One Morning in August
August 11, 2009
AT PRECISELY 5:15 a.m. the door of the house creaked
open, just as it had done every day for the past seventy years. An old man,
thin and frail, came slowly down the stairs, stepping carefully over a dog
lying at the top of the stairs.
"I see you're there," he said as he approached the
gate, key at the ready, unlocking the small padlock that kept it locked at
night and stepped out onto the street.
His face was alive and alert from a full night's
rest, his longish hair freshly combed. His blue guayabera matched the
cerulean patches of sky that strained to emerge from behind the grey rain clouds
hanging with low, fickle uncertainty over the early August morning.
He wore dark blue, pin striped trousers, khaki-colored socks and a pair of
comfortable-looking shoes made, he said, from ostrich skin. A gift from his grand-nephew.
Clay-colored robins and tropical mockingbirds competed with geckos and
distant barking dogs to be the first to greet the silent breaking dawn.
The streets were empty, except for parked cars and a few dogs strutting about in arrogant defiance of the city council's stray dog eradication campaign.
"Over there was where Mr. Young lived," he said,
pointing to a vacant lot overtaken by bush and high grass directly across
from his house, "he brought me home from the Palace Theatre after the 1931
hurricane." "And two of Mr. Turton's houses were there." The Turton houses were still
distinguishable by their vivid yellow blinds.
As he turned the corner unto North Front Street he
kept pointing out where houses of a bygone era once stood and who lived or
worked in them.
A concrete public latrine hung over the river where
a wooden one once stood. A tourism minister had planned on removing
all public latrines but he had put a stop to that plan.
His gait was slow and slightly unsteady. The street was wavy and uneven and
he didn't want to risk stumbling on a ridge in the street and falling.
At ninety-one years it would be difficult for him to get up without something to hold
"Over here was the gentleman's club called Vida Alegre with the hostesses
who were imported from Central America," he said pointing to the left hand side of North
Front Street. He himself had never been inside the club, of course. Or any club
for that matter.
He pointed intently and gestured. But there was nothing to see. Just empty spaces.
It didn't matter. He could still see them clearly in his mind's eye,
just as if they were there. Nothing distracted him as he resurrected and reconstructed buildings and people from his prodigious past.
He stopped in front of the Turton building, a shabby white two-storey concrete edifice
at the edge of the Haulover Creek built by a Mexican contractor after the 1931 hurricane.
The 1931 hurricane was a reference point. Things occurred before the 1931 hurricane or after it.
He pointed out where his office used to be and where Mr. Turton's used to be.
On the verandah of the building overlooking North Front Street was where
the late Eddie Austin, his rotund beloved Sancho Panza, had educated him on politics
in British Honduras and unionism.
As he approached Holy Redeemer Cathedral one of the parishioners obviously recognizing
him from a distance walked up to him. He stuck out his hand forcefully and announced,
"I am George Price and you are?"
On the top of the Catholic Presbytery, in the time of the English Jesuits, before Missouri Province took over, there used to be an observatory. The Jesuits conducted some kind of experiments there and explosions used to go off around midday.
"And, oh, there were mango trees over there."
The priest has just begun the 5:30 a.m. Mass.
"Follow me," he said, going behind the last of the four pews in the tiny chapel.
"You can sit there and this is where I usually sit," he said in a voice clearly audible
to the fifteen person congregation. He had not lost the mischievous, playful habit of making
utterances suddenly, loudly in the middle of formal ceremonies and official events.
A full fifteen seconds before the priest reached that part of the ritual where Holy Communion was administered, he darted from his seat and stood waiting, the first in line to receive the sacrament. He did move more quickly over smooth surfaces.
"I do it," he said later in response to a question, "to keep the Mass moving,
otherwise people will just wait there and don't want to move." He liked to keep things moving along.
Two plates had already been set out on the plain dining room table at the house on Pickstock Street in preparation for breakfast; "a simple repast" as he preferred to call it.
He produced a pack of bread, the red lettering on the plastic read "Kee's bakery".
>From a very small refrigerator he took out cheddar cheese. This block was imported.
On the last occasion he had been boasting about his local cheese from
Benque Viejo del Carmen.
He doled out two slices of bread onto each plate as if he were dealing cards
and served two pieces of cheese each. Rain water at room temperature was poured into two glasses. Finally, two chilled bananas were handed out.
He had recently stopped drinking coffee, disgusted after finding four dead cockroaches
in his white electric kettle. Through mouthfuls of dry bread and cheese he
responded that he remembered the letter of October 1959 from the five party
members in El Cayo, proposing a new structure for the party. "They wanted to
push me aside and take over the party but I saw through it right away."
The plates were wiped clean with a kitchen towel and restored to their place
on a side table. There was no kitchen sink. When the plates needed washing
they would be washed in the bathroom sink.
Unmarried. Childless. Reclusive. His Spartan lifestyle was of course legendary.
He had never owned a television set, a record player, a stove or kitchen cabinet;
he seemed like a kind of living human anachronism.
He pulled open each drawer in his chest of drawers revealing the few items of clothing he possessed. The old shoulder-slung travel bag he used as prime minister stood in a corner. He deftly applied a bit of wax to free the seized up zipper and dug around inside
with a childlike anticipation to see what he could find.
To him, heaven was a state of happiness; having knowledge of all things.
Yes, he wanted to go to heaven but "No" he wasn't sure he was assured a place.
"One can never be sure," he said. It required an almost reckless leap of imagination
to see this pious, enfeebled, simple man in the role of the uncompromising,
inflexible firebrand he once was; "the soldier without a gun" as he
referred to himself.
But for the facts, it was difficult to see him as a
political extremist and one of the most strident opponents of colonialism
in the Caribbean.
Then his eyes lit up as she walked in announced
through the front door. "Excuse me for a moment," he said as he got up to meet her, arms outstretched. "You are the one I love," he said reassuringly, as he swept her into his arms.