Games people play in the Caribbean

I AM writing this in a little pink and white cabana on Bequia, a small, hilly island, just off St Vincent. Outside, a cockerel is crowing, humming-birds are hovering and troupes of bright green butterflies are wafting through the air, like errant scraps of lettuce. It is very nice to be away from Manhattan for a bit. The day before I left, I walked into my local deli and found myself in the middle of an altercation between a gang of brutish young men and the store owner. The gang-leader - a sort of Hispanic Giant Haystacks, with a stars and stripes kerchief wrapped about his enormous head - claimed to have been "disrespected''. He and the three or four of his chums were wagging their fingers threateningly and knocking over the confectionery displays, while the store owner - a small, wiry Korean man - told them, not very politely, to desist. Shortly after he accused Haystacks and his cohorts of enjoying sexual intimacy with their mothers, Haystacks lost his rag and tried to straddle the counter. Nothing daunted, the store owner produced a terrible blade, about a foot long, with a handle at each end, and began waving it around excitedly.

Throughout all this, I had been standing over by the refrigerated section, where I was intending to select a six-pack of Diet Coke. But when Haystacks and friends got out guns - guns! - I scurried, Cokeless, to the back of the store and cowered by the soap powders. For reasons that students of violent male ritual will be better equipped to explain than myself, the gang members never used their weapons. Instead, the row continued for five minutes or so without the bene- fit of gunfire, and then, quite suddenly, the gang departed. As they leapt into their yobmobile and swerved away, they were promising to return with reinforcements, on the morrow. The store- owner, who is a much tougher cookie than I had pegged him for, merely laughed. But I am rather worried, lest I return to Manhattan to find him murdered, or his deli burnt to a crisp.

It was possibly symptomatic of post-traumatic syndrome, but the first night I got here, I fell dramatically ill, and several of the small hours were spent in a state of nauseous semi-delirium. When I wasn't vomiting copiously, my friend tells me, I was rolling around beneath the mosquito net, moaning, "I have the devil in my head.'' Happily, Bequia is a perfect setting for convalescence. There are only 4,000 people living on the island and about 10 tourists visiting. In the mornings we walk a steep, jungly path to a shady beach, called the Princess Margaret. (East Caribbean currency still carries a portrait of a very young Queen Elizabeth with a raunchy smile and a spectacular, Liz Taylor-goes-to-Vegas bouffant.) Except for some pale yellow crabs genially scampering about, the Princess Margaret is deserted, so I am able to bare my paleness to the sun-God without too much shame. In the afternoons, we walk round the bay to a hole-in-the- wall ice-cream parlour run by an American straight out of the Doonesbury cartoon strip. We talk earnestly about hiring bicycles and riding round the island. Then we take a siesta.

At night, in the hotel's Crossroads Motel bar, a pianist, whose style has been much influenced by Les Dawson, offers plinky plonky renditions of "St Louis Blues'' and "Stormy Weather''. But since we are loath to get into conversation with our fellow holiday-makers, we don't go to the bar much. My friend is naturally taciturn and I'm just snotty. I'll do almost anything to avoid those grim little banana daiquiri chats and sun- deck confidences. As an ex-boyfriend of mine once said, explaining his laconic manner la plage, "I don't do friendly on vacation." Mostly we stay in and read.

Reading at long stretches and with complete concentration is one of the chief joys of a holiday like this. Last night I stayed up, finishing Persuasion, which I hadn't read since I was 15. When I got to the penultimate chapter, in which Captain Wentworth gives Anne Eliot a letter declaring that his love for her is still undimmed ("Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago..."), I became quite hysterical and woke my friend with my rapturous sobs. (He's looking forward to getting a whole eight hours of unbroken sleep, one of these nights.) Our other chief source of entertainment is a very childish game, in which you have to choose, from the first 10 people who walk past you, the one that you would go to bed with. You cannot wait until you see all 10 people before making your decision, so your choice must be based on a calculation of how attractive the subsequent passers-by are going to be. The game suggests a moral almost exactly opposite to that advanced in Persuasion: the player who holds out for someone of real quality usually ends up having to settle for the 10th passer-by - invariably a German looking like a boiled sweet in a "No Problem" T-shirt. If you haven't seen your cup of tea by person number six, it is advisable to plump for the next passer-by who seems to observe basic standards of hygiene and doesn't dress like a total bozo.

Not that I look such an oil painting myself. Before I left, I neglected to visit Olga's beauty salon for what we girlies refer to prettily as "a bikini wax", but on the eve of my departure, I was in a pharmacy buying suntan lotion, when I happened upon a do-it-yourself product called Hair Off. Not the most poetic of brand-names, I thought, but admirably to the point and, at $4.99, a bargain. I bought it. Back home, I peeled off one of the sticky strips in the packet and laid it carefully across the appropriate part of my groin. Then, while waiting for it to "take", I read the instructions a little more carefully and discovered that the strip should be placed in the fridge for five minutes before application, otherwise it's too sticky. With enormous effort and pain, I wrenched the thing from me. There was no hair off, and a lot of jelly stuff on. (Is this too disgusting? Just skip to the end of the paragraph when you start feeling sick.) I acquitted myself much more professionally on the other side of "the bikini line", but there was no fixing the first botched-up attempt. Nothing, including rigorous scrubbing, could remove the vile Hair Off mixture. After the long plane journey the next day, I had literally to peel my knickers off and I am now sporting a most bizarre, lop-sided, pubic topiary. This, I tell myself mournfully, is certainly not the way a girl bags herself a Captain Wentworth. !