I barely saw the banana, because the smell I had released in removing the lid had instantly transported me back through more years than I care to count. I was once again a young child, opening the lunch at school that my mother had prepared for me early, early in the mornings of long ago.
She often put a banana in, and its pervasive aroma would mix inextricably with everything else the box contained. Smelling it this morning, I could almost taste the freshly-squeezed, frozen lime juice she also included, juice that by lunchtime would have defrosted to a sweet, delicious slush - more refreshing than water in the heat of a tropical noon.
I was no longer at my kitchen counter, but back in the Barbados of my childhood. I was six years old again, with memories unrolling around me like film clips.
|St Josephs, Barbados|
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my mother picked me up after school and took me home. I presume we had tea, did reading practice, played with my brothers and younger sister. All the things that families do. Who knows?
I have no memories of Tuesdays and Thursdays.
What I remember are the other days, the days when my father had the car in town so I couldn't be collected when the school bell went. I remember the Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Of those three special days, Friday was my least favourite.
On Fridays I went home with another small boy whose glossy mother was a friend of my parents. We would sit at the kitchen table, he and I, and I would stare at the big, red checks on the gingham table cloth, and at the fly paper, obscenely blackening in the middle. I remember feeling a curious distaste for that fly paper, even though I wouldn't have known the word 'obscene'. Perhaps it was because my mother never had a fly paper on an old blue saucer on the kitchen table. Or a gingham cloth.
And all the while, the maid would make us peanut butter sandwiches, the glistening, sweaty butter heaped thick on white, cotton-woolly bread that was a world away from the bread my mother made at home.
|All of us with my mother - although I was more than six in this picture|
I suppose it all fascinated me, as did the boy's mother who floated around the edge of this scene - a doll who has no substance in my head, whose mouth moved around magazine words. She wasn't the sort of mother who slapped you for biting your fingernails, as mine did. She didn't notice fingernails. But deep down, I knew she wasn't the sort of mother who would sit all night turning a cool flannel on my head through the endless bouts of tropical sickness that plagued me. Without conscious reasoning, I knew this even then, as I also knew that at home we would not have been left alone to play the afternoon away down beside the walls of the house, without anyone coming to see what we were up to. To my young conscience, the games of doctors and nurses - innocent as they were - would not have stood my mother's scrutiny. But she just lay - my classmate's mother - on the cool verandah hour after hour and we did as we pleased.
On Mondays, there was freedom of different kind, because I would stay on at school after everyone had left, and the place was mine then. It was a big, two storey house. The school occupied the ground floor, while the headmistress and her family lived above. No one ever went upstairs - except on Mondays, when I did.
When all the children had gone, a vast silence would fall over the garden that was our playground. Hordes of small feet had reduced what might once have been grass to hard, bare earth interspersed with feathery tamarind trees, and - in season - these hung heavy with pods of tangy, acid fruit. Unable to resist, I would collect them, my mouth salivating spontaneously as it salivates now, just at the memory. Chipping off the crisp brown shell, I would eat them until my tongue was raw, even though for days afterwards I would barely be able to eat at all. But I never learned, either with those or the small green fruit we called Chinese gooseberries which caused tummy ache like early apples.
But on Mondays, I wasn't interested in tamarinds or Chinese gooseberries because I had a very special job. I used to stay and help Miss Boyce make buns for Tuesday's school tuckshop. Miss Boyce was stolid, uninspiring and very plain, but she was enormously kind. She was also very careful with her small charges, enforcing on us behaviour she envisaged our parents would want, yet untouched by many of those rules herself. At midday we would sit neatly at our small desks and open our lunch boxes - those same lunch boxes that have winged me down this chute of memory, and the intermingled smell of bananas and sandwiches would waft around us, locking us - had we but known it - into a time warp for evermore.
But while we ate our sandwiches and peeled our bananas, our eyes feasted on something altogether different and infinitely more fascinating. Miss Boyce, facing us from the teacher's desk, would lunch on hoops of baloney, slabs of bread and butter and whole lettuce leaves and we watched mesmerised as her hand passed seamlessly from her box to the gaping concrete mixer of her mouth.
But on Mondays, even Miss Boyce's table manners were forgotten in the excitement of bun-making. My reward for the laborious greasing of endless tins was the icing. We made oceans of icing in a shade of pink that only small girls love, and then spread it thickly over the buns until finally, my small sticky fingers could press pieces of bright, glace cherry into each one. Oh, how happily we would sit at the table in that quiet kitchen and sample our produce. The concrete mixer didn't appal me in that intimate setting - I was too busy luxuriating in having no other greedy little fingers competing to lick out the bowl.
In those days, there was no edible glitter, no sugar butterflies or fancy dragees to add the glitz that these days liberally sprinkle the cupcakes I make for the market, but the rows of cherry-topped, savagely pink buns gave me far more satisfaction than their modern counterparts ever could. I remember, years later my baby brother drew a picture of a woman on whose bosoms he gravely coloured in 'the cherries'. Those pointed, red-tipped breasts looked like nothing so much as my tuck shop buns which he had never seen.
|My baby brother. I seem to remember making him pose for my photo in this ridiculous way!|
But it was Wednesdays that I loved most of all.
After school, I was delivered to some old family friends who lived along the coast, a couple whom I called Aunt and Uncle, but who stood in lieu of grandparents to me then. They lived in a wonderful house that was only feet from the sea, something that never ceased to thrill me, even on that tiny, ocean-ringed island. From the courtyard beside the house I would climb up the stone staircase that led to the kitchen on the first floor, and there the elderly maid would laugh and fuss over me while in the background I would hear my Aunt's voice calling, and the sea calling, and the smells of hot food calling.
The ritual was always the same. My satchel was taken into custody by the maid, my hands were washed and then I was sent down the few steps into the dining room to await my 'lunch'. It was a remote and formal room, always cool and somehow disconnected from the rest of the house, but I loved it. A great, polished table stood in the middle, at which a solitary place was always set for me - the rest of the household having eating hours before. Through the slatted blinds and the railings beyond, the street beat hot and vibrant in the afternoon sun, but inside, the family silver gleamed dimly on the sideboard, flowers stood in a vase, and I would sit with my back to the window and drink in the room's gracious elegance as I ate the flying fish and potato pie, or whatever had been saved for me. Subconsciously, I felt my mother would somehow know if I misbehaved in that room, so I never did.
|My mother and surrogate Grandmother, Aunt Ercell|
But afterwards I would run up the stairs to the most magical place of all - the upstairs drawing room. And there I would chatter to my Aunt and Uncle, and play and 'rest', bouncing in the rocking chair that stood in the wide bay window overlooking that translucent, aquamarine sea. Down beneath the window was a small paved yard with a table and some chairs, and then just pale, dry sand, a few palm trees and the sea. And the sound of the sea, and the smell of it and the endless lure of it have drawn me back helplessly my whole life since, tinting the marrow in my bones and the unsung dreams in my head to aquamarine.
I couldn't wait to get out into it, but I would have to bide my time until 'lunch went down' but then, at last, it would be time to go and change into my bathing suit and walk with my Aunt down the beach. We rarely swam just there, in front of the house, we would walk a short distance and then go in.
I couldn't swim, to begin with, I would just play, revelling in the warm, clear water, the afternoon sun dancing in bright skitters across the undulating surface. We would take an orange with us, or a mango and she would peel it and dip it in the sea and we would eat it, warm and salty, the juice running down our faces. But soon the day came when I had to learn to swim, and she picked me up and carried me, screaming, to the depths of the ocean where the water must have lapped at her waist, and she dropped me, terror-bound into that sweet blue void and behold - like a dog, I swam, coughing and spluttering and totally unaware of her hands hovering around me.
And afterwards, walking back to the house, my face and the back of my neck where my bathing suit tied all tingling with sun and salt, I would be totally happy. Until, that is, the day when my happiness turned to cold, six-year-old despair as half-way down the beach I suddenly remembered that I had left my knickers on underneath my bathing suit, and now they were wringing wet. I would have nothing to wear home under my dress. My silent feast in the dining room, the bay window, the sea - everything was lost; and when my father's car finally turned into the yard, my misery was further compounded when I saw another man, a business man, a stranger, sitting beside him. My ally was gone, the chance of any confidences banished, my father in one instant changed from saviour to foe. My world ended in tears and I couldn't believe that he and his companion didn't know in one glance what had befallen me. In that moment I longed miserably for my mother, the only one who could set things right.
|My father's desk photo - posing for it was an annual nightmare, but in hindsight, I'm glad we did|
I never swam in my knickers again, but once, on my honeymoon, I went to the beach in a bikini with a sundress thrown over the top, and at the end of the day, with the bikini soaked and nothing else to put on, the sea and my childhood tangled in aquamarine around me all over again, and we laughed all the way back on the bus, my lover's arms around me, and me with nothing on but my dress, and I was a child again, who didn't go home after school except on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
In celebration of Writing from the Edge's first birthday,
I will be having a wonderful Giveaway!
I will be having a wonderful Giveaway!
Don't miss it!