By Tony Deyal
My family decided that we would spend last weekend in a village on the North Coast of Trinidad, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Its name is pronounced “Blankey-Shears” and one of my friends, on hearing this, immediately warned me not to go there or anywhere else with a name I couldn’t spell or pronounce properly. “Even if you refuse to take my advice,” he insisted, “be careful and don’t get into any trouble with the police because they will lock you up in some distant place with a name they know how to spell – like Toco”. This was an old joke based on a policeman who found a dead horse on “Frederick” street in Port-of-Spain and laboriously dragged it to “Duke” street because that was easier to spell.
Over the years, as I trotted around the Caribbean, I had warned myself about loving the region but not getting spellbound. When I arrived in Barbados in 1993, people who knew me from Trinidad’s carnival expected me to participate in their “Kadooment”. I was not sure how to pronounce it. Then I ran into “Cohobblopot.” I did not go to the event because I decided that I was not participating in anything that I could not pronounce. I also experienced a pronounced problem in 2014 when the “chikungunya” virus, which is spread by mosquito bites, hit Jamaica and other Caribbean countries, including Antigua, where we lived. Until I checked the spelling in a medical dictionary, I had gone along with the local pronunciation which, despite the African origin of the disease, ranged from “Chickomonia” and “Chicken Gun Man” to “Chicken Gonorhea”.
Despite my own misgivings, we ended up in Blanchisseuse (pronounced “Blankey-Shears”). I had told my wife and children that more than 2000 people die at sea every year but that didn’t sink in. It was a true “conspira-sea” against me. I even told my wife if she went there she would end up with a sea-section, but she didn’t care. Her mind was more made up than Khloe Kardashian or Boy George.
I found out that when it comes to holidays, Christmas is not the only season to be jolly with folly. For Indranie and the children it was a case of long time no sea. However, in my case, I was reminded once more that regardless of where I go there is no country for old men. If I were Moses facing the Red Sea I could have said, “Goddamit” and he would have done so, but while life is like the ocean in that it goes up and down, the ocean is not like life. I have no need for Vitamin Sea. Unlike coffee, the sea cannot be restrained. In fact, it is only in the sea you find your true direction. Down! I like Langston Hughes for making it known, “The sea is a desert of waves, A wilderness of water” yet I was pool-hardy enough to be there. In fact, was I aware that I should go no further than that part where the land meets the sea? I shore did, or so I thought.
The first thing that happened when my son Zubin and I tried “throwing a line” is that one small fish grabbed his bait and took off. “Don’t worry,” I consoled Zubin, “there are many more fish in the sea except where the Chinese and Japanese fishing fleets have been.” Unfortunately, we were told by a nearby banana vendor that there was a great beach just a few minutes away where he fished. He gave us the impression that it was a scion of a beach. We didn’t know that when dealing with fishermen there is always a catch. In this case, it was a double whammy. The banana man’s advice proved to be slippery.
At that stage, we didn’t know or care and within minutes we were in high gear heading down what seemed to be a thousand steps to the rocky beach which, even at falling tide, was as wavy as Shirley Temple’s hairstyle. My daughter, Jasmine, was worried about the lack of rails on the staircase and its steepness. “The longest journey,” I preached to her, “begins with a single step.” “Backward or forward?” she asked. “I going back.” Eventually, we all hit rock bottom and by the time we reached the beach, Zubin and I had already loaded up like the Earp Brothers heading into the OK Corral.
It reminded me of a quote from “No Country For Old Men”. Clare Jean Moss asks, “What you’re going to do?” Llewelyn Moss replied “I’m fixing to do somethin’ dumbern’ hell but I’m goin’ anyways. If I don’t come back, tell Mother I love her.” Carla Jean reminded him, “Your mother’s dead, Llewelyn.” He responded, “Well, then, I’ll tell her myself.” I am not sure if it was my Irish blood but I knew that, ironically, the whole of Ireland, apart from Cork, is at risk from rising sea levels. However, my great-grandfather had to be from Kildare since I had a date, not with the Loch Ness Monster but a lock-neck monster and I was almost a luck-less punster. Fortunately, I can still ask you what lies at the bottom of the sea shivering? A nervous wreck. Who lay at the bottom of the sea shivering? Me. Why was I shivering? A giant Moray Eel. Did I meet my maker or my mother? Almost.
What follows is a whale of a tale and, if you wish, you can call me “Eel-ijah”. However, I couldn’t call you. Why? My cell phone was in my pocket and I was in deep water because my phone died before me. Had the eel gone for my chest, I would have lived because my heart was in my mouth at the time. This moved the story from No Country For Old Men to The Old Man and the Sea. At 76, going on 77, I should have been heading for Sunset Strip instead of a watery grave. However, even though Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated”, I learnt that this old man’s feet could have been bitten off in the sea.
My son Zubin had left to drop Jasmine back to where we were staying. I saw it as an opportunity to dump the bait he was using, what Jamaicans call “swims” (shrimps), and because we had not caught anything as yet, use the firm and bloody “Bonito” fish as bait. I thought that the fishing would go more swimmingly. It did. The Moray, smelling the fish-blood on me and trying to get a bite, kept bobbing, weaving and coming like a crazy Energiser Bungee.
I remembered Hemingway’s “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is”. Seeing this wiggly, black beast coming for my foot and then, when I slipped and fell in the water, at my other parts and pieces, I kept rolling, beating my arms and kicking up my feet to scare it away. My wife thought it was a branch floating next to me and then, when she saw the full size, believed it was “kelp” the largest group of seaweed around. I thought it was curtains.
*Tony Deyal was last heard singing Dean Martin’s favourite song, “When an eel grabs your thigh and you think that you might die, that’s a Moray! A moray!”