An old world in Tobago


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Category: Reflections Date: 14 Jan 96

I would have lunched on callaloo soup and lobster in Papillon - but here I was at the bedside of an 80-year -old man and his view in Bethel village.


We had been driving up and down half a square mile looking for the place (later we found the sign had been knocked down) and were now racing (again) along a boulevard of coconut trees and for the tenth time I said to my companion, “Why don’t you just stop and ask someone for directions?”

He replied, “I just can’t do it - similar to your lack of sense of direction, a physical problem, has to do with a kink in the corner of the brain.”

“So where are you heading?” I said through clenched teeth.

“I’m driving along this road,” was his information. It was after 12 and the yellow heat bounced off the shiny metal of the car and into my head which was pounding, and my eyes were seeing globs of piercing light when I closed them.


As we swerved near a fruit stall I told him to stop. I’d had enough. I thought I saw someone I knew - he could take directions from someone I knew couldn’t he? It was after all Tobago and I’d lived there as a child. He stopped and I got out. A slender middle-aged woman was buying fruit. A girl with a smooth oval face and two missing teeth was sitting beside the proprietor. She called out my name. I must have looked blank because she said, “Remember me?”... then, “You used to be in my class in Bishop’s.” I did, but couldn’t remember if she tormented me or was friendly. While I considered this, I realised I really did know the woman buying fruit. She was Tamara’s mother Shosha (not their real names): a slight dark-haired woman of Hungarian descent, who showed no trace of the cancer she had. I’d met her a few times at her grandchildren’s birthday parties in Trinidad. Her daughter is a friend of mine. I went up to her and said hello. She obviously did not recognise me, (she said later she thought I was my younger sister - it must have been the glasses). We were by now both bewildered but yes she did know the way to Papillon.


Back in the car I told my companion, “The cancer seems to have disappeared but she’s losing her memory.” We drove past the place. By the time we found it, she was waiting for us at the entrance. “Oh darling,” she said, “I’m so sorry I did not recognise you. Don’t go here, come home with us. I’ve just bought all sorts of bits and we can have a cold lunch.”


We followed her to a house behind Mount Irvine built on the flat of a hill. The verandah looked down into a steep incline of a garden which appeared to drop into the sea. It was like staring into an unreal picture postcard. Bright sunshine, the coast a ridiculous azure blue, splashed with curved shapes of deeper blue, lush trees weighed down by fruit, purple and pink bougainvillea, leading into the garden, steps and a flower entwined arch, the kind found in gardens of old English castles. But as we talked to the people in the house, the view became a backdrop of another world - a Gauguin painting hung in the old world.


There were books in the living room. (Someone of their generation told me that a home without books is like an empty shell.) Aunt Kitty, a big boned fleshy cousin from Switzerland was introduced, fanning herself suffering from the heat. I asked after Shosha’s husband. And that is how I came to be sitting with Ben, propped up on crisp bright sheets. His room opened out into the sea and sky - a door carved into the wall, and Shosha said before she left us alone with him to prepare lunch, “The view looks different minute to minute.” And it did. An enormous tree was beginning to throw longer fatter shadows across the lawn.

 “I came here 40 years ago when I was 40, after the war, so you can guess how old I am.” He joked but he was depressed. He is practically bedridden with his bad back, and now he is losing his sight. He is distressed that he can’t read. Still he remembered his house in Hampstead, his telephone number “Primrose 4321” which reminded you of young officers in army uniforms, and tea roses in a garden. He told us of the miracle of having his daughter after 17 years of marriage, reliving it perhaps for the thousandth time, of his small family, about a changed England he would never return to.


He was drowsy, slurred a bit because of the painkillers but I didn’t take my eyes off him, spellbound. His native intelligence and something about him lit up the room, and made the heart beat faster. I was being made privy to an old world over which the lights are rapidly going out. It was not just their age, or their ties with the old world of Europe or cousin Kitty’s passion for the ballet. In some of these homes you see a piano, and dusty music sheets of forgotten ballads, (I will never forget Ellis Clarke’s 90-year-old aunt, her back straight as an arrow, in that colonial house, with the slats letting in shafts of gold evening light, and the wooden floors, that could have been in India, singing Oh Danny Boy in a beautiful cracking voice at her piano) and rows of books, invariably, Austin, Shakespeare, Enid Blyton.


He conjured up for me, without saying anything, children curled up for hours reading in dark corners of the house, while parents wrote thank you notes in ink pens, and imitated and gossiped on the condition that you should be witty and not crude, where you are required to speak correctly, where writers count more than moneymakers. (Didn’t Trevor McDonald’s mother insist that he learn a new word everyday?) Where PR was laughed at as unnecessary artifice which only covers the truth. A charming world of small courtesies, in-jokes, an enormous capacity for pleasure. They were brought up on these innocent Victorian rules of propriety and elaborate manners, and quick wit. Then the rules changed which left them and their children so vulnerable, ill-equipped for the cut and thrust of battle and survival in the new world. Even their courtesies are not understood. But their grandchildren will battle.


At lunch aunt Kitty abruptly breaks her silence to say, “I used to teach ballet.” We talk about marriages and people, books and cheese. It’s simple and sincere. No artifice, no false jocularity, no awkward silences. And a word is never wasted. There is little small talk; we plunge straight into life. As I left, the 80-year-old man said, “I feel useless.” I started. I’d forgotten his age, and was wondering what my companion would say about us holding hands, “How can you feel that way, when you are able to light up a room, simply with your aura, with your sensibility.” Another old word.


All your friends are over 50, joked my companion on the way back. I covered my eyes from the sun and basked for a little while in the still bright light of an old world.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur