loved J’ouvert morning for the freedom of dancing in the dark’
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Pearl: It means he’s no good and not worth it.
It usually doesn’t mean anything.
What do you mean?
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.
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.)
If I was honest, when I did just that to my wife in Toronto I no longer
Good thing Paul, my former fiancé felt not committed before the wedding
and not after.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.