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<—-Aunt Martha,  Paddington                     Olga – A Student Nurse –>

When I asked my mother (Olga) how safe she felt in London during the first part of 1939, she said she wasn’t worried because people felt that war with Adolph Hitler had been averted.   

Maybe the previous war was still fresh in people’s minds (after all in 1939  it was less than 20 years since the end of WWI) and that was why they simply couldn’t believe that the world could go through all that devastation again.   Personally, had I been in my mother’s shoes, I’d have headed straight back to the safety of  Kingston, Jamaica.

The reality for my mother was that war was a heartbeat away and she was in a strange country living with a malevolent, alcoholic aunt and had no idea that world events, personal tragedy and malicious intent would all combine to prevent her from returning home to Jamaica.  

the-browneys-tree

(Olga’s Diary Continued)

Dear Diary

Fate steps in:  Three days later two things happened one after the other. 

First, Sydney got a big discount, bigger than he anticipated, on some bicycles he ordered for the shops and the second thing that happened was that he took ill and was rushed, by ambulance, to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington with appendicitis.  Hours later his appendix was out and he was being looked after by Nurse Megan Lloyd who comes from Wales. 

My “good old holiday” with Sydney is now being spent sitting by his bed every day in St Mary’s watching the nurses do their work while he sleeps.   I noticed that the patients have a great respect for the nurses, which is nice, and, as I like the idea of helping people get well, a plan was beginning to develop that would mean I could stay in London and make Mammie and the family really proud of me.   

When I thought the time was right I mentioned to Sydney I would like to become a nurse.  His immediate reaction was definitely not, you’re going home with me and no arguing.  So I enlisted help.  Joanne and Nurse Lloyd.  Sydney had taken a shine to Joanne and she pointed out to him the benefits of being a nurse and how it would help our community back home when I returned to Jamaica a fully qualified nurse whose training had been in a big London hospital.  It took both of them to persuade Sydney to at least have an interview with Matron at St Mary’s.  When AM heard her reaction was disbelief. 

“A great hospital like St Mary’s only takes white, middle class young ladies to train as nurses” she told us.

“They would never accept a coloured person so don’t waste your time seeing Matron, just to be told no.” 

She was right, but, for the wrong reason.  Within five minutes of sitting in Matron’s office she announced I couldn’t study nursing there because I didn’t have a school leaving certificate but suggested we try the smaller St Giles Cottage Hospital in Camberwell. 

“You’ll have more success there because not too long ago and before it became a hospital, it used to be a work house and they’re not so particular about their nurses”, AM told me, when Sydney was out of earshot.

We had an interview with Matron at St Giles, and shortly afterwards I was offered a place on a residential three month basic nursing programme, but first I had to have a medical. 

  

Dear Diary 

Good news:    I’ve been offered a nursing place and the best part of my new job is that I’ll be living in the Nurses’ Home at the hospital so don’t have to live with AM any more.  Oh happy days! 

I could see Sydney was proud of me and I knew Mammie would be too, in spite of being disappointed that I wouldn’t be going home now.  I had to promise Sydney that if war broke out I would come home immediately.  He gave me enough money for my fare and to keep me going until I got my first month’s wages which was going to be £2 a month.   He also bought all the books I needed for studying, plus three pairs of thick black stockings and my black shoes.  The rest of my nurses’ uniform would be provided by the hospital.

The night before Sydney left to go home he took Joanne and me to the theatre to see the Ivor Novello musical, The Dancing Years, and afterwards we had supper in a posh late night restaurant. 

 If I hadn’t met Joanne I’m not sure I would have chosen to become a nurse, but knowing that she would be close by,  helped me to decide and that was a big comfort, not only to me, but to Sydney too, I think.   He could reassure Mammie that I had at least one good friend.  Sitting at the dining table watching them dance together, I thought wouldn’t it be just perfect if one day Joanne became my sister-in-law. 

Something to pray for Olga.

 <—-Aunt Martha,  Paddington                    Olga – A Student Nurse –>

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<– More Spells and Obeah                 Kingston 1938 A Dangerous Place to Live—>

 

Family Tree

 Click to englarge image

Once my Mum (Olga) started to talk about her family to me and what her life was like growing up in Jamaica, she told me about the two biggest scandals in the family (and there were quite a few!).  Both were connected with Sydney, the oldest sibling.  One scandal was to do with him running off with the family cook whom everyone thought was a witch and mad as a hatter and the other scandal was about him shooting a burglar for which he was charged with manslaughter but acquitted on the grounds of self defense.   

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 

 

Dear Diary

Sydney and the Burglar:       It’s the middle of the afternoon and, apart from a young woman and an old man, I’m alone in the Cathedral, the only place I know that is peaceful, quiet, and cool. Half my life’s been spent in this church, going to mass, confession, benediction, the stations of the cross.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, Jesus is important to me and I come to church because I want to be close to Him, or, when I want to think, like now. I wonder just how long Sydney and Aggie’s relationship has been going on.

 

I bet you it started with the robbery that time Sydney was working late in the shop. There was a knock on the door one evening and when Sydney opened it there was a tall, black man, with a handkerchief around the lower half of his face. He pushed Sydney back and forced his way inside and put a gun to Sydney’s face threatening to shoot him if he said a word. Then another man came into the house and started to ransack the place looking for money which Sydney usually kept on the premises, but he couldn’t find any money and said so to the man holding the gun.

 

This turned the man with the gun’s attention away from Sydney momentarily, so Sydney tried to grab the gun and there was a struggle when suddenly the gun went off and the robber was shot dead. The second man immediately ran from the shop and Sydney called the police who recognised the dead man as Alphonse Williams and said the other man was probably his brother Didnot.  Didnot was soon picked up by the police and, because he wasn’t wearing a mask, Sydney easily identified him as the second man.

 

Sydney was charged with the manslaughter of Alphonse but at the end of the trial was found not guilty because the jury said it was self-defence and the law says a man is entitled to protect himself.  And that was that, thought Sydney, although to prevent any further thieving Sydney resorted to Obeah.

 

I bet that’s where Aggie Burns came in. He pinned bits of red rag and some bird feathers to the front door of the shop. If any would-be thief saw these items.  Sydney said it would be enough to deter them from going into the shop. But then strange things started happening. A fire broke out one Sunday afternoon, behind the main shop, in the workshop where bicycles are repaired. Mrs Clarkson, who lives next door, saw a small blaze in the workshop and raised the alarm. The fire brigade arrived very quickly, put out the blaze so not too much damage was done.  

And then something else happened that really scared Sydney.

 

He told us he was walking home one night when he felt warm air on the back of his neck which he described like someone’s hot breath. This happened more than once and Aggie Burns said she had found out that Didnot Williams had set a duppy on Sydney and that an Obeah man must have caught his shadow and now the shadow will do whatever the Obeah man demands. Aggie said the best way to stop the duppy from following Sydney was to carry a piece of chalk and, whenever he felt the hot breath on the back of his neck, Sydney was to make an x on the ground with the chalk, representing the figure ten.  Aggie Burns said duppies can only count up to nine and will spend the rest of the night trying to count to x.

 

Aggie said duppies are clever, but I wasn’t too sure about that if they can’t count any higher than nine. But she said they are because they can do similar things to living people, like talking, laughing, whistling and singing, even cooking. That made me wonder if Aggie Burns was a duppy too. Anyway, believe it or not, putting a cross on the ground worked for a while and Sydney stopped feeling warm air on his neck and he was more confident walking home.

 

But then one lovely clear moonlit night Sydney and Ruby were walking home together and they saw a big owl sitting in the cotton tree outside Mission House. When Aggie heard she got everybody worked up again and said that was a very bad sign because the duppy was still on Sydney. She said he had now to find a powerful Obeah man to remove the curse or he would be in serious trouble.

 

Of course, Aggie Burns knew one and Sydney agreed to go with her but made me go with him as well. I said I’d only go if Dolly could come as well. And reluctantly he and Dolly agreed.  

So off I go again to another balm yard and went into a very dark, smelly room. I remember it only had one window and the light couldn’t get through it was so dirty and grimy. Oh, Lord, was I terrified.

 

The Obeah man’s name was Ali Acquabar, an old man, with a short sharp looking face. He sat at a table in the middle of the room and beside his chair was a walking stick with the head of a serpent on the top. He told us to sit in the chairs facing him. I noticed a nail with three different size rosaries made out of bloodstained beans hanging from it and there was a mirror on a wall. On the table was a pack of cards and a dark blue piece of cloth with some sulphur, what looked like human hair, small bones and feathers.

 

By now I just wanted to get out of there but, once again, my courage failed me and I stayed. There were two other chairs and on one of these he put a glass and filled it with water and put a 1/- piece in the glass and on the other he put a candle which he had taken from a small bag nearby and asked Sydney to light it. Ali then opened a pack of cards, which he separated into four piles.

 

He selected one and said to Sydney “this is death”; then selected another and said “this is Jesus Christ”;

 

Then he selected a third and said “this is the Ghost” and with the fourth card he looked Sydney straight in the eye and said “Your life is in danger”. Then he took a bottle of rum off a shelf and threw some of it around the room.

 

“I am feeding my ghosts” he chanted and then looked in the magic mirror and turned to Sydney. “It is a pity you are not able to see, if you could, you would behold two duppies who are working on the case against you”. My brother is a tough man, you now, and I didn’t think he could scare easily. But, sitting on that chair, he looked very frightened to me. Ali looked in the glass of water on the other chair and said

 

“It is the brother that is after your life. I charge you £5 to take off the ghosts”. Sydney gave Ali his money and Ali told him they would all have to go to Mission House and “to run the duppies out”. Well, we trooped out and walked home.

 

When we got there Ali told us he would go into the house first and Dolly, Aggie and I should follow in a few minutes but Sydney was to wait outside until he was called. When we went in Ali had already lit three different colour candles in our hallway and then he took out three bottles – one containing some seeds, one with some kind of powder in it and the third with some dirty looking liquid in it. He threw some of the liquid and some of the powder into a cup which Aggie had handed him and he struck a match, lit the mixture in the cup and gave it to Aggie to take outside and bury it at the gateway to the house. Ali then asked Sydney for a further £5 as the job was now completed. The potion was buried at the gateway and this would ensure that no more duppies bothered anyone who lived in this house.

 

After that Sydney was more relaxed because one Obeah man had been knocked out by another and the more I think about it the more sure I am that was when things started to happen between our cook Aggie and Sydney.

<—- More Spells and Obeah                            Kingston 1938 A Dangerous Place to Live—>            

 

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<—Aunt Lucy & Anancy Stories                              More Spells and Obeah —->

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Letter to Vivie, Miami, USA
from
      Olga, Kingston, Jamaica.
      

 

Dearest Vivie 

There’s been a terrible scandal in the family.  You just won’t believe what happened last Saturday morning when we came down to breakfast.

“That’s strange; I can’t smell any burnt toast”.  Dolly said.  You remember how Aggie Burns insisted we eat burnt toast, because for some reason she thinks it’s good for us.  Mammie said Aggie hadn’t turned up for work and she asked Pearl to go to Aggie’s house and see if she was alright.

Pearl said “No, Mammie, I get frightened when I go near that house, it’s full of voodoo stuff”.  Pearl’s right.  If we have a boiled egg for our breakfast, Aggie Burns makes us smash the empty egg shell because she said if we don’t, then witches can use them as boats and control the winds.  What’s wrong with that, I wonder?  

“Aggie lives alone and maybe she’s ill or hurt, after all it’s very unusual for her not to turn up for work”.  Mammie was clearly very worried about her. 

But, as we all know, she doesn’t really live alone.  She lives with talking peacocks, voodoo dolls,  three scrawny chickens, a pet mongoose and that whopping big black cat of hers, called Lucifer, which follows her just about everywhere she goes. 

Do you remember when Aggie first started working for us it used to follow her here and, because Mammie wouldn’t allow it in the house, it used to curl up under the cotton tree out the front and wait for her to leave at the end of the day.  I tried to stroke it a couple of times but it would hiss at me.  

I certainly didn’t want to go to Aggie Burns house and neither did Ruby, so Mammie said she’d go, but in the meantime Cassie was to get  breakfast ready while Ruby went upstairs to wake Sydney, because he hadn’t appeared either.  Well, within minutes Ruby came running down the stairs and into the kitchen very excited and announced that Sydney’s bed hasn’t been slept in all night.


Now that’s quite unusual for Sydney I know, but I told Mammie that Sydney had probably been working late and fallen asleep on the couch in the office at the back of the bicycle shop. 

“I expect he’ll come home shortly to wash and change his clothes.  After breakfast I’ll go with you, Mammie, to Aggie Burns’ house” I said.

So, just as we’re finishing breakfast in walks Sydney and we all heave a sigh of relief.

He sits down and says “I have something to tell you” and without even pausing for breath he says “I’m getting married”. 

Mammie throws her arms around his neck and gives him a big hug; there’s lots of excitement and laughter. And then he says

 “I’m going to live with Aggie Burns”. 

Well, I don’t mind telling you, Vivie, there was silence, a big silence.  He’s not serious I thought.  Never mind she’s black, she’s a witch for heaven’s sake. 

How can the head of the Browney family live with a witch?    What will people think?  What will Father Butler think?  It’s quite common for Jamaicans to just live together without being married, although respectable people are expected marry. But Sydney is still married to Janetha and the Catholic Church doesn’t allow divorce so that’s why they’re going to live together.

Our faces must have shown the disbelief and disappointment we all felt. 

Ruby got up and quietly left the room.  Dolly and I followed leaving Mammie and Sydney to talk, but the talk didn’t last long or go well because Sydney came roaring out of the dining room saying he would never set foot in the house again and slammed the front door as he left. He was in a big rage Vivie.  Mammie started crying and in between her sobs she asked me to contact Cissie and Dyke in Montego Bay.  So, I left and sent Cissie a message.

 

Telegram to Cissie, and Dyke, Montego Bay fromOlga,  Kingston             

Urgent. Come quickly.  Sydney gone off  with  the cook . 

 

Dolly ran to Boysie to tell him what had happened.  He came round straightaway and gave Mammie a big hug and told her not to worry, he would talk to Sydney and everything would be alright. 

Later on, who do you think walked in, Vivie, none other than Aggie Burns herself, all dressed up and wearing, I must admit, a very nice straw hat with flowers all round the brim. 

“I’ve come for some of Sydney’s possessions”.

“Why would you want Mr Sydney’s things, Aggie” Mammie asked her.

“Because we are in love and he’s living with me now”.   Honestly, she was so cocky I wanted to hit her.  

“I’ve brought a suitcase with me so I’ll just pop upstairs and get a few things”. 

“Pop upstairs” sounded funny coming from Aggie Burns, it’s so English and she’s so witchy. 

And then she said to Mammie

“He won’t be giving you any more money.  He will need all his money for the family I will give him”. 

As she turned to go upstairs, Mammie jumped up, rushed over to Aggie Burns, put her hands on her shoulders and pushed her away from the stairs.  Dolly, Ruby and I joined in and the four of us pushed her right out the front door and told her never to set foot in our house again.   

The next day Cissie came up from Montego Bay and took charge of the kitchen.  She did lots of cooking, baking bread, bulla cakes and biscuits.  Oh, she was wonderful and she gave Mammie some money to stop her worrying. 

Boysie and I continued to go to the shop but Sydney didn’t appear for about a week and when he did he and Boysie went into the back office to have a little chat. Boysie was concerned that even though we were giving Mammie nearly all our wages now, we were still short of money.

 “It’s not like you can’t afford it”, Boysie told Sydney.  But Sydney wouldn’t budge.  He said he was going to start his own family now and was not prepared to support us any more.  Boysie was horrified, and what started off as a calm conversation developed into a huge quarrel with Boysie finally saying he was ending their partnership and wouldn’t be coming to the shop again. 

Now Sydney was coming to the shop every day but Boysie wasn’t.   I wasn’t happy working there and wanted to leave, but, couldn’t.   I’m trapped here, Vivie.  I hate him.    All my love,     Olga.

 

<—Aunt Lucy & Anancy Stories                               More Spells and Obeah —->                               

 

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<–Siblings, Lodgers & a Gift from God                    Pops, Aunt Martha & Marcus Garvey ->

 

 

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.  

 the-browneys-tree

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

 

Dear Diary

 

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 Den of Inquity

The Den of Inquity

 

 

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. 

 

 <–Siblings, Lodgers & a Gift from God                    Pops, Aunt Martha & Marcus Garvey —>

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