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The good people in life

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I remember the first time I met Elsie, who was on her doorstep, as she greeted a naïve English lad fresh from the airport many years ago. “Welcome Jayyyymes, I’m Elsie G0opaul. Welcome to my home and to Trinidad. I hope you’ll be very happy here.”

‘A character’ is how many describe her. I’ve been writing this column for the better part of ten years and, as this will be my last, it feels appropriate to write about someone who became a big part of my love for the Caribbean. We should all take time to celebrate the characters in our lives – those special, ordinary people who make life and its passing more meaningful and enjoyable. So Elsie, this one’s for you.

It became apparent to me early on that dance, mango and family were central to my future mother-in-law’s life, even if her love affair with dance wasn’t immediately reciprocated. At the Christmas prize-giving following one formative year of dance, she was awarded the ambiguously titled trophy of ‘Most Persistent’.

Widowed at an early age and left with four daughters to raise, Elsie had suffered misfortunes, but still her default was fun. You weren’t long into a chat with Elsie before you were laughing at one of life’s absurdities.

“Oh my gosh Jaymes, I remember ah nex’ story from when I was small,” Elsie recounted as we sat on her porch. “I remember this one time when my father had bought a cattle. It was raining and I had to go move it from one spot to the nex’. As I untie the rope, the cattle started to pull and run. Well, my foot get tangle up in de rope, and it drag meeee.” Elsie turned to me with a look of utter horror, hand to mouth. “Oh how it drag meeee Jayyyymmmmes, on my bottom, 30, 40 feet or more.

And the place tick wid all kinda twigs and scrub…”

One of her happiest places was the garden. Every morning she would rise before dawn and be picking, plucking, sowing and hoeing by daybreak, singing as she went. Her mango trees were a source of near obsessive pleasure. Like a mother hears her baby’s cry above all else, so Elsie could 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 would twitch, her head turn, and in a blur she would be gone, leaving conversations hanging and callers talking to thin air. Time was of the essence, because birds coveted mango nearly as much as she did.

As newlyweds, my wife and I lived briefly with Elsie. One day, she married a conversation about how it was time we got our own place with a demonstration of how to split a coconut with a long-handled axe. She talked me through the splitting process as she threw the axe blade high and brought it down on the coconut resting on the path: “Thwack.”

Dressed in her housedress, this diminutive woman was a vision quite at odds with the lumberjack strength she displayed. The axe was nearly as big as her, but the speed and unerring accuracy with which she delivered chop after savage chop convinced me that it was indeed time to check the rental ads.

I have a picture that shows Elsie and me on the porch at her brother’s house. I’m clearly struggling to make a point, a smile breaking out on my face; Elsie is already mid-laugh – that wonderful, scandalous laugh. I have no idea what we were discussing – it scarcely matters – but it’s how I will remember her always, because I recently received a phone call bearing bad news.

“Elsie pass,” said my cousin. Two words that marked the end of a life that, for me, represented a substantial part of what I held dear about the Caribbean. She was dancing just three weeks before the end, ‘most persistently’ I like to think.

By James Fuller

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