Alethea Lopez is about to turn 40. Fashionable, feisty and fiercely independent, she manages a boutique in Port of Spain, but behind closed doors she’s covering up bruises from her abusive partner and seeking solace in an affair with her boss. When she witnesses a woman murdered by a jealous lover, the reality of her own future comes a little too close to home.
Told in lyrical Trinidadian English, Lisa Allen-Agostini’s The Bread the Devil Knead is a raw and urgent debut that brings an exciting new voice into Caribbean literature. Read an extract below and order your copy.
When I wake up that morning, oh, God, my back and my belly was hurting. But I didn’t want to make no noise and wake up Leo, so I bite my lip hard to make sure I didn’t bawl out for pain. Slow slow slow I turn on the bed and swing my foot over the side, and get up like if is eggs I sitting on and I feel with my foot for my rubber slippers before I stand up.
It was dark in the bedroom, dayclean still a good hour away. I hear the neighbour cock crowing anyway, as though he watch break. I didn’t switch on the light because I living here five years and I could find anything here with my eyes close. I reach under the bed by the ashtray for my pack of cigarettes and lighter, slip them in my duster pocket and tiptoe out the room. When I reach the door, I remember the book I was reading last night before Leo come home. Yes. Look it there where he did fling it by the wardrobe. I bite my lip again when I bend down to pick it up. I close the bedroom door behind me soft soft.
In the kitchen, rubbish was falling out of the old grocery bag in the corner by the back door, and it had a smell like stale fish and cigarette in the air. The stove had a crust on it – split peas boil over on top of the black grease coating the white enamel. I didn’t even bother to suck my teeth. I pick up my copper-bottom kettle, shiny, bright chrome, full it with water and use my lighter to light the stove.
As I waiting for the water to boil I sit down and start back reading my book. The table nasty, like the stove. I feel long time it used to be red like the cigarette pack – carmine? A nice word, carmine – but now it just kind of fadey-orangey colour. Tangerine. Right in the centre of the table it had a big circle of bright red – carmine! – as though it had a flowerpot on the table for years and years. But when I move here it didn’t have no flowerpot there. Leo mustbe break it.
I light a cigarette and take a long drag. That first cigarette does go straight to my head, every time. I was a little dizzy until I take the next drag. I ash the cigarette in a dirty coffee mug on the table, and the ashes float in the black coffee still in the cup.
The book I was reading wasn’t Tolstoy, just some murder mystery I borrow from the library. The detective was a woman who had a bookshop in London. This is how I does see the world: by reading books. I does go to London, Hong Kong, Siberia, even, when I read a book. I does meet all kind of people. Learn all kinds of words. Live all kinds of lives.
Thank God for books.
The kettle start to boil and I jump up quick quick before it could whistle too much and wake up Leo. I stand up by the sink to wash the same cup I was ashing the cigarette in. The rag I was using was a old piece of jersey. It had a print on it that say Prop-somethingsomething-versi-somethingsomethingconsin. Property of the University of Wisconsin, it used to say, before the SqEzy and Vim fade out the print. It had a million other jerseys like it cut up in pieces. We does use them to wash wares, wash windows, clean the furnitures when we cleaning. Which is hardly ever.
I pick up the sugar pan to sweeten the tea, but the pan was empty. I didn’t bother to look for milk; I drink the tea black and strong and bitter. Just like Leo. I laugh inside my head. The tea edge my teeth and burn my tongue.
The woman detective in the book was going to a estate sale in the country to see if she find any first editions and she meet a handsome man in the big old house which part she went. I was just getting back into the story when the stupid rooster next door crow again and remind me I had was to go to work.
Every time I watch that bathroom it does crawl my blood, but Leo lie if he feel I cleaning it. He could do what. I don’t care. I not scrubbing that moss and mildew off the wall for he lazy ass. If he beat me, he beat me.
I hang the duster on the towel rail, scrub my mouth looking in the mirror but not really seeing the thin, white face, long, straight brown hair, hazel eyes, the mouth men does call rude. I have a small waist and a flat belly, but right now that belly was black and blue and red and green, depending on what bruises you was looking at: the older ones was lighter; the ones from last night was still red.
Sun now starting to think about coming up. A greyish light was glowing through the cobwebs in the ventilation blocks high up on the wall of the bathroom. I bathe myself with my rag and some cheap vanilla body wash – real gentle when I rubbing my belly and back – and rinse off under the one tap gushing cold water from the bathroom wall. I had my slippers on still.
I know is really one thing I have that I could count on, and that is my looks. I going on forty but you would never know it, because every morning and night God spare life I does cleanse and tone and moisturise from head to foot. I have special cream for my hair, my face, my hand, my body, my foot. Is not that I vain. I does think of it as an investment. If you had a nice car, ent you would take care of it? Depreciation is a hell of a thing.
I creep back inside the bedroom and, in the dawn peeping through the curtains by the window, I put on my underwears. I does iron on a weekend and so is just to ease out a shirt, a skirt and some shoes from the wardrobe, take my handbag from the kitchen table, stuff the book in it and I gone before Leo could even turn twice.
In this neighbourhood you doesn’t have to lock your door. Everybody know you and everybody know your business; so everybody know we didn’t have nothing to thief. I push in the back door and walk out to the front yard. My two little neighbours was there already, dragging theyself down the road.
‘Happy New Year,’ I tell them.
The girl didn’t watch me in my eye. ‘Happy New Year, Miss Allie.’ She say it like she eating aloes.
‘Ty, you ready for the first day of school?’
He and all watching me funny. ‘Yes, Miss Allie.’ He walk quiet for a little while, and then he hitch up the big big book bag on he back before he talk again. ‘Miss Allie, last night, my mother say Uncle Leo just like he father—’
He sister jump in one time, ‘Hush your mouth!’
Natalie hit him one cut eye and grab he hand rough rough and pull him like he is a sack of rice. ‘Mind your business,’ I hear she tell she brother.
Me, I do like nothing didn’t happen. I plaster a smile on my face and step up my pace to pass them on the road. ‘Have a great day!’ I say. Is not my place to teach piss-in-tail children their manners.
When I reach the main road the sun was up and the road was busy already. I put out my hand to stop a maxi and one pull up one time, giving a next maxi a bad-drive, fus he hurry to catch this one passenger.
When I sit down in the back seat of the little bus, I keep my knees together tight tight and didn’t turn right or left. I staring in front at the 2004 calendar the driver still have stick up over he head. I could see, out the corner of my eye, a little girl in pigtails and ribbons watching me with she eye big big. She was probably wondering what a white lady was doing taking maxi. I didn’t study she. I pull out my book from my handbag and start to read. Well, pretend to read.
In truth, I was going down the rabbit hole in my head.
Ever since I was small, when I get licks I does picture myself disappearing inside a black hole. The black hole does swallow up everything, starting with my navel and sucking everything down with it. This morning the black hole pick up the places where Leo cuff and kick me the night before, the places where he hold me down and force me to do what he does call making love, the places with the nasty kitchen and the overflowing rubbish bag and the mossy bathroom and the neighbours talking behind my back and the mud on the road and the cussing maxi driver and the gaping little girl…everything get suck down inside that black hole and I was staring at the page of the book like it was blank or infinity.
The maxi mustbe stop. Next thing I know, is because somebody shaking my shoulder and saying, ‘Miss Allie! Happy New Year!’
The black hole close up like water going down a drain.
The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini is out now from Myriad Editions
(9781912408993, p/b, £8.99)