Travel Writing Awards Entry

By H J Reed

Flying Fish with Anne-Marie
Reduit Beach, the main attraction of Rodney Bay in St Lucia, is just what the brochures say it is – a traditional, lively, exotic package holiday destination. By day, the narrow strip of golden sand is almost obscured by row upon row of umbrella shaded sun loungers. The clear, blue bay beyond churns in the wake of speed boats and jet skis. Menus in the beach front cafes offer familiar comfort food – all day breakfasts, fish and chips, sausage and mash, served with ‘Pina Colada’ or ‘Sex on the Beach’. At night, the beach front hotels take over, and the strains of a hundred karaoke bars wash over the deserted sand. Travellers in search of the ‘real’ St Lucia would be forgiven for hurrying swiftly past Rodney Bay. But if they did, they would miss a hidden pleasure. They would never meet Anne-Marie.

At the south end of Reduit Beach, the hotels peter out, the sand giving way to a short stretch of rock and scrub. Hidden by the curve of the bay, out of reach of the bars and restaurants, few holidaymakers venture here. It takes a while to notice that the place is not deserted. Right at the end of the beach an ancient wooden shack sits just above the tideline, its peeling paint the colour of the scrub, the corrugated iron roof askew, darkened almost to black by lichen and salt spray. One side of the shack is open – a wooden counter covered in scarred gingham sticky backed plastic, with a high bench, bolted to the wood. A plastic picnic table, off to one side under the trees, wobbles precariously in the wind. This is Anne-Marie’s cafe.
It’s ten in the morning, and a small group of locals has gathered to take a break and drink beer. We join them on the wooden bench and wait for someone to ask the usual question; “Hey, Anne-Marie! What you got?”
There’s a silence, followed by a shuffling from behind a curtained off square in the dark depths of the hut. Everyone waits, holding their breath. At last, the curtain parts, and the show gets on the road. Anne-Marie is a big woman. She’s big, she never hurries and she doesn’t talk much. She fixes us, one by one, with an appraising stare, and then slowly nods. We just made a reservation. Without taking her eyes off us, she shouts over her shoulder, “Hey – what we got?”
Her son, a dour fisherman in his late thirties, as slow moving and slow talking as she is, straightens up from the stone oven out back and replies, “Flying Fish.”
As if we didn’t hear, Anne-Marie announces gravely, “Flying Fish. You come back, twelve o’clock.” That’s it. She disappears behind the curtain, and we are dismissed until the appointed hour.
At twelve on the dot we are all present, lined up on the bench, elbows on the plastic counter. Anne-Marie’s son has served us all beer from the ancient, rumbling fridge at the front of the shack, together with shots of local rum from a cask on the floor behind. There are a half dozen locals giving Creole lessons to us four tourists as we wait under the awning, mouths watering in anticipation. When Anne-Marie appears the conversation drops, and she demands, “Who wants Flying Fish?”, as though we had ever had a choice. There’s no menu at Anne-Marie’s place. She unwraps the foil parcels from the stone oven, and we are all served a plate piled high with whole baked fish, roasted plantain and sweet potato with butter, spiced cabbage and fresh, stone baked bread. We eat in silence, transported. After dinner, we are offered huge slabs of hot, dark brown coconut cake straight from the foil, and more rum, to wash it down.
During the meal, Anne-Marie has been dealing with the queue that formed as soon as dinner was served. They haven’t come for refreshments. Anne-Marie’s shack doubles as her surgery, and her waiting room, a patch of grass and the picnic table, is always full of those who can’t afford the services of the doctor in Gros Islet. She listens, nods, and disappears behind her curtain, emerging with soda bottles, jam jars and old cans filled with syrups, ointments and balms. Payment is strictly by donation, usually of home grown mangoes, plantain or potatoes. Occasionally, someone gives her cash.
One of our party has grazed a toe, and it’s become infected.
“Hey, Anne-Marie,” a dining companion shouts, “You come look at this foot!”
She shuffles round the counter and subjects the toe to a long, slow examination. After an age, she grunts and nods.
“You wait,” she says eventually, and vanishes into her dispensary. We drink more rum while we wait, and she comes back with two bottles and a box of matches. The wound is treated first with a pink liquid, and then with a pungent thick syrup the colour of plain chocolate. The toe suitably marinated, Anne-Marie advances on it and lights a match. The look of horror on the patient’s face is met with laughter by the assembled company. Anne-Marie ignores them all and sets fire to the mixture, mutters something under her breath and blows out the flame.
“Get better now,” she assures us, with the nearest thing to a smile we have seen all day.
“How much?” we ask when, after a farewell shot of rum we get up to leave. She rolls her eyes, counting up on her fingers. Dinner, drinks and medicine.
“Food,” she announces finally, “ten dollars. Medicine free.”
That works out at two pounds fifty a head, for the best lunch in St. Lucia. Next morning we all watch as the burnt crust on the injured toe is carefully peeled away. The infection is gone. There’s nowhere quite like Anne-Marie’s place.