A Lesson from Mr. Brierley

June 2019

By the time I reached Arima, the sun was a moist lemon slice, squirting blinding rays at the silver-plated edges of the Dial. Not a car was in the taxi stand. However, just in front of the legal white demarcation, a car with a P-for-Private license plate was filling up with passengers. As I walked toward it, I could see through the rear window that there were two women in the back. Good. There was a man alongside them, making up the three needed in the back, but that was okay. Luck was on my side. The driver was standing next to his door, looking for two more passengers. While he waited, he took a comb from the breast pocket of his white shirt and ran it through his John Travolta hairstyle. His tall muff glistened jet black and sprung back like sugar cane as the comb raked through. His grey sideburns formed an incongruous mantle, though, around his weather-beaten face.

“Yes, Quaré here, two to go!” he shouted.

I was relieved. I was late, and I’d missed the one and only bus to my village twelve miles away, whose claim to fame was a gravel-and-white-sand quarry that over time had given the village its patois name. The quarry had generated such a successful trucking business that it had enticed a cluster of families to settle on a grid of streets that made up my village bordering the Eastern Main Road. My mother and I lived on 2nd Street, Quaré Village, in a house that my stepfather was adding to as money came in.

I unhitched my schoolbag from my shoulder and, opening the front door of the P-H taxi, said good evening to the people in the backseat, and got in. Without these private-for-hire cars that the owners used to make some extra cash, so many people would be stranded. In fact, in some places P-H cars were the only form of transport.

As I settled into the front seat, it was the first time since lunch break that I had relaxed. If I were really lucky, we could even pass the six o’clock bus so that I could escape my mother’s interrogation.

Soon enough, I glimpsed a shadow waist high at the front door on my side, and a man holding the door handle queried, “Valencia?”

“This is my last run, man. I’m going home. I’m not taking any short drops,” countered the P-H driver.

“No problem,” the man replied, cracking the door open.

“Dress ’round, Little Miss,” the passenger coming in said. One leg was already in as he waited for me to move around. I picked up my schoolbag, placed it on my lap, and “dressed ’round” to make room for a man with dried cement stuck to his corduroy trousers. In addition to a bag of tools, which he placed next to my foot, he was also loaded down with two Hi-Lo Supermarket plastic bags, which he placed on the floor between his legs.

The P-H driver jumped in, and leaning forward, turned the key in the ignition. The muffler roared. He slipped the lever on the gearbox attached to the steering wheel into first gear, and as he sat back, the car filled with a warm suffusion of Brylcreem.

The ache in my belly was muted, but still there, because in two days’ time I would have my period. Five months ago I was elated when I’d joined the club, but now I wasn’t so sure.

“You’re seeing?” is what Gloria had asked me when she, Laila, and I had started hanging out. We were all new Form 1 students.

“Yes, I’m seeing.”

“Right now?”

“Yes,” I replied, but the expression on my face must have given me away, for she winked at Laila, who coming up slyly behind me, swept her hand around my waist and hips.

“You’re lying,” both she and Laila chorused.

That day I didn’t even know what Laila was feeling for. But in a couple of months I would come to know that it was the bulge of my diaper cloth pinned to an elastic band, both in the back and in the front, around my waist like a Sumo warrior’s loin cloth. Ironically, the fabric of this cloth haunted a woman’s labor henceforth all her life, for it was the same type of dimpled absorbent fabric that she would use for her children’s bowel movements after birth. The first month, I’d noticed just a damp leaking, but every month since, my cramps had become almost unbearable. In fact, I noticed that in the run up to my period, only the taste of something sour would keep bile from riding up my tongue.

As the car sped along, my eyes searched the road ahead for the six o’clock bus, lumbering forward with its complement of villagers going back home. It left at 6:00 in the morning and came back at 6:00 in the evening, with more or less the same group of Quarians who went to town in it every day. There were government scholarship winners like me, civil servants, and private company secretaries, but there could also be a couple of ordinary people, who left for one day all they had to do in town—pass in at Imperial Optical to collect their spectacles, pay the light bill, go to the Red House to collect a birth certificate or a deed, keep a court date, or pay their monthly visit to a relative in the Royal Jail. Accumulated errands taken care of, they would pass in at Stauble’s Bakery, have a red Solo and a beef pie, and leave with some coconut drops and currant rolls in a greasy paper bag for the family back home.

As my P-H taxi sliced through the open Wallerfield grassland spread out for miles and miles on either side of the roadway, I was thinking that even if we didn’t meet the bus on the way, my mother wasn’t likely to know that I’d missed it because, although the sun was turning whiter and whiter as it sank behind me, the sky was still bright. My heart was at rest for the first time since the lunchtime incident that had happened so out of the blue, causing me all this trouble.

I had just picked up some tamarind pods. Not many had fallen during break and lunch, but Gloria, Laila, and I were still wandering around underneath the tree in the coolness. The caretaker’s house was ensconced in the wide arc of shade nearby, but across the quadrangle totally bathed in the blinding midday sun was the long woodwork shop abutting the chain-link fence that ran around the school compound. I’d never seen anyone in the woodwork shop; all you could see there was a wash of brown.

The quadrangle in front of it, though, was marked out with white lime for netball. It was not the netball court regularly used for real matches. In fact, we used this court for practice during Physical Education; the hoop on its goal post had no net. Oh how I loved netball—the short pleated white skirt that kicked up to reveal the knickers as the goal-shoot jumped into the semicircle and pirouetted like a ballet dancer before taking her shot. It was the organized sport that I longed to be part of, for although my country was infinitesimally small, it was joint world champion that year with Australia and New Zealand. I wanted to be a Jean Pierre, the Trinidadian top goal-shoot of the world.

“I bet I can score a goal,” I said, running into the sunlight with a couple of stones that I’d picked up beneath the tamarind tree.

I raced over to the semicircle and began throwing the stones into the netball ring, jumping to sky for a couple tries and then running to pick up the stones to position myself at the edge of the semicircle for a repeat performance.

Gloria and Laila had not yet joined me, but when they came, I would move back and give them each a try.

“Joan! Laila! Come!” I called . . . when following the direction of their attention, I saw a man in khaki trousers, brown shoes, and cream shirt approaching in lengthening strides.

“Go for the Detention Book!” he shouted even before he’d reached me. This was Mr. Brierley. I didn’t know his name then. How could I? Only boys in my co-ed secondary school did Woodwork, while the girls did Home Economics with Mrs. Rampersad.

Shame followed fright. Did anyone else see? I didn’t look over to where Joan and Laila were, but I rounded the building. It was lunchtime, so most of the lower school students were ringed around in the shade next to our classrooms. A few students were out in the sun in the grassed courtyard in the middle, and a few were at the drinking taps at the far end opposite. Thank God most were preoccupied, talking in groups.

I edged my way as close as I could to the assembly hall that ran the full length of the side of the courtyard, hastening to the office for the Detention Book.

On my way back with it, I held it close to the side of my skirt facing the wall. At least I hadn’t got the detention while I was in class, for then I’d have to bear the shame of the entire lower forms ringed around, looking at me cross the courtyard and do the walk back with the unmistakable brown ledger.

When I got to the back of the school, my common sense told me that the teacher would be in the Woodwork shop. And right I was. As I entered the door, to my further embarrassment, seated next to him was Miss Nath, my soft-spoken Chemistry teacher. I lowered my eyes.

“Say your name and your form,” Mr. Brierley said, opening the book and beginning to write. “This will teach you a lesson,” he added as he put my name in the book.

“Now carry it back.” Carrying the big ledger back unnoticed was less of a problem because students were already beginning to head in for class, for the bell had rung for the beginning of afternoon classes.

In the days that followed, I came to learn that Mr. Brierley was the unofficial “guard dog of the back.” That’s why so few students ever went there, because somewhere in the brown, although you could not see them, he was there with Miss Nath. He was black and she was Indian, and her family did not approve, the rumor mill said, but every day she came down from the Chemistry lab and this is where they had lunch.

Apart from Gloria and Laila, the rest of the class found out that I had a detention when Mr. Ojar came around that afternoon. Usually, he would stop outside my classroom, perusing the pages in the ledger, before moving on to the next classroom. But that afternoon, he came in, interrupting Math class to approach Mr. Lakheeram, the Geometry teacher, running his finger across a line in the book.

The class had already begun to whisper.

“Claudette Paul, you have detention this afternoon,” Mr. Lakheeram said in a raised voice. I could feel my face burn as the entire class turned in my direction. “You know where it’s held,” he said, and then he answered himself: “As usual it is two classrooms down in the Form 1C classroom. It begins at 2:45, fifteen minutes after school.”

At least I now knew the room, but I did not know the procedure, for living thirty miles away, I had never factored staying after school as something I could or would engage in—I did my homework and I was obedient. Also I didn’t know, for instance, that there was “short” detention, for minor offences, and “long” detention, which went on for an extra half hour. Perhaps, if I was let out in an hour, and I ran all the way afterward to the bus stop on the Eastern Main Road, I could get a bus going to Arima, the last densely populated town on the route before the last two distant country villages, Valencia and Quaré, the latter being my home. It would be a close shave, but maybe . . . maybe the Quaré bus, as happened sometimes, would have some mechanical problem that would cause it to delay.

There were about twenty students seated in Form 1C when Mr. Brierley entered. He announced that he was the teacher taking detention for that afternoon.

“Has everyone been given his or her assignment?”

“Yes Sir.”

Some students already had their assigned punishment and pens out, while others fished theirs out of their schoolbags at this prompting. I didn’t know what my assignment was, but when I put my hand up, Mr. Brierley was quick on the draw.

“I’ll get to you, Young Miss,” he said. “Meanwhile take out one of your language books, your Latin book, if you have it with you.”

Then, addressing the gathering, he described the protocol: “You know that you must hand in your assignment, and that it must be neatly done. Also you cannot leave before your detention time is over. If you have a short detention, that’s one hour; if you have a long detention, that’s one hour and a half. Here is the clock.” He raised an alarm clock on the teacher’s table, set the red extra hand to time, and wound the spring up before resting it back down. “It’s now 2:45; the alarm will go off at 3:45. You may begin.”

In the rustle of papers as the punished settled down, he walked over to me. I got to my feet, in the required protocol of respect, and lowered my gaze as he flipped to the Appendix of my Latin primer. “Here, copy out these pages—all five declensions and four conjugations.”

I took my seat and began to copy.

In just under an hour I had finished copying the declension and conjugation examples as instructed. With my notebook and the Latin textbook, I walked over to Mr. Brierley in the doorway, the position he had taken up. I stood back while he eyed both books in comparison. Giving me back my notebook, he turned the page of my Latin Primer, saying, “These too,” pointing to columns of irregulars.

My hands trembled as I took the book from him. I dared not look up. As I walked back to my seat, I could feel all the fluid in my body rising in the capillaries beneath my skin. My eyes filled with water, but I blinked back the tears. Long had I been trained—Don’t Cry. I swallowed the salt ache at the back of my throat without a sound. Because nothing brought out the fury, in the adults I’d known, more than a child who began to cry “for no reason.” You were supposed to cry when you were beaten, or you would be beaten until you cried, because to be beaten as punishment and not cry was a sign of rudeness. Some parents even made you say “Thank you, Mummy/Daddy” after a beating that had been administered, so that you could acknowledge that the beating was for your own good.

But to cry if one was not beaten was self-indulgence, self-pity, a sign of being spoiled, of getting things too easy. Or it could also be deemed a sign of protest, a silent text of rudeness, of willfulness, an unspoken challenge. It could be deemed worse than talking back. It was an unwelcome character trait because it suggested that you might give up easily when faced with a problem, that you were a wimp. You had to learn discipline. You had to be strong, and to be strong you had to tough it out and find a solution to life’s problems. Crying “for no reason” was tantamount to giving up, which was a frightening thing to a parent who had enough problems. “What you’re crying for? I’ll give you something to cry for,” I had been told often enough.

As I went back to my seat to continue my penance, some of the “short” detention students were rustling in impending departure, taking their papers to Mr. Brierley for his signature before putting them on his table in a growing pile.

When the alarm on the table went off, I jumped. Around me it was as if a nest of Jack Spaniards had been disturbed, and in short order a dozen or so students were charging the door.

As for me, I didn’t cry when at 4:30 I was let out as the last of the remaining students, for Mr. Brierley had made a point of checking assiduously his assignment against the copy I had done. With my tail between my legs and with my double dilemma, I eventually got out.

For I didn’t know which was worse in my mother’s book, getting a detention or having to take a P-H taxi home. But one thing I knew: I was lucky. At least so far. Because if you had to take a P-H, the often-spoken caution I’d heard women talk about was that you had to make sure that there were other women in the car. In my P-H there were two. With me inside, we were three.

So after a while I settled down a bit, wondering how far ahead the six o’clock Quaré bus was. We had almost reached Valencia, halfway on the twelve-mile journey after Arima, and so far we had not come upon the bus, chugging its way along. I was thinking that perhaps it was somewhere ahead on the six-mile stretch, when a hand from the back tapped the driver’s shoulder next to mine.

“Here take for three,” the man in the back said, stretching forward a twenty-dollar bill.

Between our adjacent shoulders, the driver returned two dollars to the lingering hand from the back. This meant that he had in fact taken the full Quaré fare, even though the three in the back were short drops!

“We’ll take it at the Emporium,” one of the ladies in the back said.

The car slowed to a stop and the three got out.

The sprawling one-stop emporium was fast shut, all four sections—the dry goods, the grocery section, the rum shop and the adjoining barber’s shop. It must have closed not too long ago, though, because a fluorescent light in the ceiling of the grocery section was still on. That meant that it was now shortly after 6:00 p.m., the time the day ended for country villagers, the time children playing in the yard were usually called in to wash their hands, feet, and “pam-pa-lam” (their privates) to get ready for bed, so that they could rise and shine early the next morning to prepare for school and everything else in their world that would officially commence at 8:00 a.m..

I was sandwiched in the front between the driver and the remaining passenger, and the ache in my belly returned. I shifted, trying to adjust my bag off my stomach to ease the discomfort as we took off again, but I’d forgotten that there was the other passenger’s tool bag next to my foot.

“Sorry,” I said.

“No problem. It’s just some old trowels and a spirit-level,” said the man in a gravelly tired-sounding voice. Just hearing him speak calmed my mind a bit. He was certainly going home after a hard day’s work, with groceries to boot. And as for the driver, picturing his grey sideburns and weather-beaten face as he’d stood trying to fill his taxi for his last run set me somewhat at ease; he was most likely a family man too.

We were almost at the corner before hitting the last part of the journey, the Stretch, as it was called. Only a sprinkling of houses bordered the Eastern Main Road as the village of Valencia petered out. Once we hit the Stretch around the bend, we were practically home. Straight as a ruler from end to end, the Stretch was just one long road, famous for its late-night accidents. Of course, I would be home long before there was any danger of that. However, in the dead of night, in addition to its straightness, there was the problem of its lack of shoulder. The only thing visible along its length was the brace of lights of an oncoming vehicle or the taillights of one in the distance. The six miles of road were totally unlit. Furthermore, shrouding both sides of this pitch-black ribbon was a forest, cut back just about twice the width of the road on either side. Once you took the Stretch, there was no stopping. In fact, stopping was what caused accidents. A broken-down car with a dead battery, meaning neither headlights nor taillights, was what caused most of the fatal accidents in the pitch black night. Everyone knew that once you took the Stretch, the only stop was Quaré. In about seven minutes or so I would be home and it would still be light.

As we approached the bend, I could see the lone last house, landmarked for its red hibiscus welcome or farewell, depending on whether the vehicle you were in was coming or going. It was a well-known bright spot and relief for the eyes from either direction. Today there were some children still playing outside near their gap.

“Right there,” the passenger next to me said.

“Daddy,” the children in the yard shouted, running up as the car slowed.

“Go back, go back from the road!” the passenger next to me warned, and the children stood back. He got out with his grocery bags.

“Daddy, what you brought? Let me help you, Daddy.”

“Wait, don’t pull the bags! Kerry, carry this inside for your mother.” The tallest of the children took the grocery bags, and the others trooped after him, toward the house.

“Here,” said the passenger, tendering his fare to the driver.

I now had some room. I rested my bag on the seat next to the driver as I moved closer to the space the passenger had just vacated at the door.

To distract myself, I examined this yard that was a beacon to travelers. The red hibiscus fencing, the last vivid color in the green around, was here and there tinged with white. The flare of its flowers was already furling in, showing in places its underside. Soon enough, as the sun disappeared, these petals that splayed their lips for the kiss of the sun during the day would fold like umbrellas for the night, their rattail yellow stamens hanging down like so many handles to be grasped, only to prop open the beauty they supported once more in the daylight.

My chest began to palpitate in time with the splutter of the car exhaust as we moved off. Soon we were going at a speed fast enough for the driver to bring down the lever next to the steering wheel into fourth gear. Next to the window now, I felt the wind rushing past my ear. The purring of the engine intensified the voicelessness within. Leaning against the door I watched the water-colored channel of sky between the forests on either side. From the corner of my eye, though, I could see the driver taking his eyes off the road from time to time to look across at me.

“You’re going to college?”

I felt a warm pulse of blood suffuse my chest, as if a valve had burst. I continued looking straight ahead, though.

“Yes,” I said.

“How you’re so late?”

“I had to stay back.”

“Stay back? Stay back for what?”

I didn’t answer.

“I know . . . talking with your boyfriend . . .” His eyes continued darting from the road to me as he feigned a knowing smile.

“Tell the truth . . .”

I still didn’t engage. I couldn’t help looking over, though. And that was when, although his eyes were looking on the road, he stretched out his arm and made as if to put his hand into my breast pocket. Instinctively, I bent forward to protect myself, but the motion captured his hand and he squeezed my breast.

Lifting my chest, I pushed his hand away.

“Look at how she’s blushing! That feels good, huh? Your boyfriend does that to you too, huh?”

I kept my eyes on the road. Though both his hands were back on the wheel, I could feel the heat exuding from his open mouth and body. The car was again suffused with the cloying scent of Brylcreem.

We were approaching the end of the Stretch, however; the bend into Quaré was in sight. We were coming up to the gravel entrance to the quarry, which was closed. From the distance, I could see the black iron barricade down and padlocked. No vehicles could get in behind the trees to the foothills of the mountain, from where during the day trucks came out with heavy tarpaulin-covered trays, swinging into the road, the trays bouncing behind them on their huge wheels, stray pebbles skipping into the windshields of vehicles behind, forcing them to slow to give the trucks distance.

The few cars coming in the opposite direction had their dim-lights on, as the sky was losing its white, preparing to receive the night. Not far now, probably three or four minutes to Quaré and to home.

My P-H driver knew this too, for periodically he was glancing in the rear view mirror. I was none the wiser for what he saw, but the calm between us had been restored. Yet all of a sudden, as we approached the gravel pit entrance, he mashed down heavily on the brakes. Tires screeched and the car careened on the sudden impact as we bucked up into the slim gravel gap.

The driver shut the engine off. I looked beyond the barrier that closed the quarry for the night, just a pristine white gravel bed for as far as eye could see; above, just a matching slice of white.

No way is he getting me to leave the car to go in there, my mind said.

At a rustle in his seat, I turned to face him. The old man had unzipped his pants.

“Lie down against the door,” he said. “I want to taste some of that sweetness.” We were in the open, almost in the road. In sight of vehicles in both directions.

He snatched my schoolbag on the seat next to him. I tugged to get it back. While he was grabbing it, he pulled my thigh, and in one swift move, he rested the bag behind me and pushed me back.

I began to kick but lost balance as my seat went back, for unexpectedly he had pulled the reclining lever and was pressing all his weight on top of me as I fell back.

Widening my legs with his knees, he mounted me. With my head immobile on the door rest and my schoolbag along the length of my back, all I could do was grip at his shirt to try to pull him off.

To the net of trees overhead, however, it must have seemed more like an embrace, so little movement was I able to generate. With its white-fish eye, the sky looked on impassively, as with searing pain my body exploded. The car shook. Involuntarily I gasped and closed my eyes.

About ten minutes later, I was crossing the road, hurrying two blocks down from the main road into 2nd Street, Quaré Village. I walked up the front steps and entered my home, trying to fix my face to expressionlessness.

But there was no need to.

“I say you weren’t coming,” my mother called out from the kitchen. “Go wash your hands.”

She was busy reheating my supper in the kitchen. I glanced at my placemat already laid out with drinking glass and cutlery. I heard the pot spoon clink and the fridge door open.

Resting down my schoolbag, I slipped into the bathroom. I slapped water on my face, scrubbed my hands, reached for the towel, trembling, and, peering close into the mirror, checked my hair to see if it was in place. I swung the back of my skirt around to the front to see if there were any telltale signs. I could feel nothing but a spasmodic drumming, as if my heart had moved to a new location between my legs. My skirt bore no visible signs. Nonetheless, I rolled off a thick wad of toilet paper and stuffed it in my underwear between my legs.

By the time I came out of the bathroom, my mother was at the table. Steam was rising from the plate she had just placed for me, and she was pouring juice in my glass.

“I was just getting worried. I thought I heard the bus go up the road about twenty minutes ago. But then I didn’t see you. The bus was late or what?”

“Yes,” I grunted, stuffing a spoonful of food into my mouth. I lifted the glass of juice she’d just poured and took a gulp.

“You must be very hungry,” she said, patting my back. “Don’t rush your food, but don’t linger at the table. When you’re finished, go and bathe and come and do your homework.”

With that, she was back to the kitchen to tidy up.

Later, when I undressed in the bathroom, I scoured my body, but there was not a mark, except that when I removed the wad of toilet paper from between my legs, it was totally blood soaked.

My period had come early! Thank God I wouldn’t be pregnant. In overwhelming relief, I got into the shower. And there, the water pouring down my face was indistinguishable from the water pouring from my eyes.

By the way, before my first year of college had ended, Mr. Brierley and Miss Nath had gotten married, and according to the grapevine, her family had disowned her. She was no longer my Chemistry teacher. In fact, she was no longer at my college; she had gotten a transfer because, again according to the grapevine, she had begun “to show.” In short order, she and the “guard dog of the back” had made a baby boy.



Cynthia James is a Trinidadian Canadian author—poet, novelist, short story writer, and winner of the Caribbean Writer’s Canute A. Brodhurst Prize 2013. Her latest publication is Watermarked: A Poetry Collection (2014). She is the author of two novels, Sapodilla Terrace (Upfront, 2006) and Bluejean: A Novel (2000); a collection of short stories, Soothe Me, Music, Soothe Me (1990); three poetry collections, La Vega and Other Poems (1995), Vigil: A Long Poem (1995), and Iere, My Love (1990); and a published work of literary criticism, The Maroon Narrative: Caribbean Literature across Boundaries, Ethnicities, and Centuries (Heinemann, 2002).


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