Time stands still on some Caribbean islands.
Mummy Lord’s was a two-story rum shop built on the roadside in the harbour area of town. Behind the old building with its rusty, corrugated roof, you could see the crumbling wharf against which half a dozen dilapidated inter-island schooners would be moored at any one time, rust-streaked and listing heavily to one side as they off-loaded their cargoes of bananas, pineapples and yams.
Across the road was the Victorian market, faintly reminiscent of some great London railway station with its enormous riveted iron girders painted in red lead and its high glass-panelled facade.
Adjacent to the market were the town abattoir, where horses and goats were hacked to pieces with relish by heavily-perspiring, machete-wielding Negroes, and the charcoal market, thronging with barefoot children who wove their way in and out of the grimy stalls where colossal women sold clay cooking pots and sacks of charcoal for a few cents.
The area through which one had to pass in order to reach Mummy Lord’s and, after, the town centre, swarmed with flies and desperate-looking characters with wild eyes and ragged clothes, begging a dollar here and there from the cruise ship passengers who had unwittingly strayed to this part of town.
Mummy Lord’s stood on the street corner and had a large gingerbread balcony. The building hadn’t seen a coat of paint in fifty years and the wood was heavily splintered and cracked, the timbers rotten and termite-infested. The deep gutter outside the entrance ran parallel to the wharf and was a popular resting-place for those who had consumed Mummy Lord’s strong white rum.
There was something of New Orleans about this old colonial building with its latticed balcony, though I do not recall having seen a structure in that city quite as neglected. And yet, in spite of its unsavoury appearance and location, it possessed a certain charm. Here, amongst the flies, the seething mass of people jostling in the markets or staggering about with the familiar gait of one who has succumbed to the ravages of that strong white rum, here, amidst the stench of the abattoir and the fruits fermenting in the hot sun and the crates of fish stacked on the wharf, here was also the focal point of the town where voluminous ladies in colourful dresses and large straw hats gossiped with their friends, laughing heartily and flashing their even, white teeth whilst small children danced on the pavements to the sound of calypso. There seemed to be music in the very way that they walked, swaying their hips rhythmically as if to the sound of some inaudible West Indian ballad.
I had walked past Mummy Lord’s many times but had only ever glanced through the doorway. Besides the bodies which were invariably sprawled along the storm drains outside, there were regularly a couple of desperadoes leaning against the door frame, eyes glazed, clutching a small bottle of Mummy Lord’s potent rum. As you walked by, they would raise their eyebrows, turn towards you and raise an arm as if about to say something of great importance, but the words would rarely materialise and then they would stare in astonishment as if in silent rebuke for your lack of response to their unuttered remarks.
One day I determined to cross the threshold and discover what wonders lay within. There was something alluring, almost mystical about this extraordinary building, plucked from half a century ago, with its motley clientÃ¨le of destitute, rambling, inarticulate vagrants.
The interior was very dark after the bright sunlight outside, but my eyes gradually grew accustomed and soon I could make out a dozen figures hunched around low, round tables fashioned from old cable drums. A heated game of dominoes was in progress in a tiny back-room and I could hear the counters being slammed down with considerable force, followed by raucous laughs and cries for “another nip”.
As I entered, three elderly gentlemen simultaneously drew back from the bar counter and, somewhat theatrically, removed their trilby hats, bowed and beamed delightedly. Their choice of headgear seemed astonishing. They were rheumy-eyed and had not more than half a dozen teeth between them; each of them was coal black with heavily wrinkled features, short, grey, woolly hair and several days of stubble on the chin. In front of them on the counter stood an assembly of bottles, some full and some empty, of varying sizes and with a diversity of labels which indicated that they had once contained whisky or peanuts or coconut oil, but which now carried the unmistakable odour of strong rum.
Behind the bar was a veritable mountain of a woman, a scarf wrapped tightly round her head, and large plastic ear-rings dangling from her elongated ear lobes. Her enormous breasts and stomach attested not so much to her prosperity as the proprietor, as to the carbohydrate-rich diet of the West Indian. Fifty years of rice, yams and plantains, and there is no escaping a certain rotundity.
She beamed at me and announced that she was Mummy Lord and that hers was a clean, safe establishment and that I need not have concerns because there was never any trouble in her bar. And, as if to prove her claim, she pulled out a four foot length of rubber hose from beneath the counter and explained, with a twinkle in her eye, that she had ways of dealing with trouble-makers. The three old men nodded in unison and confirmed that Mummy Lord was not a person to tolerate disorder. Those who became excitable were beaten and dispatched to the storm drains outside.
The presence of a European in Mummy Lord’s very soon attracted attention from the other patrons, for it was an unusual occurrence, much in the same way as the arrival of a dishevelled itinerant at the Savoy Grill would have occasioned surprise. I told Mummy Lord that I should like to sample some of her legendary white rum, and instantly there were murmurs of approval.
The colossal woman squeezed herself out from behind the bar counter – a seemingly impossible feat when observing the width of the access and the dimensions of her torso, but one in which she was clearly well practised – and, clasping a large aluminium pot, she waddled on elephantine legs to the far corner of the room where a vast wooden keg stood in a trestle. Noisily licking her lips, she opened a tap on the keg, filled the pot and shuffled wearily back to the counter. Here, she added a cup of water to the contents of the pot and then produced an instrument that bore some resemblance to a hydrometer and with which she claimed to be measuring the density of the concoction. Having added a further cup of water and satisfied herself that the brew was of a legally acceptable strength, Mummy Lord turned to me and asked me how much I wanted. I told her that a “nip” would do nicely and she at once filled a half pint bottle and placed it on the counter in front of me.
The old men chuckled and shouted something at Mummy Lord who snapped back that she knew her job and they would do well to “mind their business”. She then placed a large bottle of ice-cold water beside my “nip”. The label on the bottle read “Scotch Whisky”.
The correct way to drink strong white rum is to pour the entire contents of the glass into your mouth and to hold it there whilst opening the bottle of water – then to swallow the rum in one gulp and immediately to pour as much water down your throat as you can possibly manage without choking. The water bottle is, not surprisingly, known as the “fire engine”. Having first swallowed the rum, the initial sensation is of a wall of flame surging down your throat and into your stomach, but this feeling lasts but a moment and the “fire engine” provides swift relief. After that brief moment of shock, you cannot help thinking that it wasn’t so bad after all – in fact that it was rather pleasant – and so I ordered another.
Whilst Mummy Lord poured my second glass, an elderly, balding gentleman appeared behind the counter. He barely reached Mummy Lord’s shoulder and seemed to be as frail as Mummy Lord was robust. I had to stifle a smile as the great lady said to me “An’ this be my husban’ – Mister Lor'” with a strong emphasis on the word “Mister”. Mister Lord told me that he had emigrated from Barbados some sixty years before and had been married to Mummy Lord for thirty years and had run this establishment for twenty years. But, he said, they wouldn’t be here for much longer for the building was to be demolished to make way for a new highway. I said I thought it was a shame that a place of such character was to be pulled down and I asked where they would go. “Huh!” said Mummy Lord contemptuously, “They is movin’ us BACK!” and she pointed somewhere in the direction of town and grimaced and made strange sucking noises through her teeth to express her displeasure.
My second glass of rum seemed to have evaporated and it took me a moment or two to recall having consumed it. I ordered another and then turned around, astonished to hear the sound of a jazz trumpet being played. There, at one end of the bar counter, was a bedraggled fellow of about forty, wearing dark glasses and a little unsteady on his feet. He had no trumpet, but both hands cupped to his mouth and was performing what I thought was a very passable version of some Louis Armstrong number. The rum may have affected my perception of the performance, but everyone in the room appeared to be listening intently and even Mummy Lord smiled and told me that the trumpeter came in and played every week.
Like the three old fellows who had greeted me when I first entered this bar, the trumpeter was wearing a trilby hat and, conscious of my own bare head, I was momentarily appalled to think that I might have violated some dress code – having once been ordered from the premises of the Naval and Military Club in London for wearing what the Hall Porter considered to be “unsuitable trousers”, I had no desire to be similarly ejected from Mummy Lord’s for failing to wear a trilby hat.
Adjacent to the gentleman with the invisible trumpet stood a stout old fellow dressed in a pin-striped suit. It seemed more than a trifle formal, given the surroundings. Noticing that I was observing him, he shuffled towards me, removed his hat and, in a tremulous voice, said “Good uffernoon thuh!” I smiled and returned his greeting. Wondering what possessed this venerable individual to don a three-piece suit in the stifling heat of Mummy Lord’s rum shop, I asked him why he was so formally attired. He reached into a pocket, pulled out a pair of dusty dentures and placed them in his mouth.
“My father bought this suit and hat,” he said. “He went to London for King George’s funeral. He used to wear them every day. When he died, I wore them every day”. He then removed his teeth and dropped them back into his pocket with a defiant look as if the brief history of his clothes explained the peculiarity of wearing them in such surroundings. Then he removed his hat and showed me the label. It was silk and yellowed with age, and rather greasy to the touch. It read “Locke’s of Bond Street – By Appointment to His Majesty King George The Fifth”. I offered him a drink and he accepted with obvious pleasure.
The afternoon wore on and a string of characters stumbled into Mummy Lord’s, threw coins onto the counter, swallowed their purchase without a word, and then tottered out into the bright sunlight. From time to time, Mummy Lord would shuffle to the vast keg from which to replenish her aluminium pot. Mr Lord busied himself behind the bar, continually rearranging displays of the various wares on sale – cans of corned beef and margarine, packets of alka-seltzer, dry biscuits, and cigarettes which could be bought, individually, for ten cents. The monotony of the decor was occasionally relieved by a burst of colour in the form of an out-of-date calendar denoting religious scenarios, or a poster of a bikini-clad girl clutching a bottle of Coca Cola. In the centre of one wall was a picture of the Virgin Mary smiling benignly from her vantage point on the wall at the scene beneath her.
I returned to Mummy Lord’s perhaps half a dozen times over the next couple of years and was on each occasion treated with a blend of curiosity and kindness, both by the proprietors and by their unusual clientele. After my second visit, I noticed that I was not always charged for what I had consumed.
The trumpeter and the gentleman with the pin-striped suit were always there whenever I returned but, one day, after an absence of a few months from the island, I wandered down to Mummy Lord’s for a “nip”, and all that remained of the building were a stack of old timber and a pile of rubble. They had finally “moved back”.
The new highway greatly reduced the congestion in this part of town, but I could not help feeling that the island had been deprived of something which, although regarded with disapproval by many, had given an enormous amount of pleasure to a great many people – myself included. Mummy Lord’s had been an intoxicating experience – but not solely on account of the illustrious lady’s fortifying beverages.