An Immigrant’s Tale

Musings are thoughts, the thoughtful kind. For the purpose of these articles, a-musings are thoughts that might amuse, entertain and even enlighten.

In 1982 I think it was, after my family and I had been coming to St Lucia for ten years as tourists – usually several time a year, staying at the Halcyon Days Hotel in Vieux Fort, paradise on earth for the kids at the time – we moved into our new house on Cap Estate, on the golf course, opposite the entrance to Smugglers’ Village as it was then called before the hotel’s many name changes. Golf Ridge, the road was called; I was so naïve that I really believed that street names meant something – well, I suppose this one did in a way: the house was on a ridge above the golf course, true enough.

We employed a gardener. Lordy! Lordy! Were we green! It wasn’t so much that he was incapable, it more that he was eager. Nothing was sacred. He could work his way through a flowerbed like locusts in Somalia. The land had to be tilled and root crops had to be planted.

Charles was a great, strapping lad. He could neither read nor write, as we later discovered, but he came highly recommended by a veteran ex-pat who obviously had a need to renew her workforce. Within weeks of Charles’ departure her wastelands were transformed into Kew Gardens West.

But the kids loved him. Illiterate Charles quickly became the fount of all knowledge and wisdom. What Charles said, went. Somehow the children seemed able to tune into his eccentric pronunciation and multi-faceted grammatical constructions more easily that our adult brains’ inbred, finely schooled language centres.

Determined not to give up, I made it my way to spend half an hour or so each day conducting parallel conversations with Charles that somehow always seemed to be on different sides of a dual carriageway.

I tried all the tricks a teacher knows to elicit answers from unsteady pupils to no avail. Multiple-choice questions were too advanced, but simple alternative questions held some promise.

“How’s your girlfriend, Charles? Still sick, or is she better?”

“Yes, boss.”

I had, by the way, quickly learned to refer to his girlfriend, rather than to his wife, when speaking of his common-law companion-for-life – the word “life” being used in an immediate sense rather than in any enduring fashion.

One day, probably when he had been particularly good with the kids, I asked him how many children he had. He took a while to answer while he pondered, I imagine, the mathematical implications of such an enquiry.

‘Nine, sir,” came, at length, the reply – not that I ever encouraged him to call me “sir”, in fact I disapproved immensely, but he couldn’t get out of the habit.

Encouraged by the way the conversation was progressing, I put the question – more to show myself how broad-minded and “au fait” with local customs I was than to actually hear the answer – “And with how many mothers do you have these children, Charles?” (I had already learned that an essential element of family life in St Lucia is the variety and multiplicity of available parental permutations)

Charles looked at me, stony-faced. For a moment I thought I had lost him. Perhaps the question had been too direct. Was he insulted? Had I stepped out of line?

But no, his mien softened. His face took on an almost condescending look as if he were addressing a simpleton, someone who knew no better than to ask with how many mothers he had had his nine children.

“Nine, sir,” Came the reply.

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