My Uncle Jacob had a shop in Calcutta Settlement, deep in the heart of the Central Trinidad countryside. In those days, electricity had not yet reached the village and we used a Coleman gas-lamp for illumination. I remember having to pump it ferociously and fiddling with a fragile fishnet-like contraption called a “mantle”.
Some corners of the shop, particularly where Uncle Jacob stored the butter and sugar, were mysteriously shadowed, and I, wearing the mantle of the “Shadow” of the radio drama that lighted up my Friday evenings, struck whenever I could. Armed with two crackers, I hastily covered them with lightly-salted, yellow ochre butter and translucent golden brown moscovado sugar, and made the world’s most delicious sandwich.
The different textures and sounds, the crackle-crunch of the Crix crackers, the crish-crush, crinkle of brown sugar, and the smooth, softness of biting through butter, all melded and merged into a veritable Valhalla. Keep your bread and honey, mead and manna, your fritters and critters, I go crackers over biscuits! My Uncle Jacob never mentioned my marauding in the butter bin but I suspect that my aunt, the business brain of the marriage, transferred the shortages induced by my appetite to her unsuspecting consumers. In that she predated the predatory practices, including pricing, of the commercial agents who now rule the retail roost.
I also went crackers over peanut punch. It is a simple drink. Mix together copious amounts of peanut butter, milk and sugar, add lots of ice, stir, shake and serve by the jugful. This was my Aunt Polly’s way of doing it, although sometimes she used water and condensed milk supplemented by tins of Carnation evaporated milk to create a thick, rich, sludgy mixture that simultaneously filled your stomach and dental cavities.
Although I have been forced to reduce my salt butter and peanut butter intake because my narrow hips and broad mind have started to change places to the point that it has become a health issue, my Guyana-born wife and Barbados-born children have not yet reached that advanced stage of development.
I was therefore surprised when my wife asked me to fix her something to eat and I suggested a small cheese sandwich. “Not butter,” she shouted to me from the living room after I had made the suggestion. Knowing that cheese is not butter although they share the same bovine lactic origin, I said, “You want it grilled?” “Not butter,” she said. I became exasperated. “Forget about cheese,” I said. “What about a bread and jam, or do you want sardines with onion and pepper?” “Not butter,” she shouted.
I went to where she was sitting and stressed, “Cheese is not butter. Jam is not butter. Sardines are not butter.” I spoke slowly, “I never offered you any butter. What you really want?” “Not butter,” she said maddeningly. I was losing my temper. “But they are not butter!” She got angry in turn, “I said ‘nut butter’ not ‘not butter’”. I was stumped. I expostulated, “But everything I suggest is not butter. How you mean not butter?” She explained patiently impatient, “Home we call ‘nut butter’ what you call ‘peanut butter.’” It was as simple as that. I couldn’t believe it was “nut butter” and not “not butter”.
It was not the first time I had fallen victim to Guyanese dialect. A few years ago, as I walked through Georgetown, a little street urchin, to whom I had earlier given some money, followed me, his intelligent eyes, shy smile and sturdy gait contrasting with his torn clothing and bare feet. I walked into one of the Department stores and, seeing a shirt I liked at a good price, bought it.
As I picked up my package, one of the ubiquitous, uniformed security guards walked up angrily demanding, “Who buy dah?” Astonished, I said calmly, “Me. I buy it” “Not you,” he said, pointing at the urchin. “He.” I strove to correct him. “That is certainly not the case,” I said sharply.
“This is mine. I buy it.” He was getting angry and raised his voice harshly, “Not you. I not talking to you. I want to know is who buy dah?” The little boy had become frightened and was hiding behind my right leg. A crowd had started gathering. I took out my receipt and showed the guard. “Listen,” I said, speaking slowly as to one mentally deficient, “this is mine. You see the receipt, that is mine. Is me buy this.”
The guard shrugged, satisfied or content to fight again another day. “Well, if was me buy dah, I wouldn’t dress up so pretty pretty and my buy look so nasty,” he said. Two women in the crowd chorused their approval of his observation. Another woman said, “But the buy don’t look like him, maybe is somebody else own. He look like he get good blow.”
Another chimed in, “He deserve it.” Fearful of blows being passed, and not realizing that “blow” was Guyanese for “horn” or being cuckolded, I waved my receipt again for all to see. “Look this,” I said. “This is mine. I buy it. I pay for it. Whether it nasty or not, is mine.” The crowd dispersed, still unbelieving, still murmuring about how I foolish to think is my buy, and still talking of blows.
I left mystified, the urchin following me to the hotel entrance, until the doorman chased him away saying, “Look buy, don’t trouble the guests you hear.” He then shouted to a female vendor across the street, “Mabel, look call you buy and tell him to stop bothering the guests, you hear.”
* Tony Deyal was last seen following his wife to the mall to see what she meant about getting a “good buy” at the Ten-Dollar store.
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