It was one of those nights when the children had gone to bed with little to eat, when she had had to cover the distance from Kitty to Kingston on foot and when the Guard Hut felt colder and more desolate than it customarily did. Nights like this tested Alice Higgins. They made her regret that she had cut her education short, that high unemployment and limited opportunities for underqualified people meant that she was doing the best that was available, that is, if you excluded the opportunity that she had turned down to accept an unspecified position in the ‘gold bush,’ the only assurance having been received from her prospective employer was that her compensation would have been “worth the while.”
It was not always like this. There were days when she refused to allow depression to get the better of her; when she sought to persuade herself that the demanding hours and the meagre wages that went with being a Security Guard were a good deal better than having no job at all. Those interludes, however, were rare. Mostly, it was a matter of feeling the weight of her circumstances and of wishing she could do better without ever really seeing a way of getting there.
Frequently, she struggled in the grip of an unshakable tiredness that had to do with all of the various sacrifices that she had had to make over time and the countless indignities which she had endured on her job. What haunted her most was the overwhelming guilt that clung to her back like a yoke every time she stepped out her front door to do the night shift, leaving her three children at home, unprotected.
There was that and more. Alice had learnt long ago that for all the political rhetoric about women’s rights and women’s entitlement to equal treatment, once you were a woman doing what was considered to be a less than important job in Guyana you would inevitably be looked down upon and frequently disrespected. She had come to understand that Guyana was the kind of place where people didn’t really love their neighbours with the sense of dutifulness advocated in the Bible and that the promises to take the nation forward made by politicians in their public speeches were no more than the vacuous promises driven by little more than the influence of habit. That was why she never really took those pronouncements seriously.
It was not that there were no opportunities for upward mobility for women in the Guyanese society. What she had found, however, was that those women who ‘made the grade,’ so to speak, had achieved mostly through extraordinary levels of personal sacrifice and in spite of myriad stumbling blocks placed in their way by a society which, for all its pretenses, remained fiercely chauvinistic. Alice had come to understand too that over time there had been no serious official attempts made to change the circumstances of those women who remained anchored to the bottom of the pile. What the politicians had come to understand was that ordinary people had become so preoccupied with their own efforts to change their circumstances that the occasional empty promise served as a more than adequate palliative.
Alice had found that the greatest pressure of all was sometimes having to work two consecutive twelve-hour shifts in the absence of relief and afterwards having to fight tooth and nail with ‘the office’ to get paid the ‘time and a half’ for the second twelve hours to which she was entitled under the rules and which she desperately needed to provide for her children. Being able to afford to feed the children was a constantly preoccupation. She wanted to do more for them but keeping them alive was taking all of her physical and material resources.
Then there was the challenge of the Midnight Checker, a consummate sexual predator who, once he caught you in a condition of less than full alertness, would seize the opportunity to extract a sexual favour. The Midnight Checker was a tall, thin, inoffensive-looking man appropriately known as Stilt. His clothing usually carried the odour of a mix of stale perspiration and alcohol. Once he caught a female guard sleeping that choice open to the hapless victim was to yield to his sexual demands or else endure a loss of pay for the offence of sleeping on duty. There were stories of quite a few female guards, whom, having felt the material loss of a few hours’ worth of wages from time to time but who were still unable to stay awake on their shifts, had simply surrendered themselves to Stilt.
Alice had spoken to female Security Guards employed with other services and had learnt that there were ‘Stilts’ littering the sector but that, on the whole, management was indifferent to the menace. Management’s line of reasoning, she had been told, was that the Stilts of this world would not be able to force themselves upon female guards if the guards would stay awake, in which case it would become much more difficult to try to blackmail them. As far as she had been told the handful of women who had taken their cases to the Ministry of Labour had been told that such complaints could not be pursued seriously in the absence of what one of the officials at the Ministry had described as “hard evidence.” Alice wondered to herself as to where in the world would a lone female Security Guard trying to deflect the advances of a determined sexual predator on a deserted work site at some ungodly hour of night be expected to come up with that sort of evidence. She had also been told by one of the managers at her security firm that whatever it was that Stilt was doing or trying to do it was bringing “results” for the company since his assignment as a night time checker had coincided with a significant drop in the number of sleeping on duty infractions. Not surprisingly, the attitude of management emboldened Stilt and made the female guards even more nervous.
Over time, Alice had come to see the job she did as a necessary evil. At school she had learnt to memorize a saying about there being dignity in labor. Try as she did, however, she had failed to find a single iota of dignity in the job she did. As far as she was concerned it was a means of supporting her three children, the other side of the coin being that it took every ounce of self-esteem that you had come to the job with. She had, eventually, come to terms with the reality that it was what it was and that in the absence of a viable option bellyaching would only sap the energy which she needed to keep going. She understood too that security services were essentially chauvinistic institutions, their service culture, with its coarseness and its absence of refinement favouring what she had come to believe were the preferences of the male of the species. In such an environment women were simply not on an equal footing. Even at the level of management it was men who ‘ran things,’ a few younger women, easier on the eye, thrown in for ‘window dressing.’
There was no outlet through which women could effectively articulate their views. Complaints by women were usually interpreted to be no more than trite displays of tantrum, or else, excursions into mischief, held to be a propensity common among women.
That outlook, Alice felt, was a microcosm of a wider societal problem that had, over the years, remained unchanged since successive political administrations had unfailing thrown up male leaders who had inherited chauvinism from their homes and both the formal and informal education to which they had been exposed.
If you were a woman watching a location in the dead of night it would be difficult not to let your mind wonder to your unprotected children, particularly if you lived in a less than hospitable neighbourhood and if the neighbours had become familiar with your work-related comings and goings. In the dead of night when she was keeping watch over the assorted state inventory at the Ministry to which she had been assigned she thought of the irony that the objects comprising what was loosely described as state assets benefited from better protection than her own children. Alice believed that in a sense it was the fault of irresponsible men that so many women had been driven into jobs as security guards. Like herself, most of the female guards that she knew were victims of relationships that had collapsed leaving frustrated mothers and helpless children behind. If you were one of those mothers who had decided that you would stand by your children then becoming a security guard was one of just a handful of convenient and honest jobs available. Unquestionably, however, the option had its downside.
Alice had never stopped contemplating the risks associated with a lone woman doing ‘night duty’ at an important state facility. What if, given the increasing bravado of the young criminals and the leaden-footedness of the police, the premises to which she was assigned came under armed attack one night? In her particular instance the telephone in the Guard Hut appeared to possess a will of its own. It worked intermittently. Setting that aside there were all sorts of other problems associated with the quick-response capacity of the Guyana Police Force. One of the enduring limitations of the Force was its frequent inability to find transportation to move ranks in response to requests for police assistance. It was once of its shortcomings that caused Alice Higgins to hold the Force in particularly low esteem.
Over her three years in the employ of the Service to which she was attached she had worked at two government ministries. These had been mixed experiences. She had found that public servants tended to see security guards differently. There were instances in which you could become good friends with public servants, even relying on them to share their lunch with you when your circumstances were difficult. Other public servants simply looked down on security guards, treating them as though they were no more than peripheral beings. Then there were the ‘big wigs’ who felt that security guards only existed to follow orders. Alice had been careful over the years to maintain a respectful distance between herself and the employees at the Ministry where she worked. There were two reasons for her caution in engaging them. The first had to do with the fact that she understood that there could only be rare cases in which she could develop real friendships with people, most of whom considered her to be beneath them.
The second reason had to do with the lessons that she had learnt having seen other security guards land themselves in trouble having been complicit in conspiracies to steal state-owned inventory hatched by Ministry ‘insiders’ and into which the guards had been dragged in order that predetermined vehicles leaving the premises not be searched. One female guard who she knew personally had not only lost her job but had been required to repay the cost of a photocopier that had disappeared on a night when she was on duty.
Once Alice had had her dinner at 22:00 hrs (she always ate dinner around that time) she ‘did the rounds,’ enduring that the building was empty and that the various offices were secure. Afterwards she would feed the remains of her dinner to a dog that had attached itself to her, or, more correctly, to the location and which, over time, Survivor, christened had become a reassuring presence. The dog’s greatest value reposed in the fact that it had taken a strong dislike to Stilt and would immediately emit a frenzied and unrelenting round of barking the moment he arrived at the gate of the location in the security vehicle. Alice had come to the conclusion that alerting her to Stilt’s arrival and effectively preventing him from ever sneaking up and catching her sleeping on duty was Survivor’s way of paying her back for offering him what was left of her dinner.
Whilst she was trying to follow the rhythm of the raindrops beating down steadily on the zinc roof of the Guard Hut Alice remembered that she would have to go to the office at the end of her shift the next morning. The thought made her frown. Three weeks earlier she had gone to the office of the National Insurance Scheme to apply for the subsidy which she needed to help purchase a pair of spectacles. Much to her consternation she had been told that no contributions had been paid for her for more than a year and that she did not, therefore, qualify for the subsidy.
She had gone to the office straightaway to verify what she had been told. That had triggered a to-ing and fro-ing between NIS and the Accountant and the next morning she would have to make what would be her third visit in ten days to the Accountant’s office. It was not an exercise to which she was looking forward.
The service staff at the Security Office were not particularly disposed to addressing the concerns of the Security Guards. Once Alice had been told by the Human Resources Manager that she was free to “take off your uniform and find something else to do” after she had dared to put up a spirited argument to prevent herself being robbed of the equivalent of seven days’ pay after she had ‘pulled’ a number of double shifts in previous weeks on account of a spate of illnesses amongst the guards.
As far as the current NIS matter was concerned Alice had learnt ‘through the grapevine’ that the Security Service was in the habit of neglecting to pay guards’ contributions.
She was told that she was not the first guard who had been left ‘high and dry’ when a situation had arisen in which an NIS claim needed to be made.
That evening, Stilt had arrived on the site later than usual. It appeared to Alice that he had been drinking. His speech was more than slightly slurred and he kept undressing her with his eyes. When he had departed from the regular practice of ‘signing off’ on his visit using the window to the Guard Hut to access the log book but had instead opted to enter the cramped area directly, rubbing himself up against her in the process Alice had responded by quickly squeezing past him and exiting the space until he had finished making his entry and left.
Stilt’s pursuits as a sexual predator had become widely known with the Service. Some of his victims openly admitted that they had been compelled to give in to his advances. Others were too ashamed to admit it. Others still had left the job, worried that the repercussions in terms of embarrassment might be too much for them to cope with. Over time Alice had come to think that Stilt might be lining her up as a potential victim. The thought made her nervous.
Alice couldn’t afford to become overly preoccupied with Stilt. She had come to the conclusion long ago that the Stilts of this world were creations of a system that accepted certain things as though that was just the way they had to be. Since she had never heard of any female making an official complaint against Stilt and getting a sympathetic hearing, she thought it best not to seek to set a precedent.
With her kind of luck, she thought, things were not likely to go much better. She recalled that once, a few months earlier, a colleague had made a report to the Ministry of Labour about Stilt’s sexual advances. The response she had received was that such an accusation could land her in serious trouble if she had no “hard evidence” with which to support it. Alice had decided to be counseled by the experiences of others and to simply endure the risk of an awkward encounter with Stilt whilst hoping that that day would never come.
A sudden, sharp downpour that had caused a splatter of raindrops to invade the Guard Hut through the space in the window frame left there by the missing pane. Alice reached for her raincoat hanging on the wall. She had grown accustomed to having to resort to protective clothing inside the Hut whenever the rain fell since she could not recall the number of times that she had made reports about the missing pane. She gave up after she realized that neither the Security Service nor the Clerk in the Ministry assigned to oversee service delivery considered replacing the missing pane of glass to be a priority.
What had been a brisk drizzle no more than a minute or two ago had become a near deluge. Alice had dragged her chair the furthest she could away from the window and was sitting on it watching the water pour into the Guard Hut through the space in the window frame where the pane ought to have been. It simply never crossed her mind to complain again. The last time she had done so the company’s Human Resources Manager had said to her that the less said about the matter the better. The Ministry, the Human Resources Manager had told her, had pointedly ignored the various requests that had been made for the general renovation of the Guard Hut and the company’s General Manager had made it clear that he would rather replace the Guard than “waste time” complaining to the Ministry about a missing window pane.
Morning arrived at a snail’s place. That was always the case when the rain fell and kept you in a condition of discomfiting alertness all night. The situation left you counting the minutes until ‘day clean,’ the one virtue being that the ceaseless rain and the condition of the Guard Hut did not allow you to either drift off into an interlude of sleep or to otherwise let your guard down for one moment. When daylight broke Alice was awake but far from alert, the exertions of having waited out an acutely discomfiting night having left her exhausted.
It was Thursday morning and a Clerk from the security office arrived at the Ministry immediately after eight o’clock to bring Alice’s wages. Usually, she would have to go to the office to collect her wages. Sometimes, however, when the rain fell, Guards would be paid on their respective sites. Management, however, never failed to point to this particular service as though it amounted to some outstanding gesture of goodwill worthy of the highest praise. As far as Alice was concerned, given the considerable downside of the job it was the least that the company could do.
After she had received her wages and completed yet another query with the Clerk over a discrepancy in the calculation of the most recent tranche of overtime Alice made her way to Bourda Market. Shopping on Thursdays before she went home had become a ritual. Then she would make her way home as quickly as possible to make breakfast for her children, aware of the fact that they had eaten very little before going to bed the previous evening. Sometimes, she would arrive home by mid-morning to find that the father of her three-year-old daughter had stopped by and dropped off bread, milk and butter. That, however, was not something that she could depend on. As for the father of her two older children, both boys, she had not seen or heard from him since the day he had come to the Ministry and roughed her up when she had refused to meet his demand for “a bus fare” to get him to Linden on some “important business.” That was about seven months ago and it was the last that she had seen him or heard from him. His absence was a considerable relief. He had been a serial abuser.
Sitting on the bus with black plastic bags of milk, rice, bread, sugar and ground provision resting on her legs, Alice felt older than her thirty years. She recalled that it was exactly a year earlier that her mother had died of cancer. She had died, Alice thought, heartbroken, having considered it a failure on her part that she had been unable to persuade Alice to apply for entry to the University of Guyana once she had left Secondary School. By then Alice had already become pregnant and the cancer had begun to take its toll on her mother. As time went by it turned out that the promise that Alice had made to “give it two years” then apply to enter UG was no more than a false promise. Circumstances had pushed her inexorably in an entirely different direction, and pregnant again, UG had been the last thing on her mind. The momentary deflection depressed her and on this occasion she welcomed the sudden, sharp increase in the volume of the music in the minibus which, customarily, would annoy her considerably.
School had only just closed for the Christmas break but the festive season was far from her thoughts. She was thinking of the new school term and the financial responsibilities associated with ensuring that her two older children finished their secondary education. She was living with the pressure of what her Aunt Lillian had told her was “a generational curse,” a deeper and deeper drift into social and intellectual perdition by successive generations of the family. She had lived with the terror or seeing that curse encroach upon her own children, drifting inexorably, like smoke rising from dying embers. She knew that her sole preoccupation was with having the curse end with her.
It was the one thing that had made her hold on to her job as a Security Guard and hope that she could, somehow, at least see her older children arrive at an academic level that exceeded her own. That would mean, she reasoned, that they would not have to encounter the indignities which she was having to endure as a security guard. Perhaps they would begin their working careers as public servants, Clerks in one of the very ministries in which she had worked as a guard; that would mean that they would not have to end up as hostages to fortune and to the proclivities of miscreants like Stilt.
It would mean, too, that they would not have to become involved in confrontations with their employers over monies that were owing to them or to endure the rudeness of other people who considered themselves their ‘betters.’ It meant as well that they would not have to be permanent hostages to a political system that promised much an eventually gave perilously close to nothing. Her children, she hoped, would emancipate themselves in a manner that she had failed to do.
The one thing that Alice Higgins knew for certain as she surrendered the black plastic bags of food to her three children who had come to the gate of the modest cottage she was renting in Gordon Street, Kitty to meet her, was that she could at least dare to dream.