A J'ouvert story


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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 26 Feb 98

‘She loved J’ouvert morning for the freedom of dancing in the dark’


It was three o’clock on J’ouvert morning. In a guest house in Maraval, Mordechai Roth leapt to the sound of his alarm clock. Always supremely organised (a trait his estranged wife called unfeeling, cold and lacking spontaneity), he allowed himself five minutes before getting out of bed, and getting into the bathroom.


He could already hear the clang and scrape of steel and drums. When dressed in clean striped knee-high shorts, and a white T-shirt saying TORONTO, his hometown, he made his way eagerly down to the Savannah towards the grey din.


In a compact gingerbread house in Woodbrook, Judy Jones was sleepily splashing her face with cold water to wake herself up. She tied back her heavy shoulder-length black hair in a ponytail. Dressed in an old short top and jeans shorts, she tiptoed past her parents’ bedroom. She was not going to go but in the end she had decided if she was going to be awake all night remembering Stephen, her ex-fiancé, it would be better to join the madness and forget.


In Miss Pearl’s house in Belmont, the pot never stopped simmering. Her sons, daughters and their spouses, grand-children and assorted friends and hangers-on were in and out - stopping to use the bathroom, eat, change clothes in-between feting. She had to bang loudly to get her granddaughter out. “You going on a beauty show or you going to plaster yourself with mud?” she shouted without expecting an answer. Two minutes later her granddaughter came out and said “Bye,” and Miss Pearl said, “You going to put any clothes on top of that bra?” Miss Pearl, dressed in a tank top and three-quarter pants, tied her hair up as usual in a scarf, switched off the stove, covered the food, locked the door, and gave her body a shake-up in anticipation of J’Ouvert, something she hadn’t missed for 35 years.


Fifteen minutes later Miss Pearl, Judy Jones, and Mordechai Roth were chipping side by side... Well, Miss Pearl was chipping, and Judy was chipping and wining, and they were both looking at Mordechai who was at each beat bringing up alternate knee to meet his chest while moving his hands over them.


Mordechai, unaware of the stir he was creating in the little group around him, was happy lifting his knee intermittently - never mind it was not in time to the back beat of the music. He felt happy, and included when people came by and gratuitously slapped a bit of mud and some black oil on him. In the crowd he was able to be relive his private relief when in Toronto’s China Town on a freezing day, when he finally silenced his anxious wife’s reprimands with three quick words, “I want out.” Those words released him from a decade of scrutiny, and questioning, and sent him spinning on this holiday.


He couldn’t be home late or miss a date with the children without being subject to a range of emotions from a cold tight smile to tears from his wife who ended all arguments by accusing him of not loving her. He needed to be away from her determined efforts to shape him and their two children into a cinematic happy family, needed to escape those dreary afternoon barbecues, drive-in cinemas, and messy home dinners.


He liked the idea of escape, of uninhibited revelry, which is why he came here. But what struck him during J’Ouvert, more than anything, was that although people were uninhibited enough to be lewd, they were not affectionate. Hardly anybody held hands, kissed or hugged. He felt as if he was watching a mime where people did what they were expected to do.


The clang of steel and drums and the boom of a DJ and stamping feet were loud in Judy’s ears, and her heart and feet moved in time to the back beat. Advancing towards her were distorted shapes illuminated with white, darkened with red, blue, or slicked with dark oil. In an instant they circled her. She felt something cold and wet across her mouth. She tasted mud. One called her an obscene name referring to her anatomy. Another lodged behind her, thrusting against her. Her heart pounding, she heard echoes of obscenities as she walked away. It lasted only an instant, but it was enough to break the spell.


She noticed a little boy, no older than seven, thin, quiet and sad, oblivious to the din and throngs around him, collecting bottles which must mean survival to him. She saw drugged, emaciated women, aggression, anger in young men, a sexuality so desperate that it reeked of hollow lives.


She loved J’ouvert morning for the freedom of dancing in the dark cool with multitudes. Now she felt trapped, rasping for air in the crowd. Judy blinked her eyes and even after the mud cleared found that the water continued to pour out of them. Her eyes were streaming so much that she had to sit down on the pavement and she found that she was shaking and had to rest her wet face on her legs.


Miss Pearl couldn’t remember if she had taken the stove off. Her brow twitched in irritation, and then suddenly she was very angry wondering why with so many grown children and grandchildren around the house she had to think of the kitchen on J’ouvert. She cleaned and washed, cooked and sewed for 35 years. She went to church every Sunday in her starched petticoats, and took care of three of them all day. Now she had to think about the damn stove. But the old magic of J’ouvert worked on Miss Pearl, and her annoyance vanished into the night as she swayed and prayed to David Rudder’s “High Mas’”, and sang “Only you know the pain we’re feeling. Amen” with her arms raised heavenward.


Just then, a scrape of metal behind her made her turn her head. She saw the girl in the short black top and thick hair crying. Mordechai who had stopped his knee jerk dance and was trying to imitate her graceful chipping, was hovering around her. It must be something about man, Miss Pearl decided. Miss Pearl took Judy to one side to get her a soft drink and Mordechai followed.


Judy cheered up with attention and the fizz of a cola, turned to Mordechai and asked said, “You’re a man. What does it mean when he goes off to play football, or stare at other women, or doesn’t want to talk, or when after you order your wedding dress, he says he doesn’t want to get married?”


Miss Pearl: It means he’s no good and not worth it.

Mordechai: It usually doesn’t mean anything.

Judy: What do you mean?

Mordechai: Well, I think women spend too much time trying to figure out men. Whereas women have about ten to twelve scenarios in their head going all the time, If he does this, it means this. “If he calls late it means that,” whereas most of the time men have only one scenario and maybe a back-up one - either being committed or not being committed. They give men too much credit for thinking. Men are obsessed with women but not in a way that would interfere in their lives. If a pretty woman passes by they perk up and give her a once over and forget her the moment she is out of sight. Then they would do the same to the next.

Miss Pearl: You mean when my husband come home late every night for 35 years and demand his food and tell me I nagging too much he not committed? (as if a thunderbolt hit her.) 

Mordechai: If I was honest, when I did just that to my wife in Toronto I no longer felt committed.

Judy: Good thing Paul, my former fiancé felt not committed before the wedding and not after.

Miss Pearl: Listen girl, there is only one thing I find works with men. Treat them mean and keep them keen. As soon as you start to cook, wash, clean and wait for them they take you for granted. I know, I did it for years (she was thinking of her husband who spends all his time with a woman half his age and then of Mr Davis, the only man she didn’t bother much with and who treated her with consideration). Then when you have them on the brink give them some good good loving (she said laughing with her entire body). I know about commitment. I have raised six children, almost single-handedly. I supervised homework, went to PTAs and sports day. When there wasn’t any money, no job was too lowly for me. I shouted at them to behave and sacrificed and planned carefully. Four went to university. They all work.


She trailed off to jump and wave. As the sun rose slowly like a mantle of golden brown dust across the dry Savannah, Judy, Mordechai and Miss Pearl were somewhat changed. Judy decided that she was not going to waste her time worrying about a man who was not committed to her, and gave Mordechai a shy look wondering how long he was staying in the country, which made her think there were other men in the world who she could be interested in, even love. She realised, too, that J’ouvert was not just about loosening your body and clothes and mingling with the music and the mud and flesh and sweat but a time when people reveal their truest selves.


This year, the press of swearing threatening boys had swollen like a boil. There was menace in them, and dangerous destructive ignorance which comes from being neglected. These were not clear thoughts in her head, but were manifested as an uncomfortable feeling. But being young and hopeful she was easily distracted by the music and the added merriment of watching Mordechai’s knee jerk movement dance.


Mordechai looked at Miss Pearl and thought: This woman has not run away from responsibility, probably at the expense of her own dreams. What touched him most about Miss Pearl was that despite her care-worn face she had a bounce in her step, a kind of an eager movement, which was infectious. He wished that someone had nourished that vitality in her, helped her to come into her own. At that moment he decided that despite the lure of Judy’s thick hair moving against the cleft of her waist, he would go back to his wife, shoulder his share like a man. He was finally committed.


Miss Pearl realised that for years she was committed to a family which could now go on without her. She also thought that if she was ever going to be with a man who thought her the most beautiful thing God created, and treated her like a queen, she was going to do it now. Before Carnival Monday she would knock on Mr Davis’s doorstep and ask him first to go down town with her and then she would cook him the best pelau he had in his life.


We leave them chipping, in the dust, around the trucks, in the shadow of dark green trees, among the rivers of people, who on this morning offer their body and spirit to the fading moon and rising sun lighting up the charcoal gray J’ouvert sky now smeared with blue, red and black.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur