Little Annie's greetin' tae

Friday, 2 November 2012

The first year we lived in Barbados was on the wild East coast.   Not many tourists bother going over there; the swimming is dangerous and the tides unpredictable with very fierce currents. There are some beautiful old churches, though, with graveyards full of mossy, skewed stones.  If you trace the shallow, weathered marks with a finger, you can sometimes still decipher the names and dates; improbable centuries have passed since those souls first tried to eke a living from the barren land they'd been allotted.

These Irish and Scots peasants were indentured servants, fleeing famine, hardships or criminal records.  They were shipped out to work on sugar plantations for a set number of years before being granted freedom and land.  Because they were of no real worth long term, the plantation owners made no effort to feed or care for them when sick; the unforgiving sun burned those peely-wally* limbs so badly they became known as the Redlegs.** The stony, hilly terrain they were allotted was nigh impossible to cultivate and many starved to death.

Their descendants peopled our district.  Mr Wilson used to bring us milk every morning from the painfully bony cow he grazed opposite our house.  The milk was warm and delicious and came in an old ice-cream container.  It softened our bowls of cornflakes and sticky clumps of tawny sugar into a comforting mess.

His family also worked for friends of ours further down the bay.  Mr Wilson's great aunt Marie was the nurse to their baby boy.  She was as shrivelled as a forgotten apple, her faded dress flapping about her gaunt bare knees.  So gummy and wheezy and cackling; we were never sure what she was saying.

One day, I was sitting outside waiting for my friend to come and play and I heard Aunt Marie singing to the baby.  "Greetin' for anither bawbee, tae buy mair Coulter's candy." The same Scottish lullaby that my Pa used to sing to us.  It was a moment of utter surreality; the familiar words and tune floating about the breadfruit tree I sat under.

I often remember that moment and think of the centuries of mothers singing to their hungry children and  of that gnarled old crone who brought an unwitting moment of comfort to a homesick little girl.

*hijusly pale and freckled.  Almost blue.
** this is fascinating if you want to read more

15 comments:

  1. That's a really evocative picture your words paint of you as a girlie sitting under the breadfruit tree listening to the old crone's haunting song. I remember that lullaby and I love the dialect words, I lived in Scotland for a while years ago. Thanks for that hint of the book, I shall add it to my wish-list, my ancestors are from Eire.

    Jane

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do you know it too? Wow! It has travelled some distances. Where in Ireland

      Delete
  2. I visited Barbados for my 50th birthday. I recall parking the mini moke to watch a roadside cricket match in a field. While quietly sitting under a tree observing the game, a moment came – unsought - when my brain absorbed and unlocked the rhythm of the patois and I could understand almost everything said around me. It was a remarkable moment. Thank you for a lovely post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. How perfectly put, it's just like a switch clicking isn't it? Wish I could get be rules of cricket so effortlessly!

      Delete
  3. What a beautifully poignant post, my friend. We should all take heed of our past and the past so that we understand life before us, and may conceive of life after us. Wonderful reading!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thankyou so much, and very well said! Delightful comment xx

      Delete
  4. My grandmother was so wrinkled and tiny and seemingly, to my little boy eyes...frail. But she was strong. And the palms of her sun freckled hands were like silk. Your story reminded me of this.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "The palms of her sun freckled hands were like silk." I'm nicking this immediately.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Your story reminded me of nothing I've ever known. Unique as your writing always is. Strange to me -- but full of what I believe in.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. I knew you'd get it.

      Delete
  7. I didn't know about the indentured servants from Ireland & Scotland, but I suppose it should not surprise, given the poverty that existed in both countries in the C17th (?) and/or C18th. Those plantation owners certainly didn't possess much in the way of humanity, treating the slaves from Africa with similar harshness. Plenty to greet about.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Columnist, thanks for stopping by. Yes, they are the forgotten ones. If such degrees exist, they were treated more harshly as they weren't an investment, and being unused to the climate, they were burned to shreds. Stoicism, song and rum, as for so many Scots expatriates, alleviates the greeting.

      Delete
  8. My sister has some of those peely-wally children and that's what my father used to call them. Their skin is so pale, it's almost translucent.

    ReplyDelete
  9. How lovely! Was your dad Scottish? My daughter is also see-through, my alabaster angel. How are you? Hope all is lovely in your world xx

    ReplyDelete
  10. My hubby, sitting here beside me now, remembers that lullaby from his Edinburgh childhood too. Have just found a few versions on YouTube to listen to it. Funny how, even though I don't know it, the rhythm and use of the words 'mammy' etc are very reminiscent of my own Newcastle childhood.

    ReplyDelete

Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth