Excerpt From Noel Compton Bacchus' autobiography



School ended each year in July, and for four or five weeks we were free to enjoy ourselves I remember those weeks most vividly in my pre- teen years when they seemed to stretch in wondrous, sun-filled emptiness. What stays with me most from those years is the annual trip we took to the country to spend a fortnight with church friends of my mother. The friends lived near Skeldon on the Corentyne River. Skeldon, Rose Hall, New Amsterdam, Rossignol - the names conjure vivid memories for me.

On the day of our departure, before dawn, stupid with sleep, we were bundled into the hired car for the trip to the station. The donkey cart had gone ahead an hour before with our luggage. At the station, finally awake, we scrambled for seats. My mother bullied the donkey cart man and the ragged porters into helping us find seats together. Tingling with excitement, we pushed and shoved and argued about window seats, peering out into the dawn as latecomers hurried to make the train. Finally, a blast of the conductor's whistle, a lurch and crunching of cars, a crescendo of cries, and the small wooden train on its narrow-gauge tracks pulled out of the station.

As we gathered momentum slowly, the boxlike cars with their slatted wooden seats swayed and rattled. WHAT A FEELING OF HAPPINESS AND WONDER AND ANTICIPATION SWEPT OVER US THEN! The locomotive belched black, sooty smoke that blew in the windows, sometimes smudging our clothes and sending cinders into our eyes. During infrequent lengthy stretches between stations when we summoned a good amount of speed, the rhythmic clacking of wheels on iron rails hypnotized us. We watched the sparks fly as we thundered over trestles, and caught glimpses of quiet creeks with empty punts, a bateau or a corial and a solitary paddler and vistas of rice, pale-green in the sunlight rising from watery, flooded fields. We stopped at the open air wooden platforms of innumerable stations - Buxton and Beterverwagting, Mahaica and Mahaicony, Cane Grove and Uitvlugt - stations filled with the bustle of passengers boarding with bundles and boxes, the cries of vendors offering fruits and sweets and snacks.

Once, on our way to Skeldon, we visited my father's relatives in a country village for a wedding celebration. Descendants of immigrants from India, these relatives maintained many of the customs and traditions of that far- off land. THE HOT AFTER-NOON WAS FILLED WITH THE THROBBING OF DRUMS, THE ODD TUNELESS SINGING AND THE ULULATION AND WHINE OF UNFAMILIAR INSTRUMENTS. We were fussed over and cosseted, folded in the perfumed, ample bosoms of female relatives who were resplendent in colourful saris that yielded intriguing glimpses of naked waists and backs. Indulgent older men shook our hands and patted our heads while the children peered curiously at us.

The bride, who seemed not much older than we were, was covered from head to foot in flowing white garments. In the bright sunshine silver glittered from her bracelets and bangles, her earrings and nose rings.

Food was served outdoors in the wide leaves of the banana plant to be eaten with one's fingers. Mounds of steaming white rice, pale yellow Madras mutton curries - lethal on the tongue - dahl, thick with lentils in thin calabashes, and sweet, sticky desserts of gulab jamun and jilaybee. We drank thirstily from pitchers of ice water and limeade while the perspiration beaded our foreheads and dripped on our garments. That afternoon still seems like a dream to me.

Continuing our journey the next day, we chugged and swayed past fields of sugar cane, the tall yellow and green shoots rising from the razor edged leaves. We glimpsed the flash of cutlasses as half naked brown and black labourers in ragged cutoffs and tattered headgear cleared and cut and stacked the bundles of sugar cane for loading on the punts. Iron punts, loaded high with the crop, moved sluggishly down the canals as the teams of mules and bullocks on the beaten-down mud of the towpaths strained and laboured to pull them to the refineries. We imagined the cries of the drivers and the snap of the whips filling the air while the bumping and grinding of the heavy punts sent ominous warnings of crushed and broken limbs to anyone careless in loading or stacking the crop.

In the late afternoon, our train reached Rossignol on the Berbice River which was the end of the line. We rushed to transfer our bags, suitcases and bundles to the ferry where it waited, engines throbbing, battered sides bumping against the huge tires hanging from the sides of the stelling. THE RIVER SEEMED THREATENING, DARK AS IT WAS WITH SILT, SLOSHING AGAINST THE ENORMOUS PILINGS. But in the distance on the other bank, we could see the reassuring outlines of the houses of New Amsterdam where we would spend the night at the home of friends.

Early the next morning, we went to the bus station, which was an open-air terminus filled with rattletrap buses, engines belching and sputtering. Here we embarked for Skeldon, our final destination. The garishly painted buses with their hard, slatted wooden seats were plastered with slogans: Never Say Die; Calypso King Lord Invader. The roofs were stacked high with bundles and bags filled with produce and supplies. Women arrived, their heads swathed in colourful cloths, balancing large baskets and bundles, after walking several miles to get there. Hens and roosters and ducks, feet tied, were thrust unceremoniously under the seats, where they clucked and cackled and quacked with every bump of the buses.

All morning we careened down the dusty road, the bus clinging precariously to the two strips of cement laid down the width of a vehicle all along the single major road between the Berbice and Corentyne Rivers. Passing oncoming buses was a constant adventure. We would lurch sideways, the wheels on one side on gravel and those on the other on one concrete strip, and the passengers gesticulated in greeting or derision while the drivers blasted their horns enthusiastically and the livestock raised a din of protest.

Skeldon was a small village near the mouth of the Corentyne River. The river constituted the boundary between the colonies of British and Dutch Guiana. The house of our friends, the Holders, was on the bank of the river, a little way from the village and a short walk from the highway. At this point, not far from where it flowed into the Atlantic, the Corentyne River was quite wide, with sandy beaches subject to the ebb and flow of the ocean tides. STONE JETTIES APPEARED AT INTERVALS, THRUSTING OUT INTO THE BROWN RIVER LIKE PALE RIBS.

Next door to the house was a small saw-mill where, in an enclosure adjoining the beach, untreated logs rested in piles like giant match sticks. On nights when it stormed and the tide was full, the logs heaved and rolled and ground against the fence, their gleaming surfaces momentarily revealed in the flare and wash of lightning, conveying a sense of crush and danger that seemed malignant and oppressive to our childish imaginations.

How to tell of the small terrors of childhood! The wizened, gray- bearded Indian man, naked except for his dhoti, walking along the beach with his head partially wrapped in a shabby cloth turban, somehow seemed threatening to us. The occasional stray dog hunched over stolen food, snarled possessively as we approached. Chiggers, tiny insects that burrowed into tender, bare soles, caused infection and had to be removed with a probing, insistent needle by my mother, who seemed impervious to our agonized screams as we writhed in her powerful and relentless grip. Mosquitoes hummed and whined after dark, hovering malevolently outside the mosquito nets to pounce on a limb carelessly thrust beyond the net. Occasionally, we were assaulted by an affliction of sand flies but, happily, this was infrequent.

Everything I recall from that trip seemed subject to the rhythmic rise and fall of the tides. We watched from the row of windows that overlooked the river as the first small ripples of water trembled past the ends of the jetty, slowly becoming a tidal surge until in an hour, perhaps, the waves splashed on the beach below and we could wade and swim and build channels to our castles in the sand.

At night when the tide was in, the waves created a susurration of sound that lulled us to sleep beneath our mosquito nets in our hammocks swinging gently to and fro. The sea air, soft, humid, languorous, smelling of shrimp and seashells, sawdust and seaweed, pressed like an invisible cover on our skinny, sleeping bodies.

Some mornings, I remember waking in the pre-dawn darkness, puzzled by the quiet, the absence of sea sounds, until a faint distant murmuring signalled that the tide was once more rising and soon the empty sand would be inundated.

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