Joe Bloggs:An Unlikely Hussar Part 18 Remembering my dad back in British Guiana

Blenheim troop Boys Squadron Cricket team

As I reflected on the terrible conditions I saw people living in among the bombed out areas of north Germany in the late 1950s, I thought about where I had come from myself and how far I had come. I was now a Lance Corporal in the 4th Hussars, with an exciting full time career ahead of me. I could see plenty of opportunities ahead that would help me to go even further despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy the fumes noise and grease of the tanks. I was prepared to put in the hard work for what now seems like very little pay. On just under three pounds a week, I wasn’t rich but I was getting fair pay for the times we were living in. All of us soldiers had the same conditions and were treated equally, although the National Service conscripts were getting a lot less pay than us regular soldiers. I had come a long way from that little mud hut I had been born in and intended to go as far as I could up the career ladder I had entered. Dad would be so proud of me if he could see me now, I thought. As I sealed up the envelope of a letter I had just put this photo of me in ( Boys Squadron Royal Armoured Corps, Blenheim Troop cricket team), I let my thoughts drift back to the things I had learned from him when I was a small boy back in British Guiana.

……..Dad never spoke much. He was a man of few words, hardworking and very serious. Yet he loved his animals. I remember the first time I asked him if I could milk the cow. I was about four years old. He sat down on his milking stool and silently pulled at the teats. The milk swished rhythmically into the bucket. Then he stood up and gesticulated to me to have a go at it myself. He picked up his stool, moved it away from the cow and went to put it away. I reached out to get his stool from him to use myself. “No!” he growled, “You gotta mek you own!” I asked him if I could have some wood and he said he had none and I would have to go and find some. Maybe my uncles Ernest and Joe the carpenters would have some. I duly went to them and was pointed to a pile of scrap in the corner. No one showed me how to cut it or make the stool properly. I was left to work it out for myself by watching the elders at their craft. As a result, I made a very rickety and basic stool with four legs crudely nailed to a flat rectangular seat. It would serve the purpose but was an embarrassment to be seen carrying home, so I tried to hide it so that no one would see it. From now on, I had my own milking stool and I would help to milk the cows every day.

Fishing was a daily activity that put a meal in the pot. Bush fish were abundant in the drainage trenches dissecting the rice fields and dad used to sit under the house in wet weather, knitting twine into cast nets, gilgira[1], and hammocks. I knew that without using the net, there would be nothing to eat, so I was eager to help. My first attempt at throwing the net across the water resulted in me going headfirst with it into the murky, black, muddy water, unable to swim. My dad just sat and watched and said nothing as I coughed and spluttered and struggled my way to the grassy bank and hoisted myself out shaken, scared and shivering. No words of comfort were offered, no helping hand, just a stare as much as to say “go on then, see if you’ve got the sense to work out how not to throw yourself in next time”. So I obliged, taking more care not to overbalance this time and eventually after several tangled abortive attempts, succeeded in throwing the net correctly and catching my first fish.

“You turn to cook today,” he said to me out of the blue one day, with no more than a gesture towards the pot and the fireplace. I was to work out how to cook a meal for us both with no more instruction than what I had previously watched him or my grandmother doing. Had I been inobservant or unable to remember what I had seen, we might have suffered more at mealtime that day. As it was, the meal was not very enjoyable for me, but he ate it without complaint or comment and later, on eavesdropping in on his conversations with one of the other men of his age in the village, I overheard him boasting of how his little son could cook a meal all by himself.

Another time, I asked him if we could have squash and shrimps to eat. He agreed but prevented me from running off to Uncle Thomas to get a squash. Instead, he pointed to the vine, laden with squashes, sprawling over the roof of our kitchen. How was I so small, to get up there so high and reach those squash? As usual, he said nothing, just put down the grass knife[2] for me and then got on with the chores he always busied himself with. I thought a bit, then went and found a long stick and some twine and lashed the grass knife handle to one end of the stick. Several attempts failed as the binding of handle to stick was too slack but he pretended not to have been peeping to see how I was working it out for myself. When I eventually rushed in and showed him that I did it, he just carried on with his job expressing no excitement at what to him was just an everyday task that anyone ought to be able to do. Looking back, though, I know that he was secretly delighted that I could be independent without guidance at such a young age. More and more, I sought his approval by daring to do things my peers were too scared to do.

“C’mon boy, we goin’ cut grass today” he said, and we took the donkey and cart miles out of the village into the cultivation lands where I helped him cut the grass for the cows. Then we had to cut the rice that was ready for harvest. I asked if I could cut some and he gestured to me to cut the rice at the edge of his field that was shorter and falling over and usually left as reject by the men. I was allowed to cut this rice and given a special little sack, which I had had to sew up like the larger ones he sewed, to put my rice in. That day, he finished cutting his rice and told me he was going back to the village with the grass on the donkey cart. I was left alone in the rice field for hours sitting up on the crook of a forked branch with a tamarind whip in my hand. The bull was tied to my perch, which was planted in the centre of a threshing circle. My duty was to whisk the bull’s backside to make it walk round the pole, to trample and thresh the rice we had strewn on the flattened earth. That was my first experience of being alone and growing up to know what it was to do man’s work.

Now there was nothing that would scare me. My classmates learned, awestruck, how I walked in the dark the seven mile journey down the track from the village to the higher back-dam savannahs where the men lived in the wet season with the cattle, so as to take the stacking steamer pots of food cooked by my mother to my father. It was a point of rivalry between the men of the village as to whose son could do what. It seemed that I, “Yella”[3] as they called me, had won the accolade for bravery among them and was the source of admiration they had for my dad for having produced me.

The day I asked to be allowed to plough the rice field with the bullock plough, however, was the day I realised that there were limitations to my quest to prove that I was a man. Even my father would want me to know my place and that I’d not yet “arrived” owing to my age and size. He let me do it, knowing what would happen, and as the plough wobbled, he warned me not to let it cut off both my feet. The coulter jumped from side to side as the beasts jolted forward straining at the yoke to pull it. I was unable to control the weight and speed of the mouldboard and as they surged forward I was plunged headfirst into the mud. “Dis man’s wok” was all my dad had to say and on that occasion, I retired defeated, knowing that I had a year or two’s growing to do before I could pass that test.

In late July and early August the rainy season was coming to an end and the flooded pasture was drying out. Muddy pools were shrinking in size. Fish in them were plentiful and easier to catch as the water evaporated. Dad put both hands into the pool, grabbed handfuls of fish and threw them out onto the bank to gasp and die. As they landed, I scooped them up into my quake[4] and then joined in, plunging both hands into the dark muddy water to feel for their wriggling bodies. Having filled our quakes, we took them home, washed and cleaned them, salted them and put them to dry on the thatched kitchen roof.

School holidays were times when seasonal rural activities took place and just before summer holidays ended in August, “crab a march”[5]. Thousands of “bok” crabs would swarm across the coast to breed at this time and all the families would go hunting them. Dad used to go down to the beach and take me across the vast windswept mudflats, pocked with holes in the succulent green crabgrass. I was scared to see him put his arm down these holes up to the elbow and pull it out with two crustaceans with  four-inch shells clinging to each other and hanging onto his fingers with their great menacing claws. “Put ya hand in de hole,” he said to me. I hesitated, since I was afraid there might be snakes down there. “If ya wan’ eat crab, dis is how ya gotta do….crab na jump on table!” he remarked sharply without smiling and went and sat on a log with his stick in his hand, paying me no attention. I screamed and recoiled as my fingers got a sharp nip from the depths but dad remained expressionless. Not wishing to fail, I tried once more, and again pulled back in agony. Next time, I tried a different hole and a crab nipped onto my hand and clung there as I withdrew it. I saw it dangling there and held it up in triumph before flicking it off. Dad just looked at it and made no response. I went on from hole to hole for hours and caught 5 or 6 crabs that day, putting each one in my dad’s white sack while dad managed to catch a full sack in the same time.

We walked back home through the crabgrass and when we reached home, he tipped them out into a wooden barrel under the house, added a little fresh water and put on the lid. Later that evening, out in the mud kitchen outhouse, he put water in a large pot to boil and as soon as it began bubbling fiercely, he threw in some crabs. After what seemed only a few minutes, he hooked them out, smashed them up with a heavy wooden pestle and threw them, shells and all into another pot along with chopped scallions, bird peppers and curry powder and cooked them for what seemed like hours as the tantalising smell pervaded the neighbourhood. At last it was ladled over a plate of shiny white rice with some chopped steamed callalloo leaves at the side. My torture was at an end. Quite often, crabs were crawling around on the mud floor in the kitchen and under the house. It wasn’t unusual, as we lived so near the sea. The trenches were all connected to the sea and were full of brackish water, so crab holes were sometimes on the banks of trenches. It never occurred to me that they could have escaped from the barrel under the house, though when I lifted the lid, they were frantically scrambling over each other to try to climb out, but always falling back down again.

My first kite was going to be bigger and better than anyone else’s. I wanted a “dugla” (a kite design so called because of its resemblance to a beautiful “dugla” or mulatto girl, because of the tissue paper frills attached to the two side corners and hanging down like curly tresses.) “How ya tink dat ting gonna fly?” was all dad said when I showed him my handiwork. I was dashed after hours of painstakingly shaving the wood pieces to shape and size them for the frame, cutting the brightly coloured tissue paper to fit the frame and pasting them over it with the sticky little squashed green berries from the wild paste trees that grew everywhere in the “back-dam” countryside in those days. I had pasted elaborate designs over it with pieces of rice straw and coiled frills of scarlet and green to contrast with the purple white and orange panels. He looked at it scornfully and looked away and said no more.

Feeling hurt, I went off to fly it on the beach with all my friends. I couldn’t understand why it never got off the ground and kept nose diving, so that its tissue panels soon became punctured and disfigured by holes and tears. Their kites soared in the air, singing and dancing in the breeze. Soul-destroyed, I went to seek advice from dad, but none was forthcoming. Everything to him was a test of my ability to work things out for myself. In the end, I heard Marma scolding him for treating me so. She explained to me that I had used the wrong wood and it was too heavy and needed a proper tail. He said nothing to me but “Meet me at Benjie’s shop”, and when I did, he bought a ball of twine and some cord to make a proper tail and pressed it into my hands, his mouth remaining firmly closed.

…….Far from fiddling around with tissue paper, paste and string, I was now a professional soldier working with mechanical monsters that were never seen back in British Guiana. I smiled to myself as I put a ten shilling postal order into the envelope and sealed it up to post to dad. I imagined he was still in the mining town of Mckenzie, now a bauxite miner where he had moved to get better wages than he could get from his rice farming. My uncles were probably looking after his rice fields for him while he was living far away from our home village and my younger brothers were probably looking after the cows and other livestock.Things move on I thought. Soon they will also be having a much better life for themselves.

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[1] Small hooped hand nets for catching shrimps

[2] Sickle

[3] On account of my fair rather sallow complexion.

[4] A quake is a hand made lidded basket of woven vines about a foot in diameter with a rope shoulder strap.

[5] This is creolese for “crabs go marching”.