Trini in Europe: Fenland frolics
Journalist and children's writer Natalie Williams writes about life in Europe
If you were born and raised on an island, few things in this world rival the bliss of lounging in a hammock between two coconut trees, with cool sea breezes wafting over you, reading a good book while the sound of ocean waves soothes your soul with every crash on to sandy shores.
But we try for blissful moments all our lives, don’t we?
So right up there for me, these days, would be lying tucked up on my sofa with a cocktail, in front of a toasty wood-burning fire throwing out glorious smells of real frankincense, while reading dozens of short story entries for a literary competition.
If you are living nowhere near the ocean, you can still be gloriously happy to be hanging out deep in the English countryside, with its own winter beauty of bare trees, frozen icicles bending tall reeds and stunning water meadows outside my windows, where swans stop periodically for a sip of water.
It was indeed an idyllic moment. So the sudden, thundering, "God almighty, what de hell is that" boom that we heard coming from the vicinity of the old suspension bridge nearby quite shattered the serenity of the day.
“Honey, what was that massive noise outside?” I called out to the Wise One, who was at that moment stoking the Aga yet again and cussing under his breath about just how much wood-chopping one man should do in a lifetime.
“Let we go macco,” he said in his pseudo-Trini accent, dropping the iron poker quick as a flash. I couldn’t help but love him a little bit more right then and there, in admiration of just how much he tries with West Indian slang.
Minutes later, we grabbed our winter coats and wellingtons – me adding my woolly hat, ear muffs and sheepskin gloves, then wrapping two scarves around my neck before we headed for the door.
“We only going 15 yards, woman, and this is England, not Siberia,” the Wise One teased.
In the time it took us to scramble into our warm clothing and take the short walk along the river that runs the length of our property, our neighbours were already there. In fact, the entire neighbourhood had turned out to investigate.
If it's broke?
And what a sight to behold!
There was broken glass everywhere – millions of twinkling shards and thousands of broken and unbroken glass jars, sparkling and empty and lying everywhere.
They spilled out, covering the bridge, and went rolling merrily down the green banks, landing in all the nearest gardens in our little English hamlet.
And there it was, like a scene out of CSI... A massive transport lorry, 50ft long, turned on its side after crashing into the infrastructure of our suspension bridge.
Years of complaints from residents about the need for signage to point out sharp bends in the bridge route, all unheeded by local councillors, were finally coming home to roost.
The unfortunate lorry driver - a young lad with not much English under his belt - was almost in tears, panicking and gesticulating to no one in particular and jabbering on a mobile phone.
The majestic white swans on the river, for which the village is famous, reacted by taking flight in their dozens. And I swear every dog and wild cat in the village - unfortunately, we have more than a few - found a perch along the river bank. Feral and fat they sat, watching the drama unfold.
Rising to the occasion
Then the strangest chaos ensued.
Not some kind of domestic drama: none of your chain-smoking Mabel with curlers in her hair, blue flashing lights and sirens.
This was country folk chaos. And true to form, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the first of the wheelbarrows.
My dear neighbour, pink wellingtons stomping along the river bank, was first to double back to the scene. Oak-handled shovel in hand, she began carefully loading dozens of empty glass jars into her wheelbarrow, with husband in tow, scooping up the scattered jar covers.
Another neighbour whizzed past me with his wheelbarrow and garden fork clanging noisily along the route, hair blowing wild in the cold winter winds. Biting blasts of air to which we were all oblivious in the heat of the excitement brought to our idyllic hamlet.
A third neighbour was manoeuvring two barrows at once, tongue hanging out in concentration.
And in the distance, the image of a small camper van, reversing toward the bridge, was growing bigger by the second.
And then it hit me.
“Quick, honey! Go get our wheelbarrow, I’ll start collecting jars.”
Silence from the Wise One.
“Honey, I really need our wheelbarrow right about now. I need some of those jars for the sauce I intend to sell in the village markets. After I figure out how to make my mum’s brilliant pepper sauce, that is.”
Again, silence followed my request.
“Umm, honey, we don’t actually own a wheelbarrow,” he said. “For that matter, have you seen the sad state of our garden? Well it’s because we don’t yet own a wheelbarrow. Or a lawn mower, leaf blower, garden rake, shearers, pitch fork, or a hoe… nutting.”
If God gives you pepper
So, how can I diplomatically explain the reasons why I found myself in this predicament on a fine winter’s day when opportunity knocked, or rather, crashed literally at my front door?
Let’s just say that the Wise One chose wisely to remind me of something I am always fond of saying in honour of my Caribbean Chinese ancestors: “Cheap ting no good.”
And this is why we do not yet own any fine garden tools, the largest of which, in the form of a wheelbarrow, would have served me well right about now.
But ever resourceful and innovative as we West Indians are, quick as a flash, back to the cottage we dashed, grabbing every pillow case I could lay my hands on. Just right for transporting valuable commodities, as these empty jam jars had swiftly become, courtesy of a hasty turn on a narrow bend.
Two days later, after scrambling to cancel a hastily booked, expensive air plane ticket for my mum for a pepper sauce lesson in person, and after 12 Skype calls to four continents and a string of frantic emails to friends in the Diaspora, I still couldn’t pin down the best pepper sauce recipe with which to go forth and conquer English countryside markets.
I mean, this was serious business, tied to the reputation of an entire civilisation – the Caribbean civilisation -- as our West Indian comrades would say.
It was bad enough that every surface in every room of the house was covered in empty glass jars. But once you add to the equation two restless nights deprived of proper pillows, it was clear that my foray into large-scale pepper sauce production, not to mention the risk of botulism, was not at all helping to maintain marital bliss!
On day three of my quest to get the best pepper sauce recipe in the world, which had more or less turned in to an exercise in cohabiting with mayhem, reality came crashing in, just like that lorry driver did to our nearby bridge.
The fact is, there were no scotch bonnet peppers to be found anywhere in my neck of the English fenlands. The chief ingredient - make that the single most important ingredient in my mum’s brilliant pepper sauce - could not be found for love nor money.
Not a single one, nada, zilch.
My wonderful organic farm shops had failed me.
My great plan to Caribbeanise English pub food up and down the English fens with the national "wet spice" of the West Indies had been thwarted in one fell swoop.
Later that evening, reflective and mourning the death of my grand plan with an aperitif back in front of another beautiful wood-burning fire, I took solace from a few close friends at my dinner table. Almost simultaneously, they all asked that I “please pass down the pepper sauce”.