By Sara Barnes
Cream, speckle-bellied frogs wrapped in newspaper; fibrous, sweet sugar cane; hot, soil-scented thunderous rain; itchy-frilly organdie party dresses; outdoor, warm swimming pool with a fountain in the shallows; machete-cut finger bleeding into a coconut; Portugese Man O War stinging pain on a beach; puncture hole bites sinking a little plastic boat while I’m growling like a lion; creaky screen doors and barking dogs from a hole in the ground.
Out of all these scraps seen through a five-year-olds’ eyes my 56-year-old brain will weave an incomplete, but understandable length of material.
I came to England on a Fyffe’s banana boat in June 1967, when I was five years old. The S.S. Camito set sail from Port of Spain, Trinidad, bound eventually for Southampton. But first it had to load its cargo, which came from Jamaica. Here the ship stopped for at least 48 hours, first at Kingston and then Port Antonio, to load nets of green bananas. We were on shore during this time and we wandered around the port, buying small goods from stalls. On board were 100 fare-paying passengers and the crew.
For some it was a cruise. For others, like my family, it was a three-week holiday and a way of coming back ‘home’ on leave. This time, however, it was our final trip. My parents had decided we needed to go to school in England now we were older and my dad had got a new job with Geigy Agrochemicals in Wilmslow, Cheshire.
On normal annual leave, which happened every three years, we would be greeted in Southampton by one set of grandparents and after staying with them for a few weeks, we visited the other set. My mum needed to stock up on clothes, mainly for us girls at M&S until the next annual leave: underwear, Mary Jane shoes in several sizes to last three years (Clarks made, but sold by M&S at that time), frilly white ankle socks, cotton shorts in several sizes and colours and any special fabric she needed to make our clothes.
In Trinidad, my father was an agronomist for Caroni Ltd, which was taken over by Tate & Lyle - he researched sugar cane. Our house, which came with the job, was one of about 10 company houses close to the sugar cane factory in a place called Usine, St Madeleine, with a further eight newer, larger houses built across the other side of the golf course. It was dangerous to play golf there, because right in the middle of the company estate and golf course was the alligator pond. One Christmas Santa Claus was crossing it in his little boat, but never made it to the houses on the other side.
Life revolved around the house and yard for my mum, me and my sister. There were no toddler groups, but we had each other for company and my mum spent hours making things with us, reading, drawing and just being there. My dad built us a doll’s house that was a replica of our own house - this was one of the things they had shipped back to England, but sadly no longer survives today.
I was a terrible sleeper and used to have nightmares about the dogs next door at the Bachelors’ House (which actually was where the bachelors all lived together). I was terrified that the dogs would get loose from the hole in the ground, where I thought they were chained, and come and eat me. So terrified that I warned my mum not to bring my baby sister home from the company hospital in case the ‘dogs got her’.
I had daytime naps on the gallery, which was an open sided area accessed by outside steps at the front of the house. We spent a lot of our time here, playing, reading, napping. The mosquitos in Trinidad didn’t carry malaria, but they were a nuisance and we had screens across all the openings, but no glass in the frames or mosquito nets on the beds.
The house was like a bungalow on stilts and running underneath the entire width and length of it was a huge area where dad had a workbench; Ortise, our maid, hung the washing on wet days; Violet, who came once a week, did the huge pile of ironing and Roop Chan, the yard boy, kept the bins, brushes and rakes he needed to keep the gardens and yard tidy and clean. Two memories have burned into my head and left marks: Roop Chan catching frogs from the garden and bringing them in here, down to the dark corner by the bins, where he wrapped them in newspaper and threw them away. He showed them to us first. To this day, I’m not sure if it’s a trick of my imagination, or whether that actually did happen. My mum doesn’t remember it, so I need to check with my older sister. I can’t believe I would have been down there on my own.
That’s a lie; I know I snuck down there one afternoon, probably while I was supposed to be napping. And that’s the second unforgettable event that happened under the house: using a machete to chop the top off a coconut; just how I’d seen Roop Chan do it. Three-year-olds think they know how to do quite a lot of things, but, luckily, I still have the end of my right index finger, but it bled a lot. And apparently, I was thought of as a mischievous child?
On Sundays, most families spent the afternoon at the Clubhouse, where the beautiful swimming pool occupied children and adults alike. I was swimming competently underwater by the age of three, however, if I needed to get air, I’d struggle to push my head up and swim at the same time. So, I’d sink. Armbands gave my parents some reassurance that I’d not drown while I was playing with my sister and friends in the shallow end around the tiered waterfall feature. I did give them a bit of a fright one day when I jumped in the deep end and my armbands both popped off. Mum jumped in from one side and dad the other. After that the armbands were inflated much, much more so that they couldn’t possibly slip off and I can still feel that squeaky, pinchy grip that only too-tight armbands can cause. It took me a while to learn to breathe and swim at the same time. Now it’s second nature and I swim outdoors all year round, whatever the weather.
My dad had one week’s holiday a year and then every three years he was given annual leave of about three months. Carito Ltd owned two beach houses and my parents usually tried to book either one of these for their week’s holiday. The best one to go to was Mayaro, which was a beautiful, typical Caribbean paradise, complete with palm trees. The other was completely different, in a place called Breakfast River, set up above a small beach and far less suitable for small children, but one year, it was the only house available.
Swimming was not possible at either beach, Mayaro because of the fierce undertow and Breakfast River because it was set on the unprotected north-east coast and the waves were spectacular, but dangerous. Our watery fun consisted mostly of running in and out of the waves, collecting pebbles, shells and sand. My dad built the most incredible sand castles and ran a path to the moat right down to the low tide, so that we could watch the sea gradually creep up and then fill the moat as each time the water came further up the beach. Portuguese Man O War stung me once and my cries of pain attracted the attention of a young man who knew what to do. He took me from my parents and rolled me in the hot sand to reduce the pain.
The winds, tides and weather all combined one year to create an unusual pool of calm water just off the beach at Mayaro, which was safe to swim in: a lagoon of clear, turquoise heaven. We all swam there every day, gazing down at the patches of seaweed on the sand below, not thinking it unusual to see just a couple of random patches of wafty, wavy, long tendrils. Swimming stopped when a local informed everyone that those tendrils were sea snakes, which had been washed down the Orinoco River in Venezuela by freak weather and made their way across the short distance of sea to this warm basin of water.
Venezuela is only just over nine miles distant from the north-east tip of Trinidad, at a place called Toco. When staying at the house in Breakfast River, my parents would drive us up there in the cooler afternoon and we’d sit on the black rocks, our faces damp from sea spray and gaze out across the ferocity of the breaking waves to South America.
My mum made most of our clothes, from cotton sleeveless tops, which became crop tops when we grew in height not width, to simple cotton pinafores and the incredibly fancy party frocks so that we could be like all the other little girls and wear them to the numerous birthday parties that happened on the company estate. She bought some of the fabric while home on leave, but the rest came from an amazing shop down in St Madeleine and she’d drive us there in her own car to shop for yards and yards of cotton, organdie, bias bindings and trimmings. The sound of her Singer sewing machine whirring, clicking as she stopped to raise the needle foot, turn the fabric, clunk as the foot dropped again and more whirring is a memory I associate with a summer’s afternoon: open windows, sleepy me on a sofa, the particular weightlessness of tissue patterns, hot smell of steam pressed seams and finding threads stuck to the bottom of your socks.
My parents had very little money, so it was an enormous treat when one of the grandmothers came out to Trinidad and bought us each a new dress from Teddy’s Mall in San Fernando, where the rich estate families went to buy their clothes. Mine had appliqué zebras on a turquoise panel while the rest of the dress was narrow striped. My grandmother bought my mum several yards of Dan River fabric, advertised in the late 1950s as the fabric of American life. I think she made her own dresses too and today they would probably be worth a fortune.
I’ve always thought she probably cut our hair as hair has remained a moot point in our family. We all have a lot of it and none of us agree with our mother that women over a certain age should wear their hair short. However, I have been corrected while doing the research for this piece. A Chinese lady in San Fernando cut our hair, so, as a little girl I had a fashionable-in-China hairdo and spoke with a Trinidadian accent.
But, back to the banana boat. We had crossed the Atlantic each way a couple of times before this last trip home. It took only 10 days sailing from Southampton to Trinidad, via Barbados, empty of cargo. In November 1966 when we sailed back from being on leave, on the S. S. Golfito, we got caught in the edges of a hurricane and the ship pitched and rolled because it was empty. The crew threw all the loose pieces of wood overboard in case they flew around and knocked people out. The captain diverted his course to avoid the worst of the storm.
At 11am every day while we steamed through the cold Atlantic waters we were served hot Bovril and by the time we’d entered the warm waters of the Caribbean, elevenses was ice cream in tubs for everyone. Luckily for us there were quite a few children on board, some like us travelling back to either Barbados or Trinidad from being on leave in England. It was fun. The days passed quickly and easily. The crew filled the onboard swimming pool once we reached the Caribbean with huge hoses plunged straight into the sea. You had to climb down into the small pool from the deck and if the boat pitched one way you suddenly found yourself standing on the bottom of the pool in no water, it had all sloshed over to the other side, then it all came back as the boat pitched the other way.
So, in June 1967, my parents packed their few belongings: a Hoover twin tub washing machine, a teak coffee table, a doll’s house, four blankets and personal effects on board the S. S. Camito and we came home. From a Caribbean island where life’s routine chugged along happily with relatively few worries, back to a new life for us in the Peak District. My sun-bleached hair darkened naturally in the grey, damp climate and our Trinidadian accents softened and vanished. Colds, coughs, mumps, measles, chicken pox and the flu found us easy targets. Although when you live in the Tropics you don’t actually deliberately go outside to sunbathe, our environment naturally affected our skin and hair. But once in England permanently, our faces adopted the typical pallor of northern hemisphere dwellers and our lungs grew used to a different sort of humidity.
Spending the first five years of my life on a tropical island has impacted on my being: I thrive well in hot weather, here or abroad, I like to leave windows open just a crack even in winter, I crave light and colour in my home and my environment and I’d still prefer to be in the water than on top of it. Funny, isn’t it? I live in the English Lake District. It’s been my home for the last 24 years. It’s a place that has the wettest village in England and could not be further from the Caribbean if it tried. And yet, it is one of the most beautiful places on earth when the sun shines - and not bad, even in the rain.
Sara Barnes is a freelance writer who was born in Nigeria and lived in Trinidad until she was six. Her articles have been published in Outdoor Swimmer and IntrepidAdventure magazines. She is a year-round outdoor swimmer who lives in the English Lake District where she has raised her two children and taught them to value the good things in life: being outdoors, being creative, cooking, conversation, travel, compassion, love, friendship and independence.
Photographs courtesy of the author.