By Desiree Reynolds
His rheumy, watery eyes fell on each one suspiciously. He sucked his teeth. Pairs of hopeful looks landed on him like stone. Someone was wheezing. The city life would kill that one, that wheezing one. They were sweating out their new clothes. That’s what he thought. New clothes, old country. He could sense the weight of all their eyes on him. They waited. Wanted. And he, confused, agitated, tried to guess what it was he was supposed to give them. The machete tapping against his boot, anchored him and sent tiny bits of red dirt into the air and then back to where it came from. The tapping comforted him. He knew it. He knew his chair, his veranda, his machete, the land that cradled him, he knew it all. He didn’t know them. The little valley where the house he built with his own hands stood, the graves of his mother and father out the back, an Indian woman from India, who broke with her religion, confused her relatives and married the man she fell in love with; his father, a short, blue black man, built for work and war. He knew that tree on the ridge that always swayed south, but never fell over. He knew each mango tree, pear tree, banana, coconut, orange, guava, star apple, ackee, choc cho, pea and bean. He knew that after 90 years, the red dirt would never go from under his fingernails. All this he knew. He did not know the people sweating out their new clothes on his veranda, staring at him. He searched them to find family and saw none. Yet, here they were.
“It’s beautiful,” she looked up and offered her body to the land, surrendered to the meadow and let the valley sink deep into her eyes.
“Is it?” He did not doubt it was beautiful, but he thought, it’s still mine.
“It’s nice to be in the country,” some idiot said, “its cool, y’know, cool breeze up here.”
What did they want?
“Yes, it is cool”, his voice had lost its bass years ago. Shouting out orders in Panama, laughing with woman in Cuba, singing songs at carnival in Trinidad.
“Yes, yes, it’s much cooler here than in the city.” They urgently agree, nodding, relieved. The chink of the ice against glass filled a void, a gap, a lull.
“I’m so much cooler up here.”
“That’s right, it is.”
“Up here and at the coast.”
“Yes, the coast.”
People chat too much fart. He looked down at his tumbler of pineapple juice and waited. He could do with some rum in it.
“Well, me could live out there.” Their driver smiled at the old man. Recognition. He was breathing the city out, putting the country back in. “Yes boss, me could live up here.”
The driver stared into the distance. His words ran away and hid in places they used to recognise. Trees, grass, rocks, air. He could hear a car, the noise snaking across the valley, far away, disturbing his morning. The women shifted about fanning themselves.
“So,” the old man said, unable to bear it any longer.
“Well, er…,” the woman could hardly turn her head. The heat had taken away all ease of movement. Everything stopped and then started. Nothing flowed. The car came towards them. A big black 4×4, took the hill easily. The younger woman got up and saw the car park on the hill, almost vertical to the house.
A man in his early thirties strode up towards them. The old man knew it would be Elton. He came by once a week to check he was still alive. Elton drove the four hour drive to check on his inheritance. He bounded up the porch steps. Too much gold. No sweat. The old man was grateful for someone he recognised.
“Is how you do Elton? Dis is you relative from foreign.”
“How you doing?”
“How do you do.”
Elton pulled up his trousers. Checked his watch.
“So, we cousins eh?”
He briefly thought about marrying the youngest woman, but she was too fat and looked like she was made out of sponge, the sponge he used to give his workers to wash the cars. He ran through it all. Wedding, wedding night and thought about the house help he would sleep with to escape the spongy bed. Could be worth it. But only if she was American, liked Americans, he had been many times to America. They could have a place there and a couple of places here. Might be worth it for the card.
“So, you is English”
What di rarse, no same ting?
His disappointment was visible to everyone.
“Oh, but you been to America?”
“No,” she said it as if it was the worst place he could’ve said. “No, I’ve no desire to even go there.”
Shit. He’d have to just keep making the eight hour journey. Remind the old man who was who. And what was what.
Seeing them all there, with no one he recognised except Elton, he started to feel like a cow. Flies making homes in his mouth and eyes, dying, disorientated, looking for water on the hillside and about ready to collapse. What he thinks is rain falling, is really saliva dripping from the beaks of the John Crows circling. Wetting him up, wetting him up.
“So, mum says you built this house.”
“Wid dese two han.” They all stared, leaned forward to hear the story, none came. They rested back in their chairs.
He looked at his drink again and willed it to change into rum. He had to give them something.
“Me moder an fader bury out back, desso.”
The young, fat woman’s eyes looked wide.
“Can we go see?”
He eyed her up an down. “You can walk?”
“I can walk.”
“Elton, tek are.”
The old man’s tricks wouldn’t work on him. He wanted to marry an American. The little Chinese gyal that had his four kids would just have to wait. The old man was throwing them together. This was about land. He’d humour him for a while then go back to Kim Sue, she always did curry goat the first Thursday of the month. He clapped his jaws; the noise sent some birds up from the meadow.
“I will come too,” their driver wanted to escape the loud silence. Elton looked at him, trying to tell him with his eyes he could have her, he wanted an American, but the driver pretended not to hear Elton’s eyes.
“This way,” all three walked down the veranda steps and walked to the back of the house.
What else do these people want?
“It’s so peaceful up here.” More fart.
“Do you want us to do anything?”
“No, I have a girl.”
“Heh, heh, I bet you do,” the boys laughter dribbled away and they all looked at him. He must have been 40, 50. By the spread across his stomach he had never done a hard days work, but wished he had and wondered what life would have been had he stayed here.
The old man looked at them again, children all of them, young, younger than his yam field down yonder, younger than the blue and white cups and plates of his wife’s dowry, younger than the ring he forged himself, from the metal he found in the river in Panama, younger than the secretive orchid that clung to his parents grave, younger than the spit that washed around his teeth. Young.
“You sure you don’t want us to cook food for you.”
The older woman, maybe in her 60’s got up and went into the house. She says she is his granddaughter, but he can’t see who she favours. She comes back out, a look of disappointment on her face. Some people need jobs for jobs sake.
“But it nice an clean in dere”.
She could hardly keep her face straight. She expected to find everything in disarray, so she, a life half lived elsewhere could come and set everything to rights.
“Dere’s some corn beef an rice in di pot. Who cook it fi you?”
“Me have a woman”.
She thinks they all have a woman. But is where do they get their supply of women from? The whole place, anywhere you go, they have a woman. Silence again. He could hear Elton and the driver talking.
“You been to the States?”
Dat Elton, dat’s all he good for.
“No, but me moder dere”.
“Is it, where?”
“An you don’t go yet?”
“Money man, she seh she goin fi send fi me, but y’know.”
“Will you go?” Dat was the girl. But she nosey no rarse.
“I..Er. Me nunno”.
The driver switched up the conversation. “Is how you relate to she?”
“Me no know, y’know. Di ole man was mi fader uncle”.
“So we cousins den, I think once removed is that it?”
“Me nunno. Is here dem is”.
Everyone on the veranda was listening hard to them. It gave them a little gap to run through, to get away from each other. The old man turned and could see them down beyond the house. They stood around the grave stones, small, grey and mossy. Two graves stones resting in the grass. They looked like they held this part of the meadow together, like staples putting a pleat in the land, collapsing time, forcing the old and new. Standing around their ancestor’s grave, he wondered, did dey really understand?
He could see her, all in white. She look like the perfect virgin, a perfect bride, maybe she was getting married for true. Wedded to the pale crescent moons, on the fingernails that still pointed upward.
“She is a picture to look at, don’t it Elton?” He shouted at them to increase Elton’s annoyance, to mix him up. He wants somting from me, he goin haffi give me somting, but the truth was he wanted nothing from him.
“Yes sir, she is”
“Is who do your washing?”
But bwoy dis woman need a job eeee. He felt tired. He looked up at the piece of sky the land let him see, it was turning colour. His girl would soon come, dish out his food, tell him her stories, let him tell her his. Elton, the driver and the girl climbed back up the veranda steps.
“You should see it mum it’s…” the silence stopped her and formed a wall around them, only letting in the sound of the John Crows, “it’s so beautiful…”.
Desiree Reynolds started her writing career in London as a freelance journalist for the Jamaican Gleaner and the Village Voice. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leeds. She is a member of Inscribe, a Black writers group based in Leeds and Black Butterflies, a female Black writers collective based in Sheffield. She has published poetry and short stories and articles in SABLE LitMag, The Suitcase Book of Love poems, any anthology published by Suitcase Press and Toaster for Smoky Laughter, The Inscribe anthology, In Our Own Words – A Generation Defining Itself, MWE Enterprises in the USAShe is the Black Consultant Editor, for Writeangles, Arts Council, Yorkshire and is currently working on a collection of short stories. She has also been awarded a grant from Arts Council, Yorkshire to develop her first novel, which will be published by Peepal Tree Press.