Lawrence looked around for the big stick he always carried into the water. His father used to tell him, “You haffi find a big stick before you get in the wata cause sometimes yu need to brap a crocodile on its head.” He found it where he left it the day before, and started banging it against the surface of the water, looking for the swish of a tail or the tell-tale ripples of a croc slipping away from the noise.
The thing about crocodiles though, is that they are so good at hiding. You could look out at the flat calm water and never know what was beneath it. One time a crocodile had gotten so close to Lawrence’s father that he only saw it as it brushed against him. His father had yelled two bad words and whacked it with the stick, narrowly avoiding being bitten.
Before the yacht club was built, they would go fishing together. They would walk all the way to the bottom of the road, which led them to the water. It was a short swim from there to the wooden jetty his father had built to fish from. Lawrence would always gaze deep into the mangroves, their distinctive roots going straight into the water like long skinny legs. He once told his father that the trees looked like they were just resting and might get up and walk to a new place when they felt like it. His father used to tease him with, “Look deh Lawrence— one of the mangroves jus walking now,” and when Lawrence would spin his head around, his father would say, “look at dat, it sat down again. Yu jus too slow.”
The mangroves provided a natural harbour so there was never a current. “Is the perfect place fi fishin! All di fish dem lay eggs here and the babies raise up here, till dem just big enough fi catch,” his father would say. Thanks to his father, Lawrence knew when a fish was big enough to catch, when to throw it back, what months you could catch lobster, and how to deal with crocodiles. They had been going there since Lawrence was a boy and, despite the crocodiles, it was where his father had taught him to swim. “Not many fishas cyan swim Lawrence, but yu mus learn how, he’d say.”
But one day three years ago they arrived and a fence had been put up. They ignored it and walked their usual way, but a security guard came up and stopped them. His father tried to reason with him: “But look how long we walkin to the wata this way. Why we haffi stop now?” The guard didn’t have an answer for that, but he took out his baton and chased them off the land same way. It was private property now.
They found a new route, about a mile up from the yacht club where they had to pick through the maccabushes to get to the water. They had to move carefully. The thorns were sharp and most of the bushes were taller than Lawrence. Last year he slipped and fell, and one of the macca thorns went straight into his eyelid. He was lucky that it didn’t pierce his eyeball, but it was a long trip to Kingston Public Hospital and a longer wait in a corridor that smelled of Dettol and fresh paint. The doctor had to pull the thorn out with a pair of pliers. When the bandage came off, he stood in front of the mirror and looked at the scar that zig-zagged across his eyelid. He told people that he got cut in a fight at school.
It wasn’t only the macca bushes they had to contend with. The road to the yacht club was isolated so people had started dumping garbage into the undergrowth. He stepped through the remnants of a barbed wire fence. Each week, more and more rubbish would be dumped there. It would stop for a while, only to continue again. Whoever was dumping was clever. They never just left it at the side of the road. It was hidden in the bush and only Lawrence, on his walk through the thorns down to the sea could see it.
After getting through the macca and the garbage, they had to clamber down a steep slope just before the water. His father taught him to slide down on his bottom, and to stop at just the right moment so as to not go plunging headfirst into the lagoon. Right at the base there was enough shoreline to stand. Bushes jutted out on either side, so it was hidden. From there, they could just about see the wooden jetty among the mangroves.
Now he fished alone. Sometimes when he had finished for the morning, he would sit on that small patch of black sand to hide from the world.
He didn’t normally go out fishing on a Saturday, and his mother was surprised when she heard him fumbling around in their small concrete house.
“Is a Saturday yu know! Where you goin?”
“Just tryin to get some fish mummy. Didn’t bring home nuttn yesterday, so hope fi get some today.”
“You a good bwoy.”
Even though the sun hadn’t risen properly, the heat of the morning made Lawrence’s clothes stick to him. He took off his t-shirt and hung it on a branch and, with one last look to make sure there were no crocodiles, slipped into the water. It was warm and he wanted to roll onto his back and stare up at the sky, which was now getting lighter with the dawn twilight. But he didn’t linger. He swam with powerful strokes across to the jetty. He kept his spool and bait in a Tupperware that was tied to his shorts with string, so it floated along behind him when he swam. He pulled himself up onto the jetty and opened the Tupperware and got out the line and a hook. His mother had given him some of the jangas she couldn’t sell the day before, and he set one on the hook. He didn’t have a pole, just the reel itself, so he let some line off and spun it around three or four times in a big circle above his head before releasing the line, watching the hook fly and then drop into the water. He sat down, cross legged on the wooden planks and waited, the line touching the top of his index finger so he could feel for a bite.
The jetty straddled the swamp side of the mangroves and the open sea. It was early, so the sea-side was flat calm, too. Just out of sight, the sun was rising. He had gotten there at five AM that morning, like every morning, to try catch something for his mother to sell at the Old Harbour Bay Fish Market. During the weekdays he had to get out early so he could take the fish to his mother before going to school. Thankfully, for him school started at nine-thirty because the bus took half an hour on a good day. If he ever complained in the mornings when he woke up his mother would say, “Give tanks you pon di late shift at school. Oddawise you gettin up at three.” His father told him fish bite the best in the morning and his father knew these things because his whole family was fishers. Lawrence’s mother had other plans for him though, and if his father talked about Lawrence being a fisher when he finished school, she would say, “Him not gwine be a fisha all him life. Mek him finish him schoolin.”
His father didn’t come with him anymore because the fish were so scarce now. He couldn’t sustain the family on the one or two fish Lawrence would catch, so had started going further and further away to find better fishing. Sometimes he went so far out to sea that he was gone Monday to Thursday. His mother always fought him about the safety of it.
“Gladys Hines, what yu want me to do? Since they dug out that channel fi di yacht club, no more fish round here!” They only used their full names during a fight.
“One day yu gwine go out and not come back! And one of the odda fishamen gwine knock pon mi door and tell me, sorry Mrs Hines, Jacob dead,” his mother screamed, crossing herself at the same time.
“But yu still don’t tell me what yu want mi fi do. Eh? Just mind yu business and mek mi do what I have to.”
“Mind mi business? Mind mi business? Yu not mi business now? What happen if you dead off and lef mi eh? How mi and Lawrence gwine live? What yu want mi fi do fi work? You want mi go work in Miss Kitty rum bar?”
These fights became like a well-worn cassette tape, played over and over again on Sunday afternoons.
Lawrence stood up on the jetty and stretched, easing the stiffness in his legs, and looked down the channel to the Dragon Bay Yacht club. The place that forced his father out to sea and was the source of those full-name fights. What started first as a fence, now had a club house, a paved parking lot, and berths for eight boats. They dredged the lagoon and floated a giant crane into the mangrove swamp, destroying the trees as they went, and dug a deep channel going from the sea to the sheltered cove. The yachts started to sail up and down the channel, carrying white people from Dragon Bay to Pigeon Island. The music started playing right from they launched the boat, making the crocodiles hide and scaring the fish.
Same like yesterday, no fish were biting. Lawrence pulled the line in and saw that the bait was gone. He scooped another janga out of the Tupperware, put it on the hook and threw the line back in. Fishing was about waiting.
At about eight, Lawrence heard a boat engine rev up and, although the yacht club was out of sight, he could smell the diesel. His shoulders slumped as the music began and he knew that there would be no more fishing today. He began to bring his line in, wrapped it carefully around the spool, and placed it back in the Tupperware. He watched as one of the yachts, Island Paradise, rounded the bend. Plenty people were on the boat today. The old couple who owned it were upstairs driving, and another five people were downstairs— three adults and two children. The boat was loaded up with coolers, which Lawrence knew would contain food and alcohol. Probably imported food that cost so much he would never be able to taste it. The old couple driving the boat saw him and waved. Lawrence waved back.
A grinding sound, followed by a sharp clang rang out through the mangroves, and the boat stopped suddenly. Everyone onboard grabbed for the nearest railing as the boat lurched, straining against an invisible barrier. The waves splashed over the jetty and Lawrence had to grab his Tupperware to stop it from flowing into the sea. Once the old man got his balance back, he shouted to everyone, “Turn off the rass music, so I can concentrate.” He revved up the boat, but the grinding grew louder. Lawrence watched as smoke started to rise up from the engine. The old woman yelled “No, Derek, turn off the…” but she was cut off by a louder splintering sound, a crack that came from underneath her. Steam rose from the water, and bubbles appeared beside the boat. Almost immediately it started to sink[MOU1] into the water.
“Everybody jump out!” someone yelled, and they all dove into the water. Lawrence watched as the youngest boy jumped off the front. He saw him dive in, but too much time passed and he didn’t come up. As the people started to come to their senses, they noticed the little boy was gone. One of the women screamed.
Lawrence dove into the water without thinking. They were closer to the sea here, so the water was colder. He forced his eyes open in the stinging salt and saw the boy on the bottom. His leg was caught on a length of rope and wire and he was struggling. He swam down to the boy, thankful the current wasn’t strong here, and started to pull the rope off his leg. It took longer than expected; his breath was running out and panic was rising in his throat. But he finally got the rope free and they shot up to the surface. The boy took a huge breath, coughing up sea water. His mother and father were there by then and they grabbed him, hugged him, and kissed him. They were all crying.
Lawrence was treading water, when he looked back and saw the boat had sunk, with just its bow sticking out of the water now. The whole channel was blocked. No more boats would be able to use the channel for a long time. He smiled.
A small canoe came around the corner. Someone from the yacht club must have heard the noise and come to investigate. The pilot stopped his boat. He threw some life rings in the water. “Swim to the boat and get in,” he yelled, “There are some crocs not far, so hurry up.”
Lawrence knew the invitation didn’t extend to him, so he swam back to his jetty. He hauled himself up and collected his Tupperware, tying it back to his shorts. He looked for a last time at the boat and its bow sticking out of the water. He scanned the river for the crocs and, seeing none, dove in, and swam back to the other side. He grabbed his t-shirt from the bushes and started to barge back through the macca, too flustered to be careful. The macca began tearing at his skin, reminding him to slow down and to move the way his father had shown him. He finally got back to the road, and looked at his arms, now red with scratches and blood that was oozing from his skin. He turned and started his walk home. No school on Saturdays, so he took his time, and walked the longer route along the beach. The fishers had left to sea hours ago, before Lawrence had even woken up, so he shared the beach with just two stray dogs. He walked by two old canoes, beached, with their hulls ripped open, and in front of the fish pots stacked high under one of the almond trees. He stopped at a big piece of driftwood and sat and looked out at the sea. The waves had picked up by now, and Lawrence knew they were bigger than the fishers would like at this time of day. He sat down and was sprayed by the salt air, which stung the cuts on his arm. He wondered how long it would take for the fish to come back to the mangrove now that the boats couldn’t pass through.
His stomach told him it was time to get home to eat some breakfast. It was a Saturday, which meant there would be cornmeal porridge with condensed milk.
“Lawrence, come inside!” his mother bawled out as he approached the house. He didn’t even notice the Land Rover parked outside.
He walked into his dark living room and saw the white man and woman from the boat perched on the settee while his mother was sitting awkwardly on a chair facing them.
“Lawrence, these people has told me what you done,” she said in her most speaky spokey voice. Lawrence had heard her use it before when selling fish to rich people. “Such a good bwoy. A blessnin from Christ,” she said to them, warming to her theme, “Always does his studies, and he goes out to try catch fish for his mumma to sell. I only had the one you know, when yu husban is a fisher, yu know you cyan’t have too many.”
“Young Man,” the white man said, “you saved our son’s life. I want to shake your hand.” And he shook it. The white woman smiled a tight smile. So tight it looked like her face might start vibrating soon from the tension. You could tell she had never been in such a small house, much less one with an outside toilet. “Anything you need Mrs Hines, you just tell me.”
“Well sir, the bwoy seh him want fi go university. Him love off his books, but surely we can’t afford that”
There was a silence. Lawrence’s mother was at her best. She was using her hardest selling voice now, like she was trying to sell a merchant a four-day old fish and convince him it just came out of the sea that morning.
“Him want to be an engineer!” she added, just at the right moment.
“Oh! An engineer! Well, I’m sure we can help with that! Is it Utech you were hoping to go to?” Lawrence toyed with the idea of saying that he really wanted to go to UWI, but he could see that that the family were letting him know the direction their generosity might take.
“Yes sir. Utech would be great. My teachers tell me I could make it there.”
“When you supposed to finish?”
“This June sah!” his mother said, clipping the back of his head.
“This June sir.”
“Where do you go to high school?” the white woman asked, clearing her throat.
“Jose Marti, miss.”
She smiled, nodding, probably satisfied she had heard the name of a school she knew. It was not Campion or Hillel or even Wolmers, but then this white family wouldn’t be sitting on the edge of their furniture, trying not to touch it, if he went to any of those schools. They would have relaxed and shared a cup of tea.
“Well, we want to thank you again. Lawrence, you are a special young man. Mrs Hines, here is my cell number, when it comes time for the school fees, let me know.”
“How they found us Mummy?” Lawrence asked as the couple climbed back into their Land Rover.
“The man from the Yacht club recognise yu as yu swam away. He knows yu fatha, so told dem where to go. Why yu look so sad!? This is a day to rejoice!” Lawrence looked at his mother and turned and walked outside.
One Sunday. Long before the Sunday she died. Before the cancer took her. Before Mister Joseph came to knock on her door to tell her that Jacob’s boat never came back, fulfilling her own prediction. Before the white people paid their money and before Lawrence went to Utech. Before he got a good job at the Hi Pro feed mill. Before all of that, Gladys Hines took her one son, Lawrence, to the beach. They sat on that same piece of driftwood and ate a bag of pepper shrimp together. She was quiet for a long time, shelling the pepper shrimp and eating them. Crunching the heads last. Lawrence started to shift about, trying to rotate the areas where the bony bits of driftwood dug into him. Eventually, she looked at him and said, “Lawrence, I know seh is you sink that boat. Why you did it?”
He said nothing for a while.
“You and pops kept fighting about him going out to sea to catch the fish, and I knew it was because of the yacht club. So, every morning I would go and once I caught two, three fish, I would drag whatever garbage was on the side of the road and sink it in the channel. It was so early, I knew no one would catch me doing it. One time I saw all this copper wire on the side and I just kept putting it in. I just meant to block up the channel, but that’s what the boat propeller caught on.”
A long silence.
“How you knew I did it?”
“Is me raise you from you born and I can see it has changed you. You look haunted, like you trying to run away and come home at the same time.” It wasn’t judgement in her voice, it was the heavy observation of a woman who’d lived a hard life.
“You need to ask God for forgiveness fi dat.”
“I have been, mummy. Every day.”
Jonathan Chambers grew up in Jamaica and has lived in Toronto and London. He is a writer and (occasional!) actor. Jonathan is currently finishing a Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck, University of London.