The Alligator’s Tooth: Stories from Jamaica

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      Searching for a flat in London is no fun. Especially, when you’re looking ahead at an English winter. Most of the flats we examine are worn out bedsitters with threadbare couches, scuffed chairs and scratched tables. Small gas heaters requiring frequent feedings of shilling coins will be the only protection against the cold. After the summer in Spain, London seems large and lonely. Anna Kay and several Jamaican friends have moved back to the West Indies, so we are without contemporaries in this big, often bleak city.

The search persists day after day. The air chills, a reminder of the winter marching toward us. This does little to lift our spirits. I recall having just left a dingy little bedsitter with a shared loo down the hall in an outlying London neighborhood. The sun shone weakly through the foggy October afternoon. We decided to take the underground to downtown London to find a cheap Indian restaurant for lunch. The spicy kick of Indian food suits Robert, while I still have not completely learned to appreciate pepper. As we emerge from the Charring Cross Underground station to scout for a restaurant, a travel poster catches my eye. The gentle curves of a white sand beach banded by a wide ribbon of turquoise dissolving into deep blue defy the London gray. Coconut palms with shaggy yellow-green fronds cast soft shadows on shimmering sand while two empty orange chaise lounges relax in tropical luxury. Below the picture, in heavy bold block letters, I read the word “JAMAICA.”

“Is that where you come from?!,” I shoot an undeniably rhetorical question Robert’s way.

“Yah, I guess so,” he replies vacantly without stopping to look at the poster.

This is the moment when Jamaica begins to take a definite shape in my mind.

“So, do you think we could go there?” On the edge of winter, jobless and almost without resources, taking our chances in some tropical paradise might be a better option than London. Robert raises his bushy Albert Einstein eyebrows with interest and looks back at the poster. We make a perfectly synchronized about-face and enter the travel agency to make inquiries.

“We’d like to find out about passages to Jamaica,” Robert nods towards the travel poster in the large plate glass window.

A gray haired woman wearing a lavender sweater accented with black-fringed silk scarf, smiles curiously at us,

“When would you like to depart and return?”

We look at each other questioningly. This idea is clearly not yet a plan. We attempt a quick conversation via face making, shoulder shrugging and mental telepathy.

“Well, maybe next week,” Robert offers tentatively.

“And the time of return?” the travel agent seems to be doing her best to take us seriously.

“One way,” the definitive tone of his statement surprises all three of us!

The agent begins to scrutinize the thick blue covered binder oozing with printed airline schedules for hundreds of destinations.

“Let me see here. Well there’s a BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) flight Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Tuesday flight leaves Gatwick at 11:20 in the morning and arrives in Montego Bay at 6:40 p.m.,”

“We need to go to Kingston,” Robert indicates politely. Harry Belafonte’s honey voice floats in my ears,

       Down the way where the nights are gay

And the sun shines daily on the mountain top

I took a trip on a sailing ship

And when I reached Jamaica I made a stop


“The Tuesday and Saturday flights continue from Montego Bay to Kingston and arrive at 8:45 p.m.”

We nod with approval.

“How much does it cost?”

In the crispest of British accents, the travel agent delivers the dismal news,

“The one-way fare is just under 200 pounds, one hundred ninety seven pounds, five to be exact.”

Well, there goes that great idea, I think, knowing that our net worth at that exact moment is less than one hundred ninety seven pounds, five, and we need twice that amount to buy the tickets.

Robert, however, appears to be undaunted.

“Is there space for next Tuesday?”

The agent calls to check on availability. After some minutes, she relays an affirmative reply.

“Shall I book the tickets?” The look on her powdered face reveals a trace of skepticism. Fortunately there aren’t any other customers waiting to make inquiries about trips to Jamaica or elsewhere, so we aren’t entirely wasting her time.

“No, not right now, we need to make some more inquires,” Robert responds.

I keep quiet. Jamaica is Robert’s territory. My knowledge, casually gleaned   from a few family stories I’ve heard and conversations with Anna Kay and her friends in London is scant. We walk out of the travel agency into the cool London afternoon.

“Let’s call my Aunt Mignon’s brother, Manny, and go talk with him about going to Jamaica,” Robert suggests.

Manny’s secretary reports that he is out of the office until 3 o’clock. We find an Indian restaurant, stop there and dive into a hot plate of chicken curry. When we arrive at Manny’s office, he has just returned from a round of golf. The London representative of the Jamaica Industrial Development Corporation, his easy salesman pitch for Jamaica charms us within seconds.

“Yes, mon, you should go to Jamaica. You will find a job, no problem at’tal.”

We leave his office decided. He generously offers us the use of a flat belonging to a distant relative who isn’t in London at the moment. We accept and stay the night to get our travel plans organized the following day.

In the morning, we go back to the BOAC office to make reservations for our air passage. Robert figures that we can charge the cost of the one-way tickets to the Barclay cards given to us by the bank when we arrived in England a little over one year ago.

The travel agent checks with Barclays when we give her the card to make the purchase.

“You need to go by the bank and speak with the manager,” she tells us.

So we walk briskly to the branch and speak with the designated manager, a thin man wearing John Lennon spectacles.

“Jamaica, eh? You are going there to work and have family there?”

“Yes,” we insist, which is, of course, the truth.

“All right then. I’ll approve the charge if you surrender the cards.”

“That’s fine,” we agree readily.

The travel date is set for the following Tuesday, October 18. We leave the bank in a cloud of excitement, rushing to purchase the tickets. Then we return to the flat to collect our things. We will head back to Colchester for the remaining days.

We call Robert’s grandparents, Ruby and Stanton, in Kingston. They seem as excited as we are about our arrival.

“I’ll tell David to pick you up at the airport, m’love” Granny Ruby promises.

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