Concertina Audrey’s companionHer concertina and her God are Audrey Gill’s companions, bringing her joy as she mans her modest tray daily on Swan Street. (Gercine Carter)
By Gercine Carter | Sun, July 08, 2012 - 12:02 AM
On any weekday, sweet concertina music can be heard amidst the bustle of Swan Street’s pedestrian traffic and every once in a while a passer-by pauses to observe an elderly woman playing the instrument she says is “as close to me as my God”.
Audrey Gill bought her first concertina 36 years ago, a large one, for over $200, “just to keep my mind level”.
Playing the concertina is a diversion and a remedy for the “studyation” that led to blackouts she once suffered constantly, rendering her unconscious on the spot.
Giving a background to the condition, she said: “My mother used to beat me bad . . . . My mother did a brute to me when I did a girl; I got muh head chop up; I got five chops in my head my mother give me. My mother used to beat me so bad the doctor tell me she kill a nerve in my brain.”
On that Tuesday afternoon while she played familiar hymns, the 74-year-old woman told the Sunday Sun about a life of hardship and abuse suffered at the hands of her mother; an early marriage and desertion by a husband after just two years, and how she raised nine children on her own.
“I married when I was 18 but I did never get no husband. He went long back home with his mother when I did 20. He did 30, and he mother tell me that God did give she the child fuh she self and not nobody.”
Gill got married at the Calvary Moravian Church on Roebuck Street on a Saturday night, but says by the Monday “she [her mother-in-law] had everything to please she self. My mother didn’t like me; my mother treating me bad; my stepfather treating me bad and when I thought I did do something good [got married], it was worse”.
With her husband returning to his mother’s house, Gill found herself a single mother having to provide for her children – three, and pregnant with a fourth – on her own.
“I did a hard worker then, see? I do work all about – at Vaucluse, Cane Garden – all about to get a day’s work.”
She drove a horse and cart from Bank Hall, St Michael, where she lived, to Lower Estate Plantation in St George “with my big boy in my belly on the horse cart and all . . . . You had to cart canes in those days to get a dollar”.
Gill’s work, which began in the canefields at age 15, came to a premature end at age 35 when she sustained an injury to the head while ferrying loads of manure.
“The doctor stopped me then from working. He told me that I would have to stop working and let the head get rest. So that is what stopped me from being an agricultural worker.”
What’s more, she had earlier been shown a newspaper notice posted by her husband, announcing he was no longer responsible for her.
With many mouths to feed and no hope of support, she turned to newspaper vending, first in Jackson and later on Swan Street. However, frequent blackouts would put an end to her business since she was a regular victim of theft and the money, newspapers and even the newspaper stand were stolen during those episodes.
In addition, other vendors soon arbitrarily took over the sales space she occupied.
“I promised I would never disgrace my children, so I ent mek no noise; I just moved from over there to over here,” she said, sitting beside a sparsely-arranged makeshift tray with a few breadfruits and some limes.
Nowadays Gill ekes out a living from the sale of a few items on the tray, produce bought and offered for sale at a meagre profit, going some days without a single sale. Other days she is content with the $10 profit realized.
What she makes from any sales can hardly support her, however.
“I does have to take my own pension, pay the light bill and carry it [pension] at the shop.”
She is thankful her children are all now grown and no longer depend on her for support, and she makes it clear she is not dependent on them either.
“Good or no good, I don’t wait for children. God send that bottle of tea for me – my pension – and I does divide it 50 times. It don’t be sufficient but I does mek it do. I ent got nuh children now to worry ’bout nothing more,” she says.
Instead, her focus is on playing the small, compact concertina presented to her by the stranger whom she says she would not recognize if he came and stood before her again.
Door God opened
“When he went to America he remember he hear me used to say that if I get one [a new concertina], what I could do. So he saw Indians selling them and he bought one for me. I ent see him back here since. This is a door that God opened for me.”
Over three decades ago Gill was attracted to the concertina music of “an old man playing in front of Cave Shepherd” and he willingly taught her how to play the instrument.
With her fingers fixed on the buttons, she explains: “It is doh rey me fah so lah ti doh. You got to be singing in your brain and know which note you touching and after you playing for a long time, then time to time you will know the song you singing and you will know which note to press inside yuh brain.”
Armed with this lighter concertina, Gill stretches and compresses, skilfully drawing from her memorized musical score to play well loved hymns of comfort, prompting the question: “Do you play in your church?”
She replies: “I play anywhere anybody invite muh. I aint got nuh church,” and proceeds to relate yet another story about her difficult life.
“I used to belong to the Spiritual Baptist Church. When I first start they tell me if I ent with my husband, I can’t be a member. Wuh my husband gone long, how could I live wid de husband when he gone long? So from then I does only pray to God ‘in all thy ways acknowledge and He will direct the path’; so I don’t think about being a church member.”
Shoppers always stop and listen to Gill playing well loved Christmas hymns and carols in December. She accommodates the many special requests but she is now afraid of potential thieves stalking Swan Street and is wary of having people hanging around her on a daily basis.
Notwithstanding this consideration, Gill refuses to shut herself away in the comfortable chattel house she built with lottery winnings three years ago.
“I tell them I don’t want nuh wall house but I feel the board would still keep me comfortable, so that is what got muh feeling so happy today.
“God got muh in a happy, happy spirit today. When I did young I wud have to be crying and wonder what to do. Now I ain’t got to wonder nuh more.”
Her cup of contentment is to the brim as long as she has her concertina and her God.
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