As the first bead of sweat snaked its way from forehead to nose, Agatha shifted her rimless glasses and stared into the sun. She turned off Halifax Street into Wilberforce Terrace and into Bonadies Supermarket. Agatha walked along the tinned fruit aisle, past the end of the dried goods and alcohol, to the small coffee point tucked in the coolest corner of the store. You couldn’t see it from the street. Only one person in front of her, fiddling in her handbag for change. The man behind the counter wiped his hands on his shirt-jac, raised his eyebrows at Agatha, and kissed his teeth. Agatha’s father made shirt-jacs every day. She recognised the style. He called them guayabera. She didn’t know why.
‘Stewps, you na wan fi make a decision before you get here? Just get out your money and I’ll pour you di drink. Come on na man, cyarn you see I have people fi serve. Dese is busy people, dey cyan wait all day for you. Stewps.’ He raised his left eyebrow and kissed his teeth at the woman, still searching for change. Four more people stood behind Agatha shaking their heads, sucking their teeth. The woman found the correct change, took her tea, and sat down on a raised bench by the open window.
Agatha got out a one Eastern Caribbean Dollar note from her purse in readiness and nodded at the man wiping his hands across his trousers. ‘Can I have some tea, please?’ Agatha smiled at him.
‘You na got no change!’
‘If I had change I would give it to you,’ Agatha said holding out the note.
‘Stewps. Put it on the counter dere so,’ he had his hands in his pockets and his face like, ‘Who shit dere?’
The man wiped the back of his hand across his glistening forehead and across his pale blue shirt-jac – the colour of the skies Agatha had seen in postcards from England – before pouring water from a steaming urn into a large steel kettle. ‘Condensed or carnation milk?’ Before she could answer, he poured condensed milk into a metal cup, and swilled the tea before tipping the pot.’ He picked up the note, held it up to the light before putting it in the till and counting out the change. He dropped it on the counter between them, ignoring Agatha’s outstretched hand.
‘Tank you,’ Agatha said scooping up the change into her purse without checking it, ignoring the rasping of teeth from behind the ring-marked counter. She took her tea to the scuffed wooden bench by the window. Generations of lovers had scratched their names. She wanted a piece of sugar cake, but couldn’t face the confrontation again. Kingstown went about its leisurely, sweaty business. Men in shirts and ties, schoolchildren kicking stones, and women with provisions in bags and on their heads crisscrossed in front of her. People said, ‘Good morning,’ stopped to talk, then scurried or ambled on to whatever came next. Faces insolently familiar, unfamiliar, watched through the shop window. Agatha, put down her tea and looked in her bag for the Book of Psalms. She just caught a blur of khaki, shirt-jac, and sandals, as a man with a white streak in his side-parted afro sprinted past. Nobody sprints in the midday sunshine. Agatha’s eyes followed him as he stopped, twenty yards from her, sprinted up a side alley and then thirty seconds later walked back past her to his blue Ford Anglia parked outside the Trans Caribbean Traders hardware store.
Coming from the opposite direction, Roslyn ran past the supermarket window in her best dress and white sandals, her straightened hair, earlier in a beehive, now strayed behind her. Her white dress, pristine twenty-five minutes ago, now creased and stained, her sandals scuffed and dirty. As she ran past, a clip fell from her hair to the ground. Noticing or not she kept running. Agatha called out to her, but she didn’t break stride, turn, or stop.
‘Roslyn. Roslyn. Where you going? You just dropped your clip on the ground deh.’ Agatha said as she watched Roslyn pick up speed, until she passed the Butcher’s shop and was out of sight. Roslyn left her tea, and ran back round the supermarket to the front door. Two women with Victorian perambulators were blocking it, discussing the lightness of their babies’ skin and just how knowing they were. Agatha stage coughed and said, ‘Excuse me please.’
The two women ignored her and talked about the rudeness of some nappy-headed gyal. Agatha patted down her hair. ‘Excuse me!’ Agatha said again and pushed past them into the lunchtime-thronged street. The women stared through her, questioning her manners and her parentage. Agatha saw the clip, a bow in gold-coloured metal and red plastic, bent down to retrieve it, but it was lost in the surging crowd, kicked about like a tin can on the way home from school. She saw it again. A man in a blue shirt-jac picked it up and pocketed it. Among the crowd of legs and shoes and bags, she recognised Scrampie’s khaki legs and bare feet weaving through the traffic jam of humanity. As Agatha got up a knee glanced her right temple and she fell to the ground, grazing her knee and tearing her dress. Agatha was twenty-three, but she would be in all kinds of trouble when she got home. She could hear the echoes of her stepmother’s homily about pride and the Lord and respect and, words, more words, and fists, the strap she always kept by her side, and blood. Agatha would mend and wash it before anyone knew. The crowd was no more and Agatha rose slowly, trying to get back her wind, trying to focus on breathing, direction, and the road ahead of her. After three attempts, Agatha was on her feet, dusting down her dress, the rip was wider than she had thought and had torn through her slip. Agatha walked up the street, and when she could trust her balance, started out at a light trot and ran, ran past shops and people, past signs and signifiers. Agatha ran towards home. Home for now, but that would change. Wales would be different.