During the cold, damp British winter four or five years ago came an opportunity out of the blue to live in the Caribbean – Grand Turk, capital of the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI), just south of the Bahamas. The island is only a couple of miles long and the population is less than 4,000. It was boosted at that time by a number of mainly British people brought in to run the country after serious corruption had destroyed the credibility of the local government.
TCI is a British Overseas Territory, independent but ultimately the responsibility of the UK. With a largely British history, the language is English and they drive on the left side of the road.
On Sunday mornings the place goes even quieter than usual and all the locals get dressed up smartly and flock to the churches, of which there is a bewildering variety for such a small place. There are Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and Anglican and in addition, churches of prophecy, churches of healing, churches of Christ-knows-what.
The one I find myself in, right by the beach, is old-fashioned, or perhaps high church. A junior official in a cassock and surplice has the job of walking in front of the little procession of priest and choir as it enters the church, swinging a silver ball on a chain, from which belches the smoke of incense. The boy’s head swivels front and back to ensure he isn’t setting fire to anybody. The priest chants lines that I can’t help thinking should be simply spoken, not eked out in a tone that falls and rises again at the end of each section. Back home they have been taking the mickey out of this sort of thing since the 1960s.
Whereas now in the UK people turn up at churches wearing whatever they like – shorts and a T-shirt for a summer funeral (‘well, he wouldn’t have minded’) – here some of the men wear suits, the others smart shirts and trousers. And as for the women, while the older ones wear hats of a style you only see nowadays in charity shops, both they and the younger ones model colourful, fitted, in some cases sexy dresses.
The walk from my beachfront home is 20 minutes down a blissfully shady street and along the sea wall. The church is full and I am one of only two white faces.
Following the order of service in a new church is usually a challenge but I am lucky enough to be sitting next to two young women who see me struggling and refer me to pages in the book or what is up on the TV screens.
The minister is a tall, thick-set man who looks tired, as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Halfway through the service he comes to what is clearly a regular item: spot the visitor. And of course I am very easy to spot.
I stand up and say my name and what I’m doing there and he welcomes me, but my two pew buddies have already done that in deed, not just word.
As the months pass, I miss the occasional week and several times the priest picks me out again in the visitor slot. Perhaps, as an English friend sitting next to me one day says, he thinks all white men look the same.
It is a tight-knit community and there is not much mixing between the locals (who call themselves Belongers) and the expats. I spend some evenings at a bar built on stilts over the beach, and 99% of the customers are expats. One notable exception is a pretty but careworn middle-aged woman with the darkest skin I’ve ever seen. She seems to have a relationship with an English alcoholic accountant who props up the bar most nights.
After a few months I play a gig, just me and my guitar, and it becomes a regular thing.
At church I am looking for a way of contributing, so I offer my services as sound engineer, helping the priest to master his screeching PA system.
The other Anglican church is next to the cemetery, a dusty, sandy, uneven, derelict-looking place the size of a football pitch. I decide I would be happy enough to be under there when my time comes. Not all of the Caribbean merits the ‘paradise’ tag that people bandy about so readily, but this place does. Sadly, work moves us on, but is nice for a while to be part of the community, albeit an arm’s-length part.