By: Jacques K. Lee
The Sugar Baron's Women
fter her parents had bought her a bicycle, the two would venture further afield on their bikes and got to know the northern side of the west coast quite well. When the villagers saw them, some would remark: ‘These two are like a brother and a sister.’
Désirée’s parents approved of their friendship as they realised it was beneficial for her to have a friend of her own age. Once in a while they would cycle to Flac-en-Flac to pay a surprise visit to Ah Vong’s godparents. This village was several miles to the north of Roches Noires. The beauty of the beach all along this quiet coastal road, with its endless fine, white sand seemed to be appreciated only by the white population, whose numerous weekend campements could be seen partly hidden by trees at the end of long, winding drives.
The Indians and the Metis preferred to live in the centre of villages near to the Chinese shops. A deserted lagoon, however white the sand, was not an attraction to them: their island was surrounded by such beaches. If the two got thirsty, they would stop to break off a stick of sugar cane which they would chew as they rode their bicycles.
Only his godmother would be at home and she was always so pleased to see them. Even the servants would shout in delight on seeing them on the drive as they approached the house.
“Ayo, it’s Albert! Grand’ Madame’s godson! Call Grand’ Madame quickly!” the children would hear coming from inside the house.
Ah Vong was called by his Christian name, Albert, only in this household. At home he was called Ah Keo, his nickname. The boy was intrigued that Désirée, who had a Christian name, did not have godparents. She did not understand this either. One day, when she was older, she told Ah Vong she knew why she had not been baptised.
“I think it’s because my Mama’s Indian. The Catholic Church has turned its back on us. The priest can’t forgive my Papa, a Catholic grand blanc, for living in sin with an Indian woman and not going to Mass on Sundays. Perhaps it would have been different if my Mama was a Catholic.”
“Why don’t they get married?”
“They’re not allowed.”
What do you mean?”
“My Papa’s already married. He has a wife”
“Ayo! Your Papa”…’
“Yes, that’s right, but I’ve never met her. I don’t know where she lives. Please don’t tell anybody, and don’t let my parents know I’ve told you.”’
“I won’t. What I find strange is that Père Sousson is trying so hard to get all the Chinese children baptised even though their parents aren’t Catholic, even those who are half-Chinese and have Metis mothers who are not married to their fathers.”
“Père Sousson is after them because their mothers are Metis, therefore Catholic. My Mama’s not. Well … I think that’s why.”
Ah Vong himself could not remember ever being asked whether he wanted to be a Catholic. All he knew was that at the age of seven he and his siblings were christened together with the children of other Chinese shopkeepers in the region. Father Sousson had arranged everything. He had found Franco-Miraucian godparents for the children and even chosen the Christian names for some of them. The Chinese parents did not object to their children becoming Christians. As pragmatic people, they believed there was safety in numbers: the more religions they belonged to, the more gods they had looking after them. Besides, as Père Sousson kept telling them:
“Once your children are baptised, they’ll belong to a bigger family, they’ll have godparents who’d look after their interests.”
He meant their religious interests. To the Chinese, being associated with all these rich Franco-Miraucian godparents meant one thing: it must be good for business. They had also discovered that the best schools were run by the Catholic brothers and nuns.
When the Catholic Church had first realised there were so many Chinese children being born all over the island without knowing Jesus Christ, its priests had set out to save their souls. The biggest problem they faced, however, was finding godparents for them within a community that was not a Christian one. The only solution was to put pressure on Franco-Miraucian couples to act as their godparents. By the time Ah Vong came to be baptised, it had become fashionable for the French to have Chinese godchildren and there was thus no shortage of volunteers.
Ah Vong had become part of the family at the campement and when they went to her bedroom during the hottest part of the day, he would tell Désirée how he envied her for having a room of her own.
“In the shop our youngest brother sleeps with my parents in their bed and I sleep in one bed with one or two siblings but sometimes I sleep on a mattress with my eldest brother. This mattress is kept under the bed in our room, sometimes we pull it out, sometimes we don’t bother and sleep on it under the bed.”’
“It must be nice to have so many of you sleeping in one room. Sometimes I feel so lonely sleeping all on my own here in my room. I used to get frightened when the sea was rough.”
On another day, Ah Vong had remarked: ‘”Your room doesn’t smell of anything. In the shop the smell of dried fish and spices is everywhere, you just can’t escape it. It’s horrible! That’s the last thing I can smell before I fall asleep and as soon as I wake up, it’s there again.”
“Why don’t you open the windows like we do?”
“We can’t, my father says burglars will get in.”
As they grew older, the two youngsters had discovered something that proved more exciting than collecting seashells or riding their bikes –- petting. It was at this juncture that Ah Vong’s visits to the campement became less and less frequent. His father was insisting that he spent more time serving in the shop like his siblings; his gallivanting had to be curtailed. When he had a delivery to make, he would be in trouble if he took longer than half an hour.
Sunday afternoons, after the shop had closed for the obligatory half-day closing, was the only time he was free to visit Désirée. She was more affected by this curtailment than Ah Vong and began to hate returning to the isolated bungalow, with only her parents for company. But something else troubled the two friends: they were nearing their sixteenth birthdays and it was their last term together in the fifth form. The boy was due to go to another college in the capital to do his sixth form and would move to live there. Désirée’s parents were still undecided about her further education as their local school did not go beyond fifth form.
One Sunday afternoon, as they lay side by side in the shade of casuarina trees by Rivière Tagusse, the subject of their imminent separation cropped up. Ah Vong said
“I don’t think I’ll be able to live without you.”
This confession did not come as a surprise to his companion -– she was thinking the same thing.
“Nor me. Life wouldn’t be worth living without you.”
He did not appear to know how to respond to that. After a long pause, he asked her:
“What are we going to do?”’
“I don’t know. It’s so unfair.”
They both watched the sky above them, deep in thought, as if trying to find an answer written there on that giant blue board. But some sort of communication was going on between them without any words being uttered. Their two bodies knew what each wanted but the teenagers did not know how to express their feelings. After what seemed like a long time, during which Désirée became aware of some yellow weaver birds singing to their heart’s’ content above them, perched on some swaying branches, she gave Ah Vong the signal. He found the courage to do something he had never dared do until then
It was not quite what they had both expected it to be. But they had no regrets it had happened although neither said anything. Désirée wished she could guess what Ah Vong was thinking but to her their love act meant more than just losing her virginity: it had helped her to decide what they should do. As they lay on the grass, each in their own thoughts, they became aware for the first time that it was rather prickly on their unclothed bodies. The colloquial name for the type of grass that grew there is pique-fesse. But they were in no hurry to get dressed. Then they heard the weaver birds singing again. Have they been singing all the time we’ve been here? Désirée wondered. I’m glad they witnessed what we did, she thought.
After they had been lying there for some time, she was the first to speak: ‘I know what we can do, let’s run away! Like my parents did.’ BW
Extract from the novella The Sugar Baron's Women by Jacques K. Lee
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BY JACQUES K. LEE
Jacques K. Lee’s parents are from Meixian, Guangzhou. They emigrated to Mauritius for a better life and ended up as shopkeepers there. Jacques came to England with the same objective - to take advantage of greater opportunities.
One of the presents he was given at his farewell party was a Parker pen. He certainly made good use of it as he started writing articles for a Mauritian national paper during his second year in England. He is still writing, although he now uses a computer but he still has the pen.
Jacques studied accountancy as that was a subject that poor foreigners could study part-time whilst working as clerks. By the time his first son was born, he had begun to find the repetitive nature of accountancy work less appealing and took up insurance. After qualifying he opened his own brokerage specialising in life assurance and estate planning. Gradually he went into investment and opened other businesses.
In 1993 when his youngest son was safely at University, he sold everything and went back to school to study something he had had a life interest in, as he was brought up on Chinese medicine. He graduated in 1997 and for a while practised homeopathy and acupuncture before becoming an adjudicator for the General Medical Council and the General Dental Council, judging medical practitioners instead of treating patients.
Throughout his varied career, one thing was constant: he never gave up writing. He wrote hundreds of articles for various publications on every aspect of Mauritius. He was a major contributor to the Insight Guide: Mauritius, Réunion and Seychelles and gave talks on different radio stations but mainly on BBC World Service.
Jacques has so far written four non-fiction books, a pirated version of one, Mauritius: Its Creole Language, a phrase book (1999) is openly on sale in India. His Sega: The Mauritian Folk Dance (1990) is still the definitive book on this subject, now the symbol of Mauritian music. His other non-fiction books are: The Tongue: Mirror of the Immune System (1999) and Health Practitioners Companion (2001).
As a grandfather of six grandchildren, Jacques has also written a children’s book, The Nautilus and the Gang of Three (1983) currently on sale on Amazon as a rare book at £116.33! His second children’s book, Purple Sailor and the Hermit Crab, is still waiting for a brave publisher to take an interest in it.
Now in retirement Jacques is turning his hand to writing fiction and his novella The Sugar Baron’s Women (2012) is his first oeuvre. He is currently revising (for the umpteenth time!) a completed novel which is a sequel to the novella. He writes in English, his third language.