The postman used to come every day at 3 o’clock, wobbling over the cattle grid and kicking out ineffectually at next door’s beagle Jacob, who hated anything on wheels. He would coast down the drive to the cluster of houses, his legs straight out in front of him, shouting at the baying, snapping dog, until he reached the shade of the tamarind tree, where he would dismount, and lean his old black machine against the trunk. The maids would come out to greet him and he would turn to smile at them, smoothing down his shiny hair and at the same time, whacking Jacob with his heavy post bag.
He was a small, thin, angular man called Kenneth, who didn’t even look as strong as his bicycle, but he was very popular with Eulalie and Denice, the maids from next door. He made them laugh so much that they would bend over, hooting joyously and holding their knees for support. Not that it took much to make them laugh. They were cheerful, chatty girls who lived in a bare concrete room at the back of Mr and Mrs McFadyean’s house, and whose main task in life seemed to be looking after the couple’s two small daughters. The girls often came round to our house to borrow food for the children’s tea. This generally happened after Mrs McFadyean had had a night on the toot at the Sheraton’s Top O’The Town Club in downtown Kingston.
I say often, but they never came round for food when Pearl was in. Pearl was our maid and she didn’t live with us. She lived in a shanty in the Barbican with her ten immaculately turned out children and she worked, worked, worked. She was 34. She had skin the colour of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, wide, high cheekbones, and the ability to carry buckets of water on her head without any visible effort. She seemed to be able to cook things by just leaning against the cooker and chopping things in her hand. Forty years later and I still have never tasted anything like her fish stew. I’ve certainly never managed to copy it. I did once try to lean against the cooker and chop a carrot in my hand. Only once though; it took too long to clear up the blood.
Pearl came to our house three days a week to clean, scrub, wash, iron, as well as cook. She was deeply respectful of my father, because he had been to university and he had a lot of books. These she would dust with great care. She was, at first, inclined to suspect my mother of being just another bridge-playing ex-pat, until she realised that my mother was also not scared to get down on her knees and scrub when the occasion demanded it; that she could also cook, sew, wash, iron, and had got herself a job as a doctor’s receptionist. Me, she regarded with open amusement; exasperation at my teenage lack of respect for my parents, and boundless curiosity about what I learnt at school, most of which she regarded with deep scepticism. Pearl had no time for the maids next door. In her view, they were silly trashy girls, who spent all their time watching Star Trek on the TV when they should have been cleaning.
You wouldn’t catch Pearl running out to greet the postman. When he arrived she walked with queenly grace to the front door and shook a duster into the flower bed, watching everything without seeming to, and when the postman tried to catch her eye, as he invariably did, she would raise her eyebrows and sashay back inside the house.
This meant that if Kenneth had letters for us he would have to walk all the way to our open front door, and tap hopefully at it, balancing his sweat-stained hat and our letters in his other hand. I knew better than to go to him myself. I had tried once, but Pearl had put a restraining hand on my shoulder. ‘Stay back, girl.’ After that I would watch Pearl giving a last wipe to the already immaculate cooker and then go out regally to meet him on the porch, where they would talk in low voices.
One afternoon, on one of Pearl’s off days, Eulalie came round to borrow food for the children’s tea as usual. ‘Pearl not here?’ she asked casually. Too casually. My mother, shovelling spaghetti into a bag, looked at her. ‘Pearl doesn’t come on a Tuesday.’
‘Maybe she won’t come on a Wednesday,’ drawled Eulalie. ‘Not after what happened Saturday.’
My mother stilled. Ever since she had given Pearl a lift home she had worried about where Pearl lived. Everyone knew the Barbican could be a pretty violent place, especially on a Saturday night.
She handed the bag to Eulalie. ‘She’s not had an accident has she? She’s all right?’ Eulalie grinned. ‘Kennet aksed her out to a bashy but him nah come. Seems like he has a girlfriend already.’ Mum looked at Eulalie, her forehead wrinkling as she tried to take in what was being said. ‘Kenneth the postman,’ she said at last. ‘Asked Pearl to a party and stood her up?’ Eulalie nodded and hugged the bag to her chest. ‘Troot,’ she nodded. The truth. Then she tapped the bag of spaghetti. ‘Lisa and Marie, them don’t care for this,’ she said. ‘You got sumtin else?’ My mother opened her mouth, shut it again, and then shut the door firmly in Eulalie’s dimpled face. She turned to me. ‘What are you staring at?’ she asked crisply.
Pearl did show up the next day. My mother said nothing, but I was 13 and tactless and burning to know what had happened. ‘Is it true the postman asked you out, Pearl?’ She was scrubbing the bathroom floor, her face away from me as I sat on the edge of the bath, and she said nothing. With childish, ignorant, heartless daring I pressed on. ‘Did he really stand you up? That must have been so embarrassing. Did everybody know? What are you going to do when he turns up?’
She sat back on her heels and looked at me for a long time, wringing out her cloth, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, she smiled. ‘I am going to laugh,’ she said slowly.
This was not what I had expected. ‘But he was horrible to you. Aren’t you going to tell him what you think of him?’
Pearl shrugged. ‘I put a hex on him,’ she said simply. She got to her feet, and began scrubbing the toilet. ‘I went to see an Obeah woman in Half-Way Tree. She took ten dollars, so it will be good.’
‘Ten dollars?’ I repeated. That was nearly a whole morning’s pay for Pearl.
She looked at me and chuckled. ‘Shut your mouth, girl, or you will catch flies.’
‘But Pearl,’ I said earnestly, drumming my heels slowly against the bath so that it made a pleasant, booming noise. ‘That’s all just silly. You can’t just curse someone.’
Pearl straightened up and looked at me. ‘Why not?’
Such was the power of this that I was almost convinced that lightning was going to strike Kenneth. I even went outside and looked at the sky, but it was a brilliant deep, blue. There were no storm clouds over the Blue Mountains either. The palm trees too were still; there were no tell-tale puffs of wind that meant a big storm was on the way. Pearl had got it wrong. She had wasted her money. I had eight dollars in the box in my wardrobe. I wondered if I should offer them to her.
Still, at 3 o’clock that afternoon I was kneeling on a chair by our front window when Kenneth cycled through the gate as usual, the cattle grid clonking under the pressure of his worn tyres. Jacob, next door’s beagle, asleep under our car, woke up at the usual signal and then galloped ponderously to meet him, his ears streaming behind like velvet banners as he bayed his intruder alarm. Maybe Kenneth caught sight of Pearl standing in the doorway and wobbled a little more that day. Maybe Jacob had been having a bad dream about bicycles, but that afternoon when he snapped at Kenneth his teeth closed around his ankle. Kenneth, hopelessly unbalanced and shouting with pain, crashed to the ground, his bag splitting and a blizzard of letters shooting everywhere.
Eulalie and Denice ran shrieking to him, calling uselessly at Jacob who had now half pulled off Kenneth’s trousers. Suki, the labrador from our neighbours on the other side came bounding up to join the fun. She also took a hold of Kenneth’s trousers, and began a tug of war over them with Jacob. There was the sound of rending cloth. My mother came out of her bedroom, where she had been getting changed from work. ‘What on earth is going on?’ She caught sight of the commotion outside, and stared momentarily in shock. ‘That dog’s gone mad,’ she said. Then ever practical, she went to the bathroom, got bandages, filled a bowl with warm water, and went outside. Pearl gave her duster a lazy flap, looked sideways at me, and went back to work. As she walked into the kitchen I heard her start to laugh.