Papa is on the lanai, drinkin’ in front of Caleb again. The man wouldn’t even touch a Red Stripe when we were growin’ up, so I don’t know why he would take up this habit in his old age. Then again, ever since that night – years ago – everybody change, including me. Caleb is only six, but I swear that little boy is going to be a journalist one day. He’s outside interviewing his Grandpa.
‘What’s in the glass, Grampa?’
‘Smell like rum.’
‘Mommy don’t like it when you drink.’
‘Shhh. Well don’t tell har, Caleb. We men have to stick together. Is less of us now.’
‘How you mean, Grampa?’
Papa looks over his shoulder into the house to see if I’m listening. I do a good job pretendin’ I’m ironing school uniforms. They don’t allow helpers to come up the hill anymore, my husband says. Papa lowers his voice until the crickets in the bush between the house and Skyward Drive are close to drowning him out.
‘Well, don’t let your mother know I tell you anyt’ing but you could say I have been under my waters a while now.
This February will make seven years since—’
I interrupt from the room. ‘Papa!’
‘Lawd, Racquel, yes!’ he calls back, annoyed.
Caleb jumps into the conversation.
‘Mommy, Grampa drinkin’ cane juice, again!’
I leave the ironing board and step out onto the lanai. The cricket choir is louder outside and the breeze sweeping over the treetops makes my face stiffen. Papa gives up the glass.
‘Papa, you can’t drink and expect the medicine
‘Rubbish. Alcohol is medication.’
He says this softly. I sniff the glass. Whites. From the nose-bridge of St. Andrew, I look down at the city sparkling like a dying fire. My breathing turns ragged. The opposite direction of the compass offers no refuge for my eyes. In the north, the Blue Mountain is a large, looming rock, another planet crashin’ into us. Caleb isn’t done.
‘So why you drink rum, Grampa?’
Papa leans forward and clasps his hands as if he’s about to tell a story or some good gossip.
‘Well. When Grandpa drink, he is only as old as he feels. But when ah don’t drink – I just feel old.’
Papa laughs at his own joke. Caleb loves it. Children never hear the hurt pressing up against the punch line. A child’s ear is not tuned to irony, and secrets are slippery on their lips.
One day, when he’s older, I might tell Caleb what happened. A baby born on the other side of an apocalypse cannot imagine the things I have seen. Papa groans, gets up and goes inside. Ten minutes from now he’ll be sneakin’ another drink. God knows this old house has so many cracks and corners, you can hide a flask or two in plain sight.
I sit in the lounge chair his backside left warm. Caleb climbs into my lap. The lights of Kingston blaze all the way south until they disappear into a strip of shadow on the very edge of the city. This grey area deepens to black as land becomes liquid. Only the lowest stars on the horizon show you where sea turns into sky. I shiver and hold Caleb close.
Jodi was three years old at the time. My daughter had only sketchy memories of what happened until the night Papa filled in the blanks for her while under the influence. She cried. After that I watched the light go out in her eyes. She knows all the details now, but like me, she still goes out to look over Kingston, perhaps to imagine or reimagine things, as children often do. I swear every time my daughter comes back inside she is a little further away from me. She’s ten. My husband thinks I can only protect Caleb for so long.
Racquel, if your father don’t tell him, somebody at school or church will. It’s a matter of time. I say, tell him yourself.
Patrick means well, but he doesn’t know the nightmare. He lived up here – on the hill – when the whole thing went down.
Patrick and I take the children to Emancipation Park. Was his idea.
‘Maybe we should take them deep into the city. Let them know what it is to be outside the safety of the Shelf. They’ll hate it.’
We sit on a wall covered in peeling paint because the benches in the Park are rickety and we don’t have a helper to fight rust out of the children’s clothes with lime and salt. Jodi has already snagged her t-shirt on the overgrown bougainvillea. I used to come to this park with Troy back in the day. Maybe I’m here to catch good memories for a change. Patrick is busy trying to catch a signal on his phone. Of the places that survived, Emancipation Park is the prettiest. My daughter wonders why the fountains don’t work. Caleb finds the tiniest things to worry about.
‘Mommy, look at the glitter. It’s like splinters on the walkway.’
He wants to know why the ground glistens in the city but not at our yard up on the hill. He wonders why they call this place ‘New Kingston’ when everything looks so beaten down.
‘Why they didn’t call it “Ocean Side”? ‘Cause if you stand on the bench you can see the ocean right there.’
I distract him.
‘Don’t stand on the bench. Go play with your sister. We leavin’ soon.’
Caleb has questions either bracing against the back of his teeth or spring-boarding off his tongue. We drive home before dark. The street boys have taken over Barbican Square. Some of them grew up there these last few years. I see them now as boys with beards. They leave the gambling behind and swarm the vehicle before we pause at the stoplight.
It’s a toll now. You must pay them to pass. Or you can pay the bodywork man or the doctor if that’s where you prefer to put your money. One of them points at me, bites his lip and humps the front of the car to a riddim playing from the sidewalk. Another one is at the window. I shrug. No money. He presses his mouth against the glass and points to his skin.
Yuh husband selfish, but look— yuh black like me.
Patrick says ‘fuck you’ from behind the glass and flips the finger just in case the man didn’t get the message. They chase the car and throw things. We have a drill for this. The kids get flat in the SUV and whoever is driving floors it. This time we escape with only a ding in the passenger door. Patrick is livid.
‘Why they don’t go back whichever rass place they come from? I wouldn’t mind goin’ as far as possible up Blue Mountain ridge where they can’t reach me.’
We make it through the ‘wall’. It’s a broken fence really. Patches of razor-wire curling from Norbrook and Cherry Gardens in the west, hugging the foot of Jacks Hill and stretching across the ravine below Skyward Drive.
The spaces in the fence are filled in with men and licensed firearms. The Neighbourhood Watch, protecting the Shelf. That’s the code word for the foothills of the Blue Mountains. After dark, everywhere below the Shelf is Limbo. The men from the stoplight turn into Climbers – people who break through and come up the hill at night for your food and your house and your life.
I am in the den with my husband. There’s a lot to lose, he tells me.
‘Most of the people still in uniform are nurses and security company personnel. We have to take care of our own and the life we built these past few years in the hills. Even Vale Royal have grill now.’
We started a farm further up the slope for self-reliance sake. Never mind that for now it’s only potatoes, spinach and a patch of Purple Skunk for Patrick to smoke or sell. We have a drill for everything: a drill for alerting the neighbourhood to Climbers, another one for the wildfires we get during summer. The internet is a fickle thing these days. Patrick is on the CB radio checking in with the rest of the Shelf before bedtime.
‘Riva Ridge, you smell smoke? We suspect a four-twenty in your vicinity, you copy?’
Four-twenty is code for wildfire; a carryover from when the Riverton Dump would burn and suffocate Kingston and St. Andrew. There’s been smoke in the hills for weeks, but no fire so far.
‘Breaker, Norbrook you copy?’
‘Coopers Hill. Come in Coopers Hill.’
Static. Coopers Hill is too far sometimes. They’ve had less luck with Climbers. I tell Patrick downtown is not that horrible. It took years but people are going back to where they used to be. He says I can go live in goddamn Limbo anytime I want, as long as I leave the children and the car. I’m putting Caleb to bed. My son wants to know about the men and what Patrick meant by ‘they should go back where they come from’.
‘Mommy, what’s the Rass Place?’
‘That’s not a nice word Caleb.’
By the time the lights go off he’s asking why plastic bottles litter the city’s roads, walls and hedges, and who used to live in the empty houses with the white lines over the windows.
‘That’s a lot of questions to answer at bedtime.’
I try to leave him in the dark. He’s stubborn like me.
‘Mommy, some kids at school talk whisper about it. Marvin Ferguson says his father told him something happened downtown a long time ago.’
‘Maybe you should be listenin’ to your teachers and not Marvin Ferguson.’
Jodi is in the bed with her face to the wall. She has her eyes closed while offering her little brother some advice.
‘You can always ask Grampa, Caleb. Grampa will tell you everything.’
She opens her eyes turns to me, ‘dry yeye’ as ever. Something blocks the light in the hall. Papa is standing in the bedroom doorway. His voice is under water again.
‘Caleb. Nobody live downtown anymore. Everybody down there is dead. Goodnight. Tell the truth, Racquel.’
At one o’ clock in that morning, all of Skyward Drive must have heard me screaming. Nightmare. I’m thirty-three this year, too old for bad dreams. If Climbers hadn’t killed our neighbours, they would think my husband and I were having some late-night fun. He’s too old for that. Patrick wakes up, pats my leg and goes back to snoring.
I pull the covers off him, drape them over my head and step out on the lanai, like a floral ghost.
You could call Kingston an unfinished fort: high walls to the east and north, land to the west, but wide open to anything coming from the south. I look past the city lights to the grey area. There are memories out there in the dark: red tomatoes and fresh cucumbers, Coronation Market with my mother, Hellshire Beach on a Sunday with Papa and my sisters, how I would stay at Victoria Pier with my girls from High School until the moon came up and turned the ocean into blue suede and sequins, me meeting a boy in a fishing boat to Port Royal. It’s easy to forget these things.
Two-twenty a.m. Papa is awake. He stumbles out onto the lanai. I don’t have to look around to know he has a glass in his hand. I don’t take it, but I give him a lecture.
‘You plannin’ to stay sick, Papa?’
Drunk or sober he’s always ready with an answer.
‘That’s what yuh out here frettin ‘bout? Or yuh lookin’ out for – what Patrick call them – Climbers? Or is yuh same borin’ husband yuh trying to get away from?’
He sits down and leans toward me, whispering.
‘I tell you all the time, Patrick behave like him is still your boss. I did prefer that other guy for you. This man too hoity-toity and ready to raise rifle.’
I snicker at the thought of Patrick being able to raise his rifle, but I catch myself.
‘Papa. You’re talkin’ about the same man who not only gave me and my kids a place to live but took in my father as well.’
‘Matters not. This man can’t love yuh like dat bwoy yuh tell your mother you meet in Port Royal . . . what him name . . . Troy.’
My children’s father was a good man. Did his best at JPS. Went to Canada on a program, worked two winters in Saskatchewan and we saved the money. I earned a degree while pregnant and taking care of my first child. Eventually Troy and I find a place in Portmore. We would have moved out of Elletson Road the following day if it weren’t for what happened that night, starting with a WhatsApp message at a quarter past eleven.
‘Seven-point-five earthquake off the coast of Honduras. Tsunami watch in effect for Kingston.’
The map looks terrifying enough. It has a rash of pulsating red dots between Central America and the islands. Scroll up. Under the map is a table with Caribbean cities and the expected time of arrival for each wave. It doesn’t take long for a counter-text to come in.
‘Tsunami warning a hoax. Fake news.’
In two hours the warning is jostling for space on WhatsApp and losing to the Fake News text, texts about the Fake News text and funny videos of Macaroni, the accident-prone Jamaican man. Troy gets off a call with a co-worker.
‘Racquel, I takin’ this serious.’
That’s how we end up in a JPS truck after midnight searching for the tallest, strongest building that side of town, even as a dancehall session hot over Rae Town and people walk around like any ordinary Friday night. The two security guards think we’re funny. Or stupid.
‘Fake news dat man! Tidal wave? Japan and dem place deh dat gwaan. But if you and she can climb pon toppa de buildin’ like Spiderman we nah go stop oonu. We can put it pon Youchube.’
They allow us to get on top of the building at the Central Sorting Office. A concrete cube seventy feet high should help us feel safer. Instead I feel like a damn fool with a pregnant belly, a sleepin’ pickney and a baby bag scrambling onto the roof from a dirty JPS truck bucket on a big, big Friday night. People pass, point and shoot. Traffic on South Camp Road slows down. Across the street a man sits astride his yeng-yeng bike beside graffiti on a wall:
KEEP KARTEL. FREE BUJU
The man smokes a cigarette. He’s not the only one fuming. I vex as rass. Vex with Troy. Vex when the utility truck bucket disappears down the side of the building, vex when I watch him drive away to go back for the stuff we packed up. Vex until I look towards the harbour and all of a sudden I cannot remember what I vex ‘bout. All I know is, I cannot see the lowest stars touching the horizon. It’s as if something came and tore away the bottom part of the sky.
In Rae Town, the drum and bass shuts down. There is a strange kind of quiet when you unplug a sound system. Only distant screaming comes from among the houses now. Meanwhile up on the roof of the Central Sorting Office, videos are going viral. Fishermen filmed seawater retreating about half-a-mile in the harbour. There’s another clip with fish floundering in Yallahs. We look up from our phones. Windward Road is exploding with blue lights and sirens. Police cars zip up and down South Camp Road with warnings. Something wide and dark swallows the airport and snuffs out Port Royal’s lights. Kingston Harbour is foaming so white it looks like something glowing.
Every sound surrenders to the sea climbing up on land. It is a noise that gets into your knees first, a rush, like all the clouds crashing down, crushing zinc roofs. And under that battering is the bang of metal, the clatter of wood and a million plastic bottles suspended in brine – reflux from what we feed the ocean. More screams as loud as the one in your mind: No, not here. This cannot happen here. The man on the yeng-yeng bike tosses the cigarette and takes off toward Sabina Park like a madman.
Water searches everywhere and misses no target. Hundreds run, chased by the shadow. Black ink spills into downtown. It lurches up a slope, carrying vehicles. Utility poles snap, sparks rain down. A crowd disappears when the ocean takes it from behind. The froth leaps over houses, erases roads, sweeps away landmarks and slams flesh into walls. Police cars are in the mix, overturned, blue lights still flashing. Fishing boats cross the intersection, disobeying the stoplight. In minutes, the gas station goes under and there are no chain-link fences anymore.
More make it to the roof, cryin’ out for Jesus. A woman shrieks for Kemar, stretching both her arms over the side of the building. People hold her back. She falls. Phones come out to shoot her holding her womb. Kemar. She is dirty from lying down. They still post it. Jodi wakes up to see stars instead of a ceiling. She hears the roar from below and will not be consoled. With her in my arms and Caleb kicking me from the inside, I search for Troy in the crowd on the roof. The security guards last saw him in the parking lot, hurrying children into the JPS truck bucket.
When a disaster happens in the dark, you fear even daylight. The sun has no business rising to shine on shame. A retreating tsunami is a stinking thing that brings the worst to the surface. Innocence is in the water. Toys. Slippers. A casket ripped from its resting place, thrown open to the light. Later, scores of them swirl around us from the Elletson Cemetery. Cholera Cemetery, they call it. A man weeps. His friends explain:
‘God have to get rid of the wicked. Montego Bay feel it too.’
Kingston’s drains couldn’t handle it, they say. The wave went up the Sandy Gully and left salt and shipping containers all over the city. Two containers bang into our building, one bright orange, the other green. They sound empty. Pigeons crowd the roof, wondering where their homes went. There are no roads anymore so we are officially at sea. A yeng-yeng bike is fastened to the top of a tree.
Out on the lanai, Papa is still talking about Troy. He sees the saltwater in my eyes.
‘But cheer up Racquel. Is not the end of the world. Yuh husband is a real rass but at least you live uptown now. My eye soon shut. Live yuh life, take care of mi gran’children even when t’ings look salt.’
Caleb wakes up. He is calling from the room.
‘Four-twenty, Mommy, four-twenty!’
I rush inside and look at the time, confused. Patrick is awake and on the CB radio talkin’ fast.
Four-twenty, Four-twenty, do you copy?
Answers crackled back. Caleb is pointing out the window. The hillside is red with flames. Fuck the codes.
He stomps into the room to correct me.
‘Wildfires . . . the worst. Authorities say get out.’
He has his firearm and is rummaging in a duffle bag for ammunition.
‘Get the kids. And I hope your father not drunk tonight. We need fingers on triggers. We’re putting together a team to lead the push further into the hills tonight. Travelling in convoy in case of Climbers.’
Patrick rushes back down the hall to the CB radio. A voice on the radio wants to know the exact destination. Another one joins in.
Skyward, the road might be blocked further up the ridge. Visibility gonna be zero with all the smoke.
You copy, Skyward?
The kids are up and moving. Papa is packing liquor from all his secret places. Meanwhile Patrick is at a standstill, clutchin’ the radio. I reach for the CB microphone. He looks at me and lets go. The words are somewhere in my throat. I don’t know who is on the other end or how many people are listening, but I look out to the lanai and across the city to the grey area between the lights and the liquid. I press the microphone key and my voice comes out.
“There is a place. It’s far from here.”
Image Credit: Kingston by Roland Watson-Grant
Jamaican Advertising Creative Director Roland Watson-Grant added ‘short story writer’ to his résumé in 2011. He would secure his first book deal that same year, after reading his shortlisted story Sketcher at a prize-giving ceremony on the campus of University of Hull in England.
Sketcher, the full-length novel was published in 2013. It was nominated for an Amazon Rising Star Award and won praise from The Times, The Spectator, GQ Magazine, Bookseller Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald and others. Sketcher has since been translated into Spanish and Turkish. The sequel Skid was published in 2014. The novels are distributed by AlmaBooks and Bloomsbury New York.
Watson-Grant’s story Cursing Mrs. Murphy was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2017. He is currently working on his third novel and a screenplay.