Joe Bloggs: An Unlikely Hussar Part 6. How I felt when I got news from British Guiana of Marma’s death

House like Marma's House

It was 1951 and I was still buzzing with the excitement of my visit to the Festival of Britain before moving up to Hillbrook School. As usual, I picked up the household letters from the front mat at 69 Oakburn Road and looked through them to see if any of my friends and family had replied to the many letters I had sent home to British Guiana that year. I was always hopeful, but usually disappointed. All the same, it was one of my chores to sort through the mail and put the letters in the right section of the letter rack for members of the family to find when they came downstairs. My heart jumped a bit when I saw a British Guiana stamp on the corner of one of the envelopes. It had my name “Master Edwin Joseph” on the front. I opened it and began to read the note inside. It was from my mother’s Brother, Uncle Kenneth Martin, a policeman in Hopetown Village. I was happy at first, as I liked Uncle Kenneth but I soon realised that his letter did not bring happy news. Marma, my mother’s grandmother and therefore my great-grandmother, had passed away. I was devastated. She had been in her nineties, so it was not as if her death was unexpected, but Marma was very dear to me. She had always made a great fuss of me and spoiled me in many ways. I sat down on the bottom of the stairs, transported back to Hopetown for a while as the tears blurred my vision and memories flooded my mind. 

I saw the shuttered wooden house as clearly as if I had been standing in Macpherson Lane, Hopetown. For a few moments I was there. It was at Marma’s house that I had learned to walk. Uncle Joe, a carpenter by trade, made me a wooden frame to practice taking my first steps. Marma and Thelma Cameron, a cousin, Uncle Ernest and Parpa gathered under the house and called out encouragingly as I stumbled and hit my mouth on the wooden bar and struggled up to try again. I was born sickly and had jaundice shortly after birth, so had to be cared for protectively thus I didn’t walk until quite late. Under the house was where the uncles did their carpentry and overhead were the eating and sleeping rooms. At that time, I lived downstairs at Aunt Bee’s house next door. There I used to sleep in a hammock made of knotted soft cotton string. My father, who was skilled at hand knitting fishing nets, had made it for me. Marma’s house and Aunt Bee’s house were wooden but most villagers had wattle and mud daub houses. My parents had no house at that time so they had to live at Aunt Bee’s with me.

Marma was known to everyone in the village as “Aunty Missy”. Her real name was Eliza Macpherson and she was almost white, being of mixed race. She was very tall, slim, and upright with white skin and long hair right down her back. This, I was told was because of her Scottish ancestry, and yet she had been born in a former slave “logie” on a plantation. She had been born about 1848 to a freed slave on the Bath Estate, but her father was Mr Erskine, the white manager of that Estate. She was a very proud, strict, disciplined, well respected person who was always full of advice. When she spoke, you listened. I spent a lot of time with her in my early days and loved her a lot, not least because I was a favourite of hers. She always showed me love and never once chastised or punished me. Indeed, I went to her to escape punishment for my sins, knowing that no one would touch me while I was with Marma! I do not know if she had any education but she always wanted me to read to her. When I did good work at school I was allowed to bring the slate home to show her the ticks. She always looked at it so quickly that I doubt if she could read it herself, but she would say “very good” after a quick glance, and then reward me. I did not know how she knew, but she had heard that I had become school champion at walking on my hands for 200 yards or more and was not pleased. She wanted me to be different from “them other boys” and she told me I must not do it, so I stopped.

She was a real matriarch. She loved to be the hub of the family and to know what was going on. Her house was always full of people of all ages: the Camerons, McPhersons, Martins and Josephs all together. Upstairs we were a hive of activity, doing homework, reading, talking about forthcoming village events in the church or school. There were always some people eating. Everything she had was shared: corn cobs, fruit, and cake. I loved this about her and I loved Marma’s cooking and baking, especially her sugar-cake. There was always a happy atmosphere. When she came up, everything went quiet and she would ask if all was right. We would say “yes”, she would go into her room and we would know it was time to gradually disperse to our various homes.

One day I was misbehaving at school with my class mates, passing notes and whispering, when I was asked a question by teacher Donald and couldn’t answer. He swiped me round the head with a book for not paying attention. I didn’t cry at school and stood corrected for the rest of the day. At home time, I didn’t play as usual but went straight home. To my surprise, as soon as I arrived I was asked by Marma if it was true that I got “boxed up” by the teacher. I replied truthfully, “Yes”, not knowing that Marma would take her stick off down the road to catch teacher Donald as he left school. When she caught sight of him, she chased him up to the main road, waving her stick in the air, much to the hilarity of  bystanders, as poor teacher Donald, plump as he was, tried his best to evade her clutches. She caught him and hit him but he eventually escaped and she walked home, surrounded by the laughing company of onlookers. I was a bit frightened about what would happen to me as no one asked me what I did wrong. Uncles James and Ernest and neighbours all thought I was a “fresh young boy” who wanted to “talk back” to people. I heard them say disapprovingly “Aunty Missy don’t see no wrong in Yella” (Yella was my nickname as I had sallow skin rather than black). I felt sorry for teacher Donald who had been caught by surprise, since as far as I was concerned, I had deserved the boxing he gave me. It was true what I had heard people say that Aunty Missy didn’t believe anybody else and thought I was always blameless.

Marma had never answered my letters from England but I didn’t expect her to, because I had never seen her write. I knew she would get someone else in the family to read her my letters. I just missed her so much and now the reality hit home that I would never see her again. Death in the family was something I had faced before. The day Parpa died, when I was six, he was brought into the room under Marma’s house and I was taken in to pay my respects. I had never seen a dead body before and was apprehensive, but was told not to be afraid and was given two old copper pennies to put on his eyelids. I duly did this. There were people all around, some talking, some singing, some wailing and some drumming. This went on all through the night. I was told it was a “wake”. Lots of stories of Parpa’s exploits were being told. By all accounts he was a good man. He used to ride a motorbike from Hopetown to Buxton and back and had a woman in nearly every village on the way. I didn’t really understand it all. After that, I had witnessed other wakes in the village. Although I knew it was a tradition, a social custom, I never really liked it, so I avoided it and was allowed to because I was young and living at Rodboro.

Parpa’s real name was Willie Martin. He was my mother’s father. He was a very tall, slim, and very serious man whom I looked up to because he was full of stories about things he did as a boy. He lived alone in the back dam at Number 22 village in a small house by which he kept hundreds of turkeys, ducks and chickens. He often went into the village to sit and talk with the other men or to visit us in Hopetown at Marma’s house since Marma was his mother. Everybody knew him. I used to enjoy going down to his place to sit and eat with him. He would ask how I was getting on at school. I rarely had the time to see him, however.

Once, he showed me how to knit a hammock, and tie up a wild donkey with a lasso. We picked up the eggs together. I used to walk across the pasture to bring food to him. I felt nervous crossing through the water in the moonlight, as you could clearly see the swirling bodies of swarms of water snakes. It was always a relief to get there. He told me not to be afraid, since if I didn’t touch them, they wouldn’t touch me. Then he always made me a warming drink by boiling a stick of solid cocoa in some of the milk from his cows. Marma had outlived her son, but now they were both gone and I would have to be as brave as they had always told me to be.

If you want to find out what happened to me during my rebellious teenage years in the Munroe Household in Tooting, then sign up to follow this story by clicking the follow button on the bottom right hand cornet of your screen. You will get an automated email to alert you to any other posts I make

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