Bold Lang Syne

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By Tony Deyal

I had a ball this Christmas. Just after midnight on Christmas Eve, I opened my gifts and one was a green snooker ball autographed by the all-time best player of the game, Ronnie “Rocket” O’Sullivan. Snooker is a “cue” sport (like Billiards) which originated among British Army Officers stationed in India in the second half of the 19th century.

In those days, the term “snooker” was used to describe inexperienced or first-year recruits who were given a rough time by their officers. From this came the term “snookered” which meant that the ball you needed to hit was blocked by another ball. In other words, to be snookered means to be obstructed and to have to take a new and more difficult route to achieve your goal. In this case, when it comes to Old Year’s Night this year, I am snookered. Apart from being with my family, I have no idea what to do or how to spend it. To quote columnist Alexander Woolcott, “Anything in life that’s any fun is either immoral, illegal or fattening.”

It was never like this in my youth. In those days there was no “New Year’s Eve”. In fact, even now all Caribbean countries have in common that we refer to “Old Year’s Night” as preceding and merging into New Year’s Day. We all tried to keep awake and having no clock or watch, we waited until the Church Bells started ringing or the old Blaupunkt or Pye radio, tuned to the one local radio station, started the countdown which led to “Auld Lang Syne”.  This was a song some of us had learned at the Anglican school we attended and belted out loudly for the benefit of the neighbours.

In truth, we never really understood why “old acquaintances” should be forgot and never brought to mind unless they “thief” something from you, but we put it down to the contrariness of the British and their language, not realising the poet who composed it, Robert Burns, was Scottish.

What we appreciated was the cup of kindness, coca-cola (our favourite “sweet” drink when we were little) and whatever else we were allowed to drink as we grew up. In those days, people who had firearms were allowed to “bring in” or signal the New Year by firing their shotguns in the air and competing with the Church bells and radio in terms of noise. I can still see my father’s face, flush from the several days of almost non-stop drinking, as he pointed the gun high in the air and, holding it tightly, allowed me to pull the trigger. The first time I did it, I was five and still remember the laughter when the recoil threw me flat on my rear. There was always a lot of food around and snacks which, once a year, we were allowed to eat and better yet, go to bed without brushing our teeth.

My grandfather’s house was in the deep countryside in a village called South Oropouche and it was there my mother and I went to join her family for the New Year. My grandfather was a hunter and had a shotgun. It was in his hands being oiled and cleaned as we waited impatiently, the older folks gossiping and we, the children, playing games in the yard. The Smith Alarm Clock my grandfather had got from a departing Englishman was not working because, perhaps from sheer excitement, it was wound-up too tight. The radio he had bought was unable to pick up the Port of Spain signal he said, so we had to wait, kerosene lamp burning, for the church bells.

We were very surprised when the bells starting ringing loudly, madly, out of tune and timing, more a cacophony than a celebration, clanging and banging, but we were ready. I was the only one who knew the appropriate song and my family thought I was making up a song about Syne, a contractor friend of my grandfather. In the midst of the laughter, the gunshots made their trails in the air, filling the room with smoke as the loud echoes died down. My grandfather’s hunting hounds were barking loudly in excitement thinking he had shot something. Then, the Anglican Priest and some of the Church people including Pollard the village shopkeeper, one of the teachers and a few ladies arrived and angrily shouted at my grandfather to come outside. I knew immediately it concerned my Uncle Slug.

This was not my Uncle’s real name but a nickname bestowed on him by his friends, a gang of young men who terrorised the village, not from malice but because of pure mischief and devilry. “Slug” was Western talk for “bullet” and my Uncle could be lethal. My grandmother had no control over him. My Grandfather got angry once when Slug decided to go and swim in the nearby river. He warned Slug, “When you go and drown in the sea, don’t come back and tell me nothing!”  This was like water off a dasheen leaf. Slug never changed his ways and stayed away from home for longer and longer periods.

Slug and his friends were better judges of time than we were. The Anglican Church service was supposed to be a relatively long mass dedicated to praying for all of us for a better, brighter and holier New Year. It was just a few years after the Second World War and we still suffered severely from shortages and tough times. They had gathered in the Church at ten o’clock in the night and started with hymns and bible-reading. At just about ten minutes to eleven, the first big stones hit the roof and started to slide down the galvanize roof noisily landing on the ground with enormous thumps.

Then what seemed to be shots from slingshots hit the wooden walls of the church in bursts like machine-gun fire. It was too much for the congregation. They sprinted out of the Church like bats out of hell, pursued by fiendish laughter and the occasional close shave from a pebble propelled by the thick car-tire rubber used in the sling shots. Then, having gained temporary possession of the facilities, and knowing the police from the nearby station would arrive but only after ensuring there was absolutely no danger or threat to them, the boys started to ring the church-bells, deceiving all the people in the village so they would celebrate the New Year an hour early.

Slug was too big and tall to beat. My grandfather raged a bit. My grandmother started her usual sad diatribe about “What to do with the boy?” and her suspicion that maybe some priest or obeah man had put a “light” on him. I was secretly very proud of my Uncle and his friends and resolved that when I grew up I would try the same trick in my village.

Fortunately for me and my neighbours, as well as the Anglican Church, this determination suffered the same fate as all my other New Year resolutions- in one year and out the next.

*Tony Deyal was last seen sharing a New Year’s wish with his readers, “May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions.”

 

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