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Any Card Can Play


She watched him put his boxes into his car. Walk back to the door, put the keys in her hand, get in the car, reverse, drive away. No goodbye. But no threats either. She no longer lived with anyone. Thank you, Jesus.

She locked the door and went to root up the avocado tree they had planted in the yard two or three years ago. The ground was dry and she couldn’t move it at all, she succeeded only in breaking the green trunk, but this was enough. It would die. She let the warm water in the yard pipe trickle over her smeared-with-green hands and dried her hands on a chamois cloth she kept in the car. Next door a child riding his tricycle stopped to wave goodbye. Alan. Or Adrian. She waved and drove away, through the dry-bush, baking hot roads of Portmore, across the causeway over the harbour into Kingston.

She hadn’t asked Roy where he was going to live, but she hoped she wasn’t going to see him or his friends moving around out here. Spanish Town, long since a headquarters for bad men, was, in her opinion, more Roy’s speed. Portmore was still a nice community, although this government was mashing it up by relocating people from the inner city. As soon as she got a chance to move across Kingston, nearer to the hills, somewhere like where her mother lived, she would be gone. Portmore was all right, but it was too far from the shop.

On Marcus Garvey Drive she switched on the radio. Over the weekend they had been hearing all kinds of things about who was not going to tolerate what. Who was not going to put up with this bad news budget. But the morning news shows were over and there would be music now until 10.30 when the talk shows began. That was going to be the disadvantage of Roy moving out. He worked for the government, in one of the Ministries, and he made it his business always to know the runnings. Because of that she had never bothered to listen to the news or spend any of her good cigarette money on buying a newspaper. Anything big going on, Roy would tell her.

She looked carefully at the people on the road, the men selling melons and pineapple to drivers, the pedestrians going for buses or walking out to one of the factories along Spanish Town Road. The traffic was heavy and stink, with all the diesel engines and mashed up old vehicles that were used as taxis in this part of town.

By the time she got to the shop in Liguanea that she ran with her mother, she had forgotten that anything was supposed to be happening that day. On this side of Kingston, it was overcast and cool. A normal amount of traffic was going up Hope Road towards the universities and the hillside communities.

Although it was a Monday there were already a few people waiting for her to open up. This was happening more and more, now that people didn’t have jobs to go to. They would get up and go window-shopping at the time when they used to go to work. They’d spend ten or fifteen minutes in the shop and buy nothing or just one cheap thing. Her mother didn’t like it, but to Andrea business was business, and she made bigger orders for hair bands and barrettes and scrunchies. Their cheap and small items were all displayed under glass counters so they didn’t suffer too much from thieves. Glass counters and the big ‘THOU SHALT NOT STEAL’ signs her mother had bought from one of the Christian sales organizations affiliated with her church.

At 12.30 her mother arrived to watch the shop while Andrea went for lunch. ‘You hear what happening downtown?’ her mother said loudly, and the two customers looked round and moved towards her to hear the news.

‘The people blocking roads and burning tires and running the police every time they try to clear the road.’

‘They soon bring soldier ‘pon those people, you hear? They too out of order. Is not six months since they close downtown. What we coming to when every few months people get up to mash up the place?’ The customer was of the same mind as Mumma.

Andrea slipped out and walked up the road to get a hamburger from Mother’s. She really felt like eating patties but none of the patty places had good places to sit down and relax while you ate, whereas if she ate a burger she could sit for a long time in proper icy air conditioning. Everyone eating was talking about the roadblocks. Apparently they were spreading uptown and one of the boys wiping tables said to her, ‘Miss, don’t you live in Portmore? How you going to reach back that side with all what’s going on?’. She didn’t know, was the truth.

Last time there was a situation like this, Roy had been sent home from the Ministry early. She had no car then, so he had come and picked her up from the shop, leaving her mother to close up, and they had gone home by some long, circuitous route through St Catherine, stopping only to pick up a bucket of chicken and some ice cream. Then they had watched the whole thing on TV, switching between the station that had the Prime Minister and business leaders making speeches and the station that seemed to have cameras at every fire and roadblock.

It was good TV. True, there was not too much shooting, but plenty of action. A crowd turning over a police bus downtown and burning it. Women and children running screaming at the police, while behind them the men hauled old cars and drums of rubbish to block the roads. Soldiers jumping out of trucks and racing into buildings to provide cover for the police.

Roy had been off work for three days while the government tried to decide whether to confront the protesters or give in to them. Of course they gave in. They always gave in. This was a democracy after all. Still a democracy, some kind of way.

When she got back to the shop after her lunch, her mother said Roy had called. No need to ask why, but she called him back anyway. He was stuck downtown on the wrong side of the roadblocks. He could get as far as the airport at Tinson Pen and then he could get a lift out to Portmore – if he could stay at her place just for tonight? No problem, right? From where she was, she’d have to stay by her mother. Did they know the trouble was coming uptown?

Andrea had hoped that she was not going to be taken advantage of, or intimidated by Roy any more, not even for one night. But who in Jesus’ name knew there were going to be roadblocks all over Kingston today, and here she was, the same day Roy had moved, allowing him back in the house and she would not even be there. Her mother was still fussing and the road in front of the plaza was jam-packed with cars and the pavements were crowded with people walking home. There were no buses because the bus operators wouldn’t work on days when the passengers were as likely to burn the buses as to ride in them.

‘Come Andrea, this is foolishness. Let’s close up the place and go home. Anything can happen in this here Jamaica.’ Her mother was eyeing the street people who had suddenly appeared in front of the shop. They were in the area every day – two men, one old, one young, both mad, homeless, filthy. They hung around this set of shops because people up here were often minded to buy them patties or sodas, and the shop tenants like Andrea would give them a little money not to sit down in front of their shop windows.

Andrea was sure that these men would be the first victims of any bad-minded crowd; they were so unable to understand anything. But to her mother there was scarcely anything more dangerous than these madmen she saw every day.

‘Mother, you go on. I’m going to stay a little while. I see the pharmacy and the supermarket are open still. Once you get home, lock up. I’ll be up by you by four o’clock, latest.’

As her mother left, the phone rang. Roy. ‘Andrea, I forgot that I give you back my key. How am I going to get in?’ Roy, of course, was ready to break the lock on the door and get her a new one tomorrow, but Andrea told him, sorry, he was going to have to find another friend to stay by tonight.

Out on the road the traffic suddenly thinned and across the plaza two men were pulling down heavy metal shutters over the supermarket windows. Andrea locked up. As she walked to her car, the road emptied. completely. Hers was the only car turning onto Hope Road. Looking down towards the traffic lights, she saw a small group of people walking and running up the road, all of them turning their heads from side to side, and she froze wondering what they were looking at, and then realized they were looking for material to use to block the road.

They would not find anything until they got up to the shops. In the rear-view mirror Andrea saw three uniformed security guards appear on the roof of the supermarket and take up positions behind a low parapet-like structure. They were all carrying long guns. She smiled, wondering what the guards expected to be able to do if the rioters entered the plaza. They might kill a few people but then they would never get off the roof alive.

She reversed into the plaza to avoid driving towards the demonstrators who were now nearly at the traffic lights, and drove the wrong way up Hope Road before turning off and heading to her mother’s little house in Mona. Later that evening, the television news showed that all across the island, streets and highways were blocked and on fire. There was some looting taking place in the areas where looting always took place, but otherwise there was not much violence.

These were anti-government demonstrations, and the security forces were acting as if the demonstrations were legitimate. They had to do that when protests seemed to involve hundreds of thousands of people. To control what was happening, even just in the capital, would have required US or Cuban intervention. Someone with serious soldiers. And as usual the government was hoping that the present disturbances would be over before they attracted the attention of any of Jamaica’s neighbours.

Well, this time they would be very lucky not to make the top of the news tonight in New York and Miami. Andrea’s mother knew this for a fact, because her friend Diana managed a small hotel in Ocho Rios, and told her that a couple hundred travel agents and travel writers from the US had arrived in the island over the weekend for one of the Tourist Board’s regular jamborees.

‘Come let’s call her, nuh? Find out what’s happening on the north coast.’ Andrea was bored already and they were looking at spending two or three days confined to the house. There was no cable TV at her mother’s home, only the local stations, and nothing to read except the Bible and piles of tracts about Christian marriage.

‘I don’t want to trouble her. She must be busy. Why you don’t sit down Andrea, and stop walk up and down? It rub my nerves to watch you.’

‘It’s only three o’clock in the afternoon. Lord knows what we’re supposed to do while these people burn up the town.’

‘Taxes is taxes, Andrea. You see the signs they holding up –  “The Pore Can’t Take No More”. Is true. Is very bad what this government doing to us.’

Andrea stared at her mother, who was so conservative that she had made Andrea wear a girdle to school once she started getting a bottom. It was gospel that only the ignorant, out of order and stupid would participate in any kind of protest in this here Jamaica.

‘Mumma, you feeling all right? You sick? Telling me about the poor can’t take no more?’

Her mother pursed her lips. ‘I call the Pastor as I come in. He says that when he heard what was in the Budget, he understand why people blocking roads. You listen to the Budget?’

Andrea hadn’t. She couldn’t stand the plump, satisfied face of the Minister of Finance, and she hated the way he sounded – as if he were explaining things to idiots. Roy liked him, always said he was very intelligent. Roy said it was a tough budget, but the Minister had no choice. No choice really. All Andrea had wanted to know from Roy was if cigarettes were going up again. They weren’t, so that was all right by her. No increased tax on cigarettes, and no increased GCT, so no long Sunday repricing everything in the shop.

Her mother had been on the phone to the pastor and other people in her church the whole afternoon. It seemed like the churches were going to make some kind of statement tomorrow. The Anglican and evangelical churches were concerned that the Catholics would come out with something on their own, and it looked nicer if all the pastors spoke as one, protesting poverty and misery.

While dinner was being cooked – salt fish, vegetables and dumpling – the phone rang and it was Andrea’s neighbor from along her road. Trina. Trina calling to say Roy was by her, Andrea not to worry, so Andrea let her know that she was not worrying about Roy in any case.

‘My dear, the way you’re lucky, you don’t need no man,’ Trina assured her, although when Andrea had first bought the house and moved out there, Trina had said, ‘Now you have your house, all you need is a man to keep you company.’

She asked to speak to Roy. ‘Everything all right by you?’ His voice was unfriendly enough that she knew he and Trina had already discussed his situation.

‘We just wondering how long this thing is going to go on. You think it’s over tomorrow? I should plan to open the shop?’

‘It doesn’t look to me like anybody coming off the streets till the government rolls back the gas tax.’

‘Is just the gas tax people quarreling with?’Andrea asked cautiously.

She was sure she had seen placards denouncing everything from corruption – Fling Out Ali Baba and His 40 Thieves – to the waistline of some of the cabinet ministers – No Wanga Gut, No Wanga Big Belly Minister. Roy chuckled.

‘Well, they quarreling with everything. Things rough out there right now. Plenty people not eating, and plenty pickney not going to school. Anyway, the Prime Minister will have to do something, but he’s not going to do it tomorrow. Wednesday or Thursday more like. How’s your mother?’

‘She’s all right. Talk to her, nuh . . .’ Andrea gave the phone to her mother and went to dish up the food.

Roy and Mumma could chat for hours. Mumma always said that lazy and keeping bad company were not the worst faults a man could have. Though she always added, Please God, I beg you, don’t let my one daughter find out the worst faults a man could have.

When Roy had been refusing to move out, and threatening Andrea with his ‘badman’ friends, she had planned to ask her mother what was worse than a man telling you to mind yourself . . . he might get one of his friends to ‘deal wid yu’. Of course, she hadn’t. She knew her mother thought the beatings and abuse she had suffered from Andrea’s stepfather was the worst a man could do.

They watched television until after the ten o’clock news. More and more roads were being blocked across Kingston and across Jamaica, as people who had been listening to the radio or watching TV all day, realized that there were no disturbances in their area, and went out of doors to overturn some drums and drag some tires or scrap metal into the road.

Andrea went to bed before her mother who had to bathe before sleeping. She woke to hear her mother and a couple of her church sisters busy in the living room. It was annoying that she had to shower and dress before going to get some breakfast, but there was no point in going out in her nightie because her mother would send her right back to dress anyway.

In the living room the three women were watching TV and making placards with cardboard boxes and black marker pens. Andrea laughed out loud when she saw them. JUSTICE, TRUTH BE OURS FOREVER. PRAY FOR JUSTICE. STOP TEK PIECE, AND GIVE US PEACE. Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Carter looked hurt, but Mumma did not even look at Andrea.

‘Stop laugh and tell everybody good morning. I left some breakfast for you in the kitchen.’

‘Good morning. I suppose you’re going to tell me is the pastor tell you to do this?’

Andrea fetched her plate of toast and bananas and turned up the sound on the TV. The newscast showed motorists trying to get through roadblocks and turning around and going home. It moved on to show a roadblock made by two brand new sports utility vehicles parked halfway across the road. On the verge there were a number of middle class-looking people holding placards in front of their faces.

Her mother and her mother’s friends shrieked, ‘You see him? You see him?’ Andrea looked again before the shot switched back to the newscaster. It was just possible that the bald head appearing above a placard, and the prominent stomach appearing below, belonged to a rich, important businessman in her mother’s church.

‘Since when uptown people block roads? Is that the intersection on Barbican Road?’ Andrea asked. Mumma nodded, looking nonchalant.

‘You coming with us? We going over there right now.’

‘Why not? Not opening the shop today, I can tell you from now,’ Andrea said, as if she and Mumma had not agreed from yesterday that they would not reopen until the supermarket did. The Chinese always seemed to know what was what.

Andrea drove the older women to the demonstration, circling through the back of Hope Pastures. They had been warned which roads were blocked and burning. Mrs. Lewis had a whole cooler full of juice and lemonade. Mrs. Carter had sandwiches – corned beef, and cheese and guava jelly. Mumma had the placards. Andrea parked on the grass verge behind a lot of other cars, hers being probably the only one that did not cost as much as her house.

Andrea did not really know anyone among the uptown brown skin crowd. She walked up and down on the verge by the cars, smoking and guarding the coolers and bags of food, while her mother and her church sisters exchanged gossip and lamentations with women in linen pants and panama hats.

People, poor people, from a gully-side community nearby, were gathering in clusters on the other side of Barbican Road and by the gas station across from the demonstrators. Middle class men, some in Bermuda shorts, some dressed for work in shirts and ties, were making forays across to chat and clap on the back men from the poorer communities. Mumma and her friends, having offered food and drinks to all those on their side of the road, made a sudden plunge over to the gas station and began giving sandwiches and plastic cups of juice to the ragged and dirty children that instantly surrounded them.

A cellular phone, Mumma’s, began to ring inside the car. Andrea opened the car to answer it. It was Roy.

‘You know you guys are on TV? I just saw your mother giving out sandwiches. You were standing on the grass by the car.’

Andrea looked around for television cameras and saw one poking out of the back of a van parked at one of the pumps in the gas station. Roy continued, ‘Why aren’t you marching up and down? You’re the only one not in it, you know.’

It was true that everyone else was holding up placards towards the camera in the van, and shuffling back and forth along the road.

‘I can’t be demonstrating,’ Andrea told him in annoyance. ‘I never even vote yet. I don’t even know what Mumma and them doing, except follow the pastor.’

‘Well, you going to suffer along with the rest of us, so you might as well say something about it too. Oh, hear what happen. I was over by your house this morning. Everything is okay, except somebody break down the avocado pear. Probably one of the kids. I just cut it down and put it in the garbage. Trina says she has some Number 11 mango seedlings. If you want one, I could plant it for you today. A mango tree would look nice same place where the pear was.’

Andrea decided to say nothing about that. She couldn’t trust him. ‘So how is it by Trina?’

‘Kind of crowded. The children can’t go to school, nobody can go to work, so it wasn’t convenient for me to be there.’

He waited for Andrea to ask him where he was, since he was not at Trina’s. She felt she knew where he was, but she asked anyway, ‘so where are you?’

‘At your place. I broke the shutters in the washroom. Put one of Trina’s boys inside to open the door for me.’

‘I like how you don’t ask me anything.’ Andrea kept her voice calm.

‘I’m more comfortable over here.’

Andrea felt like cursing him, but remembered that when she cursed him, he always came back with threats.

‘I’ll call you later when I get back to Mumma’s.’

‘All right. I don’t think this is over till Thursday or Friday. Not when so many uptown people in it. So you better stay by your mother till then. Safer.’

Andrea immediately called Trina. ‘How you don’t call and tell me that Roy leave and gone over by my place!’

Trina whispered into the phone, ‘You don’t ‘fraid for those men, but I ‘fraid for them. Two of them come here last night and he go way with them. Is the children tell me this morning that Roy over your place.’

Trina had a houseful of children and sisters and cousins from country to think about. And Trina was the one who had pointed out, before Andrea had allowed Roy to move in, that Roy liked bad company. Meaning men who carried guns in the waistbands of their pants and dealt in drugs and politics; not men who drank white rum, smoked weed and had lots of women, which was what Andrea’s mother thought she meant by bad company.

Andrea told Trina not to worry. She would deal with it. Andrea locked the car. Right now, the best she could do was to hope Roy would leave her place when the roadblocks were cleared in a few days’ time.

Across the road Mrs. Lewis and Mumma were feeding two of the street people from Liguanea, Mumma cowering slightly behind Mrs. Lewis and extending her whole arm with the sandwich at one end.

The sun was hot and Andrea couldn’t see doing this past ten o’clock in the morning. She picked up a PRAY FOR JUSTICE placard and joined the line of demonstrators.

She stared frowning at the camera in case they were still filming and Roy was still watching. She had warned him when he was threatening her that she had ‘friends’ too.

Well, they were friends of her retired policeman father really. Not that she wanted to put her father, retired and living in the country, in any kind of trouble.

She didn’t know why one of her policeman friends might want to put two shots in the head of Roy. But her house was her house; she was not giving up her house. And ‘fraid she was definitely ‘fraid . . .

Vanessa Spence is Jamaican and her first novel, The Roads Are Down, won a Commonwealth Writers Prize. She has spent time in Africa and India. She lives in Jamaica.

Image Credit: Photo of Matthew McCarthy ‘New Jamaica’ series murals in Kingston. Source: ap
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