Apart from the intermittent, discordant mating calls from our neighbour’s cats, and the cacophony from the beat boxes carried by the wind from the foot of the hill, where dancehall aficionados congregated every Sunday night, life in the tranquil Kingston neighbourhood where I called home was quotidian.
In search of excitement, my school friends and I – a clique of four book worms, gratuitously labeled “snobs r us” by our rivals, the ‘CFM’ girls – would venture on the Constant Spring bus. Our circuitous journey would halt at a destination that was the verdict of a dozen sessions of “inni minni myni mos.”
On some occasions, we stood for hours at the bus stop and were allowed onto the vehicle exclusively at the behest of the passenger-gatekeepers, better known as conductors.
After a tiresome Friday rendezvous from Constant Spring to Halfway Tree, to Tom Redcam Library, to Ligunea, to New Kingston, and then back to Halfway Tree we scurried to the bus stop to escape a sudden downpour, attendant with a blanket of charcoal clouds my grandfather, a self appointed meteorologist, designated the ‘flood out’ clouds. About ten buses, ten waterlogged road drains, and I am certain ten hours later, we stood in the same spot; drenched, mosquito fodder, cold, and tearful.
“Back up schoolas… no soda bakkle fare!” warned the conductors.
I figured it was established knowledge among conductors on the number 35 route that students traded in their sugar bun and cheese from time to time, for a chicken saladwich at the Ligunea Deli, and were therefore forced to swap the D&G soft drink empties for cash. By bizarre coincidence, the exact sum required to purchase a spot, smoldered between at least two adults, in noisome, recycled air, on an Encava bus that appeared to be fifteen years past it obsolescence.
Fun it was but a bus ride was often traumatic.
By the time I disembarked, three badges may have mysteriously disappeared from my tunic. After six new pins, I stopped counting the number of times I replaced my Debating Society President badge. Even worse, passengers seemed to enter into a non-existent contract with bus drivers and their bouncers that not only indemnified the hosts of the tumultuous trip, but exhibited a callous disregard for the possessions of the passengers. At the end of one ride I was no longer the proud owner of a pink, patent leather shrapnel purse my mother gave me for my birthday. On another trip, a ‘pardner draw’ I collected minutes before I entered onto the bus went missing. I hid the money in three brown NCB envelopes, in a secret compartment in my trapper keeper clutched to my chest for the entire eight minute ride. Even with the huge archive of Nancy Drew stratagem filed on my hard drive at the expense of trigonometry formulas, to this day, I cannot come to terms with the slit in the folder from which Houdini’s protégé lifted the cash.
I often witnessed pick-pocket sidekicks in the guise of conductors conspiring with their henchmen to shake down students while in transit. Raising an alarm was even more dangerous. Alerting the victim of a lift could necessitate a school transfer out of fear of reprisal and turpitude at the hands of the criminal on whom the whistle was blown.
Safer entertainment surfaced once beat the books season ended. School fetes were not frequent enough to satiate our appetites for amusement, but slaked our thirst to capacity the morning after the party. Here is when the portals to a freshly greased gossip machinery were opened. Mileage from the event’s tattletales sometimes lasted for weeks, each mimetic natter more salacious than the first.
Everyone knew the rules. Debating matches belonged to us. Barbeques were governed by the ‘braces posse,’ none of who actually needed cosmetic adjustments, at least not on their mouths. And fetes, charged with testosterone-driven guests, aka the St. Georges Boys, were the candy stores for the ‘CFM’ chicks. Rumours had it, the sextuplets, headed by Lisa Freysing – really, there were six of them – shared the same dressmaker, who just happened to be cursed with an affliction with the case of the ‘batty-rider’ measurement syndrome.
“Yuh nuh hear seh hole-in-di-wall Lisa rent a tile last night wid Zaine Lawson… and outa nowhere, Yendi Dewdney chuck har, for she nuh want no bun widout cheese.”
By lunch time, Mikaela Stona, who would be my pick for president of the entrepreneur club if we had one, stapled the real story on the roster board for five dollars per two minute view. And for double the fee, friends and associates of Yendi, who were determined to declare Lisa persona non grata, at the Saturday lyme at New Kingston Shopping Centre, would have their own copies and post them at vantage locations for all to see.
“What a prekkeh!”
Big fetes were once a year and the currency of the blather they yielded eventually aged. Satellite dish or not, we were bored to insanity and champed at the bit for summer with granny.
I do not know if this was one of the trappings of summer, but hers is a community where a pantomime was always playing.
The community market was my granny’s backyard. Vendors seemed to have far less need for sleep than the average person, and even less care that they usurped the cock’s position at five in the morning when preparing their daily fare. Five hours later, the stalls buzzed with a riot of risible riposte, my affirmation peddlers, by virtue of their profession, were inherent comedians. “Hi, lady…it look like yuh have diabetes an feeling up mi tomato dem give yuh insulin.”
“Young man, yuh have asbestos pon you behind…yuh don’t see dat di bench in di sun-hot?”
I soon discovered an even more hilarious show. The community tyrants, Nella and Sita, entertained every Saturday, religiously, around the same time, ten-ish, with a lyrical face-off seated in a feud dated back to their youth. The rift between the neighbours, now in their fifties, widened as generations passed. They clashed about a million times over forty years, about a million trivialities. From whose side of the zinc fence had more dents to who is responsible for cleaning the mess from the acacia tree with branches extending over both yards.
When the decibel-defying voices of the warring women revved up, we heard every word from granny’s house, which was just under a mile from the scene of the battle. My cousins and I were not satisfied bending our ears to capture the fight. The gesticulations and physiognomy that accompanied the creative, pejorative prose exchanged between the women called for ring-side spectatorship.
On this particular Saturday, we were late for the fracas. Our roster changed without notice. Despite our efforts to supplicate before granny’s court with evidence that we will de-scale the fish, complete the list at the corner shop, and wash the door mats once we return from the bicycle shop she would hear none of it. “Do I have eediat written on my farid?” she quipped. “Bicycle shop is nat open today.”
We divided the labour among the eight of us and were in the pillion and rider positions on the four BMX, ready to take off, when my granny ordered us back to finish breakfast.
Meals came with no whimsy. Every sitting included the catch of the day. Fresh. Never refrigerated. In instances when my grandfather took home a bounty, my granny’s faith in her preservation rub took precedence over the freezer. Once my cousin, Heidi, announced ants formed a colony on the decapitated barracuda – confirmation that it was free of mercury and other poisons produced by the fish – a marinade of sea-salt, two dozen scotch bonnets, home-made vinegar, and turmeric would soak the skin. Granny would then hang the seasoned fish on one of the three clothes lines for the sun to finish the job over the next several days.
This Saturday, breakfast was the same as every Saturday I recalled. “You always eat off the escoveitched fish and leave breadfruit on your plate?” she scolded me.
“It has no taste,” I explained.
“How you so finical…jus pick pick everyting.” She paused to think for a nano-second. I knew she wasn’t finished.
“Look at you, so maawga, you need to eat.”
Granny started a dough, and in twenty minutes flat, fried dumplings replaced the carbohydrate for which I had absolutely no liking.
My cousins were already annoyed that the menu was altered to accommodate my palate. And showed it. If looks could kill, Kelly-Ann would still be serving a level one sentence at the general penitentiary. To slap pepper into her wound, my granny summoned me to grate a block of chocolate until it was friable enough to make my favourite breakfast beverage. Kelly-Ann was livid.
I loved hot chocolate but the decadent drink failed to reciprocate this regard. Especially the pure, unprocessed variety my granny served, chocolate tea boasted a silky and addictive layer of unadulterated sweetness we called the “skim.” While the skim was at tolerable temperature, it also served as a natural insulator that trapped the heat in the brew beneath. Each time I grabbed the two litre enamel mug my granny gave me, I would forget this information.
My mug, once white, slowly transformed into a polka dot from countless dents and creases sustained from food fights. Brimming with the brew of chocolate, coconut milk, molasses and a hint of salt the beverage invited me to dive in. Tongue first, I accepted the invitation. My tasting tool has not forgiven me for this injudicious move.
It became obvious my attempt to jump out of my skin was unsuccessful as soon as the content of the mug splattered over my left thigh, and delivered burns that extirpated fits of screams.
Granny was in the bathroom but could have been a mile away. It made no difference. She was gifted with an uncanny telepathy that identified the source of our pain in an instant.
“Lief, hurry, go an cut two stalk of di single bible.” Lief returned with the aloe-vera in a flash and slapped it onto the inferno that was now a part of my skin.
Maybe the therapeutic plant worked at lightening speed or maybe Kelly-Ann’s glare intimidated me enough. Half hour later, my tears were no more and I was ready to join the gang for the day’s showdown.
With the remedy still strapped to the injured area, I kept pace with my cousins, all the way to the long awaited melee. We dropped our bicycles as though we were choreographed.
A thick audience blocked our view. Passers-by, most on their way to the market, suddenly cared no more about catching first dibs at the firmer, feel-up free tomatoes. As though they occupied spots for which we paid premium subscription, we carted people out of our way and wormed through gaps in the growing crowd. We simply stood before those too engrossed in the scuffle to pay attention to our pokes.
The theme of the round we caught was the children of the contenders.
‘Nella, you tink seh Apple can walk in Rita shoes?”
“But Sita, why my tall, tall daata would want to walk in Rita dwarf shoes?”
Between discursive persiflage the crowd burst into boisterous laughter. The peanut gallery supporting the chicken that won round eleven laughed louder than the penny section. The hen fight continued for another two hours.
“Nella, is time yuh tek a look at Sasha…she fayva one foot a socks.”
“Go weh Sita, Carol a di livin Miss Havisham.”
Cool, she reads Dickens, I thought. Instantly, I was one of her cheerleaders.
The definitive and climatic, final blow was thrown.
“Sita, yuh don’t si dat Carol look like when donkey enter parade wid him head down.”
Hordes of entertainment hungry spectators, including our gang of eight, lingered in the front row, re-enacting the brawl that unfolded only minutes before.
“What a someting,” remarked one spectator, whose account of the argument placed her on Nella’s side. Before long, the crowd was divided, bantering about who actually won the match. Another squabble about the starring squabble ensued. I was thinking how asinine that was when a familiar force gripped my nape.
“What are you doing out here?” asked the stentorian voice. My granny was furious.
Raquel is a Communications Consultant/Writer living in Toronto