So, I go and visit my Aunty Pearl in a little yellow house, wooden, up a short track, dirt, on a small rise with a hedge of yellow, red and green crotons to the front. The house is on Vallot road, off Saddle Road. the piece of paper with the address on it is in my handbag. It’s what I showed the cab driver to get me this far. He dropped me off at the bottom of Vallot Road and told me to walk till the road almost end. So I’ve walked past some brick houses, then some wooden houses, but the higher up Vallot Road you get, the more bush there is. And after about ten minutes I was, like, yeah, I’m lost. Then, just before the road ends there’s, like a track and that’s where Aunty Pearl’s house is. So I walk past the crotons and a big mango tree, and up the track. It’s very hot and by the time I reach the little porch, and go up the three wooden steps, I’m sweating and I’m really regretting this little excursion. I could’ve gone to the beach or hung out by the pool, or just sat in the air-conditioned lounge. Don’t get me wrong, yeah, the place is sweet, I just didn’t expect to have to work so hard to find it.
A breeze rustles through the banana trees at the side of the house. The sound of trees and wind is like, part of the island, I’ve found, like the heat. I should knock, but for some reason it feels like a big deal. I’ve heard about Aunty Pearl my whole life, but I don’t really know much and I’ve never met her or spoken to her. I’ve seen pics of her, but only from when she was young. So I hesitate a bit, not sure if I want to be polite and pretend I know her. A bird flies into a mango tree in the front yard. It’s blue of all colours. I think to take out my phone and snap a picture, but it’s gone already. I turn back to the door, like, do I have to? Yes. I have to knock. I really don’t want to spend time playing nice with family I don’t know but, it’s like, I kind of promised mum. She says I should, cause she’s gran’s aunty who raised her, but in truth, what’s that to me? OK, she’s my aunty, well my great, great aunty, my gran’s aunty, but I don’t know her, do I? And I don’t see why I should really have to do this.
And then, some chickens start clucking from the bushes and a solitary dog barks somewhere down the hill. And it’s like, suddenly I realise I can’t hear the traffic of the main road anymore, no horns, no kids calling, no mutter of the town, just birds, wind in the trees and maybe even a cricket. I take a deep breath. I’m here, I might as well knock on the flaking, blue door. But I’m really half-hoping she isn’t in. Hoping the continued silence means I chose the wrong day to visit, and I can turn around, go back to the hotel and safely say to mum, like, ‘I tried.’
Then I hear shuffling behind the door. Damn. A voice half croaks, ‘I comin, I comin.’
I wait. The shuffling steps finally reach the door and the handle turns. I swear, as the handle turns a cloud drifts in front of the sun and a shadow falls over the small plot, and the 100 degree heat chills.
The door opens and a dark, bony face peeps through the crack. ‘Hi,’ I say. ‘Hello, Aunty Pearl? Pearl John?’
She’s frail and stooped, with a faded cloth wrapped round her head and a kind of shrawl round her shoulders.
‘Ruby,’ she mutters and then shakes her head. ‘Nah, not Ruby, eh. Not my Ruby, no.’ She opens the door wider. ‘Yes is Aunty Pearl, eh, and you is Gloria chile. I know yuh face. Come in, come in. Chile. Wha’s you name?’
‘Candice,’ I say and I step inside.
I smile a lot, cause it’s like, what do we have in common, really? Pearl gestures and I sit down on the edge of her ancient but pristine orange settee. There’s a smell in the room, like the smell of the roots Gran used to keep in a box in her wardrobe. Vetiver. She used to keep her handkerchiefs next to the box and they always smelled of vetiver too. I look around. The wooden walls are light green, but haven’t been painted for years. The room is shady and cool and I can feel the slight chill of the sweat on my brow. The front window is open with a white mesh curtain barely fluttering with the light breeze. There are crocheted doilies, like, everywhere. Even the low coffee table, shiny and clean has one in blue and white. Ruby lowers herself into one of four upright chairs at the polished wooden dining table. She pats the gleaming surface as she speaks. Or interrogates, more like.
So how long you here? When you going back? Who you come with? How is yuh mudder? Where you staying? How old you is now? You married? You have chile? What job you doing?
The whole time her deep-set, yellowing eyes look me up and down, like she’s judging my short denim skirt and my navy vest. I’m only in Trinidad for three weeks and I’m flying back, Sunday after next. I don’t need her approval. I’m 23 and I’m from London, she can just deal with it. I left Simon at the hotel in Port of Spain, flirting with one of the bar staff and she had on shorts way more revealing than my skirt. And she’s a Trini, so. I smile but I raise my chin, I’m beyond old Christian approval. And it’s not like I’ve got children to worry about. I’m still young. I can do what I want.
‘So where you gone so far? You went bird sanctuary?’ she’s asking. ‘You go Tobago yet? You see the Bocas? You gone on the Caroni river?’ She keeps on tapping the table with one hand and fixing her shrawl round her shoulders with the other. I keep answering her endless questions. By the time she stops, she knows way more about me than I do about her. All I know, after about almost an hour, is still only, like, that she’s my Aunty Pearl and she lives in Maraval. I reckon I’ve done my duty, now, so I’m, like, getting ready to interrupt and suggest it’s time for me to go, when she pushes herself up and wanders out of the room. I’m like a school girl again. I sit and wait. I’m looking at a picture hanging on a wall. It’s a faded black and white, like, portrait, well, brown and white now, it’s so old. Two young women sit together very close together. They’re wearing stylish cotton dresses with fancy hats with some kind of, like, mesh and ribbons. One of them has dark skin and the other is lighter, but they look alike. They’re both only, kind of, half-smiling. I reckon it’s Pearl and Ruby. They’re young, about eighteen or nineteen, I reckon.
‘You have fresh tamarind juice yet?’ Pearl asks as she comes back into the room. I stand up, feeling bad cause I’m sitting there watching her shuffle, bent over, from the kitchen. ‘No,’ I say. ‘Tamarind?’
‘I make it me-self from the tree out back,’ Pearl boasts. She has a long glass of something brown and cold in her hand.
I’m not sure I want tamarind juice. I take the drink and step over to the window. Doesn’t look right. Brown and, kind of, thick. But I’ve got to make a good, like, show of appreciation, so I toss some back and the sour taste shrivels my cheeks and purses my lips. I swallow, and then I can taste the sweetness, and the cold, just, like, rinses my palate. It’s really good.
‘Eh, heh?’ Pearl asks. Her eyes gleam.
‘Delicious,’ I say. And I don’t have to pretend. I take another large gulp.
She’s watching me and it’s a bit awkward. My eyes drift to the wooden, glass-fronted bureau against one wall. There are, like, some dolphin figurines and polished shells on the crocheted doily covering it. Pearl follows my eye and then, points at some, like, old leather books inside the bureau.
‘Eh, eh, let me show you the picture book,’ she cackles and pushes herself up again. ‘Is long time since I take them out, eh. Nobody to show. Nobody it matter to.’
It turns out to be, like, a long, protracted and laborious task as she takes them out. I stand behind her, not sure what to do to help. Bent over, she passes one book to me and I realise she meant picture albums. And they’re, like, really old, but they’re not dusty. She passes the other back to me and then slides the glass door closed on the china and figurines in the bureau.
I sit on the settee and open the first book. There is an old, yellowish pic of a, like, sombre couple standing with their hands on a tall stool. ‘That is the only picture of my father and mother.’ Pearl says. She’s standing over me, well more like hovering. There’s a faded slip of paper glued next to the picture of my great, great grandmother and father – 1921. ‘See how nice the lace is,’ Pearl mutters, reaching over me to touch the pic. ‘They buy the material special.’
‘Must’ve been expensive,’ I say.
‘Yes, but our daddy was a man a’ means.’ she says and sighs. ‘In them days was the whole hill belong to my daddy.’
Well, that’s not bad for a black man, I think, and turn the heavy page over.
There are pics of two young girls, about nine or ten, in matching white cotton dresses, with white bows at their neck and in their plaited hair. The slip of paper next to it – 1927.
‘The day before the funeral,’ Pearl mutters. ‘Diabetes.’
‘Mmm, she die young. Father get in the drink after that. Eh, eh. Look Ruby face. She didn’t want take picture that day, at all.’
I notice Pearl wasn’t smiling either, but I don’t say anything. I turn the page and there are about five small pics. Two of Ruby and two of Pearl and one of Ruby and Pearl together. They must have been about sixteen, seventeen.
‘Ruby was the beauty,’ Pearl says. ‘We was twins, eh, close. That was just before she get pregnant with Gwen, your grandmother. The year before, or maybe two, eh. Yeah, two.’
Gran used to say I looked like Ruby, but I’m sure she was only about five or six when Ruby died, so. I peer at the pictures, trying to see the resemblance between us. I look hard, maybe around, like, the mouth, a little bit, and maybe the shape of the forehead, like. But she was lighter skinned than me and, fuller, fatter.
‘Put a bit ah meat on you and you is Ruby self,’ Pearl says, as if reading my thoughts.
I turn a few more pages and there’s a pic of a young man and his bride. He is tall and handsome, standing straight, smooth dark skin, bold eyes, strong jaw and clear forehead. Not bad, I think. The bride isn’t Pearl or Ruby, though. She looks like an old-school church girl, plain, with hair brushed back with, like, a parting, and the blouse is buttoned up to her neck.
‘Who’s that?’ I ask.
‘Neville and his bride,’ Pearl says and strokes the picture lightly.
‘Eh? No, no. The bride was a girl used to live in the village.’
She turns the page. There are three more pics of Ruby, one outside a big house, another in a studio and one I couldn’t tell where it was. Pearl touches that one and says, ‘That was the week before father pass. Ruby was his girl.’
I nod. ‘Yeah. How old were you?’
‘We was sixteen. Eh. Sixteen.’
‘Young,’ I say and I remember sixteen was year ten in school. I look a little longer at the pictures of Ruby. Where’s Pearl?
‘I was in m’bed, sick that day.’
I nod again, and close the album. Pearl takes it from me and rests it on the low table. I open the other one. The front page has two pics. Both of Ruby and Pearl together. They’re wearing identical long skirts and long-sleeved white shirts, in both pics. There’s no background but it looks like they’re outside. I turn over, and on the next page is a pic of Ruby wearing a grey looking dress, buttoned to the neck, with a, like, dark kind of scarf round her neck and one tied on her head. She’s holding a small baby.
‘Gwen christening,’ Pearl says. But Ruby looks more suited to a funeral than a christening. She’s holding Gran, but she’s not smiling. Baby-gran is asleep in her arms, wearing one of those white night dress things they put on babies when they get christened.
‘Gwen was a beautiful baby,’ Pearl says. But I can’t really make out any features. ‘We take the picture two days after the christening. The priest wouldn’t let we take it the day. Put she back in the christening dress.’
On the other side is another single pic. In that one Ruby is in some kind of flowery dress and Gran is about six or seven, standing next to her in a funny white dress with wide skirts. Her hair is in two three plaits. They’re outside a church. Gran must’ve been about six. She’s smiling, but once again Ruby isn’t. I don’t think I’ve seen one with her smiling.
‘Gwen in church.’ Pearl says. ‘The dress was lemon yellow. I make it me-self. Used to sew back then. I remember that day good. Sun was hot. Neville and he bride was there.’
I look hard at the pic. Ruby was very good-looking; the cast of the sun kind of highlighted her cheekbones and the line of her jaw. She could’ve been like a famous singer today, or an actor. In the background I make out Pearl; barely visible in the shade of the church eve. She has on a head-tie and a patterned shrawl and long white skirts. The picture is so faded, I have to bend closer to see her properly. She’s not smiling either.
‘That’s you in the back,’ I say. Pearl makes a small grunt of agreement. I guess adults didn’t smile in pics in those days.
The next few pages only have a couple pics. They’re of Gran in London. You can tell by the terraced houses behind her. And it looks cold in the picture. Gran looks about twenty. Young and happy. And there’s a postcard with London Bridge and one of Buckingham Palace. In one pic, Gran’s wearing a light coloured woollen coat, dark pill-box hat with a mesh kind of thing on it, and white gloves. Can you believe it? Gran was well stylish. She looks like she was feeling very modern. There’s one pic, not stuck into the book. It’s loose and stuck in the crease of the book. I pull it out and it’s of Gran with mum’s dad, Winston. I don’t know him. He died, like, just after the war or something. and I’ve only ever seen one other pic of him, like, years ago, so I really look hard. He’s, like, mixed race, with short reddish hair and kind of, thick eyebrows. I can see some of mum in his face, the cheekbones and the nose, maybe. I’m surprised Aunty Pearl has a picture of him. As far as I’m aware he wasn’t around long enough to even be talked about. Mum and Gran never talk about him. And he’s not in any of the albums they keep out. Looking at him, I wonder, like, what was he really like? What did happen to him, you know? I think he was from St Lucia, but I’m not sure.
The album isn’t complete and the last few pages that have any pics are some faded techni-colour looking prints of Gran and mum, looking very seventies. And then to close off, there are two baby pics of me. And I was soo cute.
By now, Aunty Pearl has brought out food. Right? Exactly. So I sit at the antique table while with unsteady hands she fills my bowl with a, like, fish soup. The smell is rich and fishy. I don’t like fish but I smile and thank her. I’m a good girl. Pearl sits opposite me and spills soup into her own bowl. I notice a shiny, silver, like, fish head, complete with eyes, fall into her plate. For real, a whole fish head.
‘Is fresh king-fish from the market,’ she says.
Luckily there’s bread, so I break a piece and dip it in the soup. I imagine a few hearty bites and I can say how delicious it is and make my escape. The sun is starting to set. The shadows stretch quietly out from the corners of the room. The clink of spoon on porcelain and the steady slurp of Pearl eating, only seems to accentuate the silence around us. A dog barks somewhere down the hill and soon after, a rooster crows. It’s like really country here. I think of getting back to the hotel. What has Simon done all day? I’m, like, itching to message him, by now, but I know there’s no wifi in this house. I’ll talk to him when I get back. I manage more than half the thick broth and say how lovely it is and put down my spoon.
‘You want more?’ Pearl asks.
‘No, thank you,’ I say. ‘It was lovely. But, you know, I need to get back. Simon must be wondering, like, where is she?’
‘Of course,’ Pearl answers. ‘Have a car picking you up?’
‘No, no. I’ll just get a taxi in town.’
‘Is a long walk in the dark,’ she says and gets to her feet. ‘specially by yuhself.’
I do a little polite laugh of disagreement. ‘No,’ I say, as she moves to the far wall and puts on the overhead light. The single bulb glows yellow. ‘It’s Ok. I’ll be fine.’
‘You could always just stay here tonight and get the taxi in the morning.’
I’m from Tottenham, right? I walk London streets at all hours, one, two in the morning. I’m not worried about a short walk to the main road. ‘I can’t put you out like that,’ I say. ‘It’s not a big deal for me.’
‘Mmm,’ Pearl mutters. ‘Vallot road not so easy at night. Don’t want nothing happen to you.’
‘No, no, no,’ I say and stand up. ‘I’ll be fine.
Poor old lady. She must want the company. From what mum says, she must be at least ninety-six. But I’m not staying in this creaky old house when I have a hotel room waiting for me. ‘Thank you, Aunty Pearl,’ I say. ‘It’ll be alright.’
Pearl sighs and moves to the arm chair by the window and lowers herself into it. I can see the sky is now a dark grey behind her . She shifts her weight and the old wooden chair cricks and cracks.
‘The hip does pain sometime,’ she says. ‘Pass me one of the cushion from the couch.’
A take one of the stiff little cushions from the settee and she pushes it behind her back. ‘Vallot road did always have a reputation,’ she says. ‘Was cause ah the silk-cotton tree used to be on the corner. Is only a few years now, they chop it down. But come night, people does still see all kind’a thing where the tree use to be.’
Seeing things? Is she serious? I thought she was talking bout muggers or rapists, but things under a tree? For real. And she’s just gazing out the window, like, just staring out the window, not saying nothing. For a minute I think she’s fallen asleep. She is old.
‘Indra used to live up the hill. She move now. But at the time was she and Gopal and they six children use to live up the hill. And was Ravi, she big son, find the trouble.’
I realise she’s going to be talking for, like, a while, so I sit back down. Here we go, right.
Pearl carries on. ‘He get side-track playing cricket in the Savanah, eh. Used to go Belmont Boys them days. He should’a go home long time, cause was a school night, but by time he say, I going man, sun done set and it dark. The street light wasn’t working that night. It does always go out and Telco tired fix it. Lucky for Ravi was moonlight, so he could see the road. But wasn’t so simple.’
‘As he walking he start to feel like something behind him. So, he look back and he see, this shadow thing, moving in the dark. He start walking fast, but he keep looking back, eh. And the shadow follow him. And it getting closer. He walking fast, and looking back, looking back, eh, and he say the shadow still following, but like it take shape. It stretch up tall, tall, and it look like a man, but it don’t have no head. Ravi own words, – no head. Just two yellow eye glowing; floating where the head should be. When Ravi see dat, well he start to run. But, as he running, he hearing it moving in the bush, coming for him. He frighten bad, and he know he house too far. The jumbie go hole him if he can’t get off the road. ‘
I’m, like, huh? She’s serious? But I don’t say anything, I just let her talk.
‘Ravi almost to my house by then, eh,’ Pearl says. ‘So he make like to come up here. But he woulda have to come up the track to the house and the jumbie standing in the bush, right by the track.’
‘I remember I look out the front window and Ravi standing at the bottom of the track and I see the jumbie me-self. And, no lie, the shadow start stretch over the track. Stretch til like it straddling the track. One foot, one side, the other foot the other side. Only way for Ravi to get to the house is to run under the long, long jumbie legs. And he ain doing dat. Everybody know if you pass under jumbie legs it go crush you head like a overripe breadfruit. I come out the house and stand on the porch. I too ole to do much. – Jumbie be gone! – I call out. Me heart beating hard in me chest, eh, but I can’t leave the little boy so. Jumbie be gone! – I shout again. But it just standing there. Lucky for we, same time Winston, who did live down the hill on the Saddle road, come riding up on he motorbike, and as he bend the corner and he headlight flash over the track the jumbie just shift and gone.’
I don’t know what to say at all now. I’m still like, Huh?!!
‘Eh, eh,’ Pearl says. ‘I see the mango tree shake, like something in it. The same mango tree you see by the croton bush. I see the branch shaking. And then it still. Jumbie gone. Just gone.’
‘Quick, quick I go down the track and same time Winston come off he bike. – You see dat, Miss Pearl? You see dat? – he shout. – I see it! I see it! –
‘We shouting but Ravi, he just standing there. He ain saying nothing, eh. Just standing there, bazodee. Winston gone and get he mother, and she take him home, but the boy didn’t talk for two months good. Mute. Not a word from he mouth, eh. He mother say he was always having bad dream after that, wake up screaming in the night.’
Pearl looks over to me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. I mean, like, wow, right. What can I say? I laugh. But Pearl doesn’t laugh. She looks out of the window again and its dark out there.
I pick up my bowl. ‘Let me put these in the kitchen,’ I say. I take up her bowl as well. ‘But I have to go aunty. ’
‘Of course, of course.’
‘I’m sure I’ll be alright ,’ I say. ‘It’s only seven-thirty.’
I take my bowl and hers to the kitchen. It’s a small room with a back door and a window over the wide sink. It’s gloomy. I glance out the window, and I have to say it is kind of very dark outside. But seven-thirty is still early by any standard.
As I walk back to the living-room, a gust of wind blows through the house and the net curtain behind Pearl’s head waves the light around. Just for a minute she looks unreal, I mean, like a skeleton face in the crazy shadows. It makes my heart skip a beat for a moment.
‘Rain,’ Pearl says. And rain begins to fall. Big, heavy drops, that sound like someone is throwing gravel onto the galvanized roof.
‘Rain,’ Pearl repeats.
I can’t believe it. Rain. The only thing I’m thinking is, ‘I’m not staying here, I’m not staying here.’ I go to the front door and open it and the rain’s coming down hard. And it’s dark, very dark, except for the light spilling out of the house. It glistens on the deep red leaves of the croton hedge and makes shadows that roll in the dark.
So now I’m like, on a sleep over. I tried to call the hotel on Pearl’s landline, one of those old plastic things you have to press the buttons while you hold it to your ear, but it just kept ringing, no answer. Now, I’m in a small, pale blue bedroom, getting ready for bed. Aunty Pearl has leant me a night dress. A, like, pale yellow thing with small white flowers on it. It’s real old, the material’s thin and it smells kind of musty. I’m not putting it on. It’s probably aunty Pearl’s. I take off my skirt and vest and lie down on the lumpy mattress in my underwear. The bed-frame is old and metal and there are springs that creak every time I move, lovely. The room’s stuffy, I don’t know how I’m gonna survive the night. Aunty Pearl suggested I don’t open the windows – mosquitoes, and Bossiere ain’t safe like before. So the window remains shut. There’s a green mosquito coil in a corner by the chest of drawers and the kind of, like, citronella-ish smell hangs in the heat, but I don’t think it’s doing anything, cause, like, I can see at least one mosquito circling the room, yeah? I’ll be itching all night and wake up with loads of bites and asthma. Nah, I mean, like, actual asthma. Pearl knocks and I pull the covering sheet over me.
‘Yes,’ I say.
She pushes her bony face past the open door and nods.
‘Eh,’ she says, coming in and putting a towel on the bed. ‘The shower at the end of the corridor.’
‘Thank you Aunty Pearl,’ I say.
‘I going in bed now. You could watch the TV if you want, and just help you-self in the kitchen.’
‘I will, thank you.’
She pauses and stares at me hard. Her eyes look small and the wrinkles on her face look more pronounced than earlier. She must be tired. She keeps looking at me though, and just as I’m about to ask her, like, what – she nods. ‘You so much like Ruby,’ she says and goes out, pulling the door closed.
I pull out my phone. Simon must be really worried about me by now. I know it’ll cost, like, £6 to make the call cause O2 has already sent a pop-up message. How they do that when there’s no internet I don’t know. After a few rings Simon’s phone goes to voice mail. I feel like an empty balloon, I’m like really down. I want to cry. I’m thinking to myself, like, why, and my eyes do water. Asshole. Speaking with him would have made this easier. We could’ve talked till I fell asleep. In school they used to say I was a chatterbox. I can still talk on the phone for hours. Me and Simon could’ve laughed about aunty Pearl’s story and I could’ve told him how old everything here is. Where does he think I am, anyway, really? The call times out, so I call him again. Still no answer. Shithead. I leave a message. I call him an asshole and tell him I’ll see him tomorrow. He’s probably sitting in the bar getting drunk. Great for him, and I’m like, completely stuck here till morning, stifling to death. And my phone’ll be out of charge soon. I make a sneering face and take a selfie. When I get back to the hotel I’m gonna post it with a message about what a selfish ass Simon is. What am I supposed to do now, right. I get off the bed and switch off the light. It’s dark. I decide to watch some videos before I fall asleep. If it’s gonna die. It’s gonna die, hopefully I’ll be asleep by then. But of course, I’m not connected. Of course. I put on an old playlist and play some Mario.
I open my eyes. I’m wide awake. Feels like I heard something, but I’m not sure what. You know when you wake up and you don’t know where you are for a minute? I was like that, just for a few seconds, but the shape of the old chest of drawers opposite the bed and the buzz of a mosquito in my ear reminds me. Shit. I was really, really hoping to sleep through the whole night. I lie there not moving, wondering why I’ve woken up. The room is dark but a silver, like, stream of moonlight lifts it enough that I can make out the wardrobe in the corner and the picture of Jesus on the wall. Everything feels really quiet, except for the crick-crick-crick sound of those creepy little frogs outside. No wonder I woke up. They’re so loud. I think maybe I should go to the bathroom, but I really don’t want to get out of bed. The silence and the chirping and the deadness of the night makes me not want to move at all, as if I’ll attract attention. But from what, right?
I lie there. It’s hot and it’s stuffy. I should be in an air-conditioned hotel room, with Wi-Fi. Suddenly there’s a, like, shift in the light. A shadow. It moves past the window, long and slow, making everything dark for a moment before it moves. And then I hear this, like, awful sound. A kind of bear sound, or what I think a bear sound might be like. ‘Whooah! Whooah!’ Not loud, but there, you know. My heart stops. I don’t move a muscle. The sound comes again, deep, kind of throaty, ‘whooah, whooah, whooah’. It’s proper weird, I never heard anything like that before. And it sounds close, like right outside the window. What kind of bears do they have in Trinidad? I’m lying there listening hard. Maybe it’s moving on. Then it comes again, ‘whooah, whooah, whooah.’ The tree frogs crick-crick-crick. Leaves rustle. I’m wishing I was somewhere else. This old house is freaking me out. I listen, listen. My heart’s racing. Then I hear this kind of sound, like a baby crying or something. Is the bear after the baby? What’s a baby doing outside at this time? The crying gets closer. I’m super freaked now. What the hell!
I sit up, not sure what to do. The crying is outside, so I don’t want to go outside. But what if it is a child? What if? The crying continues. The kid’s in pain, if it’s a kid. I want to check but I don’t want to move. The noise is right outside my window now. I have to at least look. I get out of bed and tip-toe to the window. It’s dark but I can see the shape of trees and bushes and maybe a rooftop. But under one tree there’s a different shape. A kind of thick shadow. Not a bush or a tree. It looks like a man, like, tall and thin, with a top hat and a long, like, jacket or coat or something. I kind of jump, cold and hot and cold again. My heart is trying to bust out of my chest. I want to scream, but I’m frozen. It can’t be true. I look hard, trying to make sure I’m seeing right, but the harder I look, like, the shadow seems to melt into the darkness around it and I realise I’m looking out at nothing. Relief. It’s just my imagination. I grab my phone from the bed and flip on the torch. It lights up the darkness outside but it also casts a ghostly reflection of me, back at me. I hear the crying, kind of mewing, again and I see a cat, like, tip-toeing along the back fence. It’s a cat. The baby crying is a cat, and the scraeny cat’s like, peering at me, like I’m the freaky one. It mews again. The crying baby. Hah, I’m an idiot. I’m sweating, but I’m really glad not to have to go out there. I’m like really relieved to be a fool. I watch the cat flick it’s tail and jump and the torch on my phone winks out. A mosquito bites me on my leg. Now I just wish I was home; in my own bed. All the things about being in Trinidad that are no fun, crowd me, the heat, the mosquitos and moths and bugs… I go back to bed and pull the sheet around me. It’s stifling in the room, and hot and I’m sweating and it’s like I feel better but I can’t shut my ears off. The trees rustle, tree frogs crick-crick-crick, something rattles outside, the old house creaks.
I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I open my eyes and it’s morning. I’m like, yah! I wrap the towel round me, slip on my sandals and head for the bathroom. I’m not sure what the time is, cause my phone’s dead, of course, but it feels early. I walk along the short corridor. I was half-expecting Pearl to be up already but it seems to be just me. The sun isn’t heat things up yet, so the night’s cool is, like, still in the corridor. The vinyl squelches under my steps and floorboard creak. I remember my panic last night and have to laugh at myself. I mean, like, huh? I was really letting the sleep over get to me. I blame Simon. He should’ve returned my call.
I step into the small bathroom. It has an old sink and a shower with a bright green shower curtain. I use the toilet and turn on the shower. The pressure is low at first, but then it comes shooting out, cold and stinging. My shower doesn’t take long, believe. On the wooden shelf above the sink is some toothpaste so I squeeze a little on my finger and rub it into my teeth. I can barely see myself in the old mirror, it’s all blotchy and scarred. My hair’s everywhere and I comb it down with my fingers. Not much point in this humidity. I’ve had to hot comb it two or three times a day to keep it straight since I got here. Normally I like it sleek and straight, even if it sticks out a bit at the ends. Here I’ve got to get used to frizz and curls. I hear footsteps in the house and figure Pearl must be up. I reckon, if I’m quick I can leave before she guilts me into staying for breakfast. I know, it sounds bad, but I’m just, like, thinking, I don’t want to waste another day here. I mean, there’s sand and sea out there, and air-conditioning and duty-free. I go down the hall expecting to see her as I go past the living room, but that’s not where the footsteps were coming from, cause she’s not there. I slip into my room and pull on my clothes and grab my bag and my phone and the smell of something warm and baking drifts into the room. She’s definitely in the kitchen. And it smells like she’s started breakfast already. Ok, if she’s started breakfast already I’ll stay for that. But then, I’m out of here.
I come out of my room and pass through the living room to the kitchen. It’s through a doorway and down one step. I step down and I’m expecting Pearl, but it’s not her. I stop. It’s someone else, not Pearl. I’m like, huh? It’s a youngish woman, dark skinned with short hair and really bright, black eyes.
‘Good morning,’ I say.
She turns from the sink. She’s about my height and size. She’s wearing a flowered apron over a red t-shirt and some tight blue jeans. ‘Morning,’ she says. ‘I’m Alison, Miss Pearl helper.’
‘Oh, hi. I’m Candice, her niece.’
‘Yes, she did say to expect you. She done gone already. She have business in the market this morning.’
I’m like, ok, well…
‘I just putting out the saltfish,’ Alison says and I can see she’s taking some cling-film off a bowl. ‘The coconut bake on the table already.’
I turn and see there’s a place mat set out and a kind of basket with wedges of coconut bake in it and mug with tea or coffee next to a plate.
‘Oh, thank you,’ I say and take my seat.
‘Miss Pearl say, for you to have some breakfast cause she go take a time.’
Alison sets the bowl of saltfish on the table next to the coconut bake and puts a bowl of sugar and a tub of margarine.
‘You eating too?’ I ask, but she shakes her head. ‘I done have breakfast already.’
She goes back to the sink, wipes down the counter, hangs the rag to dry and takes the mop from the corner. ‘I in the front room,’ she says.
I don’t waste any time. The smell of those bakes is, like, torture. My stomach’s grumbling and my mouth’s watering. Mum always says I’m too greedy, but I don’t care. I cut open one of the wedges and it’s like, steam drifts into my face. I spread some margarine on one side and it melts into the soft crumb, and over the specks and chunks of coconut buried in the dough. I take a bite and like, for real, it’s so nice; light and soft and slightly sweet with a soft kind of crunch cause of the coconut chunks. I spread saltfish onto the bake and take another bite. The salt plays with the sweet on my tongue and I can taste the onions and chives and celery and lime. I mean, like, it’s really, really good. And I’m chomping away and sipping coffee, not that great, kind of watery, but I don’t care cause the bake and saltfish is so nice. And then Alison comes back into the room and replaces the mop.
‘Miss Pearl say, she know you have to go back hotel this morning, so if she don’t see you before you go, she have something for you still. Look it there on the counter, in the shopping bag.’
I turn round and it’s a new canvas shopping bag with handles.
‘Thank you,’ I say and Alison goes out the back door into the yard.
I take a last bite of salt fish and get up to have a look. I notice Alison hanging sheets on a line. It’s suspended between the tree that must be right outside my bedroom window and the post of the fence. I look inside the bag. There’s a bottle of white rum without a label, a small plastic bottle of reddish brown pepper sauce and some Christmas cake wrapped in clingfilm. There’s also a small freezer bag with some herbs and spices. Must be for mum.