Georgetown, British Guiana, June 16, 1950

Richard Cheong cradled his first-born in his arms. He had hoped for a boy-child but would have to wait until next time. He was the only surviving son of seven children. Two boys had died of malaria soon after birth. Two months after his eighth birthday, Edward, the youngest, was found dead under the tamarind tree on the sugar estate road in the neighboring village.
His passing had drained their mother’s energies. Her death shortly thereafter had changed their lives forever. Richard had been thirteen.       

He had failed his mother in not keeping his little brother safe. A son would atone for Edward’s murder.

Cradling his daughter’s head in his cupped hands, Richard lifted her up to face him. She puckered her miniature lips, sucking on an imaginary nipple. Thick straight dark-brown hair covered her oversized head. He pushed aside the thought of the stretching pains needed for her head to push out into the light. His daughter’s large eyes focused on him. Was that normal for a newborn? Could she see him?

The hairs bristled on the back of his neck. A chill penetrated his muscles and bones. His mother’s olive-green eyes, legacy of a white father who had denied her his name and inheritance, fixated on him. Only Edward had their mother’s cat eyes. Maybe that was why she had loved Edward more than the rest of them.

His East Indian mother, who had passed away a year after his Chinese father, haunted him. Sometimes, she called out his name in the quiet of the night while he stretched out in his Berbice-chair listening to music. She often visited him in his dreams, drenched and shivering. Her chocolate-brown hair, caked with mud, draped down her back to her waist. She drowned him in her grief.

Rum numbed the guilt he bore for Edward’s death. Books immersed him in worlds where weaknesses were overcome and sins were forgiven. Music muffled the sound of his mother’s sobs. Entwined with his wife, Gloria, in the dark nights, he was no longer alone.

His mother’s eyes probed his soul, unsettling him.

“Why you staring at her so?” Gloria said, seated at the edge of the hospital bed. “Something wrong with her?”

“She get my mother eyes.”

“Everybody in the ward say she is a Chinese baby. Look at her slant eyes. Her hair sticking up on top of her head. She don’t look nothing like me.”

“She just a baby. Is too soon to tell who she look like.”

There must have been traces of his half-Portuguese, half-African wife. But that did not matter. His daughter would grow up to be a beauty, like her mother, or her East Indian grandmother, Vijaya Elizabeth Cheong.

“Lewwe name she Elizabeth,” he said. “Like Princess Elizabeth, King George daughter.”

“You forget you did agree to name our first girl-baby, Mary?”

He had not forgotten. His nineteen-year-old Roman Catholic church-going wife had a special devotion for Mother Mary.

“Mary Elizabeth Cheong. How that sound?”

“Mary Elizabeth.” Gloria tilted her head upwards as though conferring with the saints. “You know…that sound good.”

After visiting his wife and baby daughter, Richard made a hasty getaway from the room full of suckling women, fleeing the hospital compound like a parrot released from its cage.

Was he wrong in wanting a boy to carry on his father’s lineage? After all, he was James Cheong’s only surviving son. His father had two sisters in Georgetown, but no brothers—at least not here in British Guiana. He never spoke about the family he had left behind, or of his birthplace in China.

Exiting through the Middle Street gateway on his bicycle, Richard headed downtown to the hardware store where he worked for his father’s younger sister, Bernice Lee-A-Shoo.

Today, he had just cause to celebrate, the right to get drunk. He was a father.

Chapter One

At dawn on Friday, October 9, 1953, Richard lay awake in bed next to his wife, pregnant with their fourth child, due in four weeks. On hot nights, Gloria slept in the nude. He traced her backbone, but she did not budge. She had spent the night shifting from side to side.

The lemon fumes of a mosquito coil saturated the air. Fourteen-month-old Susan wheezed in her cradle. Two-year-old Rita turned on the bottom bunk. On the top bunk, three-year-old Mary Elizabeth, called Lizzie, muttered gibberish.

He slipped out of bed. The floorboards creaked under his bare feet as he snuck out of the room. Standing on the backdoor landing of their bottom flat, he stretched his stiff muscles and filled his lungs with cool air. The clouds shone with the orange and purple glow of the rising sun; a good omen for the opening of the five-day cricket match against Trinidad.

He unlocked the wire-meshed door of his chicken coop, standing on stilts four feet above the ground. The two cocks squawked and eyed him from their perches. His twelve hens clucked and fluttered about as he collected the eggs in a straw basket. After leaving the basket of eggs on the back landing, he filled the hanging galvanized feeders with fresh water and chicken feed. In an adjoining pen, a dozen new chicks formed a feathery yellow bundle.

As soon as he had saved enough money, he planned to start his own chicken farm. Until then, he needed more space to increase his brood. Their tenement building looked like most of the dwellings in Alberttown: two-story, graying, white-washed, wooden buildings on three-foot-high stilts with little yard space. Moving to a cottage with a bottom-house, eight to ten feet high, with a large backyard for two or more chicken coops, would be perfect for his needs. But the rent for such a cottage was beyond his meager wages.

Back indoors, he showered and dressed in short pants and a white singlet. After Gloria’s rough night, he let her sleep and prepared breakfast. He whipped three fresh eggs in an enamel bowl with evaporated milk, adding vanilla essence, ground cinnamon, and grated nutmeg. Taking a small pan loaf from the bread tin, he sliced it and dipped each slice in the egg mixture.

On hearing the milk boy’s bell, he went to the front gate with the milk pot to collect the raw cow milk. Returning to the kitchen, he lighted a burner of their two-burner kerosene stove and put the pot of milk on the fire to scald. He was frying the egg-coated slices of bread when Gloria entered the kitchen.

She kissed him on the cheek. “I feel beat-up.”

“You ain’t sleep good last night. Go lie down. I making breakfast.”

“You forget I going with Mom to the hospital to check on the baby?”

He glanced at the small pendulum clock on the dining room wall. “Is only six-ten. You can still get a half-hour more rest.”

He turned over the egg-and-bread slices in the pan. “Your headache gone?”

“It go and come. Mom said my pressure must be high. The doctor will know.”

He watched her waddle back to the bedroom. Must be the black-pudding with hot sourie sauce she did eat yesterday. She hard-ears. She know hot pepper bad for the baby. He placed the plate with French toast on the dining room table. After moving the pot of scalded milk to the kitchen table, he put on the teakettle.

At seven o’clock, he was dressed for work when Gloria and the girls joined him at the dining room table. The girls each had a slice of French toast and cup of warm cow milk.

Lizzie pouted. “I hate this milk.”

“You want to get bow legs like the boy upstairs?” Gloria said.

“I like Auntie Mildred milk.”

“Tell your father.”

His ears twitched on hearing his eldest sister’s name. When they were growing up together in Beterverwagting Village, Mildred had despised him. After their mother’s death, they had grown apart when she and his other two sisters moved to Georgetown, leaving him behind in Beterverwagting.

He sipped his hot cup of green tea. We grow up strong with fresh cow milk. Why I must waste money to buy bottle milk? Mildred got a rich Puttagee husband to buy she expensive things.

His mother-in-law, Dorothy Henry, called out from the half-open kitchen door. Aunt Dorothy—as he called her—was a small, soft-spoken lady in her early forties, descendant of Portuguese indentured laborers from Madeira. She and Police Inspector Winston Henry lived in a three-bedroom house across the street. Lizzie jumped up from the table and ran to her. After giving her grandmother her seat, Lizzie sat on her lap.

“Your father get call fore-day morning to report to Police Headquarters,” Aunt Dorothy told Gloria.

“More trouble on the sugar estates?”

“He didn’t say. But you know how your father is. He more loyal than the Englishmen.”

“How you-all going to the hospital?” Richard said.

“I couldn’t get a hire car until after nine. Like the whole of Georgetown going to watch cricket today.” She gave him a gummy smile. “When you going?”

“Tomorrow after lunch.” He thought of his best friend, Wesley Clarke. He must be already in the line outside the cricket ground. Lucky devil.

He left the table. As he placed his plate and cup in the kitchen sink, Auntie Katie, their next-door neighbor, greeted him in the doorway. A widow, a descendent of African slaves with no children of her own, she had soon become friends with Gloria and their girls. She washed clothes for their landlady and made black-pudding to order. Some Saturday afternoons, she straightened the hair of her black clients with hot iron combs.

“A government announcement coming on just now,” Auntie Katie told him. “I can listen with you-all? My radio giving trouble again.”

After letting her in, he turned on their transistor radio sitting on the sideboard, separating the kitchen and dining room. God Save the Queen, playing over the airwaves, called them to attention.

“What happen, Auntie Katie?” Gloria said.

“Some kind-a trouble to start off our day.” Auntie Katie sat down in Richard’s empty chair.

“The Honorable Chief Secretary of British Guiana has an important statement from Her Majesty’s Government,” the radio announcer said.

Richard turned up the volume.

“Her Majesty’s Government has decided that the Constitution of British Guiana must be suspended to prevent communist subversion of the Government.…”

Shucks! he thought. What is this now?

“Oh Lord!” Aunt Dorothy squeezed Lizzie.

Auntie Katie’s jaw dropped. Susan banged her enamel plate; Lizzie grabbed it from her. Gloria tightened her hold on Rita, seated in her lap.

“The faction in power have shown by their acts and their speeches that they are prepared to go to any lengths, including violence, to turn British Guiana into a communist state. The Governor has therefore been given emergency powers and has removed the portfolios of the Party Ministers. Armed forces have been landed to support the police and to prevent any public disorder which might be fomented by communists.…”

“No wonder they call in your father so early this morning.”

Auntie Katie blessed herself. “God protect us!”

“What happen, Mommy?”

“Quiet, Lizzie! Remember what I told you? Children must be seen and not heard.”

Lizzie slouched in her grandmother’s lap.

The Chief Secretary accused local Ministers of inciting strikes for political gain, for intimidating opposition members in the House of Assembly, and for attempting to undermine the loyalty of the Police Force and to control the Public Service.

“He talking nonsense,” Auntie Katie said. “Is just excuse to take away our rights.”

They give we the right to vote, but they don’t like who we vote for, Richard thought.

“Ministers have promoted the formation of a communist political youth organization and have sought to undermine the position and influence of established youth movements, such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. The Minister of Education has announced his intention to remove the Churches from their present participation in the educational system of the country and to revise the curricula and text books of the schools with the evident objectives of indoctrinating the children of the country with their political views….”

“Exactly what Father O’Brien said in Church,” Gloria said. “Lalkumar’s Labor Party want-a take over our schools and brainwash our children.”

“You vote for Lalkumar, now you bad-talking he?” Richard asked Gloria.

Gloria glared at him.

“The white people trying to hold us back,” Auntie Katie said.

They worry about losing control of the sugar plantations, that’s what, he thought.

The Chief Secretary claimed the Ministers were scheming to seize control of the country to run it on totalitarian lines. “These are the reasons why steps were taken to vest in the Governor full control of the Government of the Colony and the necessary emergency powers to ensure law and order. As soon as the necessary legal steps can be taken, the present constitution will be suspended and an interim Government set up with which Guianese will be fully associated….”

The elections in April was only for show. “I gotta go to work.” He had heard enough. The governor didn’t care about working people like him and their daily struggle.

Pedestrians and cyclists filled the streets. Richard envied the men and women heading towards the Bourda Cricket Ground with their lunch baskets. He sped along Church Street on his bicycle towards the downtown commercial district. Police constables blocked the High Street junction.

“I late-late for work, sir. You can’t lemme pass?”

“Sir, if I let you pass, I gotta let all these people pass, too,” the constable told him.

He stood near the grassy parapet with about twenty other workers.

“Two British war ships dock at the Transport and Harbors wharf early-early this morning,” a young man told a woman nearby.

“I hear they got a cruiser ship waiting out in the ocean,” the man on his left said.

“Left. Left. Left. Right. Left.”

The voices grew louder as the British soldiers approached them from Main Street. Their knee-high black leather boots beat out the rhythm on the asphalted street.

This is how it going be now? Soldiers with guns marching up and down all over the damn place?

No one spoke as the British soldiers marched by. Richard’s legs trembled at the sight of the rifles with bayonets, held in attack position. The young faces, capped with greenish-brown berets with regiment badges, did not look friendly. One soldier turned his head to look their way.

A young woman standing in front of Richard nudged the woman beside her. “You see how he wink at we?”

“He cute.”

Women. They get stupidie over white men.

Two squads of soldiers marched in six files of six men, each with an officer in the lead. They wore knee-length khaki pants and shirts with sleeves rolled up above the elbows. Gear hung from their shoulders and waists.

What going happen with we now?