George McWhirter

The Banana Trade

George McWhirter

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The shop door rattles, at five minutes to midnight—Belle Kotch, calling, “Mrs. McQuirter,” wanting a banana for Mr. Kotch, the captain of a tugboat, whose trips up the Belfast Lough and around Belfast harbour make him crave travel and tropical fodder. He works holidays, all hours; just home, clamouring for a New Year’s Eve banana. Mrs. McQuirter gives Belle’s flaming hair a look on the threshold of Belle first footing, bringing the foul luck of the Viking in.

     “Wait out there,”  but after Mrs. McQuirter shouts who it is at the door to the assembled family upstairs and fetches a banana, Belle’s in, waiting. Red pomegranate noggin, small as a goblin! “Get the hell back out and blight your own house!’ yells Mrs. McQuirter, grabbing Belle’s hand, and like a yellow pistol for Belle to shoot herself and the Captain with, she slaps the banana into her palm,.

     The Great Depression slips in on that banana skin; all of the Second World War’s fallen; and just when the business could pick itself up with a post-war trail of merchant ships, laden with the ex-colonies’ bananas, McQuirter Fruit and Vegetable is long gone bankrupt. Mrs. McQuirter now serves as the neighbourhood midwife, a lady of cures for the living and ways with the dead. Mr. McQuirter has gone back to his old job and hid away from her in the shipyard ever since demand from the Royal Navy picked up before the War. Grown big and bulgy, soon he comes home, he evades her rage at him behind a pile of mumbles and mashed potatoes, never forgiven for robbing her of her due, for not helping her be first among fruiterers,.

     But in due course, Captain Kotch, spinning around in oily Lough and Belfast Harbour water, like a Norwegian rat in a drum, goes up the spout, literally climbing a cliché — the cast iron drain spout in his back yard, and not the main mast he sees in his mind. Shortly after, Belle’s at Mrs. McQuirter’s door once more, purporting to be sorry.

     “But what for, Belle?”

     The Captain being dead, needing to be laid out, and next to nothing in the Kotch coffers for an undertaker, from whose description, Belle deftly omits “a proper”. 

     “Will you do it, Mrs. McQuirter…?”

     “I’ll have to see.” 

     And what Mrs. McQuirter has to see is the Captain, lying as he fell, knees up where they seized on the back yard spout.  Kindly as a koala on a eucalyptus, his face beams a soft, sad, furry white and grey — undamaged, for Belle had to pull him off onto the back of his head in the flag-stoned yard. The two women look at him and the blood from his split head trickle into the back yard drain hole.

     “Your man must have had knees like a pair of pliers to keep a hold of that spout,” notes Mrs McQuirter as she attempts to separate same said knees with her hand.

     There lies the grapefruit sucker, banana lover, who emptied the Kotch exchequer for pomelos and pomegranates, exotic South Seas furnishings, Samoan war clubs shaped like women’s pelvises, and sexually explicit Japanese screens, doing a knees-up in a Hawaiian shirt.

     No need for Belle to recite the tortures his taste gave her. Mrs. McQuirter knows. And this last escapade to prove he was a cut above everybody has cut Belle down to size, smaller than she is already! Grief or relief has gobbled up the wee woman.

     After seeing she’d pulled him off the spout to his death — done something that looked suspiciously like murder — Belle debated with her pride, all of which Captain Kotch had already swallowed for her, and she called the only woman she knew could help.

     “I’ll need something thick to wrap his legs and body in,” says the ad hoc mortician, Mrs. McQuirter.

     “What for, Mrs. McQuirter?”

     “To straighten him and his knees so he’ll fit in the coffin. Are you sure he wasn’t up there all night while you were sleepin’? Rigor mortis has set in.”

     Belle just looks dazed over her deliberation about what to wrap him in.

     “A Persian rug. That last notion of his he spent our money on — will that do?”

     “I’ll need Mr. McQuirter to help me roll him in it.”

     Wrapped in the patterned-pile of the Persian rug, on the bare flagstone floor, our Captain lies, a bump and a lump away from his level best.

     After he arrives home from work and is brought over to do the job, Mrs. McQuirter watches her own heavy-set husband drop onto the Captain’s knees, rump first.

     Mr. McQuirter rubs himself. “That’ll add to my piles and bad back,” he says and leaves the two women to lift the Captain up onto the table. 

     He’s light as a moth.

     “Always had to be top banana. You know the banana isn’t a tree,” Belle remarks, as if Mrs. McQuirter, having been in the business, might appreciate knowing, “it’s a low-growing vegetable, Kotch always said. You don’t have to climb much, if you need one of those.”

     “Don’t tell me you’re as big a dunderhead as your husband, Belle? To get him his banana that New Year’s Eve, we had to climb out of a Great bloody Depression. But wait here, I’ll go over to my house and bring my Jimmy’s mug and brush, his soap stick and a cutthroat razor. I’ll show you how to shave him.”

     Belle raises her eyes to the heavens, like she’s just caught a glimmer of her own man, climbing up into the blue for a coconut — way beyond bananas, now.


George McWhirter


George McWhirter is transatlantically anthologized in THE PENGUIN BOOK OF CANADIAN VERSE edited by Ralph Gustafson and IRISH WRITING IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (Cork University Press, edited by David Pierce). His most recent books of poetry are THE INCORRECTION (Oolichan Books, 2007) and THE ANACHRONICLES (Ronsdale Press, 2008). His latest book of stories, THE GIFT OF WOMEN was published by Exile Editions in November, 2014, and he has served as Vancouver’s inaugural Poet Laureate, 2007-2009. He has a rudimentary website: http://www3.telus.net/GeorgeMcWhirter.