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