Bob is dismantling the house where he grew up. These past few weeks, there have been sounds of construction—not the loud noises that come from my unconscionable neighbour’s welding business, but the muted clatter of galvanized sheets, and hammering.
Before he began, Bob put a letter in the mailbox of everyone on the street in proximity to the house. He advised us that he was going to be doing some work on the premises and apologised in advance for any disturbance it might cause and asked our indulgence.
Just for that gesture of civility and consideration, he could have used dynamite if he liked.
The house that is now being taken apart, slowly exposing its wooden innards, was built more than a hundred years ago. The Emille family, Matthew, his wife Verina, and their sons Bob and Phillip, moved into it in 1977, three years before we moved into our home directly opposite.
Mr Emille was respected as a skilled joiner and mason. He was a man of the church, and he worked long hours, trudging home at dusk with his felt hat on his head. No matter how you greeted him: How you doing Mr Emille? The answer was always the same. “Sweet, sweet.”
The house was one of two exact replicas standing side by side, their ornamental wooden facades and small verandahs standing on short pillars, a reminder of the charm of a bygone age of architecture. Its companion was demolished some years ago, torn down by one of those giant yellow machines that can erase a lifetime with a roar and a grunt.
In its place stands a two-storey apartment building painted a bright orange. Looking at it you would never guess that Mr Bishop’s picturesque house had once graced our street.
Bob and Phillip are around the same ages as my brother and me. We did not mix much. They went to different schools, and our house was not visible from the road, blocked as it was by the abandoned, crumbling one that occupied the front of our yard. Yet, we were always friendly.
They had trees in the backyard, bearing magnificent plums and zabocas. Miss Emille would send across bagfuls of the fruit when they were ripe. Just about a month ago, I got a glorious bag of plums that Bob had picked.
Miss Emille, now 85, has lived there alone since Mr Emille died some years ago. She is remarkably sprightly. Every morning she comes out with her broom and sweeps the gallery and the front yard, and she still sometimes weeds the yard.
I used to go and chat with her a lot, enjoying her stories of the adventures of country life. After Covid, we would blow wild kisses at each other across the street. Her memory is not sharp anymore—it’s probably at the same level as mine now—but she maintains her activities.
She doesn’t go to the market any more, though and she doesn’t go to church as regularly, but like the fertile trees in her backyard she bears smiles all year round.
I once asked Bob if he worried about her being alone, and he told me he had built a fairly self-contained place in the back for her. He comes by twice a day to visit, and another woman comes on afternoons to stay with her.
I can imagine why the house is now being taken apart, but it cannot be easy to be stripping it down. Bob himself does construction, and he has clearly learned much of his father’s skills and has inherited the decency of his parents. I was watching him that afternoon, standing on the rooftop in the sweltering heat with a red crowbar in his hand, painstakingly removing beams and joists one by one.
He is a stoic, a genuine salt-of-the-earth kind of man; practical and full of the certainty of right and wrong. I couldn’t see him indulging in nostalgia or sentiment.
Still, as I looked up at the disappearing roof, and his frame silhouetted against the cloudless sky, I couldn’t help wondering what he must be thinking, what he must be feeling. Me being me, I asked him.
“It has to go, it’s falling apart,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. His mother doesn’t want it to be torn down, but he had to put his foot down, because the flooring is now rotting and it is not safe.
As we reminisced about the old days, when we came to live in this neighbourhood as adolescents, it seemed so long ago and far away.
The way a landscape changes is a powerful reminder of the passage of time. Old buildings give way to new; an abandoned train line is replaced by the Priority Bus Route, concrete replaces pasture.
The other day, Kim told me he was meeting his cousin at Kirpalani’s Roundabout. It startled me. I had forgotten how ubiquitous that name was throughout the country, alongside Bata shoes.
Change is inevitable; we say it is progress. I am not opposed to that. We evolve by adapting to survive. On the other hand, we cannot deny that we are moving in an alarming direction.
The sense of community—epitomised by the Emille family—is vanishing, and that is a loss I truly mourn in the growing twilight of my life.
Have a thoughtful Christmas.
Nice story (if you will) touching on the realities of living in our beloved T&T. Within the upheaval and the race to survive (eat ah food) economically and otherwise (This Rat Race) there still exists pockets of civility, decency respect and love that provide a much needed ray of hope so desperately needed at this time. My sympathies go out to those who live on the frontline and experience upclose and personal the mayhem/lack of care exhibited by neighbours exploding firecrackers and other incendairy devices that will shatter the atmosphere as we usher in 2023.