Okay, to satisfy readers of my novel, Island in the Clouds – the first in a quartet of novels in the Bequia Perspectives Series – who have been asking when the next will be ready, and to prove to Tim Baker that I am actually writing this next novel … here’s a snippet from Chapter Seven of One Woman’s Island I can post now that doesn’t need a lot of preamble to set the scene and doesn’t give away any of the story. It’s just a good, solid description of Bequia and, since that seems to be what my readers enjoyed most about the first novel, I thought I’d let you have a sneak peek of what’s in store for you in the next. This is told from the perspective of Mariana, a fifty-+-year-old woman from Calgary who has decided to live on Bequia for six months. (And, yes, most of this section is based on my own personal experience of walking the roads of Bequia.)
After a few weeks of living a rather sedentary life while recovering from Dengue, I began to notice my clothes were feeling tighter than they had when I first arrived on Bequia. I’d managed to gain more weight on an already rather full figure. Not wanting to give up either food or drink, I figured my next course of action was to get into some regular exercise, a daily walk being my best bet, I thought. And it was through those walks I began to see and understand more of the true nature of the local people.
The main road out to the airport became my favourite route, mainly because I could walk on mostly unbroken concrete and there were few hills to challenge me. It was about four miles out in that direction giving me a brisk return trip of eight miles altogether, a good workout in the late afternoon.
That way also took me through several local villages and, some days, I seemed to be the only white person in existence. Certainly the local people I met along the road treated me like an oddity, at first—until I’d been walking for a few weeks. Then I became yet another fixture in their daily lives.
I mastered the many forms of greetings common to Bequians. This is one place where you actually make eye contact with everyone you pass, say “Hello” to them, and mean it.
First of all, there’s the simple chin lift to acknowledge someone who may not be close enough to hear your voice, but can still see your face. Then there are many greetings depending on the age and gender of the other person. “Aw-right” or even just a simple “Right” or “Right, right” are all good for young and middle-aged men. “Hi” or “Hello” work with children. For older women and elderly men a more formal “Good Morning,” “Good Afternoon” or “Good Night” are required, depending upon the time of day. And since the sun sets abruptly in the tropics making it suddenly very dark, there is no such time as evening. People generally say “Good Night” whether they are arriving or leaving any time after about 6:00 p.m. every day. There’s also a quick little hand wave from a waist-high wrist I use for taxi drivers as they pass, which does not imply I’m hailing them. Most drivers wave back or even honk. And all of this greeting goes on with everyone you meet along the way, whether they know you or not, or whether they’ve seen you as recently as the previous day or months before. It’s just the Bequia way.
One afternoon I passed the bus shelter in La Pompe where the neighbourhood often gathers to chat. The benches were filled with men all just gazing out to sea. I said “Good Afternoon” to no one in particular, and the whole group replied as one, as though they were an opera chorus, with “Good Afternoon”. It was such a surprise to hear this collective greeting that I had a hard time containing myself until I was well past the shelter where I then broke into an ear-to-ear grin.
I saw many of the same people every day, sitting in the same spot, with their same friends and neighbours. One of my favourites was ‘The Man On the Wall’, as I called him. He sat on a stone wall at the edge of the road on the sea-side, looking in towards the land rather than out at the fabulous view to the south just behind his back. He was there most days as I made my way back home and always said good afternoon to me. Sometimes his dogs were with him; other times both his dogs and his children. One time, he introduced me to his daughter.
“Missus.” They all seemed to call me that; must be a generic name for women of a certain age. “Dis be me daughter, Kaysha.” He patted the child on her curly head. “She be de youngest.”
“How many children do you have?” I asked. He looked to be in his sixties or seventies.
“Nineteen. Four be inside and de rest outside. And ten grandchildren. Only one great-grandkiddie, though.”
“Oh, you have been busy,” I said, hoping he didn’t understand my sarcasm.
To clarify, ‘inside’ children are those that were borne by his wife, and ‘outside’ are the issue of every other woman who became pregnant by him.
“This is some weather we’re having lately,” I added, quickly changing the topic.
However, in spite of his personal admissions that day, I still had the habit of looking for him as I rounded the corner and was disappointed on the very few occasions he wasn’t sitting there.
And as I became more familiar to the other people along my route they would give me words of encouragement or congratulations on being so persistent with my exercise.
Unfortunately, some of their comments became a little too familiar.
One man watched me pass by every day for a couple of weeks then shouted, “Good fo’ you. Dat exercise make you big!”
“But I’m trying to get smaller!” I cried back to him, feeling defeated all of a sudden. Someone told me later that he probably just meant that my muscles were getting big.
Small consolation, I thought.
A taxi driver congratulated me on “Getting’ rid a all dat fat,” as he put it.
Another man told me I was looking hefty.
Still another tagged along with me and said I was walking swift and “sweatin’ good”, then told all the people we passed that I was his girlfriend. I picked up speed at that point and soon left him in my dust.
A young girl shouted at me that I had fat, sexy legs and an albino boy with extremely crossed eyes whispered that he loved me.
Yet another taxi driver, a very fat one I might add, slowed down as he drove by and said, with a leering grin, “Lookin’ good!” while giving me the once over with his eyes. Oh, help!
I told Dudley about some of my experiences and of the many comments people had made about me and he said to pay them no mind.
“Dey all just love to hear themselves talk and don’t mean nothing.”
Still it made me realize that people did notice me and it wasn’t possible to be anonymous on Bequia. Not exactly the kind of fan club I’d hoped to attract, though.
But for the most part during that time, I accepted and, after a while, no one paid much attention to me at all. There had always been some people, only a very few, who refused to acknowledge me, turning their heads away and never making eye contact. These were usually young people, mainly in their late teens and early twenties, who acted like they had chips on their shoulders. Maybe it was because I was older, or a woman, or even because I was a white foreigner, that I was being shunned. I wasn’t sure of the reason. I tended to just ignore them, anyway.
Besides the people I met on my walks, I also got to know other aspects of Bequia, some of which I enjoyed and looked for every day, and others which I didn’t like at all and tried to pretend didn’t exist.
I noticed the same three tabby cats sleeping in the afternoon sun on the top of a cistern beside a house.
Dogs and puppies were everywhere, usually sleeping at the side of the road on the warm concrete.
Lambs and goat kids were born and grew up as I walked by.
Roosters, chickens, and chicks pecked at the dirt in most yards.
And children, of all ages, were everywhere—swimming in the sea, playing on the road with homemade toys, playing football – soccer football, or cricket on the beach or basketball on the hard court by the airport, many of them playing those games in bare feet.
Most drivers on Bequia, especially the van, or dollar bus, drivers, speed on those narrow winding roads and some have a reputation of being quite dangerous, so I was lucky I never saw a major accident in all that time I was walking.
And, unfortunately, I quite often caught a whiff of putrid, decaying flesh, probably a dead manicoo or other small mammal, that had been hit by a vehicle then thrown into the ditch to decompose. That smell always reminded me of my first night on Bequia.
Worst of all though was the amount of garbage littered everywhere. People throw out everything and pay no heed to it once it leaves their hands. As Ras said, “Dey fling and forget.” I was shocked that the islanders could have such little regard for their small environment, that there was not enough pride in their place and their homes to want to keep Bequia clean. That was a major disappointment to discover about these people.
But the best part about those walks was the regular exercise was having the desired effect, and that was really all that mattered to me.
While I had tried to avoid all contact with Al, I still ran into him occasionally in the Harbour. One time, when he was with Suzie, he told me I had a new name among the local people.
“They call you ‘De woman who walk.’” That wouldn’t have been so bad, except he added, “And after losing all that weight, you’re looking like a ‘Babe’ to me!”
“Thanks, Al,” I said, inwardly cringing, hoping this wasn’t just more of his usual brand of sarcasm. “I was hoping to lose enough weight so I wouldn’t be attractive to the majority of men on this island.” I know those men generally lust after fat women— extremely fat women, in most cases.
Al threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. I wouldn’t take their attentions personally. These guys will chase after a dog if they think there’s a chance of getting lucky.”
Suzie cuffed him on the shoulder. “Al!” she said, in that reprimanding voice she used with him.
“Okay, okay,” he said, “Maybe not a dog, but a sheep anyway, or a donkey if they can find one.” He laughed again in that maniacal way.