A long time ago when I was young and when much of the world was still coloured red on the map, I chose to join the British Colonial Police Service. Today, for many people, the whole concept of empire is redolent of theft and exploitation. I will say only that it did not seem that way to me at the time – and has never seemed so since.
For the first seven years of my service I worked in East Africa; then I was transferred to Jamaica and a very different kind of life.
It was during my fifth year in Kingston that Petersen arrived from New York. He was an American architect and he came to take up a post with a local firm which had won contracts for two new hotels on the outskirts of the city. He was a tall, good-looking man, about thirty years old, with a mane of fair hair which fell over his forehead. I remember hearing that he could have played professional tennis in the States if he had cared to. He carried himself with an athlete’s assurance and he looked as if life had been good to him. Socially, he was one of those people who seem to succeed without effort. For instance, he was invited to join the Racquet Club before he had been on the island a month. Someone there, watching him in action on the courts, referred to him as the Golden Boy and the name stuck. I had never been invited to join the Club.
The road which I took back to my bungalow from work each evening passed by the Racquet Club. Among the players I could be sure of see- ing most evenings was Anthea Palmer. She was the Colonial Secretary’s daughter, and she had very long suntanned legs and chestnut hair coiled in a single braid on top of her head. She wore brief white shorts and a white blouse with the top button undone. If I had been a member of the Club, I could have met her on equal terms. As it was, she always seemed to me as remote and inaccessible as the summit of the Blue Mountains which overhung the city.
Apart from the occasional brief greeting when our paths crossed at some official cocktail party, I had found an opportunity to speak to her alone only once. She had been a witness to an accidental drowning at Port Royal and I had arranged to take a statement from her myself. In my office she had been helpful and not unfriendly, and that night I lay awake on my bed and read too much into her smile when I had seen her to her car. Next morning I telephoned to ask her to the races on Saturday and she said briskly: ‘I’m sorry, but I’m always booked up these days …’ and I knew that I had been foolish to hope for more than that.
The Golden Boy had no such difficulty. On Sunday mornings, I would see him in his open Jaguar on the road out to Port Royal with Anthea seated beside him. I can remember her long chestnut hair released from its braid and streaming out in the wind as they went past me.
Everyone thought that Petersen would settle for Anthea, but after the first two or three months I got used to seeing him with a succession of other girls from the Racquet Club. He rented a house on the slopes of the Blue Mountains and bought a sailing dinghy which he moored at the Yacht Club. I heard that Anthea had broken her heart over him and was returning to England. I found myself disliking him more and more.
Then one day I met him. He had come into the CID offices to extend his permit of residence and we walked into each other in the corridor outside my office. He apologized for not looking where he was going – though the fault was mine – and explained what he wanted. I took him into my office, rang for one of the Immigration Officers on the floor below and had them renew his permit while he waited.
It was clear that he had never heard of me before, but we talked for ten minutes until his permit was ready for signature. Then he thanked me and returned to his own office downtown.
The strange thing was that I found I liked him. He had none of the self- regard I had expected and he seemed genuinely grateful for my help. He
was quietly spoken and he had some interesting things to say about his work and about the new trends in tropical hotel design. I could understand why he was well liked by everyone who knew him.
About a month after that meeting, I was woken up at half past two one morn- ing by the duty officer at the Central Police Station. There was a body outside Madame Tanya’s establishment on the waterfront. I knew the place well: it was one of the joyless brothels that catered for sailors from the ships which docked close by. Trouble there was not unusual – generally, drunken brawls which stopped as quickly as they began and left only a few cracked skulls and broken noses in their wake. Murder in Jamaica was uncommon in those days, and a body meant that I had to visit the scene in person.
I arrived twenty minutes later. I do not wake easily from sleep, and I was red-eyed and irritable. The first thing I saw as I approached the building was Petersen’s Jaguar. It was parked at the front of the brothel and the top was up.
A uniformed sergeant met me as I got out of my car. He saluted and re- ported the situation in the prescribed way. I nodded and walked over to the Jaguar. The acrid smell of exhaust fumes hung on the still air. The windows of the car, with one exception, were tightly closed. A length of black rubber tubing ran from the exhaust pipe through the narrow ventilation window on the passenger’s side. The sergeant had opened the driver’s door to switch off the engine. When it was clear that the man inside was dead, he had left the body where it lay slumped against the steering wheel and telephoned the duty officer. Apart from another constable on beat duty, the waterfront was deserted.
I shone the beam of my torch on the body and saw at once that it was Pe- tersen. His face was relaxed; his thick fair hair had fallen over his forehead and his mouth was open. I put my hand on his wrist: it was not yet cold.
I sent the sergeant to get a pick-up to take the body away, and then I had a closer look at the car. I detached the rubber tubing from the exhaust pipe with some care but I was already sure that the only fingerprints I might find there would be those of Petersen himself.
On the passenger seat there was a letter. The envelope was addressed sim- ply to: Marie at Madame Tanya’s. I slit it open with my pocket knife and, in the light of my torch, I read:
Spend the money and be happy.
He had signed it ‘Ronny’ and the cheque was in the same envelope.
It was not the first note of its kind I had seen and in my experience suicide notes tend to say much the same banal things. But the cheque in this case – made out in the name of Marie Robinson – was for $50,000. I knew that any of Madame Tanya’s girls would think herself lucky to clear fifty dollars a week. I could recognize a few of the girls on sight, but I did not know which of them was Marie Robinson.
The sergeant had returned by this time and I told him to get Madame out of bed. He hammered on the front door of the brothel with his truncheon, a light came on inside and Madame herself appeared in the doorway. She was a stout woman with dirty feet dressed in a stained silk negligee, and she evidently hoped that we were late night customers. Then she saw me and assumed at once that we had come to raid her place again. She opened her mouth to essay the customary howl of protest, but I told her to shut up and take us to Marie. She pointed to a door at the end of the passage which ran from the bar to the rear of the building. The brothel stank of dirty mat- tresses and marijuana, and there was that pungent smell peculiar to brothels everywhere and which can only be described as the odour of stale sex. Doors opened cautiously on either side of the passage and then shut quickly again as the sergeant and I passed by. It was a Monday and business was slow on Mondays. Most of the prostitutes were sleeping alone.
I pushed open the door at the end of the passage and switched on the light. The weak bulb had been painted blue and at first I did not recognize the girl on the narrow bed. She was wearing only a pair of soiled panties; her breasts were pendulous and her belly was lined with the marks of child- bearing. Her skin was light brown and her hair had been ironed straight. You could see that she had once been pretty – but that must have been a long while ago.
She woke up as the light went on and turned towards the door. As soon as I saw her face I knew who she was. A thin, semi-circular scar ran from the hairline at her right temple under the eye and across the bridge of her nose. A few years earlier, a drunken Venezuelan seaman had pushed a broken rum bottle into her face. I remembered the case quite well only because, immediately afterwards, the man had done the same thing to another pros- titute he had met in the passage on his way out. This time, a shard of glass had punctured the girl’s jugular vein. We had charged him with murder and he had hanged for it. Marie’s evidence had helped convict him.
Prostitutes are an unpredictable lot: you can’t type-cast them any more than the rest of us. Some, in a curious way, retain a child-like innocence all their lives no matter how many men degrade their bodies. A few are compas- sionate and moral souls who will receive their reward in another place. It is not incredible that, just occasionally, ordinary men can love them in spite of what they do. But Marie Robinson was not one of these. She had always been a coarse and bitter virago, and her disfigurement had only made her worse. Nevertheless, there could be no doubt about it: Petersen, the Golden Boy, had loved her. In fact, he had loved her so much he had preferred death to the prospect of living without her.
I told Marie to get some clothes on and the sergeant took her to my office.
Before daylight, we had fitted together the pieces of the case and the picture was clear. Anthea and all the other girls, it seemed, had meant nothing to Petersen. Their idle lives and predictable chatter had come to bore him: he wearied of their company. After a while, he had stopped going to the Club in order to avoid them.
One night, he had paid a visit to Madame Tanya’s and met Marie. What strange, unlikely chemistry of the heart caused him to fall in love with her in the weeks that followed only God knows. Nothing in my experience throws up the slightest clue. In any event, his feelings were not returned. Perhaps it was because Marie could never bring herself to believe that he meant it when he said he wanted no one else; perhaps, in spite of every- thing, she enjoyed the life she led; or perhaps Petersen was just an incom- petent lover. Whatever the reason, when he tried to persuade her to leave the brothel and live with him, she refused. When he brought her gifts, she took them from his hands without a word of gratitude. In the stinking, blue- lit cubicle where she sold her body to anyone with the modest price, she turned her back on him when he said he loved her.
Finally one night he asked her to marry him. They would go back together to New York: she would live the comfortable, respected life of a success- ful architect’s wife. The past would be buried forever. Without a word, she turned him out of her room and locked the door. She would no longer let him touch her.
So every evening after that, when he had finished at his office, he came to sit at the bar of the brothel, watching in hopeless silence as other men went with Marie to her room. Because of the scar, only the poorer clients sought her services now.
After three weeks, he could no longer bear it. So he waited one Sunday night until the waterfront became deserted, drove the red Jaguar to the place where he could be nearest her and slipped the end of the rubber tube over the exhaust pipe. Then he closed the windows, started the engine and killed himself.
The inquest was a routine affair. The cause of death was quickly established: Petersen took his own life while the balance of his mind was disturbed. The matter was closed. His body was released to his family who had come from New York to attend the proceedings. The cheque was destroyed.
As I was leaving the court, the Coroner’s orderly ran up to say that his mas- ter would like to have a word with me in chambers. It was the lunchtime recess. The Coroner poured us each a drink and despatched the orderly to find more ice.
We talked about the case for a few minutes and then the Coroner said: ‘I just wanted to ask you why a man like that could have preferred a bitter little whore to all the girls of his own kind in Kingston. I can’t make any sense of it and I’ve been doing this job for twenty-five years.’
I knew the Coroner was a member of the Racquet Club and would have known Anthea.
The orderly returned with a bowl of ice and the Coroner poured himself another drink. ‘I suppose the man went mad,’ he said quietly. ‘Let’s thank God it doesn’t happen more often. He might have handed her the cheque before he killed himself …’
I nodded politely, but I didn’t agree. I didn’t believe that Petersen was out of his mind. His taste in women might seem bizarre, but he had not been mad.
I worked late in my office that night. A three-quarter moon laid tall shad- ows across the courts of the Racquet Club as I drove past. The windows of the clubhouse blazed with light and I could hear music, but I knew Anthea would not be there.
My own bungalow sat in a little pool of darkness just off the main road. I left my car in the driveway, opened the door and switched on the light in the hall. The house was empty and unwelcoming. I sat down and poured myself the first brandy of the evening.
Outside in the darkness, a potoo called once and was silent. The brandy scored my throat. I thought of the unfairness of it – how so many of us seemed always to want what we could not have. Life had cheated Petersen and, just then, I felt that it had cheated me. Perhaps I was already a little drunk: with an effort, I pulled myself together. The Coroner’s question still deserved an answer – but I knew that a man’s infatuation with a woman was a rash and mysterious thing and in the case of the Golden Boy, what- ever the answer, he had taken it with him in his ruin and despair.