A SWARTHY BOY: An Extract
Despite the darkness of the rafters and the discipline of my mother and aunts and grandmother, I cannot say I was unhappy as a young boy in the Coburg Street place. For one thing, 1 have never objected to discipline. And even now at fifty-one, 1 still believe discipline is a good thing—for adults and for children. And especially in these times of namby-pamby psychology. Children need to be spanked, and regimented, if they are to develop into tolerably civilized beings. Many adults need this too.
The gloom of the rafters, with its spider-webs and concealed denizens, appealed to the romantic in me, as did the Reveille at dawn and the Last Post at night, and the early-morning cackling of hens and crowing of roosters all over the neighbourhood, for in every back-yard there was a fowl-run or a fowl-coop. My grandmother, like my father, an early riser, could be heard in the twilight of six o’clock in the back-yard calling “Chee-chce-chee!” to the fowls and feeding them. The corn rattled on the ground and eager beaks pecked hungrily, to the accompaniment of gurgling sounds from the roosters and satisfied squawks and cluckings from the hens. Sometimes there might be a hammering, and looking out of a window, you would see my grandmother, aproned and wearing a peaked tweed cap, busy repairing a coop or perhaps nailing new laths to the arbour that supported the stcphanotis vine. Or she might be watering the kitchen-garden at the back or the flower-beds in the front-yard. Or she might be heard shouting an imperious command to the cook or the housemaid or Francis, the boy who ran errands and helped generally. He and his sister, Dorith, were orphans, the children of some old servant in the employ of my grandmother. They had been adopted by my grandmother and brought up in the servants’ rooms in the bottom house.
My sister and I were not allowed to play in the yard at all times, either because we might get wet in the rain and contract colds or because the sun would give us fever (pet fallacies of my mother). If the weather was very dry, we might be allowed out of doors in the late afternoon,—between four and six—provided, of course, that we were not being taken out by the nurse or my father. And on Saturdays, too, during the morning. And we had to wear shoes. Chigoes abounded in the soil—burrowing fleas that liked nothing better than to get established under a toe-nail and reproduce themselves by laying tiny sacs of eggs.
In the early evening, when my sister and I were being prepared for bed, the mellow notes of the Pohlmann piano might suddenly begin to tinkle through the house. A whim had taken my Aunt Bertha to go into the drawing-room and play. Weeks might pass without a sound from the piano. But suddenly it would happen. Later I came to know these pieces. They were stock items, repeated from time to time. I even eventually came to discover their names. Sicilana. The Druid’s Prayer. The Rosary. If the whim took her on Sunday, she played Rock of Ages or some other hymn-tune appropriate to the Sabbath.
The Sabbath Day was something to be reckoned with. No matter how impaired were your senses, you simply could not fail to know it was Sunday. The routine of the whole house changed. No baking of pastry or working of sewing machines. My grandmother’s apron and tweed cap vanished. She put on her Sunday clothes, generally black silk, with black hat to match, and went off to church. And there could be no mistaking church time. The air jangled with the criss-cross tangle of church bells. From the north came the middle-register belem-belem! of the Presbyterian Church. From the east the hoary, chilly clang-clang! of the Congregational Chapel. From the south, the soft, velvety, haughty beng-beng! of the Anglican All Saints Parish church. From the southwest, the high-pitched fire-bell-like Lutheran Church pilling-pilling! and from the same direction, roughly, the Wesleyan Methodist bell competed, though farther away, a kind of dreary metallic wail.
Before the days when my sister and I began to attend the Lutheran Sunday School (it was considered more suitable than the Anglican Sunday School which was run by Negro teachers, and’ the pupils not being suitable companions for us), my grandmother would make us sit in small chairs before her in the dining room and tell us Bible Tales. This was my first introduction to such stories as the Flood, David and Goliath, Samson and the Philistines, Jezebel. Standard Old Testament fare. She had an illustrated Bible, and showed us the pictures to back up her stories. Here was the army of Pharaoh being engulfed by the Red Sea. Here was Samson pushing apart two giant pillars, and the whole house collapsing around him and people falling in a tangle of arms and legs from the room over his head. Here were the revellers around Belshazzar and the fateful writing appearing on the wall.
My sister and 1 looked forward to these occasions, for my grandmother was an excellent raconteur. She had a wonderful sense of drama, and used not only her voice but also her hands and face to convey the colour and excitement of any story she told. And she had imagination, and would often digress to tell some little true story of her own experience to illustrate a moral. There were no intermediary shades in her scheme of morality. People were either good or bad, wicked or righteous. A villain was a thorough villain, and his fate was in no doubt: he would end up with Satan and his Black Angels in that terrible place of fire and brimstone called Hell. The hero or heroine would sail up to Heaven to acquire wings and drink milk and honey to the perpetual accompaniment of harp music.
And she made it sound convincing.
So strong were her beliefs, and so confident in manner was she, that she spun about me an atmosphere of security. Nothing, I felt, could possibly go wrong when she was present. The heavenly Guardian Angels she told us of were on her side, and though Satan’s Black Angels might be hovering up in the darkness of the rafters, I could fall asleep at night with the complete assurance of protection from Grandma and the Guardian Angels.
Two occasions of glittering excitement brightened those twilight days. The carriage-drive to Cumberland and the arrival of Uncle Bishop.