by Orville Green
One of the mysteries of my early life was the occasional dispatch of one of our ‘maids’ -- as household helpers were known then -- usually Ruby, to make contact with a man named Adam. I never saw Adam, although I accompanied Ruby once to bear the ominous message from my Grandma that she wanted to see him. Adam lived in Ghost Town, the shantytown that grew up on the disused ‘alms house berrin grung’, in the upper reaches of Trench Town, just west of the Catholic cemetery.
As Ruby and I plodded along the undulating, dusty paths that wound among menacing ‘dildo macca’ and ‘prickley pear’ cactus, I tried to mask my discomfort by thinking of the mission as a kind of adventure. Nevertheless, I did experience an occasional shiver.
It was dusk -- always the time when Adam was summoned -- and we had to pick our way carefully to avoid all manner of rubbish discarded along the narrow paths. The feeble glow from ‘kitchen bitch’ or “Home Sweet Home” shaded kerosene lamps in the hovels by which we passed was of little help to us. We eventually stopped at an open gateway in a fence comprised of ‘Jerusalem Candlestick’ cactus, leading to a structure that was marginally less depressing than most of those surrounding it.
We could see dim silhouettes of three figures framed in the doorway, and heard muffled voices, which stopped as we approached.
“Hello,” Ruby called out.
“A ‘oo dat?” replied one of the silhouettes.
“Missa Adam is ‘ere?” Ruby queried.
“No, yu nuh; ‘im don’ come yet,” the voice said.
Ruby contemplated that piece of information, then requested of the voice, “Tell ‘im Miss Green at Myers Street seh please to come dere.”
A compliant “awright” from the voice ended the exchange and we turned for home, avoiding a mangy dog that sidled past us and into the yard.
Adam responded to the summons several nights later. I knew he was there because I was in bed when I heard someone calling, “Miss Green! Miss Green!”
Then Grandma’s voice, “Adam?”
“Come to the back.”
I heard them talking at the dining room door leading to the backyard, but could not make out any of what was being said. I must have fallen asleep before Adam left.
During the following days, my thoughts strayed occasionally to the mysterious Adam, but I contained my five-year-old curiosity, as I was frequently advised by Ruby, “Is not everyt’ing good to know.”
One night, about a week after Adam’s visit to the house, the muffled sounds of voices and activity at the back and side of the house interrupted my sleep. I must have had a very busy day, because I fell asleep again in spite of the continuing noises in the background.
Next morning, there was another mystery: a curious trail of liberally sprinkled white powder, beginning at the door of the latrine and spread along the walkway beside the house, to the gate. Ruby’s cryptic response to my query -- “Adam was ‘ere” -- was inadequate. I recalled seeing a similar trail of white powder on a previous occasion, but I was too young then to be really curious. This time, I was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
So, I went to the horse’s mouth, Grandma, for an explanation.
“What that white thing, Gran?” I asked, pointing to the strange trail.
“White lime, son,” she accommodated me, as usual.
“What it for?” I continued. She paused in her chore and looked at me.
She explained that whenever the latrine’s pit was full, Adam and his helpers came to empty it, and the white lime was used to cover the spills from the buckets in which they carried the ‘filth’ to a cart parked in the street.
My mind boggled as I tried to imagine what I dared not ask. But, no problem; Ruby was pleased to fill in the details, once she learned that I was privy to the general picture. Pressing my luck, I asked how and where the ‘filth’ was taken away.
It was in Ruby’s further explanation, to my open-mouthed astonishment, that still another mystery was to be solved. Sometimes, as I lay in bed very late at night, I could hear the distant sounds of galloping hooves and rumbling cartwheels speeding up or down Price Street as ‘corner boys’ shouted, laughed and jeered. I had learned that the object of their ridicule was the masked driver of a covered cart that transported ‘filth’ to the ‘pumping station’. By law, this operation was confined to the hours after 11:00 pm.
The cart driver’s mask was not only to protect him from the stench of his unpleasant load, but it was also the means of guarding his identity. The frantic speed with which the driver travelled the streets was in order to escape, as quickly as possible, the gauntlet of shouts, “A know yuh! Yuh coulda mask, a know yuh!”
As the cart careened along the narrow streets, with boys in hot pursuit, the driver would occasionally stand up and ‘lick a back’ with the brutal whip, to discourage his pursuers. Then he would return his attention to whipping the poor mule relentlessly toward his disgusting destination.