Half Way Tree
by Ned Blennerhassett
(Panama Rep. of Panama )
When my grandmother was widowed in 1930s Jamaica, left with four children, her family in England rallied to help by buying the house she lived in and arranging for a very modest income. What had been the family home then became a small guest house taking in as I recall no more than four boarders, Bank clerks and salesmen all young men from England far from home and of very modest means.
In my early childhood this was a magic place that still lived in a nineteenth century world. I was born from the house and it was the locus for our family which in the scramble to make a living after the war had dispersed across the globe to Panama, Nigeria and Malaya.
My parents had moved to Panama in 1945 after my father was demobilized and employed at the British consulate in Colon but we seemed to move between rented houses every couple of years so the memories of home place that linger in my heart are those of my grandmother’s magic garden at 5 Cargill Avenue, Half Way Tree. I went back to school in Jamaica at eight and she was my beloved grandmother and guardian who spoiled me and for whom I could do no wrong. I spent my midterm breaks there as well as my Easter Holidays.
Today well over half a century later I can close my eyes and with no thought be right at the at the top of the guinep tree at the back fence or hidden up the Number 11 mango that grew through the side hedge and leaned out over the neighbor’s yard. I could climb that one and completely disappear. In my memory the house and garden were huge. The front garden had a lignum vitae tree from which hung a trapeze for swinging upside down on. The side garden had a never used badminton court and as it ran into the back yard where the ackee, banana, plantain, tamarind and guinep grew there was a large chicken coop which had started life as the deck cabin on a sailing vessel. This had been salvaged from a wreck by my seafaring father and as I grew into it the chickens were banished and it reverted to a place of human habitation becoming my fort and the neighborhood clubhouse for small boys.
The dining room and the kitchen were separated by a large pantry where the food was prepared before being served in formal style to the boarders who generally ate breakfast before the family. It was a place where you could rely on a treat and learn about life from the household help who gathered there to iron and gossip. There was a sturdy steel upright box with large shiny hinges insulated with always damp wood housing a large block of Ice on the top shelf. The irons for pressing the laundry sat on coal pot fires and as lunch approached there would be at least one breadfruit roasting alongside them. The yardman Roy made me a cricket bat from the base of a coconut frond and taught me how to make a noose from the spine in the leaf to snare green lizards. That yard was as big as the world having all points of the compass and many secret corners each an island with its own climate and topography offering unique environments real and imaginary.
Not until I turned twelve and came down from primary school in Mandeville to Kingston for Jamaica College and began to ride the bus from there to the house was I allowed much freedom beyond the front gate. That mattered little as the world came to us. Market women balancing large wicker baskets of vegetables and fruit on their heads would come to the gate and beat on the metal number plate with a stone announcing sale of their wares. These were formidable women of great strength of arm and character who carried their silver in purses on a string that ran down between vast bosoms. The ice man brought his blocks on the flat wooden bed of a mule cart that rode on an automobile tires. The huge blocks were stacked under an insulating layer of sawdust and their arrival announced by beating a loud clanging on a steel tire rim with an iron rod. This was a festivity for children who all ran out to the street to catch and eat the chippings that scattered as the pick separated the purchase from the block, to be carried into the house in huge tongs and deposited in the icebox. There was the peanut man who had a pushcart with an oven that roasted the nuts and powered the steam whistle which accompanied his cry “peeeeenut peeeNUT”. A large copper penny got you a newspaper cone full of piping hot unshelled nuts. Each vendor had his distinctive cry or call but of all the fish man was the most potent. He travelled by bicycle to hasten the sale of his perishable wares and his urgent ululation feeeeeYISH, fish, fish, fish, FRESH FEEEYISH was the loudest and most strident of all. Then on seemingly random days in the early dawn light a small herd of racehorses would clatter by on the road going somewhere for some reason unknown then or now leaving behind a trail of steaming droppings which would lay there until the next rains or a gardener in need of fertilizer took them away.
Half Way Tree, Constant Spring and the Old Hope Road still had a lingering feel of countryside. The roads were macadam but with high banked verges of earth, weeds and grass cut through for the driveways. I doubt my Gran would ever have had the need to drive horse and carriage herself but never in her life was she comfortable above a trot. Automobiles followed this rule, if we were to go somewhere she called a taxi which she would enter with an immediate admonishment that he was not to drive too fast and before we had reached the end of the drive to the front gate he would be told off for excessive speed. By the time we reached our destination he was a broken man. There must have been a great and weary groan at the taxi stand when the call came to 5 Cargill.
I can remember standing up on a high verge on the Old Hope Road and watching Winston Churchill drive by waving his V sign and from the same spot a few years later Elizabeth and Prince Phillip passing in the same open car on the way to Kings House. I would have to look it up to know if this was before or after the coronation but that does not matter any longer as we have grown old together and she is doubtless quite comfortable not knowing that my memory having lost the context of time can still retain so clearly that of place. I was at my prep school deCarteret when I saw the newspaper with it’s full page headline announcing the death of the King her father and calling on God to bless the new Queen.
Seventy three years have passed since I was born into that house and it remains today as fresh in my mind as a place of love and comfort. It is like the Island itself the home for which my heart will ever yearn.