Leaving Island, If At All

OONYA KEMPADOO

The check-in lady at the counter has a way of not looking at anything other than her computer.   Her eyebrows are all pencil. She ignores the loud man next in line who is entertaining everyone about LIAT strikes holding the country to ransom. ‘But is de tax is de killer!’ he declares, spinning back around to his audience. ‘I don’ know why de governmens just don’ wipe off de tax – swoops—’, swiping his hand, ‘half de ticket price gone. In fact, mo’ dan half.’ He checks to see if it’s his turn yet and grimaces at the check-in lady’s downturned face. ‘But de worse t’ing is dat LIAT don’ even pressure govermens to do dat!’

‘Watch de lady bounce you off de flight, man,’ someone says.

‘Heh! She ain’ go do dat to a charming young man like me!’ The man is older than the check-in lady, scrawny and kangalang-looking in a weathered, working-class, local-white way. He grins at the queue.

‘But LIAT is government, what yuh talking ‘bout?’

The red-skin man took in that piece of information in stride. Forward to the check-in counter. ‘Hello, darling.’

The lady’s pencilled eyebrows raise up higher. She nods and he slides his passport forward, grimacing again and crumpling himself at the knees. He checks his audience, nodding in the lady’s direction. They chuckle.

He turns his full attention back to her, leaning over the counter to see what she’s doing with his passport. ‘Dis one here,’ he nods at her again, ‘she like me. I could see by the lovely way she trying not to smile fuh me. Because she want to smile. Yes, uh huh, I live in Barbados, dear. I am a true Bajan-born red legs.’ He puffs up his long ropey body.

The check-in lady allows a faint smile. Laughter ripples in the queue behind him.

‘If I tell you . . . ’ He has succeeded in being able to address the people and the check-in lady at the same time. ‘If I tell you. Well you know. And dis fine lady know, but I know she didn’t ha’ nuthin to do wid it: I can fly to Canada fuh less dan what they charging people to fly from Barbados to Grenada! Dat’s de truth! Five years now I cyan see my daughter and gran’chile cause dey living in Grenada. I had to sell my car to get to dis place. I serious!’

Everybody grinning, imagining the man’s racatang car.

‘So, it was an expensive car?’ the check-in lady asks, just audible enough for others to hear.

‘No!  It was a cheap-cheap car. But I ha’ to sell it reach hey!’

‘Here you go, sir. This is your boarding pass.’ She shoos him from the counter by ignoring him again but is still smiling, ever so slightly, staring at the next passenger.

He starts leaving the counter, mouth still running. ‘Now, when I reach home, my son, he ha’fe come and pick me up. I ain’ ha’ no transport no more. A po’ ole man like me. An de government couldn’ care less. I tell you . . . My friend!’ He suddenly rushes back to the counter.  ‘Let me akse you sumpn. De flight on time?’ He doesn’t give her a chance to answer and she doesn’t look like she would anyway. ‘Oh, I forget. Youall don’ know dese tings in advance – is only after de fact.’ He goes off waving to his audience. ‘Is not LIAT – Leaving Island Any Time, or Luggage In Another Town, is not dat alone, is – Leaving Island If At All!”

One big fat woman in the line sniffs. ‘Is what crosses he calling ‘pon we here today?’

Inside the departure lounge, Red Legs has a smart phone so he busy swiping now, but quiet. The seats are almost full with American Airlines and Delta flights due to leave. Even the duty-free shops have a few customers, the last of the high-season visitors. The LIAT travellers stand out from the ones going far. Even the black ones, because Black-Americans dress like tourists too, or they’re comfortable in their authentic Black-American style. Caribbean people dress different when they going ‘overseas’, far across the whole Atlantic or beyond the Caribbean Sea, they look more prepared and eager. But when they going on LIAT, they behave as if they going by their neighbour’s house – they know what to expect and it don’t matter what time they reach. Patience, resignation and fedupsy fills up part of the terminal, near the gates.

‘You want us to spend two and a half days in a Grenada jail?!’

Red Legs looks up.

‘Yes!  Yes!!’ An American tourist couple, barely cleared security, are stuffing clothes back into their bags. Shouting at each other.

‘You want that, huh?’ the man asks.

‘YES!’ The woman screams and now everyone turns to watch. She punches a bag and forces the zip, kicking another bag towards her husband, tumbling stuff out onto the floor.  ‘Yes!’ Her voice cracks. The point when you know a child is truly hurt, or a woman is broken.  Raw, as if she’s been crying.

Red Legs steups softly but looks down, grumbling to his phone, glancing at them sheepishly.

Everybody looks away and the man’s tone changes to cradle her. ‘Honey, come on. It’s nothing. Come on.’ He tries to lift all the bags.

‘It is. I’ve never heard of something so fucking ridiculous. It’s fucking shit!’

‘Will you shut up and watch your language!’ The man puts a bag on her shoulder and  starts dragging her away from the security area. ‘Why are you doing this, huh? Why are you trying to make me miss this flight, huh?’

‘Huh!’ Red Legs nods in agreement, scrubbing his head as if he’s the one being harassed.

The couple bump their way through to some empty seats and plop down. She tears off her handbag and dashes it onto the chair next to her. Rips off a denim jacket that was hanging on one shoulder and pushes the pile away from her, disowning it. She refuses to look at her husband. Neither of them seem to care at all if anyone is watching or listening but Red Legs is checking around the room on their behalf. The man keeps glaring at the woman and she sniffles and swipes at her hair. Crosses her legs tight, staring past him.

‘I knew it would come to this. I just knew,’ he mutters.

Their accents are mid-west. Her clothes too. And feet. In pink rubber slippers they looked rough and countryish.

An elderly Caribbean woman near the couple picks up her handbag and purses her lips, ready to move.

‘Why do you always have to make a scene?’

‘I wasn’t making a scene!’ the woman snaps back, rocking into her seat. ‘Whoever heard of that. They had no right. It’s mine.’

‘Every place has rules.’ As if he is talking to a child. ‘And you just gotta live with that.’

‘Well’s first I ever heard that. What’d they expect? It’s seven hours from here to Atlanta and then . . .’ She bites back some tears, still refusing to look at the man.

‘You remember Mexico?’ he hisses.

She tosses her head and rocks some more.

‘You forgot that, huh?’ the man insists.

Now the eavesdropper is sure it’s all drug related. ‘Uh huh,’ Red Legs mutters, looking up at the ceiling, ‘Amen.’

And the couple carry on making a spectacle of themselves without shame.

The elderly woman steupses, and shifts herself, looking to the gate. Red Legs checks the time on his watch even though his phone is in his hand. LIAT should be landing or something by now. An announcement blares out but it is for American Airlines and a swarm of people rise from their seats.

The angry American woman scowls at anyone who looks at her from the nearby group forming a queue. She seems to have calmed down but her husband continues grumbling. After a while, no one is looking at them anymore, not even Red Legs.

The line to board the American flight moves along. A LIAT announcement mumbles “Flight . . . will now be departing at 3pm.” Red Legs scrambles to attention as it is repeated but it is another LIAT, to Trinidad, that is late, not his flight. He double checks his boarding pass, steups loudly and goes back to his phone.

The American woman must have said something because her man suddenly sits forward.  ‘No, you are not!’

‘Yes, I am,’ she says. ‘I’m going to have a drink.’ She watches him now and Red Legs is looking again too.

The man’s face turns red and his eyes narrow. ‘You don’t need, you’re NOT going to start that now. We have to go.’ He looks around desperately.

‘They haven’t called our flight yet,’ she says. Catching him looking at her handbag, she grabs it before he could. ‘I’m going to go find me a drink.’

Red Legs winces at the word drink and he focuses back on his phone, gripping and stabbing at it.

‘Lucy, no!’ The American woman stood up but the man pulls her down into the seat closer to him so quickly, it looks like she just switched seats, voluntarily.  He grips her arm but she wrestles it away from him, silently.

The elderly Caribbean woman moves forward to the edge of her seat and Red Legs is up.  People at the tail end of the queue for the American flight are looking. The American man is breathing hard, trying to get his woman to look into his eyes without touching her. She springs up and he flinches. Everyone flinches but he doesn’t grab her. Red Legs spins around and collapses into his chair and the woman flounces off to the bar without looking back. The man exhales and rubs his head forward into his hands. Leaning back, he looks at his wife disappearing among people and shakes his head, breathing hard. Red Legs trembles, in rage or recognition, and blinks embarrassedly at his phone. The elderly lady’s mouth turns down. She looks down at her hands squeezing her purse. A wedding and an engagement ring are on her marriage finger. Her husband dead? Maybe she could tell what makes this American man so responsible for this woman. How far caring and dependency goes.

‘Is whey dis plane is now?’ Red Legs now realize that it’s past the time of his departure and no LIAT in sight. He scrambles up and dodges his way through the AA passengers to the boarding-pass lady. ‘Wha goin’ on? Whey LIAT? Why dey don’ announce sumpn, man?’

‘Sir, we are not LIAT. I’m sure they will announce something shortly.’

Big steups. Red Legs knows there’s nothing he can do. Returns to his seat and his phone, sucking his teeth. Some of the other LIAT passengers turn down their mouths like the elderly lady. The frustrated American man stares in the direction of the bar for his wife. The Delta flight departure is announced. Three hours have passed.

‘Man, dis is pure shite!’ Red Legs jumps up and heads purposefully to an agent who is standing near the empty departure gate. The American woman passes him, scowling and Red Legs pauses, as if he has something to tell her, but no time for that now. He demands of the agent ‘You can tell me what really goin’ on wid LIAT? De one fuh Barbados,’ but spots a LIAT plane on the tarmac. ‘Wait!  Dat dere all dis time?’

‘That is not it, sir.’

‘But where mines? Mines suppose to leave lang time now and dey cyan tell people nuthin?’

‘I believe they may not know the estimated arrival time, so they can’t announce a departure time. But I am not a LIAT representative.’

‘Well I know is craziness but dis is madness! You tellin’ me dey don’ know if it leave one island yet and therefore how long it taking to reach hey? There is sumpn called a phone, yuh know . . .’ Red Legs knows whatever he says is useless. He is on LIAT time now and nothing he, or any other passenger, can say or do will get them from one island to the next any faster.

Another hour passes. The LIAT for Trinidad leaves and only resignation waits with the remaining passengers for the flight to Barbados. Not a representative to be seen or announcement made. Red Legs approaches the next official person who happens to pass through the lounge, accosting them on the whereabouts of LIAT 514.

The Airport Authority agent puts up a hand, ‘Sir, I suggest you go to the security—’

‘I ain’ going through no security and go back outside to find out nuthin. Last time I do dat I almost get leff behind.’

‘Sir, just go to the security and they will call the LIAT desk – so you can speak to them.’

‘Oh ho. But is still madness!’ He is already lurching away to the security, ‘Why I have to call dem? Dey supposed to tell people sumpn. Dis is why . . .’

Red Legs reaches the security man. ‘They say you will call dem LIAT people fuh me.’

Security picks up a landline, dials and hands Red Legs the receiver.

‘Yes, I suppose to be on the LIAT that suppose to leave since one a’clock. Whey de flight and why youall cyan have de decency to tell people sumpn? What?’

The LIAT lady asks him if the terminal is busy now.

‘If it busy? What?’

‘The plane should be on the ground any minute now. You can see any LIAT plane on the ground?’

‘How you mean if I “could see”? I just came from – man, ma’am – just tell me what time de plane suppose to depart.’

She asks him if he sees people boarding.

‘Ma’am, just tell me what time—’ Brap. The LIAT lady hangs up the phone on him.  Leaves him staring at it in his hand. ‘What de! You could believe dis? Eh? LIAT hang up de phone on me. Me! De woman—’Security looks in the direction of the gate and Red Legs can see his people gathering up to go. Steups. He dashes off and boards, along with all the other grumbling, trying-to-be-amused passengers.

A weary quietness settles in the plane, with plenty sighs as it takes off but Red Legs at the back still trying to complain. The nice young attendant soothes him though. She revives his charming self and sweetens him into silence. He settles for obviously eavesdropping on the row just behind him.

‘Lend me you pen please, Mary,’ a Dominican man asks his colleague.

‘Nah. Uh uh, nah. I do enough’a dem tings fuh de day. Whuh yuh call it again? Good deeds. I use up all’a mine fuh de day. Phew.’ The Bajan woman kicks out her short thick legs and presses back into her seat.

Both of them now talking, low but at the same time. He can’t believe she won’t lend him her pen, asking his male colleague next to him, and she groaning about how far the pen is down in her bag and she ain’ digging for it. But the playfulness in their tone is still enough to entertain Red Legs and fellow passengers. A little more comfort shared, to pass a little more time.

‘Aye, Collin,’ the Bajan woman calls across the Dominican, to the St Lucian, ‘We could get more fuh another workshop. We should do a next one. Wha’ you think?’

‘Humph, professional workshoppers.’ Red Legs mumbles, fighting sleep.

The colleagues discuss the idea. Despite the poor participation in their completed work in Grenada, the funds are there, so they might as well apply again. And in St Lucia they know so-and-so. In Dominica, Allan will organize. They plan their inter-island careers and paper-pusher reports, while the LIAT passengers doze. And Red Legs snores, loudly.


Resident in Grenada, Oonya Kempadoo was brought up in Guyana, has lived in Europe and worked for most of her life in various Caribbean islands.  A creative writer and the author of three novels: Buxton Spice, Tide Running, All Decent Animals, she was named a “Great Talent for the 21st Century” by the Orange Prize judges and awarded a Casa De Las Americas Prize in 2002.  Oonya was a US Fulbright Scholar and works as a consultant, researcher and educator, focusing on social development and cross-disciplinary dialogue. She is co-founder and a director of the Grenada Community Library and member of PEN America.

One thought on “Leaving Island, If At All

  1. […] Caribbean vernaculars in our selections, some almost entirely in Eastern Caribbean creole like Oonya Kempadoo’s ‘Leaving Island if at All’ and others interspersed with it. In Jamaica this mother tongue is known as patwa. Although some […]

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