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La-bas! La-bas!*

By Desmond Thomas

Guyana Journal, March 2011



The strident peal of the bell announcing the morning break at the end of second period came not a moment too soon. The day had started pleasantly with a period spent in the intrigues of Prospero and Caliban, but the succeeding forty minutes of labour over Anouilh's Antigone had drained away all positive sentiment toward education. The bell sliced the muffled atmosphere like a scythe through tall grass, leaving in its wake a reverberating tremor of voices and activity.

The procession downstairs, at first orderly, turned into a virtual stampede by the time I reached the ground. Many of the boys were rushing to get a good position at the tuck shop, the converted kitchen of Macky, the caretaker, and Shiela, his wife. By the time I got there, a rowdy crowd was already surging at the half-open door, screaming orders.

"Two dhalpuri, please!"

"One puri and a potato ball. Put extra sour!"

"Two puri. No sour."

"Ten cent phoulouri and a Juicee ice cream soda."

"Two pack o' channa for me, one boil' and one hard. And a lemonade, cold, cold, cold!"

Macky and Shiela had managed to give a homely appearance to the two-room dwelling they had improvised from the extension to the senior bicycle shed. During morning and lunch breaks, they carried on a brisk business out of the kitchen door. Shiela was portly and cheerful, and evidently a very good cook. Macky, six feet tall, invariably attired in well ironed pastel shaded shirts which he always wore out of his pants, carried out every chore with the same imperturbable composure and gentle smile that no provocation from the boys could disturb. He held his head at a gentle tilt, which marked him as a listener rather than a talker. Sometimes I surmised facetiously that it might be the result of years of riding the motorized lawnmower up and down the field deep in concentration, with his head in that posture in order to get the lines straight, creating a pattern of two-tone green stripes.

Still stuffing the dhalpuri and potato ball combination with the green-mango-and-pepper sauce leaking through my fingers, I joined a band of boys wandering off in the direction of the field. A 'game' of 'la-bas' erupted on the far side of the field, as it usually did, like a whirlwind on a still sunny day. 'La-bas', surely a Saints invention, is a test of daring. A rowdy band of boys chase after an object, often but not necessarily a ball. Whoever gets closest to the 'ball' can kick it or even pick it up and run with it, but he would become fair game for kicks to his own hindquarters. The objective is to see how long you can be in control of the object while evading mortal attack.

This time, the object of attention was a red-and-black cap with a black-and-yellow figure of a toucan on the front, which I had seen being worn by one of the boys from the lower school. I could have joined the fray but I opted to finish my puri while being entertained from the sidelines. As they passed nearby, little Michael Chin-Tow from the third form got out ahead of the surging crowd and kicked the cap - kicked it once, twice, with the crowd in hot pursuit. He looked like he would stay ahead despite his small stature, but, just as he was about to kick it again, he tripped and fell – on it. Woe was he! The crowd, joined by some onlookers, fell on him like a pack of hyenas, laughing and punching and kicking at him, to everyone's amusement. Good thing for him, Macky came over and broke up the crowd. Michael got up, looking like an abused piñata but with no visible injuries, forcing a laughing face to show that he was unhurt and a good sport. He ran off behind the dispersing crowd, just as the bell for third period sounded.

++

Saint Stanislaus College is an all-boys, Jesuit-run, Roman Catholic high school recognized as one of the leading schools in the country. It stands near the top of Brickdam, the venerable street where the city began, that runs eastward from the river to the D'Urban Park Race Course at Vlissengen Road. The environs of this street contribute to the specialness of the school. The white wooden three-storied houses in the idiosyncratic distinctive Guyanese plantation architecture that overlook it, with the slant wooden windows and jalousies, and the high sloping roofs for good ventilation, fringed by wooden fretwork decorations, lend the area a unique ageless charm. Trees line the street for the most part – jacarandas, pouis, Indian almonds, flamboyants, powder puffs, giving color variation throughout the year that is almost out of place in this traditional setting – from green to purple and yellow and red; and the cannonball trees present a curious sight with their clusters of fragrant red flowers and large ungainly fruit clinging to the trunk like foreign parasites.

You enter the school across a narrow concrete bridge, through the needle's-eye entrance – with the blessing of Our Lady whose stone effigy poised above waves a motionless benediction with one hand while the other carries the Infant – and the little tunneled hall, past the tiny stationery kiosk and into the Assembly Hall. A wooden staircase leads up to the first floor where a wide, airy corridor separates the classrooms on the right from the green sun-splashed panorama of the 'little' field on the left. Or you could do a U-turn at the top of the stairs, to go to the Principal's office where the small-statured Mrs. Chow-Sue, the secretary, and full complement of the school's administrative staff, would welcome you and put you at ease, dispelling the imperious gloom of the room. Directly in front of the Office, another staircase leads to the top floor corridor, not as wide as the one below and ironically darker because of the fixed awning to keep out the rain.

The corridors look onto a small courtyard where the masters and senior students play volleyball when they feel like, and the field beyond with goalposts standing guard at each end and the cricket pitch in the middle. Large, spreading jacarandas and flamboyants shade the far end of the field, their tough, ropy trunks scarred by the marks of self-adulation of generations of students, and large gnarled roots taking off in all directions, providing outdoor furniture for contemplation of everything from the mundane to the profoundly absurd. A low hedge runs along the side facing Brickdam, while a six-foot fence of aging galvanized sheets separates us from the dingy cream buildings of the Police Headquarters across Chalmers
Place and the stretch of houses converted into offices on Hadfield Street.

Saints is the epitome of efficiency and orderliness, from the geometrically precise L-shape of the three-story structure to the scrubbed-and-polished wood floors which generations of boys have made smooth, the uniform cut of the well grassed field and the well arranged bicycle sheds behind the science laboratories and assembly hall which occupy the ground floor.

Among the few Roman Catholic displays of the clean Spartan surroundings, it is easy to miss the wooden figures along the corridor marking the path of Christ's passion and crucifixion, which would typically be transformed by a small group of devouts during Lent into a procession along the Stations of the Cross, their voices rising to be heard over the din from the fields. The sun pours through tall windows flooding high-ceilinged classrooms, where students sit at neat rows of desks and chairs, one pair for each, receiving instruction at the hands of dedicated Jesuits and qualified masters.

++

St. Stanislaus is situated at the core of the Guyanese institutional establishment. A ditch separates it from the Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperatives. Across High Street, the impressive curving structure of the Parliament Building straddles a complete block, recently transformed from its official cream color to a garish pink because of some monumental bureaucratic foul-up, no doubt – I can't imagine that someone deliberately chose that color! In the forecourt, the stone figure of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow is caught in mid-stride on the march of trade union activism, while the ancient cannons on the front lawn and the upper-level balcony seem trained on St. Andrews Kirk across the street, if not the society at large. Next to the church, partly obscured by the foliage of a huge genip tree, stands the Demerara Ice House Limited, one of the leading local business enterprises, boasting a prosperous commerce built on various enhancements of the earth's most abundant liquid.

Obliquely opposite the school, the red and cream buildings of the Victoria Law Courts stretch for two blocks, always seemingly overflowing with crowds of distressed people. In front of the second building, the white, mildewed, buxom statue of the British queen looks out imperiously at passersby, as if to underline the gravity of the matters being determined within. The solemnity of the Law Courts gives way to the elegance of the City Hall, an outstanding model of Guyanese architecture, which occupies the block between Charlotte and Regent Streets. Completing the ring of important buildings is the Catholic Centre directly opposite, the three-storied structure of the Chinese Association behind a veil of big trees, the Ministry of Home Affairs at the corner, and the Police Headquarters. At the very top of Brickdam, the iconic red steel-framed clock tower and top sections of Stabroek Market presents a striking picture with its back to the river, facing in the direction of the school.

In this important, central neighborhood, the place I relate to the most is Stabroek Market. I still get a feeling warm with reminiscence, recalling the joyful expectant human mass waiting in the Market Square for the first strike of the clock announcing the start of the new year, the inebriated laughter and furtive caresses in the dark by the big people all around, everyone high on happiness. Yesterday and tomorrow do not exist, only this moment, the smell of peanuts parching and boiled channa, and peanut shells under foot, and firecrackers going off, steelband and auld lang syne. And how nice it was to see Grandmother infected by the happiness bug, exchanging greetings with the whole world, it seemed, and joyful. In this gregarious, mostly adult crowd, I felt invisible and yet also protected as my grandmother grasped my hand until it hurt.

By day, the market square turned into a busy scene, the sole terminus for the Georgetown bus service - a beehive of pedestrians and yellow buses dodging each other, and patient queues squeezed between parked buses, waiting to ascend, while attending to the solicitations of vendors on foot.

One time I had asked Grandmother why she always entered the market by the smaller southern gate at the front instead of the main entrance below the clock tower.

"Not me and that main gate," she had answered emphatically. "The other day, that clock kill a donkey."

"The clock kill a donkey? But how?" I was genuinely mystified. What connection could there be between the clock and a donkey? What interest did a donkey have in the time? The donkey had trouble reading the time or something? I had better be careful. "How Granny?"

"One hand fell off – I think it was the long hand – just so, without warning, and hit a donkey-cart. Kill' the donkey on the spot. Dead, dead, dead!"

"Fo' true? And what happen to the driver?"

"It was God's mercy that the donkey-cart driver had just gone to get a shave ice. Not a minute too soon. Not me and that main gate! Heh, heh, heh."

"Poor donkey."

"Poor donkey, you right! His time had come."

Once inside, we negotiated the warren of little lanes between countless stalls, selling every item you could think about, from a lime to a diamond ring. In the front part were the larger, more elaborate stalls selling mostly dry goods – haberdashery, clothing, household utensils and paraphernalia, and jewelry. By following your nose, it was easy to find, in the northern wing, the meat section where parts of meat and whole animals hung on display for seemingly short-sighted housewives with screwed up faces to touch and test. As we passed by Ferreira's, the smells of pastries and phoulouri and pies greeted us, and I dared to wonder if Grandmother would buy me a bottle of peanut punch, absolutely my greatest favorite drink in the world. I knew that she would if she had the money, never mind the stories she would invent if she couldn't afford it.

Grandmother kept walking, not at all intimidated by the vendors' persistent advances despite her small stature. She wore a simple flowered cotton frock, flat shoes, spectacles, neat without being fussy, and with her hair combed back and ending in a bun held in place by hair clips. She always kept her hair like that, except when she was combing it or had it brushed out so I could help her pull out the grey ones. She strode forward resolutely, hardly looking to left or right, clutching a small purse in one hand and a basket hanging from the crook of her arm.

As we ventured deeper, we had to duck between clothes and other items hanging on display. Our eyes adjusted to the gloom and our ears to the noise of boisterous competition. We knew not to be alarmed – that behind the noise and even aggressive solicitations lay an ethic of mutual dependence and respect.

“Betty, you got change for a ten?” one vendor shouts to her neighbor, and Betty, unhesitatingly digs deep in the bottom of her apron pocket. Not satisfied with what she finds there, she reaches somewhere in her bosom for the change wrapped in a handkerchief, while steadfastly continuing to solicit customers. Or a vendor would tend to a neighbor's stall while she goes off on an errand maybe to pay a bill or pick up children from school.

Eventually, we reached the very back of the market, nothing more than a wharf of solid, greenheart wood extending about fifty feet over the river. I was always mesmerized by the overpowering, expansive view of the area where the river opened out into the ocean. I could never get enough of it, and today was no exception. Across the river, the ferry, MV Makouria, rode low in the water as it pulled out from the Vreed-en-Hoop stelling on the other bank about two miles away. It would be carrying a heavy load of passengers, cars and trucks, no doubt laden mainly with rice from the West Coast farms. A big ship sailed across my line of vision, Saguenay written boldly across its bow, and I figured it must be transporting bauxite from McKenzie to the refineries abroad.


*An excerpt from the manuscript of a forthcoming novel entitled: Rockstone Road by the writer.


Desmond Thomas is an economist and former Lecturer at The University of the West Indies, now working at the Inter-American Development Bank. He grew up in La Penitence, Georgetown, and attended St. Stanislaus College. He is married and the father of three sons.


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