A-dZiko Simba Gegele
The plane came to an abrupt stop and Mavis turned to stare through the oval window on her right. Spread away from them were acres of concrete, flat and marked with giant numbers and lines and shapes in black, white and yellow and in the distance the terminal had shrunk to a toy barn surrounded by mini planes each bouncing specks of the weak sunlight that penetrated the cloud layer.
As the plane’s engines heated up and the rattling thrust of acceleration pasted her hard to her seat, Mavis voiced a rapid prayer – her lips shaping themselves to form the words of her fervent desire that The Almighty receive the gratitude she had for all the fires He had taken her through, for His enduring presence in the dark valleys and deepest despairs, for never once giving up on a soul such as hers and for blessing her with the gift of finally leaving the place that 42 years ago she had run to, her heart overflowing with joy and happiness, only to discover the cruel truth of every blessed day waking up to struggle, every moment having to watch keenly for the white smiles ready to box food from her mouth. She dug deep into her heart and glorified His name for the strength He had given her to endure, to overcome all obstacles thrown in her path, to enable her to raise four children in spite of the injustice and harshness of that land. Four upright souls who, did not turn out exactly as she had wished, but were still doing good enough for her to look on their faces, call their names and allow the proudness to swell her heart – not too much but as much as a mother deserved in compensation for all those hard times. She was escaping – maybe not with robust health but she was alive, more than could be said for Altherton.
As the ground began to fall away at an angle, Mavis gripped both arm rests and scrambled together a final request for safety… and a little brawta, if it wasn’t too much to ask – a meal that was at least palatable.
It was not as she remembered.
Mavis bent over, grabbed a corner of her blouse and mopped at the wetness oozing around her neck. No, this was a different kind of heat, one that she wasn’t sure she could manage.
She dragged her suitcases down the walkway and squinted into the sun. Before her swam brightly dressed people – the arrivals draped in foreign fashion and that weary excitement all travelers bore, the waiting families, dressed in their Sunday clothes, standing in discreet groups, craning to find the familiar face in the trickle of bodies seeping through the airport’s sliding doors.
As soon as she made it to the shade beneath a trimmed Lignum Vitae tree, Mavis stopped to catch her breath and search the crowd decorating the row of benches to her left and loitering along the edge of the kerb.
She had made a desperate one-last-time call when they announced the plane was ready for boarding.
‘Clint…what happen to yu phone? Mi a call yu from last week.’
‘Sorry bout that Aunty, mi lose it – just get back di number…yu still a come?’
‘What kind a question is that? Of course – mi a leave now.’
‘Just waiting to board. Ah coming in at 4…4:16 di ticket seh. Come meet mi.’
‘Den a which day?’
He wasn’t there.
She settled herself on the bench below the tree, dragged her suitcases closer and tucked her handbag tightly under her arm with the zipper hidden snug against her chest. It wasn’t just the heat that was different. Gone were the crowds of taxi men shouting for fares before the passengers had a moment to adjust to the sun’s glare. Gone, one man pulling you this way, another ripping luggage from your grasp and stuffing it into the back of the old Corolla held together with rope and rust so that you had no choice but to wrench yourself away from the first taxi man to secure the school books and pencils, the church frocks and t shirts, the three-speed blender, the electric razor, the massager, the pairs of sheer chocolate tights and the packets of McVities biscuits you brought from foreign for your people.
No, this was altogether a different place. The drivers were all in uniforms, the luggage carefully transported by men in red caps who had so much politeness about them you had to pinch yourself more than once to believe you had disembarked in the right country. And the taxis themselves, little luxury buses with nothing hanging off or fabricated on, all polished white and clean and glistening like the smiles on the people finding one another.
Mavis felt a bubble of pride rise up in her. Land we love. She and all her fellow Jamaicans had done this. No matter some had gone and some had stayed – they all had loved with a love that never died, a love that grew over the long miles, over the years of yearning and they had all made their contributions – sending Cousin Kitty to HEART to learn dress making, paying Elton’s school fees, sending car parts for Uncle Cuthbert, making sure that Aunt Ezra’s half a brain boy, Wayne, got a work laboring when they started to build the house. Dollar by dollar, pound by pound, they had all done what they could and look at it – a big TV announcing arrivals and departures, a well-spoken young lady over the system letting people know what was and was not tolerated at the brand new Norman Manley International Airport – in perfect English – just like England…just like anywhere.
Across the road a man stood serving coconut water outside a red and yellow shop, the empty husks neatly stored in a large wire crate, a chopping table positioned in front of the store with the fresh jellies piled up, ready.
Her throat was parched but Mavis couldn’t figure out how she could leave her bags in safety; all she could do was watch as the man served the little crowd gathered around him. If Altherton was there…She quickly shoved the thought aside. Thinking about him didn’t bring him back, didn’t get her what she needed, wouldn’t do her any good, no good at all.
He should have been here with her. If not in life, then in death but she had lost the battle with her children to bury him in their double plot where he would wait for her to be laid alongside him. She had let them have their way but their insistence birthed a stubbornness in her – made her decide her mind for good instead of dreaming at the West Indian Elder’s Club around the corner from the Westford Estate. They kept company with each other there – Olive and Bertram from Clarendon, Phyllis and her sister, Arlene, from Antigua, and Mr. Shaw who thought way too much of himself but could always be depended on for a ride home if she wasn’t in the mood for standing in the cold waiting for a 49. Kept each other in good spirits, especially when Bertram got them going on some memory of back home. That’s when the place would come alive with stories and together they would conjure the island of their dreams – an island of running water and flat roads, of efficiency and kindness all woven together with threads of romance and nostalgia from the days of barefoot running, stealing down to the river, stoning mangoes and gulping down bowls of Grandma’s oxtail soup. And the dreary gray of London would melt in the warmth of their imaginings and Jamaica would live again in her mind just as it was then only better, newer, richer. This was the Jamaica, her Jamaica she had held in her mind through the endless cruel nights of winter when the paraffin heater did nothing against the howling breeze, when the children were struck down with fever and kept her up all night with worry leaving her exhausted for the 12 hour shift at the hospital, when the man behind the desk said no and could not look in her face and she knew it was nothing more than the colour of her skin that created the chasm between what she needed and what he would permit.
A sudden shout behind jolted her from thought. A couple with two children in tow rushed by and scooped a young woman and toddler into their embrace. The young Miss looked haggard and the baby began to scream and claw at her mother’s skirt but all was lost in the huddle of excitement and hugs and the sole man in the group repeating again and again, ‘Welcome home Sis, welcome home’. When they finished jumping around and admiring each other and each other’s children they ambled towards the car park in a tangle of arms and laughter.
Mavis smiled as she imagined them whizzing along one of the new highways to a house in a gated community with manicured lawns and mango trees and the beach just across the way.
They had made it, she too. That’s right, she would not die in foreign like Altherton. As soon as she was settled she would go to a lawyer, have him write up some document that insisted her bones be buried in this land she loved, not in some foreign soil that had no right to her; a place that did not respect her flesh in life and would cover her bones in snow and ice. No. The document would force them to dispose of her here, throw her body in a pit in her own land, where she belonged, and, as God had ordained, without Al.
She felt the tears coming but held them back. He was gone, dead, already buried and that was that.
‘Need a ride?’
He was standing a respectful few feet away from her, his eyebrows raised but the tone in his voice had no demand or desperation in it. It was just a question.
‘No, I’m Ok. Waiting on my nephew.’
The man stepped closer.
‘Him on him way?’
‘Should be,’ she said although, at that moment, Clint’s question, ‘Today?’ came bouncing back into her mind.
‘Want to call him?’ The man was even closer now, offering her his cell phone but, instinctively, Mavis wedged her handbag in tighter.
Perspiration was streaming from her temples now, droplets forming and falling from her eyelashes and the tip of her nose. She unzipped the front pocket of her bag and pulled out a travel pack of Kleenex. The place was so damn hot. As she wrestled with the perforated opening, it occurred to her she had not taken her medication. And she needed water. The jelly man had only one customer now. They were sharing a joke while he swept the cutlass through the air, shaving slices of husk from the nut balanced in his hand. Mavis wiped her tongue over her lips, a dry leather belt scraping across sand.
‘Yu OK? Yu need help?’
He had slipped his phone into the breast pocket of his shirt but stood waiting.
He looked smart in his uniform, his face was kind and his smile inviting but she didn’t know him.
Another wave of passengers emerged through the airport doors, some immediately engulfed by a mass of relatives, others, in business suits, met by cool associates with stiff handshakes. Everyone, it seemed, knew someone, but they were all strangers to her.
No, mi alright…really…him soon reach,’ she said.
She strained through the mass of moving bodies to the walkway leading from the car park without any expectation of seeing the boy, but if he didn’t come, then what? As nice as the man seemed, it would be two arms and two legs to take her to Windy Vale from here and plus, taxi man or not, she wasn’t foolish enough to direct a strange man straight to her gate after hours. The island may have changed but it was still Jamaica. She dabbed at her forehead, the tissue swelled with water then disintegrated between her fingers. The heat. Her head began to float up, cut loose from her body, the colours of the people clothes began to swirl like paints mixing and then the familiar blotches appeared, pin pricks at first, then expanding to amorphous blobs that slowly congealed.
‘Doan move, mi a come right back…doan move, yu hear?’
Yes, she heard but the words were coming from a long way off, her face was on fire and her body had lost its bones. As her head sunk down to her chest she caught sight of his retreating legs through bleary eyes.
‘Norman Manley International Airport Authority wishes to remind all arriving passengers…’
The intrusion of the impeccable announcer jerked her out of her daze in time to see the man running back to her, in his hands, two jellies.
‘Here,’ he said, offering her one.
She immediately dug into her bag.
‘Thank you so much, how much –’
‘Is alright,’ he said, ‘just drink.’
She drank without pausing until she heard the slurp of air bubbles gurgling up the straw. Suddenly a belch, worthy of any hard-backed labourer, exploded out of her; she widened her eyes in shock and slapped a hand over her mouth.
‘I am so sorry – excuse my manners, please.’
‘Nutn to excuse my friend,’ he laughed, ‘Gas? A natural ting dat.’
The sound of her own laughter surprised her. It had been a while…a long while.
‘Feel better now doan?’
Yes, better enough to put Clint out of her mind and spend the next half an hour swapping photos of families and stories about back in the day and reel off names of people tracing pathways that could in some way connect them. When, having only uncovered a twice-removed cousin who possibly went to the same school in Linstead as a woman he called Auntie, they switched tracks to the perils of travel and where they had been in the world and how, when all was said and done, there really was no place like yard.
This was the home she had longed for – the easy conversion of strangers to friends, as Jamaican as Sunday morning ackee and salt fish, Dunn’s River Falls and ‘no problem’.
By the time the coconut water had worked its way through her system, they had shared so much of their lives she didn’t think twice about leaving her luggage in his care while she visited the ladies. When she returned, he was gone.
Her handbag was firmly glued under her armpit but her two suitcases… The two green suitcases she had bought on sale at Debenham’s yet had still cost a fortune. The bought-on-sale-expensive suitcases with retractable wheels and combination locks – they too – gone. She’d been five minutes, six at the most, maybe seven. The panic travelled like osmosis, from her feet, cemented to the paved waiting area, up through her spine, rigid with disbelief, to her head, where it concentrated in such quantity, her brain was unable to process the information without shutting down vital organs.
As her pulse rate accelerated, she snatched at fragments of their conversation. He was from Hanover, Dolphin Head or Back or Mountain or Hill, went to school in Trelawny then MoBay or the other way around, moved to Kingston in the eighties or it could have been the nineties, had three children, drove a JUTC bus at first then…but none of this, fact or fake, helped lower her heartbeat because she had not the slightest idea of his name.
She clutched her bag to her chest with both hands and staggered to the spot under the tree where moments before her suitcases had squatted like a pair of green tombstones.
A tide of people washed around her, she, devoid of direction, bobbed back and forth, a fragment of flotsam with no will of its own. It wasn’t so much the wardrobe of new clothes – though where she would find the enthusiasm to engage in all that shopping again, she didn’t know – or the value packs of her favourite condiments, not even the three tablets she had bought for Winston’s grandchildren, it was her. How easily she had allowed herself to be seduced into letting her guard down, not just by him, but, and this was the toughest truth to digest, by this place she called home. This place of nephews that drove around in cars you had given them yet left you stranded on arrival, this place of circling John crows ready to pick off the lonely and weak using kindness as bait and smiles as weapons. It was the same old, same old place she had run from, its nastiness covered with a thin sheen of false manners, electric doors and bright paint. She should have known. She had nothing to say in her defense except that she was lonely and old and a first class fool.
The early night stars were appearing and Mavis, her mind still in shock, her body still running six hours ahead of the time on the arrivals board, could think only of finding a bed to lie down on. What happened had already happened, what good would it do to beat herself up? She would get a taxi to drop her off uptown and check into a hotel. Somewhere to her left, she had seen the despatcher’s desk.
As she turned, a man shouted from across the road, ‘Lady!’ He was waving and pointing in her direction. ‘Yes, you…come noh?’ It was the jelly man. She hesitated, thinking he had mistaken her for someone else. ‘Yes, you…ina di blue and white.’
Exasperated, he put down the jelly he was holding and dragged something from the shop – something green. ‘Ah no yours dis?’
The driver had got a fare – Mandeville, couldn’t wait, had left the cases with him. The jelly man shouted to a youth lounging against a rail, cell phone in hand, to take care of two women at the stand and disappeared into the shop for her other case.
‘Him sey fi gi yu dis,’ he said, when he reappeared.
‘Mi? Yu sure?’ Mavis said.
‘But a no your two bag dis?’
It was a key rolled up in an old receipt. On the back of the paper was a hastily scribbled message.
‘Mi like yu.’ it said. ‘Nutn freaky, mi just like yu.’
The jelly man stood a little way off, smiling and massaging his chin.
‘Forty-seven tell me fi carry yu, if yu ride no come and yu need place fi stay.
‘Di taxi man…him a mi good, good bredrin…him solid, yu know.’
He patted her on the shoulder then shook her hand. ‘Mi name Joseph, Joseph Adams, but everybody call mi J. A…. like Jamaica. Everything copacetic, Miss, no worry yuself.’
As she considered if a man with a number instead of a name should be something to worry about, her phone rang. The voice at the other end sounded thick with drink or ganja or both.
‘Eh! Auntie. What’s up? You reach?’
Mavis raised an index finger and stepped away from the jelly man.
‘Two an a half hours me a wait fi yu an yu arks if me reach?’
‘Oh, sorry, yu hear…mi tink yu get a ride…mi ina Spanish Town, yu still waan mi come fi yu?’
It was probably after the rush of evening traffic but Fridays in any town meant streams of cars choking all the main highways. At best it would be a two-hour drive for him.
‘Yu know what? Better mi cancel di insurance an tek back di vehicle.’
‘Mi a come now, Auntie, yu hear? Doan move, mi a come now.’
‘Ok,’ Mavis said and dropped the phone back into her bag.
The jelly man was jiggling a set of car keys and had lined her suitcases up next to the kerb.
‘Wah yu seh? Yu ready?’
‘Oh yes, J.A., mi ready.
Image credits: Roland Watson-Grant
A-dZiko is a writer, storyteller and spoken word artist and workshop facilitator. Her writing covers diverse genres including prose, poetry and scriptwriting for theatre (England and Montserrat), video (Ministry of Education and NGOs, Jamaica) radio (England, Jamaica, Australia) and television (BBC, England). Her work appears on the American Academy of Poets website and has been anthologized internationally in such collections as Caribbean Quarterly (Feb 2019), The Harvard Review [2014 Issue 45,] Jubilation [2012 Peepal Tree Press, England], Jamaica Gold Anthology [2013 Pelican Publishers Ltd, Jamaica] Iron Balloons [2006 Akashic Books, USA], So Much Things to Say [2010 Akashic Books, USA] and Poui [Annual anthology of creative writing published by University of the West Indies]. She is a member of The Poetry Society of Jamaica and Jamaica’s Calabash Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded residencies at The Corporation of Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, NY and The Cropper Foundation, Trinidad
Her debut novel, All Over Again [Blouse and Skirt Books, Jamaica], won the inaugural 2013 Burt Award for Caribbean Literature in April 2014 and one of her recent novels in progress was long-listed for the Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers’ Prize 2019.