“Say something! Say something damn it!” Sandra was standing before him, her arms flailing excitedly. “De pickney nah feed yet, an all we food done, an all you do is jus siddong an a lick sensi!”
Andrew paused and looked up at her. Their eyes met briefly, then he looked back down to his hands, licked the rizzla and put in a fresh load of weed, rolling it with the dexterity of a master craftsman into a perfect spliff. He planted the joint between his blackened lips and flick, flicking his lighter he lighted it up and sucked deliciously on the high-grade weed he’d bought only the night before. The marijuana smoke crept stealthily into his lungs, curling up in a thick ball of warmth till he purred it out from between his ivory-white teeth.
“ Me gone out ah road” he announced Matter-of-factly tossing his dreadlocks nonchalantly away from his eyes.
“Gwaan mister big man! Gwaan go do you business! Me see how it stay. Me good fi breed but me nah good fi love, you ah mine yuself but you nah mine fi you pickney, cho! But no matter, de longest road have a end”.
Andrew was done lacing his thick leather boots. He stood up now, gave his worn denim jacket a shake and walked out slamming the rickety door behind him.
Ah! The chilly morning air kissing his warm cheeks. He drew himself to his full height, expanding his chest with a breath of noisy Papine air. He was a full head taller than Sandra, yet whenever he was around her he always felt so small. Why was that? Why was it that when he was in that house he always felt so small, so infinitely small, like some virus that had lodged itself in the home and was somehow spreading infection? He hoped that his children would not catch this infection, maybe that’s why he was always on the road- so that he wouldn’t infect them. Certainly, he didn’t want them to be what he had himself become-a slave, a beggar-a man whose dreams had all but withered around him, but there was hope still. There was always hope that things would get better.
“Hey Andy, wha gwaan star!” a heavy voice exclaimed. It was his friend Boombox. Andrew looked at the afro pick that was rooted in Boombox’s thick bushy afro. They called him Boombox because he always rode about with a blaring boombox on his bicycle and it was blaring then some soulful reggae music.
‘Me deya man” Andrew replied “how things man?” he asked Boombox.
“You done know, me still dere ah mash de works man.”
Andrew wondered how Boombox survived. He had five children and all he did was hustle for taximen or work as a conductor on a bus and the little odd job here and there. How did he do it? How could he do it, groveling each day in the merciless streets? It wasn’t as if Andrew had never looked for a job, he’d tried to hustle, he’d sold coconuts, he’d sold apples by the roadside, he’d sold peanuts, he’d even rented himself out to tourist women a few times, but he just could not keep it up. He was tired of living hand to mouth.
As Boombox made his way down the road, Bob Marley’s infectious voice wafted through the air “I shot the sheriff but I….”
Andrew shrugged his shoulder and sucked deeply on his spliff. What was he doing here, in this city, straggling through life when he could be back home in Trelawney with more than enough for him and his family to eat? It’s true there was a lot more to do in the city , a lot more excitement, but who cared about those things when he could barely eat. One day, one day, he told himself, he would go back, but he knew deep down inside that he would never go back. There was too much pain there still, too many hurtful memories. He had only been back once since leaving there and that was when his mother had died. He was on Hope Road now, he would make a right turn into Hope Gardens and take a short-cut into Hope Pastures. He had heard that some houses were being built there, maybe he would find a job.
Passing through the gardens, memories enveloped him like a mass of falling leaves. A ravenous choir of crows cawed viciously from the trees. Soon he was walking through the gate. Memories of his days growing up in Trelawney came to him, days he had spent as a young boy, when he wasn’t working, flying kites and playing cricket with improvised bats.
The memories flowed into his mind unbidden. He could remember his days with his brother Andy. He and his brother had done everything together. He remembered them playing hide and seek, or picking mangoes, or plums, or guavas or naseberries or using their catapults to shoot unsuspecting birds from their trees, or catch butterflies or fireflies at night. They had done everything together. They were inseparable. They would not go to a party if only one of them was invited. If someone picked a fight with one, he would have to contend with both of them.
He remembered too, the river where he and his brother would go to catch fish or crayfish, or to cook food, and to splash water at each other, or to climb its muddy banks to jump back in. He was standing before the water fountain now, where he had stopped. A column of water rose above a concrete pool, bending at its apex like an umbrella. He remembered that last time he and his brother had gone to the river together.
They had gone to the deepest part of the river, a part they called the pool. They had stood on the bank, the ominous water rippling darkly beneath them. Bamboo leaves and other debris floating on its surface. Andrew challenged his brother to dive in. An exuberant Andy flexed his muscles then, like an Olympic diver, he was gone – his body arching through the air, diving head first. Splash! He disappeared beneath the water’s murky depths. He did not come back up right away, or rather his body did not surface right away. He had struck his head on a huge rock that lurked a few feet beneath the water. His skull had shattered on impact and he was unconscious within a second. Andrew watched from his perch.
His brother would come to the surface anytime now, shrieking and thrashing about like a fish, he told himself, then he would jump in and they would splash each other with water and scream and jump around. But no, there would be no laughter rising through the bamboo leaves. It was his last time with his brother, who had plunged irrevocably into the jealous arms of death. His body floating like a piece of driftwood over the river’s tenebrous depths.
He had to move on. He had a long day ahead. He continued walking. He walked past the restaurant and on towards the pond. He brought a rough hand up to his eyes to dry the warm stream of tears that had trickled down. Going over the bridge he glanced at the murky water that slept listlessly beneath the lilies. He made his way through a hole in the fence that stood idly on the park’s perimeter and continued the walk to the construction site at Hope Pastures. He took a last puff of the stub that remained of his joint. “Morning sah”, he said, smiling at the foreman, “Mi hear say you have vacancy”.
“Ah breds, mi sorry you know but we nah take….”
“Boss gimme a bligh nah man, me have two pickney an me gal belly a swell.”
“Mi cyan tek no more man on right now, check me in about two weeks”.
Two weeks? There was no food in the house. His children had to go to school what good was a promise two weeks in the future?
“Alright tank you boss”, he replied despondently, tears lurking at the edges of his voice. He needed to eat, his family needed to eat. He couldn’t do this anymore. What would he say to Sandra? He couldn’t face her empty handed. He had promised her before she moved in with him that he would take care of her, that he would always be there for her, and now here he was with his last hundred-dollar bill in his pocket. He was tired of begging the neighbours, and begging the shop keepers for credit. He wanted money.
Maybe it was time he took on that proposal that Bullbuck had made him. It was true that Bullbuck was a gangster, that he had killed people, and had a notoriously nasty temper, but he also put several young people through school. He would never forget the time Bullbuck had paid his daughter’s school fees. He started the long walk back to Papine, his boots squeaking miserably in the hot Kingston sun.
That very moment Sandra stood against the kitchen sink, the warmth of her belly against the cold stainless steel. She was peeling some irish potatoes. When she was done she moved over to the rusty stove on which she prepared their increasingly rare meals. She had never planned it like this, never imagined that this would be her life. She had left home at sixteen to live with Andrew, already pregnant with his child. She had passed her CXC exams but never went on to do her A-levels, having a child to tend. Andrew was a thirty year old security guard at the University of the West Indies campus. He had lost his job soon after the first child was born and the perilous decline into indigence had begun.
Andrew was back in Papine he was making his way now along the road that led to Bullbuck’s house, a house in which he had never slept. What would he say when he got there, when he looked into Bullbuck’s huge knowing eyes? But the more daunting question, the question that lingered like a dark cloud at the back of his mind, was what would he have to do? He was in front of the house now, right at the gates. It was a tall imposing building, white and built like a cathedral. What was he doing here? He wasn’t a killer, he wasn’t a thug. Surely there must be something else. He turned around to go.
”Yo! Wha you want dere!”
It was a coarse harsh voice that recalled to Andrew the sound of a shovel mixing gravel and mortar. He turned around to look into a pair of bloodshot eyes perched beneath a practised scowl. It was John Crow, one of Bullbuck’s gunmen.
“What you want?” He was standing right before Andrew now, his bald head shining in the fierce sunlight. He wore a tight-fitting multicoloured vest from which a well chiselled chest and densely muscled arms could be clearly seen. A row of earrings all along each earlobe only added to his formidable ferocity. Pitch black skin clung loosely to his neck. He was a dangerous man – that Andrew knew. He would as readily gut a man as he would a pig. Andrew was mute with fear, his throat had grown dry. He struggled to find words.
“Let im come, let him come John Crow, a mi fren dat!” It was Bullbuck, standing in the doorway of the house. His shirt was open at the front and a rotund belly peered out through it. John Crow motioned for Andrew to go in. Andrew hesitated for a while then walked ahead under John crow’s malevolent stare.
Inside the house four thugs were seated; Mongoose, Fish-eye, Goose and Pitbull. He knew them all. Pitbull was a thick mass of muscle and bone. He wore a tight black shirt and a pair of royal blue denims. The light bounced off his gold teeth whenever he spoke. His hair was shaved in a Mohawk style and a single gold stud sprouted from his right ear. Goose was rail thin but Andrew knew that such scant size often belied an insane ferocity. He’d come across men like Goose before. Many a fool had been lain low by men like this; stabbed, chopped or shot in cold blood. Men like Goose had had to make up for their lack of size by cultivating a harsh and violent brutality. The ghettos were filled with men like him. A young girl sat on Goose’s thigh, she was wearing a very short skirt that clung loosely to her youthful thighs. Her nails were painted a bright neon pink and matched the pink leather sidebag that hung at her side. She wore her short hair in a ponytail and two pendulous silver earrings hung from her lobes. Her perky breasts pointed out proudly from her chest. Her youthful lips, which were coated in pink lipstick stretched into a smile as Goose whispered into her ear. She was busy toying with his nine-inch dagger which shimmered in the light. He smiled at her lasciviously. In a corner, seated on a stool Fish Eye was seated with a Rubick cube- his hands flicking this way and that as he tried to solve it. His head was bowed as he worked at the cube. His left eye was intently focused while his right wandered about aimlessly. His lips were black and his eyes were red – reddened no doubt by his prodigious consumption of weed. Mongoose slouched in a plastic chair listening to some dancehall music through his earphones. He wore a yellow and green shirt with the image of a dancehall star on the front and inscribed beneath it was ‘World Boss.’ A sly smile was spread across his face. Occasionally he would brush back the bleached dreadlocks that fell before his eyes. Or stroke the goatee that grew from his chin. Andrew took all this in as he entered the building. He breathed in heavily. These men were the celebrities of the neighbourhood. Young boys sat around by the roadside at night discussing their exploits, talking about their cars, lusting after their women.
There was no turning back, now that he had gone in, after all he owed the man. He had paid his daughter’s school fees. The gang of thugs eyed him suspiciously.
“Come inna de office” Bullbuck commanded.
It really was an office, a plush leather chair sat behind a broad oak desk on which papers and pens lay. A picture of his wife was positioned in the center and another, of his two daughters,stood next to it. Bullbuck eased himself into the comfort of the leather chair which reclined beneath his weight. He stayed there recumbent, watching Andrew through his huge bloodshot eyes, his right index finger on his chin, as though he were carrying out an assessment. Andrew squirmed with discomfort, nervously eyeing the pistol that was tucked carelessly into Bullbucks denim trousers. It was men like he who held sway in the ghetto. At his mere whim men had lost their lives and young girls their virtue.
“So you want a job”, Bullbuck was saying, piercing Andrew with the bleak desolation of his dark eyes.
“You have children to feed and you have bills to pay, I know, I know, I been dere myself. Mi know how it stay. Listen, mi have a job fi you, mi tink you can handle it. You gwine haffi come back here tomorrow evening. You can work wi de bway dem. We have a raid to make tomorrow night,ok?”
“Yeah ok” Andrew replied.
He wanted to say that he was not ready, that he was too scared, that he didn’t want to kill, but then how could he turn down Bullbuck? He could not go back to Sandra empty handed, couldn’t bear to see her disappointed. Bullbuck was counting bills, thousand dollar bills from a thick wad. Andrew’s eyes lit up with expectation, in his mind he counted, one, two, three thousand dollars.
“Look man buy some food fi you pickney.” He handed the bills over to Andrew.
“Thanks man, Bullbuck” Andrew said smiling shyly
“Doan mention it man.”
Andrew turned to leave.
“Hey Andrew!” It was Bullbuck again. “Doan forget you tool man”.
He reached down into a drawer in the oak desk and pulled out a nine millimeter pistol. He put it on the desk, slamming two cartridges unto the desk next to it.
“A good workman must always have him tools.”
He was looking straight into Andrew’s eyes, a sinister leer twisted across his face.
“Gimme a handshake man” he said, laughing now.
He had Andrew now and he knew it. They both knew it. Andrew leaned over and placed his hand in Bullbuck’s rough, thick skinned hands -hands that had cradled babies, hands that had killed men. Bullbuck’s grip tightened around Andrew’s hand like a python around its prey, leaving little doubt about the overwhelming brutish power he possessed.
At the gate Andrew sighed. It was getting dark now, only bats and the odd bird fluttered about beneath the clouds of dusk, but there was money in his pocket. He and Sandra would eat tonight. They would eat all week. He had made a deal. There was no going back now, or was there? He stood there, before the gate, his conscience in limbo. He had made a deal with the devil. He had made a deal with death. He looked now at the metal tool with the black handle that lay passively in his hand like a sleeping child, like those children he had left at home and he started, through the night, to make his long walk home.