Photo credit: Naomi
In those days, we all wanted one. They were markers of class and achievement and modernity. It was desperate, that need in us to be modern. Maybe it was just another thing we had inherited from England — even from the Victorians. Right after the Mother Country had introduced the locomotive train to the world, there was Jamaica first in line. Strange that such a small island with such a rugged terrain should be the second country in the world with a train line. But the trains wouldn’t last, nor would the bauxite factories belching out smoke and trying to diversify our economy away from banana. We were trying to prove that we were more than just tropical fruits. We could also provide the materials for ships and for flying things. But the trains stopped running and the bauxite factories closed, and sometimes it seemed that our every attempt to be modern was doomed to fail. Of course, our desperate need to be modern was more accurately its opposite — it was the desperate fear of being what we really were — a small island of black people. Did that smallness and that blackness make us also backward? Did it make us parochial? Did it mean that we lived on the edge of the real world?
So in those days (it was the late 1980s), we all wanted a satellite dish, but my family did not have one and it annoyed me. We did not have a satellite dish nor a swimming pool nor a brand-new car parked up in the driveway. We could not afford these things, but I did not understand this at the time — our lack of money. We lived in a neighborhood where most of our neighbors had new cars and satellite dishes, and some of them had pools. But such luxuries never came to our house, so it was as if the middle-class-ness that I very much liked to claim at the time was really quite tentative, which it was. My family’s middle-class credentials came without real evidence other than the neighborhood in which we lived.
There was a small moment in those years when we had somehow fallen into fashion. We were ahead of the curve. The Color TV had become a big thing. I do not know why it took so long for Color TV to come to Jamaica, but it had. We were more than a decade late. But as soon as the island’s single TV station announced that it would send color transmission, my father went out and got us a color TV, and it was the kind of thing you could go to school and boast about. You could let the fact just drop casually in conversation and it would impress people. But it was only a brief moment. Things progressed quickly after that and no sooner had the Color TV arrived in Jamaica than it became passé to have one. The satellite dish quickly became the new luxury item, and in those days we all wanted one.
They were not small things — these satellite dishes. They were not the very neat kinds you see today, tucked discretely onto the side of buildings like little clips. These dishes were gargantuan — as big as a Julie mango tree. In fact, trees would often have been cut down in Jamaica to accommodate the installation of a satellite dish in a person’s backyard — the parabolic antennas needing space, not just to stand still, but also to rotate its giant head. It said something about the kind of acreage you had to be able to install a satellite in your yard. In those days, standing on a hilltop and looking down on the city of Kingston, it looked something like a NASA station — thousands and thousands of large satellite dishes.
My parents did not buy a satellite dish so I was always at the neighbor’s houses enjoying theirs. The satellite dishes connected us to the world. They brought us into the center of things. We were proud of being able to watch HBO and NBC and CNN and even BBC. For a while it seemed we didn’t even need to migrate to America or Canada or Britain. Having TV programs that spanned the globe was just as good. It proved to us that we really did live in the world. It meant that we knew things. Somewhere out there, the trains and the factories were on their last breath, but inside we had satellite dishes and it was enough. It was our latest attempt to be modern. Little did we know that it would fail as well.
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Truth be told, I was excited about the hurricane. I had heard about them of course. Hurricane Charlie was something that my father remembered though my mother could not. But my father only ever mentioned the fact of it, not the experience. It seemed to me as long ago as slavery. I wanted to see my own hurricane. I knew what rain was, and I knew what wind was, but I could not imagine them in apocalyptic proportions. I did not imagine then the downing of power lines, the months and months of no electricity that would follow. I did not imagine no TV. No radio. No fans. I did not imagine how a whole island could feel so soggy, how everything could be so wet but that still there would only be brown water in the taps, and then no water in the taps, and how we would have to stand at our gates and wait for the water trucks to come. I did not imagine the destruction of every farm, every tree, so it would be months before we had bananas or coconuts or limes or anything that grew from any tree. The trees would have to grow back first. I did not imagine all the roofless houses or all the roofless schools or all the roofless churches, and how for months after we would go to sleep and just look up at an uninterrupted sky. No electricity, no roof, I did not know that a hurricane left, in its wake, not just rubble, but stars. So many stars. It was beautiful. It was awful. But I knew none of this.
We had been promised hurricanes before. The weather man at the time, Roy Forrester, was always warning us about which one was heading straight for Jamaica. On his little map of the Caribbean he would show us some weather system moving up the Antilles towards us, a red line marking out the dangerous path of the storm. He would tell us to buy tinned food and to batten down the roofs, but we never did. The hurricanes always swerved away from Jamaica in the end, as if they too were afraid of the murder rate that in those days was climbing towards world-leading percentages.
At first we were not sure what to think of Gilbert. We were not sure if we could ever take Roy Forrester’s predictions seriously. He told us that the hurricane was coming and we did watch the TV, but only to see the moment when it would swerve. It held its course. The people with satellite dishes took things more seriously when it was reported on CNN and BBC news. It seemed more real then. At the last minute we did what we could. We bought tinned food, and rice, and other non-perishable items. We collected water. Some people pruned their trees knowing the storm would do it anyway and hurl the branches against us. We battened down the windows and stuffed newspaper against the doors so that the water would not come in. We did what we could, but no one thought to take down their satellite dishes.
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The moment before a hurricane makes landfall is eerie. The whole island becomes the color of dawn and the trees, already swaying this way and that, seem to be praying. The electricity is cut off from the power lines and so there is a kind of silence in which you can almost hear each household taking breaths and bracing themselves. The dogs who already feel the hurricane in their bones are howling.
We almost lost our living room in that storm. We had to fight hard to keep it — to keep the rain from coming in and destroying all the furniture and the TV. It caught us by surprise, the way the wind was at the row of louvered windows. They were suddenly pushing in towards us as if wanting to explode. We had to push the windows back — my whole family — straining against the brute force of the storm.
We did lose the roof of our garage. It was such a terrible sound — a sound I never want to hear again, the way the wind got itself beneath things, how it pried out the firmly hammered nails, how it curled the sheets of zinc as if they were nothing more than thin pieces of paper. I had seen the builders put up that roof. It had taken five men, and they were big men, rippled with muscles. And it had taken them weeks. Hurricane Gilbert undid their work in seconds.
We were braced against the window, trying to save the small part of our house that we could. We had to listen to the sound of the roof going, and other sounds from outside that made us know that when we looked at the world again, it would not be the same.
The destruction was incomprehensible. And why had it not been obvious to us before that there is something about the shape of a satellite dish that makes it a perfect plaything for a storm, something about its wide surface and its parabolic shape like a Frisbee? Hurricane Gilbert had swept across the island and dismantled every one of them. The storm lifted them up and glided them across the sky. The storm flung the satellite dishes into the sides of mountains, and against trees, and against houses. It piled them up in valleys like stacks of plates, and then left.
A month or so after, we would witness a wild and magnificent flowering across the island. The new leaves would be greener, and the new hibiscuses would be redder, than anything we had seen before. The regeneration was as insistent as it was exultant, and we could hear in the sudden blooming of things the small whisper of the hurricane. I too am a part of things
— it said — a part of the cycle
. So the hurricane had its purpose — to purge and then to bring new life. Things recovered slowly, but not the satellite dishes. All that was left were the stumps of them, like fallen metallic trees. They could not grow back. They would not bloom a more metallic grey than before.
We were cut off again. Things were once again happening in the world that we did not know about. We were back to being what we had tried so very hard not to be — a small island of black people on the edge of things.
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is the author of three novels, several poetry collections, and Fear of Stones and Other Stories
, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book. In 2014, he won the Forward Prize for Best Poetry Collection for The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion
. Born in Jamaica, he lives in London and teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Augustown
is his most recent book.