Tuesday 13 December 2022

The Great Switcheroo by Robin Wrigley, black coffee no sugar

I don’t know why I suddenly thought of him, but I had been dreaming about this tall skinny man who always passed our house back in Barbados, where I grew up. Then the barks from the bloody noisy German shepherd next door woke me. For a second it fitted in with the dream as there was a dog that often barked early in the morning in the garden of the house behind ours back then.

            Before I emigrated to the UK in my early twenties, I lived with my mum in Barbados. My father buggered off not long after I was born. We never heard from him or more to the point, of him, considering the size of the island and the normal tittle-tattle. However, my mum managed to pay the rent on the chattel house we had on Queen Street in St Michael district.

            I was led to believe she achieved this by dint of her being a good seamstress with an old established Indian ladies’ tailoring business in town. I think she also had a good relationship with the old Indian bloke who ran it and I used to notice that towards the end of the month, she was always late home. She used to say that come month end there was always a big load of outfits to get done. When I got old enough to think about such things her lateness was more down to an entente cordiale she had with her direct boss there.

            But I digress. Every morning, just after mum went to work, this tall, bearded skinny man would pass by our house, baby in one arm and trailing a brown goat on a lead like as you would lead a dog for a walk. Of course, people had dogs, like the one behind us in Queen Street, but they never walked them. If they had one, they simply kept them tied up in their back yard as guard dogs. Either that or let them loose to pester the neighbourhood until it was either stolen or killed by a car.

            Even now I still have fond memories of me sitting in the open window of mum’s house watching the street coming to life which always included this unusual sight of the man and his goat. I once asked my mum if she knew where the man lived, and she got quite angry and told me she didn’t know, and I should stop asking silly questions. I never mentioned him again. Her reaction was so sharp I decided to ask around and made some enquiries myself. Just as I thought, he was my dad and apparently mum had kicked him out for drinking too much and always losing his job. I suppose he paraded up the street every morning to keep an eye on us and to rub it in on mum that he had been able to survive and have more kids without her.

            Some people would think it strange that I could just accept this without wanting to at least speak to him, but I didn’t. In the same way it is how I have lived all these years as a single man never interested in relationships.

            It has also taken all these years and the dog barking next door to even think about that man and his baby he was carrying could have been my brother or sister if it was his.

            But now the problem is that my life is so complicated there is absolutely no way I could ever verify this simply because I’m not even really me. That probably sounds utterly ridiculous, but it is true. I answer to the name Randel Bertrand when in actual fact I’m really Norris John!

            It all started when I was a student at St Michael’s Tech where I was studying computer technology along with this good friend Randel Bertrand. You see his father had emigrated to England under the Windrush Scheme several years earlier. His mother had declined to go and along with her son Randal they remained behind. But now his father was writing and pleading with Randal to join him, but he didn’t want to leave his mother or more importantly Mary-Jo his girlfriend. He had discussed it with his mum, but she was adamant that she didn’t want to go. Apparently, she had a cousin over there who had some bad experience with some neighbours about her being black and all.

            On the other hand, I was desperate to go and so between the pair of us we devised a scheme for Randal to secretly accept but with me taking his place without anyone knowing. We were old enough to make the journey unaccompanied, so Randal applied for a passport with my signature and photo. There were some very hairy moments while the great switcheroo as we secretly called it was in progress, but in the end it worked. As smooth as you could expect. It helped me some with all the spy novels I was reading in those days.

            Unfortunately, in all situations like this, there are winners and losers. My mother who only knows I am alive and living in England but doesn’t know where or how I managed it. I feel bad about all the lies I concocted in being offered a job in London and not writing her when I said I would. Randal’s dad  thinks his son is in the UK but again doesn’t know where or how to contact him. Randal and Mary-Jo married and moved into the city just to avoid any sticky moments in the neighbourhood.

            As for the skinny man, his baby and goat, they may wonder what happened to the boy who was his son. The baby on his shoulder all those years ago will be grown up now. I wonder if she or he ever learned that they had a brother and if so where he was. They would be told he was in London. The way rumours start and grow over the years they probably think I’m a celebrity and probably put meat on the bone of that rumour in the desire to embellish their own otherwise disappointing dull existence.

            But having stayed on so long in England going back is really not an option after all these years and there is no answer to this. I have travelled out of the country a few times and even went to America once, but I always came back here. My flat, the barking dog next door. A few people in the street know me enough to say hello but nothing more.

            I even joined a local church congregation. I suppose I needed to belong somewhere. I chose a simple Church of England not far from where I lived. I avoided any of the happy-clappy  places as they would be attended by immigrants like me, and uncomfortable questions would ensue.

            I got talking to one old boy who I learned rented the crypt to use as his DIY workshop. He wasn’t religious but the vicar insisted his rental of the crypt meant he had to attend the church service on Sundays. He told me he had emigrated to New Zealand a few years back. He boasted he did quite well over there, but he couldn’t stand such a small population where everybody knew you and your business. You stick here in London son is what he advised. No-one gives a stuff who you are or what you do here. It was the best bit of advice I had ever been given and I stuck to it.

            It was through the old man I was encouraged to put my name down for the Christmas lunch the church was holding on Christmas Day. Normally it was the most difficult time for me, so I relented and went. It was there that I met a Scottish girl called Kathy who had run away from her family six months previously and got a job in a temp centre doing secretarial work. She’d never actually met a black man before, having grown up in rural highland village. We hit it off almost as if God had engineered our meeting.

            They say no man is an island, but if you try really hard you can be and if I’m not let’s just say I’m shipwrecked. But now it looks as though the rescue ship just sailed over the horizon.

About the author 

Robin short stories have appeared in CafeLit both on line and in print on a regular basis. He has also entered various writing competitions but has yet to get past being short listed. 


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