English Peas: A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood
Culture

English Peas: A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood

Sunday was the day they came to Ivy Cottage. In the afternoon. After dinner.  They came in their English cars –  their  Morris Oxfords and their Vauxhalls. Pale, sallow, freckle-faced men with knobbly white knees in khaki shorts; women with overbites; brown  hair that was either straight and stringy or curled tight in a perm.  The transplanted English who now lived in Knock Patrick and New Port and Bethabara and Plowden .Names their forefathers had had the temerity and the power to transplant to Jamaica during  the days of slavery. Names we were now saddled with as  permanent reminders of their  ‘self-proclaimed superiority.’   Surely names had existed for these places before their unwelcome arrival? They came on a nostalgic dietary journey. They came to buy  my grandmother’s  strawberries and English peas. (Garden or Snap peas).  They blew their horns in their polite English way, stood at attention in front of our gate clutching their  children by the  arm,  and holding on for dear life to  their vacuous, hypocritical smiles.

It was my job to escort them from the gate to Jones.   I hated Sunday afternoons.  I maintained a stoic silence as I led them by the side of the yard, between the  house and the barbecue, past the tank,  along the slight decline past my tangerine tree shelter and the stand of orange, grapefruit and breadfruit trees, underneath,  the  otahiti apple tree – with its lush red carpet of blossoms – that stood like a towering sentinel beside the stone wall that separated the yard from Johnny,  then across the road into the wide expanse of the Jones property, with its strawberry patches punctuated by the occasional avocado tree and the green English peas vines.

First time purchasers  must have initially  thought I was either an idiot child, or incapable of speech.   My silence, until I was forced to speak, was my  form of protest against a custom I hated, perhaps because I recognized even then that I had been placed in an invidious  position.

They picked their own strawberries and peas, putting them  in the three-pound Lannaman’s sweetie boxes we provided.    Some ate as much as they picked.  My grandmother was generous. I also picked  strawberries for the family’s  Sunday evening supper. But I was careful to pick only the ‘seconds’ –  overripe, bruised, and those disfigured by  tiny  holes or black spots made by ants that had successfully breached the thick layer of dried brown leaves carefully laid around and between the plants and the  earth.   There was nothing more delicious. Not even plantain tarts. Not even tangerines on a hot summer’s day can beat the gastronomical delight of crushed ripe strawberries swirling in a thick coating of condensed milk. For those special moments when I gorged on  our version of strawberries and cream, I forgot my hate for Sunday afternoons when the white people came. When my  childish pride  took a battering. When I enjoyed strawberries and cream.

Many years later, when I went to England on a one-year Jamaica Library Board Fellowship sponsored by the British Council,   to  gain practical experience in British Libraries, my Ivy Cottage Sunday afternoon  ‘reality’ of the world of  whites was shattered.    I saw dirt poor whites, dirty whites, homeless whites,  whites as beggars, whites as garbage men,  whites as shopkeepers and greengrocers.  And to top it all, my Aunt Ettie was married to one. My cognitive dissonance quickly turned to a searing anger at the snow job they had successfully perpetrated   on us for so many years.

And here I was in their country for an entire year, having to live in their homes, associate with them on the job, be civil, even friendly because I was representing my organization and my country.    In retrospect, my education on the real England was sadly lacking, and consequently I was totally unprepared for what I encountered on my arrival.  The time was 1966,  the beginning of the stream that was to become a flood of  ‘newly-independent’  former colonies in the Caribbean and the African continent; but what was,  in reality, the ‘motherland’ shedding ‘her children’ who were no longer  economically feasible for her to exploit, because the pickings were getting progressively slimer  than the earlier largesse when Jamaica was described as the British Empire’s crown jewel.

I was a quick study and soon learned to play their own game of sarcasm and derision  and to even beat them at it. For example, their surprise that I spoke flawless English was met with the inevitable question: “Where did you learn to speak English so well? To which I quickly learned to reply: “Why ? On the plane coming over,”  then watch for the inevitable suffusion of red staining their face as they realised I was ‘taking the mickey out of them’, Cockney translation – making a fool of them. I remember the very slow, studied and deliberate way my first landlady, on meeting me and had apparently decided that, in addition to being unfamiliar with the language I was also deaf :  “GOOD AFTERNOON.MY NAME IS MRS. SMITH. WELCOME TO OUR HOME.” To which I replied” I do speak English, so there is no need for you to speak so slowly.”

It was winter and I was ‘tucked’ away in their attic room, where it was unbearably cold and stuffy.  I remember her ‘kindly’ leaving a coat for me in case I did not have one. An obvious discard, the coat was filthy.  I remember her seeing my husband Lance’s photograph and commenting on his good looks. I remember receiving  a floral arrangement for our first wedding anniversary  via Inter-flora – a world wide network of licensed florists – and  her astonishment that it  existed in Jamaica.  I remember for the three  months I lived in her house, her teenage daughter never spoke to me once. I remember she told me that I was using too much of her hot water and that it was not  necessary for me to bathe daily, to which I replied that where I came from that was what we did. I suspect  she did not believe me and perhaps thought I was trying to wash off my colour!  The arrangement  made with the British Council   was for bed and breakfast, which meant that I was given breakfast but was responsible for my  other meals. My landlady ‘very generously’ allowed me to use her skillet but warned me never to wash it. The truth was that it was never washed, only wiped out occasionally, leaving an accumulation of old bacon grease mixed with sausage fat, and the corresponding aroma . I quickly found a Woolworth and bought my own cheap frying pan which I religiously washed after every use.

I remember meeting the Librarian at the first library to which I was assigned, several weeks after I had started working there. On our second meeting she called me Miss Ferguson and enquired how I was doing.  Why Miss Ferguson?  Another Jamaican, Cynthia Ferguson, whom I had known from Jamaica  had been working there before my arrival. We did not look alike. Yet, to this woman, we were indistinguishable. ‘If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’ was a common theme black people experienced in England at that time.

I was taken on a visit to a  technical college library  and met the Principal who, to impress me that he knew about  ‘The  West Indies’ – so named, thanks to Columbus who got lost –  spoke glowingly of our ‘island-hopping holidays.’    At that time we were in the throes of trying to revive a discarded federation of former British territories. Despite our efforts it   was a short-lived union that lasted from January 1958 to May 1962.  The original objective was to create a political unit that would get independence from Britain and become a single state comprising ten territories, with the capital in Trinidad.  In pursuing this objective some federal institutions were established, for example a shipping service to operate two multi-purpose ships – The Federal Palm and the Federal Maple – donated by the Canadian Government,  used as cruise liners  to take passengers on tours of the region, popularly known as ‘island hopping.’  The federation  died when Jamaica withdrew in 1962. It was reported then that  the  late Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, was alleged to have said: “one from ten leaves nothing.”  To  this learned British  gentleman, ‘island hopping’ meant literally  hopping,  on  flat sea boulders, from one island to the next.  When I pointed out to him the distance between Jamaica and Trinidad, his response was that he did not believe,  as his understanding was that the islands were “incredibly close to each other.” So much for the battle between hard facts and studied ignorance.

Consider the time when I tried to purchase an item in a small, one-man-neighbourhood store and was  told by the proprietor that he had none. And as I turned to leave his parting shot was:”And even if I had it I would not sell it to you.” Or the friendly mother figure at the bus stop one cold morning who said to me: “Dearie, what part of Africa are you from and with your colour do you feel the cold?” To which I replied, “I am from no part of Africa, and yes, even with my colour I do feel the cold. With your colour, do you feel the cold ?” I watched as the red wave, to which I had become accustomed and looked for in anticipation, suffused her cheeks.

Neville Scarlett, the brother of my Aunt’s husband was also on a fellowship to England and we arranged to meet for lunch. We arrived together at the restaurant and, as the notice clearly stated, waited to be seated. We waited and waited, but remained invisible as black people were then wont to be.   We only became visible when we turned to leave.  I quickly found out that the tendency was that for service to be granted, one had to become demanding, loud or aggressive. I decided instead to be assertive and to question the mental capacity of the individual worker, as I did when I was overlooked at the post office although I was in line, so I said, “Am I invisible? I was before the gentleman.” or the time when I asked for a particular product that was clearly visible in the display counter of a pharmacy, but was handed something else and asked the clerk if she could in fact read.  Once again I saw the bright red suffusion of colour staining the hapless girl’s cheeks. Once again it gave me immense satisfaction. There was one particular  instance when I was denied this satisfaction. Fellowship students were given four weeks’ leave for the summer, but if you were leaving the country your ‘handler’ at the British Council had to be informed.   When I advised her of this she responded quite chirpily: “Do enjoy yourself and remember to soak up some sun and come home nice and brown!”  I would have done anything to have seen her face when she realized to whom she had been speaking.

I stayed at the female hostel of the Methodist International Hostel in Kensington during my one-month summer hiatus with Velma.  I was scheduled to attend a summer school in Scotland, followed by my 10-day trip to  Italy. The food at the hostel was, in a word, terrible. Meats were not seasoned and we were fed a daily desert of either blancmange,  made with flavoured corn flour, or jello. Whatever was left over was simply served the following day. Velma and I invested in a small pot and a hot plate.  Cooking was not permitted in the rooms, but we were ingenuous and never got caught. We cooked rice and scrambled eggs with butter. which we ate with a glass of fresh milk. Our refrigerator, even in summer was the window sill.

My attendance at the summer school in Edinburgh, Scotland was enlightening. Edinburgh is a beautiful city, built on a hill, affording a panoramic view of  Arthur’s Seat, where the British warrior-chief, King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable, were alleged to have ruled over the mythological kingdom of  Camelot.  The Summer school was held at the C12th.   New Battle Abbey College, a  beautiful  setting with formal gardens, a  copse, small river and its own chapel. The Abbey was founded in 1140 under the patronage of King David of Scotland. In 1937 it was given to the nation to be used as a college of education.

The group of students was international and many came for reasons other than educational. There was much drinking at the pub in the nearby village, as well as much romancing in the copse. I was invited to Paris for a week-end by a Nigerian – I believe his name was Niko – who I was meeting for the first time and the invitation was issued shortly thereafter.  On the last evening, two Scottish students had a physical fight over a Libyan Ali, and the Course Coordinator in his closing remarks, quoted the work of a famous author whose biography began with the words: “I was conceived on a train…” He feared that in thirty years’ time, a book may be written by a new author, and the opening paragraph would read;  “I was conceived at New Battle Abbey Scotland during the  1966 British Library Association’s Summer School…”

My foray on the continent began shortly after my return to London. Grace, with whom I had worked in Kingston, had migrated earlier to go to law school, was y travel partner  on  a Cosmos coach tour of Italy. Grace, tall, slim and bespectacled, had a soft voice and a pure look, befitting a graduate of the Convent Of Mercy Alpha High School for Girls, a  Roman Catholic Institution  founded in 1894 and dedicated to the educational and spiritual development of the young women of Jamaica. Like all other Alpha Graduates who worked at the Jamaica Library Service –  and there were several – Grace had impeccable manners. spoke  flawless English in a well-modulated voice befitting a graduate of The Alpha Academy. In addition, she was a gifted artist who created outstandingly beautiful works of art that adorned the  glass-fronted display windows at the Kingston and St. Andrew Parish Library (KSAPL) next door to the JLS Headquarters on Tom Redcam Avenue, now Tom Redcam Drive, named for one of  Jamaica’s outstanding poets, Thomas McDermot (1870-1933).

Cosmos Travel ran several tours to European countries at very reasonable rates. We booked for the tour of Italy. On the appointee day,  Grace and I arranged to meet at Victoria Station, the  largest in the city of London, from  where  we would  take the train to Dover, then the ferry to Ostend, Belgium, where we would board our coach,  I was excited. I got to Victoria early and waited. And waited. Grace was a no-show.  I went alone to Dover, hoping she had taken an earlier train. Still no Grace. When the ferry was due to leave, I had a decision to make. Abort my highly anticipated holiday, or go it alone.  Disappointed but undaunted,  I took the ferry to Ostend and  boarded the coach, once again the only black face. Our path took us through Brussels, the capital of Belgium, a corner of France, through Berne and the San Gotthard  Pass, a high mountain pass in Switzerland, connecting the German-speaking part of Switzerland with the Italian-speaking part, along the route to Milan, and. where I was sure I would not return home, because the bus would plunge miles down into an abyss ,never to be found. At one particular point, the driver manoeuvred a part of a particularly deep corner to the very edge of the road, I held my breath as I  peeked through the window and could see nothing but fog. The engine revved,  the bus shuddered as the driver hitched the reverse gear, then inched forward to clear the corner. We collectively breathed a sigh of relief.   In 1980, fourteen years after my trip, a seventeen kilometer motorway tunnel was opened through the Pass.

We arrived in Florence on the third day. One the morning of the fourth, just as we were about to board our coach on the way to Verona, the ‘home’ of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and his earlier play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I saw Grace hurrying to us. Where had she been? On the German tour through the Black Forest. She had missed the train and the ferry I had taken, so she was allowed onto the German-bound tour which passed through Florence. They had driven through the night, as we later did on our return trip. And here she was. With my travel partner present, my holiday was now eminently more enjoyable.   I was to learn later that the artist in Grace had no concept of or appreciation for time.

The highlight of the tour was Rome. The books on Roman Mythology  I had devoured as a child came alive. I reveled in our visit to the Trevi  Fountain of movie fame. It is one of the most famous fountains in the world. Filled with coins, the tradition is that if you throw a coin in the fountain you will return to Rome. I am still looking forward to my second trip. We climbed the Spanish Steps – all 138 –  built in the eighteenth century to the Trinita dei Monti Church.

At the Coliseum I heard the  roar of the lions and the  shouts of the spectators..  An elliptical amphitheatre in the centre of the city, it is regarded as the most important building of the Roman Empire and an architectural and engineering feat. It was built between 72 AD and 80 AD to seat 50,000 spectators and was used primarily for  plays based on classical mythology, animal hunts by gladiators and other public spectacles.

I heard the wheels of the chariots and the neighing of the horses as they galloped along the Appian Way. Originally built in 312BC to help the Roman Army move military supplies quickly  out of Rome. We bravely went  into the  catacombs, miles of underground tunnels where the Jewish and later the early Christians held their secret services to escape persecution and to bury their dead.  We were enthralled by the Tivoli Gardens – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site –  at the myriad fountains, gardens with water nymphs, caves and waterfalls. The sheer beauty of the Gardens took your breadth away.

The Sistene chapel at the Vatican City is a testament to dedication, devotion and the sheer mastery of  the unbelievably gifted artist Michelangelo. It boggles the mind that he could have spent four years between 1508 and 1512, on his back on a scaffold  in pursuit of the perfection he achieved. Between  tours, Grace and I strolled along the Via Veneto and did our sightseeing and ‘shopping.’   It was a joy to spend some hours away from our group of fellow travelers.

Rome was a fascinating city, moving at high velocity. You took your life in your hands  when you crossed the street. The macchinas – small Fiats – were everywhere, drivers honking their horns, winking at us and inviting us for a drive, and men walking behind us and surreptitiously pinching our bottoms.

We visited Assisi and were shown the ‘tree’ where St. Francis is said to have prayed to the birds. We visited the romantic city of Venice and St. Mark’s square where there were more pigeons than people, and pigeon poo was everywhere, and rode a gondola from the famous Rialto bridge to a glass factory.   The smell of fish permeated Venice. We climbed the leaning tower of Pisa – the free-standing bell tower of the city’s cathedral completed in 1372,   and marveled at its architectural splendor and impossible  four-degree slant, attributed to an unstable foundation.

Near to the end of our tour, our money was running short. So we decided to pool our resources and Grace undertook to be the banker. The daily routine for each overnight stop was that we handed in our passports at registration to prevent us from ‘disappearing.’ The following morning they were collected by the Tour Guide and handed to us on the bus. The Guide would then go on mike and check with us that we had taken everything out of our room  and were therefore ready to leave. The following morning the routine went as usual. A few miles out of the city, Grace suddenly grabbed my arm and  in an agonizing voice whispered, “Gloria,  Oh God. I forgot our money in my pillow.”  My heart sank.  saw us finishing the tour stone broke, not even a lira. Grace squared her shoulders, went up to the tour guide and told him of our predicament. In cool Englishman’s style he had the driver turn around and head back to the city and the hotel from whence we had come. We were just in time. The cleaner was actually in the room, about to strip the bed. We breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief and thanked the Guide profusely.  The next morning, he did his usual spiel and in a perfectly deadpan voice, added: “Has anyone left their money in a pillow in their room?”   Our secret was out, but we did not care. We had our money. After that close call, I took over the job of banker. Grace was relieved.

In 1966  natural hair was decidedly not in vogue – No Afros. No braids.   There was a  Nigerian student at Velma’s hostel. Adenike  Egunjobi, the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat in the USA, who could afford to have her own room instead of the more popular double. As a sign of her wealth, she wore a wig, the strands of which you could count. Adenike did not seem to mind.  It was Adenike who made this memorable statement to the Manager of the hostel on the size of the eggs served for breakfast: “Mrs. Fairbourne, why do we have to have eggs that dance in the cup?” You either creamed – read processed – or pressed  your  hair. Grace and I were in the pressing group. We had challenges. Black hairdressers were hard to find, but we survived, either by doing it ourselves,  or by doing each other’s hair.  In London, my aunt did my hair. On my assignments outside of London, I learned to do it myself, followed by the nightly ritual of hair setting and sleeping on your face to avoid the hard, uncomfortable rollers.  But Italy was a totally different matter. Grace had taken her miniature portable stove and  comb,  but no oil. We  scoured the shops and  the pharmacies looking for lamp oil or ‘olio lampada’. In desperation we settled for mentholated spirit. Desperation ended in relief.

I had an unforgettable  tour  and I cherish the memories of those days and nights   through Italy. I was particularly intrigued that each village or town had its own distinctive wine. I could not believe there were so many versions of spaghetti; the welcome of the locals who did not stare at  Grace and me  as if we were aliens; the endless fields of olive trees bordering  grape vines as we drove on the Autostrada; and of course, our fellow travelers who insisted on ordering English fare in Italy!   Not even when they asked  to take photographs of us eating water melon, kept  in cool barrels of water on the roadside, served on plates with knives and forks, which we discarded for the good old  hand-to-mouth Jamaican style upset us, or detracted from the enjoyment of our holiday. Of course we politely declined.

When I was in London,  Cassius Marcellus Clay, who later became Mohammed Ali the American world boxing champion extraordinaire, was at the height of his popularity.  There was tremendous excitement when he visited  to fight Henry Cooper, the 1966 British heavyweight champion. He stayed at the famous Hyde Park Hotel and cameras followed him everywhere; jogging around Hyde Park, sightseeing, training. We reveled in his popularity and everyone black – man, woman and child – claimed him.  He was handsome. He was smart. He was witty. He was the best at his craft.  Our collective eyes were glued to television screens that fateful night  he beat Henry Cooper. He was our champion!   I watched the fight at my brother Winston’s flat in Wood Green, with his wife Gladys and young son Wayne.

I remember attending the Annual General Meeting of the British Library Association at the seaport town of Brighton, of looking around the room at the first evening’s reception and seeing one other black face. For the entire week-end Ibrahim Kaisamba and Gloria Royale became all but inseparable. Ibrahim was from the Ivory Coast. We telephoned each other desultorily for a few weeks after the conference but the ‘friendship of necessity’ faded.  We were however inordinately amused at the sight of the ‘white people’ in their swimsuits soaking up the weak sun on a  pebble-strewn, sand-less ‘beach.’

My autumn-winter assignment was at the county town of Matlock in  Derbyshire, in the Derbyshire Dales  of Central England. I stayed at the annex of a hotel, reserved for long-staying guests.  I was there to learn all I could about rural bookmobile services, and was assigned to Peter Gratton, the Regional Librarian-in-charge.  The library headquarters was part of the county offices and there was a huge dining room where all staff had lunch. I was taken by Peter on the first day and as I stood in line with him, I became the cynosure of all the eyes in that dining room. The following day, on our first visit to a Bookmobile service unit, Peter confirmed I was the talking point of the afternoon. His colleagues wanted to know who the ‘heavily suntanned girl’ was, to which I replied: “Please tell them it is natural, it does not come from a bottle.”   By this time I had classified Englishmen into two groups: the ignorant and superior and the earnest and ignorant.  Peter was neither. He had worked and lived in Cyprus for a number of years.  We got on very well and consequently my stay in Matlock was pleasant and memorable, notwithstanding  the fact that, unlike London, when I  longed to  see another black face I had to take a good hard look in the mirror!

I remember very clearly and distinctly the afternoon when I saw another black face. She was at the bus stop. We stared at each other and simultaneously exclaimed: “What are you doing here?” I told her my situation. She was on her way to Nottingham to visit with relatives. Nottingham in the East Midlands, where many West Indians had migrated in the post-war economic boom  had gained notoriety for the race riots of 1958, that pitted the white working class against the blacks who were accused of taking their jobs and their women.   Throughout  my three- month stay in Matlock, that was my only encounter with another black person.

One day, while working in the Junior Department of  the main library,  a little white girl, approximately four years old came in with her mother. When they saw me mother  blanched but recovered quickly. Not so her daughter.  She clutched the book she was about to hand in  and with eyes and mouth wide open, proceeded to beat a hasty retreat. Poor mother, determined to save what was quickly becoming an embarrassing  situation for her prodded her little girl and said, ”Give your book to the nice lady.”  The little girl, moved slowly and ever-so-cautiously toward the desk. One sound out of me and she would have retreated running and screaming from the room.

When she finally reached me – I was standing very still behind the desk with a carefully crafted smile  – after what seemed like an interminable time, success at last. She handed me the book and went straight back to the safety of her mother’s arms. To defuse the situation I said reassuringly to poor mother: “It’s all right, perhaps she’s never seen a black person before,” to which the mother breathed a sign of relief and said: “That’s it.” Since I had not eaten her, she overcame her terror, and with her mother’s encouragement, handed me her ‘take-out’ book.

It was in Matlock that I had my first ‘snow’drop.’  It was dusk and I was walking across the road to the bus stop when my legs suddenly gave way under me and I landed, flat on my back, in the middle of the street. Quick as lightning, I felt myself being hauled to my feet, grasped firmly and bundled to the bus by an elderly gentleman who disappeared before I could say a proper ‘thank you.’ After that ignominious fall, I quickly learned how to master the heavy boots I had bought in New York in preparation for the winter. They were  tan patent leather and  knee-high with a side zipper and quite sharp.  It was also in Matlock that I learned how to use a portable electric heater, the only form of heating provided in my room.  I remember the nights I had to leave the warmth of the dining room in the main hotel and hustle across the road to my ice-cold room in the annex, to drop in the silver florin that activated the heating element. Every fortnight I would go to the bank, change my pound notes for my florins to drop into its greedy mouth. When snow fell at night – and it did so quite often even before it was officially winter – the view from the hotel to the wide open spaces, took on a fairy-like, other worldly  appearance – pure white covering the hills and downs, But take a careless step and land on your back and you would be jolted unceremoniously  to the cold,  harsh reality of the pain racing up your spine and the cold slush under your derriere.

I spent Christmas in London with my Aunt Ettie,  Winston and  Velma and headed out on New Year’s day for Plymouth, my final assignment.  Plymouth is in the county of Devon in southwestern England, on the peninsula between the Plym and Tamar Rivers. It is regarded as an important port and naval base, and is the home of the Royal Naval Engineering College.    It was also the base from which the early British explorers like Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake set out on their ‘expeditions’ to find gold and ‘conquer the new world.’ The Mayflower, with its pilgrims seeking religious freedom from persecution , stopped at Plymouth before heading out to finally land at  Plymouth Rock, Maine, in 1620, with 102 passengers and a crew of 25, thus successfully  carrying its first group of immigrants, to the ‘New World.’

January 01, 1967  was a cold, grey day. But then so were many winter days.  I would be staying in another private home with an Englishwoman and her German husband.   I waited and waited and waited at the train station. No one came to meet me, as I was assured would happen. Finally, I decided they must  have forgotten, so armed with the address I took a taxi. When I got there, the house was  tightly locked. Hopeful still, I rang the door bell. No answer. I waited and waited again. By this time, I could see curtains moving across the street. It was beginning to get dark and I was now genuinely worried.

Just as I decided that I had better try to get a room at a guest house on the high street, which I could see from where I was, a car drove up and out popped three adults – two women  and a  man – and two children.  The older woman hurried up, introduced herself and told me – loudly, slowly and in mono-syllabic words – that  they had waited at the train station for me, had actually seen me, but because I was walking with a gentleman, decided that I was not the person they had come to meet. They had not seen me waiting afterward although they were still at the station.  I explained that I spoke and could understand English and that the gentleman had simply helped me with my suitcase.

I was taken inside and left in the living room with the two children who subjected me to piercing stares. The other woman was my landlady’s daughter and the children’s mother.  Finally, the older child sidled up to me and said in a  conspiratorial whisper: “You’re black, aren’t you?” Before I could answer, her mother came in, simultaneously  apologising and scolding, to which I replied – I was getting pretty good at this, “Perhaps this is the first time she’s seeing a black person.” Mother agreed   as I had expected.  I knew full well that the child had obviously overheard the adults talking, and having seen me, could not link her idea of black with the colour of my skin.

I was assigned to the Reference Department of the Library and on the days I did telephone  enquiries, I was frequently mistaken to be Welsh. I was told on several occasions: “That’s a nice Welsh accent you have there”, to which I gave the standard reply, “I’m not Welsh, I’m Jamaican.”  One gentleman actually had the temerity to suggest that it was the effect of the pirate Henry Morgan’s influence on the Jamaican accent.  I decided to let is pass.  I was too busy trying to ward off the unwelcome attention of  Mr. Turner, the Librarian, a big, fat,  freckled unattractive  man, all of fifty years and perhaps more, who claimed he ‘fancied me.’

I even became a celebrity – of sorts – when the local journalist interviewed photographed, and wrote me up in the town’s newspaper.  Shortly after my ‘expose’  a woman called me at the library, introduced herself as someone who had worked in Jamaica, loved Jamaica and wished to invite me to spend a week-end at her home. I checked with the British Council and they confirmed her bona fides and approved my spending the week-end there. I had a pleasant time. The highlight of my visit was sitting in her sun room and watching the fascinating sight of the movement of the tides at the  confluence of the  Plym and Tamar Rivers.

My landlady turned out to be a very pleasant and helpful woman, accustomed to having  non-English speaking foreign students in her home. Her last one had been a Kuwaiti. The household had a strict ritual. They washed at the sink in the mornings and evenings. How did I know this? They kept their toothbrushes and toothpaste there.    They bathed once weekly on a Friday night. How did I know this? They made a ritual of their bath time. The wife bathed first, came downstairs where we were watching television, all spanking clean in her robe and smilingly told her husband she had finished with the bath and it was now his time. For the three months I lived in that house, her husband wore the same pair of black pants to work. How did I know this? There was a pull on the hem of one leg that was not fixed before I left.

The wife was fascinated by my skin, and one evening, when we were alone in the kitchen, she confessed that she wished she had the soft texture of my skin.  In addition, she frequently commented on how well I dressed, to the extent that shortly before I left,- she knew I was due to return  home  – she told me that her daughter wanted to know  if I could sell some of my winter clothes to her.. I willingly and obligingly gave her the clothes. I was surprised and amused. Second hand clothes from a black woman to a white woman. Hmm.

I came home  in April 1967. My experiences had   broadened  my world view,  and exorcised the myth of white racial superiority, which I  realized had  been carefully crafted and applied in the physical and psychological  wars of slavery and colonialism, to control the bodies and the minds of people of colour. Britain, the mother country? Who wants a mother who consistently inflicts  physical and psychological abuse on her children?

I was better able to understand the behaviours of the Sunday afternoon purchasers of my grandmother’s strawberries and English peas; the  Mrs. Thomases of my school days;  the white members at the Mandeville Parish Church who had reserved seats,  the Misses Gunters and other members  of the  Parish Library who had a sense of entitlement and therefore felt they were above paying fines for long overdue books,  the Librarian who thought I was Cynthia, because we were both black. Yes, I understood, but I was still angry.   It took me many years  to let go of my anger.  Now I  fondly  recall Sunday afternoons at Ivy Cottage, with English families buying my grandmother’s  strawberries and English peas, and the gastronomical delight of crushed ripe strawberries swirling in a thick coating of condensed milk.

 

About the author

Gloria Royale-Davis