Water (non)works

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Living & loving the Caribbean lifestyle, with James Fuller

There are two types of standpipe bathers: bashful and ‘face de road’ – those who turn away to do more personal parts and those who ‘go bold’. It was a distinction brought home to me during a recent water shortage.

The standpipe holds an affectionate place in many West Indian hearts: it was once where people gathered to source water and pass time with friends and neighbours. Those days are largely gone. But not completely.

The water shortage had brought renewed demand to the area’s standpipes and, having collected up every water-retaining receptacle I owned, I bundled buckets, kettles, pots, washing-up bowls and old drink bottles into the car trunk and set off on the short drive to our nearest standpipe.

Turning down the primary school road, I saw the rudimentary shape of a metal pipe emerging from the kerbside and arching into a tap. Stood alongside, with soapy hands rubbing his body, was the arresting sight of a slim, middle-aged man, naked for all but the briefest pair of grey briefs. As I drew nearer, and the water cascaded from the tap, his hands worked furiously, lathering and scrubbing. With a toothbrush handle protruding from his mouth at a jaunty angle, his lean frame was being progressively covered in a soapy froth.

I gave in to an instinct to respect the man’s privacy and decided to circle the block. The ludicrousness of this action – given the man was bathing in the road – only dawned on me as I began negotiating the gaggle of streets behind the school.

By the time I found my way back, the man was barely visible beneath a layer of suds. Vigorous slapping motions, as he washed beneath his arms, were followed by sharp intakes of breath and shivering shakes of the head as he used a wooden-handled cooking pot to douse and rinse his body from head to toe. Runnels of foam ran down the ribby contours of his body and away into the drain.

The broad, self-assured grin and regular shout-outs to passers-by demonstrated his evident ease with bathing al fresco. With one foot in the base of the storm drain and another on the kerb to assist access to more private regions, he cast an uninhibited figure.

The Caribbean sun, so much a blessing, occasionally turns curse. Water shortages are an unfortunate fact of life, but a few dry seasons ago the particular corner of this beautiful region I call home was struck with monotonous regularity.

The water tanks ran dry frequently and with uncanny timing. Lathered up and with a head coated in shampoo, the shower would come to a dribbling halt. You were left with an immediate and pressing problem – one solved only by a naked run to the kitchen to retrieve the emergency bottles stored beneath the sink, and then by dousing yourself repeatedly with cupfuls of cold water until fully rinsed. The bathing satisfaction attained was minimal to say the least.

My first-floor apartment shared its water tanks with three middle-aged brothers living in the apartment below. Ours was a genial relationship save that with the youngest brother, Terry, who possessed only a tenuous grip on reality but a fervent dedication to ‘cleanin yard’.

Come rain or shine, day or night, Terry could be found yanking loose leaves from palms, building elaborate air-brick garden sculptures or, in what proved an enduring passion, hosing down the driveway and drains.

It was a habit that drew the anger of both his brothers but, when rebuked, Terry would simply smile in an other-wordly way, slouch off and wait for the coast to clear before resuming his day’s work. Vexed cries let us know when he had, which evidently tended to be just as one of his brothers was lathered up with a full head of shampoo.

“Terry man, doh waste de water so, doh waste de water so!!!”

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