Up until I was about 12 my Mum, Olga, (although at the time I knew her as Carmen) and I shared a bed. It was when I snuggled up to her at night that sometimes she would talk about some of her family, particularly her mother whom she adored. My grandmother had thrown Henry out of the house because of his womanising, gambling and drinking. That must have been when Mum was very young because once she told me that for a long time, when she was little, she thought Sydney was her father.
Mum talked about Sydney, but never fondly. She hated him because of the beatings he gave her. Sydney died in 1980 and, to be honest, I’m glad I never met him – I know I wouldn’t have liked him. For me, there’s something insidious about a man who can beat his sisters and feel it is justified – the girls weren’t bad, just boisterous.
But, the more I learnt about my family, the more I wished I’d tried to find them years earlier than I did.
Olga’s Diary (Continued)
Viviana: She’s my oldest sister but everyone calls her Vivie and she’s fearless. She’s my heroine because she is always prepared to speak up, usually against Sydney, for the “tots” which is the pet name the family use when they’re talking about Ruby, Dolly, Pearl and me.
At one time we had a lodger called Alfred Moncrieff, a coloured man from Clarendon. I didn’t like Mr Moncrieff one little bit and one day he told me to collect his dirty laundry from his room and give it to Cassie to wash and I turned my back on him, tossed my head in the air and at the same time flicked the back of my skirt in a haughty manner (I saw Jean Harlow do this once in a film) and told him I wasn’t a servant.
That night, when Ruby and I were in bed asleep, Sydney came into our bedroom and dragged me out of bed and gave me a whipping. Mr Moncrieff had told him I had lifted my skirt right up and shown him my knickers. It was a lie.
When Vivie heard what had happened she tore into Sydney something terrible. She was fearless and told him that there was something unnatural about a brother giving his sister a whipping on the bottom and that he should be ashamed of himself.
“You’re too free with your hands on the tots” she told Sydney.
“How could you believe that nasty little man with his dirty little mind and not even ask Olga her side of the story before you dragged her out of bed in the middle of the night”.
She called him cruel, a bully and said “you’re just as bad as Moncrieff “.
I can tell you Sydney’s not used to being spoken to like that. As a matter of fact the whole family was very angry about what Sydney did to me but he’s taken over the role of head of the family now and that’s that. I don’t know whether Mammie ever said anything to Sydney about the whipping he gave me, but the next day she told Moncrieff to get out.
Vivie is going out with Freddie Howell even though she’s still married to Carlton Puyatt. Freddie is a very rich white man, who by the way, is also married and has two children. Vivie wants a divorce from Carlton because she is in love with Freddie who owns a gambling club on Harbour Street. Freddie’s partner is Roy Mackenzie who is also white and comes from a very rich, prominent, white family who own three plantations, one of which is near Aunt Lucy’s. Roy’s really nice looking and a bit of a rogue but the ladies love him. I like him quite a lot myself but he doesn’t even know I exist. Boysie says one day Roy will be even richer than his father because he never misses an opportunity to make money and no matter how much money he earns, it’s never enough.
Gambling is very popular in Kingston, particularly the Chinese numbers game, peaka pow although it’s illegal, but, as with everything else that‘s illegal in Jamaica, everyone does.. Every now and again the Gleaner newspaper and the Church elders get all hot and bothered about the gambling that goes on and Freddie’s club always comes in for a lot of attention.
The Church elders call it a den of inequity and Freddie thought the description amusing so that’s what he named his club. The elders wanted the police to close it down, but Freddie has friends in high places and the police tip him off when they’re going to raid the club. Then he closes it down for a while and re-opens three or four weeks later. Every Saturday night Vivie cooks a special meal for the gamblers, something like chicken with rice and peas or cod fish and ackee and I often go there during the day to help her with the cooking.
Sometimes Freddie lets me stay on in the evening helping in the cloakroom. Freddie says I’m never to tell anyone who I see coming into the club otherwise I won’t be allowed to help any more. I never realised how popular Freddie’s club was with so many well known men and women from Kingston and you’d be amazed how much private entertaining is done in the upstairs rooms by members of the government, famous actors and a lot of Jamaica’s white and coloured high society.
Sydney: Sydney was Mammie’s first child. As soon as he was born the gossip started up again about Mammie because, would you believe it, by a fluke of nature, he was more white than coloured. That set tongues wagging about Mammie even more. But she didn’t care what people were saying. She loved her baby and she loved Pops and went on to have ten more children, all coloured, except Pearl who, like Sydney was more white than coloured.
From an early age Sydney was always determined to be successful and at 14 he started a bicycle repair business from our back yard. He attached a wooden cart to the back of his bicycle and cycle around Kingston asking people if they had any old bicycles they didn’t want or were too battered to repair. Sydney did so well he had to hire someone to help him and it wasn’t long before he bought his first shop and gave people the chance to buy a new bicycle making a small payment each week. To keep up with the demand for bicycles Sydney regularly goes to England now. At the same time he needed a partner in the business, someone he could trust, so he asked Boysie to become his partner and, of course, he agreed.
Mammie taught us all to follow her example of being proud, polite, to act with dignity and not do anything that we would be ashamed of. Her favourite phrase is “civility costs nothing”. Sydney says following Mammie’s example is the reason he is a successful businessman and people respect him.
Vivie says it’s because he’s more white than coloured. Unfortunately for Vivie she was born more coloured than white. I say unfortunately because Vivie desperately wants to be white and although she loves Mammie, has always been angry with her for marrying a black man.
Sometimes I think she is more colour prejudice than anyone else I know and I’m not sure how our lives would have been better if Mammie had married a white man. But Vivie says we’re all prejudice because all our friends are either white or coloured.
“How many black people are our neighbours or friends or we even know”?
“How many black pupils went to Alpha Academy”?
Of course, none of us have any black friends and black pupils go to other schools, not Alpha – as a matter of fact the only black people I know are our servants, and of course, Pops. But we know lots of Chinese people. There’s a Chinese shopkeeper next door and as a matter of fact nearly all the shopkeepers are Chinese.
“Well, they’re not black” says Vivie always determined to have the last word.
Sydney is very protective of Mammie. He says he saw for himself when he was a small boy how unkindly she was treated because of her marriage to Pops. I can never remember a time when Pops lived with us, and for a long time when I was growing up I thought Sydney was my father. He always told us what to do and whipped us when he thought we were doing something wrong. We tots used to ask why Mammie didn’t stop him and I think it’s because she was scared Sydney would leave and there would be no money coming in. My older sisters say Pops would never have beaten any of us no matter how naughty we were.
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