I met Kelly when in the Windward Island where she ran a small beach side restaurant called the Wayward Café. When I say ran, I mean she shopped, cooked, served, managed and handled complaints and compliments with the same sunny grin and shrug of her small narrow shoulders. Kelly was a tough old bird, probably quite the looker in her day when her hair was blond instead of grey and her large owl eyes were not looking through thick lenses and when she still had all her teeth. Her skin was leathery and weathered like the skin of a lizard, wrinkled, sunburned and transparent at the same time and held in place by her girl size skeleton which was protruding in all the pointy places, her knees, elbows and shoulders. Her hands were calloused, her fingers long and slender, with yellow nails that bent like claws. She never complained about her arthritis or her aches and pains of which she had many, I could just tell. ‘No point in complaining, it wouldn’t change anything,’ she said when I pointed out the burn on her arm.

            ‘Getting burned is part of cooking,’ she proclaimed in her Kiwi accent, laughing her throaty laugh which shook her whole slender body. 

            She had trained her local girls well and they made the best fruit smoothies and cocktails and they knew what white people from across the water liked: strong coffee, crusty bread, unsalted butter, crispy potatoes, creamy or sautéed mushroom sauces over their meats and white sauce on their fish except for the tuna which she served seared with a wasabi sauce. Even though the Wayward Café was just that and not a fancy eatery, Kelly’s food was the best on the island. Every Tuesday she baked her famous sourdough bread, which tasted more like a French or Swiss loaf than the usual island variety of white and soft wonderbread. I would line up for a loaf of her bread to take home and the dozen loaves she baked for sale were all reserved and coveted like slips in the marina. If somebody wasn’t going to be around for their weekly ration, they would pass the privilege to a friend or relative.

            Kelly worked hard all her life, that much was obvious. No matter if it was running a café or baking or organizing charity events for local causes, she was always on the go. ‘I’ve been busy all my life,’ she said, ‘and there is never any time left over at the end of the day.’  And yet, she found time to chat and she told me much of her story over a cup of her fresh ground coffee in the morning, or a mango smoothie for lunch or one of her famous pina colada’s or rum punches at happy hour. Sometimes I lingered after a lovely meal of pan-fried barracuda, callaloo and dasheen or an island tuna burger with a slice of pineapple and sweet wasabi with a side of home fries in bacon fat (or oil for the vegetarians) and a green salad with her special sauce.

            ‘Speculation is the enemy of fact as perfect is the enemy of good,’ she liked to say with a firm shake of her head whenever the talk veered off into politics or world affairs. ‘Most of what we hear is heresy, superstition and rumour, and just because somebody says it on the radio or the telly doesn’t make it true. It’s just more sophisticated gossip than I hear from Lena or Sammy, my two girls.’

            ‘Were you ever married Kelly? Kids?’

            She looked at me with those big eyes and then got up and walked over to the railing, looking at the turquoise sea and the pale blue sky. She lit one of her cigarettes, ‘my pet vice’ as she called it. ‘Yes and no. I was married to the only man I ever loved and I’ve tried a few but none came close to Richard who was my astral twin, my soul mate and my love.’

            I didn’t want to push and just sat there, sipping my rum punch. 

            ‘We met by chance in England at the airport. My aunt Mildred was supposed to pick me up but sent her neighbour’s son instead. I can still see him with a big sign that said: Kelly NZ. The moment I met Rich I knew he was the future father of my kids. I just knew it, not intellectually but in my body. Something changed in me, like a growth spurt or a kind of seizure. It made my heart race and my knees buckle. I’m not explaining it very well. Anyway, there he was with his sign, big lanky with straight blond hair grown over his ears, a goofy grin on his freckled face, ears like Prince Charles and a voice that belonged to a much older man, deep and resonant. I just stood there with my back pack and my suitcase, dressed in jeans and sandals, a yellow sweater, yes yellow, made me look like a canary. My aunt Mildred lived in Hayward Heath, between London and Brighton, in a small brownstone row house, so typical of the English working class. She was a middle school teacher, single and rather a lot of fun. Remember, this was the late sixties: the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, Carnaby Street. The time when colour and outrageous fun arrived in dreary old England. I loved it all and since Rich lived right next door, I saw him most days either coming or going. We never knew that we were girl and boyfriend, we never talked about it but we hung out constantly, going to see bands, wondering around London and eventually having sex on the beach under the Brighton Pier, after an outdoor concert. It was the natural thing to do. We were natural mates.

            A table of six asked for a round of drinks and Kelly stubbed out her smoke and got right to it, helping her two girls mixing and blending. It was time for me to go.

            I dropped by later that week during a lull at the Café. Kelly was prepping for dinner and when she spotted me, wiped her hands on her apron and joined me for a smoke, at the railing looking out at the pier and the calm, blue water. She continued her story, as if no time had passed. ‘I went to college studying to be a nurse, figuring that way I could work anywhere while Rich took a course in restaurant management. I made some money as a server on weekends and evenings and Rich got a part time job at a hotel. We saw each other whenever we could and had no interest in other relationships. We shared the same friends and the same dreams. We got married and moved into a small flat with a mattress, a record player, a bookshelf and a tabby cat. We studied and saved and when I finished my nursing degree we moved back to New Zealand. I got a job in a small hospital in the Bay of Islands and Rich managed a motel and restaurant. The Bay of Islands is cottage holiday and boating country for Aucklanders and we lived in a small bungalow, part of Rich’s motel in Russel. It was an idyllic time and we loved it there. You asked me about children. I had one child, a girl. It was a difficult and final birth. Maya didn’t make it. She died of an enlarged heart when she was two months old. I think of her every day.’ Kelly fell silent and I couldn’t think of anything to say. Sorry seemed inadequate. Her pain and sorrow were palpable, even 50 years later.

            It was around that time, mid-February when news of a novel corona virus made the news. It first surfaced in Wuhan, China, was denied, then admitted to and it quickly infected thousands and killed many old and sick people and even one of the doctors who first sounded the alarm bells. It led to a draconian lockdown of millions of people but it was still news from far away China and we watched it detached and not even mildly concerned. Just another batch of bad news from China, like the Uyghurs detention in Xinjiang or the Tibetan invasion and suppression. Until the first cases were detected in Thailand and soon it showed up in the US and Europe and within the next few months this Covid-19, sars-2 virus swept around the globe, infecting every country and far-flung island nation. Within less than a year, 30 million were infected and one million died, a third in the US alone. But first, at the beginning of 2020 it was still an abstract threat and masks, distancing and hygiene protocols were not part of everyday life yet. How quickly it all changed as if the world suddenly put on the breaks and turned slower until there were no more concerts or arena sports, no more large gatherings or parties, no more big weddings or funerals. It was still a time of innocence and the biggest concerns were the environment and the fascist gang in the White House. 

            Tropical breakfast at the Wayward Café consisted of poached eggs, fried, sweet plantains and fresh artisan bread with butter and Nutmeg jam and a plate of papaya, starfruit and pineapple on the side. All that with a cup of fresh ground coffee. Kelly joined me for some coffee. ‘What do you make of this new virus?’

            ‘I know the same as anybody else. Not much,’ I said. ‘It’s highly contagious but has a low fatality rate. Looks like healthy and young people don’t die from it. Also, it can be asymptomatic, meaning you can have it and spread it but not know it. Therefore, it’s a sneaky and invisible foe, like a ghost loose in the crowd.’

            ‘Doesn’t sound good. Hopefully it doesn’t make it here.’

            We all hoped that was true but this is a tourist island with a large diaspora in the US, Canada and the UK. Sooner or later the virus will hitch a ride to the island.

            As the pandemic held the world in a chokehold with thousands of flights being cancelled at short notice and travel restricted and discouraged by governments and health authorities being caught off guard and hospitals and morgues being overloaded, especially in the US, the tourist traffic to the island also diminished to a trickle. A few travellers like myself made the trip south but most short-term vacationers stayed away. With multiple tests and quarantines at both ends, the sunseekers stayed home. This impacted everyone, since tourism was the main source of income apart from the money the diaspora sends home, which also dried up due to unemployment and hardships in all parts of the world. This meant that the Wayward Café only opened for three days now, Thursday to Saturday, and Kelly spent a lot of time growing a small garden and taking care of stray dogs, feeding them fish scraps she got for free from the processing plant. At last count she had six dogs that followed her around like the pied piper. She was good natured about it all, adjusting and adapting as only someone with her life experience could. ‘The future is always a moving target,’ she said. ‘You can plan all you want but by the time you get there it will be different.’ I always admired her philosophical outlook, especially in times of trouble. 

            Kelly had to let her two girls go. ‘I didn’t want to since I know how this impacts their families but I had no choice. I can barely keep this going by myself.’ I tried to help her out and Kelly became my personal cook and bartender for those three days per week. Since there were less guests at the Café, Kelly had more time to spare and she continued her story as if no time had passed since she had last talked about her life.

            ‘We worked and bought a small bungalow near Waitangi, where the treaty between 500 Maori chiefs and the British Crown was signed in 1840. Three and a half hours from Auckland, The Bay of Islands is a subtropical micro-region with lovely beaches and bays. A mecca for sailors and sun-seekers. For us it was simply Paradise. The best years of my life were there,’ Kelly said wistfully, a sad smile playing over her lips. ‘Did you know that Hundertwasser, the Austrian and artist built a famous public toilet in Kawakawa? It looks like something out of 1001 night.’ I didn’t know that and I looked it up. Fantastic stuff.

            And then the years went by. We worked, played and sailed around the coastal waters on our 34’ sloop. We made a plan. We’d work until we’re fifty and then would sell up and cash out, buy a blue water boat and sail around the world. We read books about it by other sailors, talked to people who had done just that and kept the dream alive. And then death intervened.’

            At that point a group of four arrived, a couple and their two boisterous teenage kids, obviously off a boat, and Kelly got busy. 

            In the Caribbean climate the days and weeks fold into each other seamlessly because not much changes from day to day. One day often seems like any other because the weather doesn’t change and for people like me who don’t have work or make a living here, the days stretch out unimpeded. Meanwhile, the pandemic had invaded every corner of this globe, including the windward islands. Tourists may have brought it in or returning locals. The virus hitched a ride in their throats and lungs and spread it around, unbeknownst to themselves. This invisible culprit knows no borders and has never heard of travel restrictions. Viruses don’t breathe, eat, drink or sleep. They don’t feel joy or pain. In other words, they’re not life forms, so we don’t have to feel sorry or guilty for eliminating them. In a litre of sea water there are about 25 different viruses and in a kilo of marine sediment we can find around a million. Thanks to this novel corona virus, Covid-19, we’ve all become amateur epidemiologists and disease specialists. And the noise and chatter from local radio stations to social media is endless and all encompassing. Theories, fears, and misinformation abound and even religions cannot provide sanctuary, much less influence this virus with prayers or curses.

            Kelly was no different from any of us but she dismissed it with a wide swipe of her arm. ‘We cannot do anything about it except follow sensible protocols and practices but meanwhile life goes on. This is not the big apocalyptic die-off and we’ll learn to live with it or get vaccinated against it. Just like measles and polio, both of which I was able to avoid thanks to vaccines.’

            She was right of course. We can only do our best but we’re suddenly living in a different world. A world without concerts, stadium sports or life events. A world with only small, intimate weddings and funerals and no gatherings of any kind as long as the virus rages and replicates, infects and even kills. Here on the island, not much has changed. We wear masks indoors, keep our distances and sanitize our hands dozens of times each day. The Wayward Café is open and Kelly keeps on working, cooking and serving, mostly by herself. There are very few land-based tourists but more boaters and sailors. Kelly’s reputation precedes her and many make the Wayward Café one of their Caribbean destinations. She took up the thread of her story during a long lull one afternoon when I was just sipping a Carib beer and leafing through the local paper. 

            ‘As I said, death intervened. In the cruelest sense. Rich was a man of few words and he would never admit to any sort of pain or discomfort. To his detriment as it turned out. He had a massive heart attack in the middle of the night. He died in my arms a week before his 50th birthday. It was so unfair and so unnecessary. Rich had so much more to give and his sudden brutal passing was such a tremendous loss; to me and everybody that knew and loved him. 

            ‘I’m sorry,’ is all I said and I meant it.

            Kelly just nodded, her eyes far away and then she came back and smiled. ‘But life goes on, that’s the cliché isn’t it. Except for me, life stood still. I didn’t get out of my pj’s for six months and when I finally looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself. What would Rich want me to do? I asked myself. The answer was quite simple really. He would have wanted me to carry on, to keep on living. I opened the curtains, had my long hair cut short and decided to keep with our plan but instead of the two of us I carried on by myself. I cashed in and bought a seaworthy 1983 Islander 36 with a Pathfinder 42hp diesel. The kind of boat I could handle by myslelf. I sailed it around the Bay to get the feel of it and then I took off on a north-easterly course towards Fiji. I spent the next 10 years at sea, rolled and wrecked the boat twice and had it repaired and eventually I sold it to a young Canadian couple in Grenada for enough money to get myself a blender, an icemaker, a fridge and freezer and 3 months rent on a roadside stand near Grand Anse Beach. My smoothies were legendary. That venture lasted until Ivan tore through these islands in 2004 and left everything in tatters, including my little business. I moved to England, since I still had a British passport and that’s where I stayed, worked as a cook at night and a seamstress during the day, with the Singer sewing machine I bought, until the lousy weather and the land-locked lifestyle drove me crazy. I packed up once again and moved down here because this Wayward Café was for sale for a very reasonable price and that’s about the gist of it. I never married again, if that’s what you’re asking. I tried a few men but they proved as unstable as the weather and I felt that I was better off alone and just taking care of myself was enough of a challenge.’

            Covid-19 entered the island by stealth as most everywhere and we had our first case here just a couple of weeks ago. Since then, everybody is in a state of restrained panic, suspecting everybody and everyone. We all wore our masks more frequently, even walking down the quiet street by ourselves, as if that would protect us. The virus doesn’t live on the streets but comes along to parties and gatherings by those who have no respect for it and even think it all a hoax concocted by some super-rich people to control the poor people. The joke is they already do, with or without the virus. 

            Kelly called me on my phone, which she never did, and halfway through the call started hacking and then she confessed to feeling rather short of breath and headachy. We didn’t have to spell it out. What the mighty seas, hurricanes and cancer couldn’t accomplish in a life time, this novel corona virus did overnight. She asked me to close up the café and shut down the power and the water and where to hide the key. I never saw her again. Rumour had it she was seen sailing off in an island sloop but that sounded unlikely. Another had it that she boarded the ferry and probably made her way back to England. Another unlikely story. She was last seen by Conch, a fisherman, walking along the beach in front of the Wayward Café, now all locked up. The seas were choppy and the full moon lit up the clouds and reflected off the water so one could see all the way to the horizon.

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