“Oh, is newspaper yuh readin
Meck yuh speaky-spoky so!
Read more, pop tory mek me hear
Ow Federation go. (Louise Bennett, 1966).
Jamaica August 1947 Lily and Mattie
“So, it seems those people at the Colonial Office are intent on us being part of a Federation.” In my head I’m sitting upright a bit like an Egyptian goddess at the round mahogany plastic tablecloth covered table, and I’m screwing up my face, my eyes knitted together In the middle of playing a half-hearted game of Chinese Checkers with my younger sister I’m bored, and the daily newspaper is a distraction.
Reading a headline I throw the word “Federation” at my sister Mattie sitting slumped across from me, she’s losing the game and has become distracted, more engrossed in dropping morsels of avocado laced bread to a begging scrawny black and white cat lurking under the table.
“What’s that Lils?” Mattie volleyed back to me breathlessly, the freckles on her nose dancing. Apparently black people are not supposed to have freckles or so I’ve read, but Mattie’s nose and cheeks demolish that lie.
Mattie is not rising to my bait. She’s failed to catch the word just as she fails to catch balls thrown to her during games of rounders in the yard. I know that Mattie is aware that people called her a “don’t care” person. And that Mattie thinks it is useless caring about something you can’t do anything about and that I’m caring a bit too much as usual.
Staring at my sister I pondered how at first glance although as far as I can see we don’t look alike, a stranger couldn’t mistake us for anything other than siblings. Me tall and thin or marga as the patois word for thinness is thrown at me in school. My face is oval, or some may call it round, but it is oval as far as I am concerned and as long as I think so, that is all that matters. I have what people call a mole decorating the corner of my almond shaped eyes, but again ‘mole’ is too ordinary it is a beauty spot and that is that.
Matilda is also tall but gaunt, square faced with rasping breath signaling to those around the bronchitis and asthma that plague her. Out mother says that she looks like the Queen’s mother. I think her face is wide, but who am I to judge? As we continue to move checker pieces around the board, I remember how much Mattie loathes the smell of the plastic tablecloth where we are sitting, she says it seems to suck her breath away.
Thinking back I see we’re both sporting those ugly old cream turbans of cotton that are wrapped intricately around our heads, along with long sleeved blouses tucked into full cotton skirts that keep the sun and mosquitoes from wreaking havoc on our arms and legs.
“Mattie dear!” I say sharply. Matilda sits bolt upright, looking confused, her eyebrows raised quizzically.
Now that I have her attention, I want to keep it. Louder than I need to as she is only a couple of feet away I snap, “Look those know-it-alls at the Colonial Office have been talking about Federation this and Federation that since that dam war ended.”
I see myself inhaling sharply, kissing my teeth, “chuuups” making the sucking disapproving sound known to signal disgust, unbelief or plain annoyance depending on the length of the sound. I feel more annoyed than perhaps I should, and stamp one of my feet, frightening the cat for a second.
“Look how we got together and gathered money to buy fighter planes for Britain, and now our economy is in tatters. And what do we get out of it”? I’ve a habit of having arguments in my head, which are hardly ever spoken out loud.
“Guess it will stop America from criticizing what the mother country is doing with their talk of Commonwealth and closer ties.” I’m still irritated and waiting for Mattie to say something.
But Mattie remains silent. Undeterred by my sister’s muteness I deftly move a marble safely to the opposite side of the board and continue.
“I mean what is big-big Jamaica going to do with all those small Islands hanging on to its coat tails? Federation indeed.” I push a damp curl that has escaped my scarf back under, and inhale sharply, frustrated at my sister’s complacency and lack of interest in the game and conversation we’re having. A conversation which in truth I know is one-sided.
“Oh, come on Lily you know that you can’t trust Bakra.” Mattie uses the patois word Bakra we sometimes use for White people. She continues, “and as Mumma keeps telling us ‘a promise is a comfort for a fool.’”
Mattie’s high-pitched reply and fist thumping the table, makes the checker marbles shudder, a couple dancing into the air and rolling onto the floor. She’s not as uninterested as an outsider watching the two of us might think.
“Now they’re planning to come here to settle things.” I say, waving the newspaper violently at my sister.
“The conference in Montego Bay, next month. Look here the Daily Gleaner is calling it,” I move my finger over a sentence that stands out, “‘Perhaps the most momentous period in the history of the West Indies since Columbus.’”
“Oh, you mean the meeting that that puffy face Creech Jones is organizing?” Mattie is at last paying attention and I nod approvingly at her.
“Yes, him same one. Can you believe this Mattie? We’ve even made news in a British newspaper” I say turning the page around so that Mattie can see the headline. “See the Gleaner has reprinted an article from the British ‘Daily Mirror’ August 1947” I read:
“Representatives from the British Colonies in the Caribbean are meeting in Jamaica next month to discuss the possibility of some closer association and perhaps a British West Indian Federation.”
When I fold the page, I notice that my fingers as usual are stained with print ink, I continue reading “Jamaica is one of those places where there’s coffee and bananas and the temperature is hot.” And I pretend not to notice, Mattie “cutting her eyes” in disgust.
“Well, apparently Albert Gomes from Trinidad, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante from here, and Grantley Adams from Barbados are all going to Montego Bay,” I rattle off the names because I’ve read so much about them I feel I know them personally.
“Oh wonderful. Busta!” Matilda’s face creases up in smiles at the name, showing the gap between her front teeth that she said she hated.
“What that fool? Well at least Norman Manley is going. And unlike his cousin he has some brought-upsy.” I’m frowning my ground coffee colored eyes knitted in a sneer and then I giggle.” Unbeknown to my sister the tall light skinned guy that has been hanging around me lately is the stamp of Norman Manley. I smile to myself at the thought and begin to make fun of Mattie’s hero.
“Mattie yu hear the latest joke bout Busta?” Not waiting for Mattie to reply I start to recount one of the numerous jokes circulating about Bustamante.
“Busta was giving a speech making his usual promises. He says ‘Mi will give everybody Bread B.R.E.D. he spells out the word. Then somebody from the crowd shouts out, ‘put on de letter ‘A’ sah.’ Busta is perplexed and so someone points out that ‘yu miss out de ‘A’ in bread.’ Busta scratches his head and replies, ‘Yes, as me sai, mi will give yu plenty of B.R.E.D.A.’” I can’t help laughing at my own joke. Busta has added the ‘A’ to the end of the word and as everyone knows “Breda” is the patois for “Brother.”
“Lily yu couldn’t resist it nuh?” Mattie sounds less than impressed with the joke and completely ignoring what I’ve said changes the conversation:
“But come on Lils, who do you know from Trinidad or Barbados or any of those other places? Mattie asks, dropping the last piece of bread to the cat purring loudly and who was now rubbing itself on her bare legs.
“You’ve got a point Mattie, our uncle Harry, talks about meeting “Colon Men” as they were all called, on the Panama Canal.” I smile, happy at the memory. Mattie giggling says:
“Jamaican girls” I join in knowing what’s coming. We both recite a rhyme in unison learned from our uncle:
“Jamaican girls is very nice. On Sunday they does give us egg red and rice.” We both laugh and Mattie says, “Imagine, them thinking our ackee is scrambled eggs?”
“Mattie you remember how he says they’ve ‘flying fish and Cou Cou’ and that the Cou Cou is our turn cornmeal.” I say incredulously.
We both chuckle at the thought that the common yellow cornmeal we cooked with coconut milk and spices could be considered a delicacy. In our family we often made it with plain water to feed the family dogs. If the wrong consistency it would stick to the roof of our pet dogs Victor and Lion’s mouths causing them to lick water rapidly shaking their heads frantically trying to dislodge the sticky food.
“Hey Lils, you hear from that nice coolie guy that liked you?” Mattie is making a serious attempt to change the Federation conversation.
I smile smugly, “I might have, or I might have my eye on someone not as far away as him.” My reply keeps my cards close to my chest.
“Huh! You have someone at college, one of those holy college guys, or you still like coolie Bobby Singh, the one that sent you that Christmas card with his photo in it when he was in the army a couple years back?” Mattie teases.
“Try again Mattie you might be getting warmer, then again you might be very cold.” I refuse to give away my secret.
“Like I care Lily, must be duppy yu like.” Mattie, inferring that I was in love with a duppy which is the Jamaican patois for a spirit, pretends to be nonplused.
I fold and put the newspaper down on the table, saying, “I’ll try to get 40 winks Mattie,” The humid heat of the day makes me sticky and sleepy, so placing my head on folded arms I close my eyes.
“Cho! Lily, you win.” Mattie sounds to me exasperated, she knows she’s been defeated in the game of guessing my new beau and continues to nonchalantly move Chinese checker marbles around the board.
I’m pretending to sleep, travelling back to when I first began to question my world. Yes, there it is. I can put a date to my discovery that I liked politics. It is 1938 and I’m 10 years old.
Well look at me. I’m embroidering a pillowcase with tiny white cross stitches, occasionally wincing as the needle misses the linen and embeds itself into my fingertip, I suck my finger quickly so as not to stain the material I’m working on. I’m convinced that thimbles are useless, as my mother’s silver thimble keeps falling off my thumb.
I eves drop on my uncle and mother talking about a Royal Commission. I’ve no idea what a Royal Commission is but like the word “Royal.” I know it has something to do with Kings and Queens and have heard on the radio that the commission is investigating the “bangarang” or “riots” as my mother calls them in downtown Kingston, which people talk about in guarded whispers behind closed doors.
My mother and uncle speak in spelling code. “Eee yes, Ro.y.a.l. C.o m.m.i.s.s.i.o. n! Kiss mi neck back, a so tings bad Gertie?” they continue making their susu susu whispering noise with my mother Gertie reprimanding and shushing my uncle her brother Harry putting a finger to her lips and saying “little donkeys have big ears.” And the spelling continues. But I the second child, Miss Bird my big sister, Matilda and our brothers George and Alaric have learned to crack the spelling code, we don’t let on to the unsuspecting adults.
“Lilee, Lileee” the sound of my mother’s voice piercing the air brings me back to the remembered reality I’ve momentarily left.
“Ah, well, I’d better get back to the shop.” I sigh, throwing my head backwards, shrugging and stretching one arm reaching behind my head the other stretched out in front of me.
“We can’t leave Mumma in there for too long, you know she will be fussing.” I hear myself saying.
I realize the love hate relationship with my mother is never far from the surface, and I see myself rise reluctantly. I’m on a short break from training to become a teacher at a college in Mandeville in the parish of Manchester. In truth it couldn’t come quick enough, I feel suffocated in the house and am dying to spread my wings, although I’ll miss my father.
I see me drawing myself up from the table, careful not to let the chair scrape the shiny red tiled floor which I and my sisters have had to polish with brushes made from dried coconuts and Genie polish until they’re slippery and shiny since childhood.
Placing the now folded newspaper in the center of the table and straightening my stiffly starched white apron over my faded floral skirt, I rise fully adjusting the neatly tied headwrap. A cool breeze and the odd fly having evaded the lace curtains, make their way through the open doors, and windows. Only one of these invaders is a welcome visitor in late August.
“I’ll go see if that breadfruit we saw the other day is fit. It will be nice to have it for breakfast tomorrow.” Matilda says, tripping over the cat that had by now entwined itself around the leg of her chair as she rose to leave.