“STRAW HAT, mister?” Richard looks up irritably from his sunbed. Oh no, not another beach vendor! The man is displaying more teeth than he thought any animal possessed. Apart from sharks.
These wretched people! They keep on getting in the way of the passing scenery, quite spoiling Richard’s Caribbean holiday. All he wants is to be left in peace to ogle the pinky-brown girls. The vision of his carefully arranged browning body and his more carefully arranged shiny red swimming trunks new from C&A. might persuade one of the almost naked nubiles to linger. If this blasted man would disappear.
He’s rehearsed what to do next. One hand would be extended to the inside of his thigh, fingers stroking upwards. The other arm he would raise and flex, showing off his biceps, running his fingers through the curly fair hair his mother describes as Richard’s crowning glory. A lazy smile wouldn’t be too much of a come-on.
‘Hi!’ he might drawl, all casual and relaxed-like. ‘You look f-i-n-e, darling,’ or perhaps ‘The sea’s g-o-o-d, isn’t it,’ or even ‘Here, have my sun bed.’ Anything requiring an answer could become the springboard for a liaison Richard’s undergraduate near-virginity only imagines from reading pulp fiction and watching too much over-edited television. Never mind the ‘With one bound he was by her side, grasping her soft silken …’ nonsense. He fancies himself as more of the ‘Yo ho ho’ type. If only one of the sexy sweethearts would let him. The only conquest this unknowing Narcissus has achieved to date is a giggle-grope-and-grind with that Mabel Whatsername back home. Most of his mates had …
“Straw hat, mister?” Oh, eff off! No, one can’t use expressions like that, not even to beach vendors. Remember, one is a guest on the island. Mustn’t cause offence. Might get chopped. Richard has seen natives carrying handy-looking machetes. They posed enough threat when viewed from the sanitised safety of the exclusive air-conditioned tourist coach as it diesel-belched across the island from airport to hotel.
Vendors? If one ventures anywhere outside the hotel gates they spring like savage beasts. Richard has been offered taxis beyond count, personally conducted tours of everywhere imaginable, tee-shirts galore, trips round the bay in every conceivable conveyance. Sail boating, para-gliding, water ski-ing, surf boards, sail boards, scuba diving, aqua-jetting. Aqua-jetting? What’s that? He didn’t listen. A tropical Jacuzzi?
With never a thought for the poverty which produces this ‘free’ enterprise, Richard has suffered all manner of illegal and intimate propositions. ‘You wan’ smoke some t’ing, mister?’ is quite commonplace. ‘You lookin’ nice girl, mister?’ has been encountered several times. When he refused one such suggestion the frustrated accusation was ‘You like big bamboo?’ with an obscene upward thrust of the man’s fist and an unflattering falsetto cackle. Richard didn’t stop to find out what this meant. Then there was the giggly lady wearing an improbable dress with appealingly mothering double chins who offered ‘Massage, mister? Whole body massage?’ It made Richard stop to think, not because he might desire such treatment at the hands of this person but to wonder what it would feel like. Because he wasn’t responding the woman had extended her offer and her podgy claws. ‘Massage your business? Make him feel good.’ No! No thank you! These people, they’d sell their own moth! ers if …
“Straw hat, mister?” The cocky young vendor is still standing there with his bare feet planted firmly apart in the sand. He goes on plaiting his dry stalks in a conical shape. Clever, that. But don’t let him see you looking. Might encourage the poor man. Try a polite refusal. Shake head and smile.
“Coconut cake, mister?” Shake head and smile again. What the hand produces notwithstanding from a shoulder bag and displays in well-used foil doesn’t look at all appetising. Left over from his lunch? The guy takes a bite himself. Must be hungry. Doesn’t look it. Built like a weight-lifter.
“Orange juice, mister?” he says with his mouth full. Shake head and smile impatiently this time. Being polite evidently doesn’t work with these ignorant island people. Vendor tears open a carton and drains its contents without stopping while Richard, despite his own advice, examines the strands of multi-coloured coral beads round the man’s neck. They’re beautiful.
“Aah! Cool runnings, man, cool,” says the man, his grin refreshed. “Me see you like the coral, massa.” Richard nods his head. Just once. Big mistake. Vendor punches fast forward. In a blur of moving limbs the half-hat is dropped in the sand, empty orange juice carton and crumpled foil go back in the bag and he pulls out a frayed folded cloth. Attached to it is a panoply of coral artefacts. Necklaces. Bracelets. Pendants. Brooches. Great lumps of the stuff. All hues, textures, shapes, even a suggestive one. Well, they say it’s in the eye of the beholder, whatever turns you on.
“‘Scuse, boss.” Target’s legs are displaced and goodies displayed on their cloth at the foot of the sun bed. Shark-grinning vendor crouches beside his wares, a sprinter in the starting blocks, his eyes suddenly piercing bright. While he expounds on the different corals in a lazy Patois Richard tries to look round the man’s too-broad shoulders at the parading popsies.
“Dis-a t’ing black coral, y’see, sah.” Talk about the obvious. “Come from deep deep in the ocean, massa.”
Richard can’t go on ignoring the dissertation. “Yes, yes. I know all about that. I’ve studied corals but …”
“Men lose dem life fi she. Pretty, ain’ it? Jes’ like woman, so.”
Vendor strokes the polished contours of the jet-black animal mineral. At least his fingernails are clean. What’s that, a college fraternity ring? Must have nicked it. He unclips the lump of black coral from its backing cloth and turns it between thumb and forefinger, holding the thing across his cupped palm, nodding his head as he appraises it. The sun-bleached chestnut dreadlocks sprouting from beneath his back-to-front baseball cap move about. Fascinating. Natural? He looks up at Richard who stops staring at the dancing dreadlocks and lowers his eyes to examine the article on sale.
Its shape is truly seductive. Must be all of nine inches long, fat as well. A rare offering indeed. Vendor appears to get pleasure from its touch, forming an ‘Mmmm’ shape with his lips, making a soft breathy guttural sound, eyes near-closed. Richard is aware he’s being examined between the slanting slit eyelids but is enthralled by the slinky black form.
“I’ve never seen such a large piece. I didn’t know it grows that big. May I touch it?”
“Yeah, man. Feel he good.” The thing has changed sex. Never mind. It’s warm to the touch, rock-hard and very smooth. Vendor tilts his hand the better to show off his submarine treasure and its gleaming rounded tip stands up. “Him feel n-i-c-e, eh? Take him now, boss?”
Hesitantly target slides his fingers across vendor’s palm under the offered item. He holds it tentatively with both hands, his gaze fixed on its deep black lustre. When he glances up at the man’s face for reaction his eyes look greedy and apprehensive at the same time.
“No problem, man.” The words reassure but the crafty man gives a low rasping chuckle and a knowing leer. “Mind he no bite you, y’hear, massa.”
The physical sensation Richard experiences is ridiculous. How can any inanimate object affect him so? He crosses his legs and rests his arms in his lap after hastily giving the thing back. But he goes on staring at it and his fingers twitch. Vendor looks him up and down and curls his upper lip, raising it lewdly.
“Eh-eh! Yeah man. Methink you like he a whole lot, yes?” Richard knows he’s blushing, bright red as the seasonal leaves of poinsettia. He coughs nervously and wipes his face with a moist hand.
“How much?” The question clears his mind. Heart stops thumping, thank goodness. Embarrassment reduces. He tries to look over the man’s shoulder at a likely lovely while Mister Shark sizes up his prey. Must have missed at least half a dozen dollies by now, dammit!
“Gi’ me one hunnerd, sah.”
“Eastern Caribbean dollars, yes? Hmh.”
Shake head and smile goes the vendor.
The man does it again.
“Yeah, man. Is ver’ rare piece. Worth every penny, massa boss man, sah.”
“One hundred pounds? You must be joking!” Richard realises his raised voice sounds foolish. What sort of auction is this, for heavens’ sakes? He can only blame himself for being hoisted. Serve him right. Shouldn’t have been looking at the passing pulchritude. Fool! Don’t let this fella know you really want the thing! But he’s already done that.
“A hundred quid?” he exclaims more softly.
“Yeah, man. One-fifty dollar US, four hunnerd EC, yes?”
“I say, old chap. That’s a bit steep, isn’t it? I mean … “
“Ninety, massa. Special price. Me hard up, y’see, sah.”
“That’s still … “
“One t’ree five US, t’ree sixty EC, boss.”
“Yes, I know, I know, but … “
“Me babbies starvin’ and me belly hungry, y’see, sah.” Vendor passes a hand over his bare stomach, drawing the target’s eye down. The chappie looks perfectly well nourished, sleek even. But he’s at it again, offering the black coral in his hand, using his wiles to secure the sale. Richard stares up at his face, embarrassed all over again, and the man grins lasciviously.
“You got the money, massa?” Target throws back his head and laughs almost hysterically.
“Of course not. You think I carry that kind of money in here?” He thrusts his thumbs into the waistband of his trunks.
“Me know wha’ you got in there! Me askin’ you now, brudder man. How you gon’ pay fi the coral?”
Blast and damnation! Here comes another dazzling damsel. Honey blond, a picture of tanned titillation. Confusion!
“I – I’ll change some travellers’ cheques,” blurts out target dismissively as curvaceous cutie approaches. He’s not going to miss out on this one. She walks right up to them, smiling at Richard, but it’s the vendor she speaks to.
“Hi, Rudy,” she murmurs. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?” Standing behind him she leans and slides her hands over his shoulders, on down over his chest, nuzzling her cheek into his locks, parting them with her nose to kiss his neck.
“Wait now, woman. You turnin’ me on wi’ your foolishness,” he complains. He wriggles free of his girlfriend’s attentions and stands. “Me no ask the man he name in truth,” he replies, moving an arm round her waist. They kiss and Rudy places his other hand firmly on the front of his shorts. The girl looks inquiringly at this ingenuous tourist who by now appears thoroughly miffed, but he remembers his manners.
“I’m Richard. Hello.”
“And I’m Alice. You know, like in wonderland? What’s my rent-a-dread been up to?”
“Tcha! Me no wha’yousay. Tcha, man!” Rudy makes a monster frown and sucks his teeth. “Tcha!” He puts the black coral in his shorts’ pocket. The cloth is folded with care and pushed back in the bag, the unfinished straw hat he tramples underfoot regardless. His displeasured gloom can’t displace the bright light of such a successful sale for long, and he grins his dazzling grin again. “You wan’ we go over by that new place?” he asks Alice.
“Some say me they got good good rum and t’ing.” Vendor turns to ex-target. “Wha’ you say, Richard, old boy? An’ all that stuff, don’t you know. Come now, man?”
“Yes, but what about …”
“Rudy!” Alice scolds. “Why wont you wear your cap properly?” As she speaks she snatches it from his head and plonks it back on the right way round.
“Raas …! Mind the locks, man, the locks. You spend ‘nuff time makin’ them look fine so, eh, chickie? Now me have fi tidy them.” Rudy removes the cap again, shaking his head, tossing the dreadlocks. Then he carefully replaces it with the embossed front obediently over his forehead. Richard recognises the university logo but anyone can buy such a cap. Must be a present from a visitor.
“Wha’ you say me you studyin’, Richard man?”
“I didn’t. I was reading zoology, but I switched.”
“I bet you no readin’ geology now. Minerals never feel like so, less’n you leave ‘em out in the sun, y’hear.”
“Well … Yes? Matter of fact I’m doing business studies. You know – marketing and all that. Just started. Now, what about the coral?” Rudy doesn’t hear the last sentence. As soon as Richard says ‘marketing’ the triumphant vendor falls about, laughing his head off. He leaps up and down in front of the erstwhile target holding his open hand high in the air, inviting Richard to do the same. When he responds Rudy slaps the proffered hand as hard as he can and dances around him like a satyr, laughing even more.
“‘Marketing’, the man say me? Marketing? I researchin’ my master’s thesis, old chap. And you, Massa Richard, you gon’ get honourable mention ‘bout today’s sale, don’t you know. Wha’ me try fi do wi’ you is no different from all them girlie calendars and them near-naked models draped on automobiles and t’ing. An’ you buy the sales pitch, yes? Look.” Rudy fishes in his pocket. “See? Dis ‘ere ‘black coral’ aint nothing but lickle bittie old plastic. Come now, man. Drinks is on Rudy. You’ll meet Rose. She Alice sister. Me know she go fi you, sure sure, man. No hard feelings, old chap?”
He breaks the piece of plastic between his fists. “Ouch!” says Richard.
Shake head and smile.