I stepped out of St John’s airport in the late afternoon. By the time I’d made it the short stroll into town I knew enough to concede. That life loving chancer, Lyles, was right; Antigua was a goddamn Shangri La.
“Tallahassee, you bloody made it.” Lyles purred upon my arrival to the loud pastel coloured main square, laughing as he pointed toward my right hand, “and with the all important mirror ball too. Ah man it’s great to see ya cowboy, it’s been way too long.” Lyles’ had always had an impassioned demeanour, but there in the belly of the Caribbean he seemed more contented than normal, an erratic pitter-patter of enthusiasm dancing from his toes to tongue, like the rhythmic drum beat behind a twelve bar blues. “I can’t believe you came. You’re a bloody lunatic coming out here on a quirk, a total lunatic. You did it though. Holy hell, you did it, and I love you for it.”
“Of course I came. If it goes tits up, I’m blaming you though.” I said, embracing Lyles like the long separated friend he was, my clenched fist thumping his back like a hammer on hollowed wood. Damn it was good to see him. He just had this sorcery, a way to make people feel glorified in his company.
“Christ, Antigua’s done you good, Lyles.” I envied, his long dark hair and sun blushed skin hinting toward a life without worry. “You were just made for a life of leisure.” I wasn’t lying. He personified what life should look like when worn by someone, unkempt but not dirty, his eyes glowing bright like the bulbs above a dentist’s chair.
“Wanting freedom is easy. Locking it down is the hard part.” He said my compliment dismissed with a deep chortle as I was ushered through the waking market stalls. “Anyway man, I hope that disco ball wasn’t too much of an inconvenience.”
“Hmmm.” I made sure my murmur was wholly unconvincing. “This damn disco ball made me into that guy.”
“The guy that normal guys stare at.”
“That’s fine, just make sure what they’re looking at is worth their while.” He smirked.
“Always, I just wish I knew why I was carrying the damn thing.” I said.
But Lyles just laughed. “I told you, it’s for the bats.”
“Bats? You keep mentioning the goddamn bats, but what the hell does that mean, Lyles?” I rammed my cardboard-box-come-suitcase right up into my warm armpit as I spoke, rocking it up higher and higher until I managed to get some fingertip purchase on the other side. “That’s all I’ve gotten out of you, the bats. I can’t tell people it’s for the bats.”
“And why the hell not?”
“Because I don’t know what the hell the bats means.” I shrugged, arms lifting as much as they could under the strain of the heavy box and mirror ball. “And in case you hadn’t already accepted, I’m not exactly in a position to come off any more insane.”
“Don’t be so damned precious.” Lyles smirked again. “Anyway we gotta get going, so if you don’t mind, let’s continue this domestic en route.” He muttered, swinging himself into the driver’s seat of a real rusted jeep. “I said come on precious, we’re in a rush. How about I promise to hear out your grousing on the drive, will that plug your bleeding.”
“What the hell is this?” I said pointing at the rust bitten wagon Lyles had clambered into.
“Meet Big Red.”
“That aint red Lyles, that’s rust.” I assured him. “And where the hell we headed in this thing?” I shrugged, following him with dragged feet.
“To get you settled into your new home.”
“And where is it?”
“English Harbour. Now, Christ, are you done with the questions?”
“No. Is it far?” I said with a tired voice, emphasising the long haul flight I’d just endured, using broken sign language to paint a picture of both a plane and me as a tired passenger.
“Is it far? Yes. No. Well, yes and no.”
“Okay, now without the riddle, what do you mean yes and no?” I said leaning on Big Red’s driver door as Lyles tinkered with the ignition.
“Just give me a second and I’ll explain.” With a hand raised towards my face, Lyles pressed his forehead against the steering wheel’s emblem like he was in goddamn prayer or something equally fanatical. That was when the whole thing took a sharp turn into the weird.
“Come on baby, come on.” Lyles said, seducing the jeep with a sweet and delicate whisper, almost like he were a high-school kid with the adolescent itch to try and get laid for the first time. “Come on baby, that’s it, yes honey come for me, feel it, come for me.” The sick bastard was now gyrating in his seat, as the nut job talked dirty to a car he had named. I thought Antigua had finally got to him. “Come on, darling.”
“Lyles, what do you mean yes and no?” Embarrassed by him, I turned my back on Lyles as I spoke. “Now I’m not getting in any car until I’ve had a damn drink. A leveller, a welcome to the island long island, or something.”
“One second, man.” Lyles said again, still rocking, his long hair flapping in his face with each thrust. “This old girl is close to dropping her drawers for me. Come on baby.” I was left to watch with an embarrassed smile etched into my frown as he teased the choke with delicate fingers on one hand and knuckles pressed into the ignition with the other, his hips still gyrating in the seat like that of an amateur rodeo clown. Then without warning his eyes turned from intimate to crazed, like a cobra with a serious case of blue balls.
“Fuck off you dumb embarrassing whore!” Ah man, he just lost it. “Okay, you want it rough, then that’s how you’ll get it. I’ll give you goddamn beating so hard you’ll feel like a red head leading a depraved bondage gig, like that bitch Venus enjoyed at the torture gardens.” Lyles was screaming at Big Red as he punched the horn with a merciless flurry of fists, the car’s deep blare like the sound of domestic abuse being heard through thin walls. “Now you better get hot and horny and wet for me you fuel guzzling bitch, or I’m gonna organize a tow and crash you back into that damn scrap heap at a hundred and thirty.”
I was goddamn terrified. Lyles had become a maniac, but just as I thought about sprinting back to the airport and getting on any bastard plane that would take me out of there, that rust bucket jeep rumbled into life with a puppy’s whimper.
“You’re one stubborn woman, but god I love you sometimes.” Lyles was grinning like a schoolboy with a prom date, the rage fast disappearing from his red face and redder fists. “Oh Tallahassee, just listen to her moan. Hell, in a man’s world, there aint a sound sweeter than a moaning woman.” He cried out.
“You really are one mental bastard, Lyles.” I said half laughing and half choking, as he rode the long drawn out judders of the motor with a smirk, the jeep bouncing on each cough of the engine before finally roaring to life with a thirty-a-day splutter. “There you are you crazy old bitch. See Tallahassee, looks like she’s still got some sex in her yet.” Lyles yelled. “Anyway, what were you saying? Something about English Harbour or a drink, right?” Lyles said still playing with Big Red’s choke.
“Yeah, how far is it?” I said.
“It’s on the other side of the island.”
“Then we’re grabbing a goddamn drink first. What do they sell out here, rum?”
“No, no, no. I told you we’re in a rush.” Lyles argued. “Now would you just stop with the worrying? Harbour shouldn’t take any more than a half hour to get to, especially at this time of day, okay.”
“To hell will that.” I said. “Not in this beat-up wagon. No chance.”
“Hey, don’t slam the van Tallahassee, remember that. There aint many rules in my company but that’s sure as hell one of them.” Lyles’ rhythm was broken off as he looked down at me from the cabin, his face suddenly glazed with a quizzical expression. “Jesus Christ, what the hell is in that?”
“That tattered box of yours, man?”
“I’ll tell you if you tell me what the hell bats have to do with disco balls?” I countered.
“Christ, not this again.” His deep laugh replicated the sudden smooth sound of the engine. “And there she is. Right we gotta go while she lets us. Now chuck that goddamn box in the back would ya, we’ve got to make haste.” Lyles said checking his watch as if to magnify the point. “We’ve still got dinner to cook, housemates to meet and drinks to raise. Now hang on tight to that disco ball would ya, god knows it would be a shame to see it smash now.”
We’d only made it a matter of minutes out of town when the offer finally rolled in from Lyles. “There’s a case of beers at your feet.” He said, dialling a number on his phone as he drove. “They’re probably warm now but help yourself. Mike… Yeah we’re heading back now… Okay… No, we’ve got loads left... Yeah, by the bong… Sure, see you in thirty. Actually Tallahassee, could you hand me a couple of tins.” Lyles said, dialling another number. “I’ve got a fair few calls to make and I wouldn’t want to get dehydrated.”
“Anything else?” I asked, handing him two beers.
“No, that’s everyth… Actually, I think there’s still some grass in the glove compartment, and unless you’ve cleared up your act, which I doubt given you’ve ended up here, you know how to roll as good as any, so you may as well roll one up for the ride.”
Lyles drove like he was the conductor of an orchestra, blistering along the road as he cavorted down the phone line, his hands darting from phone to wheel to dope to beer to phone again, busying about like a pollinating bee, barely hanging up the phone or taking a breath before he called someone else. It was bullshit. I didn’t go all that way to be ignored, I thought as I stared out the open windows and into the setting of my ill-planned adventure. To hell with him I decided, as I crushed more of his dry weed in my palms and began rolling another joint before the first one had even burnt out.
“May as well smoke as much of the bastards weed as I can and lose myself in the scenery.” I muttered to myself, smiling as the colours outside Big Red intensified like popping candy. God addictions are easy to maintain, I thought to myself as I smoked.
A touch oiled and nicely high, I kept finding myself distracted by my faint reflection in the windscreen, the echo of my own elation standing clear amongst the shadow of tall trees. But as we burst into the open landscape, my image disappeared and I was left staring at the very reason for my journey. Freedom. Paradise. Both.
Sharing the dope in silence, I ran away with the views, views that were more than enough to fill my neglect. The island itself was a blur of racing green where only the odd brush stroke was distinguishable as we sped down the coast, the jeep’s engine rumbling loud like a broken motorcycle, a Harley maybe, something monstrous definitely.
Beyond the immediate it was a different portrait though. It was a vista of soft beaches, their white sands kissing the shallow topaz waters for as far as my dry red eyes could see, the electric blue ocean like the flat of a gemstone, one that managed to hold it’s own against the deepening lagoon, its surface littered with yachts and more yachts, each of them pirouetting on anchors, shining attractively like million dollar bills, only they were white and not green and much, much bigger, each hull stretching out over a hundred feet in length, those with sails almost saluting us as we continued to tear down the road, the empty corners posing no reason for us to slow up - a good thing really as I silently craved for more speed and more grass.
I don’t know what speed Big Red reached along the coast road, but it felt fast. I didn’t know whether we were doing a hundred and five or if my depth perception was just lazy and stoned, but the faster we drove the harder the thrill punched me in the chest, the one-sided phone calls that fell from Lyles’ mouth and filled the cabin spurring me on, Lyles enthusiastic as he planned pick-ups and parties and god knows what else, the engine coughing every so often as if to tell us to slow up, maybe on the drinking. We sure as hell didn’t though. We kept up the pace and careered along the waters edge and through the thicket of palm trees with a wide smile, individual rays of sunshine visible as they hammered their way through the tunnel of huge harlequin leaves and onto the jeep. It looked like a thousand candles bursting through the stained glass windows of a long church nave.
The engine coughed again but, as I learned to be habit, Lyles refused to slow up as he barked orders down the phone at an equal pace, holding the jeep as close to steady as possible as we looped round long bends on loose suspension, the distant mountain range making itself known to me for the first time since my arrival, the sight of it somewhat calming my nerves as the jeep squawked. The mountain peaks were a faded butter colour in the afternoon sun, like huge mounds of grain reserves, impressive for the islands size. But their dominance quickly disappeared as the road dropped away and fell into the protection of high-rise tree trunks and big-fanned leaves, my reflection once again left prominent in the darkened windscreen.
“Okay… sure… Christ no! Why? Why? Because it’s only allowed if it’s natural, you know the rules.” Lyles said, hanging up the phone and then dropping it into the foot-well as he pulled out another beer.
“You gotten used to this paradise yet, Lyles?” I asked.
“Just about. But I still find my senses hanging on tenterhooks now and then?”
“So it’s always this beautiful? I’m not just gawping because of the damn dope?”
“No. I mean the grass will help, but god no, this place is an everyday pageant winner.” Lyles said. “Hell, when I first arrived, I had to run down to the beach, curl my toes in the warm sand and watch the water slap against my shins before believing this place was real. But you’ll start getting used to it soon enough, man.”
“Ah, you’re probably right, but I hope not.” It was simple; I didn’t want to get comfortable with Antigua’s beauty. For the first time in a long time I admired my anxiety, and that feeling of being alive.