It’s a pleasure to introduce Stephen Henighan (pictured above in Cairo in August for the feast of Ramadan) to the pages of Numéro Cinq. Stephen is a prolific author, world-traveler, critic, translator and polemicist, a man who lives by his words or in his words. I put him in Best Canadian Stories when I edited that annual anthology. That’s what I think of his writing. Over the years his commentaries on Canadian literature and writers have been acute and revelatory. You should look him up. This story was previously published in the venerable Canadian literary magazine Grain.
For thirteen hours, from the time the plane lifted off from London, crossed the Atlantic, landed at St. John’s, Antigua, then travelled the final hour over the Lesser Antilles –visible out the window as a trail of dark green bloodspots flowering on the translucent pale-blue slab of the sea– up to the instant they landed at the little Cuban-built airport with a bump that woke the passengers who had lapsed into an alcoholic stupor, Philip waited for Doreen to speak. She had uttered her last words in the departure lounge. When a flight attendant brought in the barrell kids –small children going home to visit their families, their names written on bibs that hung across the fronts of their pink pinafores and white dress shirts– Doreen exclaimed: “That was me! I grew up travelling like that. Except for me it was between Toronto and Jamaica.”
She remained silent as they picked up their luggage from the carousel and found their way outside where a beaming German couple held up a sign that said Philip & Doreen. “Mitzi,” said the attractive wife, who looked older than her wiry husband. “This is Fred.” She smiled. “When people book on line, you never know what to expect.”
Doreen met his eyes.
They knew this reaction: the exuberance that camouflaged nervousness when people were uncertain how to respond to an interracial couple. As they climbed into the back seat of Fred and Mitzi’s jeep, Philip sensed Doreen’s disappointment.
The vacation had been her idea. She had persuaded him months ago, when they had realized that their business trips to England would overlap, that they should take advantage of the cheap deals available from London. She had overcome his resistance to package vacations by finding an on-line offer for a remote lodge: three holiday cabins on an isolated point overlooking a tiny bay on the island’s southeast shore. With the bright-eyed girlishness she revved up whenever she was openly trying to twist his arm, Doreen enumerated the advantages: the private beach; the outside world accessible only via a forty-five-minute vertical hike up the coastal mountains to the highway; a stash of tinned food strongly recommended; free airport pickup; a low price for a week’s accommodation on the condition that they tell their friends about the place when they got home.
He dozed against the door as warm air flooded the jeep. Fred was driving through deep gulleys where a dozen shades of green vied for the sunlight. Tall, droop-leafed coffee plants grew close to the road. As they climbed, houses on stilts bobbed up above the vegetation at the tops of the ridges like gravity-defying cubicles rising towards heaven.
On a cliff-face cleared of undergrowth, red spray-paint announced: Cuba and Grenada. Friends forever.
“After the hurricane, they couldn’t rescue people because the roads were blocked with fallen trees. The Cubans came and cleared the roads.”
“Some of the same Cubans who were here under socialism in the 1980s came back,” Mitzi said. “People welcomed them like they’d returned from the dead. When the international aid organizations arrived their job was easy because the roads were clear.”
“I work in international aid,” Philip said.
“Mitzi,” Fred said, “we shouldn’t talk about politics with our guests.”
“It’s all right.” Philip repeated the formula he had been obliged to utter a dozen times during his days in London: “We’re not American, we’re Canadian…. We took our vacation in Cuba last year.”
Doreen, looking out the window at the construction workers in their white T-shirts and black hard hats, nodded.
Clinging like a contour line to the flank of the mountains, the two-lane blacktop road hurtled them past abundant greenery speckled with little white houses. Here and there, a village clustered around a greystone church that looked as though it had been airlifted from a meadow in rural England; vendors cooked snacks on primus stoves at the edge of the road. Fred turned off the blacktop and geared down. The jeep crawled over huge ruts. By the time they emerged onto the point darkness was falling and they caught only a glimpse of Fred and Mitzi’s white stucco house looking out over the dull sea and the three wooden cabins facing the bay. Fred crossed the yard and disappeared into a shed. A generator came on. The roar of the sea in Philip’s ears and the air’s moisture made the glow of the lamps strung from wires around the yard feel as fragile as life itself.
He hugged Doreen. “You’re not regretting this?” he murmured. “You don’t think we should have cancelled?”
“I couldn’t be doing nothin’ else now,” she said.
“You are the only guests,” Mitzi announced, leading them towards the cabin closest to the stucco house. She offered to cook them supper. Philip said that they were tired and would go to bed. In the cabin, where the bed was enclosed in a tent-shaped mosquito net, they hung their plastic bags full of crackers, tinned sardines and tuna from wooden pegs in the bathroom and tied themselves up in the net. The surf smashed on the beach. He opened his mouth to ask Doreen whether she was going to be able to sleep. Then he was awake and it was bright daylight. The room felt like a box vaulted up into the sky and shot through with light. It was barely five-thirty in the morning, but there were no curtains on the broad windows overlooking the sea and the sunlight was warming their bed; the roar of the waves sounded louder. When he slipped out from under the mosquito net, the whiteness of the surf hurt his eyes. Doreen got up, the strap of her rumpled nightgown twisted on her shoulder. Her hair was a mess. Not Afro enough to remain short and tight, yet too Afro to fall into an elegant shape as it grew out, Doreen’s hair was her constant preoccupation. Seeing it clustered into two beehive-like bunches, one halfway down the back of each side of her head, made him feel a horrible sadness. He hugged and kissed her.
“If you think we’re gonna get up to any monkey business with these windows you can forget it.” She sidestepped him and scanned the beach. “Look! A fishing boat come in!”
Before he could move, she had opened her suitcase and begun to dress. She raked her hair into shape in front of a mirror and was out the door and hurrying down the path to the beach, Fred and Mitzi’s dog bounding at her heels. On the sand, a man was lifting plastic buckets out of a small boat. Two large women were walking towards him. By the time Philip dressed and got to the beach, the women were bargaining with the fisherman for his catch.
“You want one that’s skinny like me,” he said, “or one that’s fat like you?”
“Fat like me!” a woman said. Their voices were as rhythmic as the waves, but they spoke standard English, a relief to Philip, who struggled to understand the Jamaican patois of Doreen’s sisters.
As soon as the fish changed hands, Doreen stepped forward to scrutinize the contents of the buckets. “That one!” she said, pointing.
“That one cost nine,” the fisherman said.
“M’give you six,” Doreen said, her patois surfacing.
“Eight and he’s yours.”
“Seven an’ I don’ go no higher.”
“For a pretty woman I go to seven.”
“Sweetie,” Doreen said to Philip. “You got some money? What money it have here anyway?”
“Eastern Caribbean dollar,” Philip said. He laughed. “I like the way you bargain when you don’t even know what the money is.”
He paid the fisherman, who looked Doreen up and down. “Where you come from?”
“Jamaica,” Doreen said, supplying the answer she gave to black people who asked her this question. When white people asked, she said, “Toronto.”
The fisherman’s lean ribs pressed against his skin in the gap where his shirt hung open. “The Jamaican woman she have a nice shape.”
As Doreen took the fish, Philip laid his arm around her shoulders.
“A Jamaican girl she live up the hill here,” the fisherman said. “She marry a man from here. You go see her. She be wanting company from home.”
As they climbed the path, the dog trotting in front of them and panting at the fish, Doreen whispered: “Man, the people here look like they just got off the boat from Africa! They’re not mixed at all!”
He followed her, his feet slipping on the path. Doreen was as proud of her upturned Hindu eyes, long Arawak jawline, half-Scottish great-grandfather and one-quarter Chinese grandmother, as she was of her African heritage. She said she felt most comfortable in places like Jamaica and Cuba, where there was a language to talk about people like her, or cities like Toronto, where mixing was the daily business. Worried about how she felt here, he said: “At least they appreciate the Jamaican woman’s nice shape.”
“You sure put your arm around me fast! ‘Nobody’s touchin’ my woman.’ And you say you’re not possessive!”
Daylight lent the point a ragged appearance. Long grass entwined with creepers was encroaching on the yard beneath the wires where the lamps hung. Fred, dressed in a floppy-brimmed sunhat that threw his face into shadow, was swinging a scythe at the undergrowth. They went around the corner of the house and found Mitzi on the covered patio, clearing up the breakfast dishes. Through an open doorway they saw a local woman sweeping the floor of an industrial-sized kitchen. “This is Georgina,” Mitzi said. “When we have tour groups, Georgina and I cook for twelve!” She crossed the tiles and wrested the fish from Doreen’s hands. “You want me to freeze it?”
“Thank you, Mitzi. I’ll cook it the last night.”
“Georgina, put this body in the freezer!” Mitzi said with a laugh.
Philip couldn’t look at Doreen.
“Mitzi,” he heard her say in a level voice, “do you know if I can get a flight to Jamaica from here? I might have to go for family business.”
Mitzi frowned. “There are not many flights between islands…. You’re not leaving?”
“If I go, it only for two-three days. Philip stay here.”
“You know there is a Jamaican girl who lives up the hill on the other side of the beach?”
“The fisherman told us,” Philip said.
“She cuts hair,” Mitzi said. “She studied this in Jamaica.”
“Until Macey come, there’s no one around here who cuts hair,” Georgina said from the kitchen.
Mitzi nodded. “This is such a small island that people don’t have the opportunity to learn a trade.”
“That’s why we came here,” Philip said. “They said there was nothing to do.” He still couldn’t look at Doreen. “I guess we’ll go back to our cabin now.”
They woke at five-thirty to the sound of the waves. No matter how hard they tried at night to kill the saboteur mosquitoes that slipped inside the net, each morning they found fresh bites on their shins. By the third day, in spite of the fact that his skin was so light and hers so dark, matching reddish scabs shielded the space between their ankles and their knees like the greaves of centurions who belonged to the same expeditionary force. They prepared their meals of crackers and tinned sardines on the balcony, sweeping the crumbs over the edge to discourage the ants which crossed the planks in tiny swarms that moved as fast as a tropical storm running in over the sea. Each day they had a morning swim and an afternoon swim. The water was warmer in the afternoon, but the weather was more turbulent. Big black clouds built up over the mountains. Between swims, they read paperbacks on the balcony and took walks uphill, where trees brought down by the hurricane blocked the clipped English lanes that ran through the tropical undergrowth. They skirted slack-bellied brown cattle that grazed in groups of two or three, and tiny shepherd boys sleeping in the grass. Their customary non-stop banter about politics slowed. He struggled to convey to Doreen his sensation of being in a place where nothing more could happen. Fred and Mitzi talked about the revolutionary government, the Cubans, the American invasion, the next twenty years of slow decline, then the hurricane, which knocked over the nutmeg trees, the core of the island’s economy, like men shot dead.
They drove Philip and Doreen up the coast to see the empty nutmeg factory in Grenville, where a bitter foreman waved at the echoing factory floor where hundreds had worked. “They’re all gone,” he said. That evening, the conversation Philip had imagined them having about the island’s problems failed to happen. As soon as night fell, Doreen undressed and went to bed. It surprised him that she, who under normal circumstances refused to kiss him if there were a finger’s-width crack between two curtains in a hotel room, took off her clothes with unflinching confidence in this cabin where broad bare windows exposed them on two sides. Doreen was right, of course, that there was no one out there, that in the all-engulfing darkness of the rural night no one could see anyone else; yet her abandon suggested a change in her mood, even a shift in her personality. He felt one step behind. He toiled to catch up to her in the hot fury of her beautiful slender black body. At each climax he felt gripped by the need to go deeper inside her. He wanted, with a rage that unnerved him, to give her a child, as though this fusion of their beings might break down her silence.
Fearing the mosquitoes, neither of them went to the bathroom after lovemaking. He eased off his condom, tied it around the neck and wrapped it in toilet paper. In the violent suddenness of the dawn, he woke to see the twisted nub of latex-bulged tissue paper glowing with the luminosity of a recently evolved life form.
On the fourth day they walked to the village at the top of the hill. The coastal highway ran through the centre of town. Soaked with sweat from the climb, they found a corner store where they could buy soft drinks. The woman behind the counter offered a computer where they could check email. Against their judgement, they agreed to break the spell of their removal from the world. The sight of dozens of work-related messages make Philip feel irritable. He logged out. Doreen studied her messages in silence, read a few of them and offered no comment during the long downhill walk to the beach. Her reserve persisted into the next day. In the afternoon, as he watched her emerge from the water in a tan-coloured bikini, her unruly hair rolling on her shoulders in the wind, he handed her the towel she had draped across the trunk of a fallen palm tree. As she smiled into his face, he said: “You don’t want to talk about it?”
“Nothing I can say’s going to change anything.”
“But, Doreen, isn’t it better– ?”
“I don’t feel like talking.”
On their fifth night, feeling penned in by the small bay, they splurged on a cooked dinner on Fred and Mitzi’s balcony. That afternoon a group of young people had driven two jeeps down through the bush and set a bonfire in the short, goat-gnawed grass which began just above the brown sand. As Philip and Doreen watched from their balcony, two of the young men felled a tapered coconut tree. Doreen winced as the tree hit the ground. To the sound of gangsta rap, the young men stripped the tree of its coconuts and sat down with their girlfriends to drink rum, eat coconuts and roast hot dogs. An hour later, when they drove away, they hurled jeers in the direction of the point and left their bonfire burning. The evening breeze skimmed in off the sea, driving the fire across the short grass in the direction of the bush.
Fred appeared, hurling curses at the empty beach. A bucket in his hand, he descended the path in jerky leaps. He opened a faucet at the end of a long, rickety pipe and filled the bucket with water. He emptied the bucket over the flames, returned to the faucet and filled the bucket a second time, then a third. By the fifth dousing, the fire was hissing into submission. Fred continued pouring water over the charred logs and scorched grass long after the fire had gone out.
That evening, as they ate their steaks and corn on the balcony, where the breeze had grown cool enough for Doreen to drape a long-sleeved shirt over her tanktop, Fred was raging. “People here used to have a culture of living with their island! They climbed up the tree to get coconuts. Now every time they want a coconut they cut down a tree!”
“Young people think they can have everything lickety-split like on TV,” Georgina said.
“That’s what we came here to get away from!” Mitzi said. “Since the hurricane everything is worse.” She looked at Doreen, whose loose-sprung curls were falling into her face.
“Macey isn’t like that. I think that in Jamaica they teach people to work.”
“Lots of Jamaicans have two jobs,” Doreen said, growing animated. “But it have lazy people like everywhere else.”
“Tomorrow you must visit Macey,” Mitzi said. “You won’t have time on your last day because we must drive to the airport. I will give you directions!” she said, stepping into the kitchen for paper.
Next day, after their lunch of water biscuits and sardines, Philip said: “Do you want to visit the Jamaican girl?”
“Are you thinking about the trip to London?”
“I’m trying not to think about anything. Let’s visit the Jamaican girl,” she said, getting to her feet.
They walked the length of the beach and found the path described in Mitzi’s directions: a bald zigzag that climbed through the undergrowth at an angle so steep that they had to grip the bushes and haul themselves up hand over hand. Sweating and gasping, they emerged onto a sloping headland and followed a broader path, worn wide by cattle and clipped by goats, past ruined one-room houses, the sheet metal torn from their roofs glinting in thickets of long grass. Turning around to catch their breath, they saw the point where they were staying projecting out into the sea like the tapered blade of a shovel laid on the dark blue water. They followed the path until it intersected with a steep single-lane blacktop road.
When they got to the top of the hill, a long-legged young woman wearing a white T-shirt and short twisted dreadlocks came out to greet them. “How are you, Doreen? Finally, you reach! Every day, I ask m’self why that Doreen don’ come visit me?”
“You knew I was here?”
“Girl,” Macey said, lowering her voice, “on this island, everybody know everything. I can’t say a word to your boyfriend here unless you keep right in the middle of the
conversation. Oh, these small-island people are suspicious! Sometimes I wish I back in Kingston where nobody know my business.”
She waved them towards her house. Grey rooftiles had been hammered to the front of the porch. The three of them sat down on the steps. Macey’s skin was of a lighter brown than that of the Grenadians; her face was round, with a wide mouth and a strong chin. “I thought I miss my family here. Instead I miss my privacy.”
“You can’t forget your family,” Doreen said.
“But I gotta say I like it here. It peaceful. In Kingston you got to watch your back.” Looking at Doreen, she said: “Girl, you need a haircut. Why don’ you come see me the day you reach?”
“I wasn’t ready.”
“You ready now?”
Doreen gripped Philip’s arm. “I ready.”
Macey got to her feet. “Why kind of haircut you want?”
“I want straightenin’,” Doreen said, standing up.
“Straightenin’ gonna cost you. I go into St. George’s to get the solution. For straightening, I charge fifty EC dollar.”
“Sweetie,” Doreen said. “We got fifty EC dollar?”
“I think so.” Astonished by Doreen’s compliance, Philip wondered whether Macey’s offer had contained a cultural signal, indiscernible to his eye, which ruled out bargaining. He found fifty EC dollars and handed them to Macey. The young woman took the money and disappeared into the house. “Straightening cost twice that much in Toronto,” Doreen said in a whisper. Macey returned carrying a towel, a bucket and a container of straightening solution. She wore white gloves like a pathologist. She sat Doreen down on a plastic chair on the porch and wrapped the towel around her shoulders. As Macey set to work, Philip backed away. The scabs on his shins itched in the heat. At the side of Macey’s house, the frame of a black chest of drawers, stripped of its innards, sat tumbled on its back among scattered pieces of lathe fanned out across red-brown earth.
“Why you come here?” Macey said. She doused and lathered Doreen’s hair. She dragged Doreen to her feet and bent her forward. Doreen braced her elbows on the rail of the porch. She made Doreen lean over the rail until she was staring down at the hurricane wreckage. The wood and cardboard had half-sunk into the earth, becoming one with the soil in a coarse humus. “Why you come to Grenada?” Macey lathered and rubbed until she was hauling Doreen’s head up and down. “Why don’ you go to Jamaica to see your family?”
Doreen gasped. Suds ran across her cheeks. “I go to Jamaica next week for my brother funeral!” she shouted. She stood up and burst into tears. A man on the other side of the road stared at them. Doreen shook herself out of Macey’s grip. Philip rushed up the steps and hugged her trembling body. Her hair crushed by lather, Doreen’s head shone forth in its strong dark roundness as her lips nuzzled his shoulder.
She turned around and let Macey’s hug receive her. “We book this vacation, then they murder my brother in Kingston. They going to do an autopsy so they put him on ice so I decide to go on vacation anyway. I think maybe being around West Indian people do me good.”
The two women rocked together like coconut trees whose suppleness belied the force of the wind. “It be all right, Doreen,” Macey said. “I happy you come and see me.”
Doreen gave Macey a squeeze, as though she were the one offering comfort. She stood up, strong and independent as she had always been and yet, Philip sensed, older.
“Straighten my hair good, Macey! My hair gotta shine for my brother funeral. And try to do it quickly, please. Philip and me goin’ to Fred and Mitzi’s place. Tonight I’m cookin’ a fish dinner.”