Antiguan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse was a guest blogger here last year when she shared her thoughts on the challenges of being a Caribbean writer living in the Caribbean. According to Hillhouse, the first of those challenges is "when your 108 square miles is so far from the world where books are made and dreaming impossible dreams is encouraged..." [read her entire post here].
Hillhouse is back on blog today with an excerpt from her forthcoming novel (release date: April 2012) Oh Gad! http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Joanne-C-Hillhouse/82696756
From Oh Gad!
She’d observed him observing her for much of the late-afternoon-to-early-evening. He approached during a rare moment when Marisol wasn’t holding her hostage. She had a moment to panic and wonder where Jazz, her buffer against such intrusions, had wandered off to before he was on her taking up more space than a man had right to.
He wore a navy suit with a pale greyish-blue silk tie and paler still blue shirt in the warm evening. While she couldn’t fault his taste, it was something else - in addition to the enormity of him; not fat but tall, a man with heft and presence – that made him stand out from the others in the dirt yard around him. The other men had long ago chucked their cheap, ill-fitting jackets, which ranged from trendily colourful to dark and dour, and rolled up their sleeves. He though was as unwrinkled as if the day had not even begun; no sign that he’d sat in a too narrow, hard-bottomed and straight-backed pew, stood too-long at a squishy grave site, grieved or sweated.
He reminded her a little of Terry; so cool in a hot suit on a warm day. As was the case with Terry, this man’s suit was clearly custom made and of very high quality. It sat comfortably on his broad shoulders, and neither swallowed nor cinched as it ran the considerable length of him. There was a respectable pocket square the same hue as the tie; silver buckle, tie pin and cuff links. Everything about him bespoke a sort of practiced affluence. She imagined that, like Terry, he was a man who’d pulled himself up from nothing, and slipped in with the boardroom crowd, whatever passed for that here in Antigua, as if he’d always belonged. She used to imagine that if she chipped away Terry’s practiced cool, she’d find not a man but a scared boy inside; or maybe she just longed for a twin to the little girl hiding inside of her; misery loves company and all that. She suspected, however, that Terry’s chiselled exterior was so set there was nothing of the boy growing up in a hard knocks existence left, not enough to understand all the insecurities that lived inside her. She looked the part, that’s what had attracted him to her in the first place, she supposed, when he’d plucked her from the crowd at one of those here-today-gone-tomorrow New York City clubs. She wasn’t much for the club scene, but sometimes things – and people – are meant to converge; and there she was, there he was, clearly not a regular either and they danced up to each other, the rest, as they say, being history.
Now, in Mama Vi’s backyard, here was this one dancing up to her. He moved with big, certain steps, but it was a dance nonetheless, no way of missing the interest in his eyes. Nikki realized she was frowning by the time he came to an expectant stop. She forced another smile, one of many pained smiles that day.
“Nikissa Baltimore,” he greeted, too loudly. “My condolences on the passing of your mother. She was a fine woman.”
Nikki frowned at the use of her full name. It reeked of over-familiarity. No one called her that, not even her father, who’d raised her, or her mother, who’d named her. She stared at him. He couldn’t have been one of the boys Fanso and Tones knocked around with when they were kids; he had at least 15 years on her, by her estimation.
He pressed on, his smile that of a smarmy salesman peddling something you neither needed nor wanted; or a politician. “It’s been a while,” he said. “But I grew up right here in this village. Remember you coming home for summers, a time or two anyway. Hensen J. Stephens; I’m the parliamentary representative for the area.”
Nikki found she was more confused than ever at this bit of news. Her mother’s opposition to the dynasty that had ruled this country long before political independence – ruled it still – was legendary.
He laughed outright at her expression. “Don’t look so shocked, Nikissa…” he began.
“Nikki,” she cut him off.
He blinked at the tartness of her tone, but the smile didn’t slip. “Nikki,” he said, offering a slight nod. “And, please, call me Hensen.”
She couldn’t help but smile at that. “If I have occasion to call you, I will.”
His laughter became brassier, trombone-like in pitch. This, for the first time, marked him as one of the village; made him fit finally with the people eating and drinking, chatting and laughing as twilight settled around them. This laughter was real, open and rich. It recalled rare instances of her mother, laughing – tied head thrown back, body rocking with unexpected and unaccustomed glee, dress riding up, and the muddy between her parted legs briefly forgotten.
Memory? Or invention? Nikki had no way of knowing. Tears sprang to her eyes.
The concern on Hensen’s face was immediate. “You okay?” he asked, gently.
“My mother is dead,” she responded; quietly, desolately.
They were suspended: Jazz, nearby suddenly, eyeing her worriedly; Hensen J. Stephens at a loss for words. Incongruously, that tickled Nikki, a politician, one that exuded confidence as surely as he did his assertively spicy and faintly leather-scented cologne, at a loss for words. When she started laughing, that same backyard belly laugh, a timbre of laughter she didn’t know she had in her, Hensen and Jazz wore matching expressions of worry. She must look all kinds of crazy; teary-eyed and laughing, unravelled like the wisps of untamed hair brushing her wet cheeks. She couldn’t bring herself to care. She wondered if this was what crazy felt like as the weird trembling she’d been feeling since coming here stirred in her again. It was a weird thing like being inside an earthquake as it rumbled outwards towards the surface where things would fall over and come apart. That image struck her funny somehow and soon she was laughing harder, more people turning at the sound, and her caring even less. She laughed until tears flowed stronger. People, even Jazz, kept their distance as though afraid her craziness would infect them. The only real thing was Hensen’s hand suddenly on hers. It was solid and, weirdly, quieted her. She hiccupped a breath, and another. Two breakdowns in as many weeks, Nikki felt like she was making up for lost time. She was present enough now to feel embarrassed and to feel the awkwardness of this man she barely knew grounding her with a half-touch. A part of her wanted to lean into the bulk of him and lose herself for a while, but she shook off the feeling, the last of crazy’s beckoning.
She retracted her hand, reluctantly, hiccupped another breath, declared, “I need a drink,” before turning toward the makeshift bar under the palm tree where Mama Vi once held court. “A Heineken, please,” she told the boy manning the bar, as sound stirred up around her again.
Joanne C. Hillhouse is a University of the West Indies graduate and international fellowship recipient to the Breadloaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont. Hillhouse also participated in the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami. There she began work on her first book, The Boy from Willow Bend, which is on Antigua and Barbuda’s schools’ reading list. In addition to her second book, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Hillhouse has published in African, Caribbean, and American journals. She’s been announced as the 2011 recipient of the David Hough Literary Prize by the Caribbean Writer and previously won a UNESCO Honour award for her contribution to the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda. That contribution includes her Wadadli Youth Pen Prize project – http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com Joanne C. Hillhouse is a freelance writer and editor. For more visit http://www.jhohadli.com