Tuning in to my past in Trinidad and Sligo

Author Amanda Smyth reflects on her parents’ unusual love story and finding her roots

Amanda’s father’s band, The Clefonaires. He is third from the right

Amanda’s father’s band, The Clefonaires. He is third from the right

 

When my Trinidadian mother met my father in Sligo, she was 16. My mother, who was at boarding school in Dublin, was a beauty with dark wavy hair, olive skinned; she spoke with a West Indian lilt. That day, on O Connell Street, two young men wanted to know how she and her friend, Hazel, managed to fit into their tight trousers. These were the early years of spandex; my mother was tall, with legs like ladders. Were they painted on? The men were musicians; they invited them to a gig that night. My mother married the drummer and Hazel married the banjo player.

My father was 10 years older, a teetotaller, stylish, handsome. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a chemist who owned a shop in Sligo town. He had a brother and a sister. The family were disciplined and religious. The rosary was said on their knees every evening; you never entered the house without a sprinkling of holy water.

Author Amanda Smyth
Author Amanda Smyth

My mother was 18 when she married my father. I’ve imagined the small Trinidadian posse arriving in the quaint town – foreigners, glamorous. My uncle with dark eyes, black hair; my mother’s gregarious bridesmaid, Jacqueline; my grandmother in black as she was mourning her mother; my grandfather, elusive and handsome like James Mason. My mother noticed people staring at him.

After they married, my parents lived in the flat above the chemist. The flat was cold; there was a coal fire in the living room but apart from two electric bars, there was no other heating. When my mother took my baby brother out in the pram, she noticed people were unusually curious. She found it hard, these early years. My father was often gone, playing in the band, the Cleffonaires. Lonely, she chatted with the women who worked in the shop downstairs. She missed her family; the hot sun, her freedom, walking barefoot.

When my brother was a few months old, my mother went back to Trinidad. On landing, she felt the hot rush of air and was relieved to be home. She was quickly swept up in a familiar life surrounded by family. She left my brother with a housekeeper and, with her cousins, took off to the beach where she lay in the sun and swam in the warm Caribbean Sea. She filled up on her favourite foods: mangoes, guavas, avocados, roti, pastelles, pelau, tamarind balls. By the time she returned to Sligo, she had been gone six months.

Amanda’s father and brother in Tobago.
Amanda’s father and brother in Tobago.

Soon my mother was pregnant again, and I was born. By now my father was working part time, out playing drums at night. Long, lonely days and the cold, wet weather soon had my mother longing once again for Trinidad. Things weren’t working out with my father. My grandfather said it wasn’t safe to come back. This was 1970 and Trinidad was in a state of emergency, the Black Power Revolution was gathering momentum. My mother left for England when I was two years old. She was 24.

In a small Yorkshire village, my brother and I went to the local primary school; we made friends; we had a dog and a comfortable home. My father moved to Leeds, and we saw him now and then. Every summer while our friends went to Bridlington or Scarborough for their holidays, we flew to Trinidad. We saw cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we felt free. I loved the heat, the sea, the sight of cane fields. I loved the light on the Savannah; my grandmother’s cooking. I felt so happy there, I wondered if, perhaps, this was where I belonged. I was aware that I looked different. More than once, on the way back from the beach, a group of boys yelled, Honkey!

The return flight back to England left at dusk. I remember the plane speeding up the runway and lifting off, looking down at the lights on the island getting smaller, my heart splitting open, trying to hold onto the summer, the smell of local washing detergent on my clothes; the sun in my hair; my Diana mints. Back in Yorkshire, people asked, How was Jamaica? I’d say, it’s not Jamaica, it’s Trinidad.

Unlike my brother, who went to Ireland every year, I didn’t return for many years. My mother preferred to have me with her, and I was a clingy child, devoted to her. Perhaps the trauma of leaving had made me so. My brother loved Ireland. He was close to his cousins in the north and in Sligo; they were the same age as us. I heard about the farmhouse in Aughnacloy, fishing for crabs; he talked of Rosses Point, horse riding on the beach; climbing Knocknarea. He arrived home with a suitcase full of filthy clothes; happier than when he left, bright in spirit. He talked about Uncle Oliver, my father’s brother, who he adored. I was envious.

Amanda and her mother
Amanda and her mother
Amanda, her mother, and her daughter Amelie
Amanda, her mother, and her daughter Amelie

My father took me back to Ireland when I was 18. We travelled on the ferry to Dublin, where he bought me my first pint of Guinness at 8am. We took the train to Sligo. For the first time, I had the chance to know my cousins. They were familiar and I liked them at once. Like my brother and I, their father had been absent. They were studious, serious. I could see their lives were hard. Harder than mine, I suspected. But they had something my brother and I didn’t have. Unlike us, they had roots. They were Irish. Sligo would always be their home; the place they returned to. They belonged there.

For the first time, I wondered how it would have been if my mother had stayed. Would we have felt like we belonged there, too? I remember driving out towards Ben Bulben, thinking about this, while feeling awed by this huge wedge of mountain; the greens and blacks; the shadows quickly passing with the clouds and the wind tearing around. I walked down to the beach, looked at the dark sea, the dark sand. There was something melancholy about Sligo; the colours muted but saturated. It occurred to me how different it was to Trinidad, the other side of me.

Some years later, my brother was married in Tobago. It was a small wedding at sunset. My Trinidad family were there, and my uncle and aunt flew over from Ireland. After the ceremony, my mother’s partner picked up a guitar and began to play. He sang and we clapped, and we smiled, and started to sway to the three-beat calypso. Then my uncle took his turn. A singer in the Sligo choir, I’d heard he had a beautiful voice. He began an Irish ballad and the slow, sweet, longing poured out of him and I saw a look of tenderness fall over the faces of the guests, and I noticed I was crying. I belong here, I thought. Where these two songs meet.

When my father died, I went back to Ireland for his memorial service. I walked in the town, looked up at the flat above the chemist where my mother and father lived. My mother tells me she used to open the window and my father would throw her up a bar of chocolate. Across the road, In the deli, I asked the owner, if he remembered Dominic Smyth.

“Yes,” he said. “And his wife. A stunning woman.’ His eyes shone with the memory. “Like a film star.” Then, “She came from – where was it?”

“Trinidad,” I said quickly.

“Yes, Trinidad. That’s it.”

Amanda Smyth is the author of Fortune (Peepal Tree, July 2021); Black Rock (2009) and A Kind of Eden (2013). Black Rock won the Prix du Premier Roman prize, was nominated for an NAACP award and shortlisted for the McKitterick Prize

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