“Let this be a lesson to everyone in this class,” he said after the caning, wiping the sweat from his top lip with the back of his hand.
“If you take part in dangerous sports like swimming in the Back Dam trenches, that (and here he pointed at the two boys who were still making hissing sounds with their teeth and rubbing their bottoms with the palms of their hands) is what you’re asking for.”
The boys had a very organised way of getting out of school to go swimming. They planned it all the day before, when one of the gang was told to bring a blob of Vaseline wrapped up in a bit of old newspaper.
Sometimes in the midst of classes Mr. Williams would say, “Alright! Everyone down tools. Time for spot-checking and convicts-caking.”
I know that the last two words meant that he was going to seize their stuff and bin them, but I don’t know why he called it ‘convicts-caking.’ It made me think of our land lady and her convict son.
When Mr. Williams found bits of stowed-away Vaseline in the boys’ bags he made a big deal out of holding them as high above the bin as he could, then dropping them with a dull ‘thud’ into the black galvanised rubbish bucket.
I know you’re probably wondering what the Vaseline was for in the first place. Well it is like this; the trenches are totally muddy, you see, and going for a swim in them, meant that when you finally surfaced, you’d be as grey as . . . as a . . . what’s the greyest thing you can think of? Well, as grey as that thing. As you dry off in the heat, you become greyer and greyer and soon everyone and their neighbour knows you went swimming (including your parents when you get home in the afternoon).
So to find a way round this grey, dead giveaway, the boys took off all their clothes, for the trench-bath. Once the swim was over, they got dressed again, and rubbed the Vaseline on the bits of exposed skin like their legs under their shorts, arms, faces, and so on. Since Mr. Williams began to convicts-cake their Vaseline, they had to change tactics, and found that spit worked just as well, if not better than the Vaseline.
After that magical discovery, they spat on their skin, in nice little splotches then rubbed it all in. ‘Pah,’ rub in; ‘pah,’ rub in.
A grey spot there, not to worry -
‘Pah,’ rub in; ‘pah,’ rub in.
Now you would hardly see the grey at all. The reason I am telling you all this is because something really shocking, happened at my school . . .
“. . . For the power and the glory
Forever and ever,
Amen,” we all said for the second time.
“Hands up, in, out, down. Sit down,” Mr. Williams said as we went through the motions.
“Yes sir,” we all replied as we sat down. The girls, as always, neatly tucking our skirts under our bottoms and over our knees – just like we were taught.
There was a sort of rumble in the classroom as we took our seats on the scrubbed wooden benches. The kisskadees were singing outside in the hot, damp air, “Kiss, kiss, kiss-ka-dee” went their song. One of them landed on the window-less window sill for a moment, saw forty eyes staring at its wet, brown and yellow feathers and quickly flew away.
“Them kiss-ka-dees is good bird meat,” my uncle Christopher had said to me once, when I was very little.
“But they so small,” I’d said. “How d’you get any meat under them feathers?”
“Ahh . . .” he had said, but never answered my question until some time later when he had managed to catch a blue-sakie (another tiny bird) and roasted it on a spit. He didn’t have to use his sling-shot that time, all he did was put some old chewing gum out in the sun, on the fence, with a bit of bird seed next to it. Soon enough the bird came by to eat the seeds, and bingo!
“See?” he asked, when he’d given me a taste of the tiny, charred leg. “They got meat, mon. Ah tell you they got meat.”
Usually, Mr. Williams would take the afternoon register straight away but he didn’t today. He told us that Errol, who was absent from school yesterday, didn’t get home at all last night. Mr. Williams said that he was going to call each of us, one by one, and that we should not be afraid to tell him if we knew anything about Errol, and why he disappeared.
Mr. Williams was the only grown up I wasn’t afraid of.
He was really nice, and is a photographer as well. He’s the person who took my photograph for the Common Entrance Exam form we all had to fill in. I had to go to his house after school one day, he made Jan bring me to their front room, she helped set up the stuff, and then he took my picture - just like that.
He lives in Stanleytown as well, and has a powerful motorbike. He brings Jan and Geff to school on it every day. Jan sits in the middle and Geff on the end, so they both have to hold on for dear life.
The only thing I knew about Errol was that he lived in Stanleytown and liked to run away from school to swim. I really couldn’t help at all.
* * *
“That’s the way, uh huh, uh huh
I like it, uh huh, uh huh”
KC and the Sunshine Band were rocking away on the radio when I walked in today,
“…That’s the way uh huh, uh huh
I like it uh huh, uh huh.”
Theresa was cooking Mammy’s vegetables.
“They not really vegetables,” Theresa had said to me some time back.
“Is things like bora, ochra, and pumpkin that are vegetables. Cassavas, eddoes, sweet potatoes and plantains are actually called ground provisions.”
Whatever they were, they gave Mammy a lot of satisfaction because she ate them all the time. Theresa had to boil them in a large pot, every two days, Mammy would then dip into this store, all week long. As long as she had money, she had her store of ‘vegetables.’
I was really curious to find out what pleasure Mammy obviously got from these provisions, so one day I slurped up a large serving spoon of the water they were boiled in, when she was out of the kitchen. I was surprised to find - and this was only when it was half way down – that all it tasted of was salt. I gulped and retched a bit, but by then it was too late to bring anything up.
Mammy always says that she wishes that Shop Lady would sell ‘vegetables’ and not just groceries, so that she can get them on credit when we run out of money.
“Ah bought a cane today,” Mammy announced to the room, while we were having dinner.
“Why?” Theresa asked, but I knew that she already knew why.
Mammy put another spoonful of the boulanger and eddoes into her mouth, the tip of her nose pointed downwards into the spoon, as if it was set to sniff the world around her with a permanent dislike. The wide sides flared out dangerously and I wondered for a moment if she’d ever inhaled food instead of swallowing it.
“For that one, na,” Mammy answered. “From now on, when she tempt me, she gon be in for a good caning.”
Theresa did one of her sighs, and I felt my stomach turn over, then knot. That was the end of my dinner. My stomach had made up its mind that it was going to take no more food.
“The cane better for beating she than the wood anyway, because it stings for a long time. Woods only hurt, and then they cool off. Not canes,” Mammy shook her head, smiled and wagged her forefinger.
“Ah been watching them at the market for a long time, and hoping for enough money to afford one for ages. They say that if you know how to hit with it, it can really make a person dance.”
Mammy got up, took the cane out from behind the front door, and proudly showed it to us. She whacked the air with it and it made a horrible swishing sound. This is the same type of thing they use in school. The boys get whacked two lashes on their bottoms and the girls, one in each hand. I don’t know what it feels like, but I know it hurts like hell. That’s why Mr. Williams doesn’t give more than two licks.
Inside my belly, I knew that Mammy was going to give me more than two licks. For the first time since I was about seven, my stomach felt just like it did when I used to vomit every day after breakfast. Whenever I brought up any food, more was brought out and put on my plate. The more I tried to keep down the vomit, the more the nervousment overtook me.
My chest drummed, my throat locked and my stomach used to turn itself upside down. Nothing I did, would allow any more of the food inside my mouth, to go pass my neck.
Mammy used to take up her place standing behind my chair at breakfast time.
Wood in hand.
“Chew faster. I got things to do!”
I used to try passing the heavy, flowery bakes from one side of my mouth to the other, but this only made it worse, because it got all splattery and yucky.
My throat made this sound, then the food splashed out of me and unto the floor.
Then we started all over again . . .
Sometimes I ‘ate’ and vomited twice before I went to school; every morning of every day.
Every morning of every day, yes, every morning of every day.
Mammy said that I was stubborn, but that’s one thing I know she’s not right about.
What’s strange, is that as I get bigger, I find more and more things she’s not right about. She thinks I am really ugly, but my friends think I am nice. They think my long neck and stupid cheeks aren’t so bad. Could it be that I am not stupid either?
Please God, please make it so that I’m not stupid.
* * *
Three days later, Errol was found. Not good news though, he was found floating in the Back Dam trench naked, with lots of his soft bits like his ears and stuff, eaten off by crabs. What was worse was that two boys from the other fourth year went swimming with him.
The three of them were trying to see who could make the biggest splash, it was Errol’s turn to plunge in, he made a giant splash, only, he didn’t come up again. When the two other boys realised that he wasn’t going to, they jumped out of the water, got dressed and went back to school. They kept quiet when their teacher asked if anyone knew anything, because they were scared.
We were told that Errol dived in right on top of a big boulder, hidden by the muddy water in the trench. They told us that he was knocked unconscious when his head hit the boulder, which is why he couldn’t swim back up. At his funeral, held at his parents’ bottom house, his Mummy passed his baby sister over his coffin. Marla said this was so his spirit could always take care of her.
Errol’s two friends, the boys who went swimming with him, held on to each other and wept loudly. There were other friends from his class, looking on and wiping their eyes. Old people with black head ties wailed, hanging on to the side of the dark brown, wooden coffin. People were stamping loudly upstairs in the house, dust fell unto us downstairs and unto the lapel of Errol’s brand new suit.
His face looked like old concrete – grey, dead and crumpling. His nose and ears and parts of his cheeks looked almost plastic. I wondered for a moment if they were plastic. Did they fix them to cover up where the crabs had eaten him?