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Country roads and stories
Once upon a time, I taught at a country school deep in central Trinidad. It wasn’t a memorable experience, except for Achilles, another teacher there, who made me his Paduan apprentice early on. Being apprenticed meant following, or being dragged or pushed, into rumshops along the potholed, dangerous road from Chaguanas to the centre of the island, and meeting a variety of loose women, rogue cops, “wild meat” experts, and philosophers whose wisdom usually dissipated with the hangover.
The road hasn’t changed, I found, as I drove down there last week, on what cops call “inquiries”—in this case, of a journalistic nature. Usually, the best place to find out anything in a village is the rumshop or general store, and after a few minutes talking to a store proprietor, I found the incident I’d followed down there was a dud. The second shop I called at, a mom & pop affair, confirmed the first shop’s story.
As I was leaving, Mom said what everyone says to a visiting reporter: “But if you want a story, I could give you one, you know.” Naturally, the reporter is obliged to listen politely. You never know. “You could do a story about how nobody ain’t care what happen to we down here,” she said. “Not police, politician, county council. Nobody.” Mom & Pop had a running years’ long dispute with a neighbour who had built an overhanging shed which dropped onto their property.
When it rained, their yard flooded, thanks to the structure. “We bring police about four time and they talk to she, but she ain’t do nothing, and the police went away. “We went to the building inspector, and he come and see the thing, and say our structure in violation too. But I had to put a concrete roof to keep the bandits out.” “Ah,” I said, looking at Mom & Pop’s grandchild running around the store. “Well.”
“Nobody ain’t care,” said Pop. “The village councillor just get a set of contract for he family, and he ain’t care to do nothing.” “Hmm,” I said. “But one unlicensed firearm and the whole police force reach here.” There it was. “Really?” “We get rob about eight time. The bandits beat we up. We call the police and tell them where the bandits went. We see them turn in a side road not far from here. You know what the police say?”
“What?” “They say: ‘We ain’t going in there, boy, it does have all kind of bad man in there.’” Pop was a small, bald man. His wife had a worried face which was draped in a martyred look. “That’s what the police say. We apply for a firearm licence for years and they refuse and refuse and refuse,” said Mom.
“So my husband get a illegal one. The neighbour report we to the police, and two jeep of police come here. They beat we. They beat me all on my neck. I had to get a operation…” She spoke casually, wearily, running a finger from her hairline to the top of her back.
I noticed for the first time that the store was encased in a grid of wrought iron. “It cost $100,000 to get out of that,” said Pop.
On the way out, I saw a number of places where the road was being repaired, and was surprised at how many places it had collapsed, broken, or fallen off the side. I had to slow down, and noticed, with a little astonishment, picturesque swaths of agricultural fields, and stretches of what looked like tropical forest, tall trees and light undergrowth, with slender veins of dirt tracks leading off the main road into them. I put the windows down and let the soothing silence into the car.
At a point, I passed a sturdy wooden house on stilts. The yard beneath it was hard dirt, swept clean, with a hammock suspended inside the four pillars like a geometric diagram. Behind it was a green cultivated field, and behind that was the forest. It was a kind of place you wish you could come to on a weekend, to float in the quiet, and rest in a way you couldn’t in the towns. I hadn’t seen any of this this morning, or 25 years ago, bumping along those roads to get to school for 8 am.
The teachers and the school didn’t do much to add any tranquility. The school was in a long church hall, divided by partitions, with about 15 classes jammed in. I don’t remember the noise so much as the sad looks on the faces of the children. I passed by there. The old school is a two-storey concrete building now.
Achilles died about 15 years ago. I’d met another teacher on the street in Chaguanas one day and asked for him. The other teacher said: “We bury him last week.” I usually went to look for him every now and again after I left, but hadn’t been for a while. “What happened?” “Nobody ain’t know. One day, he just start to swell up. They carry him to the health centre, but they couldn’t find what was wrong with him. They send him back home, even though he say he didn’t want to go back. He dead a week after.”
“They never find how?” “They didn’t care to look or ask. He was in a land dispute with some family. They say they poison him, or wuk some obeah on him.” I still remember his face: handlebar moustache, dead serious, menacing, until he burst out laughing. The kids in school loved him. But I couldn’t help wondering: How did the neighbour know Mom & Pop had an illegal gun?
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