From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama – a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan
A lot of water had passed under the bridge before Lucille and I had met again face to face, but in the interim I had heard from time to time how things were going with her. When we spoke she had confirmed that she had experienced some hard times with Neville Enright, but had survived and was stronger and had better sense. It was one of her characteristics that she never whined, was the sort of person who was unafraid to venture, willing to face consequences and just keep going.
From day one with the Station Sergeant, there had been difficulties of one kind or another, right up to the end. The first disaster, right after the ceremony, had been the trip by sea down the coast, when she had been sea-sick from setting foot on board until she had landed at the wharf two days later.
During the whole trip she had received no sympathy whatsoever from her husband, who had concerned himself instead with the care of their household belongings and the Department’s equipment and with disciplining the two young police subordinates travelling along with them.
While she could keep down neither food nor water, he had eaten and drunk heartily in her presence, mocking and ridiculing her “delicacy”; and when they had docked he had tended his and the Department’s affairs, leaving her standing shakily on the ground, impatiently hustling her to get herself and her things together, particularly the brand new sewing-machine, a personal gift from her father, against which he seemed to have some inexplicable resentment.
Mr. Hendricks had offered to buy her a parting gift, something she personally desired, apart from the mahogany bed, chest-of-drawers and dressing table he and his wife were giving the couple as wedding presents. At the time her father had made the offer, her mother had suggested a set of porcelain dinner-ware and, put out at being ignored, had sneered openly at her daughter’s choice, asking what she would do with it when she couldn’t sew?
Lucille had remained silent, refusing to share with her mother the information that her friend had taught her, knowing only that she had wanted something from her father that belonged to her alone. By the way Neville had behaved towards it, she had felt certain that her mother had shared this piece of “oddity” of her daughter with him. From the earliest days of their courtship she had been struck with the idea of how much alike he and her mother were; and her life with him had only strengthened that opinion.
She said that were it not for the kindness of the crew of the vessel and a Maya standing on the wharf, who had offered their assistance, she might still have been standing there for all the interest the Station Sergeant had shown in her welfare; and while she had been thanking them, regretting that she had had no money on her person to offer a tip, he had come over and asked if she knew him and didn’t she know better than to talk to strangers? When he had turned and addressed the Maya with the abrupt enquiry: “What’s your name, boy?” she had interrupted with the quiet comment to him that: “This is not a boy; he is Mr. Lino. You know that the Maya are usually small-bodied,” he had given her an ugly look and remarked under his breath that one of the things she would have to learn was how to address him in front of people, as he represented the law in that district!
The living quarters assigned to them was the spacious upstairs floor of a wooden house on the Police Compound: a very large area enclosed on three sides with a high fence, the fourth side fronting bush stretching far back, with several buildings housing the staff, the headquarters office, the “lock-up” (jail), etc. There were concrete walkways leading to and linking some of the buildings, including one bordered with colourful crotons leading to their dwelling. Half of the ground floor of this building was enclosed and the cook, the maid (her daughter) and the yard-boy lived in two of the rooms, one was used for storage and the last one housed her husband’s excess personal effects like cricket and soccer football gear.
On their floor was a parlour, dining-room with a bathroom next to it, a large pantry and kitchen, a room the Station Sergeant made into his office, a large bedroom with an adjoining bathroom, and two other bedrooms – one for guests and the other his personal bedroom where he kept his uniforms, boots, helmets, etc., and slept in most of the time. There was basic furniture in most of the rooms except the master bedroom, in which had been placed her parents’ gifts, the suitcases containing her clothes and the sewing-machine.
On their arrival her husband had directed the arrangement of the furniture in the rooms, carried out by the two constables who had accompanied them, assisted by the yard-boy, while the cook and maid had looked after setting the table for the already prepared meal. Lucille said she had been tired and her stomach had ached from the retching, but “Cook,” as everyone called her, had been so kind and sympathetic that she had forced down a small amount of food and drunk some tea before leaving the table, to show appreciation.
Water for their bucket showers had to be brought upstairs from the vat downstairs by Cook’s daughter and the yard-boy. I should mention that in our part of the world at that time there was no public water and sewerage system, thus warm showers were not available except in the few large hotels in the capital and in the homes of the well-to-do. People usually collected and stored rain water in large wooden containers called “vats” for household use.
In the districts the government arranged for water to be pumped from vats, usually by hand, into smaller containers placed at a higher level, causing the buildup of water pressure sufficient to allow its flow into a basin and toilet reservoir, but not to power a shower head. This facility, of course, was limited to government-owned properties.
You may find the following somewhat tedious, but I think it may be helpful to give you an idea of the circumstances in which Lucille found herself when she ventured into the marriage state in one of what we in the capital referred to as the “outdistricts.”
The practice in most homes was the carrying of water in a bucket, to which boiling water was added until the desired temperature was reached. The usual method was for the bucket to be placed in the bathtub, a dipper used to pour water from it onto a sponge, soap applied to the wet sponge, the suds created then distributed all over the body, the rest of the water then used to rinse off the suds. This was called a “bucket shower,” so you can see how time-consuming it was just to take a bath.
As an aside, it had been claimed by political observers that ever since self-government up to the time of many of these events, politicians had been voted into power on the basis of a believable promise to create a modern water and sewerage system for the country.
When supper had been over and the Station Sergeant had retired to the private bathroom to prepare for bed, leaving his wife sitting and awaiting her turn, Lucille had begun to appreciate her place in the order of things in the new way of life being quickly established by him.
She reflected on how he had seated himself at the head of the table, pointing out where she should sit – in the chair to his right – after first serving him his plate of food, the items and quantities he would select as she dished them up. Once his plate had been placed before him, he had requested a glass of water from the cooler (these were pre-refrigerator days for most people in the outdistricts), before she served herself and sat down to her meal.
As she had conformed to the new routine, she had thought back to her recent former life when everyone had taken their seats at the table and passed the food around for people to serve themselves. It had occurred to her that her mother would probably be tickled to see her meekly adapting herself to her new situation.
Lucille had mentioned casually that despite the fatigue and discomforts of the journey, consummation of the marriage had taken place that same night, her husband having taken a seat in the rocking-chair in their bedroom after his bath and urging her not to dilly-dally in the bathroom but remember that she had a husband waiting for her.
The meekness with which she had responded to his cavalier treatment had emphasized the effort Lucille was making to ensure the marriage every chance for success, having closed the door to any other course by the clear resolve never to live under her mother’s roof again.
I never met Neville Enright personally, although I did see him from behind in church on a couple occasions, but certainly heard a lot about him from a wide range of people. Miss Olive, as well as everyone else who spoke about him, said he was very good-looking, but this was usually followed by the observation that he knew this and made much of it. He was popular with the ladies, being also a good dancer, among other things, and there was credible evidence that he had fathered some children.
Like most young men of those times, also, he was a sportsman and played cricket, soccer football and other games on the Police team, attracting many lady fans. Men like him were said to be true to the popular calypso which asks the question: “Why should I buy a cow when I know where to get milk free?” and therefore it had been a surprise to many when he had taken a wife.
I’m going off track briefly to give an idea of the general male-female relationship in our country at the time. Naturally, I am referring to the average citizen and not expatriates or local light/white.
Few women had careers, and those who did often gave them up when they got married. What rights women did enjoy were uneven and depended more on individual style and effort than anything else. For instance, Mrs. Hendricks asserted her rights vis-a-vis her husband, yet insisted on Lucille’s subservience to her sons; and whereas Mrs. Hendricks gave no special services to her husband such as serving his food, etc., Lucille was right that she would probably have been pleased that her daughter was being “put in her place” by being required to do so for hers.
On the whole, I would say that most men expected as a matter of course to be served by their women, even in the case of married women holding jobs and contributing to the household expenses; and, further, that women gave tacit agreement by fulfilling the men’s expectations and agreeing that other women should do so, even being critical of those who did not.
At a seminar on women’s progress conducted by the Social Development Department, established after World War II, the main speaker related an anecdote about a local woman’s visit to the United States to spend time with the families of her married daughter and son, both of whom had American partners. On her return home she exulted that her daughter was lucky to have found a husband who helped her with the housework, setting the table and clearing it after meals, doing the dishes, giving the children baths, treating her so well; while her son had not been as lucky, having a wife who was lazy, attended school every week-night right after work, leaving all the housework for him to do, and getting home after he had put the children to bed. This, I would say, faithfully represents the attitude prevailing then. People saw what they expected to see!
It was more the rule, than the exception, that when a man got married he would have a “sweetheart” on the side sooner or later; and many women had no recourse but to live with this and hope it was not done too openly. The result of this attitude was that men became bolder and bolder, taking the practice as far as they could, many times because the wives were inclined to fight the sweethearts (sometimes literally) rather than the husbands. The tendency of both men and women was often to censure the female rather than the male.
The older heads told stories of how in the old days a daughter-in-law living with her husband’s family would be roused out of bed by her mother-in-law to go out and bring her husband home on a rainy night! And it was supposed to illustrate how far women had come since this was no longer expected of them!
One heartening case was that of the wife who, after numerous jealous episodes involving her husband’s sweethearts, took the philosophical position that men were bad and there was nothing one could do about that; but that, instead, she would act only if the woman came into her territory, since to some really “bad men” it often became a game as to how daring they could become and how close together they could bring their legal and their illicit relationships.
In the case referred to above, there was one particularly loose woman who had intruded into the marriages of several men of substance who could afford to be generous, and was enjoying the good life with gifts from her admirers. The wife, let’s call her Miss Idolly, had worked side by side in building a mini business empire along with her husband, mainly through her know-how and energetic spirit.
Miss Idolly operated a “portrero” (chicken and egg farm) outside the town limits, but resided in town to look after their grocery shop, venturing periodically to collect the products of the portrero and bring them for sale in the shop.
One day she received word that her husband had been seen taking his sweetheart for visits to the out-of-town property. She thoughtfully considered the matter and, faithful to her new philosophy, concluded that some action on her part was justified, as the sweetheart had clearly overstepped her bounds by venturing into her territory.
There is a thin strip of leather-like material, going under a crude local name, allegedly made from the private parts of a bull, which is used as a whip to control the behaviour of animals; and Miss Idolly had access to one such article and, armed with it, she, with the cooperation of a taxi-driver, paid a stealthy, early morning visit to the portrero when she received a tip about the sweetheart’s presence there. She sneaked up and opened the gate to the fenced area where the sweetheart was busy collecting eggs in a basket, and said softly and sweetly: “Good morning, Miss Dolly.” The lady, turning slightly and speaking to the visitor over her shoulder, replied: “Da no Miss Dolly, pet.” (It is not Miss Dolly, pet)
Wrapping the whip around her hand and hiding it behind her back, Miss Idolly advanced toward the sweetheart and, still speaking softly, said to her: “You MUST be Miss Dolly. You are using Miss Dolly’s ol’ shoes, you are in Miss Dolly’s chicken pen and you are collecting Miss Dolly’s eggs. You MUST be Miss Dolly!” With this, she had raised the whip and brought it down with force on her enemy’s back. The woman turned around and, recognizing her lover’s wife, screamed, shook the old shoes off her feet and ran barefoot on the muddy ground towards the barbed wire fence, with Miss Idolly close on her heels and wielding her weapon with good effect.
By the time she had got over the fence the intruder had sustained several lashes of the whip across her back and rear and, in addition, the barbed wire had gouged flesh from her hands and feet and other parts of her body. Once over the fence she had run straight to town, barefoot, leaving her belongings behind, while Miss Idolly, satisfied with the revenge over her presumptuous enemy, had put them together in a paper bag and handed the parcel to her husband, cooing the advice to take it to his “comp’ny” and tell her to be more careful in future about trespassing.
The pleasure with which this story had been circulated by wives showed their gratification that at least one had been able to gain relief over a recurrent problem that many faced.
Many have studied the reasons for the attitude towards their women that prevailed, in Creole men particularly, from times long ago up to the present. It is generally accepted that it had its beginning in slavery, followed immediately by colonialism, under which systems women were regarded as of little account, which contributed substantially to the way our men and women see each other; as, also, the addition to the population through the years of immigrants from the surrounding Latin American republics, the home of “machismo.” And although there has been improvement in the attitudes from those times we still have very far to go.
(Chapter 16 in next Friday’s Amandala.)