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The monsoon season has made itself felt on and off all day and the frog song and cricket chorale are in full voice. They are the sounds of my childhood and transport me back to Africa and Asia. Tonight though I am in Trinidad. I am revelling in the symphony that surrounds me, interspersed with the occasional car being driven as if it is the circuit at Le Mans and not a narrow road meandering through Cascade, Port of Spain,
It has been a long day. It started at 5:30 with a warm little body snuggling up to me. My granddaughter likes her morning snuggles. We have reached an accord. I will cuddle but will not budge from bed until 6, when her little tummy sounds the alarm for breakfast. Who needs reveille? My other granddaughter meanwhile was glued to the iPad watching Jessie, a fairly innocuous program about a Texan nanny, a butler, and various children of different ethnicities all living in a penthouse in New York. I have yet to figure out where the parents are.
Which brings me to my granddaughter’s mother. My daughter, Kate. She is in London finessing the art of pole fitness in preparation for teaching it, along with classical ballet and Pilates – once her residency status is confirmed. Hopefully a rubber stamp as she is married to a Trinidadian. I am therefore helping out with the children so my son-in-law can earn a daily crust.
But I was telling you about my long day.
Not only am I responsible for two little beings. Getting them to school and nursery, along with packed lunches, water bottles, homework for one and any other seemingly extraneous necessity by 8 each morning, I am also playing Gigi to two dogs, a cat and a goldfish. I managed to kill the other goldfish, though in my defense little Johnny did not look well when I arrived.
Now I love animals and am a firm believer in children growing up with them. Responsibility and respect is taught, not to mention the sheer joy of pets. I was prepared for two grandchildren, one dog, one cat and two goldfish. The puppy was an unintended addition. Kate is a soft touch for waifs and strays – and days before my arrival they found an orphan pot hound on a trash heap at Cedros, in the south of the island. He was injured, riddled with worms and starving. She would not be my daughter had she left him to die.
The puppy, of indeterminate parenthood, is sweet natured. Their elderly Staffordshire is a dear and loving dog with humans and, strangely, the family cat, but any other dog, or gecko, or balloon, or kite is an anathema to his doggy psyche. This being the case, two days of a newly energetic and irritating puppy was enough to make him snap. Fortunately Buddy did not go for the jugular but rather a firm bite to the belly, puncturing the puppy’s little abdomen.
A tearful daughter on the phone before I left Houston, and she left Port of Spain, and I found myself calming her down with the words, “I’ll take him. He can come and live in Houston with Bonnie.” I should add here that Bonnie is a deaf kitten I rescued from certain drowning off the Boardwalk in St Croix.
In order to keep the peace, and the vet’s bills to a minimum, we – my long-suffering son-in-law, the children and I – have had to come up with a system of separation. One dog in, one dog out. One dog in the loo, one in the kitchen. Meal times are tricky. Both dogs love cat food and loiter with intent if they have managed to avoid capture and / or expulsion, whenever the cat, Jax, tries to eat his kibble. Meanwhile Lilly swims in solitary circles waiting for fish fodder.
By 7 am this morning, I had brokered a peace treaty between feuding granddaughters, cleaned up the cat’s vomit and the puppy’s poo from the welcome mat. I did mention it is the monsoon season and this puppy from the rubbish dump, in a matter of weeks, has rejected rough living and will not perform his ablutions in the rain.
The school run was accomplished with little fuss, both girls loving their respective places of learning and, as I waited for the gate securing me from the perils of Port of Spain to click shut, I decided I had earned a cup of coffee on the verandah.
It is my favourite spot in my daughter’s house – it’s where I’m sitting now – and as I sank into a chair with my steaming café au lait and the last of the brownies, I patted myself on the proverbial shoulder at a morning managed.
I phoned a friend. Our conversation was though abruptly cut off and the reason for the vomitting cat became clear. The other half of the ingested fledgling was clenched, vise-like, between the puppy’s needle-sharp teeth. Refusing to play ‘pull ‘with poor mangled creature, I tossed a squeaky toy and distracted Clyde long enough to retrieve the remains.
Twelve hours after this last incident, I am enjoying a large bourbon and water, listening to the timbre of the tropics and thinking how lucky I am. Between bodily functions and dead birds, we have painted plant pots, played pairs, flipped omelettes for supper and read The Little Mermaid.
It has been a long day, but messy details aside, a truly lovely day!
Sadness washes over me like a warm tide. The tears are salty too. A childhood memory surges through the wave of grief, and I smile.
The undiluted joy of receiving a tiny, tinny transistor radio from my aunt and uncle when they stayed with us in Singapore, en route back to England from their posting in the Solomon Islands. I was about seven and confined to bed for six months with suspected rheumatic fever. That little wireless was my constant companion as I whiled away the long days, and I remember thinking it fantastic that people like Cliff Richard or Brenda Lee, or The Beatles, all came to our little island. They didn’t of course, but no one dissuaded me.
I called my uncle and aunt ‘Jonjulu’. Their names, John and Julia, merged into one amorphous and interchangeable sound. In those early days, before the islands in the Pacific became their home, Jonjulu lived in northern Nigeria where my uncle was a district officer. We lived mainly in the south, in Port Harcourt, Lagos and Aba. Christmases were spent together. And I, as the only child around, was very spoilt. Early on I tried to adopt my aunt’s favourite pose. That of standing on one leg, the other tucked up behind her calf. I, a chunky toddler, of course would fall flat on my face.
Julia reminded me of that this summer. We had lunch together when I visited her in Sherborne, England. She was by then in an old people’s home conveniently located across from a very nice hotel. Her short-term focus was drifting away but her long-term memory was remarkably intact. We talked about my uncle, long dead. About my father – also dead – and his delight when, after introducing his commanding officer to his sister via letter, their meeting culminated in marriage. We talked of their cottage in Suffolk and the joy their children had given them in that idyllic part of England.
Whilst reading and talking about the menu was enjoyed, deciding what to eat was an ordeal for my aunt until, with a little nudging, she finally decided and we ordered from the busy waiter whose patience never wavered.
We talked about the gardens surrounding the hotel, of the self-important robin redbreast hopping beside the raking gardener and, suddenly, Julia reminded me of arriving on their Dorset doorstep at three in the morning. Saudi, their spaniel, shushed by my voice licked my hand and bade me enter the unlocked door to the kitchen. She followed me up the stairs, her head cocked as I whispered through the bedroom door, asking for a bed for me and my friend. “Do you want to meet Fiona,” I, by then a young woman, remember asking. “No, I do not. You know where the beds are. We’ll talk in the morning,” my sleepy aunt replied.
Along with stories, we shared a bottle of wine. Probably excessive at lunch time, but I’m so glad we did. Because my much-loved aunt died on Sunday.
The final person who knew me well as a child despite not always living in the same country. Who knew my parents in their early days of courting and who answered my questions, as well as she could, when I first learned of my half-sister’s existence – my parents, who I would not see for a year, having left London to return to Papua New Guinea. An adaptable woman who was often easier in the company of Hausa tribesmen or Pacific islanders than her compatriots.
It was Julia who taught me the subtleties of English dining – artichoke and asparagus – “Only ever eaten with the fingers, Apple.” I was thirteen and more used to rambuttans and breadfruit.
Remembering her influence, I think of how many expatriates worry about family ties being broken by miles and oceans. A few years in Nigeria and a couple more as a young woman in England are the only time I lived in the same country as my aunt, and yet she knew me better than most – my foibles and my dreams. Distance was never an object to our closeness.
My aunt was the product of an era now passed. Of when duty was considered paramount. Of when doing the right thing was expected and not rewarded. She had sadnesses, like everyone, but she was a private person brought up to not make a fuss, to get on with it. Truisms seen now as anachronistic.
My father, Julia’s brother, was a military man and when I was a child he would say to me, “A soldier’s daughter never cries.” Not something I espouse and, as I type, my tears fall for Jonjulu, my last true memory keeper.