As is the case with an increasing number of black Bajan women, especially single ones, Vowella Suttle wore her fatigue like an old hand-me-down, put on only because it was there and still fit. Her expression vacillated between a ready smile and resting bitch face. And so she was on the day she bumped into Craigwell Braithwaite.
Vowella—or Vow to the few friends that she’d managed to keep in touch—was sweaty, powder sliding from her face.
She’d been a guest in a hospitality box of a leading Canadian-owned bank during a test match at Kensington Oval. The West Indies would lose again. Everyone knew this except babies in their mothers’ arms but no one would admit this out loud for fear of appearing unpatriotic. Yet there are many unpatriotic Barbadians, a silent majority, in fact. Anyway, the West Indies, at two hundred and five runs with ten wickets, were chasing England for four hundred and fifty-three runs. They did not get much further.
Back in the old days of Sirs Garry Sobers, Vivian Richards, and Frank Worrell, the West Indies were fearsome as they whipped the colonisers’ butts. A more refined way of saying what could not be shouted in public: You screwed us over for three hundred years making our forefathers slave away to nothing and you don’t reimburse us for your savagery? We will batter you with our cricket bats and balls. We will make you stew in a fascinated rage, your faces reddening at the injustice of ‘ignorant black ingrates’ claiming victory. Dat fuh lick ya.
Or something like that.
Unfortunately, the beloved era had passed. Resurrection is possible but improbable, say the pundits.
After another wicket had fallen, Vowella got up and entered the air-conditioned hospitality suite filled with bustling wait staff and lackluster ham cutters, skewered fruit, and mini turnovers. All she wanted was to pee, badly. She would then go home to shower and sleep. She’d left work early to go to the Oval. Work meant hours poring over legal claims in the Trinidad/West Ontario/Barbados Insurance Trust (TWOBIT) Company Ltd. She often answered calls from disgruntled customers when her subordinates had called in sick (READ: attending appointments at the US Embassy to apply for visas, getting a friend to braid their hair with Afro Kinky, or taking self-designated mental health days). As a result, Vowella often fielded irate calls from customers, some of whom had elaborate schemes to defraud TWOBIT.
She remembered her first call. From an expatriate couple who would spend half the year in the UK and half in Barbados. Just a quick aside here: this is what every upwardly mobile, professional, university educated, middle class, self-respecting, youngish, black Barbadian dreams of. To travel as frequently as possible, live The Life, and post their locations and pictures of said The Life on Facebook and Instagram. Next to unpatriotism (and perhaps passive-aggression), pretension is a national pastime. The debating society at the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies had once mooted the deeply philosophical statement: If it is not posted on a Facebook newsfeed, it has not occurred. The proponents won convincingly. If pretension was an Olympic sport, well, you can only imagine the accolades. But what most didn’t know is that pretension often sprung from their insecurity. At the root of which lay a need for something real and good, like love.
Anyway, the couple from England had come to Barbados, spent a night having dinner at one of their favourite little shacks on the south coast, the hut of a former enslaved African. (Narrator’s note: The word slave is inappropriate because people are not born slaves. Nevertheless, it is used often as Barbadians simultaneously describe and deny their ancestors.) The British couple went to great pains to describe their meal to Vowella. She had licked her lips as they spoke. Pickled conch, jerk chicken, followed by fish—and those were only the starters. The main dish was breadfruit cou cou and flying fish with grated cucumber. After, the couple were so sated the wife had pulled off her rings. “They swell up something awful when I eat seafood,” Vowella remembered writing down. In her profession Vowella’s scepticism was rewarded, handsomely. It wasn’t valued in other areas, however. When it came to men, for example, she was a dregs-in-the cup type of girl. So when she scribbled the wife’s explanation for the disappearance of her platinum and diamond rings, Vowella was already a non-believer. Turns out she and hubby had each swallowed one before their coconut rum cake arrived, then claimed they had been stolen by their waiter. The fine restaurant, wanting to protect its reputation and Travelocity rating, kept quiet and passed it on to TWOBIT for settlement. Vowella had tipped off the insurance investigator about her suspicions and was promoted when the rings were found in the blocked plumbing system after the toilet in the couple’s room stopped working. Vowella’s boss had smiled at her after that case, declaring, “You’ll do very well here. Yes, very well.” Perhaps he had sensed an over eagerness and that apart from work there wasn’t much happening in her life. She received bonuses and promotions year after year and several trips to the UK where she fell in love with British architecture after visits to the Houses of Parliament, Hampton Court Palace, and the Trocadero.
Vowella knew exactly the type of house she wanted in England and where. It would be in Somerset, somewhere near to the sea—small islanders love to be near water. It would be a cottage, nothing too elaborate, as she was not given to obsequiousness. Think low ceilings and dark beams, maybe an inglenook fireplace. It would have two bedrooms with double aspect windows drawing in views of fields and hills. Paintings of coastal Barbados with bright blues and oranges would adorn the thick white walls. The cottage would have a garden, there would be trellis over which wisteria would grow. Free-range chickens would roam the garden and Vowella would leave eggs in a hutch over her front gate for obliging neighbours. They would gently take her gifts for their quiches and tarts and replace them with vegetables from their own bounty. They would visit each other’s homes with country pies and other potluck items for suppers and feast on lively conversation that sometimes skirted on the edges of debate but retained a sense of generous respect and fun. Vowella would enjoy this; she had always craved a love that was not harsh or narrow.
In Barbados, outside of family (and sometimes not even that) Vowella had not been invited to many homes, not since she’d left secondary school. She realised this anomaly when she started travelling and was warmly welcomed into homes in other countries. And it’s only when she returned to Barbados that she perceived that doors and hearts on this little island were not opened or offered as easily. Bajans would risk opening their home to you if it was clean from top to bottom and if they could lay out a feast to rival Christmas dinner. On any other occasion, and as they lacked trust and stockpiled fear, you’d be met at a door cracked half open (if lucky) or at a window (if not). You’d engage in polite conversation bordering on gossip for hours before you would leave, legs aching from all the standing. Vowella learnt later, and the hard way, that to invite someone into your home was to invite a savage criticism about the colour or length of your drapery, the film of dust caking the joints of your dining room chairs, and the size of your TV or lack thereof. And the mother of all observations, and judgment: whether your abode was made of concrete blocks or wooden boards. She knew early on about some kind of deficit in her family and in many others. It wasn’t until she was older, until she’d started to understand the unique strangeness of love in a small island nicknamed Little England, that it was intimacy that was lacking. And this was what she most yearned for.
Back to Kensington Oval though. As Vowella was placing an empty glass on the table she bumped into a man drinking something that was a translucent ginger-brown colour. Vowella apologised and though she hadn’t smiled (she was in resting bitch face repose) the man had offered one of his own. She couldn’t remember what he’d said. Or had he just looked at her and kept smiling? After she apologised he’d ushered her over to a cocktail table in the lounge over which a purple lilac stretch fabric was pulled. Their conversation went something like this:
“We’ve met before, you look familiar.”
“I imagine I look like any other Bajan woman.” Which was quite true but not in the deprecatory way that she meant. She had a wide face and teeth which protruded ever so slightly whenever she produced a wide, genuine smile. Her eyes narrowed to thin slices when that smile appeared. Their whites were not as yellowed or bloodshot as one would expect in the dry tropical heat. Her nose was very Bajan—short with wide slightly upturned nostrils. She sported a small curly afro, the ends dyed blonde. “My name is Vowella.”
“Yes, we have met but I didn’t know your name then. How interesting. What does it mean?”
Expecting this question, she recited the definition her mother had fabricated forty-one years earlier. (“You must always have something interesting to say—to men in particular,” her mother was fond of saying.) “It’s old English, almost obsolete language, for a lost art, an agrarian art from the north of England. Something similar to blacksmithing.” She said this slowly, as if it was her first time. (And it was her first time meeting him.)
The man nodded his head slowly with a smile that stretched his cheeks. “I’m plain Craigwell, a good old Bajan name is what my mother gave me.”
Vowella wondered what it would be like to have a good old Bajan mother. Down-to-earth, accessible, affectionate. Hers was what you would call proper. A mother who aspired to greatness, hers and others, hadn’t gotten it, but behaved as if she still could. She had longed to be a part of the Windrush generation and live in London like her older sister but her family could only afford to send one of them away. When she finally crossed the Atlantic it was for a brief two-week stay. Her sister lived with other women in a boarding house. They shared a slim mattress, her cold feet pressing her sister’s weary face. She decided never to return; the dank muckiness was beneath her. But she pillaged and packed as much of London as she could. Cans of Birds Eye custard, an accent (tinged with cockney), forced airs, and a stunning ability to identify others by social class. Think Mrs. Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances but taller, black, and profoundly ridiculous. She still wore stockings the colour of cocoa powder everywhere she went and in thirty degrees and climbing heat (thanks to climate change). She sipped tea every afternoon. Earl Grey, from a flowered teapot which she would drape with a cozy. She would lose more fluid then she was taking in, sweat pooling at the base of a double chin. Whenever asked how she was, she would reply: “Very well, indeed” and when particularly pleased she would cry “Capital!” and clasp her hands.
At her mother’s urging, Vowella had moved back home after her father had taken a teaching job in the United States but never returned. After seven years he was declared legally dead. Vowella had rented out her townhouse and it became a sought after Airbnb. Phrases in her profile such as “light, airy, open, and breezy with a sea view” helped to sell a place even if it was miles away from the coast. It was a compact two-storey structure with a covered deck with patio tables and chairs enough for eight. She’d never used them all at the same time. Her guests were limited to clusters of twos and sometimes threes in the terraced cul-de-sac. Sometimes her middle-aged cousin Dee would join her, sinking heavily into a chair. Dee was a teacher, entering the service as it became a dangerous profession, long after it had stopped being a noble one. “How’s the book coming along?” Vowella would always ask.
“Slowly,” Dee would sigh. She wore sadness gladly, it drew attention. “How’s your English cottage?” And so their conversation went, talk of dreams unfulfilled.
When alone, Vowella would sit on her deck with a book and a spoon dipped into chocolate fudge ice-cream gazing at the ginger lilies and heliconias that her mother had planted. They needed water. The property earned decent income, but she missed it. Her mother, however, managed to see The Brighter Side. “Darling,” she had whispered in that affected English accent that she never took off—they were sat around the dining table eating the Barbadian version of scones: large, hard, and yellow—“you owning your own property will only be a hindrance to getting a husband of your own. You know how some of the men around here are.”
Vowella did know. The last man she had dated, an accountant, had “let her go” for a supermarket clerk with four children from a cast of fathers. “You’re too good for me,” he’d said. It had slid too easily off his tongue. The man before the accountant, a policeman, had stalked her when she said she needed space, calling her phone, swearing he was in one place and then driving past her on Tweedside Road seconds later as she went to collect an outfit from her seamstress. Men in Barbados were making Vowella seek the company of groups of women (even if they were backbiting), cats from the RSPCA, and long books translated from the original Russian to English.
Back to Craigwell. As they chatted, she briefly wondered what her mother would have made of him. A good catch, no doubt. He owned his own home and, therefore, Vowella would not have to let him inhabit hers. Not owning a house was, her mother said, about on par with the disgrace of a man not having a driver’s licence.
“Nice to meet you.” Something that Vowella said more and more by rote.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying so but you’re very pretty.”
Vowella had heard this often enough over the years; it meant little to her. Her brand of pretty wasn’t the currency for something like marriage, a family, contentment—what others seemed to have in abundance (if you’re to believe Facebook). She had long concluded there was something wrong with her pretty quotient. It didn’t fetch as much as it would have twenty years ago when she’d graduated from UWI. She was prettier and fresh-faced then and not as cynical. Not as disappointed in men. Or herself.
“You have nice teeth and a smile,” Craigwell continued. He would be calling her a wolf next. Shame she couldn’t say the same about him. While his top teeth were evenly straight, the bottom row was caked with hard yellow deposits above his gums. She wondered what else he might have neglected.
“I don’t enjoy encumbrances.”
Vowella clenched her teeth. “Tell me about it.”
“Are you married or do you have children?”
“No, I haven’t settled into that. I’m not even sure I’ll find a husband here. Bajan men can be—” She couldn’t think of how to put it delicately and without disdain. “But you were telling me about your wife.”
“We were young and immature. We didn’t know the sacrifice that marriage would require and that one person would bear more than the other.”
“She did the heavy lifting.” Vow said it as a fact.
“I got tired of her demanding, her asking.”
“For me to be good. A good man.”
“For most. What is it you don’t like about us men?”
“Not men in general, just Bajan men.”
“Are we too much for you to handle?” he laughed at the ribald joke. Vowella didn’t.
“You might be too little,” she replied quietly. “Too little love, patience, humility, gentleness. Little safety, emotional or otherwise. I don’t know where these are.”
“I don’t hear you all asking for these things. I see hands out and breasts at the door for money and cars, houses, status, clothes, hair weaves.”
“And I forgot: too little understanding.”
Vowella’s forthrightness was not welcomed. When she was a teenager and at the dinner table with her parents one Sunday, she had done the math and realised she’d been born eight months after they were married. When her father got up to clear the table, she had leaned over and asked her mother if she was pregnant with her before she married. Her mother’s reply bundled indignance and shame with raised eyebrows, pursed lips, and the refrain: “How dare you?” This would become a hallmark of their relationship.
Craigwell did not seem to mind her direct questions. Smiling, he eased closer and Vowella’s eyes struggled to focus on his face. She became aware of others on the periphery—staff, other guests—and leaned backwards. She could smell alcohol on his breath. Drinking did not look good on him. It made him eager in a creepy way. And those spectacles. The frames were the colour of Valencia oranges, suiting someone far younger. His head was shiny and completely bald in that way to look as if done for style, not out of necessity. She could not guess at his age but his teeth told the story.
“How old are you?”
“I turned 61 a few weeks ago. How about you?”
“I am sure you did something exciting for your birthday.”
“I spent it quietly in Canada with my son and his family. In Montreal.”
“No big do for a man like you?”
“I get nervous around people, especially a set of Bajans who know each other and know me. They talk your name while smiling up in your face.”
“What would they say about you?”
“Nothing that’s fit for the company of a girl like you. With class.”
Instead he told Vowella about Montreal: the underground mall, the chic shopping, McGill University where his daughter was studying, the cavernous room in the art museum where he would sit on a wooden bench and survey the pieces. Maybe she would visit one day but her mind wondered back to that country garden in England.
Vowella finally tells Craigwell she has to leave. He offers her a business card which she will place in her jewellery box on her dressing table with the others. She believes it will gather dust.
Vowella, for all her capability, is not good at charting her future, except for her country cottage and kindly neighbours in Somerset. Those she will enjoy, but a decade later. Before then she will meet Craigwell again at the Oval. And they will marry within a year.
“He is a doctor after all,” her mother will remind her with glee, “and a specialist at that!”
She is not yet close enough to anyone wise and caring for them to ask the difficult and necessary questions: He’s kind? What’s he like when he’s vexed? How does he react when you say no?
And her forthright skepticism begins to prove unreliable when it comes to the persevering charms of Craigwell. Vowella is beguiled by attention and a lust for love. Much later, when she comes to her senses in a psychologist’s office, she will call this spell by its real name: desperation.
Within two years of their wedding, she will miscarry after a disagreement with Craigwell. She is unwilling to attend another cricket awards ceremony and he will shove her in the shower. He will stand over her as she lies in pain on the wet tiles, her legs pressed together trying to stem the gush of blood. It will not work.
But for now she stands in the hospitality box at Kensington Oval, crosses her legs to hold her pee, and commands the attention of a man with rotting teeth. She smiles easily, her eyes narrowed by laughter, because she believes that when she says goodbye she will never see him again.
Heather Barker is a Barbadian writer, born in the UK. Her fiction focuses on girls and women in the Caribbean and the African Diaspora while exploring the legacies of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Her short story, African Burial Ground, was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Axe Literary Competition while her collection manuscript, The Plundering, was the top entry in the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment (2017). Heather was shortlisted for the 2019 Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize as well as the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She runs a boutique PR firm in Barbados.