Circumstances are not always what they may appear at first to be. In fact there are odd occasions when what initially seems to be the direct opposite of that which you really need turns out to be even better than you could have possibly hoped for.
A Change of Luck
He reckoned he was about due a change of luck.
When he arrived, by most of his contemporaries’ reckoning, he’d have been described as pretty much destitute ……. again. He was well beyond just flat broke. He owned a patched green back-pack that had seen four continents since leaving England six years before and was not even filled by all his worldly possessions. A very small amount in Eastern Caribbean dollars he’d exchanged at the airport for the last of his American ones lay in his tattered wallet that had seen better days in more ways than one. He’d no roof over his head, work or other source of income and was pretty sure he knew no one there who could help.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been down on his luck though and, as history would later prove, it was certainly not to be the last. But this time was different. He felt that he was destitute in a place where it really didn’t seem to matter that much, though he couldn’t put his finger on why he felt so.
It was getting on for dusk when he’d hitch-hiked from the airport and first walked into English Harbour. He’d liked the look and feel of the place immediately. There were boats. Lots of them; and that, for him, meant lots of work opportunities. And there were sailors. Lots of them; which meant he’d have no problem finding folk with much in common with himself. And many of them, he noticed, were around the same age as he. And many of them were female. Yes; he’d liked the look and feel of English Harbour right from the start.
The restaurant-cum-pub-cum-café that was in the middle of Nelson’s Dockyard was probably never actually named “The Greasy Spoon”, but that was what it was called by many who frequented it back then. Like hundreds before him, wandering alone through that reminder of bygone British colonialism, he was drawn by the music and laughter emanating from its shadowy interior. Reggae blasted through the mosquito screens that covered the holes in the wall where windows would have been had there been any. The mosquitoes didn’t mind the screens for they could, like anyone else, enter the establishment through the wide open doors.
Definitely different from Nassau, he thought. Nassau, where he’d spent the last six weeks working to prepare a beautiful old wooden schooner to sail to Antigua only for the owner to change his mind at the last minute, had still been good. But he sensed this was going to be better. He’d been working on that schooner for bed and board and to earn his passage south, and so, when the owner reneged on the trip, he’d insisted he was bought an air ticket instead. To his surprise the owner agreed. To his even greater surprise, the immigration officer at the airport not only let him in but gave him the three months stamp in his passport he’d asked for. He took that to be a good omen.
The Greasy Spoon was dimly lit and the corners were becoming quite dark as the tropical sun made its usual rapid departure from the day. He could make out the smiling faces of those standing at the bar, illuminated by the Budweiser and Guinness signs, and, though not recognizing them individually, was familiar with their ilk and was instantly comfortable in their anonymous company. He couldn’t see the people at the tables in the darkened corners and so had no idea from where or who was launched the wadded beer-soaked paper serviette that caught him on the side of his face. He looked into the most obviously guilty corner but could only see the shadowy forms of half a dozen dread-locked men, those seated with their back to him twisted round to be able to observe the reaction to the direct and obviously deliberate hit.
As a stranger in a relatively strange land faced by a group from a pretty much un-understood by him, and even possibly hostile to him, culture, he didn’t know how to deal with this situation. He needed to make a positive impression here that would lead to work, shelter, food, companionship, but this introduction to the community in which he needed to make that mark didn’t seem to be starting out so good. A few of the standing white people were looking edgily between the Rasta table and the stranger wondering what would be who’s next move. When it did come it came from the darkest part of the corner where a barely perceived face, a shady shape in the deeper gloom, suddenly lit up with a huge white smile that glowed in the ultra violet light from one of the cheesy beverage advertisements on the wall.
“Wazzup mesun!” The smile said. “Ya ferget de people ya met so soon?”
The newcomer’s bewilderment was evident.
“Jeeze an’ bread!” It called from the shadow, sounding vaguely familiar, “Ya doan know who it is dat trow dat?”
“Can’t really see you.” He said, trying to recall that voice. “It’s dark in here.”
“Den lemme come show you.” The smile was now a positive grin as its owner stood up and moved from the dark.
The grin was preceded from the shadows by a right hand outstretched ready to shake and be shaken, and accompanied by a left arm that hung in the air in preparation for a hug.
“Ho-lee shyte!” Called the white-guy, his grin almost matching the span of the one on the very black face walking toward him. “Are you a sight for sore eyes!” His right hand and left arm now reciprocated those of the other. The white people who had seemed a little worried previously now relaxed and re-joined their own conversations. “When did you leave Lauderdale?”
“’Bout a cuppla week after you leff to go Bahamas. Wind pick up from de wess an’ me figure dat gimme de start me need to go eass. So me trow off me line an’ pull up me sail an’ here I am. Gonna stay here a while an’ wait de owner before we go down cruise de Grenadine and me go home to Bequia fer a while.” Their right hands had clasped and their other arms were draped on each other’s shoulders. “Lemme buy you beer. I t’ink it still my roun’.”
They walked to the bar slapping each other on the back. The Bequian asked the Englishman where he was staying. “Er. Well. Sort of nowhere at the moment. Just arrived. I was hoping to look around this evening and find somewhere…….. Cheap.”
The Rasta nodded his understanding, tapped on the shoulder of a tanned and bearded blonde man leaning with his elbow on the bar, talking with an equally tanned and blonde girl. “Hey.” He said, still grinning. “Jaapie. When your owner come?”
“Hey.” The man turned and answered with a smile. “Not for another ten days. Why?”
“Meet a good fren a mine. He need stay on your boat a few days an’ help you get it ready for when de owner come down.” He introduced the two white men by name.
“Hi. Hoe gaan dit?” Said the Englishman who’d picked up on the other’s accent.
“Ek is groot. En u?” The South African replied.
“I think I’m doing just fine.” Then as an afterthought, he added, “Now.”
“U kan die taal praat?
“Just a little. I was in S.A. and Rhodesia for a couple of years. Picked up a little.”
“Can I buy you a drink then?” He asked.
“Yaaaa man!” The Bequian interjected. “I’ll have a Heinie.”
The South African laughed and raised his chin and his eyebrows in question to the Englishman, who answered, “Dankie. Ek sal het dieselfde.”
“Make that three Heineken then please.” The bearded man asked the pretty Antiguan barmaid before turning back to the stranger. “Ja! Sure you can stay on the boat. I got plenty of room. You any good with a varnish brush?”
“Sure. That’s what I’ve just been doing for six weeks up in Nassau on a beautiful old wooden San Francisco Schooner. What type of boat is she?”
“Ho-lee shyte!” He said. “I think I must have died on that plane and landed in heaven. Swan 45?”
“Yeah; and you must race with on Wednesday. It’s only round the buoys, nothing serious, but it’s fun, and there’s always a lekker party afterwards.”
“Racing on a Swan 45! Yup.” The Englishman was grinning from ear to ear. “I have died and gone to heaven!”
“No mesun!” Said the skipper from the Grenadines. “Dis ain’t heaven. Dis juss de Eastern Caribbean. But sometime it easy to get de two a dem mix up…….. Cheers!”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly the spot where a significant chain of events begins. It’s very easy to keep going further and further back in time saying “…. It couldn’t have been then because that would never have happened if such-and-such hadn’t also happened three days before ….. and you wouldn’t have been there for that to happen if so-and-so hadn’t wanted you to go and …….. etc.”. So we have to draw a line somewhere and arbitrarily name a specific event that was the start of it all.
I lived and sailed in the Caribbean for 18 wonderful years and would dearly love to return for another 18 years. If I had to name what event was the start of that incredible series of sojourns in paradise I would have to say it was that beer soaked wad hitting me in the side of the head in the “Greasy Spoon”, English Harbour, Antigua. Strange how something that initially seemed so negative would trigger such an amazingly positive series of experiences upon which was built a great deal of the future in which I now live.