From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama – a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan
One day in early April not long after Little One’s passing, I hailed Jewel as she went by my work station on her way to the Maternity Ward, being curious about the sober expression she was wearing; and asked what could be on her mind on this beautiful day to cause her to look like that? She had immediately changed to her close-mouthed smile and replied that nothing was out of the ordinary. However, being by now familiar with her ways, I had left her alone and waited for her to speak if and when she was ready, as I felt sure there was something about which she was not happy.
There is an old saying that trouble comes in threes, and I thought the problems surrounding Little One had been large enough to be counted as two, at least, and combined with the matter of the land title would make three, leaving my young friend free from any visitations for some time, if there were any truth to that saying. What happened next, however, could not come under the heading of trouble – just a collection of momentous experiences for those near to Jewel.
She usually spent her two weeks of vacation split up between Easter Week, that of her birthday and Christmas; but having undergone such a whirlwind of trials in the months since her last birthday, she had decided to go home for a week at Easter to recover. She had told me in the course of conversation one day that being with her family was so enjoyable and relaxing that she felt empowered to face whatever came her way on return to work. I believed this attitude to be due to her mother, my friend Lucille, who was a venturesome, brave and uncomplaining soul; but she had told me that her father, in his own quiet way, was the same, and as a team they made wonderful and loving parents.
She mentioned that she had invited her best friend, Sonia Duncan, to spend the vacation with her; but, although enthusiastic at first, Sonia had cooled off on receiving an invitation from another source to spend the five days from Holy Thursday to Easter Monday at the foremost – and very expensive – tourist attraction in the northern part of the country.
Right away I guessed what had been responsible for the sober look I had detected on Jewel’s face that day, suspecting that her friend had been the recipient of the vacation invitation from no one else but Dr. Julian Francis, the native gynecologist who had joined the staff a year and a half before, and that she was concerned for her friend.
Dr. Francis was from an old, well-to-do family, the eldest son of the middle of three brothers, proprietors of a prosperous commission agency headquartered in the capital, with branches in the other districts.
The company had grown out of representation of well-known manufacturers of dry goods, canned foods, pharmaceuticals, shoes, clothes, stationery, hardware, etc. in the Western Hemisphere, Britain and other prominent European countries, China, India and the Far East, and Australia and New Zealand.
In colonial territories, which are mainly the producers of raw materials for export to metropolitan countries, the business of importing and distributing goods of all descriptions is undertaken by entities which represent these outside manufacturers, playing the role of middleman and earning profits on a commission basis. A visiting member of the British Parliament had once aptly described us as traffickers in goods rather than producers of goods, which could not have surprised anyone who knew that the colonial entity, the “mother country,” had itself facilitated the installation of such a system.
This kind of business is carried out on a large or small scale depending on the capital available for investment; and the Francis brothers, through careful husbandry, had achieved substantial success in growing their enterprise into a formidable size. And, as often happened in the case of such financial success, their descendants were encouraged to branch out into the professions, thereby consolidating their family’s position in the society.
Ever since partisan politics had been introduced in the 1950s, a consequence of the independence movement, rivalry between the two major parties had been marked by strong competition for the votes and support of the population, and intruded into every aspect of our lives. This included vying with each other to recruit prominent citizens and families into their ranks and, by this means, the Francis family had become closely associated with the party in power. There were even rumours that young Dr. Francis was being groomed to head the medical services when the country became independent.
Being personable and charming, Dr. Francis had become popular with everyone, turning many a young nurse’s head; and although the unwritten prohibition of romantic intercourse between medical and nursing staff continued from colonial times, there was a gradual relaxation of this practice with the increasing appointment of local doctors.
Sonia Duncan, Jewel’s friend, was said to attract and be attracted to Dr. Francis, along with several other of her colleagues, while, at the same time, there was also talk of his paying court to a Mestizo teller at one of the commercial banks.
As it happened, Nurse Duncan’s specialty was surgical nursing, and she was serving in the Female Surgical ward during the week before Easter, and had been granted five days’ leave starting at three o’clock on Holy Thursday afternoon; while Jewel, working in Maternity, had been given leave to start at two o’clock that same day; and when Sonia’s invitation had been brought forward by one hour on short notice she had asked Jewel to take her place in Surgical until three o’clock so she could leave at two, to which Jewel had generously agreed, as her bus was not scheduled to depart until three-thirty.
By a stroke of luck our family had managed to rent the owner’s house at the Caye that Easter as they had travelled abroad that year; and we were all set and packed to leave in the Silver Bird, a large sailboat with auxiliary motor, at four-thirty p.m. Everyone had been waiting at the wharf for me to meet them there as soon as I left work at four, and I had had the use of the car to facilitate this while Nigel, who had gone home at lunchtime, used Uncle Lito’s pick-up truck to transport the luggage and the rest of the family to the wharf.
On my way through the hospital gate a little after four, however, I had been surprised to see Jewel sitting dejectedly on a bench in the compound with her overnight bag on the seat nearby. Reversing the car and making enquiries, I had learnt that when she had come down from the ward at three-ten she had not been able to find a single taxi to take her to the bus depot and had therefore missed her trip; but knowing that her bus rarely left promptly I had offered to take her to see if she might still be able to catch it. So she had got in the car and we had set off for the depot. Reaching there, however, we had discovered that the bus had indeed been late in leaving, but had moved off about five minutes before.
As there were no buses running to her town until Easter Tuesday and she was due back at work on Thursday, Jewel had decided to call off her vacation and asked me to drop her off at the hospital; but I had felt so sorry at her disappointment that on the spur of the moment I had invited her to go to the Caye with us.
She was very worried about disappointing her family, which was looking forward to seeing her, but I had argued that there was nothing she could do about that now, and she should make the best of a bad situation by coming with us. Jewel had finally agreed, and we had returned to the office so she could call the bus depot in her town and leave a message there for her family; and I had what my sons called “gunned” the motor of the vehicle and arrived just in time to receive Nigel’s accusing raised eyebrow before climbing into the boat and setting off.
I wish to say that, although all our holidays at Caye from time immemorial were wonderful, this one was in a special category; but, of course, as my family likes to tease me, “You always say that about Caye, every time!”
After Jerome had left for his studies abroad and we all branched off in different directions, those of us remaining behind attempted to assemble as much of the family as possible for these vacations; and, although one or more of my three brothers and/or my sister were often absent, usually there was the addition of my three children and their friends, plus one or more of Uncle Lito’s children or drink partners to take their place. This time there was Jewel, who proved to be a delightful guest.
Jerome, who had gone to the same expensive tourist “paradise” in the north as Jewel’s friend, Sonia Duncan, along with Sister Havers, her father and brother, who were visiting from the U.K., since the Monday after Palm Sunday, had rented a speedboat and joined us on Good Friday evening and stayed until Easter Monday. Uncle Lito, too, had shown up with two of his friends after the traditional Holy Saturday Crosscountry Cycle race for the usual race “post mortem,” leaving on Monday also.
It had become Jerome’s practice ever since returning home to take a two-week vacation at this tourist centre at Easter, as the hospital was easily accessible by air or by way of one of the many rentable speedboats; and radio and telephone facilitated his keeping in close contact in case of emergency.
On this Holy Thursday we had arrived at Caye after dark and scrambled around in the house under lantern light to allocate sleeping quarters, set up the gas stove, unpack groceries, cooking and eating utensils, carry water from the large plastic tanks, etc., in time to get a late meal before spreading and falling into our field-beds, tired out by all the activity and by the sea breeze, which always induced a sound sleep for all.
As the owner’s house was far more spacious than the small one we usually occupied, we divided sleeping quarters between male and female areas, with one small bedroom for Mama and Daddy; Alida, Jewel and myself sharing a little larger one; and the males, including Nigel, Jerome, Lloyd, and Victor quartered in the third and largest of the bedrooms, joined later by Uncle Lito and his friends and spilling over into the main living area. Only Mama and Daddy slept on a wooden bed, the rest of us roughing it on the floor on large field-beds with foam rubber padding, which made a pillow a very necessary item. Each person was made responsible for his – to make sure it was packed and kept dry on the journey. Luckily, Mama usually left pillows behind with Miss Mavis for safekeeping, so there were always extras.
I should mention that although she was Mama’s half-sister, we didn’t call the caretaker’s wife “Aunt,” because of old-time “contention” between Granny “P” and her mother over my grandfather, but there was a loving relationship between the daughters, and we were treated as family by her and her husband.
On Good Friday morning as we were starting to prepare breakfast, Jewel had asked if we weren’t going to make hot-cross-buns, as was traditional with most people on that day; but because of our changed lifestyle since we were children when Mama used to bake these without fail, we had grown out of that custom. Besides, it had become problematic to do the baking when everyone was preoccupied either with work or school. Jewel, however, had insisted that it would be no trouble for her to make some if we had the necessary ingredients.
We did have flour, for making “fry-jacks,” which was our basic replacement for bread, as well as shortening, sugar and baking powder, I told her, but no yeast or spices, and, for that matter, no oven, only a two-burner gas stove. She had suggested that we might be able to borrow Miss Mavis’ fire-hearth for a short while, as she had a supply of the other ingredients in her kit-bag, having bought a stock in the capital, where they were cheaper, to take home.
To make a long story short, our negotiations had resulted in her producing three dozen of the tastiest, most mouth-watering hot-cross-buns we had ever been served. Furthermore, Miss Mavis having agreed to our using her fire-hearth whenever we wished, had led to Jewel’s treating us to all the old-time baked goods of our Easter tradition from then on. One or more of my children usually joined her in the kitchen enthusiastically, receiving instructions in the making of Johnny-cakes, powder-buns, Creole bread, etc. Nigel joked that if we had put them to work making these niceties they would have baulked at the idea; but doing it along with Jewel had proved so enjoyable and productive that there had been no complaints about the hard work involved.
Right before breakfast each morning the rest of us went bathing in the sea, while most of the males were out fishing along with Miss Mavis’ husband, Mr. Oswald. For Jewel, who had never done this before, bathing in the sea was a great novelty. On checking into her bath suit situation, since she had not planned to come on a Caye trip, I had been surprised to find that she had two – gifts from Nurse Pauline – which she had never worn, but had packed at the bottom of her bag and carried to and from home through the years.
Alida and I had looked on as she had dredged them up from her bag. One was a lime-green coloured two-piece suit, which she had quickly discarded on the grounds of parental disapproval of a bare midriff; which had left a red one-piece suit, on which she had settled, although she had thought it “a little noisy.”
Women and girls of our background were trained to be careful how we dressed, to avoid the whistles or bold comments of the average modern man; but I had assured Jewel that she was safe from that kind of treatment here, with only family and close friends around. Even so, she had self-consciously wrapped herself in a towel covering her bath suit while walking to the bathing-ground.
Once she had got into the water, however, she had splashed around and enjoyed herself as never before, she had said, wishing the rest of the family could have been with her to share the experience. We had been entertained by her cries of: “Oooh! Mam and Saf would love this!” and: “I wish Alvin and the boys could be here to enjoy this!” as she frolicked in the water. When I commented that I didn’t hear her mention her father, she had replied that he never took time for himself, being always busy looking after others; and he would tell her mother to go ahead and take the children to enjoy themselves while he stayed behind. I remember thinking to myself – ‘like father, like daughter,’ as I had found her to be thinking of others always before herself.
Alida’s bathing suit having become shabby from long use, I had offered to buy the lime-green one from Jewel for her; but she had made it a gift instead, saying it was what Nurse Pauline had told her to do with whichever one she didn’t use. They had both been sent to her from families in the United States whose children she had cared for there, but which she had had no intention of ever using.
When Jerome had arrived Good Friday evening, I had placed three of the now cold cross-buns on a plate before him with a flourish, as he had sat at the dinner table. He had taken the first bite and, smilingly, turned to Nigel with congratulations on his good fortune for inspiring his wife to such culinary achievement, saying they were the best he had tasted since Miss Eileen had hung up her apron. This was the kind of good-natured teasing I was used to coming from him and my brothers, but I had taken him by surprise by refusing to take credit, at which he had complimented me on my modesty, until my boys had confirmed that I was speaking the truth, playfully challenging him to guess who had made them.
To this he had said he had to have another to sharpen his guessing skills, but Victor had insisted he could only get more as a reward if he guessed correctly. Looking slowly around the table he had shaken his head, saying, “Not my god-daughter . . . which leaves Jewel, is it?” As we applauded he had said he knew the taste, having sampled Mrs. Lino’s baking when visiting his aunt.
There was a light-heartedness to our interaction while on holiday and serious subjects were avoided; so, his having solved that little mystery, we had all tackled our supper then cleared the table and washed the dishes, while the males prepared their gear in readiness for leaving early in the morning to go fishing for Easter Sunday’s menu; with Alida placing an order with Jerome to bring back one or more “bake-sized” snappers. This had become a ritual between them, whenever she didn’t go along, with Jerome returning with the right size/s and she gutting and de-boning them under his supervision.
Ever since Mr. Oswald had claimed responsibility for steering Jerome into his profession by assigning him the task of making the snappers pot-ready for the Easter Sunday dinner, he, in turn, had subtly guided Alida towards a similar decision, inspiring her eager participation in the activity as preparation for such a career also.
Once cleaned, the snappers were kept in the ice-box until Sunday morning, when they were seasoned and stuffed and turned over to Miss Mavis, who baked them in a massive iron frying pan, reputed to have been sold in the old days in a store called “Kreuger’s” at the bridge foot, cooked on the fire hearth and served supported by the traditional side dishes of rice-and-peas, baked plantain, etc. At mid-day everyone on the Caye sat at a long makeshift dinner table outdoors and enjoyed the meal together.
Spending holidays at Caye was a unique experience, even for us who did it regularly, and one to which we always looked forward. We put aside the conventional comforts of everyday living and prepared ourselves to relax and be satisfied with the basic necessities of life: fresh air, fish and other seafood we caught and cooked ourselves in many different ways; roughing it by sleeping on the floor; keeping clean by bathing in the sea and rinsing off the salt with rainwater poured over our heads (except at night when we lathered with soap before washing off); in short, making use of only what we could carry on our journey to the site and what we found there.
Unlike the areas catering to the tourist trade, there were few electronic or other distractions, except a transistor radio to access information about the weather, the tides, etc.; and we entertained ourselves with conversation, humour, music and card or other games. There was no one to impress, so we wore our old clothes and walked barefoot or with rubber footwear; and, most importantly and enjoyably, being with family and friends, voicing our opinions, thoughts and feelings freely, without fear of censorship. We settled weighty and frivolous matters alike in free-for-all discussions on religion, style, politics, behaviour, or what-have-you, without referees, experts, or judges; good-naturedly indulging in making fun of the powers-that-be.
Every year after the post-mortem on the annual Holy Saturday Crosscountry Cycle race we aired a wide range of topics, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and I will always remember that this particular year Uncle Lito had started a discourse on beauty contests.
His interest had been the behaviour of a young man of his acquaintance whose girl friend had asked him to escort her to such a contest. According to him, the foolish fellow had refused to take the young lady, who had had to ask a cousin to accompany her instead.
Nigel had opined that maybe the boy-friend was shy, but Uncle Lito could not conceive of any man in his right mind bypassing such an opportunity, especially when the young lady was very attractive and likely to win. “I don’t know why I never had that kind of luck in my young days,” he had voiced regretfully. “I would have jumped at a chance like that! Come and see me sharp as a blade in my three-piece suit, with my chapney set at just the right angle? …Eh? The judges would take one look and say: ‘Give that young lady the crown, man, she deserves it for having such good taste!’”
The very practical Victor had protested: “But Uncle Lito, you couldn’t wear a hat onstage! They would make you take it off, so you would lose the effect!”
“Boy,” says Lito, “You don’t know that the contest starts from the time you enter the compound? Naturally, I would walk the young lady to the end of the platform then, with a sweep of the ol’ chapney, send her up the stairs to victory. After that, I put my hat on my head and join the rest of the escorts. By this time, the judges will see everything right up to the send-off!”
He had continued, “These fellows nowadays don’t appreciate all that is involved in presenting a candidate in a beauty contest. They could learn a lot from all like me! They might look at the surface and say, ‘Chu, this bally too old to know about these things,’ but they should have seen me in my days! When I escorted a young lady anywhere in public, people had to take notice!”
My uncle had been late in outgrowing his interest in courting the ladies, and always paid close attention to his appearance and grooming. He was worth a second glance, even at his age, and was used to being the centre of attention. Now, having his audience in the palm of his hand, he had suddenly asked: “Whe mi sister deh?” This had told us right away that he was about to tell a rude joke, something he would never do in Mama’s presence.
Luckily for him, and not to spoil his fun, she and Daddy had already turned in. When we were children this had been a signal for Mama to shut him up or leave the room taking us with her; but, as the setting was so informal, we had let the young people stay, knowing they would know better than to repeat anything he had to say.
He had launched into the details of a performance at the Bliss of a duo from the West Indies called “Dem Two,” who had related the story of a contestant at the recent Miss World contest. While being interviewed by the press on her return home she was said to have claimed that: “With face and grace I los’ the race; but with bus’ and ass, ah bus’ dehn r—.
It was Nigel, always identifiable as the “cross-bearer,” who had reacted first with the serious inquiry whether it wasn’t limiting Caribbean women to bodily appeal only, denying them facial beauty and grace?
When Uncle Lito had not answered the question, it was Jerome who had harked back to the young fellow referred to earlier, remarking that he sympathized with his reluctance to take part in the affair, as it wasn’t farfetched for him to assume that the young lady was looking to replace him.
“In the first place,” he had continued, “I think it’s safe to say that a young woman who enters a beauty contest is very likely to be using her good looks to attract the attention of other men and might really be saying, as plainly as she dared, that she was not satisfied with what she had!”
Uncle Lito had pounced on him with the question whether he didn’t appreciate feminine beauty; to which he had replied that it was contests they were discussing, making the point that you could observe and enjoy feminine beauty all around you every day, if that was your interest.
“Besides,” Jerome had added, “the whole idea of beauty contests was invented by a foreign culture anyway, to suit their purpose and operate by their rules. In that story you just told us you could say that an attempt was being made to convince the Caribbean woman that she was lacking in facial beauty and grace, so she should take pride in her physical appeal as a kind of consolation prize; and I reject the suggestion that certain criteria are limited to some groups only!”
“I agree with you, Doc,” said Uncle Lito’s witty friend and drink partner, Mr. Percy. “It’s the same ting mi bally tell ‘e daughter to discourage her: don’t enter any beauty contest if all the contestants are not of the same breed. If Leghorn fowl have contest, Rhode Island Red and Dominica have no place there! You understand what he’s trying to tell her? The same point the Doctor is making!”
Going off on another angle of the topic Victor had related an anecdote about a recent class preparing for the General Paper in the University Scholarship examination with a discussion on a poem the first line of which was: “Ancestor on the auction block……….,” the lecturer giving the class the exercise of directing questions to an imaginary ancestor placed in a similarly undignified or demeaning position.
“Like a beauty contest?” a student named Minerva had asked. Victor described her as a usually reticent girl who rarely spoke but who, whenever she did, seemed to take pleasure in shocking the class every now and again with what he called a “far out” comment or question.
She had immediately been challenged by Vicki, one of the popular girls, as to what she could know about beauty contests. Minerva had replied that she had never been to one, but that her understanding was that the contestants exposed themselves to the inspection and assessment of judges and onlookers, which she felt had fit the description of undignified and demeaning.
The popular male lecturer had had to change the subject hastily to save the class from erupting into a quarrel when Vicki, who had recently emerged the winner in a “Miss Cyclist” competition, had taken offense at the speaker’s remark, and had maliciously declared that nobody would ever force her into a beauty contest.
At this point the conversation had started to lag, but Uncle Lito had made a heroic effort to restore the topic of female beauty, a subject on which everyone would agree he had expert knowledge, to further examination by the other young people who had remained quiet.
He had sat on a stool at the head of the table, with Victor directly opposite at the other end. On the two long benches on either side Nigel, then me, Lloyd and Alida had flanked him on the right; and Jerome, Mr. Percy, Ray, his other friend, then Jewel were on his left.
He had picked on Jewel to address his next inquiry, whether a good-looking young lady like her wouldn’t enter a contest, but she had been quick to reply shyly in the negative. Trying to draw her out he had asked why not, to which she had answered that her parents discouraged involvement in “worldly” things like that. Refusing to give up, he had slowly pried it out of her that she and her siblings had been trained to try to live a godly life, avoiding prideful things like vanity.
Fascinated now by the seriousness his prodding had evoked, Uncle Lito had begun to question her about her interests, and we all learnt from her answers how involved she and her family were in community building in their town.
Led by Uncle Lito, the conversation had veered off into such topics as the sort of recreation and sports offered in their area to the young people and, inevitably for him, whether they didn’t have dances where boys and girls could meet and socialize.
When Jewel had said that a dance was usually held the evening of the annual Christmas Bazaar, and Uncle Lito had asked at what other time, my three children had expressed shock when she had replied that she did not know of any other occasion.
“You mean you don’t have parties and such?” Victor had wanted to know.
“Oh, yes,” had been her answer, “we always had end-of-term school parties.”
“How about dates?” Alida had asked.
And we had been treated to a comical account of the dating situation when Jewel had shared with us what information she could on that subject! There had been no high schools in their district when she had left it at fifteen, she had said, but the Roman Catholics had opened the first one the following year, just in time for her brother Alvin to attend. His class had been the first to be exposed to the modern style of living, most of the teachers having come from places under outside influence, so that on her visits home many new practices had been introduced for family discussion, dating being one of them.
We had learnt that in their family an education fund had been created for each child, to which was added the profits from the daily sale of sweets at school, a different child being in charge each week. Their parents had made it clear that the fund was to pay for their higher education, and they were all encouraged to aim high.
Alvin had come home from school one evening and asked permission to take a date to a movie to be shown in the school auditorium on Saturday. Not understanding, their Pap had asked what was the date of the show, and Alvin had explained that the event was on that same Saturday, but pointed out that “date” referred to the girl you were to escort. In spite of his explanation their parents had still not grasped what it was all about, so Pap had asked Alvin who was the girl assigned to him.
When they had finally understood what he was talking about, their Mam and Pap had told him that they did not consider the idea a good one, as it seemed to them that this meant that he was giving up his dream of higher education. Pap had said that if the “date” was a village girl, her father would expect him to marry her, which meant that he would have to use his education fund to set up a household, as there was no space for any more people in their small house. On the other hand, if she was a town girl, like his mother, she would want a higher standard of living, which his education fund would not be enough to provide. After taking into consideration all that his parents had pointed out to him Alvin had decided to go to the show alone; and when he had related the details of the story to Jewel, she had agreed that he had made a wise choice.
Unwilling to drop the subject, however, Alida had commented that dating did not necessarily lead to marriage: it was just a way of interacting with the opposite sex on a social level. But Jewel had said that, like her parents, she felt it was better not to interact so closely while you were still in school, but to leave that for when you were more mature, relating how adopting that custom had already led to instances of girls becoming pregnant but the fellows being unable to afford marriage. The girls had suffered, with people looking down on them and even calling them “bad,” while the boys had been able to continue their schooling, complete their education and qualify for better jobs.
Jerome, who had said nothing so far during the discussion, had then made the observation that he had never heard a better case against dating at too early an age than that made by Mr. & Mrs. Lino; and, addressing Alida, had said that perhaps she could now appreciate why we would not allow her to date.
Nigel and I, who had not been aware that she had discussed this with him, had been very pleased by his comment, and more so when he had added that Lloyd and Victor should also take note, further remarking that it was unfortunate that the female usually suffered more than the male, but underlined the fact that she had the greater incentive to avoid such situations since her mistake would be more noticeable and burdensome.
Uncle Lito, who had gone silent for some time, no doubt turned off by the serious tone of the conversation, had reminded the men that they needed their sleep in order to be up at dawn to go fishing, so we had all called it a day and joined Mama and Daddy who were already “making morning,” as we termed it.
(Chapter 27 in Friday’s issue of Amandala.)