Early risers

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Living & loving the Caribbean lifestyle, with James Fuller

Everyone considered him the coward of the county…”

A high-pitched Caribbean adaptation of Kenny Rogers’ classic pierced the early morning air. The murderous melody was coming from my neighbour’s yard and, toss and turn as I liked, there was no escape. The Caribbean may be changing, but some traditions are ingrained, like the predilection for rising early to get in a couple hours’ work before ‘de sun hot up’.

Gemma had a liking for Kenny Rogers, and the pre-dawn hours were as good a time as any to pay homage. Sweeping her cocoyea broom about the yard, she warmed up her vocal cords with a little light humming. The repetitive swish-swish of dried coconut branch on concrete signalled that my sleep was at an end. Within a few minutes she built to a full-blown trill, unafraid to reach for those high notes, however inaccessible they proved.

When not in shrieking accompaniment to the bearded balladeer, Gemma would invariably be chewing the early-morning fat with her neighbour, Hetty. Hetty lived in the apartment below us, and the chain-link fence separating the properties rattled daily with loud and frenzied discussions of people’s comings and goings. Most, it seemed, were scandalous.

“Listen tuh dis, Listen tuh dis nah.”

“Yuh lie!?”

I had a blissful three weeks once when they fell out. The bacchanal bawling fell silent for a while but, all too soon, with differences patched up, they rejoined daily discourse with renewed vigour. For Gemma and Hetty, as the sun broke on another beautiful Caribbean day, this represented their post-shift relaxation time, having already put in a couple of hours at the stove.

From 4.30am – believe me, you get to know the timings of these things – a steady stream of aromas began wafting up into our bedroom. Across came the mouth-wateringly buttery smell of sada roti cooking on the tawa, and saltfish and tomato bubbling away in the iron pot. A large metal spoon clanked on the pot rim as the scent drifted thick, heavy and full of intent, like a scene from The Fog. It permeated quickly, nose-brain-stomach.

I may have been asleep but my constitution wasn’t. By 5am, my guts were writhing in congestive contortions like a bagful of eels. As my confused semi-conscious mind began assuming I’d missed dinner the previous night, my ears picked out the first unmistakeable strains of The Gambler.

Hetty and Gemma may have been the most immediate assaulters of sleep but they were far from alone. Able support came in the considerable form of Mr Dookran, three doors down, who liked to rise early to brush-cut his yard. As I lay slumbering, it wasn’t hard to imagine him bent over his voluminous belly and the swaying arc of arm, handle and blade hammering the weeds into submission. The rhythmic ‘chink-chink, chink-chink’ of sparking metal on stone, though, suggested Mr Dookran might have more flint in his yard than grass. The noise invariably triggered another reaction, setting off the neighbourhood dogs in a cacophonous domino chain of barking.

Not even family gave me respite. Having been welcomed into a typically extended West Indian clan, I quickly learned how valuable every single one of god’s hours is for the conveyance of family gossip. It still came as something of a shock to realise how many of these conversations couldn’t wait until 8am. I adjusted accordingly, and my nightly routine soon included switching off all cellphones and pulling the phone cord from the wall.

When I first arrived in the Caribbean, I used to wonder what madness possessed my mother-in-law to retire to bed at 7.30pm. The fog has cleared on that one.

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