“The White Gyal with the Camera” by Kei Miller (from Kingston Noir)
The White Gyal with the Camera
by Kei Miller
August Town (from Kingston Noir)
It was when the papers come out with the gyal’s picture print big and broad on the front page that August Town people did find out her rightful name. Marilyn Fairweather. It sounded right. It sounded like a white woman’s name. But for the six days she had been in August Town we had just called her “the white gyal with the camera.” Or “the white gyal” for short.
She get the name because whatever Soft-Paw say we take it as gospel, and is Soft-Paw did send out word that if anybody see “the white gyal with the camera” we was not to trouble her; we was to leave her alone. But is like the white gyal with the camera never know or understand this—that she was living on grace—that if Soft-Paw never send out such a word she woulda dead from day one.
You had to give it to the white gyal though—is like she never have a coward bone in her body. She take a plane to Jamaica and in my books that alone count as bravery. Pretty blond girl on her own in the heart of Jamdown? Who ever hear of such a thing? But this white gyal take it further. Instead of staying at one of them hotels in New Kingston where she could order rum and Coke all day and listen to jazz in the gardens, or in a nice little apartment in Barbican or Liguanea, she did decide to rent a room right here in August Town.
It was one of them little rooms with its own kitchen and everything. Miss Tina usually rent it out to university students, for UWI was just a ten-minute walk up the road. But it was July so the room was empty.
The white gyal did knock on Miss Tina gate after midnight, which of course did upset Miss Tina who was fast asleep, but she confess that she was glad for the chance to rent out the room, even for just a week, and seeing that the gyal was white, Miss Tina make sure to charge what she would usually charge for the whole month. You know how these things go. Still, Miss Tina tell the white gyal that August Town wasn’t the safest place, but it come in like the white gyal with the camera wasn’t interested in safety.
When Miss Tina fall back asleep, the white gyal take up her camera and walk straight into the baddest part of town. Imagine that—the time of night when we all have the doors close tight; the time of night when who don’t come in yet not coming in at all; the time of night when we make sure to fall asleep on a low-low mattress because nobody want to sleep so high that a stray bullet could come inside and find us; the time of night when the only people walking on the street was gunman or duppy—is that same time when the white gyal with the camera choose to go back out. They say a fool will walk where angels fear to trod, and the white gyal with the camera was such a fool as that.
Soft-Paw and the bwoy-dem was out there in the night, and to see them would make even a big man tremble, the way their trousers’ pockets was big with guns. As to how I hear it, Soft-Paw and the bwoy-dem begin to notice when all of a sudden a light start to flash bout them. They think maybe it was lightning and they look up into the sky to see if rain was going to fall. But the sky was clear as glass and full of stars. The light start to flash bout them again and now they hear a clicking noise and they cannot believe they eyes when they turn round to see this brazen white gyal lie down on her belly in the middle of the road pointing her camera up at them like a solider with a gun.
Soft-Paw, being the leader, step away from the others and start to walk to her slow and dangerous-like. The white gyal just smile and get to her feet and brush down her skirt and start to fiddle with the camera. Easy-easy, like she don’t know she was somewhere she not supposed to be. When Soft-Paw reach up to her she turn the Nikon to him and show him the little screen and she tell him, “Look!”
Now, Soft-Paw is not a kind of man you supposed to ever give instructions to. Everybody know that. But he so surprised by this situation, he so surprised by the whole night, that he look. The white gyal start to flick through, going from picture to picture, showing Soft-Paw the photos she had been taking.
Soft-Paw see photograph of himself lean up against the zinc fence and talking to the bwoys, the angle making it seem that the zinc was rising and rising forever. He see photograph of an owl, pale and bright on the roof of Miss Inez house. He see photograph of the old car that was rusting for years just at the end of the road. Soft-Paw face don’t give away anything but I gather now that he was thinking he never before see August Town in the way that he was seeing it then—almost beautiful. And the white gyal with the camera looking at him with a look that say he was almost beautiful too. He smile at her, his teeth brown as rust except for the one gold tooth glittering at the back. He ask her, “What you doing here?”
And his question was soft. Usually when him ask this question, him ask it hard, like the night last year when they did see a young fellow from the university on the road. Is like this fellow did loss him way. Soft-Paw walk up and ask the same question, “What you doing here?” and the boy did stammer and a circle of piss did spread cross the front of his trousers. The bwoy-dem did laugh. Soft-Paw face never change. Soft-Paw just flick out a knife and push the blade into the young man’s back, not so deep that it could kill him, but deep enough. The fellow bawl out loud. I remember the scream. But they say Soft-Paw never flinch and he run the knife down the back like he was opening a woman’s dress. The fellow bawling like he give up all hope on life, but Soft-Paw tell him calmly, “Leave this bloodclaat place and never come back.” You see what I trying to tell you? It is a dangerous thing to be where you not supposed to be.
So maybe the white gyal with the camera don’t know that Soft-Paw’s question could have been put to her in a hard and dangerous way. She never piss herself or nothing. She just say to him, “I am here for one week to take . . . photographs.” She touch the camera when she say “photographs” as if she did need to touch it to remember the word. She had a funny way of talking, an accent none of us could place. She say to Soft-Paw, “I think you have a really, how do you say, lovely place here.” And she lift up her head and look all around and smile a smile that would make you think she was standing in the middle of fucking paradise—and mind you, Jamaica can be paradise when it want, like those times when you standing on a white beach looking at the moon sinking below the coconut trees. But this white gyal wasn’t on no beach. She was in August Town. She was in the heart of the ghetto, but she was smiling.
“You don’t work for no police or nothing like that?” Soft-Paw ask.
She look at him with the most serious look she have all night. She touch herself on her chest. “I work for me. For myself alone. What I do is—it is art. I am not, how do you say, informer. No. That is not me.”
Soft-Paw nod. “All right then,” he say. “Do what you doing, but protection going to cost you. Hundred dollars a day. Hundred U.S. dollars. And a next thing: before you leave, you will have to show me all the pictures that you take. Is me who run this place. You understand? Me is the community leader, and I don’t want you take no picture that we wouldn’t like. You get me?”
She agree to this and so Soft-Paw send out word that if anybody see “the white gyal with the camera,” they was not to trouble her. They was to leave her alone. The next morning when we get this word we all start to wonder: who the hell is this white gyal with this damn camera?
All day next day we was wondering so till we start to make joke that this so-called white gyal with her so-called camera must be some sort of vampire. What other kind of person would sleep during the entire day like she fraid of sun? Not a squeak nor a squawk from her during morning, midday, or afternoon.
In the evening when we all gather in the square as we always do, it was that time when Miss Tina tell us she actually set eyes on the white gyal with the camera, and that she was staying in the student room in her own yard. Miss Tina tell us how the white gyal did wake her up late the night before, and she herself couldn’t believe that the white gyal did go out after that and meet up with Soft-Paw and the bwoy-dem.
One of the fellows start run joke and ask Miss Tina, “So you rent out you room to a vampire?”
Miss Tina, who at times could be a real jokified woman, smile and tell us that actually, just now as she was leaving the yard, she did in fact see a soft and unearthly light coming from under the door of the white gyal room.
Sister Doris, who go to the Bedward church, whisper, “Sweet Jesus!” when she hear that, though we who have more sense did know that it was probably just light from a computer. I would have said as much but when Miss Tina done her story, Bongo Collie arrive with another.
Bongo Collie report and say that just just now as him was walking to the square, he walk by Miss Tina house and see the white gyal there himself! And that she did frighten him bad—big horse-steering rastaman though he was. He say at first he never see her sitting there on the veranda, she was so quiet, but then a small fire from nowhere light up her face. Poor Sister Doris almost faint that time.
Bongo Collie explain that this did make him nearly jump out of him skin, but he soon realize it was just a matches stick the white gyal did strike. She was lighting herself a cigarette. She look straight at Bongo Collie, and nod to him, very familiar-like, and he nod back but he say he couldn’t help but think to himself—this white gyal is more than she appear.
And it was the kind of evening where you expect that as Bongo Collie done with him story, another story would arrive just like that. But even better than that. The white gyal herself did arrive. We get to see her with our own eyes. My dears, she just walk into the square like it was home, and like all of we and she was friend, and Sister Doris shake her head and make the sign of the cross.
But I have to tell you the truth. We all warm to the white gyal quick, for it turn out that she was a talkative and pleasant young lady. She even sit down with Miss Tina and Bongo Collie and Sister Doris, and she sit down with me as well, and it feel like we talk bout every godalmighty thing, though afterward I couldn’t tell you what me or she did say.
Now and again she would lift up her camera to take a picture, but she would do it so quick and natural-like, without any announcement. And it was like the camera wasn’t really there, and nobody feel the need to pose or model or be anything but themselves.
What make we know that this white gyal was really all right though was when she go over to the table where them old fellows was playing dominoes. The white gyal walk round in a slow circle from hand to hand, watching the game intense-like, like she trying to understand. The four fellows probably feel it was only polite to ask her if she wanted to play a round. They ask even though this white gyal had two things going against her—namely that she was white, and also that she was a gyal. A white gyal playing dominoes was even worse than a white gyal trying to shake her flat batty to Vybz Kartel or Beenie Man: them things wasn’t normal; them things couldn’t ever look right.
Well, the white gyal start to play and I tell you, I nearly fenneh! What you think happen? In two twos this white gyal with the camera was slamming down tile like she really understand what she doing, and when Maas Delroy who was her pardy make a bad move, she cuss him blue from cross the table and ask him if he never read the game proper and see that is she have all the S them in her hand, and how he should have did play five-deuce and block the game from three moves back and how she woulda did win if him did only use him head and do that. And when she say all of that, everybody was quiet-quiet, and we all now thinking what Bongo Collie did think earlier—that this white gyal was more than she appear.
Make me be the first to confess it was a stupid thing to think. For what else we could expect? We did call her “the white gyal with the camera” but she had to be more than that. She had to have her own story, but is like it was a story no one did think to ask bout. For all the talk we did talk to her, we never get to know her. We only get curious after the bad thing happen—after she get her picture in the front page of the newspaper and we suddenly start call her Marilyn as if to say we did really know her all along.
Every night in August Town is a warm night, which is why we like to gather outside. But when it is coming on to midnight—the time when we know that Soft-Paw and the bwoy-dem will come out on the scene—we will begin to pack up from the square and go into our yards and close the doors tight and make sure to fall sleep on a low-low mattress, safe from stray bullets. For to see Soft-Paw during the day is one thing. In the daytime he is our neighbor. But to see him at night when him on the turf is another thing all together. The whole of August Town becomes his office, and you must never disturb a man from his work.
That first night when we saw the white gyal, we begin to leave at midnight as usual. We ask her if she wasn’t turning in as well but she shake her head, a simple no, like she was quite happy to be out there by herself. More and more, she was lifting the damn camera to her eye, aiming at God-he-knows-what, snapping more and more pictures.
Miss Tina even ask her, “You ever go to sleep at all?”
The white gyal look on Miss Tina and tell her, “Not very much. I try to sleep during the day, but I am—how do you say it—light sleeper. I wake up at everything. But at nighttime like now, I am wide awake.”
Hmph. That is the sound that Miss Tina did make as she walk off, and when Miss Tina did tell me this, I did make the same sound too. I tell you already, at a certain hours of night or morning, is only gunman and duppy supposed to be on the streets. We all know who the gunmen was. That was Soft-Paw and the bwoy-dem. So maybe the white gyal with the camera was practicing to be a duppy all along.
As to how the bwoy-dem tell it, for the six nights that the white gyal was here in August Town, there would always come a time, maybe at two or three o’clock, when they would see her before she did see them. Soft-Paw would walk up behind her, not making a sound. That is how he get his name. He would touch her suddenly, maybe on the back of her neck, and the bwoy-dem was always surprised to see that the white gyal never ever jump or look frighten or catch her breath. And they did even respect her a little too for this. But they notice something else—that she would seem to even relax at Soft-Paw’s touch, like she was ready to lean back slow, if only him would press into her and hold her right there—something romantic like that. No romance did ever happen, but the bwoy-dem say it did always have that feeling.
Without turning round, the white gyal with the camera would reach into her pocket and take out a crisp green hundred-dollar bill and hold it up for Soft-Paw.
Soft-Paw would take the money and push it deep into his own pocket. Then he would ask her, “How tings?”
“Fine, yes. It is good. I am getting the pictures.”
“Let me see?” And Soft-Paw was really asking. It wasn’t his usual way of giving orders. It was like he was really interested.
She would turn the camera screen to his face then, and flick through the pictures. Soft-Paw see that she was getting everywhere in August Town. He see pictures that look like she was standing in the middle of the riverbed down by the part of town they call Angola, the moonlight showing how the houses on the bank was close to falling in the sand. He see pictures from outside Judgment Yard, the red and green and yellow flags flapping in the night as if it was a balmyard and a cure for deep sickness was inside. And he see pictures of the actual balmyard—Bedward’s church. Bedward was that mad fellow who say he was going to fly. And then there was pictures of the plain and empty road, and pictures of the standpipe dripping water, and pictures of the old men in the square playing dominoes, and of Miss Tina standing under a streetlight looking at her red fingernails. And apparently Soft-Paw did sound almost sad when he tell the bwoy-dem that he had a feeling like he would love to always see August Town through the lens of the white gyal’s camera, because he see things that he never see in all his twenty-nine years—a kind of loveliness in the people and in the place.
And I even understand there was more than one picture of me.
Every day and every night was the same until just like that, six of them pass and we know is only one more to go before the white gyal with the camera leave.
And all that week it seem that Soft-Paw wasn’t himself, and every day him wasn’t himself a little bit more. And maybe he just had a feeling growing inside him, a feeling he wasn’t used to having, like he was bout to lose something, something more than the hundred U.S. the white gyal was giving him every night.
Well, on the sixth day everybody see that Soft-Paw was in a right foul mood. He was walking up and down August Town in the middle of the day like he on a rampage. When he see a mongrel dog, he kick it in its ribs. When he pass a clothesline with the just-washed clothes hang out to dry, he flash out his knife, cut the line, and make all the clothes drop back in the dirt. Soft-Paw must did know in himself that this kind of behavior is what you expect from some rude pickney—is not big-man behavior; is not even gunman behavior. Soft-Paw had to get control of himself, so he walk to the door of each of the bwoy-dem and knock loud-loud until they was all gathered together, rubbing their eyes, for they not used to seeing each other in the broad daylight.
The bwoy-dem ask him what was the matter so he tell them what I gather is the truth: “Is the white gyal with the camera!”
The bwoy-dem confused. They ask him, what bout the white gyal? And this time he tell them what seem to be a truth mix up with a lie, mix up with another truth, mix up with another lie. You couldn’t separate one from the other. He tell them that though he had a good feeling about the white gyal, he never get to where he was, nor did he get away with all that he did get away with, by trusting people. He tell them he couldn’t leave it to the white gyal to come to him later that night with all the pictures for him to inspect. He had to inspect the pictures before. It was important. For who to tell what kind of pictures she did really take. It could be bad things. Incriminating things. They had to get the camera from the white gyal before she had a chance to hide things.
Soft-Paw sound so convincing and passionate and like their whole world depend on this that the bwoy-dem nod yes and feel that nothing in this world more important than getting that camera. But Soft-Paw tell them to easy. Easy. He don’t want to stir up anything just yet. All he want is the camera. And I think when Soft-Paw say that, him was telling the truth again. For sometimes you grow up in a place like August Town and you get so damn used to life being hard and everything being unfair and to seeing the worst in every situation, that when you see a spot of beauty, you just want to hang onto it, you just want to sit down with it and admire it, and that is why him was in a foul mood, because him never want to stop seeing the white gyal’s pictures just yet.
The bwoy-dem nominate Ants to go and get the camera. They call this fellow Ants because of how he could walk up a wall and get inside a building as easy as any insect. If you show Ants a house that have no windows and no doors—just four walls and a ceiling—he would only need to walk round it one time before he figure out six or seven different ways to get inside. With Ants, tiefing wasn’t a crime; it was a talent. They say Ants could tief the black from off your skin and you wouldn’t feel a thing.
Remember the white gyal with the camera tell Miss Tina that she was a light sleeper? Well, Ants could tief lighter than the lightest sleep. Is like Ants don’t need to hear snoring or deep breathing to know that somebody is dreaming; is like he could feel it and become part of the sleep and know how to walk round it and not disturb it. So Ants stay outside the white gyal room and when him feel her sleep and become part of it, it was then that he break the locks careful and let himself in.
The white gyal with the camera, he realize then, even sleep with the camera, her fingers tight round it. And she sleep naked too, her skin white as milk, and one heap of blond hair curl up round her pussy. On another day Ants might have done something bad, but he leave her alone. He take her fingers off the camera that he was going to give to Soft-Paw, and for himself and his troubles he take all the cash from out her wallet, and the phone from out her pocket.
Listen—it is not a nice thing for a woman to wake up one evening and to know that a man was in the same room as she and is not she did let him in. It is not a nice thing for a woman to know she was sleeping naked and that a man did stand up over her and she never know or feel his presence. It is not a nice thing for a woman to wake up and know that something bad could have did happen, and it don’t matter if that bad thing don’t happen—I telling you, it is not a nice feeling to know you was close to such a thing because you still get the taste of it.
I feel shame when I think bout it. Imagine, this white gyal with the camera come to Jamaica and maybe her friends did tell her not to go, but she come. And then this white gyal live with us for six days in a ghetto which not supposed to be safe, but she did feel safe. But all of a sudden she not feeling that no more. And this white gyal with the camera who did come to Kingston city and had seen something beautiful in all of us, all of a sudden everything was looking ugly. Is like the white gyal did just want to get out of that room. She stumble out the door and into the evening, and she don’t stop to put on no clothes. The streetlight making her skin look even whiter than it was, like she was really a duppy, but none of it matter, none of it fucking matter no more. The white gyal out there in the streets of August Town, shaking and shaking, and then she scream, worse than how that boy from the university did scream last year. The white gyal scream.
Everybody hear it. Even Soft-Paw, from where he was, did hear it. And though for everyone else that scream did put a chill in our bones, for Soft-Paw it put a smile on his face. But listen—is not because he did take any pleasure in her distress, but because he was thinking he could make it all right. He seen the pictures now. He seen them slowly and carefully. And he realize that is all he wanted. He just wanted to look on August Town, look on how nice the place was, how it just had something to it, and how that something was in everybody. Now he could give the camera back to the white gyal, and he could tell her all was well. He could wish her safe travels. He could tell her to walk good, and walk with God.
We who was in the square and did hear the scream was walking toward Miss Tina house, and when we get there we see her—the white gyal without her camera, without any clothes or anything, standing in the middle of the road, under the streetlight that make her look like a duppy. She did see us coming, all of August Town, and the look on her face say that she never see a set of people so ugly in all her life. I did feel sick to see the look she give we. And maybe she wonder to herself if it was only now, after six days, that she was seeing the truth—seeing the place for what it was. Seeing us for who we really was. And maybe she thinking she been in Jamaica for six days, but is only now that she really arrive.
The white gyal was crying now. “Stay away from me! Stay away!” And she fanning us off and shouting and shaking, and we was thinking, Lord have mercy! The white gyal gone crazy! She gone stark raving mad. We form a circle round her not knowing whether to advance or to stay back. We was just watching her, and she was just watching us. Sister Doris start to pray, and then she start to sing, and some of the other women join in, but the white gyal just keep shaking and crying and looking at us like we was the devil.
And then Soft-Paw come. The crowd part for him. Soft-Paw have the white gyal camera in his hands and he holding it up for her to see. He smiling like as if to say he was Jesus come to save her. And it was another warm night in August Town. The sky was clear, and the stars was like glass, and we could hear the low river eating away at the banks of Angola. And Sister Doris with her eyes close tight was humming the tune, The word of the Lord is a strong tower, the mighty run into it and they are saved. Soft-Paw walking toward the white-gyal now, but she looking at him terrified-like, and her eyes say that she was finally seeing the man that most people see—a man with a hard face, a man with teeth as brown as rust except for the one gold tooth glittering at the back, a man who was more dangerous than most. And the streetlight shining on her was making her look not just white, but transparent, like a piece of tissue. And the blond hairs curl up round her pussy look white as well. And it come to me that I never see before that she was such a small thing.
Soft-Paw smiling and he ask her, “What wrong wid you, white gyal? Why you going on so for? Nothing to worry bout. See your camera here. You can have it back.”
The white gyal shout at Soft-Paw, “Stay back! Don’t touch me!”
Soft-Paw laugh a strange laugh and he step forward.
“NO!” the white gyal shout at him. “I say stay back!”
She was crying now. Crying hard like when little pickney can’t find them mommy. This small gyal with her skin like tissue. And then she was looking up at this bigger black man, like him was the ugliest man in the world, and Soft-Paw must have seen it too. He have to see that something did gone from her eyes, and I wonder if he know that is he who take it from her.
Soft-Paw now raising his voice and saying, “Calm down, white gyal! Calm down.” He make another step toward her. “See your camera here.” He try to hand it over. “Just take the bloodclaat camera and stop the cowbawling!”
The white gyal in a awful state now. A awful, awful state. She box the camera out of Soft-Paw’s hand. It fall on the ground and break. It make a sound like it was the only sound in August Town that night. Like even the river did stop. And those who was praying stop praying. And those who was singing stop singing. And I don’t know why, but we all did jump back when the camera break—and then we look down on all its pieces like we was looking at a dead body.
The white-gyal staring up at Soft-Paw. She trembling. And my dears, who to tell why she do it, but she box him in him face. Box him, right there in front of all of we. And you could suddenly hear the river again. And I believe, for a small while, we could even hear the stars. And all of we was just standing there, holding our breaths.
KEI MILLER is a poet, novelist, and essayist. His most recent books are The Last Warner Woman and A Light Song of Light. Miller is also series editor of Heinemann’s Caribbean Writers Series and he lectures at the University of Glasgow where he recently completed his PhD.
Posted: May 2, 2013
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