The Canadian Women’s Club – a super efficient, highly organised bunch, has, as one of its activities, a book club. With military precision they choose books well in advance and require participants to attend armed with thoughtful answers to pre-determined questions about the themes, characters and plot. Of course I’m not a member but it’s the kind of serious book club that in my fantasy life I might belong to.
But on this small rock I have drifted into a rather different establishment. The Infamous Book Club (IBC) to which I belong is a place where democracy has gone mad. We can never agree on when to meet, where to meet, what book to read, who should be in and who should be expelled. Every single blessed time we want to discuss a book these and other questions must be answered afresh. A date will be set only to be changed a minimum of three times. And somewhere along the way it is became written in stone that we should only gather on a Thursday. Assembling on say a Wednesday requires a unanimous vote – even of those with no intention of turning up.
A book is often suggested and even agreed upon. But this ought to be viewed as nothing more than a mere nomination. At our last meeting we agreed that Kerry Young’s Pao would be our next target. One month later (with no firm date to meet) the object of our focus has shifted to Juan Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. By the time we convene sometime later this year the chosen book is likely to be an entirely different one.
And then there are The Rules. It is a spouse-free space. No books written by your friends or family are permitted. Cheating with other book clubs and being brazen enough to come back with glowing reports about how the other half reads is grounds for expulsion or at least a suspension of membership. New members may be introduced but need to be pre-approved. Most will not last beyond the first session. One new comer when asked about a book said she did not like it because there were too many trees in it. At first this was mistaken for a mystical comment. Had the writer gathered themes in threes – something the rest of us had missed? But she put us right. The book got her thumbs-down because the author, having set her novel in the Caribbean, had put in too many trees – those tall things with branches and leaves. I went home and only returned to the IBC when she had safely quit the rock for good.
Many of the members are writers and/or editors. This might account for the brevity of discussions. If the book is atrocious we are usually done the demolition in under ten minutes. Then there are the quiet moments we sip wine and wonder wistfully at the magic of words. One brave soul decided that our haphazard approach needed to be curtailed and produced typed questions requiring our response a la the Canadians. I don’t remember what we did with said individual but the paper became planes.
Like most West Indian events food is key. Meetings at a certain house near Black Rock are particularly popular as analysis of the text is served up with freshly baked bread to rival the boulangeries of Paris. And while most book clubs are laced with wine few can boast the sublime seafood lasagne and moist chocolate brownies topped with vanilla ice-cream we were treated to at our last meeting.
But book clubs are about books and I am always interested in what others are reading. The Canadian book club recently zoned in on Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop The Carnival – a novel that is almost as old as my aging bones. Set on a fictional Caribbean island, it is the story of a New Yorker who escapes the rat race to run an island hotel. Instead of nirvana he finds that life in the tropics is a constant navigation of incompetence and skulduggery. My understanding is that the book club gave it rave reviews with most commenting that forty plus years on so much of what he wrote was still applicable to their experiences of island life. I had never read the book so set out to get a copy.
The book is awful. Prejudice is sprinkled like salt and pepper over the pages. We Caribbean people can dance because of something in our knees. Our overt sexuality is a constant weapon we use against the unsuspecting foreigner. We might have education but this is used to cheat others and besides we are best suited to being bartenders and maids. We speak the Queen’s language in funny accents that are incomprehensible, stilted or pretentious. The only people to suffer worse prejudice are homosexuals. Prejudice is prejudice no matter when it was written. The only difference is that with awareness and education we have legislated against such discrimination.
So what is the book’s enduring appeal that it still makes a serious book club’s list in 2013? Most reviews say it is a hilarious read. I didn’t laugh once. Every neurotransmitter in my body reported the outrage I felt at being a member of a region of people classed as amateurish, dishonest and lazy.
But as the days go by anger has given way to reflection. We are not the people Herman Wouk has reductively portrayed. Despite the substantial disadvantages in material resources, there are as many Nobel Laureates in the West Indies per capita as in Canada. Yet maybe we could do more to help perceptions of our character. We could try giving good service without the chip on our shoulder that this might be related to servitude. We could try being open for business rather than employing Business Prevention Officers who make everything from incorporating a company to buying a TV mammoth tasks. Our Minister of Industry, Donville Inniss warned that without a change in attitude to we might someday “wake up and realise that there are no more clients or customers and no more jobs either”.
While I have no time for those who enjoy the lifestyle of our small rock while passing the time bitching about the natives there are issues we need to address now. If there is any value in Herman Wouk’s novel it is as a cautionary tale of what our future might be if we don’t stop the carnival and get to work.
School sports day is something I avoided when it was mandatory and continue to avoid whenever possible. But The Husband agreed to go too so off we went to witness the sporting prowess of First and Second Born on land. Our stocky sailors with upper body strength did well in the discus and shot put. They excelled in hanging out, ignoring their parents and consuming the BBQ lunch. I can’t complain. Those mangoes didn’t fall far from the tree. We managed a discreet exit before moms and dads were obliged to make fun of themselves in the 100m sprint. But not everyone shares our dread. Many parents were dressed in House Colours and had come prepared with picnic spreads to rival Glyndebourne. Some had on running shoes and one person had running spikes. One mom however looked slightly glum so I inquired as to the source of misery.
‘We’re likely to be leaving the island soon,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry. We were just getting to know you guys,’ I replied.
‘But I’m not ready,’ she said biting her lip. ‘I’m not ready for my island adventure to be over.’
For her, living in Bim, with the added perks of an expat package, had been a delicious sampling of the other. While I don’t doubt that it was a wonderful interlude it was only ever that - a temporary state of affairs. Real life, which lay elsewhere, was simply being postponed. It was in that moment I realised I was home. When I moved here six years ago it was reluctantly - sacrificing what little passed for a career - for First and Second Born to have a proper childhood. But slowly and steadily I have fallen hopelessly in love with this small rock.
It is not that life on the rock is easy. Our utility bills are higher here than in London. Groceries are my single largest expense and it isn’t exactly overflowing with diverse entertainment. And speaking of entertainment – the TV died last week. From one episode of Criminal Minds to the next it ceased to produce a visible picture. All that was left were a few fuzzy lines. Rufus, the handy man, claimed his friend Horsey could fix it. Forgive my prejudice but a man named Horsey should not be trusted near electronics. What did he do to earn a nickname like Horsey? Does he look like a horse? Does he love horses more than ahem… people? The assumption always is that his birth certificate attests to something more prosaic like Fred or Barry. But this is Bimshire and anything goes. Someone is listed in the phone book simply as Happy (433-0201). It’s a mere trot from Happy to Horsey.
Having done my online research I galloped to Courts to buy a 40” TV listed for $1399 ($700usd). Like I said – I love living here – but they don’t make it easy. My inquiry was met with a steups.
‘I never see that TV here.’
‘But it’s on your website.’
I showed her my ipad.
‘Oh, that’s a TV uses to have,’ she said turning away.
‘So why is it on the website?’
‘We had it but we ain’t have no more,’ she said now walking off.
I trailed behind her.
‘Are you getting anymore?’ I asked.
‘Do you have something similar?’
‘It go cost you $1799.’
‘But I don’t want to spend $1799.’
‘Well you can’t get the TV then.’
She had reached a desk and sat down admiring her sparkling blue, acrylic talons.
‘Do you have anything else?’ I pleaded.
‘We have the new model to the one you was looking at.’
‘How much is that?’
‘Can I get that then?’
‘I go have to check the warehouse.’
She looked around the store. About five store assistants were gathered around a nearby desk talking.
‘Miss Browne, any of them new 40” in the warehouse?’
‘Call and see,’ yelled Miss Browne turning ever so slightly in our direction.
Our assistant steupsed again and reluctantly dialled a number.
‘Dwayne, it have any of them 40” TV that come in last week? A lady want one.’
She put the phone down and looked at me challengingly.
‘It have three in the warehouse.’
I smiled and asked to purchase one. You would think that the transaction would now be nearly over but we were only at the midway point. She handed me a slip of paper with a number scrawled on it and pointed in the direction of the only cashier working.
‘Pay over there,’ she commanded.
The queue was seven people long including a lady returning a toaster and a juicer. Twenty minutes later I had finally handed over the cash.
Now for some this typical retail experience drives them quickly back to The Great North or wherever they came from. For us long-term, Bim lovers it is just another encounter with a Barbados Business Prevention Officer. They are everywhere and easily identified. Restaurants, government offices, stores and gas stations – no place is safe from the reach of a BPO.
It’s part of the price we pay for living in paradise. I drove my kids to school on roads dissecting cane fields and sit at a desk looking out at the sea touching the sky. I will eat my lunch outside wearing the flip-flops I live in year round surrounded by purple Petrea in full bloom. After school my kids will sail before doing homework and eating salad and vegetables we have grown in our garden. I’m not ready for this adventure to be over.
I told my friend J. that two worrying things had happened recently and I was a little low. Instead of offering comfort that my run of dumb luck was over she looked wistfully into the middle distance.
‘You know bad things does happen in three’s. You have another thing coming.’
Having confirmed my fate was sealed she turned her attention back to her Caesar salad. I pushed my lunch away.
‘Three bad things?’
‘Yup,’ she nodded, her mouth still full of lettuce. ‘I sure as God make Moses one more thing going happen.’
Perhaps my crumbling face made her take pity and she squeezed my hand.
‘Don’t worry. Is just one more nasty slap and boops you done.’
From that moment on I was constantly on the look out for situations of impending doom. I barely slept and woke anxious that each new morn might be when The Third Bad Thing occurred. It’s been a week of this unremitting dread. Mainly I dread something rotten happening to my immediate posse. Will First or Second Born have a sailing accident? Will the next time I wave goodbye to The Husband at the airport be the last as his plane crashes? Will Jack or Rosie escape Beacon House and be run over by a speeding car? Other times the angst is more selfish. Will my hard drive suddenly crash before I have time to back up? Will I ever find an agent for my novel?
While these fears have been whirling around something odd has also been happening. Every time things don’t go too wrong I am grateful. When a driver tried unsuccessfully to sideswipe my car by Norman Niles roundabout I was grateful not to have had an accident. My usual response would have been to cuss the offending driver starting with his materfamilias and working my way through his entire clan. When First and Second Born came to blows over ownership of a t-shirt showing Bob inhaling a huge spliff I was grateful it ended without actual blood shed. Besides you can hardly see the rip if a boy tucks the t-shirt into his jeans. And as another rejection popped up on my Gmail (Dear Author, We are not sufficiently enthusiastic about your manuscript to offer representation…) I didn’t shed a tear. It wasn’t personal – hell they hadn’t even taken the time to know my name. With gratitude filling my life I was convinced that J. was wrong. I had dodged The Third Bad Thing.
But fate can only ever be postponed. If town say bad things going happen in three’s you better resign yourself and take your licks. So to round off the week not one, not two but three centipedes attempted to take up residence with us. (And FYI the proper small rock pronunciation is sen-tee-pee – the ‘d’ has been dispensed with). Some of you from foreign may not fully appreciate the gravity of this situation. Bimshire is, as its name suggests, an island of tranquil bliss. We trample through the countryside safe in the knowledge that we are free of poisonous snakes. And when we venture off terra firma into azure waters we have no fear of sharks having our limbs for lunch.
Yet even in paradise we must be reminded of how lucky we are and that role falls to the centipede. It is a disgusting, frightening, worm–like creature that slithers at some pace. It doesn’t actually have a hundred feet – our lot usually have about fifteen to twenty gruesome pairs. If you get bitten there will be pain and swelling, maybe fever and possibly shock. Buddhists warn that if you enjoy frightening others you will be reincarnated as none other than a centipede.
The first one – about 20 cm – crawled into The Husband’s office perhaps intending to study economics and finance at his feet. He claims he fearlessly decapitated the creature but I know better. He’s a vegetarian who has trouble killing mosquitoes. Our housekeeper confirmed its poisonous front claws had been crushed and the horrible creature thrown in the bush.
Jack’s incessant barking a few days later alerted us to the second centipede. The creepy, dark red creature – even longer than the first – was rushing around under the dining table. M., an Englishman with a properly stiff upper lip, instructed me to stop screaming and get him a broom. In one action he swept the centipede out from the darkness and then used the broom handle to whack the flattened body into three parts. My terror was quickly replaced by gratitude and I knew in that instant that I would be willing to share my last dhal-pouri roti and curry channa with him.
By the time I shook the third centipede out from between some cushions on the front porch I was not quite the same shaking, bawling person I had been during the previous incident. I simply went inside, locking the door behind me and called an emergency service
‘You have a what?’ asked the first responder.
‘I have a centipede in the porch.’
‘You expect us to come catch a centipede? Is how much centipede you have?’
‘Just the one. But it’s big and poisonous. I could die if it bites me.’
‘Lady, unless you bite the thing first I don’t think nothing going happen to you.’
He hung up.
But it wasn’t my time to go just yet. The housekeeper answered her phone and was more sympathetic. She came, severed head from body of the thick, long beast and threw it into the deep gully that straddles our land.
It’s over. The third unpleasant thing has happened and it did so three times. I’m due a bit of good luck any day now.
Today I gave a young woman and her brand new baby boy a ride into town. They were waiting for the bus in the hot sun as I sped past in air-conditioned comfort. It didn’t seem right or fair. But life’s not right or fair. Within a minute of settling into the car she asked if I knew of anyone hiring. She has two kids under three and was heading to the welfare office. Computer literate, able and willing to work, but no job offers. I had a vague recollection of a call centre opening up on island and promised to send the advert to her.
She isn’t alone. The Husband’s face is well known and he says every time he goes for a walk random strangers stop him to ask if he knows of any jobs going. People are desperate. It’s not only the poor who are getting poorer. The once thriving middle classes are feeling the pinch. Cruise along the so-called Platinum west coast and it seems every other house has a “For Sale” sign. Used car lots with decent vehicles are springing up everywhere. Classified ads are filled with people trying to off load their old furniture, old bicycles and old electrical goods – anything to generate cash.
True crime statistics are hard to come by but the newspapers have more reports than usual of opportunistic robberies and muggings. The goal appears to be relieving victims of their gold jewellery – often at gunpoint. Take the gold into Bridgetown and it can be exchanged for cash with no questions asked.
This is not the Bimshire I moved to six years ago. Back then there were anecdotal reports that certain Bajans kept guns for protection against potential insurrection by the unruly masses. But there was no gun culture. The problem is still one we could control if we had leadership who put resources into fixing the problem rather than denying its existence.
Reports of trouble in paradise used to be managed and massaged but they can no longer be kept from the prying eyes of sun bathing tourists. Not any more. And where are our leaders? Maybe I missed the memo but where is the thoughtful strategy from either party for tackling the problems we as a society face?
But all is no lost. In paradise one industry at least is thriving. Next time you are out count the number of makeshift, tented churches springing up on empty plots. Apparently the most successful interpretation of this business model is by a gentleman who calls himself Elector. Maybe he has the answers.