Jack’s Visit

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.

Bathing Beauties, Cynthia a bit older, with bathing huts in the background.

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.

At Home

by Cynthia Costain

November in an industrial city in the north of England. Fog drifting up the river from the sea, and the muffled sound of riveting from the shipyards like far away guns. The smell of smoke from coal fires and industrial chimneys. The mournful wail of the fog horns from the ships on the river.

I was seven years old, trailing home from school along the main road with hurrying people pushing past and streetcars clanging on their tracks. It was a long school day for me, leaving home at eight in the morning and not returning until five… At last I turned up a quiet residential street lined with small neat houses enclosed in gardens surrounded by clipped hedges. Each one had a closed gate and some had bare-branched trees from which cold drops fell on my head as I walked by. So thick was the fog and so quiet the street that it seemed to me as if the houses were melting away and all the people had disappeared. It was quite dark by now and the mist was damp on my face and beaded on my coat, and the sidewalk was wet and greasy. I was chilled and cold and it seemed a long way home and what would I find there? As I plodded past each gate from the glow of one dim street lamp to the next, I came to a house that shone brightly. The light over the door was lit and you could see through the side windows into the hall. Although the curtains were drawn they glowed warmly red and pink as I stopped and looked through the gate at this vision of cosiness. Slowly I realized that the house looked vaguely familiar. In the nineteen twenties it was still the fashion among older ladies to have an ‘At Home Day’ every month and my Mother had once taken me with her to visit two elderly sisters, Mrs. Carrick and Miss Gill, on just such an occasion. Shivering in my damp clothes, I remembered the two kind ladies and the warmth of their welcome.

I was a shy child but that glowing memory drew me slowly up the path. All the lights must mean that the ladies were entertaining so I stood on tiptoe and rang the bell.

After a few minutes the door was opened by the older of the two sisters, her white hair shining in the light and her eyes opening wide in surprise.

“Yes, dear?” she said in a puzzled voice.

“I’m Cynthia,” I replied, “I have come to your At Home.”

“Why Cynthia, of course. Come on in. Mary,” she said to her sister who had come to see who this late caller could be, “Cynthia has come to our At Home.”

With no hesitation the gentle ladies took my hat and coat and showed me upstairs to their drawing room. I was in awe, as I had never had my tea upstairs before and what a sight that drawing room was! A blazing coal fire flickered over the brass andirons and the cream carpet; warm pink velvet curtains shut out the dark night; rose patterned sofa and chairs, soft silk cushions and shaded lamps. A small table drawn up to the fire was covered with a delicate embroidered cloth and set with china teacups and gleaming silver. The ladies had probably planned to sit down and have a leisurely tea on their own after their earlier exertions as hostesses in fact Miss Gill was carrying the silver teapot with fresh tea as she came in and Mrs. Carrick took the cover from the dish of buttered scones which had been keeping warm by the hearth.

Miss Gill brought me a special little teacup of cambric tea and we all enjoyed the remains of the feast. The two sisters chatted quietly together and I sat on the stool by the fire, entranced in a fairytale of golden light and warmth. At last the tinkling chime of the clock on the mantelpiece pricked the bubble and I stood up and said, “I think I’d better go home now.”

Downstairs I put on my hat and coat and remembered to say thank you for a lovely time, with a kiss.

I do not remember whether I was scolded for being late when I got home, or if my parents had been worried. But looking back over all those years I can still see the lights and feel the warmth and happiness in that cosy room.