Monday, April 17, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:4

To stay at the Club, one needed the recommendation of a member. It was an old colonial institution, a relic of the sugar era, founded in 1896, though the present Club building was only sixty years old--its predecessor had been destroyed in a fire. The rooms upstairs, he was told, had once been used by overseers and other sugar company staff normally posted outside Georgetown, on their trips to the city. Now the Club housed an assortment of old Guyana hands visiting from abroad, men and women who had been coming here for decades and knew the ways of the place.

Every morning he would come down to the dining-room and find himself assigned to a different communal breakfast table, so that over the weeks he stayed at the Club he breakfasted with most of the other guests in turn, and he wondered if the staff carefully arranged who would meet over breakfast by manipulating the place settings.

The Club and its guests were governed by a set of rules, some of which were posted on a noticeboard near the bar, some of which, it seemed, were semi-secret, divulged to guests only after they had broken them. Some of these rules were archaic, stipulating standards of dress or behaviour that must have seemed reasonable seventy or eighty years before; they were upheld faithfully by the Club's staff, most of them working-class Guyanese. Guests were discouraged from having visitors at night, and the lights in the main lounge were put out at ten. One could not simply pay for a drink across the bar; to give cash to the barman was considered improper. Everything had to be signed for and billed to a member's account; so only members (or "temporary members") could order drinks or meals.

At one time the Club was run by English expatriates; most of its members were of the white upper class, in the days when Guyana still had a white upper class, families with English and Dutch and sometimes French names, families who owned or managed sugar estates. "Ordinary" Guyanese could not have sat in the bar, except perhaps with the special dispensation of the Club management. Now the Club seemed to have very few members, and most of those were "squash members", who joined only in order to use the squash courts behind the main building, across a courtyard. On weekends, when a heavy silence like the sound of abandonment hung over the lounge and dining-room and even veiled the noises of the street outside, shouts of excitement and laughter would sometimes drift across the small yard from the squash courts.

On Wednesday nights a group of older members met in the billiard room to drink and play and exchange news, but otherwise the Club worked like a sort of hotel, with guests from abroad staying in the rooms upstairs and businessmen using the bar to meet with colleagues. Unaware of the complexities of this history, over the weeks he stayed there he often asked people to meet him at the Club; it was as convenient a place as any to sit and talk. He noticed that some of his acquaintances--men and women who thirty years before would not have been welcome as guests--seemed surprised to find themselves here, nervous ordering a drink from the barman. One new acquaintance who had come to meet him confided that he had been a waiter there once, and would take nothing more than a glass of water; not even a cup of tea.

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