a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan
Chapter 7 – Matron’s venture on the dance floor, with Reginald St. John
Matron told Mama that it wasn’t long before she had had the opportunity to talk with Mrs. Atkins about life in the capital, slanting it towards the medical services available there; and she had gleaned quite a good amount of information, which she stored away for the future, not even mentioning her plan to Millicent, usually her confidante, having realized that it made her sister nervous to know that she was planning an activity that might meet with their father’s disapproval. She therefore decided to spare her sister’s feelings and bear the burden alone, satisfied that, as always, she could count on her for moral support.
Millicent had left formal schooling at the end of the last year and had joined her at tutoring sessions when her father came home in the evenings. During the mornings she continued working on her plot while Millicent went to Mrs. Atkins three times per week to learn sewing. She also continued to work on her father’s record-keeping, noticing one day that while she had been at the convent he and a Mr. Adrian St. John had jointly acquired a piece of land near to his farm on which they were conducting an experiment in growing sugarcane.
She had also learnt on her return home that a new, mature white couple, about her father’s age, had joined their parish and started to attend services at their church. Word going around town was that they were from one of the British Caribbean smaller islands and were visiting to see how they liked it here before deciding whether to stay or migrate to Canada. They had two grown children, a son living in the capital and a daughter studying dentistry in Canada.
One Saturday Millicent met her on the way inside from working on her plot and said that their father sent to say that she was needed in the study. She washed up and went there, where she found him and a gentleman standing over and perusing one of his record books. This was the Mr. St. John of the sugarcane project. She was introduced to him, and later described him as the most courteous man she had ever met. She learnt that he and his wife were the new congregants at their church; and that her father and he had become good friends and partners in the new venture. Mr. St. John had already met her mother and Millicent and had asked to meet her. This was the first person to whose offer of friendship her father had responded so positively.
She had listened as her father’s friend had spoken knowledgeably about farming, and told her that he admired her garden, which her father had shown him. He seemed very impressed with the project and asked if she had any plans for its expansion in the near future. She said that at this she had watched for her father’s reaction to such an idea, but, detecting none, had seized her chance and told the visitor that right now she was looking in the direction of training to be a nurse. Mr. St. John had said he admired her ambition and confided that his daughter was also going into a profession – that of dentistry. Her father had said nothing.
Life continued uneventfully for some months, without any comment from either her father or mother about the nursing idea. Her eighteenth birthday rolled around in November and passed by with no special highlight. They met up with the St. John couple at Holy Communion services regularly and on a couple occasions were invited to and entertained them to tea on a Sunday evening. Her parents, mainly her father, carried on the conversation on those occasions, with Millicent and Matron only speaking when spoken to, although Mr. St. John made every effort to include them.
Then had come the Annual Church Bazaar, which was held on a Saturday in December before school closed for Christmas, and every year she and Millicent were assigned the Sweets stall at this function. As usual, the venue was the grounds of the school, and for days before the bazaar the house was busy as they prepared all the local sweets like Tableta, Cut-u-brut, Corn Sham, Fudge, Wangla and Dumps, the children in their town preferring these to imported candy, which was just as well since there was little or no profit in imported sweets and the main objective of the bazaar was fund-raising.
On the day of the bazaar they set up their table at the spot assigned early in the afternoon, covering it with one of their mother’s heavy white tablecloths and decorating it with ferns and flowers obtained from Mrs. Atkins’ garden. She had the stall next to theirs, selling the popular Rice-and-peas and Meatballs. The function started at 4.00 p.m. and the children from all over the town and the nearby villages showed up promptly in full force, irrespective of denomination. (I mention this because it is customary for the major religious denominations all over the country to hold bazaars at Christmas, which were mainly patronized by members of their congregation.)
They started doing a brisk business as soon as the gates were opened, Sweets being in greatest demand among the children of all ages. Anticipating this, they had increased their production each year, keeping a reserve supply out of sight until later in the evening. An unofficial fund-raising competition among the stall-holders took place each year, and the Sweets stall won every time. This pleased her father very much, she knew, since nearly all the ingredients and the labour were supplied by their family, although he pretended to be above such things.
Each year the Church Committee, which sponsored the bazaar, rounded up all the musicians they could find and had live music for the quadrilles and other dances called “sets” that they did in imitation of elite society. This usually started late in the evening when the sweet food was sold out and the older teens and young adults started turning up.
On this occasion, at about seven o’clock when what is called the “older crowd” strolled in, among them was the St. Johns’ son, who was visiting his parents that week. Being from out of town and also white in complexion, he stood out in the crowd of young people; and, with his father’s charming and confident manner, approached the Sweets stall and introduced himself to the Misses Octavia and Millicent Bertram as Reginald, the son of their father’s good friend.
Both young ladies invited him to patronize their stall, not missing any opportunity at fund-raising. He commented that he must have arrived too late as not much seemed to be left, whereupon they had pulled out their reserve stock and, to their great satisfaction, he had bought the whole lot and added an extra contribution to the fund, distributing the sweets among the children playing near the stall, and joked with the ladies about what was next on the agenda now that their work at the stall was over. They had replied that they would clear off the table, turn over the funds to the Church Committee Treasurer, then go home. He had protested that it was too early for that and weren’t they going to participate in the dancing? They had replied in the negative, saying that they didn’t dance.
It should have ended there, but the younger Mr. St. John had been intrigued by what he had heard from his father about the teacher’s daughter who was enterprising enough to have her own produce garden; and was not satisfied with such a short time in her company. He persisted in an offer to teach her to dance and Octavia, against Millicent’s repeated advice, but with Mrs. Atkins’ encouragement, agreed to try something new. However, the group of musicians spent such a long time in tuning their instruments that, by the time they got under way, there was only time for one set before they had had to leave.
Matron had commented politely that the dance had been pleasant, although she had taken part mainly out of curiosity, and her instructor volunteered to accompany Millicent and herself home as he wanted very much to meet their father. To the surprise and relief of his daughters, Mr. Bertram said nothing about their lateness when they reached home but greeted his friend’s son very cordially, receiving the news about his elder daughter’s venture on the dance floor without comment.
Both families met at Church the next day and Mr. Bertram accepted the invitation to have supper that evening with the St. Johns. As Matron related to my mother eventually, the conversation at the dinner table covered a wide range of subjects, including, to her special relief, professions for women. During their talk she learnt that the elder Mr. St. John had been consulted by her father about nursing training for her. He had encouraged the idea and offered the services of his son to make enquiries on her father’s behalf when he returned to the capital that Friday.
The son had also asked if he could have a look at her garden, to which she had agreed, and, feeling sufficiently comfortable in the company, had taken the opportunity to ask that he refer to it as her “plot.” She had cringed inside ever since it was first referred to as a “garden,” which most people associated with flowers. The father had found this amusing and told her she should have mentioned this before and he would have warned his son.
In those days young men of Reginald’s class wore jacket and tie when going outside their home, even in the districts, but he appeared on Tuesday morning in an open-necked blue shirt with rolled up sleeves, long khaki pants and heavy boots, to look at her plot. She wore what she called her uniform for working, comprised of long grey cotton skirt; white tunic shirt with wide, roomy sleeves; heavy, black laced-up shoes; and a wide straw hat, like her grandmother’s, on her head.
She showed him around the whole area under cultivation, doing light weeding, propping up here, shifting covers there, tamping down soil, her enjoyment in the activity being so obvious that he joked that she wasn’t working, but playing; and when he asked why she had chosen to go into nursing, she had replied it was because there was a need here and left it at that, not revealing that the more pressing wish to be in control of her life was the greater attraction. He had waited, sensing she had more to say, but she did not reveal all her reasons until long after she had come to the capital and they had become good friends.
Meeting her father at the time he did, she knew that he could not conceive of the kind of upbringing she had had and could never understand her desire to get away from him. He and his sister’s life had been so pleasant that they had left home with reluctance, and happily visited home at every opportunity.
True to his promise, he had provided a wealth of information about nursing training to her father in a letter the very next week. In it he had recommended my grandmother, Mrs. Esme Parham, as a suitable person to provide boarding and lodging for Matron while in the capital and, thus, the long friendship with Matron and my mother had had its genesis.
She had once confided in me, on the occasion of her retirement from the government service on reaching the age of fifty-five, that the hardest thing she ever did in her whole life was leaving her sister behind when she had come to the capital. Because of the known close friendship between Matron and my mother and our whole family, I had been appointed to interview her and obtain biographical data to be included in a souvenir brochure to be published on that occasion.
On receiving the promised information concerning nursing training from the younger Mr. St. John, Mr. Bertram had set things in motion immediately, and by the beginning of the next training period (groups of eight were taken in each time), Matron had come to live at my grandmother’s home. A noteworthy detail of this transaction was that Reginald St. John was appointed Mr. Bertram’s agent to look after her financial affairs while living in the capital on his behalf.
Before leaving home she had received permission to spend a week with her grandparents in their village, accompanied by her sister. All their relatives made much of them, as they had not seen them for so long. Her grandmother was particularly affectionate and mentioned how pleased she had been about her “cultivation” project and asked who would take over now that she was going away.
After some negotiation Matron had succeeded in gaining her father’s agreement to let Richie Sabal continue to work on the plot until he could obtain a piece of land of his own and gradually transfer his activities there. She had suggested that maybe Mr. Solis could then take the plot over under some arrangement with her father. Richie had accepted her advice to take the proceeds of the sale of the immediate crop to buy his plot, and in short order the plan had been set in motion. She later learnt in correspondence with her sister that the transition had taken place smoothly and that her father and Richie had become such good friends that he had employed him part-time for work on the sugarcane project.
(Chapter 8 in next Tuesday’s Amandala.)