Horizon at Sandy Point

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Woodbrook shop

I grew up in a shop. Many of my early memories are playing behind or under shop counters. But even before memory, I was told that my father would take me with him to a shop he ran on the top of Laventille hill. Less than a year old, I was content to lie or play in a large toilet paper box, goo-gooed and gah-gahed over by whoever came to "get message" - as shopping with a list was referred to.

So, when we moved to a shop in Woodbrook, corner Gatacre and Baden-Powell, he brought a couple of his helpers from the hill. I think there was a Tallboy, Laglee and a woman they called Red. At  lunchtime everyday, the shop closed until three. This meant closing two pairs of big heavy mahogany shop doors with dead bolts into the ground, and a plank on brackets. In the semi-darkness, while the "boys" slept on top the stacks of hundred pound bags of brown sugar and rice, my sister and I played behind the counter, uncovering the barrels that contained salt butter, Crix and Mopsy biscuits. Later in the afternoon when the shop re-opened, the fresh bakery goods would arrive - slabs of butter cake with pink icing, a large white cookie crusted with sugar called couvertie po cham (literally translated "cover for the chamber pot"), rock cake and bellyful (a kind of bread pudding).

I remember cheese that came in wooden boxes. Pale cheese cut in thin slices or cubes on Crix. People came to the shop to buy a hops and salt butter and salami; and these items were sold by weight like that, two slices of salami, a slap of butter, an ounce of cheese. That was a meal in brown paper. At Christmas, the smell of apples and grapes lifted out of the sawdust from a wooden box was heady as the spice in boiling sorrel.

Our shop was a whole kingdom to three and four year olds. There was the public space on the outside of the counter when the shop was open. We weren't even allowed inside the shop when it was open. (If someone asked us for a sweetie or a bottle of cologne - "Chinee girl, gimme that" -  we would just hand it over - not good for business! It took a bit longer for us to perceive value in the large copper and silver coins, far less the paper notes.) If we were not in school, we would be in the single large bedroom bouncing on the bed or climbing to the top of the wardrobe using the dressing table beside it. The kitchen - another place we were seldom allowed in - was a dim room with a food safe (its doors made with fine mesh to allow ventilation but keep out flies) and a smoky kerosene stove. I think we had a fridge and freezer because my mother made "kool-aid ice blocks" to sell in the shop.

Part of the L-shaped yard was the garage for my father's Vauxhall; the rest featured lines for drying clothes, a piece of galvanize for a "bleach" and tanks for the fish that were my father's hobby. Sheba, a tiger striped brown dog, was always tied in the day, let loose in the night. I think my father promoted her reputation as a fierce watch, and a biter. We weren't allowed to play with her.

Into this environment my second sister was born. I clearly remember the day - though I had to be told later that it was a Carnival weekend. The midwife came to us. My sister and I were put into the car parked in the garage, and told to stay there. Not to come out until we were called. How many times could two small girls tumble from the front into the back seat. How many variations of sitting, lying, crawling, tugging on the steering wheel could there be. It seemed like hours before we were called and shown the new baby sister.

On reflection now, I think it was her arrival that gave us more freedom on the streets. Freedom in the fifties is relative. Remember we had helpers in the shop who always had an eye on us; an uncle - my father's younger brother who sometimes lived with us - and neighbors whose business was to mind the business of everyone else and the children. We spent the waning hours of most days going "round the block" (we were not to cross any streets) in the company of the children who lived on the block - I remember the Constantine, Lewis, Leotaud, Lee Sang families, Miss Steele and Miss Dabreu, and Boysie the coal man.

Living in a shop didn't mean we were more fortunate than others. We lived simply, with a strong sense of order and routine. We provided service in a community. The shop opened and closed at specific times: Thursdays were half day, closed in the afternoon. We were open on Saturdays until late. My father delivered "message" by the box load on Saturday nights. Closed on Sunday. If a customer really needed something, a quiet knock on the back door could do the trick.  Much later on in life when we had moved from the shop to the farm, my father applied the same service ethos. Though we tried to contain business to certain hours, you could buy a duck or some eggs on a Sunday morning as long as someone was at home.

1 comment:

  1. I am always fascinated by the flexibility and total acceptance of children, and their ability to
    completely live in the present As children we accept whatever our situation is, and see it totally as 'normal', no matter what it is. And within our particular situation as children, we absorb all that we need. We play, we sing, we eat, we sleep..and all is well.