For the love of mango

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Living & loving the Caribbean lifestyle, with James Fuller

Julie, Graham, Rose… The names of childhood friends or favourite aunts and uncles? Well maybe. But to countless thousands of mango devotees they are names that evoke very different emotions; they set taste buds tingling, mouths watering. Mangoes are revered globally – books and songs have been written about them, festivals are held in their honour. But nowhere is this godly fruit more lionised than the Caribbean.

Mango discussions frequently revolve around favouritism: Julie vs starch; the grafted hybrids; the best chow mangoes; the old-school varietals about which senior citizens reminisce. In some countries jealous glances might be cast at a neighbour’s flashy new car. In the Caribbean, a tree laden with perfect, crimson-blushed Julies is what induces envy.

If mango is the king of fruits then for my mother-in-law, Elsie – and scores like her – Julie is the king of kings. As a mother hears the cry of her baby above all others so Elsie can discern the thud of a fallen Julie from any other noise. In the midst of an in-depth phone call about a “neighbour daughter problem husband”, her ear will twitch, the head turn, and in a blur of multi-coloured house dress she’s gone, leaving conversations hanging and callers talking to thin air. Time is of the essence – because the birds covet mangoes nearly as much as she does.

Visitors to Elsie’s home may well wonder why a woman of mature years living alone would need both a 500-litre fridge-freezer and a standalone backup 500-litre freezer. The answer lies in the industrial packing process undertaken each mango season. Terrified she might go a day during the dry season without mango, Elsie freezes on a quite remarkable scale. Not a space remains un-stuffed. The human-like groaning of her freezer bears testament to its labour. The anxiety with which any power outage is met is palpable. There is no talking to Elsie at such times. When one outage stretched to days rather than hours, anxiety turned to panic. Every family member with a cooler was called with the instruction: “An’ bring plenty ice!”

The plot on which Elsie’s home stands used to be much larger, but when it became unmanageable for a single woman she was forced to sell off a section. That section then sat idle and, much to Elsie’s distress, she was forced to gaze out at it from her kitchen sink every day.

I say distress because on that land sat a much-loved starch mango tree. It appeared that the new landowners were not nearly so grateful for – nor even aware of – the wondrous gift bestowed upon them. Season after mango season, fallen fruit were simply left to rot. It was sacrilegious to Elsie. Like Chinese water torture, every fruit that dropped was another drip – until the pain became too much. During those tormented hours at the sink, when she was trying to distract herself with prepping veg and scrubbing pots, a plot hatched.

The border with her former land was marked by a 2m-high chainlink fence. She would cut a neat line up the fence with wire cutters, creating a Caribbean tanti-sized flap, which could be opened and closed without discovery. At dusk and daybreak she would then tiptoe down to the border, bucket in hand, check the coast was clear, duck through the fence and gather up the forbidden fruit.

Peace and joy descended on the household once more. That was until a gardening accident left Elsie with a broken arm, and undercover operations had to be suspended. One day, however, while checking her boundaries, arm-in-sling, she noticed something strange sitting by the fence. On closer inspection it was a big plastic bag of starch mangoes tucked just inside her side of the fence. Elsie’s clandestine operations weren’t as secret as she’d thought.

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