Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Belmont Shop

My grandparents had a shop on St Francois Valley Road near Waterman, opposite the girls school. It was the place where my father and his siblings - my aunties and uncles, and a couple cousins - grew up. I don't know if the building still stands. I hardly spent time there as a child, and everyone who did was glad enough to leave. It was no ancestral home, but a stepping stone to independence. The ancestral home I understand is a two story stone cottage in China, that up to the last time my father visited (1999?), still stood near a busy freeway - its walls decorated with old photos of children and grandchildren in Trinidad.

The Belmont shop was up a slight incline from the road. With its doors open, it was all counter, a wide  and welcoming front. But we weren't expected to visit across the counter. Through a side door, we entered the place where the goods were stored, and a right turn through that, the kitchen cum dining-living  area, the heart of the house, cool, dark and unventilated. To the right a single large bedroom. Straight ahead through a feedbag curtain, the shop.

In those days, a hundred pounds of chicken feed came in bags made from printed cotton fabric - floral, paisley, plaid patterns. My grandmother would wash the bags after the feed was sold by the pound (in brown paper bags from envelope small to five pound) and unpick the coarse cotton with which the sides were sewn. The fabric would be used for clothes or curtains; some of it together with balls of the unpicked cotton twine went back to her family in China.

My grandmother was always working. In the shop, a woman who barely spoke English transacted business all day long. She weighed and measured, took money, gave change, and barely smiled. Her hair was always a tight bun on the nape of her neck. Selling everything from salt pigtail to flour, sugar, cooking butter, she wiped her hands frequently in an apron. Inside, there was usually a pot on the kerosene stove. I remember a soup made in a whole winter melon placed in the wok. It must have been simmering all day. But it may have been my grandfather who was the cook.

Usually an uncle or auntie was in the shop too. It was a busy operation. I remember the wooden pigeon holes that held small items - "blue" (used to bleach clothes), clothes pegs, spices - and the shelves with canned or bottled goods. "Credit slips" - pieces of brown paper with names and amounts owing - were also tacked to the shelves. Most of the staples were in drums or containers under the counter. Stiff slabs of cod, crusted white with salt, rested in an open wooden box. Nearby pigtails swam in a barrel of brine. And close to both, a chopping block that was a cross-section of a tree, with a sharp chinese chopper - a whole tail or fish would be chopped swiftly and neatly.

Just under the counter on neat shelves were the brown paper bags, arranged according to size, and stacks of neatly cut brown paper - to hold anything from a a dollop of lard to pigtail or a few ounces of cheese. My grandmother knew exactly which paper to pick up to weigh four ounces of flour, and deftly crimped the sides and rolled the top with two tightly turned ears to seal the package. Shop paper fascinated me - I would try to wrap with the same speed and dexterity and end up making paper boats. I loved the way this paper held the marks of a soft pencil! It was my preference over the slate and its scratchy stylus.

One of the memories I have in this shop. Someone - my grandfather I think - was sick and being ministered to with all manner of pungent ointments, strong smelling brews and a haze of something burning. Not a death bed because he was soon up and about again, but the smell of sickness that was sombre and scary to a young child. The smells of this shop always assailed me by the door. They are probably the most enduring memory: the sticky sweetness of brown sugar; grain scent of feed; rice; the stink of pigtail and cod; all mingled with the smells of old cook fires and spices and food soaked into walls whose paint you could no longer discern. And the smell of the people - dry, papery, damp, faintly oily.

Chinese to me is a smell. I find it in the groceries from Miami to London and Charlotte street. It's the pleasant licorice flavor of preserved prunes; the dust of black mushrooms; five spice powder, star anise, shilling oil and thousand year old eggs. These combinations in these newer establishments are not the same, but sometimes a whiff of something dark and unknown strikes the note and instantly I am back to this shop in Belmont.


3 comments:

  1. It's so amazing the way smells take us back to a specific point in time...

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  2. This reminds me of my own grandparents shop in Arima! :)

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  3. I grew up around there, its actually St Francois Valley Rd .

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