I was a stranger in a strange land so it seemed right to visit the two women in a Haitian prison. I spoke their language and the friend I was visiting on holiday told me they might be innocent. They just had the bad luck of being on their boyfriendʼs boats when the police came.
The heat was searing on the tap-tap, a mini van jammed with flesh, as we crossed Portau Prince. Caribbean colours, beautifully bold in my travel guide began to leer. The bougainvillea were spits of blood stuck to humid air. Trumpets of hibiscus screamed; a migraine was taking hold.
The prison yard itself looked like it had been painted by Gaugin on Quaaludes. Muddy ochre walls were topped with boozy purple, goat fat burned on open charcoal fires. I was the only blanc in the yard; a white woman, hair streaked grey, armed with airport magazines, toothpaste, deodorant, mints.
The Haitians waited patiently until they were asked to taste the food from the stacks of pots beside them. Spoonfuls of muddy beans and milky rice were swallowed. My creole was passable enough to decipher the meaning of the act. The prison was bad enough inside that some residents would rather die.
My visit was grim and brief. Leaving the prison yard I promised myself a treat. A cocktail outside town palm trees, a long beach. Yes a few tyres were burning, men festering round them like flies scabbing a wound. Small fires erupted often, it didnʼt necessarily mean trouble.
Outside the prison yard, was it the air, salt- tanged so I could almost taste the lime. Or was it just my thumb, with a life of its own recalling younger days? Analysis, like regret is fairly useless. I flicked my thumb out as a 1960 Mercedes rumbled past. Then stopped.
The man, in his 50ʼs was handsome, seemed laid-back, an intellectual. Yes he knew the old Club Med Place, yes there was still a bar, hammocks, lunch. We spoke a bit, politics, literature, then the conversation turned to sport.
Les sportif sexual?
When the gates opened there was a certain charm. They were wrought iron, painted verdigris, but the house beyond looked odd. No veranda. The whole place felt different. Breeze block but there had been several revolutions. It was thirty years since my last visit, what did I expect?
I suppose I began to twig when I realised there were no people about. No one, as he parked in the garage. I noticed there were a half a dozen more like it, each one hermitically sealed. There was no one in the halls. The beach was too far away. How to assert my will without showing panic? Iʼm a grandmother, I lied. A priest. He smiled. I remembered my first visit to this island after Baby Doc was ousted. The head of the Ton Ton Macoute, the infamous death squad had escaped the country dressed as a nun. Haitians are used to the fabulous, untruths.
It was a tiny of oddity of grammar that saved my skin. I bless you Mrs. A, French teacher for making us read Balzac at eighteen.
Here in this nightmare of a place, I listened to the moans of a womanʼs ecstasy -- feigned, real?-- coming from a room. A groaning man called Si, si si. My mind bizarrely reverted to some lost file buried in the hard drive of my life:
Si, in the conditional means if.
If ,if , if, how odd, I thought. Maybe I am caught in a dream.
And then I laughed out loud. Si si si, the emphatic for yes.
Maybe the man I was with couldnʼt be bothered, maybe I was too old. Or perhaps my laughter reminded him I was human. He ducked out of the hall, to a side door. He pointed, Half a mile down the beach, youʼll find the patio, a bar. Best call a taxi to take you home.
And the post script: well the first proverb I learned in Haitian. Mʼap sauve poulet mwen.
I got out of their with my chickens.
D L Smith