THE FALL OF THE CURTAIN ON ALL THAT
The last full year in Mexico was punctuated by several memorable events. Some where of the kind, like VE Day that are seared in individual memory to the point where the circumstances where one heard the news are never forgotten. Others were of much lesser global consequence but a significant part of my small world and also seared in my own memory.
We stayed in a small hotel in the centre of Vera Cruz for the fortnight we were there. The stay was memorable for several things: the rides we had on the local trams; Dad introducing scrambled eggs to the chef's repertoire that became listed in the menu as “Huevos Ingleses” (English Eggs!); and swimming in the waters of the Gulf. The swimming was nothing like as exhilarating and venturesome as in our previous holidays in Acapulco. The sea lacked the limpid warm cleanliness of the Pacific…it was instead murky, and the beaches were of a less attractive sand, and the shoreline was flat and uninteresting. We had to wade out a long way to get into the water and the beach underfoot was of a muddy, vaguely unpleasant consistency….. absolutely no good for building sand castles or digging holes for hermit crabs!
Two incidents involving the local police stand out in my recollection of the Vera Cruz holiday. The first involved Dad being stopped by a local policeman in Mexico City after driving through a set of traffic lights. This was very early in the morning and I guess Dad had hoped he would be able to get away with the infraction. An inspection of Dad's license and the passage of $10 from the pages of the license into the pocket of the policeman's uniform was done with a speed and slickness that spoke of frequent practice on the part of the policeman and repeated experience and foresight on the part of an old Mexico hand like Dad.
The second time was in Vera Cruz itself where the transaction was much less professional, at least on the part of the policeman. Dad was again stopped after passing through traffic lights, but this time he had been in the right, the lights had been green, and he had three vociferous passengers in the car to back him up. So when the policeman appeared at the window the old man's refused to respond to the ill-disguised attempt at extracting a bribe…”La Mordida” The little bite!) in local parlance. Instead there was a lengthy discussion that included heated interventions from the passengers to back Dad up in his argument that he had not done any wrong. Eventually the policeman gave up and offered to give us directions to reach our next destination. I guess he was hoping for compensation that way. In the end, the policeman climbed into the car and showed us the way. Whether or not he received a tip for his efforts I cannot remember, but I feel sure that Dad, ever the diplomat in these matters, would have found some way of seeing that the policeman had no cause for complaint.
The other clear memory I have of Vera Cruz was our visit during that last childhood holiday to the railway station. Dad always had a fascination for railways. He was especially interested in steam locomotives. He had also travelled on the Mexican Railway to Vera Cruz to and from Mexico City several times in his life, including one early journey in his own childhood when escaping the devastation of the Revolution in 1914 as a five year old with Grand Pa Ough, Annie Ough, brother Syd and sister Amy.
Anyhow, that particular holiday evening he decided to take me down to the station to watch the passenger train from Mexico City arrive in Vera Cruz. Naturally the train was very late….several hours in fact. The main engine head light in the distance was the first thing we saw as we stood in the rain by the railway yard crossing. Gradually as the train approached we could see an impressive cloud of steam and smoke surrounding the engine as it puffed towards us. Then suddenly it was in front of us, to my childish eyes a huge black hissing and clanking monster ringing its bell and blowing off steam to announce its arrival. The red/orange light of the flames from the firebox under the cab added to the hellish appearance of this creature. After the train had been drawn up to the platform we walked up to the engine……in those days there were not to many concerns about security or the safety of passengers or passers-by… and were able to inspect the machine at close quarters.
The massive engine was like a living thing to me, the sound of its steam ejecting through the valve gear and pressure relief valve seeming like the breathing of an exhausted animal trying to recover from its efforts to haul the train with its load of passengers and cargo all the way from the far away Mexico City. In fact it seemed that much of the steam escaping from the boiler was from leaks in the pipes and the lack of power caused by the forced blanking off of several of the boiler tubes through the lack of spare parts and skilled maintenance.
The engine was in a poor state of repair, like so much of the Mexican railway, and its sad condition was only really revealed in the hard light of day when we saw it again the next morning ready for the return trip. But Dad was quick to remind me that the railway was built by the British in the days of the old dictator Porfiro Diaz. It had been built through the efforts of the British engineering group Pearson and Co and had clearly seen better more prosperous days. The founder and owner of this famous company was later to become Lord Cowdrey (sometimes referred to as the MP for Mexico I the British Parliament!), responsible for many other great engineering works in Mexico and elsewhere. These included the great sewage ditch to relieve Mexico City of its waste and the building and continued support of the Cowdrey Hospital in the City. The highway to Pachuca from the City was carried over this ditch by an iron bridge and that always will live in my memory as the first of the land marks on the way home as “The Great Smelly Bridge”. It was certainly aptly named as such. The decline of the railway had begun after it had been sequestrated and nationalized by the Mexican Government before World War 2.
The few months remaining after returning to Pachuca were taken up by the usual routine of school at La Luz Hacienda, weekends on picnics , swimming and tennis and more visits to Mexico City. And then there was the disturbing business of being fitted out with new clothes and the start of packing. This later activity was started in the run up to Christmas that turned out to be a an affair that was the same as previous years, yet different. We started with the early morning opening of presents that had been spread out the previous day under the Christmas tree. We then went down to Annie Ough's for the Christmas meal, turkey and trimmings.
But there was an air of anticipation, because by then Charmian and I knew that we were due to fly with Mum to a new life in the first week of 1946. The details of the journey had just been finalized, including transit visas through Cuba that had been the most difficult of all the many official permissions that had to be obtained. These had depended apparently on sanction in the form of a telegram from the Havana immigration people that it would be OK for Mum and two small children to transit the country and that permission had only arrived a few days before Christmas.
Much else had been arranged by that time. This included getting acceptance for Charmian to attend St Hilda's School for Girls in Browns Town St Ann's Parish in North Jamaica and for me to go as a border to Jamaica College in Kingston. Then there were the arrangements to first stay at the Garden Hotel in Kingston on arrival for the few days before I was to be left at Jamaica College.Mum and Charmian were then to travel to Brown's Town to stay at the first of several guest houses that were to be “home” for the next few years.
The trip to Jamaica was a saga on its own. We boarded a Pan American Airline (Mexico branch) at the Benito Juarez airport in the City on a bright spring day just after New Year. We each had a carefully packed suitcase that was just within the weight limits set by the airlines. The aeroplane was a twin engined DC 3….(the famous Dakota of WW2 fame) carrying about 30 passengers. I cannot remember saying good bye to Dad. I suppose I was too excited by the prospects of all the new experiences to come and probably did not understand or anticipate what long years of separation lay ahead.
We set off after clearing protracted immigration and customs procedures that morning for the first stop at Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula after some 3 hours of flying. The stop there was only for about an hour to refuel and take on more passengers. It was hot at that airport and the day was clear with tropical blue skies. The flight to Havana was in the same aeroplane and took another 2 hours or so.
Arrival in Havana was somewhat chaotic as I recall. The clearing of immigration and customs took an interminable time and we ended up in a transit lounge, hot, crowded with people, airless and uncomfortable. The fetid air was stirred quite ineffectively by a couple of noisy ceiling fans. The atmosphere in the room was made even more uncomfortable by the smoke of rank cigarettes and cigars and the unpleasant smells coming from unsavoury toilets somewhere near by. By this time the sun had started to set outside and darkness came with the rapidity of the tropics. Inside the terminal we had to await the announcement of our next boarding call and that was made very difficult to hear because of the unintelligible noises from the PA system distortions of the Cuban Spanish that at the best of times is difficult to interpret.
I do not know how Mum did it, but she did decipher the call when it came through and we then boarded the next leg of the journey. This was on another DC 3 provided this time by the Cuban part of Pan American Airways. This flight left very late that night in pitch black. I can well remember the few lights outside with the guttering flames of the oil lamps lining the edge of the runway. It took some 2 hours to reach the provincial town of Camaguey at the eastern end of island Cuba where we had again to change aeroplanes, clear customs and immigration.
Our arrival at Camaguey was very late, around 3 o'clock in the morning. Our next flight in yet another aeroplane was to leave a few hours later for Kingston. That amount of time appeared to be ample to clear the official procedures and to board. But it was not like that at all. The local officials proved to be unhelpful in the extreme. In fact they seemed to go out of their way to make life difficult, especially for my mother. As an unaccompanied mother with two small children, and a foreigner to boot, poor Mum became the target for all the worst aspects of human nature.
There was first a fuss over the transit visas and an insistence on seeing the telegram from Havana authorizing the trip. The visas in the passports were not nearly good enough, especially for Mum, who of course was travelling on a British passport listing Charmian and I as dependents. The locals could not or would not reconcile this documentation with the fact that Charmian and I also had Mexican Passports. The fact that she was travelling as a British Subject also seemed to give them more reason for harassing her.
The worst moment came when the Customs people insisted on inspecting the contents of the suitcases. As these arrived form the unloading bay a particularly objectionable official told Mum to open all three cases for inspection. As she did so, he upended each on the counter emptying everything there for him to inspect and run his grubby hands through. By this time there was but an hour to go before our next flight was due to leave and we had yet to check in for it.
Poor Mum. She was finally left to pack everything back into the three cases under the baleful eyes of the customs people who did not offer to give her any kind of help. They seemed to have taken a malicious joy in discomfiting her, perhaps in revenge for the fact that she had not offered a bribe.
We just made the next flight in time, again on a DC3 this time Pan American of the US itself. I do not have very clear memories of this part of the trip or of arrival in Jamaica. I guess by this time, like Charmian I was just too tired to take in much of what went on. What my mother's state was like I cannot imagine. Poor soul must have really begun to wonder what she had let herself in for, especially in going to Jamaica where, apart from the Tuckers in Brown's Town, whom she had never even met, she had no contacts at all.
I do not recollect anyone meeting us at the airport nor how we transferred from the airport to the Garden Hotel, but I suppose it was by taxi. At any rate at least there was no problem in getting through customs and immigration and that spoke volumes for the standard of British Colonial government services that prevailed at the time in Jamaica. It would have seemed for Mum like reaching sanctuary after all the unpleasantness and stress of the trip through Cuba.
I do remember the initial stay at the Garden Hotel in Kingston. This turned out to be a clean and pleasant place with a predictable routine and genuine hospitality. And it lived up to its name as it had pretty well kept gardens, graced by lawns, coconut trees and other palms, crimson bouganvilla bushes and Frangipani trees in blossom It must have been a welcome oasis to Mum.
We stayed there for about a week and the time there was punctuated by the daily broadcast of the local radio station Radio Jamaica that started daily at 4 pm with a rendition of “Jamaican Rhumba” as its signature tune and the very English voice of the local broadcaster. The radio broadcast news and a lot of music. There were also current affairs programmes and plays, the former mainly of BBC origin, but several were local and broadcast in the local Jamaican accent….very distinctive yet with overtones of Welsh…strange then to my young ears but the lingo grew on one. The radio programme was a highlight of the day for the hotel guests many of whom habitually gathered for afternoon tea in the lounge to listen and socialize.
This initial period in Jamaica was a hectic time and few details remain in my recollection. But I have clear pictures of three things that happened.
The first was of a trip with my mother and Charmian into Kingston to do some last minute shopping. This was to the main business centre of those days. The district was based around King Street, a road that ran more or less due north from the waterfront on Kingston Harbour. From the southern end of King Street, viewed through the dockside wharves and docked shipping, stretched the Palisados Peninsula where we had landed at the main airport and where the remnants of the old pirate town of Port Royal could still be seen. This spit of land made Kingston Harbour one of the finest in that part of the world and protected it from the open ocean beyond. I was to get to know it quite well.
King Street in those days was a well-ordered place It sported clean side walks, a row of palm trees on each side with grassy areas between. It was lined with commercial buildings of all kinds, most no more than two stories high, but in good repair, making it attractive and pleasant to be in. There was a fair amount of traffic, that included old fashioned trams that looked like toast racks and quite open to the elements with hard wooden seats. There were also cars of pre war vintage and some ramshackle buses as well as a few drays drawn by horses, or mules or oxen. Several other roads crossed it at right angles and one that stands out in my memory was Harbour Road that was the main thoroughfare out through East Kingston along the foot of Sugar Loaf mountain and then out to the airport road and the eastern parish of Jamaica..
My first impressions were of a strange place yet with a familiarity that is hard to explain. Perhaps this was because of an English feel about it all. Certainly all the signs were in English and there was an orderliness I could recognise from the pictures of England that I had seen in Mexico. It was certainly nothing like the chaotic, dirty and dusty streets of Pachuca.
Nathan's was one of the main stores in King Street. As a department store it offered a wide variety of items. It also offered sanctuary from the heat of the tropical street outside, providing welcome shade and overhead fans that stirred the air enough to provide some relief. Most of the banks in Jamaica had their head offices in Kings Street or close by, as did a variety of other businesses like insurance companies, sports shops, export agencies barbers shops and even a model and toy shop.
The second thing that vividly comes to mind was my being struck down for a few days with what was thought to be malaria. High fluctuating temperatures, no appetite and a general feeling of lassitude and unwellness come to mind. Fortunately this did not last very long….I would not have been in bed for much more than 2 or 3 days, but the episode could only have caused more worry and stress for Mum. Especially as she had dead lines to meet…getting me into school as a border and herself and Charmian to Brown's Town on the other side of the island in where Charmian was also to start school at St Hilda's School for Girls.
Finally the day dawned when I was to be incarcerated at school. The trip to the school was by an old taxi. It followed Old Hope Rd through Cross Roads to Matilda's Corner and then towards Hope Gardens. The school entrance was below Hope Gardens. The old taxi carried the three of us. There was also a largish suitcase that was stuffed with all the things specified by the school for new boarders. Two sets of everything from shirts to underpants to pants to shoes to whatever else. And everything was marked clearly as the property of M.Ough JC (Jamaica College).
I don't remember much about that journey or what happened when we arrived at the school. There is a hazy recollection of a meeting with the matron (school nurse) and of being taken to the Scotland House building where as a junior I was to be a member of Murray house with a bed in one of the dormitories on the second floor. And then there is the picture of Mum climbing into the taxi and driving off to complete the next steps to finding a home for herself and Charmian in Brown's Town some 60 miles away in the northern parish of St Ann.
© Copyright M.& M.M.O.Dealy
This page last modified on Thursday, July 10, 2014