I saw her the first time at Cuddy’s rum shop on the corner of Mainstreet. She wore a red and yellow plaid dress, a Redsox ball cap and large, golden hoop earrings. Her shoulder length hair was frizzy and stiff and twisted into dreadlocks. On her feet she wore plastic sandals that had seen better days. Her hands were like roots and her face was like Sonny Liston after his fight against Cassius Clay, with amber teeth and a flat nose. Her charcoal eyes looked into the distance and her head nodded to the incessant beat of the jab-jab trucks rolling slowly up and down Mainstreet, followed by gyrating partiers dressed in colourful carnival costumes.
She sat by herself but talked to everyone in a low cackling voice like rocks rolling up and down the beach in the surf. Obviously the locals all knew her. She held a beer in her gnarled hand and sat there like a schoolgirl with her legs dangling.
“Who is she?” I asked Cuddy.
“That’s Stella,” he said. “She used to be the Carnival Queen for many years, leading the parade of bands in elaborate costumes, different every year. She is in her nineties now, a legend really but her mind has gone.”
“She looks like she is still enjoying the carnival.”
` “Yep, you’ll see her around for the whole three days and then she disappears again from sight. Not sure how she knows what day it is but she sure knows when Carnival starts. Everybody knows Stella, the Carnival Queen.”
When the big steel-band truck rolled in front of Cuddy’s, she hopped from one foot to the other, in time with the music just like she was half a century younger.
* * *
From the back she looked like a twenty year old. Slim, with lovely muscular legs, tight buttocks, a long back, and skin like polished Mahogany. She was dressed only in a sequined thong and glittery bra. Her black hair was braided and augmented with red extensions and loosely tied into a ponytail at the nape of her shapely neck. She stood with one hand on her hip in stiletto heeled red pumps, swaying to the beat of the jab-jab music that pounded out the incessant rhythm and bass line louder then a 747 taking off. Then she turned around and looked straight at me as if she sensed my appreciation of her lovely body but inwardly I recoiled because the face was that of an old woman, at least sixty but maybe even older. It was not a wrinkled countenance but one of infinite sorrow, her bright red mouth drawn, her bottomless black eyes recessed, high cheekbones and an aquiline curved nose. Her all knowing eyes lingered on me until I averted mine, taking a sip from my beer, but I felt like a schoolboy who had been caught out peeking under a skirt but then she nodded and smiled at me, forgiving me for my trespass. She slightly bent her knee and barely inclined her head towards me as if in a curtsey. I could not but do the same in return and then she turned and blended with the crowd.
“That is Marybel,” Cuddy informed me. “She is a grandmother many times over and used to work the streets in her working years. She’s probably known every man on this island and they all still respect her, as do the ladies. She is a good Christian and goes to church regularly. She was also one of our former Carnival Queens.”
* * *
On the sidewalk, a few rows back from the front, my eyes were drawn to a very large woman with a billowing blue polka dot dress, a white blouse, covering her water melon breasts, and a head crowned by sculpted black curls like an early Oprah Winfrey. Holding on to her skirt were a half dozen children of various ages. This woman and her slew of kids reminded me of mother Ginger and the Polichinelles from the Nutcracker ballet, the larger than life fertility figure whose crinoline dress hides all of her children.
I could not tear my eyes off her but nobody else saw anything unusual about this imposing woman. She just belonged like all the other characters on display. Carnival is after all the one time of the year when everybody can be what they want to be and let it all hang out.