heard. I missed all the excitement. Lucky me.”
I put down the pen, placed the unmarked “S.A.” in a manila folder, stood and took my bag out of the rusted grey locker behind my chair. “I’m done for today. Enjoy your weekend, Ornie.”
Two deans passed the open door, each gripping a disheveled student; one boy scowled while tears stained the cheek of the other. I paused, letting them get clear, then walked out into the glare of the car park. I could feel the tension in the back of my neck and my shoulders. The headache was beginning to pound; I hoped it wouldn’t ruin my weekend as it had a habit of doing. Thank goodness my mother was taking the children from today—at least they wouldn’t have to whisper and tiptoe around the house while keeping me supplied with washcloths dipped in ice water to soothe my throbbing head. I smiled, as I always did when I thought about my two little sunbeams, and the tightness in my shoulder eased a little.
The sky was luminous without a cloud in sight and the air was crystalline after the morning rain. The poui trees, adorned in delicate nuances of lilac and pink, lined the driveway. A chicken hawk wheeled in the liquid air high above. The sunshine stung my arms as I made my way to the rusty little Mazda.
I focused on the hawk.
A dim streetlight appeared ahead, and I was, hallelujah, on the main road, the shop a mere two hundred yards away.
I joined the line strung out along the pavement in front of the shop. The queue inched forward. The man in front of me reached the cashier sitting behind the round window, opened his mouth to make his request and—the lights went out!
“Oh gawwwd!” A unanimous appeal to the mercies of Jesus, Allah, Krishna, Jah and the power company.
“They load-sheddin’ again,” muttered a voice on my left.
“A twenty-inch cable bust and they using a sixteen-inch, so is the whole country they sufferin’,” enlightened a man on my right.
“I best go home, oui? If the lights come back, then I go come back too.” Two women departed.
The small crowd around the hole in the wall trickled away and people on the street drifted off. Should I go home? I reflected on the long, dark, and now very lonely walk back and decided to stay put. I turned around and my eyes collided with the too-bright, too-bold stare of a dougla-rasta sitting on the railing near me. He continued to stare, unabashed. There was something deeply disquieting about that intense, enigmatic gaze. I looked away.
Jee-sus Christ. What am I doing here?
I stood. I waited. I ignored the profanity of the couple waiting near the railing. Whew! They were just having a normal conversation, no raised voices, no anger, just chitchat—but the language! My ears and sensitivities burned. A man shoved past me and the other stalwarts who had remained in the line.
“Allyuh hurry up and light them candle, nuh man. Ah want two brown bread.” A long pause. “Is two brown bread ah say ah want.”
“What yuh mean—yuh don’t want this bread? Ain’t this bread brown?” the young lady inside enquired.
“Ah say ah want brown bread! Call Chin in there and tell him to get two brown bread for meh!” I peered through the locked glass doors into the candle-lit interior, trying to figure out which of the people milling around inside the shop was Chin. I gave up. They were all Indian. A car pulled up and a man got out, distracting me from the brown-bread drama.
“What happen, they not openin’ the door?”
“You mad or what? The current gone; this is bandit time.”
The newcomer laughed, got in his car and sped off.
I pondered my mental state. Why wasn’t I at home, front and back doors double-bolted, windows burglar-proofed, vicious (hopefully) guard dog (next door) patrolling, keeping me safe, secure, or at least providing that illusion? I turned around and again encountered the sly-bold, unwavering stare of the dougla-rasta. I closed my eyes and sighed.
“Is not this bread ah want! Ah want brown bread!”
“Is whole wheat bread you want?”
“Ah want brown bread!” He was shouting now. A man appeared next to the girl behind the glass window with the hole.
“Look your money! Go from here! This hour, current done gone, and you want people to go in the back and get brown bread for you? The shop closed, you hear? Go from here!”
“Ah go put a lash on you! Allyou tryin’ to embarrass me or what?”
The man inside appeared in the doorway. “You always talkin’ lash! Look me here. Come and lash me, nuh!”
The bread buyer, who had begun walking away, spun around. He loomed, his muscles bulging. The skinny little man in the doorway looked up at him and screamed, enveloping me in a miasma of stale alcohol: “Yuh blasted jackass!” The muscular young man lunged for the door which was suddenly slammed shut with the little grey man on the safe side. Bystanders hauled the thwarted bread buyer away. They clutched his arms, his vest, anywhere they could hold. He was half-dragged, half-carried, still screaming obscenities.
“This ain’t done, ah tell yuh! Ah goin’ to shoot allyou! This ain’t done!”
In the ensuing silence, a laconic voice spoke from the shadows.
“Chin playin’ brave and openin’ door to fight, then he runnin’? The feller shoulda hit him a lash. He woulda get sober one-time.”
I stood and reflected. Why was everyone so angry? Why did nothing work? And why exactly was I out here in the middle of the madness, probably endangering my life? Suppose the young man came back with a “piece” and I got caught in the cross-fire…
Lord, my children. He would come and take them. After all the years of not supporting them, my good, bright, beautiful children, he would suddenly appear and take them away from my mother, my sisters, everyone who loved them… Oh God, what am I doing here?
I blinked as the lights came on. A machine hummed. The line jerked forward. I paid for my purchase through the hole in the glass, grabbed my bounty and strode away. I really wanted to scuttle off but figured such cowardly behaviour would attract every human predator within a two-mile radius. I turned onto the dark street once more, my heart sinking. Would I make it through a second time? I was really pushing my luck now.
Two men were sitting on a culvert on the corner. They stopped talking as I passed. I walked a few paces, looked back, and realized they had disappeared.
That was fast. Where had they gone? I had heard no footsteps, nothing. They just—disappeared. Abracadabra.
Stop shaking! I admonished my legs, urging them to go faster still. A snatch of a David Rudder calypso began playing in my head: “Once upon a time there was a magic island, full of magic people…”
I hated when my brain did that—always providing a soundtrack like my life was some damned movie.
That was when the car decided to approach me at a snail’s pace, scaring the crap out of me, then racing away into the night. Some idiot having a laugh at my expense? As my great-grandmother used to say, what is joke for schoolboys is death for crapaud.
I made it through the long, dark tunnel of Cicada Road and turned on to Blue Basin Road. Once again I ignored the hecklers calling to me from the corner. I was actually glad to see them still there, young and harmless-seeming, standing under a streetlight calibrating their manhood. I rounded a bend. On my left was an abandoned house that had been undermined by the ravine and now teetered on its edge, deep cracks running from the driveway to the roof; on my right nothing but bush and, behind the lush tangle, what Trinis euphemistically refer to as a river.
There was a sudden crackle of bushes to my right and my mind began to skitter. Those men on the bend could easily walk up the riverbed, run out through the bushes and pull me in.
Maybe it was just a dog in there. Or a manicou. Or a—a—
I took to my heels. Raced past the bushy part, through the whispering, eerily shadowed tunnel of the bamboo patch, along the edge where the road was falling into the river, skid on some gravel, stop, grab side, pant-pant-pant, off again, don’t look back, run, run, come on feet, swing on to my street, don’t stop now, past manicured verges and shapely shrubs, arrive at last, pause, open gate, skate to a stop at own front door, drop keys twice, open the damn thing, slam it shut, double-bolt those beautiful locks…
My heart was slamming in my chest. I hunched over, rasping, opened my hand to cradle the pain in my side—and there it was, crumpled but in one piece: my precious Lotto ticket.
I collapsed on to the couch. My heart slowed as I eased into a warm, familiar place. Tomorrow I could have no worries. Fix the Mazda—no, buy a decent car. A house in a safe place. Braces for Ryan. Ballet classes for Chrissy. I sank into that familiar place, purchasing sanity with the coin of delusion.
The slip of paper drifted from my fingers. I shook off my reverie, picked up the ticket, smoothed it out and placed it under the lamp so only a tip showed.
CHJ Rousseau, a Trinidadian, is better known in publishing circles by her pen name Liane Spicer. She has been an English teacher, newspaper editor (The Grenadian Voice), freelance editor, reviewer (Trinidad Guardian, Nassau Guardian, South Florida Caribbean News) and novelist (Café au Lait). She blogs at Wordtryst [ http://lianespicer.blogspot.com/ ] and is co-founder and coordinator of Novel Spaces [ http://novelspaces.blogspot.com/ ], the blog home of a group of authors from the Caribbean, the USA and Malaysia.