by Anthony Milne
O Happiness! our being’s end and aim,
Good, pleasure, ease, content! whate’er thy name:
That something still which prompts the’eternal sigh,
For which we bear to live, or dare to die.
- Alexander Pope
The Earthly Paradise has been referred to in manuscripts and maps of the time, like those pertaining to the exploratory voyages of the Irish St Brendan (484-577 AD). Cousin C (pumpkin-vine, but cousin nonetheless) has at last discovered it in Toco (with all its little undoings), at the eastern end of Trinidad's north coast.
Sought and imagined from ancient times, the Earthly Paradise was a place of complete happiness somewhere in the world. Many believed in its existence during the Middle Ages. The idea was most likely in the back of the heads of early navigators on precarious voyages of exploration or conquest: ancient Vikings and, a thousand later, Magalhaes, Columbus, Frobisher, and their counterparts in the South and East. Or, if not the place itself, the gold, slaves and spices with which to create it.
In the tenth century, the Earthly Paradise (a term loosely applied to the vast Islamic Arabian Empire) was conceived and created in microcosm near Cordova, in Islamic southern Spain, by amir Abd al-Rahman III. The amir’s meticulously devised whim was “Enclosed from the world, enraptured by music, scented by trees, cooled by drinks and enlightened by conversation.”
The idea springs too from the biblical concept of the Garden of Eden, thought by the ancients to be located in the world’s extreme East, or the theological notion that, in the end, heaven will be manifest here in a perfect world—not somewhere in the sky.
Trinidad’s ozone so impressed Columbus that he wrote to his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella, remarking persuasively that the place he had come upon was “like Andalusia in spring.” And this was only South Trinidad, Los Iros or Erin, nowhere close to Cousin C’s Earthly Paradise at Toco.
Toco proper, that is, after you avoid turning right at the triangle, Palm Tree Junction, to Sally Bay and the lighthouse, and come to a collection of simple shops and homes—like the ancient house with a sagging verandah sitting on thin wooden pillars, which will one day fall down on somebody’s head, Cousin C has warned unheeding villagers he is so close to.
“The people,” he stressed on a recent trip we made there. “The wonderful people, together with the place itself, all of it I love.” Windies pace bowler Mervyn Dillon has a house in the Paradise too, noted Cousin C, and a street there is named after him.
Then the police station and courthouse—yes, there is a courthouse in Toco, where grandpa Fabian long ago used to preside—in which I have sat and seen sorted out curious proceedings brought by or against country folk from as far away as Matelot.
Just beyond this, there was an arrangement by which vehicles going through Toco heading west took the upper one-way road, and traffic heading east took the one-way lower road. Well, with time, and the rains and floods and landslides early this year, the lower road is now impassable—its layers of asphalt cracking and slipping bit by bit into the Caribbean Sea. The result? The upper road now takes two-way traffic, just as it was not supposed to, while the barred western end of the lower road occasionally astonishes unsuspecting drivers.
The landslides kept Cousin C away from his Earthly Paradise for weeks and weeks, though there was little damage to the Gem at the heart of Paradise —his home away from home—or to the sloping land around it, which ends where low, precipitous black cliffs meet the surging sea.
You then pass the Toco fishing depot,
and what is left of the pier where in bygone days the Island Steamer used
to drop off goods and people. The road dips for a moment to a flat space
with a playing field, then a beach—near which the thick black electric
cable enters the sea to carry current to Tobago.
On Palm Sunday (during an early visit after the landslides were cleared away) Cousin C and I joined the congregation outside the school to receive our palms and have them blessed by the assisting parish priest from Africa. All then processed to the church for Holy Mass, a now seriously devout Cousin C greeting and greeted by at least half of everybody there.
“Eh, eh, Mr C, is so long we ain’t see you.”
“The landslides, nuh,” he responds. “Your mother well yet? She come out of hospital?”
“Mr C she dead.”
“I’m so sorry to hear so, eh.”
And to someone else. “The goat, it drop the kid yet?”
“Two, Mr C.”
After the church, the road runs straight to the west, with two or three holiday houses on the right, the land descending sharply to the sea, with dense highwood on the left. Cousin C’s place is just before the corner where I would say Toco proper begins to peter out. After this the road continues on past Trois Roches to L’Anse Noire, before winding along interminably through Sans Souci, Grande Riviere, and many other places, arriving at last at the outpost of Matelot.
Cousin C, who was driving, had hummed a lot of the way, once outside the Metropolis with the Twin Towers, and might have burst into song once the turn-off to Sally Bay was past and we drew close to Toco itself. We were soon reversing down the driveway leading to Cousin C’s place, the Gem, to the enjoyment and upkeep of which Cousin C has devoted so much of his life, now well past the three-score years and ten some of us are lucky to achieve.
“I put money into this place, you hear,” said Cousin C. “But some people don’t want to come here, hardly ever.”
Perhaps they feel it is too far—just what Cousin C likes about it—with the Islands so much closer to the Metropolis, and new developments at Balandra and further down the East Coast, for those who prefer the Atlantic to the Caribbean. Left to himself, Cousin C would have abandoned the Metropolis long ago and moved up here. He has bowed to the wishes of intimate family members and remained imprisoned in Diego Martin. The only compensation now for the awful prospect of giving up the Earthly Paradise is the attractive sum the place might fetch.
Cousin C was trained as an engineer but has developed something of a head for figures. (Management has always been an integral part of his character). He eventually played an important role in a well-established company. Today, retired, he is usually trapped in Diego Martin, where he sits at the dining-room table poring over files and papers, watching certain movements in the Stock Exchange with mouth-opening astonishment.
He eventually spoke about this with some concern when we were seated on the patio, with icy beers, looking straight out across the sea to Tobago, on the horizon. This was just before Cousin C endured my lecture on the high culture of Islamic Spain, and particularly the flamenco, created by gypsies from India using the guitar, an Arabian musical instrument. Anyway, arriving at Toco, Cousin C became a new, invigorated man, breathing in deeply as we got out of the car and carried a couple bags and a pot of pelau into the house.
First we had to get the wooden back door open, then unlock the inner wrought-iron door.
They all know him in Toco and he knows them. He’s been coming up here for thirty years and more. But Cousin C is a man of careful habit. His part-time overseer lives just down the road by the church. He makes sure the grass is cut, and reports when, recently for example, the small storeroom at the back of the house was broken into.
So the front doors, leading out to the patio from which Tobago is seen, are wrought-iron and wooden too, equipped with a stout wooden bar with screws with grips to turn by hand to hold it in place. I’ve told Cousin C he should patent the device. There are no windows, just open-work brick. Not so long ago we would sit out on the patio late into the night, drinking and talking. Cousin C is more careful today, with only two of us there, and as darkness descends the wrought-iron doors are closed.
When the bags and pelau had been stowed away, Cousin C had to make a tour of inspection of his “estate”—half an acre—noting the leaves of the pommarac tree, the flowers of the African tulips, the breadfruit, and the small bunches of bananas.
There was no sign of a young lime tree he planted a few weeks ago. “They gone with it, yes,” he observed.
Cousin C had a real estate once, twnety acres or so, the turnoff into it just down the road. He left some of the cocoa that once covered the land, chopped down the rest and put in citrus and zaboca, with a little help at first from Great-Uncle Zoi, ninety years old and still cutting bush.
“Boy,” he said, “when I went in there by myself and sat in silence next to a stream, under the shady cocoa trees where no bush grows, I say this is heaven.”
The citrus he would pick, employing Toco folk, put into bags and market in the Metropolis—till the market changed, the agricultural access roads were made impassable with craters (he grew tired of unfulfilled official assurances that these would soon be fixed), and praedial larceny was driving him round the bend—in particular, once finding himself the complainant in a praedial larceny case in Toco’s court.
Toco and his house and miniature estate remain, but for how much longer Cousin C will visit this Earthly Paradise, and stay there, God only knows.
(Anthony Milne is a professional journalist who worked for several years for Trinidad Express in Trinidad & Tobago, and now resides in Canada where he is writing an historical novel about his native Trinidad.)