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Tabanca                 by: Debbie Cybill


Tabanca: unrequited love, love-sickness, in the dialect of the Windward Islands.

I NEVER did discover just why Karen called her restaurant Tabanca. But then I have only known her for about four years, since she first came to Grenada from Trinidad. She was clearing thorn bush from the steep hillside, or rather directing a crew of men in that task, when I first made her acquaintance. In the way in which one greets every passerby on the Island, she looked up and said, "Hello" as I passed.

"Hot work in this sun. What are you up to?"

"I"m going to build a restaurant here, with the best view in the whole Island."

She was right about that. The two-mile sweep of the great beach of the Grand Anse opened in front of us, surf breaking among the coconut palms, and then beyond we looked into the port of Saint George’s, the capital of Grenada, little more than a quaint village, with red roofs and pink or white-washed walls, with the Yacht Club off to one side, and the towering central mountains of the island forming a perfect backdrop.

From the beginning it was going to be called Tabanca, and over the next two and a half years, as she struggled to build the restaurant, with its ramp down to the beach, we gradually struck up a friendship, whenever my wife and I visited the Island. We saw the thorn bush gradually replaced by irrigated gardens, the trellised patio become a favorite place to sip a rum punch, and the cuisine change from just good to superb, the best food on Grenada, if not in the whole Caribbean.

The innate sadness we had seen in Karen from the beginning never went away. What was this tabanca which haunted her?

The hurricane season was not really over but no tropical storm tracks threatened Grenada for this first ocean race of the season, and at the end of November Jeannine and I flew down from Toronto, getting away just twelve hours before the first major snow-storm of the winter closed down the air-port. Meredith had sailed his ocean-going sloop over from Virgin Gorda, with one man as crew, a man who had come along just for the trip, and did not intend to crew in the week-long Saint George’s Regatta. Jeannine and I were to be his crew for the races.

We met at the Yacht Club, Meredith looking lean and tanned, fit from his long sail. He looked as if he was finally recovering from the trauma of his divorce, in which his bitch of an ex-wife had taken his house and all he possessed away from him, except for his yacht, which was not in Canada at the time.

For a time after that divorce Meredith had gone on working and paying alimony, but a killing on the stock market enabled him to quit his job and gave him just enough to live permanently on his boat, no longer paying through the nose to keep his ex in furs. Meredith was bitter about it all.

The next day the three of us lunched at the Tabanca, giving us an opportunity to introduce Meredith to Karen. The next few days were busy ones, tuning Vellella for the races. Vellella is a Petersen designed boat, named after the marine animal known as the by-the-wind-sailor, and is sky blue, like its azure name-sake. Jeannine and I were staying on True Blue Bay, at that jewel of a tiny hotel, the True Blue Inn, whose owner was also intending sailing his yacht Caramba in the regatta. The first night Meredith, who was living on Vellella, moored in True Blue, but then he changed his moorings to the Grand Anse, for some unfathomed reason. Much less convenient for us when we were helping him tune the boat, and we complained bitterly. Meredith just smiled.

My major task was scrubbing the keel and underwater parts of the hull, to remove the weeds and barnacles. I donned scuba gear for this, but my hands were soon scraped raw from the barnacles. Jeannine and Meredith busied themselves with the rigging and sails. It was Meredith himself who looked after the catering and chandlery for the boat, not leaving it to my wife, who had volunteered.

That Friday, the day before the regatta began, our chores all completed, Jeannine and I lunched at the Tabanca, sitting on the patio in the shade of the trellises, surrounded by Bougainvillaea, Hibiscus and Flamboyant trees, and brilliant iridescent humming birds; we were the only customers there, except for three men seated on stools at the bar. We were both wearing batik sun-dresses over our swim suits, our eyes shaded by brod-brimmed straw hats. An iguana was sunning itself on the rocks below us, the sea was an intense blue off-shore, pale turquoise over the sands of the Grand Anse. Over at the Grenada Yacht Club, three miles across the bay, there were more boats than usual, all assembled for the regatta. And there was Vellella, moored just below us. While we waited for lunch, I was drinking draft beer, almost the only place on the island where it was served, and Jeannine had a rum punch, one of the specialties of the house, a punch Karen had named "Tabanca Tear’s". What was this tabanca which afflicted Karen?

An armadillo poked its nose out of a crack in the rocks and sniffed the air. The Grand Anse beach was almost deserted in the lethargy of midday, but I idly watched two girls strolling along hand in hand, the shorter one with bare shoulders, clad in a pareo, that south-seas wrap which had become popular amongst tourists in the Caribbean, and the taller slimmer girl wearing just a bikini. At the base of the ramp both girls stopped to put on thong sandals, and the tall bikini-miss threw on an over-sized tee-shirt, appliqued with the word "Italia" across the bust. They sat down three tables from us, in the full sun, and promptly ordered pints of draft ale, full-sized British 20-ounce pints, not the much smaller American pints. Jeannine sat facing them, while I was angled slightly away.

Three pints later, while we were eating lobster tails, Miss Pareo walked past our table towards the wash-room. I saw Jeannine looking surprised.

"Henri, is that a man in drag?" Jeannine has always been interested in TVs; after all, she is married to one.

I looked at her retreating back. Taller than I had thought at first. Beefy shoulders, pink-tan from

the sun, no sign of strap marks; big hands, with short pink nails, big feet, nails enamelled to match the finger nails; a short hair cut, with curly grizzled hair; discreet golden ear-clips, obviously not real gold.

"Could be."

I watched her return. Not much make-up, except for the eyes, what I could see of them through the sun-glasses; no eyebrows at all—they were completely plucked away—just a pencilled line. As she passed Jeannine greeted her. "Hello there. What a pretty pareo you are wearing."


Jeannine repeated it in Italian; after all, her companion was wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned

"Italia". A shake of the head. In French. Another shake. I tried German. "Sie sind deutsch?"

"Ja, Ja."

"Sein Pareo ist sehr elegant."

Jeannine butted in. "Sehr chic, sehr modisch. Ich bin Jeannine, und mein Mann ist Debbie genamt." Very chic, very stylish. I’m Jeannine and my husband is called Debbie.

"Danke schön."

She swished her pareo around her calves. "Ich bin Helga, und meine Freunde ist Krysta genamt." A baritone voice; I saw the Adam’s apple. Helga returned to her table and her friend Krysta, and ordered yet another pint of beer.

"Helga must be five foot nine, don’t you think, Jamie. Taller than she seemed when she first came up from the beach."

"That makes Krysta over six feet. They’re definitely both men."

I shifted my chair so that I could get a better sight of them, hoping my sun-glasses would stop them from noticing that I was staring. Krysta too had an Adam’s apple but unlike her friend she had kept her own eye-brows, just plucking the line slightly. Her long blondish hair was piled up on top of her head, secured with a large pink plastic clip. Coral pink lip-stick did not match the hair clip, and her orange-pink nail varnish on long nails clashed with both pinks. She did not know how to cope with her long nails and held her hands awkwardly.

I finished my lobster and Jeannine was still eating when two nordic looking men strolled up from the beach, in tee-shirts and shorts, with thong sandals on their feet. They joined Helga and Krysta, each of them kissing both ‘girls’ on the mouth, immediately ordered a round of beer and pulled off their tee-shirts.

The iguana had disappeared after all this activity, and just then Meredith joined us and ordered a beer too. He looked open-mouthed as one of the new-comers stepped behind Helga, reached over her shoulders, and pulled at the knot of the pareo, letting it fall around her waist. Helga’s flat male torso was evenly tanned all over. She rose to her feet, clad only in a bikini-bottom and handed the pareo to her tormentor, who promptly tied it around himself. Helga donned a pair of shorts from her tote-bag and sat down again to wipe off her make-up and remove her ear-rings, then shrugged into one of those embroidered men’s shirts locally known as a bush jacket. Her tormentor freed his pony-tail, combed his hair and clipped it back on each side with a comb, then started to apply make-up. Helga handed him her ear-rings and began to remove the nail polish. Meredith’s beer was untouched. Then the other new-comer stepped behind Krysta and unclipped her hair. She turned and slapped him, grabbed the clip and put her hair up again. She was going to stay en femme. He shrugged, dropped his shorts to reveal a flowered bikini-bottom, pulled a matching top out of his bag and put that on, then inserted foam pads. Meredith choked over his beer, while Jeannine’s lobster was cooling rapidly. Bikini-man turned his back to Krysta and gestured. She started plaiting his hair for him, coiled it around his head and pinned it on top. He added a pair of hoop ear-rings, rather like the ones Krysta herself was wearing, and then started to apply make-up. Krysta did his eyes for him and then applied artificial nails, like hers.

Meredith finished his beer, Jeannine her lobster, and Meredith ordered a bowl of callaloo soup. The other table had another round of beer and then left, without eating anything. Karen brought over the callaloo. "What do you think of my floor show?"

"Does it happen often?"

"Almost every day for the last week. I’ve no objection to cross-dressing, as you know, but I do wish they wouldn’t change around in public like that. Some of my regulars are protesting and threatening not to come here."

"Are they all four men, Karen? Is the slim one a man too?"

"Krysta you mean? Yes she’s a man, though I’ve only once seen her dressed as a man. She is the only one of them who dresses chiefly as a woman. The other three change around, as you saw today."

"Sit down and have a drink with us, at least until other customers arrive."

"Thank you. I do hope those four are only here for a few days. I hate to think what will happen to my trade if they are still here when the tourist season really begins." She looked worried. "I wish they would go away, back to Germany."

Meredith reached out and touched her hand to offer comfort. "At least they only come during the day. You don’t have them during your busiest time, in the evening."

The next day was the first race, a short one of only about three hours duration, handicapped by a complicated formula depending on the size of the boat and a number of other factors. Most of the boats were handicapped roughly the same as Vellella, all being about the same size, around 35 feet long, but one, a Swann-built boat from Miami, was ten feet longer on the water line and hence inherently faster, while there were also quite a few twenty-footers. Several of the boats were obviously not taking it too seriously, and were bedecked with girls in bikinis in lieu of crews.

Vellella had a good start, crossing the line off True Blue Bay on the port tack only two seconds after the gun, the first away in fact. Meredith’s helmsmanship had improved in the year he had lived on his boat in Virgin Gorda. Caramba and the Swann were close on our heels, and the Swann soon passed us while we had a luffing match with Caramba. The first leg was a half-hour beat to Lance aux Épines—sea urchin beach—to the east, against the trade wind, and Meredith took us round the buoy in second place, just edging out Caramba, almost stealing their water. On the next leg, a ten-mile down-wind run around Point Salines, only a few boats set their spinnakers, Vellella amongst them, and we gained considerably on the rest of the field, especially as we gybed successfully around the point, while all the others took in their spinnakers, rather than gybe with them flying. The larger Swann was still ahead of us, but we were lying second, too far behind.

Around the next marker and then a reach, with the wind abeam, for a buoy just off the Carenage, the central harbor of Saint George’s. The Swann was streaking away from us and Caramba gained steadily to move into second place just before the mark, with Lone Star in close pursuit. We just managed to shut Lone Star out at the buoy, and then began another luffing match with Caramba, matching tack for tack. As we approached the final mark, off the center of Grand Anse, we were ahead, lying second to the Swann as it turned around the buoy, cutting it close, and began the reach for the finishing line.

The Swann had cut it too close around the mark, somehow severing its moorings, and the buoy took off at a rate of knots. By the time we made the turn it was already off the Tabanca. Caramba rounded it opposite Cinnamon Hill, and the other boats had to chase it out to sea. Obviously this would be declared "no race", but we reckoned that on corrected time we might easily have won, certainly beating the Swann. But then half the other skippers had reached the same conclusion about their own boats.

That night was the Commodore’s Ball, black tie for the men, despite the heat, and long dresses for the women. Jeannine wore a decolleté deep blue silk dress heavily embroidered with gold thread on the bodice and had her hair up, complaining about its condition after the sun and wind of therace, and about the state of her hands after hauling on ropes all day. Meredith wore a white tuxedo, as I had thought of doing, but Jeannine had persuaded me to dress, so I wore a turquoise floor-length dress with strappy sandals and a longer evening wig.

Tony Porter, our host at the True Blue Inn, had reserved a table for the crews of the Caramba and the Vellella, and drove Gillian, his wife, and the two of us to the club-house. Tim and Penny, his crew, together with Meredith were to meet us there. Meredith’s partner was a surprise to us all. Karen had forsaken her restaurant on the busiest night of the week, leaving it in the hands of her staff, and was here, dressed in an elegant asymmetrical black silk gown, with one bare shoulder. We dined on rubber chicken, not a patch on the wonderful food at the Tabanca or at the True Blue Inn, the only other Grenadian restaurant in the same class as the Tabanca, to the music of a local band; at least it was not a steel band, so that we could actually hear each other talking. Then the band trooped off and another combo came in to play for the dancing, a four-piece combo, of guitar, saxophone, keyboard and drums. The musicians, all in electric blue sequinned mini-dresses, were our transvestite friends from the day before. Helga played the alto sax, Krysta (with much shorter nails than she had worn at the restaurant) was at the keyboard and also provided the vocals, in a light tenor. They were good, there was no doubt about that, and a pleasure to dance to.

Karen was clearly not going to get her wish; they would be here all through the tourist season, with gigs at all the main hotels and restaurants along the tourist strip. But Karen no longer really cared. Meredith announced that he was mooring Vellella permanently in Grenada and not returning to Virgin Gorda. Karen was going to build a jetty at Tabanca—to accommodate the sea-borne restaurant trade she said—and Vellella would moor there.

Perhaps Karen’s long tabanca was finally a thing of the past. Meredith’s certainly was.


© 1998
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