Fiction by Barbara Jenkins
From the anthology Thicker Than Water: New Writing from the Caribbean
Published in 2018 by Peekash Press
Indira sizes up the bald little man standing at the doorway of De Rightest Place. Kitted out in a gold turtleneck long-sleeved jumper and black shorts with gold side stripes, his sparkly teeth flashing in a wide smile, he hops from one gold football boot to the other, the gold whistle suspended by a black ribbon around his neck swinging from side to side in synchronicity with his skipping dance. His gilt bonhomie could not be more at odds with Indira’s mood. The post lady, her first caller this morning, set it at black and blue when she handed over that stash of envelopes.
The visitor introduces himself by showing her a red card.
The Reverend Pastor U.R. Sukker
God Ordains Alternative Lifestyles.
She flicks the card with her fingers.
You’re this person? The pastor?
He takes the gold whistle to his lips and emits a shrill blast.
You sure you in the right place? This is a pub.
Another ear-splitting blast, and again, Goal!
As the whistle falls from his lips, Indira reaches out and grasps it firmly.
What can I do for you?
Perchance I could have the honour of conference with the lady identified on the façade of this property as the proprietress and licensee, one Indira Gabriel?
She releases the whistle.
Charmed, I’m sure. If it behoves you to bestow the pleasure of your company on your humble servant?
I already have a religion and I don’t want to change it.
Ha-ha. No-no. Your conclusions are not appropriate to the situation here present. No-no-no. Not at all. Ha-ha. May I have the temerity to offer a little business proposition that will bestow mutual satisfaction and benefit to the two parties here present, that is to say — me, party of the first part and thee, party of the second part?
On two conditions. First. Do not blow that whistle again. Second. Hi-falutin’ English is not my first language. So, speak simply. Understand?
He looks a little crestfallen, but he nods. Indira continues.
Drink? We have a large stock of non-alcoholic beverages.
And alcoholic ones?
What would you like?
Sitting opposite him, Indira allows him to sip his foaming Carib in silence for just a scant minute. She pushes aside her own untouched Cuba libre and drums a quick staccato on the table.
It is my urgent and overwhelming desire to locate my esteemed edifice of worship on your salubrious hereditament.
Indira raises her arm yellow-card style.
Ahem. I want to set up my church here.
Indira chides herself for her slip-up. How naïve of her not to interpret the blatant clues. A madman! She’d bet her bottom dollar he’s an escapee from the asylum. Glancing around under her lashes, she checks her exit route. The table would bar his way as she makes a dash for the door. She’ll throw a metal chair at him when he lunges for her. In the meantime, she will go along with him. Who knows what he might do if she lets on she’s suspicious.
Uh-huh. Here. Okay. Okay. Here. When?
Def-in-it-ely cuckoo. Every weekend this place is crammed with sinners who have no desire for repentance. And I, Indira, have no interest in them repenting either. There’s the lucrative wages of sin to consider. But what to do? Safer to keep on humouring him, until.
Here is very busy on weekends, you know, she says gently, as if explaining to a foreigner with limited knowledge of the culture.
Not inside. No-no. Not here. Ha-ha-ha. It’s your backyard I’m interested in. I already took a walk around. It’s De Rightest Place for a tent. Ha-ha-ha.
The Ministry of God Ordains Alternative Lifestyles is planning a nine-night crusade. My branch preaches Sport as a Way to Salvation.
Yes. Mine. The Salvation Tree has many branches. Its roots can be traced to the original Tree of Knowledge.
Indira nods absently, her eyes darting from the pastor to the door, door to pastor, and back again. He’s on a roll, oblivious to her distractedness.
Other branches preach different things. For example, there’s Chutney Dancing as a Way to Salvation, Highway Construction as a Way to Salvation, Trawling, Quarrying, even Street-vending. Gay and Trans Life too. We cater for the full spectrum of Trinbagonian social, cultural, economic, and political activity. We’re an all-inclusive church.
Not many of those around. So?
You’ve been selected. What say you?
We haven’t talked transfer fee.
He shoots her an admiring glance. Her stare freezes his hand as it reaches for the whistle. He flashes his toothy smile and offers her a fee so attractive that she is tempted to grab his whistle and blow it herself. Exercising restraint, she simply returns his smile. Fifty percent up front; the remainder at the end. She’s already calculating how the money will be spent. Which holes plugged, to which channels some diverted. They talk some more about dates and times. As she sees him out, she tells him that she’ll finalise the following day. She must make the necessary arrangements with her teammates.
A pastor as an answer to a prayer? Indira is too well honed by hard life to believe it’s more than coincidence. But, his stepping into De Rightest Place with his proposition on the very same morning as the credit card statement and the warning letter from Winning Streak Gaming Club’s lawyer is a gift horse whose teeth she isn’t going to examine. This could be her best chance to pay off that debt, pay bills, and get back on track.
When the pub closes for siesta, Indira calls a meeting with Bostic and Fritzie.
Two matters have come up that we must talk about. First of all, the post brought a couple hefty bills. Water and Electricity. Both threatening disconnection. Secondly, we have an offer from a pastor to rent the yard for a crusade starting Saturday.
Wait-wait-wait, says Fritzie. Is Saturday you saying?
Yes. From Saturday every night for nine nights, five to nine pm.
So what about the regular trade?
Everything will go on as usual.
He leans back in his chair and waves a dismissive hand towards Indira.
Chuts. You can’t be serious. Bar and church can’t mix.
C’mon, Bostic. Go brave for a change.
Bostic sits bolt upright.
Brave or reckless? Think about it. Is okay with the neighbours that you turn your downstairs into a bar because here is like they home from home. But tent church? That does draw big, big crowd. It bound to have people coming in from outside. Strangers. You ever check and see how much cars does be park up here any day and night of the week? If it had, say, twenty, or even only ten more cars park up for four, five hours, there could be trouble.
It’s only for nine nights. People will adjust.
We hardly get over the disaster of the all-inclusive Carnival fete and you want to take on a next scheme?
You can hardly blame me for that. How could I have predicted that Councillor Ramluck would roll up with his drunken partners and pick a fight with Councillor Morris and his drunken crew?
Is not you self who give them councillors complimentary tickets? Giving complimentary to big shot is like open season. Them so don’t go nowhere without a whole posse of hangers-on to laugh at they lame jokes and big them up.
That wouldn’t have been a bad thing if they’d only conducted themselves in a more responsible manner.
Indira, when last you hear bout never-see-come-see politician behaving responsible, eh? What it was that former Prime Minister did say one time? “Politics have its own morality.”
I can’t see what that has to do with the matter in hand.
Plenty, Indira, plenty. Is different strokes for different folks. You don’t see how when fight break out small fry does pick up empty bottle to pelt, but big sawatee only pelting full bottle of booze? I never see so much a Grey Goose, Johnny Blue, Jack Daniels flying through the air. Jeezanages! Must be about twenty cases before the police reach. Police self was staggering around, drunk from just breathing in the fumes. You remember that, Fritzie? And, after they done mashup the place, them sons-a-bitches councillors wouldn’t pay Indira for the bottles of alcohol they waste when she send the bill. You remember how they say the ticket say unlimited premium bar? Eh?
Fritzie will not be drawn. She goes back to the first issue.
What about the utility bills? The crusade money can cover that, Indira?
For the second time that day, Indira smiles. Yes. It can. Plus we will make a big pot of corn soup to sell after the service. Churchgoers will be hungry after the exertion of testifying.
Who making soup?
You and me, Fritzie. Just like we do for the lunch trade. It’s only to make a second batch.
On her way home Fritzie is pondering. What’s the matter with Indira these days? Falling for any and every bogus scheme anybody throw at her. Between that and the new craze for casino, casino, every chance she could get away from the bar, she acting well strange. What happening with her? And is all a we to ketch. More work, work, work. Like we don’t have a life.
The first of the nine nights goes down well. A good size church crowd, sales brisk in bar and corn soup. Except for two things. One, Bostic and Fritzie are worn ragged. And two, the noise of the sound system blasting the sermon, the testifying, the hymns, setting the neighbours’ nerves on edge.
Second night, Sunday, just as good for bar and soup, just as tiring for the team. And so it goes on till Thursday evening.
It so happens that Cynthia is hosting a family christening party on Thursday, at her home, just down the road from De Rightest Place. Car with macomere come, nowhere to park, car with compere come, nowhere to park, car with baby, baby’s mother, baby’s father, baby’s mother’s mother and father come and nowhere to park. The street full up both sides with congregation cars. Traffic squeezing past in both directions. Cars circling block after block until they find a space here and there way out by the Savannah, and people have to walk blocks to reach a little “ice cream and cake” party, a little “drink a rum on the baby’s head” party. And, the final nail in the coffin, when Cynthia’s guests put on music to really party, a little raise yuh han’, wine down low, it’s getting drowned out by washed in the blood of the lamb coming from the tent church in Indira’s yard.
By four o’clock on Friday, the swelling number of converts to GOAL Ministries take up all the street parking. Residents have to abandon their precious vehicles that they’re still paying for, far, far away, at the mercy of opportunistic car thieves, and they have to hoof it home. Bostic and Fritzie are already frazzled by the relentless demand from the pious for soup and refreshment.
Friday turns to Saturday, the eighth night of the crusade. Residents launch a car parking offensive. Off work for the weekend, they occupy the streets with their cars from early. They call family and friends to park in the remaining spaces. Late afternoon rolls by. A churchgoer pulls up, her car partly blocking the entrance to a driveway. Leaving the engine running to keep the air-conditioning on, she lifts out her one-year-old, runs into the tent with him for his granny to look after, so she could go back to her car, drive until she finds a real space, park up, and then walk back with the six-year-old who is sleeping in the car. When she hustles back to where she left the car, it and her little girl are gone.
She dials the emergency number to report her missing car with child inside. Five long minutes pass as she listens to a recorded voice giving options, presses numbers, receives more recorded instructions and finally hears, all our agents are busy now. Please stay on the line. Your call is important to us. She runs back to the tent church. It is now packed full and late arrivals are standing about in little groups in the yard. She approaches one cluster and tells them what has happened. Someone offers to drive her to the nearest police station and its presiding sergeant.
Where you say your vehicle was park? Madam, you come to the wrong station. That vehicle was park outside this jurisdiction. You have to make your report at the station on the Circular Road.
At the Circular Road Station, bench loads of people are waiting to report accidents, break-ins, shootings and other everyday difficulties of life to a lone officer, hunched over pages of tortured longhand. One hour pass before it’s her turn and the officer says that the missing car can be reported there. The missing child has to be reported elsewhere, in the jurisdiction of the child’s residence.
In the meantime, rippling from one group of churchgoers outside the tent to the next, a wave of whispering flows inside, surging through the congregation as a murmuring mumbling, a lowering and nodding of heads, a shuffling of feet, a standing up, walking about, dashing around as the word spreads. They teef a lady car. A little girl get kidnap. The flock streams out, making enquiries on the street. They discover that a resident phoned Traffic Branch to haul away offending vehicles, that cars were towed, that it’s a possibility that the child and car are lodged in one of the five or so car pounds in the city. Teams of churchgoers fan out in search, and the vehicle is located in the yard of the Police Ghetto Observation Post at the eastern edge of the city.
The finders have to wait for the mother to come. When she gets there the police do not let her take her child or her car. They send her home to fetch the child’s birth certificate and the certificate of ownership for the car, to prove that both belong to her. They check her driver’s permit and the car insurance certificate. She pays the five hundred dollar fine for illegal parking and as she turns to leave with her little girl, the policeman tells her, this time I letting you off with a warning. Allyuh woman too damn careless. You lucky I not laying a charge on you for child neglect.
Back at the GOAL tent church, the Reverend Pastor Sukker’s shrill whistle summons the residue of the congregation not involved in the car search to come inside, come forward, up, up, to the front, to stay on the pitch, stay in the game. It will not be always like this, he says. No where to park. No where to sit. This is just the start. Your own clubhouse awaits you. Imagine such a place, he says. You will not need that fan you are waving, sister; no need to mop your brow, brother; the clubhouse, your clubhouse, will be fully air-conditioned. Our sister who had her car wrecked will drive into our secure car park. And you, brothers and sisters, who came in from the sidelines to sit on these plastic chairs, picture your new stands — row upon row of comfortable seating, padded, backrest, armrest, a veritable throne for each and every one. Fellow teammates at the back. Are you straining your eyes to see? Stretching your ears to hear? No more. No more. You will lift up thine eyes to wide screen plasma TVs hung all along the walls. Can we do it? Yes we can! Yes we can! But only if we all have the will to win. Only if we pull together, work as a team, keep our eyes on the ball. Send your contribution flying into the GOAL net.
Sunday dawns bright and hopeful. The priest at the more established religious institution, the one whose congregation is made up of the residents of this settled community, preaches his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. The reminder from the pulpit of loaves and fishes, generosity, sharing, brotherly love, do-unto-others, that sort of thing, strikes a guilty chord in the hearts of the neighbours. They file out of the church in near silence. Nobody talks about the incident of the evening before, but all who have off-street parking drive their vehicles into their carports.
It’s the last night of the nine nights crusade at the GOAL Ministries. It’s four on that dozy Sunday afternoon. Pastor U.R. Sukker is standing on the pavement glancing up and down the street. The street is as empty as the national treasury after a five-year unrestricted raid by a ruling party. A mere sprinkling of neighbours’ cars; no neighbours’ family and friends’ cars; no congregation cars either. He pulls up a gold sleeve and checks his watch over and over again, as if it’s an itch that needs constant scratching. At five, he goes into the tent and stands at the pulpit. He looks around. From overflowing on Saturday at the start of service to now, the tent is almost drained of congregation. He is not so misguided as to count as lasting converts Cecil, Boyee, Feroze, and Anil, who’ve dropped in out of Sunday afternoon ennui. What went wrong? He ponders. It wasn’t his sermons. He brings to mind the resounding singing, the ardent testifying, the thunderous clapping with which his performance was greeted every night for the past eight nights. He knows he scored hat trick after hat trick. And now this?
Alas, what was to have been a crescendo of salvation and a torrent of tithes on the big night, the Finals of the Deliverance Cup, as it were, is reduced to a feeble affirmation from that handful of faithful who live in easy walking distance of the tent, and a mere trickle of offerings into the GOAL net. Pastor can’t meet the second payment. The goalposts shifted, he explains to Indira. Indira has to admit to herself that she’s scored an own goal this time. But all is not lost. She has her own goals to consider. Forward ever. Backward never.
Next morning, Indira, Bostic, and Fritzie meet for a post mortem. From a huge pot of corn soup on the bar counter, the stench of fermenting grain wafts to where the three are sitting. Indira throws a glance at Bostic, slouched down, eyes closed, as she clears away from the table a clutter of empty beer bottles. Okay, okay, she says. So, it didn’t quite work out as planned. Bostic briefly flickers open one eyelid, lizard-style, and shifts in his chair. Fritzie looks studiously at her nails and begins to scrape off flaking nail polish with a thumbnail. Neither looks at Indira. You know what went wrong? Indira continues. Not enough parking. This is a busy little street at the best of times. Here’s what. I’ll get the backyard paved and mark off some parking spots. We can charge people to park their cars. What do you think?
© Copyright Barbara Jenkins