Fri | Oct 20, 2017

Tony Deyal | Birthdays and all that's Jas

Published:Saturday | August 5, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Whoever came up with the expression "The game is not worth the candle" could have been describing my attempts to illuminate the birthday cake of my daughter Jasmine (affectionately known as 'Jas') on her 11th birthday, nine years ago, using manual labour and a piece of vegetative matter tipped with a combustible chemical. I was no match for the candle.

The Spanish know why they call it 'fosfros' (pronounced foh-fro) because I was moving the match to and fro without connecting. I can blame my uni-ocular vision, which leaves my visual perception, though not my intellect, without depth.

My numerous failed attempts to apply the flame to the top of the tiny candle used for decorating birthday cakes left me wick. "Fortnight," as we said in the old days - meaning 'too weak'. I gave up and Indranie took up the challenge setting what had to be a world record for lighting 11 candles, each of which stood for one year in Jasmine's brief existence, which started with a wicked gleam in my eye and, I want to think, a mischievous twinkle in Indranie's.

Using the excuse that if I had a candle for each year of my life, and lighted them all at the same time, one of the neighbours would call the fire brigade, I avoided the embarrassment of having to ask the baker if he possessed a tin the size of a large tabletop. I would probably be caked with sweat if I tried to light all the candles, and the cake would be caked with me if I tried to blow them all out with a single breath.

The people from whom the expression about the game and the candle originated were gamblers who judged whether the money that was on the table was enough to justify the cost of the candle used by the card and dice players. Maybe if they did not think it was, they could play Bingo and go for a Blackout game. Or one could play Hold 'Em and the other play Stud and everyone ends up down the river if the police raid.

The point is that while I am a poor punster waxing warm, I was once hot stuff when it came to candles and cards. The candle part was easy. We did not get electricity in our home until I was about eight or nine, and we used the smoky pitch-oil or kerosene lamps and candles. Sometimes, my father would bring up the big Coleman gas lamp with its fragile wick and the glow was incredible.

"Watt is that?" we would exclaim brightly. Later, I used to enjoy the All Saints' Night celebrations in the family burial plot in Couva, a village in Central Trinidad. I am not a cemetery person, as another punster said they are "disghosting" places, but on All Saints I was able to bury my fears and participate in the "lighting up".

A few days before All Saints', my Uncle Jacket and sometimes my Auntie Moon would go and clean up, generally accompanied by a cutlass and a little bit of puncheon, or overproof rum.

 

WHAT PURPOSE DID THEY SERVE?

 

Occasionally, with a little help from friends, powered by puncheon, they would add some whitewash on the concrete wall and some black paint on the iron spears that circled the tomb. There was a fence around the cemetery and I always wondered what was its purpose - was it to keep people out or in? And the spears on my grandfather's tomb, "What purpose did they serve?" I asked pointedly.

There is something about candlewax that still fascinates me. It might be the whiteness of it rolling slowly down the length of the candle, the softness, the warmth, the faint paraffin odour and the tactile pleasure of rolling it up and having a ball with it.

The wreaths we had spent so many days making from sago palm branches and crepe-paper flowers tied with cutlass wire hung on the railings. Sometimes, family members, less orthodox and perhaps more imaginative, brought fresh flower wreaths, generally hibiscus with the occasional roses, and placed them on the mounds that my uncle had created from fresh dirt and plastered over with mud.

We kids had a great time, lighting candles, running around shrieking, checking out the other lighted tombs and boasting, "We own better than yours!" When rain fell, huge gobs of the dirt stuck to our gym boots and we had to break a stick and scrape our shoes clean. And then back to the fray.

When we moved to Siparia, in the south, and I was older with no family to keep me out of trouble, it was a place where boys met girls - courting disaster, so to speak. Over the years, it was clear that the All Saints' game was no longer worth the candle either. Cremation is now the rage, and everyone wants to make a damn ash of themselves.

Me, I suppose I can still measure my life in candlepower, a flicker here, a flutter there, and sometimes this big burst of flame that engulfs me. Some people say it is blood pressure rising; others dismiss it as a heated exchange, but for me it stays the moving shadow and keeps alive for a little longer the poor player to strut and fret his hour on the stage.

 

STUBBORNNESS

 

So we come closer to the idiot's tale, no sound, no fury, but the stub of stubbornness clinging to the past and its primrose pathways. Cards were better than candles, although I, too, went to many wakes where we played by candlelight. There is nothing like putting all your money on what you think is a great hand and seeing your opponent put a better hand on the table. In the flickering candlelight, it takes on a different lustre, a luminosity that penetrates your eyeballs and hits you stroboscopically like consecutive sixes in a 20/20 cricket montage.

That day, Jasmine, full of her 11 years, laughed as I took pictures of her sharing a slice of cake with her brother Zubin. With my 72nd birthday in five days, and her 20th four months ago, I believe that if life is a candle in the wind, Jas is the light bearer and I am her bulbous father - matchless in mirth, light only in heart and mood.

- Tony Deyal was last seen repeating the children's riddle, "What did the big candle say to the little candle?" I am going out tonight.