Nowadays when I so often see a 5 or 20 cents coin lying on the road, I smile, pick them up and get gratified with a most memorable flashback
It should have been a day in the fifties. I was still at primary school and I might have been nine years old.
My task early every morning consisted in going to the shop at the crossroads to buy bread; my sisters and myself would be away the whole day at school and we had no alternative but to bring our lunch with us. And being the only son of a large family I was called upon to play the errand boy.
The Chinese shop was about two hundred meters away from our house which, and was bordered in front by a bamboo hedge, itself delimiting our compound from a canal – six feet deep and some four feet wide. A metallic pipe system served as hand railings.
Setting out on this formidable morning task in a black mood, I felt the twisting knife in the wound: why were my sisters systematically spared this errand? Hence the moody predisposition on that morning. Did I bring a ‘Vacoas’ bag to carry the bread; how many “maisons” bread was I to buy? I could not say.
At the shop, I was served by Papa Ashen, Ashen himself being younger to me and destined to become a very good friend later.
It is funny, isn’t it, that when we try to think of some past event or whenever a particular episodic memory should be raked up, we not only remember the background, but we inevitably see ourselves in the very midst of that flashback. So, after leaving the shop I could visualize the boy walking unenthusiastically back home. After all who was in a hurry to go to school? I remember that there was some change left, so with the coin in my right hand I decided to indulge in a boyish prank — tapping the coin on the balustrade bordering the canal — and deriving a morbid pleasure from the sounds that I was eliciting from metal against metal. This dull metallic note, echoing down the canal and along the railings, would invite for more drumming and percussions – as if to titillate the irritation threshold of any onlooker. All this would surely convey the picture of a lazy boy who, being in black mood, would not have hesitated to tease maliciously a dog – had one been present.
It was then that my moroseness was shaken from its very foundation.
Just fancy my joy, as I was mid-way from home to find on the very border of the canal below the balustrade, opposite the well-known tailor shop of the locality, a glittering treasure that almost made my eyes pop out of my head: a twenty- five cents silver coin beckoning to be pocketed. It was a fantastic mood elevator; it would have surely outshone some amphetamine derivatives by miles in its pharmacological action.
I recall how I felt a sudden change of humour. Bending down briskly and picking the fortune was the most natural thing to do on that dull morning. I hurried home at a completely different pace; what was my behaviour like I could not say; nor was anyone wised up to my sudden fortune. One does not shout on rooftops when a sudden treasure trove has been unearthed.
Maybe on that day I went to school with many secret plans in my head. Staying home would not open any avenue to celebrate this windfall; embarrassing questions would be asked by the elders if I had gone on a spending spree at the shop nearby. After all, it was not the paternal culture to tolerate children playing truant.
I remember quite well how, out of that 25 cents, I had earmarked 10 to be spent on the sweetmeats, ‘merveille’, ‘gateau di pain’, ‘gateau piment’ that the old, thin lady – the school peon’s mother — had to offer to the prodigal boy. Did I share my good fortune with my sister? I was hesitant to be too generous, lest too many questions be asked. Recreation time on that school day was the greatest I ever had. With 10 cents I treated myself like a king, though spending too much and quickly would have drained both fortune and thrill.
But I had already planned what the immediate future would be.
Who amongst school-going kid of my days would not have known about the Chinese shop at the corner of Colonel Maingard street and Royal road in Beau Bassin, which later would become known as ‘La boutique Tamarin’? it was the ‘Mecca’ of French cakes, mouthwatering pastries, the stuff school children’s dreams were made of. We had so often passed there on our way home and that unbelievable aroma of so many goodies was always titillating and had made our salivary glands – and dreams — gone haywire. the whiff coming from that shop was ever memorable and magnetized our tender mind.
My plan on that day was somehow made long before the journey back home. 10 cents to be spent within the school premises, more precisely at the canteen, and the remaining 15 cents at ‘La boutique Tamarin’. And so it came to be that on our journey back home, I ganged up with my sister to go on my shopping spree.
We entered the Chinese shop with an unusual confidence and glee on our face. We had come for the kill. Most probably I stared at the array of so many cakes, of all those pots of cream, of rose coloured Napolitains and pale yellow custard pastries, etc. I suppose our gustatory faculty was stretched to the limit. Finally we settled for a ‘Napolitaine’ and a ‘Maspin’. In those days we could buy two cakes for fifteen cents! Two cakes for me – not those bits and pieces that we were used to on the rare occasions when some benevolent visitors to our house would buy two cakes for a dozen mouths. On that day I was the master of ceremony – I decided which cake to buy; not one, but two.
Back in Colonel Maingard Street on the way home, I was perhaps the happiest chap around. I shared my booty with my sisters; how fair was the sharing is difficult to say.
Surely with the largesse that lady luck had thrown my way, I must also have spent a jolly good evening still glowing under the lingering taste of the Napolitain. Of course, I can’t remember the good time that followed the feast, but I must assume that I had had a wonderful, unforgettable day.
In those days, the tailor’s shop was the centre of attraction for many young men of the vicinity. That was the poor men’s parlour par excellence. It was there that we got to learn about all the news and rumours regarding politicians, sportsmen or local scandals and giving rise to all sorts of wild theories. Sometimes no sitting facilities could be found for those men coming late to pay their daily respect to the tailor. And a few teenagers would gladly gang up and settle for the second best sitting facilities – the hand railings near the canal opposite. They would sit on the balustrade and recall their latest outing to the local theatre. It could be that one evening one of them would have had the bad luck of having that silver coin slipping out of his pocket and landing near the canal – waiting and beckoning to me the following morning. One man’s poison was another boy’s sweetmeats.
I sometimes wonder what my attitude would have been had it been a one rupee coin, or better still a ten rupee note. Maybe I would have reported the matter to my mother – specially if it was a note. The burden of guilt would have been too much for my immature mind.
But 25 cents in those days were a reasonable “gift” to a child of nine. That was fair according to my scale of judgment. Maybe my conscience reassured me that I could play both party and judge with impunity. Which I did.
Six decades later I can still feel the thrill that coin brought to my boyhood school life. Quite unforgettable it was. Nowadays when I so often see a 5 or 20 cents coin lying on the road, I smile, pick them up and get gratified with a most memorable flashback; for no Napolitaine has since ever tasted better.
* Published in print edition on 25 May 2018