I regret I never met my Aunt Vivie but, unfortunately, she died just a couple of years before I made contact with Mum’s (Olga) family in Jamaica. I think I would have liked her even though there was one aspect of her character I would have struggled with. It does sound as if Vivie was a bit of a loose canon – a one off. She was tough and certainly not afraid to speak her mind, particularly to her older brother, Sydney, if she thought he was being too free with his belt when he chastised their younger siblings. In the 1930s Jamaican society was a mirror image of Great Britain replicating its prejudices and social morals. Women like my Aunt Vivie, who flew in the face of convention, were few and far between in an era that expected women to be seen and not heard.
Vivie was married, yet quite openly having an affair with another man, Freddie Howell; she helped run an illegal gambling house with Freddie and, according to Mum, had the threat of being excommunicated from the Catholic Church hanging over her head because of her relationship with him. If what people thought bothered her she didn’t show it.
What I wouldn’t have liked about my Aunt Vivie though was her racial prejudiced in spite of being coloured herself. This is something I struggle to understand. The colour of one’s skin was important to Vivie and, she had made it very clear to her mother, Becky, that she was angry with her for marrying a black man. She recognised that the white Jamaicans had social prestige, status and political power. And that they saw as inferior those whose colour ranged from almost white to pure black even though they may have been educated people with good jobs such as lawyers, doctors, business men or women, teachers, clergy, and skilled tradesmen.
Colour mattered and that mindset was demonstrated to me personally decades later. When I was in Jamaica in 1996, one of my cousins offered me a job running a franchise operation in Montego Bay that she was considering investing in. I asked her why she wanted me and didn’t do the job herself. Her reply was “because your skin is the right colour”. I was gobsmacked!
Olga’s Diary (Continued from ‘A Loose Canon and the Catholic Church’)
Carlton heard about what happened that Sunday in Church and there was a terrible row between Vivie and Carlton. She told Carlton she was leaving him. He begged her not to go and when she said it was all over between them and she didn’t love him any more, he started to cry and pleaded with her to give him another chance. Vivie told him that she was taking their children and going to live with Freddie. She said he suddenly stopped crying then and there was silence, except for the sound of a clock ticking somewhere in the house.
Carlton didn’t say anything for ages but just kept looking at her. Then he shrugged his shoulders a little, as if to say, “ok, you win” and, without a word, left the house. Vivie said she thought he was going to find Freddie to punch him on the nose but she wasn’t worried about Freddie because he could take care of himself.
Carlton and Vivie had a whirlwind romance. Within weeks of meeting they went off to Montego Bay and got married without telling any of the family, except for Cissie and Dyke who were their witnesses at the wedding. Sydney said if Vivie hadn’t been so desperate to marry a white man she’d have saved both families a lot of heart ache and realised that charm, good looks and receiving a small allowance from his parents was not enough to support a family.
Sometime during the afternoon on the day following the big row, Carlton’s body was found by some people out walking in a valley in the Blue Mountains. It appears his car went over a precipice just past the army post at Newcastle and his body flung from the car. He’d been dead for hours and to this day no one ever really knew if it was suicide or an accident.
I was grateful that I was asked to look after the children in the family so Chickie, Boysie and Cissie could go to the funeral. Carlton’s coffin was left open for mourners to pay their last respects and I didn’t want my last sight of Carlton to be lying dead in a coffin. I wanted to remember him how I always saw him – full of life and laughing.
If I had been married to Carlton I wouldn’t have minded Carlton being a poor white man because he had other qualities. Tall, fair-haired, very good looking, funny, nice to talk to, always joking. Women were very attracted to him and I think it’s easy to see why Vivie fell in love with him. They met when he was playing tennis at the Myrtle Bank Hotel and Vivie said the first thing she noticed about him was that his legs were better than hers. He was always invited to the best clubs, parties and social events in Kingston and he may not have had much money of his own but people liked him, because he was nice, and he was friends with all sorts of people. What made him different from other white Jamaicans was that he wasn’t prejudice towards coloured or black people in the slightest.
The day of Carlton’s funeral was unusually hot for that time of the year and there was a cloudless sky and not a breath of wind in the air. A black choir sang hymns at his funeral and Dolly told me later that this was Carlton’s “second family”.
As a baby Carlton had a black nurse whose name was Ambrosine Williams and he spent much of his childhood with her and her thirteen children rather than his own white family. When his coffin was being lowered into the ground Ambrosine Williams bent down and picked up a handful of earth and threw it at Vivie. She told Vivie that she was going to set a duppy on her for causing Carlton’s death and that she would be cursed until the day she died.
That night the wind began to pick up and get stronger and continued until well into the evening. Then, according to a report in the paper “the lightening started building up in strength until it lit up the whole sky, dancing in fantastic forms in the night sky, whilst the thunder that followed the lightening seemed to shake the earth as if to say the end of the world is near and then finally in the early hours of the next morning the rain came down.”
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