We take the old roads from Kingston to Old Harbour, avoiding the new Super Highway, a journey of about ninety minutes by car.
The Old Harbour Fish Market is now a shadow of its former self as is the disused railway station. The spot where the church stood that my aunt Annie and I walked the three miles to every Sunday morning is now a fast food joint while the church itself has moved to a more prestigious location, I’m told, with religion still big business on this tiny Caribbean island.
Cars can no longer turn down the Old Bodles Road that was the direct route to and from our house. Rain has apparently washed away the bridge and the road is now permanently closed. We must drive a further mile down the highway and enter onto the property at Bottom Bodles, then circle around to the main entrance from the opposite direction – a far too long a journey that I would never have undertaken as a child. For even along these dirt back roads the familiar whiff of fresh cow dung had brought on an instant sense of dread that started in the pit of my scrotum and gripped my bladder making me gasp for breath. All I could say to give our driver the cue to pull over was “I think I’m gonna have to pee you guys.”
Fear has always had a tendency to make me want to wet my pants, and as the piss hit the dry dirt road and bubbled up, the sweet sickly pungent smell of cow dung was everywhere. As I button up quickly and the car drives on, the sight of cows returning for their twice daily milking greets our journey just as they did when I was boy. I was always petrified of cows. As I made my way to school each morning, I would desperately try to avoid them by walking the three miles before or after I knew that they had made their familiar journey to the Dairy. Of course this meant that I was often late for assembly because if I was ever met by cows on the way, I would stand deadly still, clutching my satchel for comfort until they had passed at a safe distance.
Now and then, one particularly feisty cow would dare to charge towards me and I would run for my life, screaming at the top of my lungs, and scaring the young calves that darted off in all direction. It didn’t matter that they were small and probably just as scared as I was; the young ones frightened me too. So my days invariably began with negotiations about how best to get to school without meeting any cows along the way. Not easy when you live surrounded by several hundred acres of dairy farm, the existence of which represented the first examples of genetically bred cattle anywhere in the world.
The Jamaican Hope was bred specifically to adapt to the Caribbean by combining the British Jersey cow with the Holstein and the Indian Sahiwal breed. This new Hope produced three times more milk than any other cattle on the island, and so they were constantly marching towards the Dairy and across my path. Today, however, I am in the safety of a car and cows can’t bother me now. Riding across this rough terrain with my camera at hand, I’m surprised at just how photogenic cows can be. Were they always hornless all those years ago when I was walking to Old Harbour Primary in panic?
We reach a guarded gate and a handsome man with flawless black skin steps out of a hut and in front of the car to enquiry about our business here.
“We’re heading up to the house,” says David our driver, stating the obvious without giving any reason.
“Who?” replies the Guard.
“Gonsalves,” says my cousin Aubrey from his open window in the back seat of our car.
“Oh, Mr Gonsalves, sir – go on up.”
We smile then; things are as they should be, and David drives on.
“It’s good to see the name still counts for something round here,” Aubrey and I both chime.
A short drive further and we arrive at the once pristine electronic white gates that open onto a long driveway leading to the main house and research centre. The gates are rusty now, wide open too and possibly broken, but still they represent my first real point of recognition. My heart begins to race. I’m ready to step from the moving vehicle when David announces that we are about to drive through the gates and park up ahead on the overgrown lawn. This we do and I sprint from the car back towards what was once the grand entrance to an enchanting playground, The Banana Breeding Station Bodles, where I once lived.
Revisiting the scene of a distant memory can be a tricky business. One is never quite sure, if the ghost is you, or if the place is ghostly. The net effect of this is like wandering through a dream wide awake, very eerie.
Three young Sparrow Hawks eye us from the scorching midday sky above. “Killy-killy-killy, yip-yip,” they cry in their rapid, high-pitched tone. They were lining up to pick at the bones of Bodles, and so was I.
“You probably don’t remember the great house,” Aubrey says, pointing towards the shell of what must once have been an impressive colonial home shaded behind perfectly elegant Palm trees. “That’s where the great Doctor Lecky lived. He was an imminent scientist and father of the Jamaican Dairy Industry.”
I of course have no memory of it.
“It’s all gone now,” Aubrey continues. “Last time I was here was for my brother Ren’s funeral in 2001.”
The last time I was there was on the day before by big return to England on August 19th 1973. And although my Aunt Annie’s house at the centre of this menagerie did not look completely beyond redemption, I too am applauded to see our once beautiful home dilapidated and in need of more than a little restoration (not to mention some brand new inhabitants).
Aubrey has already told me that his mother (my Aunt Annie) died in August 1994. She is buried a good few miles from here on the family plot somewhere in Saint Mary, apparently. I, however, want to pay my last respects to her in the place where I saw her last on the day before I left for England. I try her old bedroom door but it’s locked and securely fastened. On over to the main front entrance, a few feet away, but that too is locked and barricaded from within.
The house as I recall is built on a slight incline with four separate entrances to the three-bedroom property. There is a kitchen door on the right-hand elevation wall and one more door at the back, leading up from the orchard of sweet, fleshy mangoes, yellow grapefruits, and several species of lime tress. Shaded by an overgrowth of Guango trees at this end, it’s been easy for vagrants to enter in through the kitchen, leaving their empty beer cans and scorched signs of cooking scattered on the steps outside.
I half expect intruders but curiosity now has hold of me and I’m standing in the kitchen less than ten years old again.
A succulent hardwood floor polish smell fills the house. Fairy cakes, chicken soup, Ackee and salt fish, cherry pies, they all come back to me with the smell of hardwood wax. Why should hardwood floor polish suddenly remind me of my Aunt Annie’s good cooking? To be honest with you, I have had no thought of it in thirty odd years, but yes, Aunt Annie was a very good cook. She had lived in England, America, Canada, Cuba and Jamaica, you see, so she learned to make good food mixed with all these very different influences. It’s what she enjoyed doing most, I think, but she also enjoyed watching me eat because I was always so small.
“So when you gonna hurry up and put some meat and muscles on them bones then, man?”
“I eat a lot,” I’d tell her, “but it’s just that it doesn’t stick. That’s why I’m so skinny.”
“I was just the same,” she laughs. “I was exactly the same at your age.”
A rat jumps out from a hole in the ceiling just above my head and scurries off into my aunt’s room. Like cows, rats, and me, we just don’t get on. A rat once jumped in through the leg of my khaki shorts when I was a boy at school about seven years old. I didn’t let go of it until I knew it was dead. Rat eyes bulging, me screaming, and with my fingers’ prints squeezed into its lifeless carcass blood all over my tiny hands.
I pass quickly by my old bedroom on the way out. Our house was once built on a slight incline, remember, and when wind rustles surrounding trees, curtains blow, and doors slam as now.
“Did you manage to get inside?” cousin Aubrey wants to know.
“No, it’s all locked up.”
“So what kept you so long?”
“I was just checking to see if the mangoes at the back were ripe. You know I love mangoes, don’t you?”
“Wrong time of year for mangoes.”
I can get someone to open up the place if you want.”
“No, thanks. Probably best to keep the old place locked up, anyway. Too many memories.”
“I hear you.”
“You two ready then?” David asks.
“Ready when you are, Driver.”
We take the new Super Highway all the way back home to Kingston because David wants to see just how fast he can go.