Mini Memoirs of an Island Girl!
Jaden Sun ferry pulled into Little Bay just going on nine in the evening. Its arrival into the port is timely, though its departure from Heritage Quay in Antigua is not quite so.
I consider this a plus as we don't tend to do clockwork in the West Indies, at least not last I knew.
It's dark now, but there is no way of missing the looming cliff sides that tower over the port even in this level of darkness.
As the ferry docks, the chatter increases in as homegrown a dialect as it will ever get. I suppose it's the excitement of being back on home soil. But for me, it is very much the opposite - I am actually filled with dread. As a matter of fact, I now want to swim the Atlantic back to the UK because that would be the only way of leaving at this time of the night.
Back in England, I refer to this little island as home, but now that I have stepped foot on the concrete jetty - it no longer feels that way. But don't get me wrong, I am still pleased to be here, if not for myself, for the mini version of me who keeps asking what it was like growing up here.
I'm in the Immigrations office now. The immigration officer cannot find any details relating to me. My brain goes into overdrive. Is this a good or a bad thing? She issues a couple of sentences, and although it's English, all be it buried under another West Indian accent, none of it makes sense to me. The expression on her face does nothing to alleviate my concerns. And I begin to wonder, is this where I get 'DENIED ENTRY' onto my own island? Because, well, it is! I'm amused now as I type this when in contrast, I was waiting for some axe to fall. It must have been the jet lag because why would I be denied entry.
Anyway, she hands me back my passport, and I hear her say twenty-two years to her colleague. And then it clicked, the twenty-two years, that is.
My brain tells my eyes that the tall, dark guy standing at the back of the office looks familiar, but it holds back his name. And we look at each other with that 'I know you know that I know you!' kind of look.
Bev, a yu dat?
He asked, with an inflexion at the beginning and end of his question. It's more a statement than a question, but I respond either way.
Yes, it is!
In the formal English, I'd honed speaking to la-di-das in my last job. At the same time, minimising being drawn into a conversation I fear would force me to produce his name. But inwardly, I was doing cartwheels because even if the IT system had no data of me in its memory, this guy did.
As my luck would have it, he was also in the customs area and told his colleague to waive the duty charges on the excess whisky and wine I'd been labouring with for nearly twenty-one hours now.
As they say, 'It's not who you know, it's who knows you!'
That same who knows you landed me a job with the local travel agent back in the day. #grateful
Or is it island life?
But that same 'Who knows you' has landed me in trouble growing up. Like the time this woman saw me at a party I had no permission to be at, and she told my parents. I got a proper West Indian punishment when I got in. Or the time I said to the primary school head that I didn't like a line in a poem I had to recite and therefore didn't want to say it. The head made me stand on one leg for the rest of the afternoon at the front of the school. To this day, I still have not said the line. That was something else! On top of that, someone told their parents who told my parents, and of course... Well, I don't need to expand on what happened next.
In Class 1, we had a truly strict teacher, Teacher R. He was particular when it came to his Maths lessons which were often held on the school lawn in the shade of a flamboyant tree. We would sit in a semi-circle with him sat facing us, holding a half a metre rule. Time table testing was his favourite, darting questions at us like a misfiring piston. And if you got the answer wrong, whether due to you not knowing the answer, not remembering the answer, not hearing the question correctly or simply out of fear - your inner arm and the half metre rule would meet under electrifying conditions.
By the time I got to Class 5, Ms V, the head who was also our class teacher, had put in practice, Maths classes on a Friday morning from nine until lunchtime, standing on your feet. Seriously!
With my body operating on British time, I was up at four-thirty in the morning. Actually, I don't think I slept. Some cocks had the gall to keep on with their incessant crowing at that ridiculous time of the morning. Growing up, cocks were alarm clocks. But these were either of a different breed, had no manners or had been possessed by the volcano as they had no sense of time. What cockerels crowed at midnight and two and three in the morning? Worse yet, the ring leader of this orchestra appeared to be stationed outside the bedroom window. When he crowed, of course, the entire island's army of cockerels followed.
I went outside and sat on the verandah part illuminated by the watchful eye of the street lamp. Come to think of it, that street lamp has been there since the cows went out.
As I settle into my favourite spot on the verandah, I notice the blue house that once was on the other side of the road is no longer. The neighbour had passed on, so there would be no one to sit and chat and laugh with like in the good ole days. He himself had lived in England and had retired and returned to the island. He loved talking about his time in England. It appeared tough for most parts, but he'd always put a funny spin on it. There would also be no one to call out to me for some homemade fish soup, fried ballahoo and whatever else he'd cook up. He always had food, especially seafood. He'd often have something ready for me to eat in the afternoon coming home from school. All I had to do was change into my home clothes, walk back across the road, and my dinner would be sorted.
If my mother chooses not to cook (of course, that never happened), I'd still be fine.
He was a fisherman also, which fueled my seafood appetite.
But while he had passed on, others remained. Like my other next-door neighbour and childhood friend whose garden fence I'd crisscrossed for many reasons, including seeing her brother. Or whose conversations we'd conduct via her back porch and me via our verandah. Discussions were still possible, except now, plants that once made the border were so tall, the view almost non-existent—the conversations now, mostly to her daughter who'd came across to visit my daughter.
The older man, a house up from my friend, is still alive. Some twenty years later, he is now a hundred plus years old. Yet, he still remembers who I am and calls out to me with that familiar.
Hello mi dupsie darlin!
I can only respond with a big smile! His voice is as strong as ever. I asked him what his secret is? He points to the collection of Bailey's bottles lining the full length of his porch. Honestly, it's like the Baileys factory has moved to his residence. He tells me he still works his garden filled with pigeon peas, dasheen, white potatoes, spinach and whatever else is in it.
In the house above his, lived my acapella friends. We could see each other from our back porches. They'd sing, and my sisters and I would bleat the tunes to artists like Boys II Men and TLC across the way. The choir our village missed out on. They don't live there anymore. As a matter of fact, they emigrated within a day of us. We would see each other every day, not just because we lived so close to each other but because we also went to the same school and church. And still had conversation to make on every occasion.
The same church I was christened and had my confirmation, remains in tack. The volcano has not had its molten lava hands on that. My cousins cannot say the same. Their church in the south of the island, buried. Growing up, going to church on a Sunday was as religious as the service itself. It had to be done. Partying into three and four o'clock on a Sunday morning before church offered no exemption from attending the Sunday morning service. (Not that I was allowed out much). And don't think you can walk into that Sunday service late either. But back then, attending church was a social event. Another opportunity to meet up with my friends I saw at school on Friday and see the next day again. It was also in the church that I'd honed my public reading skills, learned to play the guitar pan, sharpen my Bible knowledge, and excelled at many things, including 'boys spotting'.
See, I wasn't always a good girl!
Church itself was a dress-up affair. Anyone thinking they saw fashion at any of the royal weddings needs to check a Sunday church service in the West Indies. Matching handbag, shoes and hat, complete parures finishing the ensemble. It was like something out of an Essence Fashion magazine.
And everyone had their special seat in the church. The one you sat in every Sunday. Best not make the mistake of sitting in someone else's. There was Ms B, who sat on the other side of my great grandmother. The unofficial master of ceremonies. Guaranteed to a liven any Sunday service going downhill. There was Nenen, my great grandma's best friend - she could hold a tune. Then there was Ms L, and she was sure to tell me if a strand of hair was out of place. Another reason I now always look so put together. Not that leaving the house looking less than well put together would escape my great grandmother (mother, mother's side) or my mother.
My great grandmother, I could never have left the house without her giving me a once over - socks had to be straight, the seams in the skirt had to line up with the seams in the shirt, knots in ribbons had to be perfect.
U must always look prensable when u leave the house.
Using Ms Sally's verbatim. 'Prensable' her version of the word presentable.
Everyone referred to her as Miss Sally, a lady whose face was permanently lit with a smile. Monday to Saturday, she wore her hair in five long plaits twisted into Bantu knots. And on Sundays, she'll let it fall down in waves for attending church. A hat matching her outfit nicely perched on her head of course.
With no TV, telephone or indoor plumbing, life happened outside. We took everything from cooking to showering outdoors. So imagine me, a few years ago, paying an arm and a leg for a suite in Vietnam with an outdoor shower.
How life's changed me!
We had some great times in that house. From a great grandmother who never cooked a 'bare pot'. Meaning there always had to be food in the house for unexpected guests, and she forever had unexpected guests. We lived next to the road, and therefore passers-by could smell her cooking and invite themselves around. She had an open door and fed them she would, like family. On Saturdays, she'd bake up a storm of bread, cakes, tarts, potato pudding - you name it, in the outdoor stone oven. She'd say it was for the week, but it would be finished by Sunday because, of course, she is feeding a village of unexpected, expected guests.
I was nine years old when she died, and that hurts to this day. She had a huge turnout at her funeral, lots of people crying, including me, but some may have been crying on the realisation that their free dinners were - well, no more. Still, the seeds of kindness my great grandmother sowed meant I was well looked after in our village. Of course, it helped that I was a favourite. She'd magically convert the nos from my mother into yesses for me.
Any wonder that I still struggle with the word - No.
Interestingly we lived next to a bakery. And once I was old enough to walk to the shop and count money (very good at that), it was my job to get fresh bread loaves every morning just like we would get our hair braided every single morning without fail. Okay, maybe not on Saturdays! But the point I am making is that our hair always looked impeccable.
I'm famous for taking my cousins and sisters down to the ghaut at the end of our land to catch fish that never existed. They still rag me about it to this day. We would use fishing hooks attached to any twine we could find attached to any sticks we picked up with some luncheon meat on end. As I said, we have never once caught any fish, but it didn't stop them from trailing behind me every single time I said - let's go catch fish. Of course, this would be followed by an earful from the parents (days later, when they couldn't find luncheon meat in the cupboard) for demolishing tins of luncheon meat without a good explanation.
That's not the house I am in now. See, we moved here years later. I'd equate it to 'movin on up to the east side' (insert The Jeffersons), with Mr So and So being the neighbours. Except it was not a deluxe apartment in the sky but some five bedrooms nearer to the beach. You especially know you are rolling with the big times when you have electric fans in the roof.
It is now after six o'clock in the morning, and I decide to walk to Old Roads Beach as I used to in my late teens in the name of exercise.
On my right is what once was my local library and a great hang out during opening hours and where the guys would hang out on their bikes. It now stands derelict following its use as a makeshift Church and then prison after the volcano erupted and buried the official jail in the capital.
I am no more than two minutes into the walk before a driver stops to offer me a lift. But that's always been the way of life on this little island called Montserrat! The house on my left has seen many an A list star and heard their music. If those walls could talk, they'd tell you what the original inhabitants (plantation owners) talked about. And later on, they'd tell you what artists such as Eric Clapton, Sting and Jagger got up to. The house after that was another two of my friends who let me use their bikes to learn to ride over one summer. (Something my mother only found out the other day, i.e. I can ride a bike.)
If I keep going straight, I can head down to Lime Kiln Bay instead, but my brain does not remember the way. It's funny that. My ex tells me we hung out there a lot, but it could not have been that memorable since I cannot recall.
LOL! Don't worry, fortunately, or unfortunately, we are still good friends!
The house on the right-hand corner with the pool was where the kids in the area learned to swim. Except for me, I learned to swim at a villa in Foxes Bay. Because further down from this house was a villa rental that hosted the same Canadian family for six weeks at a time each summer for as long as I could remember. They became like family, took me everywhere they could on the island and paid for me to have swimming lessons.
In my deep reminiscence, I'd not noticed it had started drizzling, and another driver pulled alongside to offer a lift. I declined once more, wanting to take it all in.
I'm now at Old Roads Beach, and I no longer recognise this place that we'd frequented so often on a Sunday after church or Wednesday afternoons after work when the office closed at half day. For sure that jetty, we spent so much time hanging out on and where my friend would push me off is no longer. The tennis courts and the beach bar that were on the right, just as you got onto the beach, are no more. My friend later tells me we passed that a long way back buried under ash and mudflow deposits from the volcano.
The said volcano is the reason I no longer live on this island of Montserrat. But it was good to be back. Seeing familiar faces, eating everyday foods, sitting out on the verandah while the locals drive past and honked or called out with a greeting. Interestingly I missed that! Being reminded of some crazy things we got up to in our younger days, like stealing fruits off people's fruit trees and running away and laughing like mad when we were caught. I WAS saying I was going back to school early from lunch when we truly went to the river behind the school to collect almonds and sugar apples.
I can recall the first time that volcano blew.
The brand new hospital for the island had recently been completed. The deepwater harbour project to entice larger cruise ships to the island had to be shelved. It was going on eight or nine in the morning. Another colleague and I had just arrived in the office (travel agents) located on the top floor, above the post office and overlooking the war memorial. The seaport was just across the way. We both heard shouting in the streets. She went out the door to check on the commotion, and I looked out the glass louvres. To this day, I don't think I will forget this. I could see the top of Chances Peak from the window. It appeared that the entire mountain itself went up to meet the sky. And reach the sky, it did. My friend scrambled to the phone to call her boyfriend, and I too grabbed another phone to call the other half in at his office nearby. But the phone lines were dead. Between the shouting in the streets, the rumble from the mountain, the pelting of the falling rocks, a real nightmare set in. Nine o'clock in the morning was now more pitched black than midnight. My friend and I huddled in the corner of the office away from the windows, hugged, prayed and cried it would all pass.
Now that was the second time I recall this island tried to take my life. The first was at Old Roads Beach, or maybe it was when my parents found out I had a boyfriend.
The said office building, war memorial and seaport now lay under storeys of ash and rubble. Not from that first eruption mind, else I'd be dead.
Although there has been no significant activity for some time, you are never too far from someone or something that gives a reminder. The wayward smell of sulphur is one of those things. I was even awakened one night by the pungent aroma and a parched throat. Or was it the rum I had inhaled earlier with one of my friends down at Little Bay beach bar?
Still, with a quiet volcano, the islanders carry on with life with some semblance of stability.
Basketball was a popular sport growing up. From the local guys who played on the court just up from our house. (More opportunities for boy spotting.)
I remembered when the regional games came to the island. Of course, it helped that the national team performed outstandingly. We honed our festive spirits and went to the basketball court every night to cheer the home team on. The pride we felt and the displeasures we voiced like only West Indians know how to, at the referee for making a wrong call. And the rip-roaring celebrations when our team scored, I swear they heard us over in the neighbouring island of St Kitts. That was a memorable time in my life. After that, no one spoke of anything else for weeks.
Then I had my game salted when I got proof of the other half's cheating during these said games.
Before the volcano, you arrived on the island by air from the neighbouring island of Antigua. I've beautiful memories of this airport - back then called Blackburne. It was a Sunday afternoon hang out. We would watch LIAT's De Havilland Dash 8s and Twin Otters land and take off. You could shout out to your friends and family as they embarked or disembarked the flights. Sadly, this airport is also now under tons of volcano ash and rubble.
I'm now heading back home from my early morning walk to the beach. I'm entirely drenched as it appears I brought the torrential showers from London with me. The difference is the rain is warm. Another driver pulls up and offers a lift. I declare I'm soaked through. He says it's okay. I detect a Canadian accent, and he confirms he is Canadian.
Where can I drop you off? He asked.
Just on the other side of Olveston House! I answered and hopped in.
Only on Montserrat will I ever do this!
The radio is tuned to the local station ZJB Radio and a very familiar voice of a DJ from twenty-two years ago still wakes the locals and warms the airwaves with his
Good Morning Montserrat!
And I smiled!