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The life and times of Claris Wagerwood

Published:Sunday | October 26, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Paul H. Williams, Contributor

CLARIS IS BORN

Roslyn Wagerwood died shortly after giving birth to a loud-mouthed, tiny baby girl. Her blood pressure had soared, because the father of the child was unknown. She was no Mary, so the story of the immaculate conception could not be told. After two weeks in hospital, baby Claris Wagerwood was released to Miss Rhoda, Roslyn's sister.

But, Miss Rhoda cursed the moment when she made the decision to 'adopt' Claris. For Claris cried loudly, day and night, for no apparent reason than she was just greedy. And when she cried her impish, light brown face would turn wine red. Only cornmeal porridge sweetened with condensed milk could keep her quiet, and Miss Rhoda was kept busy making such.

People were, however, amazed that despite all the porridge Claris never seemed to grow. She was a meagre baby. It was said the porridge only gave her strength to cry for more. Yet, it turned out that something on Claris was actually expanding, her posterior.

TROUBLESOME CHILD

When she was about 11 months old, Miss Rhoda was shocked one day when Claris tossed an empty 'nipple bottle' at her. She got very upset and left Claris in the carton box for a crib and went to tell a neighbour about the "wicked, likkle Jezebel". "Why she live, an mi sister dead?" Miss Rhoda asked, shaking her head under an ackee tree. Meanwhile, Claris cried herself to sleep when more porridge she did not receive.

Claris grew up to be a mean and cruel little girl who once set a cat's tail on fire. Her infant school teacher, Miss Gordon, found her insufferable, and was not afraid to strike her with a leather belt, except that Claris would cry endlessly after each beating. And Claris was also a little thief. Every evening after school, Miss Rhoda would empty her pockets of all the sweets, pencils and coins she would steal.

Yet, Miss Rhoda herself was no saint, so little Claris would play deaf when Miss Rhoda preached, taught and pleaded with her to behave herself. She knew Miss Rhoda was not her mother. Why would she call her Auntie Rhoda? And while her schoolmates talked about their fathers, Claris figured out she had no papa.

One evening, just as she hopped on to the veranda, Claris blurted, "A who a mi fada!" It was a couple blows that she got from Miss Rhoda with a hair comb for the answer, and was tossed into a corner for being "bright an outa awda".

Yes, Claris was a bright girl, and nobody in her school could recite as she. At the end of infant school, there was the annual 'breaking-up concert' on the last day. Claris was chosen to perform. Miss Gordon trained her to recite, "Flowers on my shoulder, slippers on my feet. I am my mommy's darling, don't you think I am sweet?"

Miss Rhoda was livid. Miss Gordon, she said, was making a mockery of Claris. Everybody knew Claris was not sweet. And everybody knew Claris was not her mommy's darling. Her mommy was dead. Claris, people said, killed her. The sight of her impish head to which two little pointed ears were attached was too much for her to bear, they claimed.

On breaking-up day, when it was time for Claris to recite, Miss Rhoda was already seated at the front beaming with pride. Claris walked to the top and curtsied. Her big ribbons were milk white, as were her baby-doll dress and slippers. On her left shoulders were pinned two hibiscus flowers. Miss Gordon, sitting at a table to the left side of the room, also looked pleased.

But the look of pleasure was fast removed when Claris turned, looked straight at Miss Gordon, smiled and recited, "There was an old lady who lived in a shoe, she has some many children she didn't know what to do. She gave them some broth without any bread, and whipped them soundly to bed."

There was silence as everybody stared at an angry-looking Miss Gordon, who had no children of her own. She took on eight of them from people who themselves had too many. It was rumoured that she couldn't feed them all, and would spank them mercilessly should they fall out of line.

As Claris walked towards a smug Miss Rhoda, the applause was subdued. Suddenly, Miss Gordon rose and shouted, "Dalton Brown! Please to come to the front!"

Dalton was the only boy at school Claris couldn't fight. So Claris and Miss Rhoda eyed him as he made his way to recite "And they nailed him to the cross".

Miss Gordon glanced at Miss Rhoda and her "little devil", and said to herself, "Oh, how I would love to flog them both." Her vengeful thought was interrupted, when she heard from a flustered Dalton, who had stopped the story of the crucifixion to squeal, "Miss, see Claris a long out har tongue affa mi!"

With that Miss Rhoda shot up, grabbed Claris' hand and pulled her through the crowded room, away from infant school, into the next stage of her life. To herself, Claris recited, "Flowers on my shoulder, slippers on my feet, I am my dead mommy's darling, and I know that I am sweet."