The Coconut Season
A sequel to A Cottage In The Country and The Emerald Lighter
by Malcolm Taylor
As the result of spending my first Christmas in Tobago, and for reasons that will become apparent, I shall, in future, always think of the festive time as The Coconut Season. But first things first …
When my wife and I were moving into our new home at Sanctuary last summer, Peter Blincow, of Automative Excellence, promised he’d look out for a reliable, second-hand vehicle for us. When we hadn’t heard from him by the beginning of December I began to get a little anxious. I didn’t want to appear to be fussing, so I sent him a jokey email:
The time has come, the fat man said
To talk of many things;
Of Terios' and four wheel drives.
Insurances and things
And whether there is one in stock -
That might still have some springs!
Imagine my surprise when I received the following reply:
A Terios, white, the salesman said
Is what the Taylors need
Good condition and short on miles
And very good indeed
Now that you're ready Taylors dear
We are eager to proceed
Delighted, I responded immediately:
'Well, well' the fat man said,'I say,
It seems an offer's made -
Shall we accept it Annie dear
Before we start our feed?
'Why not'?, she said, utensils poised,
'Please tell him to proceed'.
So that was that - How to Buy A Car In Three Verses! Rumour has it that Nigel Wilson, the Sales Manager of Diamond Cars was so impressed by this novel way of doing business that the next day he was spotted, capped and shawled at Pigeon Point, distributing leaflets from a fisherman’s basket, and singing - to the tune of the Street Seller’s song from Oliver:
‘Who will buy a won-der-ful motor..
Who will buy a brand new Rolls Royce?’
Sadly there’s no verification of the rumour but I shall long treasure the image!
Flying to Tobago for Christmas is an expensive business, but we were determined to spend at least our first one in our new house, even if it meant squeezing in to those tight, uncomfortable, Economy class seats. The seat pitch (the distance between the back of one seat to the back of the one behind) on Excel, a charter carrier, is only 30” and I should warn anyone contemplating travelling with them that if you have a girth exceeding 42” (mine’s 44”) you will not be able to lower your tray down fully, and if you are taller than 5’8” (my wife) there is little chance that you will be able to perform those DVT exercises you are advised to do on long haul flights. The conclusion is simple; if you’re a short model you’ll probably be O.K., if not, be prepared to die of starvation and/or thrombosis unless you travel Premium class (34“) or First (55”). The scheduled airlines on the direct route from the UK - Virgin and British Airways - offer little better, with a pitch of 31”. BWIA come out tops with 32”, though you’ll have to travel via Trinidad. Like everything else these days it all comes down to dosh. Excel offer the cheapest deals, though Virgin & BA compensate by awarding air miles.
As we stepped off the plane we welcomed the sudden heat, for neither we, nor Ellen or Katie, our two daughters, had ever been out of chilly England in December before. We weren’t, however, prepared for all the razzmatazz we associate with Christmas at home; blow-up Santas, complete with winter woolies hanging outside buildings; reindeer grazing on fake snow; Bing Crosby crooning about a white Christmas! ‘Surreal’ is the word that sprung to mind - it seemed as if we’d ended up in a sort of open air Santa’s Grotto with no snow or ice but plenty of sun, sea and sand, with lots of fake firs and holly thrown in. Clearly the old empire had brought over the Victorian Christmas lock, stock and smiling barrel - an idiosyncratic, but seemingly popular import.
The second-hand Terios was popular with us too. It whizzed about without complaining, and all in all seemed a very cheerful little car. I noticed that quite a lot of its brothers and sisters had the same number plate prefix - PBH - and deduced that this stood for Poor But Happy. Some mean folk said it stood for Pretty But Hopeless but I dismissed them as jealous. Everybody agrees, however, that that the RBD Terios (Rented By the Day - sometimes known as Redman‘s girls!) need a pat of encouragement if ever you’re passing.
On Christmas Eve I joined a long queue to fill up with petrol at Carnbee. I don’t know why I did; there was plenty of juice in the tank, but I became a part of the collective panic that sets in if you know the garage is going to be closed even for one day. Well, you never know - you might suddenly get the urge to take off on a 500 mile drive or something (on Tobago?) Daft really, but we all do it don’t we? Anyway, it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know which side of the car the fuel cap was on, and as I didn’t want to drive up to the wrong side of the pumps and look stupid, I got out to take a look. Imagine my surprise when the driver of an old banger behind me stuck his head out of the window and shouted ‘MT! How’re you?’ ‘Hi!’, I yelled back; clearly he was a friend, as he’d addressed me by my nickname - though, for the life of me I didn’t recognise him. ‘Just checking where the fuel cap is’, I continued, in a friendly fashion, racking my brains to place him. ‘It’s round the other side’, he said, ‘You know how to open it, man?’ ‘No‘, I confessed. ’There’s a li’l lever on the floor, right down there by your seat’, he told me. I thanked him, gratefully, and climbed back in the car. ‘Have a good Christmas’, I said as I climbed aboard. ‘You too, man. - and a coconut season'. ‘Yeah .. right.. thanks’ , I mumbled, not knowing what he meant. ‘Must be the time of year the nuts ripen‘, I thought as I drove off - ’Unless he thinks I’ve got a plantation or something …no that’s impossible, he must know I haven’t if he’s met me before‘. All the way home I tried to remember who he was, but try as I might, I couldn’t. When I got home I told the family about my discovery of a coconut season. ‘I didn’t think there was a season ‘, said Annie, 'I thought they just kept dropping all year.’ 'Well, how were you to know?’, I said, indulgently magnanimous in the superiority of my newly discovered knowledge. Lesson over, we set about getting ready to go out for the evening.
One of the pleasures of being in Tobago are the number and variety of restaurants on the island. The last time we were here, in September, we were too tired moving in to bother going out much, but now we had the girls with us we thought we’d better spread our wings a little. Our elder daughter treated us to a splendid meal in a stunning setting at the Seahorse Inn; we also visited The Polo Bar and The Blue Crab (good grub - and genial hosts in Charlie and Ken). We settled for our old favourite, the Indigo, on Christmas Eve, as many of our new friends were also going. It was quite a party. Nigel Ryan - Tobago’s answer to Will Young - was one of the main entertainers, but was upstaged somewhat when Father Christmas himself decided to drop in! Obviously once he’s done his job he flies straight to Tobago for a bit of a hol. just like the rest of us. I couldn’t help wondering how he coped with the heat under all those woolies - and when he said he was appearing for a couple of hours at Pigeon Point the next day, in all his gear, I nearly fainted on his behalf. Apparently he spends the summer months in Swansea, Wales, makes his toys in Lapland in the autumn, does his round the world deliveries on Christmas Eve, then collapses, exhausted, in Tobago. He told me the sheer beauty of the island and its warm waters were without parallel as an aid to his recovery. I gather that he’s been coming to Tobago for the past six years. Do the tourist board know about this? If not, they’re missing a trick or two.
During the course of the evening I asked many people, including Father Christmas, to explain the ’coconut season’ to me; but no-one could. I was reliably informed that Annie was right, and that there was no special time when the nuts fell. Plant them in the rainy season, yes, but apart from that they just kept their own timetable to ripen and fall. I wasn’t convinced. If my friend had wished me a Happy Coconut Season he must have known something the others didn’t. I was determined to get to the bottom of it!
Due to various commitments we hadn’t spent Christmas together as a family for several years. Consequently it was a wonderful treat to be in each others company for a couple of weeks, and, more importantly, to appreciate that we still liked each other after all these years! Our new house had undoubtedly been the magnet and we set about decorating it for Christmas just as we would our house in London. Although they didn’t sell trees, Unique Stores kindly let us have their own and we soon had it decked out with lights, balls and ribbons. The bananaquits were so convinced it was real that they hopped about on its branches throughout the holiday, vainly trying to extract nectar from some bright red ribbons. Contrary to our initial fears that Christmas wouldn’t be quite as good as our usual chilly affair in London it turned out to be even better, simply because we were all together, and the warmth was just an added bonus. We’d arrived without having a clue as to what we’d find in the way of seasonal food, and were delighted to find all the ‘usual suspects’. In fact we couldn’t believe the range of fare on offer, and eventually settled for roast pork with all the trimmings. We had a great day.
Meeting Father Christmas at the Indigo on Christmas Eve was quite a surprise, but not quite as breathtaking as bumping into a real, live witch on Grafton beach a couple of days later. Let me explain: Ellen decided she’d like to have a massage to help her relax, and a neighbour recommended that she visit Claudia, who gave - her sign proclaimed - a ‘Relaxing Aloe Vera Oil Massage’, on Grafton beach. Annie and I accompanied her, and having found the lady in question, who was also selling tie-dye beach wraps, left her to her ministrations, and strolled further up the beach. There were several other traders touting all the usual trinkets, and we politely stopped, looked and chit-chatted to them as we passed by. It was late in the day and hardly anyone gave us a hard sell. At one stall we were just explaining to a persuasive young lady that we weren’t in the buying vein at that particular time when one of two men whittling in the background sidled up and, looking sideways in the direction of Claudia and Ellen, nervously enquired if that was our daughter undergoing massage treatment. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘How did you know that was my daughter?’ ‘She looks like you’, he replied. ‘Ah’, was my adequate response. Clearly, from his demeanour, he wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure how to proceed. He took the devious route. ‘You like Tobago?’ he asked. ‘Very much, Yes’. ‘You like the people?’ ‘Yes’. I replied, ’Everyone is very friendly; very nice people’. He looked at me with a rather pained expression. ‘Most people.. Yes …most people…but not people like ….’ He let his sentence hang, begging encouragement. I gave it ‘But not people like…who?’ He looked shiftily from one to the other of his companions, and, given the nod, plunged in. ‘Like her’, he said, indicating Claudia, who was at the time busily kneading my daughter’s back. ‘Why, what’s the matter with her?’, I asked.’ ‘She seems perfectly friendly to me.’ ‘Ah, yes’, the conspirator continued, ’she looks friendly, but that’s all part of the act. She has to look friendly or you wouldn’t trust her, you see…. but once she has got you in her clutches (he made a fist of one hand and smashed it into the palm of the other) …pow!‘ This obtuse conversation was getting quite beyond me. ‘Are you trying to tell me that Claudia is no good at massage?’ ‘That too’, chipped in his female companion, who had thus far remained silent. ‘She says she’s qualified, but no way man, she just a liar.’ At this point, as if given a cue, the second man decided it was his turn to add some flak. ‘And those tie-dye wraps she got for sale - they our designs she got man, not her own, no-way. She just trouble for everybody man. You watch out for your daughter.’ ’Why, what danger is my daughter in?’ I asked. ‘That woman is …’, began their elected spokesman, pausing to make sure he had my complete attention, ’that woman is A Witch.’ He spat out the two words with as much venom as he could muster. Instinctively my wife turned to look towards Ellen fully expecting her to be turned into a lizard at least. But no! There she lay, some hundred yards off, relaxed and motionless, apparently oblivious to the dangerous powers of her masseuse, who looked up briefly and waved. ‘She looks perfectly alright to me’; said Annie, ‘not much witchcraft going on there, I’d say’. ‘Ah, that’s the cleverness you see’, continued our informant, ‘she puts a spell on the oil she rubs in. When it’s massaged into the skin it’ll take over her body and make her keep coming back for more - so you see, my friends, even though your daughter has a terrible massage she’ll think it’s good and keep coming back - that’s how the witch makes all her money‘. We mumbled our appreciation for this info and moved on. Clearly this band of traders had worked out a satisfactory explanation of why they weren’t doing as much business as the Witch of Grafton Beach. I must add that though Ellen thoroughly enjoyed her bewitching experience she never found the time to return, so presumably Claudia’s spells were in need of a little beefing up!
As we’d just about got the house sorted out by Christmas we decided to throw a house-cooling party (the house was warm enough already!) on the following Sunday. We weren’t sufficiently organized to provide much in the way of grub, but simply wanted to have a few of our new friends round for drinks. We thought that if we laid on plenty of champagne and beer, plus some coke (of the mineral variety) we couldn’t go far wrong. I can only thank God I had a few words with Erica, from the Indigo, the day before the party, when I outlined our plans. ‘Sounds fine’, she said, ‘but what about the other stuff to go with the coke?’ ‘What other stuff?’ I asked. Hand on heart I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. ‘The rum, for God’s sake; you could never have a party out here without the rum’. As I never touch more than a couple of beers these days, I’d clean forgotten about the national drink! It was Saturday afternoon and all the shops were closed. I needn’t have worried; before you could say ‘pina colada’ Erica had slapped a couple of bottles of Black Label on the counter and we were in business. In addition she threw in a bartender’s measure which controlled the flow. ’There you go, MT, just tip the bottle up once and out it’ll come - then give it another half a blast and you’ve got it about right’. She assured me that the rum would be the first to go - she was right.
It was a very jolly party and mirrored the words of the actress Jenny Agutter who said recently in an article in the Daily Telegraph that her best holiday was spent in Tobago. She added ‘It’s a real Caribbean island, not a resort, and you get the sense that you are part of the community. Usually you get an idyllic set-up but with the locals totally excluded. Tobago is a real mix’. I’ll second that.
By this time I’d given up all hope of ever solving the riddle of the elusive ‘coconut season’, but I did so quite accidentally. When all our guests had gone Annie and I were discussing the many fascinating differences in the way our two countries use the English language. We’d just discovered the substitution of ’evening’ for ’afternoon’. Where we would say ‘Good afternoon’ to people we met after - well, noon, Tobagans would usually say ‘Good evening’ - which we would use after dusk - when they would say ’Goodnight’, as a greeting - which we would only use when we were about to go to bed!! Complicated, eh? We are also fascinated by the many polite (but in England old-fashioned) phrases that still abound. The current one, of course was to wish people - even quite close friends - ’the compliments of the season’ In the middle of our discussion Annie suddenly paused, smiled, and asked me to repeat the conversation I’d had with my friend outside the garage. ‘Well, the first thing he shouted when I got out of the car was ’Hi, MT How’re you?’ She started to laugh. ‘Then what did you say when you got back in the car?’ ‘I said ‘Have a good Christmas’, and he said ‘You too, man. - and a coconut season’. ’Well there’s nothing wrong with your memory MT, but I think your hearing might be failing’, replied Annie. ‘I don’t think you knew that chap from Adam. He was just a bloke in a car queuing for petrol like you. He was simply being friendly. When you got out of the car he yelled ‘Hi! - Empty are you?’, and when you wished him a happy Christmas he said ‘You too man, and the compliments of the season. Nothing to do with coconuts – you should get your ears syringed!’ Well push me over with a palm leaf; why couldn’t I have worked that one out?
If, in future years, you pass a short fat Englishman around Christmastime and he wishes you ‘A Happy Coconut Season’ please be indulgent - because you’ll know the reason why!