They had first met on a bucket-sweating morning in 1956 when an uprising – like the hidden sugar cane fields and what had happened to Cuthbert and Clarissa at the caves at Black Point – was the talk of every pre-lunch gathering, every standpipe, but not the rum shacks. The rum shacks had their own codes, their own language. Buy Miss Charles a petit-quart of strong rum (no brand no label, no vision later) and she would tell all. The sun ever rose over Mount Soufriere, slipped away again a lifetime later over Mesopotamia (Mespo) round Crick Corner, and faded to black as the bats baited the fireflies and the sand-flies bit burnished flesh.
After fixing breakfast of fried spam and softbakes, scrambled eggs and onions on the blackened gas stove, she made eight cups of tea with evaporated milk and four sugars each. Pastor Evans had brought up the water from the rusting pipe at Herbert Bend at four-thirty that morning. She had heard him leave, but not noted his return. He had left again at six. She took out her appointment letter again from its buff envelope and read it through, memorising the journey she had practised the day before. Her stepmother, Maudie, was still asleep. She didn’t say goodbye.
Agatha Evans walked June, Nancy, Carlisle, Bernard, Josie, Isaac, and Ishmael the three miles past four rum shops, two churches, and her father’s tailors shop to the St Cuthbert’s Catholic school. Instead of turning into the staff room, Agatha Evans walked on a further mile, skirting the Fyffe’s banana plantation and the Tate & Lyle sugar cane fields towards Kingstown. Crossing Saint David Parish into Charlotte Parish, she plucked a ripe mango and two plum roses from overhanging trees. The skins were soft, the fruit sweet, she bent over as she ate and the juice dripped in front of her. Agatha crossed Main Street, looking to her left and right, she tripped but did not fall in front of St Vincent and the Grenadines Nursing Employment Agency, nestled between the Anglican and Catholic Cathedrals in Kingstown and had wondered if that was precise spot where the body and blood of Jesus transformed. Agatha clasped the brass handle with its burnt toffee patina, but as quickly stepped back and walked across Main Street, standing in front of ‘Big Lloyd’s Butcher,’ the carcasses still had their heads on. Her father had slaughtered a goat four days earlier; Agatha had cooked curry goat and rice, which they would eat again that night. She had boiled some mauby and ginger beer and dried some sorrel and she would fry some plantain and green banana.
Agatha checked her reflection, checked the appointment letter, pursed her lips, and crossed back over Main Street, this time heading straight into the stuffy, sweaty, light reception room, gazing directly into her future.
Agatha took the only free seat in the waiting room, cross-legged she waited to be called.
“Good morning,” said a girl about her age sitting cross-legged to left to her wearing a light cotton shift dress, sandals, and wide-brimmed straw hat.
“Good morning, I am Agatha, Agatha Evans.”
“Nice to meet you, I’m Roslyn Jones. Didn’t I see you at the Anglican Young People’s Association picnic in Dubois last week?” She said.
“Yes, I was there. My brother was sick so I had to go early so missed the Boilene stew and the cricket match,” Agatha said. She looked at the desk with the brass nameplate in front of it and wondered what Gillian Gayle (Matron); State Registered Nurse would be like.
Agatha looked in her bag for kerchief as Gillian Gayle called out, ‘Roslyn Jones. Roslyn Jones.’ Roslyn smiled at Agatha, took a last look in her compact, snapped it shut in her handbag, and walked to the desk.
Agatha read her letter, took out her book of Psalms, with its inscription marking her confirmation, and thought about England. She thought about her father and her stepmother, and her sisters and brothers and the short walk to the reception desk. And the longer journey she was about to take.
“Agatha Evans. Agatha Evans.” A voice in front of her echoed behind her as Roslyn walked past her smiling, she winked at her.”
“I’ll wait for you outside,” Roslyn said grasping the door knob.
Agatha took out her completed application form and medical questionnaire for the Joyce Green School of Nursing. Nurse Gayle smiled and stroked her arm.
“Please have a seat. Please do not be nervous. I am Sister Gayle and I am going to go through your application form and tell you what will happen, next. I am so pleased that you are thinking of nursing in the United Kingdom.”
“Thank you,” Agatha said, looking at the upside-down watch pinned to Sister Gayle’s chest.
“Do you have your references?”
Agatha passed over the typewritten letter from the Head Teacher of St. Cuthbert’s and the sloping, handwritten script of her Parish Priest.
“I see that you are a Primary School teacher,” said Sister Gayle. “That’s good. You are used to taking care of people.”
“It is what the good Lord put me here to do,” said Agatha.
“Have you got brothers and sisters?” Sister Gayle asked.
“Seven,” said Agatha.
“Won’t they miss you? Won’t your mother miss you?”
“My mother passed when I was fourteen.”
Sister Gayle stroked her arm. “We must move on,” she said.
Agatha would have to have blood tests, a chest X-Ray, ECG, a full medical examination, and to get a passport.
Sister Gayle flicked through a tooled, leather-bound diary. “I will book the appointments. Come back and see me next Thursday morning at 10.30 and we will complete everything.”