Breaking Curfew

Friday 21st October

L and I are asleep in bed. I'm woken by a hand shaking my shoulder. I open bleary eyes and focus on a large spliff held inches from my nose by a smiling M. Early though it is, I don't have to think for long. There have to be worse ways to start this, our second day of imprisonment.

A little later, I roll out of bed feeling mellow. As I pull on my clothes, W calls to me. We have to go to the shop.

'What now?' I protest. 'I can't! I'm too high! Can't we wait an hour or so?'

W shakes his head in disbelief. If we know about the shop being open, others will also know, he says. Local shops don't carry much stock. They will soon run out. I can see he's making sense and feel a heavy weight of responsibility. There's no choice. With our limited supplies rapidly shrinking, we have to go and we have to go now.

I reach for the large grey shoulder bag we use for shopping and lift it from the hook on my bedroom wall. As it drops, I'm aware of a weight at the bottom.

I know what this is. Back in London, H and I had bought a large hunting knife in a leather sheath for cutting bush and so on. In the days before the coup, when I was going in and out of town twice a day to visit H in hospital, several people had told me I should carry it. I'd been reluctant at the time; I couldn't visualise a situation in which it could possibly help me and doubted I'd ever be able to use it. But eventually, as always, I bowed to local wisdom and put it in the bag.

On this morning on the second day of a shoot-to-kill curfew, there's a part of my fuddled brain that registers the knife is still in the bag. Another part of my brain attempts to grapple with the question of whether or not I should carry it today. But the largest part of my brain shuts down. It's too hard. I can't decide. With W calling again that I should hurry, I block on the knife's presence, grab the bag and the money and follow W through the door into the unknown outside world.

The shop is just at the end of our gap. Although it's on the road, which must carry some degree of risk, it's less than 100 yards from our home. If all goes smoothly, we should be back in a few minutes. It's not such a big deal.

It is though. W was right. We reach the end of our gap and are greeted by a couple of guys hanging out by the school. We can see inside the shop - the shelves are bare. Nothing left at all. The guys tell us that P's shop still has supplies.

P's shop. That's a different matter all together. P's shop is further down the road, right on the crossroads where we know there's been a roadblock. It's a strategic crossroads. Will the soldiers still be there?

W and I glance at each other, but we both know that in reality there's no choice. We can't go home empty-handed. We set off, keeping to the edge of the deserted road. As we walk, we hear a vehicle behind us and before it comes into view, we duck down behind a hedge and wait until the army truck passes.

This is all so unreal (and I'm so high) that I'm convinced I'm acting in a movie and have to stifle an urge to giggle as I imagine myself wearing a belted raincoat and black beret. I'm in the French Resistance.

When the truck has disappeared, we move back onto the edge of the road. As we come into view of the crossroads, our worst fears are realised. A group of heavily-armed soldiers is occupying the middle of the square. There's no way we can get to P's shop without them seeing us. This is now all too real.

'Right,' I say to W. 'From this point on, there's no ducking and diving. We need to walk in the middle of the road so they can clearly see us. Walk slowly and keep our hands visible.'

We're working well together, W and I. Almost immediately, the soldiers spot us.

'You should never feel so pleased about being with a white woman,' I mutter to W.

He knows what I mean. We don't believe they'll really shoot us on sight, in spite of Hudson Austin's warning on the radio, but the likelihood of them shooting an obvious foreigner is even more remote, given the mounting international pressure and the threat of an imminent invasion. Even so, it's impossible to predict what might happen and I'm aware my words are a puny attempt at bravado. We keep on walking at a steady pace, ensuring we make no sudden moves.

What I want is for the soldiers to come forward and confront us, but I see one of them flick a wrist. The soldiers scatter and take up positions behind walls at each approach to the crossroads.

Once again, we have no choice but to keep on walking towards them. When we get to the end of the road, we can see the front of P's shop. The shutters are down and there's no indication it has ever been open. We stop in the middle of the square, unsure of our next move. As I glance round, I can see the barrels of guns pointing in our direction.

The soldier who had given the order to scatter steps forward from behind his wall and the others come forward to join him, surrounding us. There are five of them, all armed with automatic rifles. Once again, I'm swamped by a feeling of unreality. I've seen this movie, I tell myself, but I'm not sure what happens next.

'Where are you going?' the leader demands.

Without having discussed it, W and I both know it makes sense for me to do the talking. I explain that we're low on food and that we'd heard the shop was open. The soldier's eyes flicker to the shuttered shopfront and back to us.

'You need a pass for that,' he tells us.

Pass? I know nothing about any pass, I say. My sluggish brain struggles to come up with something - anything - that might shift the impasse. Through the fog, I remember hearing something on the radio earlier as I got ready to leave. Something about curfew being lifted to allow people to stock up on supplies. I recall saying to W that we could wait 'til then and him replying that it would be too late and the shops would have run out. I grasp at the straw.

'The radio said the curfew would be lifted today,' I bluster.

The soldier raises his eyebrows.

'Yes, yes,' I continue, struggling to remember the details. 'Between ten and two, they said.'

There's an extended pause. It's as though the air is thick as treacle and everything's moving in slow motion. The soldier raises his arm and looks at his watch. I have to stop myself groaning aloud. I have no idea what time it is, but it's clear it's early morning still - nowhere near ten.

He probably thinks I'm an idiot. And he wouldn't be wrong. Maybe this is what persuades him we're no threat. He's about to let us go. Though he's still hesitant, I can see it in his expression. I attempt a smile.

It's at this point that we hear a jeep roaring down the hill. It screeches to a halt behind us. There are two PRA officers on board. The passenger leans out and points to the bag on my shoulder.

'I want that bag searched physically!' he growls.

My bowels turn to water. Only now do I allow the consious part of my brain to register the knife, nestling at the bottom of the otherwise empty bag.

The soldier who has been questioning us reaches out his hand. With bone-breaking reluctance I hold out the bag. If things had been moving sluggishly before, time now slows to a bare minimum.

I lock my eyes on his. Keep looking in his eyes. He's a man. He's just a man, let him see your humanity. Engage with his. It has to be harder to kill someone you've connected with.

It's working. His eyes remain glued to mine as he lowers his hand into the bag.

I see the moment his fingers encounter the knife. I see the shock and the regret register in those eyes I've locked onto. Slowly, so very slowly, he draws up his hand. He tears his gaze from mine and looks down, then back up at me. I can see his indecision. For a moment I wonder - he looks almost like he wants to cry and though this terrifies me even more (what does he know that I don't?) in spite of everything, I feel guilty for putting him in this position. What will he do?

But he's a soldier and just as we've had no choice up to now, neither does he.

'There's a knife in the bag,' he whispers.

Instantly, the soldiers surrounding us are on full alert. Weapons carried casually until now are readied, levelled and pointed at us, inches away from our torsos. Beside me, I feel a wave of shock emanating from W. He didn't know about the knife.

What have I done? I've put myself at risk but, even worse, I've put W at risk and maybe the others at home too. I still can't imagine them just shooting us on the spot. (What imagination could ever visalise such a scenario?) But I'm convinced they'll take us in for questioning. And then...what? If they interrogate me, what line do I take? Pro-Maurice, which could lead to god knows what consequences? Or do I lie and say I support the coup? Or stay silent for fear of incriminating myself?

I turn to watch as the officer in the jeep gestures for the bag and examines the leather sheath. In the same unbearable slow motion, he flicks the catch and draws out the blade whose savage appearance H and I had laughed over when we first bought it, millenia ago back in London.

'Why do you have this knife?' he demands.

I start to gibber, the words flooding out over numb lips. I explain that I'd been carrying the knife before but forgot it was there.

'It's stupid,' I plead. 'What could I do with a knife? What could I possibly hope to achieve?'

I tell him about being low on food supplies. That there are six of us. Two of our friends are ill...I show him the money - like that proves anything...

Finally, I run out of words and turn back to the soldiers surrounding us. Once again, I look directly into each of their eyes, never allowing my gaze to drop to the barrels of the guns only inches from my abdomen. Guns can't hurt you. It's the men carrying the guns that you have to focus on.

Who can say how long we stand there? Time is almost at a standstill now. After a lifetime, I hear the jeep roar off. The soldier with the bag returns and hands it to me.

'He held the knife,' he says, and it sounds like an apology.

'That's cool,' I stutter. 'He can keep the knife.'

'You can go to the shop now,' he tells us, indicating with his chin.

Only now do we turn and see that P's shop is open at the back. I don't remember if we thanked them or not. I do remember the walk to the shop on shaking legs, about twenty yards away, felt like one of the longest distances I'd ever crossed. Dry-mouthed and nauseous, W and I cross the stretch in silence.

Once inside the dim interior of P's shop, we see a handful of other people are there and supplies are indeed running out fast. We stand in the cool shadows and look at each other for the first time. I wonder if I look as terrified as he does.

'I nearly shat myself,' W says with disarming honesty.

It's only then that the full impact of my stupidity hits home. Freaked and paranoid at the rumours that witnesses at the fort were being rounded up - and aware that it might be known that he'd taped what happened (so different from the version being recounted on the radio by so-called witnesses) W had misheard the officer in the jeep.

Instead of 'I want that bag searched physically,' he'd heard 'I want that man personally.' His relief when the soldier took my bag instead was short-lived when the knife emerged.

Somehow we go through the motions and buy flour, rice, potatoes - bulky belly-filling staples - and stagger back to the yard. The others have been frantic with worry at the length of time we've been gone, imagining all kinds of horrific scenarios. The reality wasn't that far short.

Once we're back home though, we can breathe again and reflect. With the seesaw of emotions that dominate all of that time, we're now euphoric. We broke curfew and came back with food, hunter-gatherer style. We've fulfilled a basic human need. And survived to tell the tale. I can't imagine ever being that scared or in that much danger ever again.

I didn't know then what was still in store for Grenada.