After the storm, the hardware store was thronged with people. Trevor sucked his teeth at the vehicles parked askew, taking up more than one space, some with their doors open, sound systems issuing forth. “This is when Jamaicans go and stock up for a storm, when it gone already! Eedyats!” he hissed. Janet knew he expected the parking lot to be near empty for his convenience, except, perhaps, for a security guard, who would be deferential and efficient in his post as Director of Parking, that the long aisles of the hardware store would be stocked with assistants waiting to do his bidding, and that he, Trevor, despite the place of his birth, did not include himself in the category of eedyat Jamaicans. She held her peace. She knew why the hardware store was jammed – first, it was open (many places were still closed or inaccessible), and secondly, everyone was doing exactly what she and Trevor were doing, running out to buy those items the storm had shown were needed to secure their property against future storms before they forgot what they were. And there was already another low pressure system in the Atlantic – much better to do these errands when any storm was not an immediate threat.
She glanced at the list. Rawl plugs, wood screws, a tarpaulin, batteries. And a sheet of plywood. This was why Trevor was involved in the trip to the hardware store – a sheet of plywood would not fit in her Corolla. They had brought along the old towels they had used to sop up the many leaks in their house to protect his pickup from the plywood.
They parked and walked across the parking lot. A security guard wearing a vest with reflective strips (stupid vest in the broad daylight, Trevor said) nodded a greeting. Trevor ignored him. “’Morning,” Janet said. “Everyting okay at your house?” Trevor lengthened his strides and left her. She knew he was irritated by her inclination to speak to those he termed “ordinary” Jamaicans. “For God’s sake, Janet, why do you have to try fren-fren up everybody?” he’d say.
“Yes, Mummy,” the guard answered, smiling. Being called Mummy by a stranger was still a shock to Janet, who had become used to dawta or nice gal. Without noticing, she had crossed a line. “We lose a sheet a zinc, but we find it back, and everyting cool now.”
“That’s good,” Janet said and hurried after Trevor. She knew it would be easy to lose him in the store’s cavernous aisles and he would become even more irritated if he were ready to leave and couldn’t find her.
The store was teeming with ordinary Jamaicans. Several members of management were out front, wearing pale yellow shirts with logos, scrutinizing the receipts and bags of those who left. Janet could tell they were uncomfortable with the crowds even as they welcomed them. She hoped she and Trevor would be able to get what they needed before stocks ran out. Her husband would pass from irritation to anger if he had to go to more than one hardware store.
She couldn’t see him anywhere. She walked down the dimly lit aisles, lingering in front of the huge fans that tried to cool the enormous building. The days after a storm were always sweltering. She hoped she would not see anyone she knew; she had simply thrown on an old T-shirt and a pair of jeans before leaving the house. She had not even combed her hair. She looked down the cross aisles, hoping to see her husband, but he had been swallowed up in the interior.
She thought of hardware stores as theme parks for men, full of the things they found interesting – PVC pipes, drill bits, flashlights, screwdrivers. These days, there were also aisles for women, of course, but somehow hardware stores retained that macho air, no frills, and a certain challenge in finding what you wanted. You needed expertise to prevail in a hardware store. Janet knew if she were alone and asked for wood screws, the response would be something like: “Three-quarter or half inch?” She would not know the answer. Janet always thought, homo habilis, in a hardware store. The handyman. The toolmaker. The erector of structures.
She remembered the months during which she had laboured to renovate the house they now lived in, when every Saturday morning involved a trip to the hardware store, and every spare dollar in their household budget was sucked up by concrete and steel. After storms, she was always clear about the fiction the house represented – how really, it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t waterproof, and the roof could be taken in any one of a thousand gusts of wind. During this storm, they had watched water pour through the tiny hole made by the newly installed cable for the TV. “Eedyats!” Trevor had pronounced. “Why them never seal it properly? Monday can’t pass before them learn the length of my tongue.”
And it wasn’t that you could fix all the weaknesses in the house, once and for all, no matter how much money you spent. This storm, water leaked through the cable. Next storm, it might be under the back door. The house stood on a tropical island and, every day, the sun and the rain and the various insects with an appetite for wood worked steadily on it, trying to take it back to the soil.
Janet remembered the storms of her childhood and young adulthood, the Flora rains, when school closed for three days and the gully in spate near their house swept away cars, and Hurricane Allen, which scraped the north coast clean of trees and one room houses. She had been living in Runaway Bay at the time of Allen, and had watched the huge grey rollers pound the coast, the Caribbean Sea transformed to Atlantic Ocean. Then, the Met Office issued bulletins, but no one hunkered over computers watching satellite pictures. Then, you had to imagine what a storm looked like. When Janet was a child, she thought new storms brought with them the detritus of old storms and the whirling rattle against the house was not just wind and rain, but nails and toys and window panes. Houses already destroyed, wanting company.
“There you are! God, Janet, are you in a daydream again? I’ve been looking all over the blasted place for you,” Trevor said.
“I’ve been looking for you too,” she said mildly. It was best to simply get their stuff and go home.
“You go and stand in line to pay. Here are the smaller items. I’ll go and deal with the guy outside about the ply.” He walked off, shaking his head in exasperation. She watched him go, trying to call back the years when she loved the column of his neck, fitting so neatly into the breadth of his shoulders, when she used to watch him play dominoes with his friends, before upward mobility cloaked him in disdain.
She stood in line. It was long and the cashiers worked slowly. There were additional measures in place, the need for picture IDs and a signature from management on every credit card receipt. Here, in the line, the noisy atmosphere of the parking lot was absent. Janet thought these people had lost things, perhaps everything. They were mostly women in her line, buying bottles of water and tarpaulins. The woman in front of her was fat, dressed in a very tight low cut shirt, her breasts bulging, her hair unkempt, her cheeks streaked with tears. Janet was both repelled and saddened. She wanted to say something to the woman, but was stymied by how to address her. Miss was too young. Mummy was too old. Sistren would sound fake. She settled on no title. “Are you alright?” she said. The woman did not seem to hear her. Janet tried to imagine what it would be like to wait out a storm in a board house on the edge of a gully bank, only sheets of ply between you and the weather. It was impossible.
Just as it was Janet’s time to pay, a boy stepped in front of her. He was perhaps ten, thin, ragged, barefooted, dirty, his eyes tired and old. She opened her mouth to remonstrate with him about breaking the line and closed it again. He held one item – a cold soft drink. “Put his drink on my bill,” Janet said to the cashier. She thought the boy would not even notice he had not had to pay for his drink; he seemed catatonic. But he turned his face up to hers and smiled with a full joy. “Thank you, Miss,” he said.
“You’re welcome, son.” Janet wished he had tried to push in front of her with a brimming basket of groceries.
She paid and went outside with the receipt. She could see Trevor supervising the removal of the ply from a stack. She became aware of shouts behind her and turned to see what was going on. A short middle aged man in khaki shorts and a sleeveless shirt way too young for him was yelling at her. “Yes, you! You in the jeans! I am talking to you!” She saw the boy with the drink behind the man.
“Are you speaking to me?” she said, caught between responding to the man and joining her husband.
“Yes, mi a speak to you! What you buy my son a drinks for? You feel sey me cant buy him a drink?” The man’s fists were clenched and Janet feared he would become violent.
“That boy?” Janet said, pointing to the ragged youngster. “He’s your son?”
“Yes! Him is MY son. And you dont need to buy him NUTT’N, you hear! Facety and outta order woman! Who you tink you is?”
A crowd was gathering and Janet felt hot with embarrassment. Trevor was still engrossed with loading the pickup. “I’m s-sorry,” she stammered, “I didn’t mean to cause offense. I just thought…” I was just trying to help, she wanted to say. He was barefoot. Dirty. How could you take him out looking like that? She heard the whispers of the people around as they tried to figure out what the uptown woman had done.
“You never tink, a di problem! All like you…” the man did not complete his thought. He turned on his heel and grabbed the boy by the hand. She saw that the man held a pair of children’s sandals in his other hand. “My boy have Nintendo at home, and you go buy him DRINKS?” he yelled over his shoulder.
“What was that all about?” Trevor said, coming over, his face sweaty, uninterested in the answer. “Come. You have to show the receipt before we can leave.”
She walked through the crowd over to the pickup, and the people stepped back to let her pass. She heard a few sounds of disgust, but no one said anything. She gave the receipt to the man working the pile of ply. “Thanks, chief,” Trevor said, handling him a folded bill. “Buy yourself a drink.”
“Aaaright, sah,” the man responded.
Just down the road, they stopped at a traffic light and a child approached the window. He was thin, barefoot, dirty and his eyes were old and tired. He opened his mouth and started to speak. “Spare me the sob story,” Trevor said, opening his wallet. “I will give you money. Here. Now get away from my car.”
At home, Janet helped wrestle the ply into their garage. The faces of the two boys merged and separated in her mind, merged and separated, now one boy, now two, now the sea, now the beach, drawn ever together, yet ever apart. As she washed her hands at the sink, she heard Trevor in his study, the creak of his chair, the swooshing noise his computer made when e-mail arrived. The sounds of her marriage, her life. “Hey!” he called out. “That low pressure in the Atlantic? Is a tropical storm already…”