‘Tourism is our Business’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
The first time was an accident. Jenna from St. Albans had been the perfect guest. Landed at the airport with bags of Tesco’s Finest all-butter cherry scones, banana butters from Body Shop and a warm, tight embrace. I liked her immediately.
‘Saved for ages to come there,’ she’d typed months earlier in the messaging app on the website. ‘It’ll be worth every penny☺☺.’
‘Looking forward to having you. Travel safely and see you soon (smile).’ I hadn’t known how to add a yellow, smiling, fat face back then. Tyrrell even had to set up my profile on the bed and breakfast site. With thinning patience, he’d shown me how to take pictures of the house with my phone. But he’d had to upload them to my page. ‘Auntie,’ he’d warned, as he headed off to play football with the boys from his own gap, ‘don’t mess it up. I beg you.’
I’d swatted him with a tea towel and sent him off with a warm foil package stuffed with fishcakes.
Jenna from St. Albans’s first meal at my home was fishcakes and Envita crackers, the ones with whole wheat flour and sesame seeds. I heard these white people like to eat healthy though they does drink alcohol like there’s no tomorrow and puke bad-bad afterwards. I’d also sliced thick wedges of avocado pear and sprinkled them with sea salt and lime juice. The final touch? A few pieces of scallion on top. I’d held high my hand, like that smiley black chef on the Food Network, the one with the curly weave. People say we look alike though she’s stockier than me, now that I’ve lost some weight.
‘Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous,’ Jenna from St. Albans had gushed. I’d beamed and slid the plate of fishcakes closer.
‘You’re not having any, love?’ she’d asked.
‘It’s a treat for you,’ I’d replied, but popped one of the smaller fishcakes into my mouth. She was right, they were delicious and the chilled pear smeared across the crackers was heaven. Hmm, Lord haveth mercy!
I was refilling our glasses with coconut water when I heard the gentle thud. Like the sound a golden apple makes when it’s knocked off its tree by a high wind. When I spun around, she was face down on the plate of fishcakes. I’d shouted for Mr. Ramsay from next door. He used to work in the Barbados Defence Force; he would know what to do. He’d arrived shirtless with cutlass in hand. ‘Been out in the ground, cutting hands of plantain,’ he’d explained breathlessly. ‘What’s this?’
I’d been shaking Jenna from St. Albans. ‘A guest. Like she fall sick. Call the ambulance? I don’t want to get in no trouble.’
I was busy dialing when he’d added, ‘The police too. I think she dead.’
The coroner’s inquest—nearly two years later—ruled Jenna from St. Albans’s passing as misadventure. Seemed a tiny bone from the cod fish had gotten stuck, and she’d choked. They’d also found a blood clot near her heart. Something about deep vein thrombosis.
Years after the pandemic and the island did still struggling to regain its footing. The Barbados Welcome Scheme was to be our saviour. It invited the more desirable expats to live here for a whole year while ‘working from home’ on our beaches. Without it, the economy would have collapsed. But we’d all heard the stories about the schemers behaving like we did here to meet them every whim and fancy. The internet speed drop to medium and they throw tantrum; pipes dry and they call we backward or worse. Grocery delivery too slow or Massy send ricotta instead of gouda and a salesclerk get send home. Platinum wedding band ‘stolen’, host pelt on remand up at Dodds, only to find that the schemer was, well, scheming. They were tyrants, some of the Americans especially. A few Brits too. But almost everybody on the island with a near-decent place close to the beach or by the eco farms needed extra dollars to make ends meet. We did caught between a rock and a hard place. Not that that was unusual for a place bandied ‘bout by colonial forces. And the schemers spent more than the regular tourists. So, after I’d recovered from the shock of Jenna from St. Albans up and deading in my place and my last UWI student moving back to Grenada, I decided, Let me give it another try.
Geoffrey from Leicester arrived around Independence Day. ‘Your cottage looks marvellous,’ he’d raved on the messaging feature when he’d booked. ‘So bright and open. And the views. To die for!’
I’d fired three draftsmen before getting a design I’d loved. It was a two-bedroom home with open plan living, dining and kitchen. Each bedroom had its own ensuite, one of them serving as a Jack and Jill bathroom. French doors opened onto a large timber wraparound patio, which spanned half the house. The patio soaked in the views of the west coast, where cruise ships and pleasure craft bobbed up and down on the Caribbean Sea. The floors were covered with large travertine tiles laid diagonally. The tall, vaulted ceiling had rafters pickled white, making it beachy and rustic. I lived at the end of a peaceful cul-de-sac, across the road and up a short hill from the gated, statuesque villas that lined the beachfront and blocked the windows to the sea. I loved my home; it was my sanctuary.
Some wondered how I could afford a place like this. You could see it in the widening of eyes and the shaping of lips into sharp angles. A question would crease their brows: ‘How she get this nice place so?’
Is true I was appointed as Communication Studies and Chemistry teacher over 20 years now and promoted to senior teacher the last four. But I’d had to be shrewd. I’d dug two good-sized beds for a kitchen garden at the sides of the house and packed them with herbs and vegetables. I’d hardly eaten out. Restaurants were too damn expensive, even the nasty junk food. I ain’t had no children of my own—them could suck you dry—though I had plenty niece and nephew. Them too sweet! As for travel to other parts of the world? Once when I was a young teacher, we’d taken students on a heritage tour to Martinique. Lovely, but I’d not set foot off Bimshire since. Why, when we got the beach, views, fresh food and a paradise at we toe tips? Better to spend my little dollars here.
After his bulging size, the first thing I noticed about Geoffrey from Leicester as we were shaking hands were his toes. Sturdy white things with short dark hair. Hopefully I’d get used to them. I’d better, because he’d booked for six months under the welcome scheme.
‘Welcome to Shalom,’ I said, moving off the stepping stones, so he could take in the view of my home. He dropped his tablet sleeve on top of his suitcase and grinned, revealing small teeth jostling for space in his mouth. I held out a plate with mini conkies, steamed and wrapped in banana leaves from Mr. Ramsay’s garden.
‘I’ll be happy here. Incredibly happy,’ he said, unwrapping one. His mouth twisted slightly as he slowly chewed the spiced, sweetened mix of grated pumpkin, sweet potato and coconut.
‘Let’s get your bags inside, wash up and get you something hot to eat.’
‘Sounds good. I’m starving.’
‘With that airplane food is it any wonder? Meals as small as a sardine can; who they think they are?’
‘I need the broadband password too. Want to check in with my team.’
‘On the desk in your room,’ I said, as I led him inside through the L-shaped kitchen. ‘In your welcome pack.’
‘Do you have anything to drink?’
I gestured for him to sit at the kitchen table. ‘Coconut water.’ I bought it especially from the Rasta fellas on the highway that morning. Stood and eyed them in the hot sun as they artfully sliced the tops from dozens of green coconuts. Then they turned them, one-by-one, over an orange funnel stuck down the neck of a square plastic bottle. Nearly half an hour later, with my skin itching from the heat, I’d left with three full two-litre bottles.
‘Alcohol, you ninny.’ He smiled.
‘I don’t keep any in the house.’
‘You’ll have to get me some. Today preferably. Thank you.’
‘It’s Thursday,’ I said, glancing at the Courts desk calendar by the phone.
‘Yes, it’s the 27th.’
‘I don’t drive on Thursdays, especially in the evenings.’
The outbursts started on Friday morning. His omelette was overcooked (it wasn’t, but I wasn’t one to argue). One thing about us mature Bajans, if nothing else we did polite. I apologised and cooked up something half-raw with bell peppers, chunks of Farmer’s Choice ham and black olives. ‘Better,’ he said, like he did a judge on Chopped.
I was late for first period at school. The pupils were more unmannerly than usual and resisted my attempts at the delineation between the Halo and Horn effects. At lunchtime I dropped onto a chair in the staff room with my heated leftovers.
‘How’s things working out with your new schemer?’ Ms. Yarde asked.
‘May can’t come fast enough.’
‘The man behaving like I’s his maid. Like I working for he.’
‘If it wasn’t for the money, I’d have told mine where to get off every since,’ Ms. Yarde responded.
‘The country selling it soul for a dollar.’
‘Same story, different century,’ Ms. Yarde said, through gritted teeth. She would know; she was deputy head of the History Department.
By the following Thursday, Geoffrey from Leicester had taken my car without my knowledge. He didn’t return until early the next morning. Teetering towards my wit’s end, I politely suggested he find somewhere else to stay. He snarled at me, baring his squashed-together teeth, and squeezed me hard by the forearms. The fat on his face, arms and stomach shook as he spoke. ‘If you’re not careful I’ll give you a 0-star rating and a bad review.’
Schemer ratings determined how much hosts paid in taxes, what pension we received, if any, and whether we got timely government healthcare. A bad review could mean the difference between cataract surgery at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital or going blind, a colonoscopy or stage 4 cancer. Private healthcare was an option, a prohibitively expensive one used more by schemers than the rest of us. ‘And don’t bother complaining. It’ll be your word against mine,’ Geoffrey from Leicester continued, stabbing my breastbone with his finger when he whispered ‘your.’ When he finally let me go, it was my turn to shake. I reached for one of the dining room chairs to steady myself; if not I would’ve slumped to the floor.
He smiled more at me after that. Well after the bruising on my forearms had faded. When I served his runny omelette he asked how I was. (Fine.) What I enjoyed most about teaching. (Being around young people.) Why a ‘fantastic’ host like me didn’t have a partner. (Bajan men are commitment phobes and prefer multiple partners over one.) He seemed genuinely interested in my life and interests. One night he even brought home several small pots filled with an array of herbs—oregano, basil, lemon thyme and tarragon. ‘You can add them to your kitchen garden.’
‘That’s very kind of you.’
‘Thought you’d like them.’
He smiled again, and his crooked teeth seemed less crowded in his mouth. I began to relax.
One morning after I’d arrived back home from my early-morning sea bath at Paynes Bay, I heard gushing water coming from my bedroom. I dropped my beach towel and rushed into the master bathroom. Water was streaming from the shower, so I dragged the curtain halfway across only to see Geoffrey from Leicester lathering his parts with what smelt like my Imperial Leather passionflower shower cream. The sight of him made me stumble back and scream. He turned the water off, stuck his head out and said, ‘Didn’t know you’d be back so soon.’
‘What you doing in here?’
‘Majest-Tee’s using mine. You know how ladies are with all their preening.’
‘Who the ass is that?’
‘You’ll meet her at breakfast. So that’ll be two omelettes.’
‘Get out! This is my sanctuary.’
‘Alright, keep your knickers on.’
I stood erect with anger, my arms crossed, as Geoffrey from Leicester walked out sneering, dripping water all over the floor. When he was gone, I grabbed the Ajax scouring powder from under the sink and scrubbed the tub, taps, toilet and sink. I threw all my towels and washcloths into the laundry basket while recalling my host agreement. It clearly said, ‘No pets. No guests. No drugs.’
Later, in the kitchen, Majest-Tee fed Geoffrey from Leicester large forkfuls of omelette. He smiled his pleasure. Majest-Tee’s generous behind oozed over the side of the chair. I could see where this ‘relationship’ did going.
‘I could get another omelette please?’ Majest-Tee asked in a high-pitched voice. She looked about the same age as my niece Sheena, a student at the BCC.
I ignored her request and turned to Geoffrey from Leicester. ‘Your agreement says no guests.’
‘Where am I expected to entertain?’
‘Somewhere else; on the beach.’
‘And suppose I want,’ he said, turning to stroke Majest-Tee’s weave, ‘privacy?’
‘The beach at night? All I know is that she can’t stay here. Sorry.’
‘You will be.’
I left them to it and got ready for work. I bumped into Ms. Yarde along the corridor in between periods. The usual lines creasing her forehead had eased, and she was wearing lipstick. ‘You win the lotto or something?’ I asked.
She chuckled. ‘My schemer up and left. A whole month early.’
I was envious. ‘Wha’ happen?’
‘Had a family emergency back in Connecticut and flew out like the bat out of hell she is.’
I plastered a fake grin on my face.
‘How much longer you have yours for?’ she asked.
‘Leaves just after Heroes Day.’ I recounted the morning’s events to Ms. Yarde.
‘You’re a hero just for putting up with that. They ain’t got no shame?’
‘I counting down the days on my Courts calendar, girl.’
When I got home Geoffrey from Leicester was spread across the sofa watching Bloomberg. Stock prices had fallen slightly after news of another virus in Asia.
‘You’ll be glad to hear that she’s gone. Said she didn’t feel welcome,’ he complained.
‘Good,’ I said and went straight to my room. I changed my clothes and was putting my earrings away when I noticed that several pieces of jewellery from my ceramic plate were missing. Mummy’s Christmas brooch, my white gold bracelet with the charms and the sapphire and diamond ring I’d bought for my 50th. I opened the chest of drawers and pushed my hand to the back. The brown envelope with my emergency US-dollar stash, in case the Barbados dollar got devalued, was gone.
After four days the police turned up. They took my statement and description of Majest-Tee. I excluded her generous behind. Then they interviewed Geoffrey from Leicester, while he smiled benignly. As I walked the officers to their Jeep, the one with shrewd narrow eyes and large stomach smiled and said, ‘We does work close with the Ministry of Tourism.’
‘What you mean?’
‘You getting a good piece of change and doing your part for the country.’
‘That’s not enough. I want back my things.’
I shook my head.
‘Forget it, woman. I could tell you straight, nothing ain’t coming from this.’ He held his hands up in mock surrender. I gave the officers a stiff wave and walked back inside squashing the chives and broadleaf thyme I’d cut fresh between my hands.
Geoffrey from Leicester was standing by the front door shaking his tablet at me.
‘Good news,’ he announced.
‘You’re getting my things back?’
‘I’ve extended my stay till the end of summer. Won’t be able to get rid of me now.’ He laughed a hollow laugh, then suddenly his free hand clutched my neck and squeezed. ‘And don’t even try, ugly bitch, or you’ll be sorry,’ he added.
When he let go, I ran and locked myself in my room. As thoughts of this man staying longer began to terrify me, I started taking a mild sedative to help me sleep.
An idea came from one of those British period TV shows about policemen in pretty English towns with fields and hills laid out like colourful patchwork quilts. I watched it on the Sunday nights when Geoffrey from Leicester hadn’t commandeered the remote for Britain’s Got Talent. In one episode, a series of random accidents happened. A painter toppling from his ladder, an aging woman electrocuted while stringing up Christmas lights, a young academic falling and striking her head against a bronze bust. They were killed for an insurance scam after turning over their policies.
I kept doing my utmost best to please Geoffrey from Leicester. One night he demanded smoked salmon in his quiche for brunch the next day and proper pork sausages. ‘Not that inferior local stuff.’
I glanced at the clock; Jordan’s Supermarket was already closed but wouldn’t have ‘proper pork sausages’ anyway. Massy was open but was further away and more expensive. Still, I sped off into the breezy night. I tried to ignore the dazzling lights from oncoming traffic by gazing into the gutters at the side of the road and gripping my steering wheel. On the way back home, I badly scratched the front left of the car on the edge of a high kerb.
‘The sausage’s overcooked,’ he complained the next morning, pelting a look of contempt my way. ‘Don’t let it happen again,’ he added before violently sweeping his plate, teacup and cutlery into a broken heap on the floor.
While he was out somewhere with my car, I rifled through his room more thoroughly. My weekly cleaning of his quarters was a disgusting affair. Underwear in a heap by the sink, half-finished bottles of alcohol and empty purple and yellow boxes of Chefette pizza. This time I looked through his toiletry bag and found strips of digitalis. Pills were missing from various casings as if picked and swallowed randomly. I popped a few out (from different strips) and tucked them into my bra cup, the one emptied by the mastectomy. Geoffrey from Leicester started vomiting a few days later. It was an unpleasant sight and smell, but I did my best to clean up. By the weekend he passed away while reclining in a chair on the beach across the road.
‘Choked on his vomit,’ the coroner ruled. ‘Heart attack due to grotesque obesity. Misadventure.’
Mr. Ramsay from next door came over to console me. ‘Tough break, what with you losing two guests.’
‘It’s a lot. Think I’ll ease off.’ We were watching the CBC Evening News and the Minister of Tourism was boasting about the sector saving the economy. He was in front of a podium on the grounds of Lancaster Great House commemorating the 25,000th schemer.
‘Without the long-stay arrivals generated by the Barbados Welcome Scheme, we’d be without a lifeline. Not just hotels, villas and the bed and breakfasts but all the associated services—taxis, catering, entertainment, attractions. We must never, ever forget our motto. Tourism is our business; let’s play our part,’ he gushed straight into the camera.
‘Say it with me,’ he commanded the officials, wait staff dressed like penguins in black and white and the schemers. The chorus rang out through the TV set.
‘Bare robots,’ Mr. Ramsay said. He was quiet for a moment. ‘I thinking about doing it though,’ he mumbled, and we chuckled.
‘If you need any tips, I’m here.’ We clinked our mugs together and finished watching the news.
A few weeks later I received a booking confirmation from Joseph and Gayle from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They were empty nesters looking to do their consultancy work from Barbados for a year. The profile picture showed them standing by a lake and smiling into the camera. Their arms were slung over each other’s shoulders. A nice, decent couple.
‘Looking forward to welcoming you to my home!’ I typed. ‘When you get here, you won’t ever want to leave☺☺!’
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