We take the old roads from Kingston to Old Harbour in Saint Catherine. It’s about a ninety minutes journey by car avoiding the Super Highway. Our destination is the Bodles Research Centre and Banana Breeding Station in where I grew up as a boy.
The Old Harbour Fish Market is now a shadow of its former self as is the disused railway station. The spot where the church stood that my Aunt Annie and I walked the three miles to every Sunday morning is now a fast food joint, while the church itself has moved to a more prestigious location. With religion still big business on this tiny Caribbean island, it probably can afford the newly elevated real estate prices.
Cars can no longer turn down the Old Bodles Road that was once the direct route to and from our house. Rain has washed away the bridge and the road is now permanently closed. We must drive a further mile down the highway and enter onto the property at Bottom Bodles, then circle to the main entrance from the opposite direction – a far too long a journey that I would never have undertaken as a child.
For even along these old dirt roads the familiar whiff of fresh cow dung had brought on an instant sense of dread. The fright started in the pit of my scrotum and gripped my bladder making me gasp for breath. All I could say to give our driver the cue to pull over was “I think I’m gonna have to pee you guys.” Fear has always tended to make me want to wet my pants. And as the piss hit the dry dirt road and bubbled up, the sweet sickly pungent smell of cow dung was everywhere. I button up, quickly, and as the car drives on, the sight of cows, returning for their twice-daily milking greets our journey just as they did when I was a boy.
I was always petrified of cows. As I made my journey to school each morning, I would desperately try to avoid them by walking the three miles or so before or after I knew the cows had made their way to the Dairy. Of course, this meant that I was often late for assembly because if cows ever met me on the road, I would stand deadly still, clutching my satchel for comfort to stop from wetting myself, until they had passed at a safe distance.
Now and then, one particularly feisty cow would dare to charge towards me. I would run for my life. Screaming at the top of my lungs, I ended up scaring the young calves as they darted off in all direction. It didn’t matter that they were small and probably just as scared as I was; the young ones frightened me, too. So, my days invariably began with negotiations about how best to get to school without meeting any cows along the way. Not easy when you live surrounded by several hundred acres of dairy farms, the existence of which represented the first examples of genetically bred cattle anywhere in the world.
The Jamaican Hope was explicitly bred to adapt to the Caribbean by combining the British Jersey cow with the Holstein and the Indian Sahiwal breed. This new Hope produced three times more milk than any other cattle on the island, and so they were continually marching towards the Dairy and across my path most mornings. Today, however, I am in the safety of a car and cows can’t bother me now.
Riding across this rough terrain with my camera at hand, I am quite surprised at just how photogenic cows can be. Were they always hornless all those years ago when I was walking in a panic to Old Harbour Primary? We reach a guarded gate where a handsome man with flawless black skin steps out of a hut, and stands in front of the car, to enquiry about our business here.
“We’re heading up to the house,” says David our driver, stating the obvious without giving any reason.
“Who?” the Guard replies.
“Gonsalves,” says my cousin Aubrey from his open window in the back seat of our car.
“Oh, Mr Gonsalves, sir – go on up.”
We smile then; Aubrey and I. Things are as they should be, and David drives on.
“It’s good to see the name still counts for something round here,” Aubrey says.
“They should put a bloody plaque up here to your brother,” I chime.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Aubrey replies.
Ren Gonsalves, a Jamaican national, graduated from Howard University with a first-class degree in biology. In 1952, he became Senior Station Master of the Bodles Banana Breeding Station and was made Senior Plant Breeder in 1969. During his time as a banana breeder, Ren made a considerable contribution to international Musa breeding and participated in numerous conferences and meetings abroad drawing on data collected right here at his Bodles Research Centre.
He inherited an on-site house with the job, which he gave to his mother, and I came to live with her in 1970. Ren was already a prominent figure in the Regional Musa Network for Latin America and the Caribbean, then, and his participation and input were appreciated in places as far afield as India. His influence in many aspects of Jamaica life was significant, and he received the order of distinction at the rank of Commander for his contribution to Agriculture.
I remember my cousin Ren as a Champion Trainer of thoroughbred horses. He was one of Jamaica’s earliest millionaires who for ten years served as Chairman of the Jamaica Racing Commission. A short drive further, and we arrive at the once pristine white gates that open onto a long driveway leading to the main house and our Bodles Research Centre. The gates are rusty now, wide open, too, and possibly broken, but still, they represent my first real point of recognition.
My heart begins to race. I’m ready to step from the moving vehicle when David announces that we are about to drive through the gates and park up ahead on the overgrown lawn. We do this, and I sprint from the car back towards what was once the grand entrance to an enchanting playground, The Banana Breeding Station, Bodles, where I once lived.
Revisiting the scene of a distant memory can be a tricky business, they say. One is never quite sure, if the ghost is you, or if the place is ghostly. The net effect of this is like wandering through a dream wide-awake, very eerie. Three young Sparrow Hawks eye us from the scorching midday sky above. “Killy-killy-killy, yip-yip,” they cry in their rapid, high-pitched tone. They were lining up to pick at the bones of Bodles, and so was I.
“You probably don’t remember the great house,” Aubrey says, pointing towards the shell of what must once have been an impressive colonial home shaded behind perfectly elegant Palm trees. “That’s where the great Doctor Lecky lived. He was an eminent scientist and father of the Jamaican Dairy Industry.”
I, of course, have no memory of either the man or his house.
“It’s all gone now,” Aubrey continues. “Last time I was here was in 2001 for my brother Ren’s funeral. Mama’s house was already infested with mice since no one had lived there for years. The research centre was still there with Ms Prince still at her post, but it too was mostly deserted, probably because the men working the field were in their 70s and 80s then. Young men don’t want to work the banana fields anymore. They prefer, hopefully, to finish school and get a clerical job…or…we know the path some others end up taking.”
The last time I had been there was on August 19th 1973, on the day before my big return to England. While my Aunt Annie’s house at the centre of this menagerie did not look beyond redemption, I too am applauded to see our once beautiful home neglected and in need of more than a little restoration (not to mention some brand-new inhabitants).
Aubrey has already told me how his mother, my Aunt Annie, died in August 1994. She is buried a good few miles from here on the family plot somewhere in Saint Mary. I, however, want to pay my last respects to her in the place where I saw her last. Here, in this house, on the day before I left for England.
I try her old bedroom door, but it’s locked, and securely fastened. On over to the main front entrance, just a few feet away, but that too is locked and barricaded from inside. The house, as I recall, is built on a slight incline with four separate entrances to the three-bedroom property within. There is a kitchen door on the right-hand elevation wall and one more door at the back, leading up from the orchard of sweet, fleshy mangoes, yellow grapefruits, and various others species of citrus trees. Shaded by overgrowing Guango trees at this end, it has been easy for vagrants to enter in through the kitchen, leaving their empty beer cans and scorched signs of cooking scattered on the steps outside. I half expect intruders, but curiosity now has hold of me. I’m now standing in the kitchen less than ten years old, again.
A delicious smell of hardwood floor polish fills the air. Fairy cakes, chicken soup, Ackee and Salt Fish and cherry pies, they all come back to me with a familiar smell of hardwood wax. Why should hardwood floor polish suddenly remind me of my Aunt Annie’s cooking? I have had no thought of it in thirty odd years, but yes, my Aunt Annie was a great cook. She had lived in England, America, Canada, Cuba and Jamaica, so she had learned to make good food mixed with all of these very different influences. It’s what she enjoyed doing most apart from Sunday mornings in church, but she also enjoyed watching me eat because I was always so small.
“When you gonna put some meat and muscles on them bones, man?” my aunt would ask.
“I eat a lot,” I’d tell her, “but it’s just that it doesn’t stick. That’s why I’m so skinny.”
“I was just the same,” she’d laugh. “I was exactly the same at your age.”
A rat jumps out from a hole in the ceiling just above my head and scurries off into my aunt’s room. Like cows, rats, and me, we don’t get on. A rat once jumped in through the leg of my khaki shorts when I was a boy of about seven years old. I didn’t let it go of it until I knew it was dead. Rat eyes bulging, me screaming, and my fingers’ prints squeezed into its lifeless carcass with blood all over my tiny hands.
I pass quickly by my old bedroom on the way out. Our house was once built on a slight incline, remember, and when the wind rustles surrounding trees, curtains blow, and doors slam as now. As I scurry out leaving ghosts of the past behind, the quiet splendour of this old colonial house is still very much in evidence. But to let it go to waste in this way seem like a crime greater than those drug barons commit on this small Caribbean island.
“Did you manage to get inside?” cousin Aubrey wants to know as I walk back to the car.
“No. It’s all locked up,” I lie.
“So what kept you so long?”
“Just checking to see if the mangoes were ripe at the back. You know I love mangoes, don’t you? I never really took to bananas.”
“Wrong time of year for mangoes.”
“I can get someone to open up the place if you want.”
“No, thanks. Probably best to keep the old place locked up. Too many memories.”
“I hear you.”
“You two ready, then?” David asks.
“Ready when you are, Driver.”
We take the new Super Highway all the way back home to Kingston because David wants to see how fast he can go.