Jamaicans won't kiss a dog, but they'll snatch back money from a prostitute in the middle of sex

It is six months since I moved to Jamaica, and the problem of my name seems at last to be resolved. It is not the custom in this village to ask anyone their name, still less to carry out introductions. What people do is invent names for each other and use these instead. No one remembers why Colin is known as Fabulous, or where Salad or Guilty or Puss came from. And it isn't clear why, having done without a name for months, I suddenly appear to be called Susan.

A good deal of what happens here is mysterious, but luckily, there is no need to understand it. As with names, you can invent your own version of events, and this seems to work just as well, because everyone does it. There is a current rumour that my husband, Paul, is an undercover policeman, here on the trail of drug smugglers. It started when someone heard that he was from Scotland, and - not knowing it was a country - took it to be short for Scotland Yard.

We wake on Saturday and find carrier bags full of dead goat by the swimming pool. It is the day of the party - a joint birthday celebration for Paul and a friend called Ronnie - and the fridge is already crammed with goat. But, for good measure, Ronnie's brother has stolen another one out of a field, and butchered it here in the garden. Now there is goat all over the house - I find a horned head in a bucket on our bed, at one point - and we come across young men cooking bits of it all day. Preparations are interrupted periodically by a crack break, when they stop work to smoke a rock.

All day, Paul and I wonder what the party will be like. As soon as everyone arrives, we realise we have no idea what a party here should be like, and so have no way of knowing whether or not it is going well. Ronnie admits he is none the wiser. He is turning 30 and has lived here all his life, but the social events he has attended at other people's houses have, without exception, been wakes. So we sit around the pool and look at each other, like a large Quaker circle, while eating the goats. Later, when a bonfire is lit on the beach, we get up somewhat abruptly and dance. In the early hours, when it is all over, a dozen or so stragglers are reluctant to leave. Ronnie calmly draws his machete and marches them off down the lane in the moonlight, like a drover.

A neighbour drops in with a wheelbarrow full of puppies. We first met Baba when he tried to sell us his car in a "very special deal", the gist of which was that we'd buy it and he'd keep it. He is forever fending off bankruptcy, and when his mongrel bitch recently gave birth to what looked quite like Rottweilers, he thought his ship had come in. But every day, their noses get longer, and the awful mongrel truth cannot be concealed another hour.

In a panic, Baba is now hawking his "pure pedigrees" from door to door at a knockdown US$50 each. "Little beauties," he says, rubbing his hands and sweating nervously. We suggest that, if his mutt really has produced pedigree Rottweilers, it's not the puppies he should be selling but the story.

A recurring surprise has been the difference between our idea of what is shocking, and what passes for it in local opinion. The question arises yet again this morning, when a couple of friends pass by and happen to see Paul kissing our dog. "Him kiss de dog!" They are scandalised. Not an hour later, I run into a fisherman called Waffie, who is trying to sell a pair of green eels to a frightened-looking tourist on the beach. I notice that Waffie's neck is bleeding, and ask what happened. Nothing much, he says, and explains that a prostitute scratched him when he tried to snatch his money back while still having sex with her. "Me nah come," he shrugs, as if stating the obvious. "So me wan' me money back." Paul is the only person I retell this story to who finds it at all unusual.

A word at the very heart of Jamaican life is "wutless" - worthless - and it is applied widely, with vigour and enthusiasm. Cable & Wireless, for example, is known as Cable & Wutless - a tradition I understand better having learnt that, if I want a new phone line, I must join a waiting-list now standing at 270,000. How Cable & Wireless, with a private monopoly on all telecommunications, has pulled this off is a puzzle - but then, so is much of what the company does. When the hotel next door to us first opened, it asked to be listed as "Jake's". "But who is Jake?" asked the phone company. "Jake is a parrot. The hotel is called 'Jake's'. It is named after the parrot," the hotel explained. "But you cannot have a phone in a parrot's name," replied Cable & Wireless. "If the parrot flies away, who will pay the bill?"

A firm belief in the whole country's wutlessness is normal among Jamaicans. Many are disappointed, in fact, if they can't detect at least a streak of it in a fellow Jamaican. Historians read this as nationalised self-loathing, bequeathed by colonial rule and slavery, but the churches seem to be all in favour and egg it on no end. On a radio phone-in last week, a Christian urged listeners to pray for a "national wake-up call. An earthquake would be best: 7.5 on the Richter scale, I think we need. Or maybe eight. Something like that." At five past ten last night, we had an earthquake. Typical Jamaica: it was a wutless earthquake, registering a wutless 2.6.

This article first appeared in the 04 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Cheated of their vodka and cake