Short story by Royden V. Chan
We were away for 10 months and as soon as we arrived home, I rushed to our back door to embrace once more that familiar view I had missed so much – “the yard”— which was on the eastern side of our house.
The landscape had changed; the old dilapidated two storied building with its weather worn grey boards which dominated the center of the lot was no longer there. The four decrepit tenement rooms at the back were also gone.
Those memorable surroundings which had cradled my entire life of childhood intimacy were now replaced by the incursion of a huge, unsightly greenheart structure.
A hollow sadness overwhelmed me. I knew that something close to me had been lost forever.
But then I realized that I too had changed. I was no longer a simple six year old child. I felt myself more worldly now, more experienced.
I had travelled from British Guiana to Trinidad and back on two Lady Boats – “Lady Drake” and “Lady Nelson”— and was the only one in my family who did not get seasick. I went all by myself for meals in the ship’s dining room and had corn flakes there for the first time; the Steward gave me some to take to my cabin.
I think he was attracted to my 16 year old cousin. As far as she was concerned he never existed.
I sat in the front seat next to the taxi driver, on our way from the Dock to my aunt’s home on Piccadilly Street. He talked to me like an adult as we discussed the different sites along the way. I saw dried frogs hanging on display in the shop windows, and was horrified when he told me that they were considered a delicacy there in Trinidad. They were called “mountain chickens.”
I rode a horse and learned about growing cocoa at my uncle’s plantation.
I was caught in the middle of a Kalinda (stick fight) brawl between almost naked rival gangs on Jackson Hill and I rolled down the hill trying to escape.
I saw the splendour of Carnival celebrations in Port of Spain – people dressed in colourful creative costumes, and dancing in bands to the exciting sounds of improvised music.
They were a thousand times better than our masquerade bands at home.
I stood there in the doorway dismayed and infuriated. At that moment I understood that life is never static, and that nothing remains the same forever. Everything changes. Like Mister Wharton’s old buildings that were always there in the yard and had now been demolished and replaced by this new structure housing Washington High School on the bottom floor and a spacious Auditorium on the top. Like those people I had known all my life who lived in the yard and were now no longer there. They had all moved on to another life, to another place.
Like how I too had changed. I had now entered a new phase of my life.
I grew up on Charlotte Street in the 1930s. All of the buildings and the people who lived on that street were part of my initial exposure to life.
I felt such a close affection for them.
And yet I cannot explain why I sensed no empathy for those several families who were overcrowded into the numerous rooms that filled that large decaying building in the yard, and like the building itself their appearance and existence seemed to be in a state of degeneration.
Or why I had no sympathy for that disabled girl with her drooping eyes and drooling spittle who stood all day at the front gate of the yard, with a perpetual smile on her face, innocently oblivious of her wretched condition.
I remember Mr. Stout, a short, stocky serious-looking man who hardly ever spoke. He was married to a Portuguese woman. They lived in one of the four tenement apartments which were at the back of the yard.
I was always fascinated watching him eat; how he would take a bite of a large red cayenne pepper with every spoonful of his hot steaming rice and salt fish, and perspiration oozing all over his reddened face.
They had three children, Harold, Noel and Shirley. Noel was my age and we shared similar interests, especially drawing comic book characters.
Many years later when I was booking an Air Canada flight from Canada to Guyana, the person on the phone asked if I was from Guyana. It turned out to be Shirley. She told me that Harold had died but Noel had become a famous commercial artist in the USA.
The strangest memory I have of the yard was that early morning when a frenzied commotion erupted. The newly born baby of a young Portuguese couple who lived in one of the tenement apartments, was found dead with blood spots on her neck. The parents claimed that the grey haired old woman who lived in the tenement room next to them, was an “Old Higue” and had killed their child by sucking its blood.
An Old Higue was believed to be an old woman who took off her skin at nights and turned into a ball of fire. She would fly through the air and search for young children or babies to suck their blood.
It was said that if you can find her skin, which is usually hidden in a calabash, and rub pepper on it, she would not be able to put it on again before daylight and would eventually die.
The unusual behaviour of that stooped, wrinkled old woman had long aroused the suspicion that she was an Old Higue. She lived alone, never spoke to anyone, and sat on her door step picking rice all day; another trait of an Old Higue.
The boisterous crowd who had gathered, dragged the bewildered woman from her room and were about to beat her to death, when Mr. Stout intervened and drove them away, saving that poor innocent old soul.
I cannot remember what happened to her after that.
Then there was the mysterious incident involving Mr. Bishop, the middle aged black gentleman who lived in one of the tenement apartments. He was a small-bodied, smooth-skinned man who was always neatly dressed in his white cotton suit. He never mingled with the other neighbours. Every morning he would emerge from his apartment at the same time and ride off to work on his bicycle.
The neighbours had not seen him for over a week and reported it to the authorities who broke into his home and found him dead.
Bastiani’s Funeral Parlour sent a white, horse-drawn hearse to collect his body and as they were driving off he pushed open the coffin’s lid and jumped out of the hearse.
We were told that he had suffered an illness which caused him to fall into a trance – a state of suspended animation— but most of the people on the street believed that he had ‘come back from the dead.’
This was the topic of conversation for many weeks after.
And now, that part of Charlotte Street which had influenced my formative childhood years was no longer there. Those tired old buildings which I had grown to accept with comforting resignation and those endearing diverse people who were like family to me, had all gone forever. They were no longer part of my real world. All that remained was an aching memory, like a nostalgic dagger piercing my heart.
But fortunately, there were other parts of my cherished Charlotte Street that were still intact…….at least for a few more years.