illustration by Brianna Castagnozzi

Chronicles of a Compound Child
by Otancia Noel

When I was small, Imember like it was yesterday, yes man… Walking home from Arma Town Government School and picking sticky banga, grugru bef and pois doux. I was eight years in 1977. We always stop before the racetrack in Arma village, Gun Hill, to play hopscotch and cricket with meh girl, Ann-Marie; a cocoa panyol, light-skin, round face, straight nose and, moon shape, hazelnut-colour eyes.

Meh mother Umi would wet we jacket if she know we went there but the hopscotch was good. Then we went home to Grandma. Umi was doing some class in St Jose, she hardly reach home before night.

Abi, he was never home. He was a truck driver. When he wasn’t working, he was in town with The Khalif them and he wasn’t working about most days to me. I really did not mind nobody mind, especially Umi face; some ah the black and blue had time to clear up.

We only had Umi, Grandma, Grandpa and weself. Was four ah we. Grandma used to call me Fu Pong, them names can’t be said, eh in allyuh politically correct world, but back then it was ok. That is how them talk, cause I look like I am Chinese, and meh big sister child, we called her Baby Girl, her name was really Khalila. Meh big sister, Jasmine, she did dead when she had Baby Girl. 

I was about ten when Baby Girl born. I does still ‘member Jasmine. She had a small face, little button nose, real cat eye, curly sugar brown long plaits down she back and freckles all over she face. She used to miss plenty school and stay home and help to cook, sew and thing. Domestication was never my portfolio, running with the boys was. Long story short, Abi did married Jasmine off to one ah he pardners when she was sixteen years and at seven months pregnant, she fall in ‘a domestic affair,’ the baby live; but she wasn’t so lucky. 

My big brother Khalid we use to call him ‘White Man’ but Abi call him  ‘Ayatollah Khomeini,’ and my second brother he was ‘Ham’ for short. When Abi was home we use to have to remember to call him Hamidullah, no ham in that house. 

Grandma house was a few streets away; all the land at the back ah we house was Grandma own. She had a huge estate in Arma with plenty ah fruit, flower, and bush tree. We had mangoes, plums chile and governor, sapodillas, vegetables, flowers: orchids, crotons, hibiscus, and healing bush: vervine, Christmas bush, senna and wonder of the world. 

Grandpa was more fun than Grandma, he used to let we do anything we want. Grandma did use to work hard in the cocoa field. And Grandpa, he looked after the animals. Them was like chalk and tar; he was short, white with straight hair with a few curls in it and a little on the muscled broad chest side like a buck. Grandma was tall, pitch lake colour with tight hair, sharp chocolate brown eyes; eyebrows that look like you use a surgeon scalpel to sculpt it and a giraffe neck.

Like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, we play hide-and-seek and other games, climb trees, pick fruit, make riverside cook, ketch guana, gouti, butterflies, or any other critter that walked or crawled on the land or in the river. The bamboo patch: a ring ah towering green bamboo like a large nest. In the centre was soft, dry, golden leaves, like a mattress. Of course, when the rain was pelting down like bull pistle lash we had to run home or get soaked.

This was we treasure spot, but half the time we didn’t ‘member what we had buried where and it was usually the squirrels that dig up we goodies. Jasmine most times she used to leave we and pass in front on the main road.

“Grandma say ‘no going in that bush to damage skin and get bobo.’”

But Khalid and me we didn’t care about skin, and we had enough bobo that we look like leopard, sometimes. We used to kill birds with an old sling shot. Ham did never like to kill the birds; he wouldn’t kill a fly or a spider either. He would run through the track bawling he lungs out.

“Grandma! Khalid and them killing bird!” like if we kill people in the bush. 

We imitated the bird sounds like the kiskadees, ‘KIS-ka-dee,’ cornbirds ‘Krekrek,’ toucans ‘Groomkk, woodpeckers ‘Tchur, tchur, tchur’ like rolling African drum at the bark of the immortelle tree. Bamboo groan ‘creak’ when the breeze pass through and now and then crash and splash as an old tree fall or a big alligator jump in the river-according to my cousins from England “Bloody hell, that’s a Caiman mate”–but what them did know anyway, they only visited Trinidad once every two years. 

It had plenty immortelle and poui tree in the land. Right outside the bedroom window downstairs by Grandma had a real big one. Long time people did fraid them immortelle tree, they say them tree had ghost and spirits, we used to sneak out in the night to ketch glimpse ah them spirits, only mosquito bite we used to ketch. Me and Khalid sneak out one time with sheets and pelt stone at the window. Ham come out to see if it was a UFO, that boy was obsessed with alien stuff, we frighten him. If allyuh see how he cat spraddle, fall, and bounce he coconut.

Next day, he went to school with a bald patch in the head and plaster. Ham and Jasmine was the opposite ah me and Khalid; quiet, and did not like as much mischief and running around as me and Khalid.

Grandma used to sell in the market; but she always presented herself for our weekend ritual. We went to the spa at Grandma’s—a good bush bath, then she drown we in coconut oil and chicken grease, rub we down and bend we up all how to straighten we nose, we leg and stretch we body. And a good dose ah castor oil, shark oil and salts was for sickness.

By Grandma was one big upstairs and downstairs concrete house and a old wooden house Umi them did grow up in. By time we born it was just the old house where Grandma used to store all she spices from Grenada; dry she corn fish, put cocoa balls to dry out, make sugar cake, beni ball, red plum in buckets; grind corn for chili bibi and make toolum with molasses from the big rum barrel. She used to carry all this in the market; closer to Christmas she slaughter and sell the animals-pig, duck, and chicken that use to be over the river in the pig pens. 

Abi always threatening not to send us there during Christmas holidays; but Grandma never take he on, she was one ah the only people that never used to get weak knee when Abi bellow. I sure Khalid used to get little tipsy eh because Grandma used to real let that ginger beer stale and he was greedy.

One time we eat pork. Let me tell allyuh how that happen. We did already move from Maya and we come home for holiday we see roast beef on the table. Well, we gone and start to eat one time thinking Grandma put out that food for we. Hear na the juice running down we mouth from that juicy roast; same time Grandpa come inside. 

“Oh, God Jesus what allyuh doing that is pork.”  

I spit it out, but Khalid he swallow what was in he mouth quick. Ham start to cry and ready to run outside. Grandpa had to grab him quick and hush him up. By the time Abi them come inside we done have everything on the down low. 

Yes, good days them was in Maya, except for the days when he come home. The parrots squawking going home, and we in the back house eating. Anyway, the ‘back house,’ more like an open unfinished concrete structure with a roof; it had a few chairs, a hammock; tool shed, plant shed and rest house in one.  Abi call family meeting when we finish eat. Khalid, well recite he surahs, Ham say he kalimas, Jasmine show Abi how she sew all the buss in he pants them, I fumble through my night time dua.

“Razia,  this girl running wild, why she don’t know her dua?”

Abi, tan skin creole, sprawl out his tentacles, stroking his puffy long black beard; broad shoulders and turban wrapped head, a few grains of dougla curls escaping he turban, serious but good-looking face though, amber-green eyes-like a mix ah Ham eyes and me and Khalid green eyes-more cat looking, strong jaw line and an aquiline nose that the kings and queens of ancient Rome would’a die for.

Abi was saying, “Good news, the school going to start up and a small apartment gone up, Luqman and his wife moving to The Compound. Keturah and Khalid would go to school there, until the other apartments finished, and we move too. I will take them to town on weekends and they would stay with them until Friday. Second announcement, Jasmine, time for you to get married, Habib ask me for you.”

Habib, Abi friend, who used to visit us sometimes when Abi make his occasionally appearance, face was like the road coming home from school only potholes and he was old like Abi. Jasmine used to set up she face every time that old man try to talk to she. Abi clearly had no inkling of an idea of what good news meant. I tell you Grandma used to say Abi mother never baptize he or give he a good coceye broom and bush bath that is why he have the devil in him.

As soon as the blackbirds started to pester around next morning, “Let’s go Khalid, Keturah.”

Khalid that was the first nail in he coffin or must be just being born Abi son he was doomed. So off we go, certainly not to the merry-go-round, Abi, the singing clown, acting like we going DisneyLand.

Took three hours from Arma to there. It had some Jamun trees in the front lining the fence toward the road, an array of black, white, and green flags with Arabic writing danced on the fence, a big driveway and empty front yard with a little green and white concrete building. “The school,” pointing it out like he was one ah them people who does trying to sell you things you don’t want. To the left, a walkway away from the school is the mosque and at the back is the apartment building-a half wood, half concrete jail with an outside toilet and bathroom. The rest, an open piece of land with some mangrove trees further, a dump and beyond that was highway.

After two months of school, I had a breakdown. Sunday morning Abi is hollering “Keturah, time to leave!” 

Umi is dragging me by my ear and deposits me on the seat next to Khalid.

“I not going!” out the truck and on the pavement, I was rolling.

Miss Guerra over the fence peeping, “Popo, what happen?” and if is one thing Abi hated was a scene in front of the neighbour. He gave up.

Weekend when Khalid home I telling him, “When you coming back boy? Last week you miss a lappe. When we was walking home and reach the gru gru beef patch we hear it going ‘burrh burrh.’ Well, you know Ham and Ann-Marie take off, but I walk up to the patch, and see it stick in gru gru bef picker. I tell them fellas that does lime on the corner and them ketch it. Ham went home and leave me because you know I walk back to see them ketch it. Umi nearly roast meh tail when I reach home.

By next seven months or so we move out of Arma Town in Maya. I ‘member Grandma was real vex that day we was over by she and Umi tell she we going to live on The Compound with The Khalif and them. Grandma use all kinda words I never hear in meh life. Umi still talking about the virtues of the Compound; how they had build some other small apartments but mind you, The Khalif had the biggest apartment with he own toilet. 

The Compound was extending; young boys and men, women too, from all over was joining. Abi and them used to go out and preach, hold rallies, march for all kinda social cause, clean up the town, run anti-drug, anti-prostitution, anti-government and anti-everything campaign.

A normal Friday after Jumah used to look like this: All ah we in the front-yard, brothers chanting and flexing like peacock. The three maxi pull up, all the sign we make in school that morning piling in the maxi: Food for all!, No Vat, Robbie is a Rat. And time the maxi them full of man, woman and chirren. Driving down in town flags waving out the maxis, everybody hype. 

The Khalif and he team rooting for the poor, helping the downtrodden, hordes of people coming with this problem or that problem to we little clinic. News people dropping in every now and then for an interview with The Khalif; but is always somebody getting in trouble too with the police and politicians not liking the way The Khalif talking and some things he doing. He always say he not a politician; he just a man of the people, for the people. 

The Khalif build a big bungalow, four story, equipped with all the trimmings with a sewing-factory to the bottom-the sisters went there to make clothes to sell. Abi did build a three bedroom upstairs and downstairs in the back a while after too, you had to pass the first set ah containers way brothers used to stay coming down a long track. We house was the second single house on The Compound besides the Khalif own. The next one was a single flat; it was not as big as we own. 

One day, Khalid say he waiting for me by the track so I pass there, no Khalid. I start to run and trip right by the container. But Scar Face muscled like Hulk, he was one ah the security, killer machines, ah the Khalif-in the shadow by the container jump out  and he playing a big glock in he waist bareback; a big scar from he right ear to he nose bridge and he belly look like meat that a Chinese slaughter. He did get shot and chop up in he stomach before he join The Compound. They had bring him down there half dead; but lucky for him we had a doctor living on the Compound.

‘Doc’, we called our surgeon and all in one physician, he was really a doctor in training, and he left the hospital and came with his wife and four children to join the Khalif them. He doubled as Biology teacher in the school and Compound doctor. Watch na Khalid and me we used to be bussing track going up front for prayer we not stopping close by the containers. Some ah them boys was cool, but some used to look like real psycho, and army GI Joes and everybody trying to get a rank to guard the Khalif or be in with the big boys.

My father handled all the Compound finances; he was always a man who, not having a dollar of his own, could be trusted not to touch a single note if given ten million dollars to keep. Call on him for it today, tomorrow or ten years down the road, he will have your money intact. When the Khalif them start to fly all over, he never leave the country without Abi by he side. Abi was he driver, he best friend, he confidant, he everything. We used to be invited all the time to eat with the Khalif and his wives and chirren something many other compound members would’a give they eye for. I ’member well the feast at the Khalif house. Some ah the people who lived on the compound never even dream a meal or a house like that in they life; shiny new cutlery on silken tablecloths and food for a king. But mind you when we go back home it had days that all we eating was bake and butter if Grandma did not send a change for we. 

On the rare occasions when Umi eating up sheself and talking to she friend about the Khalif and ‘he business runs’ and how ‘Abi is either a cunumunu’ or he know what going on and does help the ‘Khalif eat and wipe mouth like fowl.’ All this time I macoing eh, it didn’t have  getting in big people talk them days. Well, let me fast forward a bit, one of these women had a child about a year after. And the child was the perfect likeness to guess who? 

Despite the enormous difference with how the Khalif live and how the followers live, The Compound pick up real people. Those times Black Power movement running through the country. Brothers had to find leadership and togetherness within themselves. But I tell you Khalif could’a make a nursing baby leave it mother arms and fall right into he own. 

It started as a empty piece ah land and ended as a empty piece a land, during the coup the soldiers burn down the place; empty families, empty souls, empty lives, and some who ended up in a exodus to a next empty ‘jihad’ in foreign lands.

 Côté Ci Côté La…

Otancia Noel is Trinidadian born, she has an MFA in creative writing  prose fiction from University of West Indies. She has been longlisted twice for fiction and non-fiction  writing in the Caribbean in 2019 and 2020 for the Johnson and Amoy Achong Writers Caribbean Prize. She is presently working on her novel. A teacher and mother of five, who loves gardening, writing, cooking, reading and travelling.

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