In those days, and much later, the name Cumberland had no English associations. Cumberland, for me, was a little village on the Canje Creek, three miles from New Amsterdam. Grandfather David Leblanc, as Travelling Postmaster (one rank below Postmaster General), made periodical trips to all parts of the colony to visit the various post-offices. To visit those on the lower Canje Creek, he came to New Amsterdam, stayed at a boarding-house, and then dropped in on us. but from what I recall, this drop-in was very brief. In fact, I can only remember the carriage stopping at the gateway and my mother and sister and myself going down and getting in with him, and the coach-man flicking his whip and the carriage moving off. I have no memory of my grandmother greeting him or in any way communicating with him. He was always immaculately dressed, with bowler hat and umbrella neatly rolled in English style, and he always spoke in a soft voice and with a pleasant smile. His manner was notable for its calm. He never waved his hands about or revealed any signs of excitability. Such a contrast with the dramatic voice and gestures of my grandmother and the irritable outbursts—or weak, weeping displays— of my mother and aunts!
For me and my sister—and probably for my mother, too—there was a special magic in this morning drive to Cumberland. It was not often we had a carriage drive, and the countryside seemed like some vast foreign land a long, long way from the anti-macassars of Coburg Street.
The advent of Uncle Bishop was an entirely different kind of excitement. No carriage and calm and soft-voiced cultivation. For Uncle Bishop Duggin (why his parents should have named him Bishop baffles me!) was no drawing-room man. A gentleman, yes, or my Aunt Bertha would not have married him. but a gentleman with a he-man manner. Film-star-handsome—he had a small moustache and a “flashing smile” — he arrived with a shout and a bellow of laughter, hugging my aunts and mother and grandmother and slapping my father on the back. And he was always in shirt-sleeves. For he was a bush-man. He led expeditions into the jungle, and was absent for weeks and months at a time, engaged in timber-cutting and balata-blceding. He travelled in tent-boats, in canoes and on rafts, in launches. A man of romance and adventure who had encounters with snakes and wild animals and Indians, who slept in a hammock slung up between the branches of a tree, who shot game with a double-barrelled gun (my aunt had one safely put away in her room), and risked his life over dangerous rapids and falls.
In the north-western corner of the back-yard stood a star-apple tree, and under its sheltering foliage, on low stands, were to be seen about half a dozen bee-hives. They were Uncle Bishop’s, and whenever he came he would spend a lot of time attending to them, and for my sister and me this was the peak point of his sojourn. Nothing gave us greater pleasure than to watch him in kid gloves and hat and white veil hurrying to and fro between the hives and the bottom-house, a large frame of honeycomb in his grasp. We had to watch from a window, but sometimes the Authorities condescended to let us go downstairs for a short while, especially when he had reached the stage of squeezing the honeycomb and bottling the honey. In the course of this operation, naturally, we always benefitted to the extent of at least two or three chunks of honeycomb.
Even when he was absent his presence seemed to linger about the house like wisps of some exotic incense. My aunt might suddenly produce the double-barrelled sixteen-bore shot-gun so that my grandmother could clean it (Grandma was adept at innumerable littlc jobs, from tree-pruning and coop-repairing to cleaning guns and baking cake), and this would be the occasion for my aunt to relate some incident told to her by Uncle Bishop —an adventure of his in the bush when he had shot a tapir or peccary or a camoodie (boa-constrictor). Or the discovery might be made that Uncle Bishop had deposited in some corner, a collection of small chunks of balata (the rubbery gum bled from the bullet-tree.) Once he left a whip fashioned out of the tough, grey-black substance with its waxy, boot-polish smell. And once a perfectly rounded ball which I immediately wanted to possess. But…”What! A balata ball!” exclaimed Mother. “Nothing of the sort! It’s too heavy for a child to handle. You’ll get into some mischief with it, besides.” So I had to resign myself to seeing it put away into the Sacred Drawer with other forbidden articles: Grandma’s hammer and chisel and saw, the brown-paper containing the “soft-grease” that was put to several uses, including that of rubbing on the nose of anyone suffering from a heavy cold, discarded bed-castors, full and empty boxes of Rough-on-Rats poison.
Uncle Bishop owned a plantation high up the Canje Creek, which is a tributary of the Berbice River. It was called Don Carlos, and was situated not far from the one-time plantation where the Berbice slave insurrection started in 1763. On this plot of land, he grew a variety of crops, and periodically a crate— sometimes two crates—would turn up, sent down by Uncle Bishop on the launch from Don Carlos. In it would be no conventional vegetables like sweet potatoes, cassavas or yams, but really exciting jungle products — a small sackful of cookerits (the fruit of the cookerit palm, sweet and oily), another sack containing awaras (bright orange and meaty, also from a palm), bullet-fruit from the bullet-tree, paraipee seeds from the paraipee palm that later would be boiled and eaten with salt at table. And nestling right at the bottom, perhaps, would be a collection of sawari nuts looking like first-shaped rocks, the colour of rusty iron; nothing lighter than a large mallet was required to smash their shells, but inside reposed the softest, smoothest and sweetest nut-kernel I have ever tasted.
To the west, right across the grounds of the Luckhoos’ place and over on the other side of the Strand, the chief business thoroughfare, there was a saw-mill, run by a big timber company. All day, and sometimes all night, the lulling chug-chug of its engine could be heard as logs of greenheart or mora were dragged up from the mud-flats of the river-bank and sawn into boards. In a vague way, my child’s imagination linked this sound with Uncle Bishop and the jungle, for I had heard that he had to do with timber as well as balata. In fact, it was quite possible that many of the rafts that perpetually arrived at the sawmill were sent down by him from far up the Creek.
This saw-mill sound was heard and not heard: it never disturbed anyone. It became part of the pattern of sounds in the neighbourhood; the ear had absorbed it into that web of silence composed of tiny, familiar noises; the peep-peep of chickens going to bed, the high-pitched churr of crickets, the tramp of military footsteps over at the police-station and the barking of voices, the chirrup of tree-frogs — especially the tree-frogs in the front garden of the cottage, obliquely opposite where lived a spinster called Miss Merriman. A sound that began at six o’clock in the afternoon and continued until six the next morning when daylight broke.
I fell asleep hearing the bugle-calls and the sawmill’s chug-chug, and accepted it as part of my child’s life in a house with a high roof and gloomy rafters, part of being in a feather-bed with my long pigtails of “goat-hair”, part of the blissful unknowingness and uncaringness of what was happening on the street or in other countries. The Kaiser was a bad man with a big black moustache twirled up in a peculiar way. He had started a big war. But what was that to me? The saw-mill was chugging and the crickets were churring. Miss Merriman’s frogs chirruped shrilly — and was that moonlight glittering on the leaves of the guava tree outside the bedroom window?
A carriage was going past in Coburg Street. Clip-clop!