A Journey

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

To get to my school in Bridgetown from the parish of St John, I had to travel across the island by bus. Even in the Seventies, the bus was a museum piece. Known as a Toast Rack, it had an open side, with benches across the whole width. There were no windows, just wooden frames with a rolled-up oilcloth attached to each one, to be let down in case of sudden, heavy sweet-smelling rain. To let the driver know you needed to get off, there was a string the length of each side, attached to a bell next to his head, which you would pull. ONCE.

The double-pull was the fiercely-guarded prerogative of Mistress King. Like 19th Century housekeepers, this titular courtesy was paid to respectable umarried ladies in  positions of authority. And conductress on the St John bus was a hell of a responsibility. Part disciplinarian, part moral arbiter, Mistress King was a huge figure in my life, in all respects of the word. Woe betide any schoolchild who misbehaved or lacked manners. She would bellow down the bus 'CHILE! Wunna mother would be SO shame! Show we respec or dem will be some BIG licks.' When the passenger had got on or off the bus safely, she would pull the bell twice, ding-ding and shout 'Go 'HEAD'.

The bus stopped in a seemingly arbitrary manner, sometimes but often not, observing the red and white signposts denoting bus stops. There were special stops (bang outside their houses and sod any rare traffic that would be disrupted by this) for the elderly, for bank clerks (who had god-like status for Mistress King) and for the vendor ladies who went each day to the Careenage in Bridgetown with their wooden trays to scratch a living. Their trays were a bloody nightmare to get on the bus though. Precarious piles of breadfruit, mangoes and avocadoes would roll frighteningly from side to side and if anything rolled off, Mistress King would make a child duck under the benches to catch it.

The old bus toiled up the steep bay, clutch objecting noisily and smokily, meandered through waving cane fields and rattled along dirt roads for about an hour, hooting its way crossly through early-morning Bridgetown traffic and disgorging a great flurry of poassengers to start their days.

Coming home was chaos. The bus station was an empty lot near the canal. There were a couple of burned-out cars for sitting on and a dusty pair of palms afforded scant shade from the afternoon sun. Snow-cone vendors zoomed suicidally about, bells ringing on their bikes with ice-boxes stuck on the front. For 25 cents and by banging on the side of the bus for their attention, you could get a plastic cup of ice with fruit syrup squirted down the middle which melted deliciously if you gently and rythmically squeezed the bottom of the cup. Too greedily and the contents burst out onto your clothes. Given that we were not supposed to eat in public in uniform and also that there were no washing machines in the entire parish, it was an undertaking of some daring to order one.

Being British, queuing is in my DNA. The bus would creak into view and the shout would be heard 'De bus, de bus!' Scores of people would scrummage their way on, elbows akimbo, watched disdainfully by Mistress King who seemed to accept this carnage. For the first few days, when the dust cleared, the bus would be packed and one little blonde girl would be standing politely by, satchel in hand while Mistress King bellowed did I want to get on de damn bus or not? I learned pretty quickly.

Once, my lovely gentle grandad was staying with us. He met me at the bus stop to come home with me after a day in Bridgetown. I have a blurry photo of us standing beside the burned-out car, me in uniform, clutching a snow cone, him grinning delightedly. He adored the rackety bumpy ride home, chatting happily with all the passengers I'd never even spoken to. He was enchanted by Mistress King and she by him. At every shout of 'Go 'HEAD,' he became more helpless with laughter until eventually, she motioned for him to sit by her. As the bus began its long descent into Martins Bay, each creaking stop was punctuated by a ding-ding and a very English shout 'Go ahead. Please.'


  1. You are proving to be a fascinating foreign correspondent. I really do enjoy your posts whether from the island or from home.

  2. As always you are a treasure.

  3. Again you make me cry, delightful memories of crazy journeys through the palm trees and sugar cane and my darling grandad!

    You forgot to mention how I got to school - squeezed onto a scooter with two others holding on for dear life!

  4. Blue - Thank you, so pleased you are enjoying the drivel! My pleasure entirely.

    James - I would blush but am unattractively sunburnt!

    TPO - What a family - Freddie filled up at the description of me alone by the bus and said 'it made me love you just a tiny bit more.' That set me off, having just been bawling my eyes hidden in the bathroom remembering that bus trip and how grandad loved to ride off in his vest on my bike, pitching up at some rum shop for a natter about the cricket.

    You want everyone to know how you got to school? Get your own blog.

  5. Oh my god. So vivid. How is it that you have not yet been forced to publish a memoir?

  6. Gail, in northern California16 December 2009 at 02:49

    Not true, not drivel. I love every single memory, and can't wait for the next.

    You cannot possibly know what a profound impact you are making on a dear friend's life. I print your stories, you see, and send them to her snail mail. It's a way for me to say "I thought of you when I read this." while she begins her battle against breast cancer.

    Please don't feel sad. She's a fighter. Has a loving husband and beautiful horse waiting for her.

    So, I say "thank you" for me and for her.

  7. LPC, thank you. If Santa would just send me a publisher for Christmas...

    Gail, am humbled by your friend's bravery and honoured to play even the tiniest part in giving her something to contemplate other than her mortality; I wish her the very very best of British and am so happy for her that she has a sweet-scented nuzzly horse rooting for her. Please send her anything you want to.

  8. This is wonderful - I enjoyed reading it so much. Mistress King lives!

  9. What a treat! The journey with Mistress King and your Grandfather has brighteneed up a very grey and snowy day here - and yes I will be parying you get a publisher for Christmas!


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