‘A Hurricane and the Price of Fish’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Chattel Lane is a small fishing community in the north of Barbados, but unlike its name, things in Chattel Lane seldom moved.
If you left Chattel Lane in 1960 to go drive bus in London, and come back to visit your now middle-aged children and show off your polished British accent, you would find that on entering the village, the piece of wood with ‘Chattel Lane’ slashed on with white paint was still hammered onto the telephone pole.
You would realise that the chattel houses, originally designed to be moved at Massa’s beck and call, were still squashed together along the main road and painted in the same purple, green, blue and yellow, though the colours were now faded, and a few now had heavy-looking satellite dishes sinking into the feeble burgundy roofs.
On a hot day, young men would still spend all day liming underneath the large Manchineel tree by the main entrance to the beach, smoking herb mixed with fanta, only pulling out cigarettes between two and three in the evening, when the one police jeep passed through the village on patrol.
When the sky was overcast, these young men would join their fathers, uncles, aunties and cousins at Bernie’s, the village’s only rum shop and bar, convenience store, hardware store, and doctor’s office. Bernie, a short, unassuming man, also happened to be the parliamentary representative for the entire parish. Residents of Chattel Lane were proud, not only that one of their own had won the nomination for the last sixteen years, but that Bernie still lived in Chattel Lane, in an apartment above his shop.
The Chattel Lane Fish Market was known for its numerous kiosks along the shore, with fish so fresh that sometimes they were still jumping about in the coolers. At the pale green kiosk with yellow trimming is where you would find a vendor name Cecile.
Now I don’t know if you ever went to a fish market, but if you’re new, you’ll be overwhelmed by the calls of ‘Marlin, for you sir?’ or ‘Tuna on sale, Ma’am, only eight dollars a pound’. Some vendors may be so bold as to grab your elbow, and guide you towards their stall. And once you make that first purchase with that vendor, they consider you their customer.
It is an awkward thing to buy fish from another vendor. It’s like horning your partner, or switching to a new barber or hairdresser. Be guaranteed that your regular vendor will find out about your clandestine purchase, because the new vendor will be sure to gloat that they were able to ‘tek yuh sale from yuh’, and the next time you go to the market, your regular vendor’s glare will follow you all the way back to your house. Even those dead fish eyes will stare at you with scorn, and that normally tender flesh will fight you all the way down from your throat to your colon.
Cecile was notorious for her angry stare, and many a time you might buy pot fish from her, even if you don’t fancy fish with bone. At sixty-five years old, she was one of the oldest vendors in the market, and so was at the very top of the hierarchy.
Cecile rarely smiled, or made conversation, but when you’re watching her scale and bone fish there is no need to say a word. You just stand in awe, and watch a master at work. Cecile is the person who thought to charge people extra for scaling and boning in the early days, back when things used to change in Chattel Lane.
Cecile’s main competition was a lady name Dorothy, who was not nearly as old or unpleasant, but had half of Cecile’s boning ability. Dorothy had come second to Cecile every year in the Dolphin Skinning competition so often that she got the nickname ‘Silver’.
Cecile’s reputation brought so many people to Chattel Lane that Bernie promised her that when she turned sixty-seven, he would rename ‘Chattel Lane Fish Market’ to ‘The Cecily Thomas Fish Market’. Most people would be flattered by this promise, and most people would thank Bernie profusely, but Cecile was not most people. Rumour has it that when Bernie made his announcement, Cecile gave him her penetrating stare until he bought one hundred dollars in flying fish.
It is a shame about Cecile’s hostile countenance, because despite her age, she had the body of a forty-year old woman. If she wanted, she could get any man in the village.
So when Cecile and Errol first get together, it was the biggest scandal in Chattel Lane. You does hear that opposites attract, but those two were more opposite than salt and pepper, sugar cane and mauby bark or rum and milk. But sometimes, when you put opposite things together, you get a special flavour.
Errol had just move back to Chattel Lane from America, taking up residence in a house his mother left him when she died. He never thought he would return to simple small-island life, but it was an easy decision to make when you are under investigation for fraud.
Errol was a hustler by nature and nurture. His mother passed on her ability to sell salt to a slug, and his father taught him that old people valued nothing more than good company. So, Errol spent so many years pretending to be a licensed practical nurse, that by the time his scam was unveiled, he was actually qualified by experience.
Now you don’t get dozens of elderly women to leave you all their worldly possessions without a certain amount of charisma. By his first week back in Chattel Lane, Errol had become good friends with Bernie, and had a small group of followers at the bar who would hang on to his every word, and laugh at the right times. ‘Man Errol, you is a bare clown!’ they would shout, slap him on his back and buy him another beer.
Errol was only living in Chattel Lane for a month when his reputable image was nearly ruined. He had turned fifty-five, and one of his daughters in California sent him a pack of adult diapers as a present, whether as a joke or out of necessity, you never found out. But as soon as that package get tear open at the post office, word spread that Errol was leaking and could no longer control his bladder.
That incident would have gained anyone else a new lifetime nickname of ‘Burse Pipe’, but Errol is a man who knows how to turn a negative into a positive.
Errol proudly wore his pants low so that you could see the top of that white plastic, and claimed that diapers were the new celebrity fad in California. He boasted that the diapers were much more comfortable than underwear, with more space to accommodate for a man who had a table-foot between his legs. People laughed at first, but it was not long before all the men of Chattel Lane were strutting to Bernie’s in adult diapers, comparing generic and high-end brands. Errol quietly went back to wearing boxers, and like all fads, the adult diaper trend thankfully came to an unheralded end.
So now you understand why Errol and Cecile’s relationship was such a scandal, but if anyone gave it some thought, Errol could have any woman in the village, and Cecile any man. It seemed obvious that they would eventually find each other.
With Errol by her side, Cecile’s clientele seemed to triple overnight. Now her kiosk was not only the place to buy fish, but also the place to receive a good early morning laugh that set the tone for the rest of the day. Even Cecile’s glare seemed to soften with Errol around, and the two of them became the envy of the fish market. They were better suited than biscuit and cheese, a bread and two or pudding and souse.
Errol persuaded Cecile to add more value to the business, and offer grilled or fried fish and chips to customers. If you thought Cecile’s stall was burse way with people before, you don’t want to see how ‘Errol’s Fish Fry’ looked on Friday and Saturday evenings. It wasn’t long before people were saying that Errol was the best thing that happen to Cecile.
But all good things must come to an end.
One Friday morning come and Cecile’s kiosk was closed for the first time in forty years. One of the other vendors went to check on her, but her chattel house was shut up tight. Errol showed up around twelve and went straight to Silver’s kiosk. When Errol opened for business, it was discovered that he was now buying all his fish from Silver.
She had finally moved up to first place.
Cecile showed up an hour later, with her own grill and frying pan. She stuck up a cardboard sign on her kiosk, ‘Cecile’s Fish Fry’, and put up a menu showing prices at least fifty percent cheaper than Errol’s.
That day, the fish vendors were certain that if there was any truth to the saying ‘if looks could kill’, you would have found out that day in the market. Nobody ain’ know exactly what happen between Cecile and Errol, but when you put two sparks together, it is only a matter of time before they consumed each other in flames.
But feel for the poor customers that day who had to choose whether to buy fish from Cecile or Errol. Errol, the charmer, would call you by nickname, and wave at you with his spatula. Cecile, the stalwart, would stare at you with an unsmiling face, and you would stand there in the market, with a frozen smile, torn between desire and obligation.
Most customers succumbed to Cecile’s cheaper prices and hard glare, and bought their fish with bowed heads, unable to look at Errol.
But Errol did not get to be shortlisted for the Licensed Practical Nurse Award of Merit without a certain measure of risk-taking and business savvy. He put out a sign ‘Free Samples’, and all of Cecile’s customers rushed over to his stall. Not even Cecile’s glare could compete against Bajans’ love for freeness.
Cecile scowled at Errol’s packed stall with folded arms. Then she stood up on a bucket and screamed at the top of her lungs, ‘Errol got AIDS!’
Everyone ran from Errol’s stall, back over to Cecile’s. Errol stood there, open-mouthed, while Cecile served the returned customers.
This feud went on for weeks and customers dwindled, preferring not to have to deal with Errol and Cecile’s theatrics. Things would have gotten much worse if the vendors didn’t get Bernie to hold a community meeting to settle the dispute. It was decided that all vendors would open their own fish fry.
And that was how the now infamous Chattel Lane Fish Fry commenced.
Things were peaceful in Chattel Lane for a little while, and it would be easy to end the story here, but you’re probably wondering what a hurricane has to do with the price of fish …
Now a meteorologist may tell you that Barbados’ south-easterly position puts the island outside of the hurricane belt, but the average Bajan would tell you that a hurricane ain’ hit Barbados in over fifty years because God is a Bajan.
When the Chattel Lane villagers heard about the hurricane warning, there was anticipation in the air. They prayed that they would get to experience the winds and rain, and it would not be another useless warning, getting people all worked up, only to hear that the hurricane changed direction overnight, and was not coming to visit after all.
Errol, of course, had a lot to say at the community meeting on hurricane preparations. ‘Man, we don’t have nothing to worry about,’ he said, in his fluctuating American accent. ‘Only people who don’t bade frighten for lil water!’
Silver sucked her teeth with some difficulty, since she only had half the usual amount. ‘Hurricane, wuh? This is a government scam, trying to get more money out of poor people.’
Everyone mumbled in agreement.
Last season, when the met office had insisted that a hurricane was about to hit Barbados, there was mass panic in Chattel Lane. The villagers had to travel to the next parish since Bernie’s had run out of bottled water, batteries and canned food. The hardware section ran out of plywood as vendors secured the windows of the kiosks, and lifted out all electrical equipment in case of flooding. Even Bernie invested in a water tank and a generator, in case the water and electricity went off.
All of that time, money and effort spent, and the damn hurricane had the nerve to veer off course, just like the rest of them.
‘You know, we should have a party! A big jam!’ said Errol. ‘Folks in Cali had hurricane parties all the time.’
Through the cheers of agreement, you heard a chair slowly dragging back across the concrete. The crowd quieted down, and looked up in surprise at Cecile, who was on her feet. Cecile never had much to say, so when she spoke, everyone listened.
‘I probably one of the few people here who can still remember when Hurricane Janet hit Buhbaydos in ’55,’ said Cecile, her voice just above a whisper. ‘I was only five years old, but I remember it like it was day before.’
She spoke first about how the silence woke her up; she had never heard silence like that before – no blackbirds tweeting, no pigeons fighting, no crickets chirping, nothing.
Then the winds came suddenly, whirring as loud as a jet engine, and bending coconut trees in the yard so much that their palms touched the floor. When the rains finally came, they slammed against the barricaded windows, along with angry waves from the sea, which crashed onto the street and hit against the front door.
Cecile talked about hearing the neighbours screaming, and how her mother was one of the few people who took a risk to open the door, saving the life of a pregnant Sheila Evelyn. Cecile paused and looked at Sheila’s son, who nodded his head in appreciation, and they both shared a moment of silence for their now deceased parents.
She continued. Her mother peeked through the door and was able to catch a glimpse of the street so full of sand that you could not tell where the beach started or ended. She saw galvanise flying through the air like pieces of paper and a whole banana tree tumbling down the street like it was a paltry weed.
Cecile remembered the winds yanking the latch off the backdoor and having to push her small body against it, trying to keep it closed while her mother frantically hammered nails and pieces of wood to secure it.
She talked about her mother dressing her in all the clothes she had, dress on top of dress, even hat and raincoat, just in case they had to run to a shelter.
‘None of this was the worst part,’ said Cecile, and you could hear the fear in her voice. ‘The worst part was not knowing if yuh family and friends still living, and yuh can’t do nothing. You just gotta wait on the hurricane to finish, so yuh could count the dead.’
There was silence in the room.
‘Bullshit!’ said Errol, the swear word seeming even more offensive in the emotional hush. ‘She too dramatic, hear? And real good at telling stories too. Don’t forget!’
Errol was still sore about Cecile’s AIDS accusation, even though she had admitted to lying and had apologised. Rumour has it that he was having trouble trying to persuade women to polish his table-foot.
There was nervous laughter throughout the room and everyone looked at Bernie for judgement. Bernie, though touched by Cecile’s story, was more touched at the prospect of making big money.
The hurricane jam was on.
Bernie asked both Errol and Cecile if they would sell food at the event as a personal favour to him. Now everybody in Chattel Lane know that when Bernie ask for a personal favour, it is not a favour to refuse.
Errol readily agreed and, surprisingly, so did Cecile. Bernie looked at Cecile with suspicion.
‘I gine be there. You have my word,’ she reassured him.
Day before the hurricane supposed to hit Barbados, the radio forecasting doom and gloom, laying the groundwork for a horror story, like the opening to an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode.
But most of the residents of Chattel Lane took no heed.
The fishermen ain’ bother to secure their small boats along the sand. Most villagers ain’ really store bottle water in case the water went off. Bernie’s shop needed to re-stock canned goods, and batteries, so nobody ain’ really bother to go to the next parish for supplies in case the electricity went off. Errol and Silver made preparations to sell rice and peas, macaroni pie, grilled fish and chicken, coleslaw and potato salad at the party.
The hurricane jam start and there was still no sign of Cecile. The place was already packed with residents and strangers, and Deejay Chilly was blasting old-time calypso tunes like ‘Snakes in de Grass’ by Carew and ‘Windforce’ by the Mighty Gabby.
An hour after the hurricane jam began, the rains came. Deejay Chilly started to play ‘Wet Me’ by Krosfyah, and the crowd cheered. He encouraged them to embrace the rain, and the jam turned into a wet fete with the partygoers dancing in the rain, singing:
‘Insane, Insane, Insane
Come wet me down, bring de water’
The young men put down some blue tarpaulin on the road, and started to do stunts on their bicycles.
And there was still no sign of Cecile.
‘You can’t trust she at all,’ Errol say to Bernie. ‘Now you know who got you back.’
An hour later, the winds came.
Deejay Chilly had to shout at the top of his lungs for the crowd to hear him. It soon became difficult to see in the rain, which seemed to be falling horizontally from the sky.
The hurricane jam officially ended when the wind hauled the food tent into the air, it looking like a large, white kite dancing in the wind. Errol tried hard to save his equipment, but everything went chasing after the food tent.
People struggled to get back to their homes, the wind actually lifting some of them off their feet, but a telephone pole fell down in the road by the main entrance, trapping some of the outsiders in Chattel Lane. They all had to squeeze into Bernie’s shop and apartment, packed like sardines, and smelling like the oily fish too.
Then the electricity went out.
Bernie went to turn on the generator, but then remembered that he had never re-stocked the fuel. The entire village was in darkness, except for one chattel house, which had an oil lamp burning in the living room.
After a few hours, there was a brief lull in the hurricane. The radio announcer warned that the danger was not over, and that they were in the eye of the hurricane. The hurricane jammers were trapped in Bernie’s place, with little food and water. And like all trapped and hungry animals, they turned on each other.
‘This is you blasted fault!’ Bernie said, pointing a finger at Errol. ‘I thought you know how to operate in a hurricane!’
‘You ever hear ’bout a hurricane in California, yuh idiot!’ Errol shouted back. ‘Don’t blame me cause you ain’ got no brains!’
Maybe they would have come to a fistfight, but a loud voice in the silence interrupted their brawl.
‘Get yuh Eclipse biscuit, yuh sweetbread, yuh candles and matches! Special on sardine! Five cans for forty dollars!’
They peeped out of the window and saw Cecile with a trolley full of hurricane supplies, retailing at triple the price.
Cecile looked straight at Bernie and Errol, with a rare smile on her face. ‘I come to sell de food.’
There’s a saying, ‘you never miss the water til the well run dry’. The Chattel Lane residents hardly appreciated how fixed the village was, until everything moved.
On entering the village, the sign now read ‘Cha’ instead of ‘Chattel Lane’. Many satellite dishes and five burgundy roofs were missing from the chattel houses. If the Manchineel tree had hands, it would cover its now naked branches and pull out the plastic straw driven into its trunk like a nail.
But some things still remained the same.
If you went to Chattel Lane Fish Market, you’d find an empty place, overrun with sand and debris. All of the kiosks would be vacant, except for a pale green kiosk with yellow trimming, where Cecile was dutifully scaling and boning her fish.
Her cries of ‘Get yuh marlin here!’ and ‘Tuna on sale, only fifteen dollars a pound!’ were even louder in the damaged silence.