by Cynthia Costain
I was very excited. My cousin Jack was coming to spend a week with us. Since coming to England at the age of four, only two of my mother’s sisters had come from the West Indies to stay with us, but the whole saga of my mother’s family “back home” was part of the fabric of my childhood. Although I had very little recollection of these relatives, they were entirely familiar.
Jack, I knew, was the older son of my Aunt Trixie and Uncle John. Aunt Trixie in the family photograph album looked to be a little fat jolly woman and Uncle John was a tall pleasant looking man, and I also knew that Aunt Trixie was very bossy and managing while Uncle John calmly went his own way. My mother told of their ongoing disagreement of how rice should be cooked. At dinner Aunt Trixie would look at the rice and start to scold the servant. “Luenda, you’ve cooked the rice too much again! It’s all sticking together. You know I like rice cooked just enough so that the kernels are separate.”
Uncle John, helping himself, “Very nice rice today, Luenda,” he would say.
It was accepted that of her two sons Aunt Trixie favoured the younger one, Bill. In any boyish mischief, Jack was blamed. The story in the family was that one night there was an earthquake not severe, but enough to shake the house and make everything rattle. Aunt Trixie, waking up suddenly in the dark, immediately called out “Jack! Jack! What are you doing now?” Fortunately Jack inherited his father’s good nature.
This was the cousin who was coming to visit. I was maybe twelve or thirteen and Jack was perhaps nineteen or twenty, not merely a Big Boy, but grown up. He had been very active in the Boy Scouts Movement and was coming to England to attend a large Scouts Jamboree as a representative from Grenada. This was Jack’s first time in England, in fact the first time he had left the islands so it must have been a great adventure for him. He came to us after he had been to the Jamboree, a tall goodlooking young man, with an easy casual West Indian manner. Of course I was shy, but Jack didn’t seem to notice and treated me like a younger sister at once. I was not used to the easy affection of West Indians, with an arm over my shoulder as we sat on the sofa, or around my waist as we walked to the store, but it was very thrilling!
My mother and father took him to see the sights, and for drives in the country, but there was a big exhibition in the city that summer, the North East Coast Exhibition, and one morning Jack and I spent the day there. It was a beautiful sunny day, although it was never really hot in our part of the country, and the grounds were colourful with flowers and gardens. The white buildings showing displays of trade, industries etc. turned out to be rather dull, but we dutifully toured each one. Jack was interested in buying a few small gifts to take home and in one of the buildings was a stall with a selection of jewelry made to display brilliantly blue butterfly wings set in silver. They were pretty and not expensive so Jack did some shopping. We strolled out and sat on a bench in the sun to enjoy ice cream cones and Jack took his package out of his pocket and presented me with a small silver ring set with an oval of glorious blue. I was quite speechless with gratitude and joy. I think my daughter still has that little ring.
One day my mother suggested we go down to the sea for a picnic and a swim, so she and Jack and I took the electric train the nine miles to the coast. There were three small seaside towns; Tynemouth, Whitley Bay, and Cullercoats. The latter was mainly a fishing village but at Whitley Bay there was a beautiful stretch of golden sand and lovely blue sea and white waves, so we went there and settled down on the sand. My mother and I, knowing that on the northeast coast of England there was always a chilly wind blowing across the North Sea, had come prepared with sweaters as well as swimsuits but Jack seemed impervious to the less than balmy breeze.
I have a theory that when a person moves to another country or another climate they bring with them an internal thermostat set at the temperature of their homeland. Leaving England for the U.S.A., my husband and I happily lived one winter in an upstairs apartment where our guests refused to remove their coats, but by the next winter we had to beg the landlord to put up the heat. Similarly, Jack did not seem to feel the sun any less warming than in Trinidad or Grenada and the wind not much cooler than a tropical breeze.
My mother decided not to swim so Jack and I retired decorously to the bathing huts to change into swim suits; then we strolled over the sand to the beautiful blue sea with little waves curling gently onto the shore. Knowing the ordeal ahead of me, I hung back, ready to edge into the icy water as slowly as possible, practice my breast stroke for as long as I could bear it, and then rush back to swathe myself in a warm towel.
Jack had no such fears. Used as he was to warm seductive tropical waters all his life, he ran happily into the water and made a long shallow dive through the waves. I watched him in amazement. I don’t think anyone had ever dived into the North Sea with such careless abandon before. It seemed a long time until he surfaced and slowly he stood up and crept towards me. He moved like an aged man and his face was pale and gaunt. Quickly my mother wrapped him in towels and tried to rub some feeling into his shivering body.
I can’t remember if I even went into the water. My mother and I were so occupied in giving Jack hot tea from the thermos: I’m sure it must have been hot sweet tea for the treatment of shock.