There was still an hour or so of road to go before we reached Fintonia so it was pretty much dark when we emerged in to the village and drew up almost immediately. Here on the right hand side of the road was a small house, with a small veranda, very similar to almost every other house around. Our driver went off along the road and returned with a lady a few minutes later who held up a bunch of keys. After a bit of twiddling she managed to get the main door open. We could not see the detail of the house exterior at present as the light was almost gone, but we offloaded the vehicle and placed it all on the terrace, retrieved our head torches and explored the inside of the house. It had obviously been shut up for several weeks, it was baking hot inside and had a musty smell; a mix of animals, dust, possibly bats and the past sweat of many other villagers. There was one large room at the front with a table and chairs, behind there was a row of rooms, three bedrooms and a couple of wash rooms. The bedrooms looked as stark as the main room; the one I chose had a small broken wooden chair and a large bed with a plastic mosquito net draped over it. My closest wash room was even more rudimentary, a small narrow space split in two. The area nearest the door had a similar mud concrete floor to the rest of the house and was packed with several large plastic buckets, but on the other side of a row of bricks covered in tiles, was another concrete area with a drain at one end; basically a small hole in the wall that led out to the garden behind. This was to be my shower. There was no toilet indoors. The caretaker showed us where a small key was hung on a nail in of the rafters, then led us through a small metal back door and round to the right. There was a small shack made of four corrugated metal sheets. She unlocked the padlock on the hinged sheet at the front and opened it to reveal another concrete floor. In the centre was a small triangular hole. That was all. This was to be our latrine for the next week.
We thanked her for the tour and went back to take all the goods into the house. Everything more or less ended up on the floor – there were no cupboards or drawers. A few of the more precious food items we put on the table , but my suitcase, all the maps in rolls and other work materials were stacked in various corners on the ground.
Our caretaker introduced us to another lady who lived in the next house. She was to be our cook for the week and had got our evening meal ready. She humbly came in with a series of dishes; some plates and knives and forks, then two large metal pots with lids. Under one lid was a mountain of rice, large and sticky; under the other was a chicken stew… a rather scrawny chicken with more bone than flesh, but mixed with a number of onion, okra, spices and sauce. After eight hours in the passenger seat it was still welcome and filling.
Jamestown is that lovely mix of small town everydayness and the realisation that it is the outward face of St Helena, its capital as well as main port. Everyone has to pass up the narrow main street to get anywhere and come into town to do any business. Multiple tiny offices of government were packed into every imaginable building, from the grandeur of the castle, to a small office at the back of a shop. The shops themselves are an eclectic mix of “everything under the sun” to specific one purpose boutiques. On my first visit I found it a little difficult to work out where best to get things; I ended up in one of the two general stores, or if I were more generous, supermarkets. The Spar was like any large convenience store in British suburban or rural life; a set of freezers and shelves packed with as much as they could get in there. Part owned by a government run company, Solomon’s, that appeared to have a finger in almost every commercial activity both on St Helena and in Ascension Island, the Spar was probably the largest shop on the island. Thorpes situated up the back on the road to Half Tree Hollow always seemed brighter and cleaner. I preferred Thorpes as across the road from the main shop they opened up a fresh produce arm, and it was lovely to buy cuts of meat, eggs, cheese and dairy as opposed to the carton, tin and frozen goods from most other shops.
There were also a couple of other emporiums. One I would go in occasionally to look for souvenirs, but was in fact the closest St Helena got to a department store called Warrens. Warrens had pride of place on Main Street and although it only had limited space and stock was the best place to get clothed. Another was the Queen Mary Store which dealt more with wholesaling and the shipping of various specialist goods on and off the island. Apart from a few sundries near a very old fashioned counter, the shop was more like a warehouse stacked full of all sorts of bulk goods.
Solomon’s Head Office
Market Street with Thorpes
The Market Building
The Market was a distinctive building up where Main Street had turned into, guess what, Market Street; a large metal clad red and purple building sticking out as you negotiated the twists and turns of the road up to Half Tree Hollow. I rarely went in here but there were a number of stores and boutiques spread around a central courtyard; I tended to end up there if I wanted a quick St Helena fish cake from the food stall there. Over the three visits I saw the variety of shops and the stock they held expand, but there were often shortages. I convinced myself one time that I was going to cook a spaghetti bolognaise from raw ingredients. After wandering around both the regular stores and more obscure ones I convinced myself that there were no onions for sale anywhere on the island. I ended up buying an expensive Schwartz pot of onion flakes to try and flavour my sauce. Of course I could have bought one of the readymade sauces that stacked the shelves at Solomon’s or Thorpes. At one dinner Edsel and I were invited to, the hostess apologized for not having any fresh vegetables; and the frozen Birds Eye Broccoli had turned mushy in the boiling pan. Tinned or frozen vegetables were often a norm, partly as the long times between the RMS turning up meant that supplies of fresh vegetables could run out (like the onions). One time I realised potatoes had been hoarded as the ship was unlikely to bring a fresh supply from the Cape for another three weeks. One of our colleagues took pity on us an presented us with a small bagful to get us through our final week on island.
By the time you had scrambled all over the engine room it was getting late in the afternoon so of course it was time for tea. Despite having eaten huge meals all day and done precious little exercise, many of the passengers, including me, found myself either in the main or sun lounges hanging around for that moment where pots of tea and coffee were presented. A cup of tea did no harm, of course, but they would lay out a couple of plates of sandwiches, biscuits and cake. One small cake would be OK, and it would be rude not to sample the butties. And when you go back for another top up of tea, why not accompany it with a Bourbon?
Couple of hours more to dinner time. What to do? I tried to work. It could be a bit lonely stuck in the cabin so I often would find a quiet corner of the main lounge. Trouble was that almost everyone who came in there would want to exchange a few words. Eventually I got too tired of trying to do anything. There would be time for work once we got on to St Helena.
Dinner time would roll round again and more amazing choices would come out of the galley. I did get a couple of nights on the Captain’s table, but more often than that I was on the junior officers tables. When I travelled alone they made sure I was in the company of the crew’s table; they never seemed to worry so much when Edsel was with me. The crew did their best to entertain but you could see for some of them it was awkward. The Chief Engineer was with me a couple of times; very nice chap but he managed to get through his “where do you come from and what do you do” interrogation before the soups were served and from then on unless it was something about greasing cogs or fixing pipes he did not find it easy to engage. The purser staff were of course, far more used to entertaining and the kindest was Geoff Shallcross. On my way back to Ascension Island for the first time, I was privileged to be on Geoff’s final voyage. From Ascension Island they were heading back to the UK where he would disembark at Portland for the last time and retire to his home in North Devon.
He was born to the Purser’s job – he did it with incredible but hidden efficiency and for most of the time he just looked like he was having fun and inviting you to join in. For the tourists and first timers like me, he had a huge warmth. With the Saints he loved them like they were his family. Which indeed they were. He had spent over twenty years sailing to and from the island, and had seen generations of Saints be born, grow up, marry, have kids and, I suppose, die. He knew all their back stories, their nicknames, their foibles. He would joke with them; sometimes you saw him in a corner with a little old lady and they would be quietly reminiscing, maybe even being sad together at the loss of another dear friend.
And he had the most wicked sense of humour. On my last night back to Ascension I had joined him on his table in the dining room and we were bantering back and forth like two school kids; he then invited everyone upstairs for coffee in the main lounge and the usual port and brandy. The chat went on for several hours and it felt not like you were being supervised by a crew member, but having spent the perfect evening with your best friend.
And that was pretty much your world for three days. It sounds a bit claustrophobic but in fact I was able to settle in to the lifestyle relatively quickly. You learnt to slow down and not try to do everything at once. It was best when the sun was out and the wind not so strong as you could settle up on the sun deck for several hours, grabbing the odd club soda from the upstairs bar. I sat in the sun lounge occasionally, mainly for lunches, but there was a tendency amongst the saints that they would settle themselves up there early in the day and pretty much stay till dinner time. They would use the time to chat; when I got to know some of them I might stop by for a few minutes and catch up, but they are such a tight knit community that there were stories and inferences that they would discuss that had no meaning to me. The older ones would reminisce at length, and you could see the younger family members would sit alongside and pitch in from time to time. They were basically in training to become long tale tellers themselves when the older generation passed on. There was a lot of card games and dominoes up here; it was like a working men’s club. If all the activity got too much I would head on down to the main lounge. This was often quieter. But I saw people who also wanted to escape the sun lounge chit chat and sometimes would spend an hour or two playing board games from the extensive collection in one of the built in cupboards. I remember a four hour game of Monopoly that whiled away a long afternoon.
Chatting on the sun deck
At lunch time I would wonder whether I should head down to the formal dining room and take another three courses. More often than not I would go up to the Sun Lounge and just partake in the buffet salad. In theory this was more healthy but the number of options available meant that you still came out with a stacked plate. I’d either take it in the lounge or if the weather was nice enough, go through the little assault course of heading out through one of the heavy doors and passed the swimming pool to the sun deck, all while protecting a plate of salad from being blown away and not spilling your fruit juice… or losing your hat.
Every day the entertainment staff would leave a few documents on our desk in a glossy folder. There would be the ship’s news telling us of the order of the day, times of meals and entertainments and when different facilities would be opened and closed; the gym, the laundry, the bar. There would also be information of which table I might be invited onto for dinner. There were three class of cabins on board. The luxury or B deck, the standard or A deck where I was resting, and the economy or C deck down amongst the galley and dining room. Depending on how much you were paying it seemed, you would be invited to sit at one of the officer’s or maybe, the captain’s table. Otherwise you just came in and found a gap on one of the other tables. If the ship were busy there would be two sittings. But whatever, you were not allowed in the room till the call was given over the tannoy. This is an annoyingly catchy tunelet, somewhere between “Come to the cookhouse door” and Lily Bolero. Over the days on board you almost hang around the speakers like Pavlov’s Dogs waiting for the call. I would tend to get changed and head over to the bar for a quick beer. On the first ever night I looked at the prospect of being all at sea, miles from coast. As the stewards went round the lounge and closed the curtains, I appreciated that the best way to deal with all that ocean was to shut it out and get comfort for being in a warm, cosy room with lots of easy chairs, bright orange and red decor all round me and the idle chit chat of people in transit. Don’t worry that there are thousands of metres of water below you, and no chance of survival if something went wrong.
On board the RMS
When the jingle sounds it is down to the belly of the ship to fill your own belly. After the austerity of Ascension Island it was a treat to open the blue mock leather menus. Three weeks of chips and burgers and pizzas, the odd roast dinner and lots and lots of tuna fish cakes, it was a pleasure to see soup and salad starters, a choice of main courses longer than three options, and a range of delicious cakes and desserts, biscuits and cheese. All served as professionally as in a good restaurant back home. And washed down with a wine or a beer. And with conversation thrown in. It was a little bit of a shock for a development worker like myself, more used to sidling into a cheap restaurant or sit silently in a hotel bar and wolf down your meal as quickly as possible before getting too drunk to find your way back to your hotel room.
Three courses of lovely food later, I would head back up to the main lounge where coffee was served by white gloved stewards, and I went for a digestif from the bar. On my first night I met the Government of St Helena’s lawyer, and he introduced me to the delights of port and brandy. I love a good port, having been introduced to it in my university days on a trip to northern Portugal. Brandy I can take a few and I love it in Christmas Fayre, but never become a connoisseur. Put together I found a deep smooth drink with a rich sweet flavour, texture and colour. And what is more, it warmed the innards so wonderfully that even if there is no medical proof that it does you good, it felt like it settled a full stomach.