There were always cockroaches – large and lazy, crawling up the closet pit, and looking into my eyes, as I looked down on them, and then tried to shoot them dead or cripple them, with the pellets of my shit. And there were flies. There were always flies in the island, particularly in the hot season in the Island. If I were to look back over the snapshots of my youth in Barbados, I would have to remember the wind, and the music in the wind, as it ran its fingers through the rustling hairs of the sugar canes in the mornings of cold baths and warm green tea: bright and early, and hungry sometimes. But my life in Barbados was not all cockroaches and flies, not all wind and sugar cane. It was also carefree, but with a freedom restricted by the history of that parallelogram of life drawn for us many years ago by the English, (who historically “owned” us, and who represented the top line and the two parallel sides of the figure), and by our own ignorance of ourselves, (which represented the bottom line).
It was this restrictiveness which followed me out of the backyard of cane stumps not entirely hidden by time and barefoot-trampling, through the laneways which, yesterday, were fields of canes and sweat and labour and villagers and buckets of swank and foul explosive language, villagers who lived and died upon the hard bottom line of the parallelogram of my past. And it followed me right through the iron gates of that strange building on Crumpton Street, which boasted a curious religious fatalism (which not even the best scholars in the Classical Sixth could translate with final authority): “‘In Deo Fides”. Harrison College!
I had arrived. I had come to stand and confront Harrison College, that old, time-honoured and timeless bastion of higher learning, higher snobbery. But in a truer sense, I did not “confront” Harrison College. I had stepped across the Canal (some called it a gutter) from the old Combermere School on Roebuck Street, which was the Maginot Line segregating Harrison College from the stench of Combermere and the Canal itself, in which floated the jetsamed lives of the flotsamed flying fish heads and tails and guts, and some of the bones of the fish sold at the corner of Constitution, and also the deaths of many ambitions and reputations of civil servants and fathers.
I was unfortunate. But some said they were not as fortunate as I.
I was fortunate because, some said, “because I ain’t have no father.” What they meant was that he was neither school teacher, nor civil servant in white deal board drill, nor inspector looking for “larvees and shit in people’s closets.” This apparent neglect, or oversight, on the part of my mother to legalize her sex-life, apparently was very important at Harrison College (and Combermere, too), because I can remember that three times a year, I would be reminded of it, by the deliberate half-inaudible sniggers behind me, whenever the master asked, “To who, Clarke, is this report card going? Miss Luke?” (although she was, legally, Mrs. Luke!), the impossibility of saying Mrs. Clarke was a tragic shortcoming.
But the sniggers in my past, both at Combermere School and Harrison College, did not end there. The most traumatic experience I met with in the world of higher education at Harrison College, was when I attempted to join their Cadet Corps. I had been Sargeant Major at Combermere, and since I remembered that at one time, both cadet corps shot with board guns, I expected that even although Combermere cadets had not graduated from drilling with mock guns hewn out of pine and dealboard by Wiltshire the Carpenter, (and some few relics from the Boer War), and whereas the Pansa troops of Harrison College used real 303s (which however, could no longer shoot), that I would at least be appointed a sargeant. But after some kind of military examination
which had to do with real warfare (in Barbados?), and which I passed, I was given my new rank, posted among diverse important orders, on the notice board. Acting Lance Corporal!
Amidst the shock and the humiliation, and the first taste of the sociological repercussions of what it is like to crawl under the wire and cross the Canal from a second grade school to a first grade school, I could not find out, and have never found out, whether the position Acting, in my new appointment, was more important and significant than the rank itself, Lance Corporal. It was the first blow. It was the deadly blow. Perhaps I might have been the first black general, or commander deployed by the British Army to put down the racial disorders in what was formerly British Guiana!
And now, fifteen years after that sad, blearing, sun-scorching afternoon, near the Tower in Harrison College, I have looked back, and George cannot hunt out anything about that experience which singled me out as the most unfortunate school boy at the College. A Trinidadian scholar of Modern History, with a PhD degree is offered a job as a porter, on the Canadian National Railways, a Barbadian civil servant with ten years experience and boredom in Treasury is given a job as a watchman in a Toronto factor. We are all cockroaches in the same closet pit. But the pits in Barbados are so different from those in Canada.
All my ambitions of generals and machine guns and surrenders and armistices had evaporated in that hot inhumane afternoon, for I could remember, as a small boy at elementary school, marching to time, martial in time, oh God, man! and the shouts of our headmaster-general, Wardie, who always wore khaki, “hip-pip! hip-pip!”, and Onward Christian Soldiers, we the little black ants of soldiers, Christian and English, screaming the song, and saluting the flag. “Wait, that flag we does salute so, that is we own-own flag? the Union Jack?” and then having to learn its origin and history “. “And the one with the red thing crossing it like a cross on the white background, that one is the flag o’ Sin George or Sin Andrew?” And I could remember the innocuousness of the sheckling coins of the 1937 Coronation in my sweating hands, shackled by colonialism and ignorance and hunger; and the thumping of my bare feet in the unpaved stretches of marl and dust and school yards (many of my classmates developed a disease called “chigger-foot”, and only God knows how I escaped it), pounding out in martial strains, “Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves, never say we were slaves, what with those bags of buns, stale and bilgy as the ginger beer, given gratis when I was a boy, because there was a new Majesty on the wall; and remembering, that when I was old enough to hold a musket in my hand, and do something to the situation or to myself or about Majesty and buns and bilgy beer, they, the commanders and the officers, by-George, made my musket out of board, dealboard!
Nothing was shot through its muzzle, but pride.
And we would stand beneath a relentless sun, at the zenith of its hate for black skins, at the zenith of fainting from the sun and from hunger.
“Jesus Christ, boy, look, I ain’t have even a half-loaf o’ sweet bread to put in your guts before you go down there ‘pon the Gar’son Pasture parading for the Queen! But come, drink this little miraculous bush tea ’cause it going bring up some o’ the gas, still …. ”