It’s already dark when we leave the beach. The sun has dropped below the horizon with a speed that surprises us, the purple sea turning dark in minutes. We follow the path back through the palms and soon find ourselves in the overgrown graveyard. In the bright sunshine it had seemed innocuous enough and we had even joked about the homemade wooden grave markers, the bunches of plastic flowers in jam-jars. Now the derelict nature of the place seems almost menacing. Something moves in the long grass close to Jan and she jumps. A thin blond dog emerges, sniffs at our legs, then trots off towards the beach.
The path up to the road is steep and Jan’s flip-flops slip on the loose soil. I grab her hand, pulling her up the last few feet. As we emerge onto the tarmac we’re dazzled for a moment by a passing truck, which blares its horn. The truck disappears round a bend but its sudden absence only emphasises the loud buzz of tropical insects.
Up ahead the lights of the town wink – a beacon in the darkness which seems to seep out of the dense trees on either side of the road. We’ve never come back from the beach this late before and there are none of the usual minibuses in sight.
‘Do you think we should wait?’ Jan asks, scanning the road.
‘Not much point I wouldn’t think. We’d be better off walking. It can only be a mile or two.’
After a few minutes we reach some small shacks. Here there is street lighting of a kind – lamps strung up on a cable which runs along at head height. A strong smell is in the air, a mixture of cooking and open sewers.
On the other side of the road, a group of men is approaching. Light glints off the small machetes they carry. I sense Jan moving closer. The men are talking in that slow, sing-song Caribbean English. One or two of them are swinging their machetes at the roadside bushes, lopping off branches.
‘Hey man,’ one of them calls, ‘where you people goin’?’ The speaker is tall and muscled, his teeth very white in the dim light.
‘The White Sands Inn. Do you know it?’ I can feel Jan beside me. ‘Yeah, sure; that’s Danny’s place.’
‘Yes, Danny, that’s right,’ I reply, suddenly relieved.
‘You from London?’
‘Yes, well no,’ Jan says. ‘Brighton actually. On the south coast.’
For a moment I glimpse that other coast: the piers, the safe, familiar seafront cafes.
‘I been to Brighton.’
‘Really?’ As soon as I speak, he realises that I sound too surprised.
‘When were you there?’ asks Jan, trying to cover for me.
‘A couple of years ago. An uncle of mine lives in London. It’s a nice place, but cold though.’
A minibus roars past, reggae thumping out. I can feel the other men close behind me.
‘Yes, well …’ I am about to suggest the man looks us up if he is in the UK again, but then realise what an absurd idea it is.
‘You like our island?’
‘Yes, it’s beautiful,’ says Jan, running her hand through her short blond bob. ‘So lush. I never expected to see so many flowers at this time of year. In England it’s winter.’
‘Johnny, you comin’ man?’ The other men are beginning to move off down the road.
‘Yeah, hold on.’ He looks at Jan and smiles. ‘You got a nice woman here. You treat her good eh.’
The next morning I wake early. In the small room it is hot and I pull the sheet off. Jan turns over next to me. I can hear the roar of traffic, the loud heartbeat of reggae growing closer, then fading away. I lean across Jan and switch on the Russian air-conditioner. It clanks and wheezes into life, then sets up a steady roaring. The air in the room hardly stirs. I reach for my glasses, then look at my watch on the bedside table. It’s six thirty. I think about trying to go back to sleep but decide there’s no point. Jan is lying motionless, her eyes closed, but I can tell she is awake. It’s like this every morning now. After the welcome oblivion of sleep I wake with the same feeling of being mired in our life together – that things will never change. Neither of us seems able to make the first move, as that would be to admit the end of everything. When Jan sprung the holiday on me a few weeks ago I knew it was her attempt to weld us back together. But now, after ten days, we might as well have stayed at home for all the difference it’s made.
The shower gurgles into life, water spurting falteringly from the loose showerhead. Jan had insisted on staying somewhere authentic, not in the Sandals resort a mile away by the beach. But neither of us was quite prepared for the ramshackle nature of the White Sands Inn. As I shampoo my hair, the smell almost makes me feel nostalgic in the heat of the small bathroom. I’ve just rinsed my head when I hear Jan scream. I grab my towel and swing open the bathroom door.
‘There, it’s there.’ Jan is holding the sheet round herself and pointing at the small table in the middle of the room.
‘It just crawled over the edge.’
Putting on my glasses, I approach the table, bend down and peer at the underside. A small, black, armoured shape races down the leg with unbelievable speed.
‘Urgh!’ shouts Jan.
I pick up one of my deck shoes and circle the table. The cockroach scuttles back up another leg, then emerges on the table-top. For a moment it is still, its antennae wavering in the air. I bring the shoe down hard on the table.
‘Did you get it?’
The cockroach seems stunned, then races across the table and down another leg. I catch it on the floor, whacking it with my shoe, over and over.
‘I think I’ve killed it.’ I can feel the blood pulsing in my head. The cockroach has split and a vile-smelling yellow substance is leaking onto the floor. ‘Quick, get me some toilet paper.’
I pull on my shorts, open the door and carry the small bundle to the back of the building. The forest is right there, as if it has suddenly sprung up during the night, its greenness overwhelming. I toss the cockroach into the trees. Strange bird sounds ricochet around the branches. The cicadas are sizzling in the heat.
As usual, we’re the only guests at breakfast. The veranda has three tables, and ours is furthest from the house. Danny brings rolls, then plates of local fruit – mangoes, guava, coconut slices. But this morning as we eat, people begin drifting up the steps from the road, until there are ten or twelve of them, sitting at the other tables, or just standing around. None of them are eating. One or two of them nod to Danny as he passes in and out of the house. Jan smiles across at a young girl who giggles and hides her face behind her hands.
‘I think we’re the show here,’ Jan says under her breath. As I look up, ten pairs of eyes are fixed on me.
Danny comes out with the coffee, placing the large pot on the carefully ironed tablecloth. ‘Etta,’ he calls. ‘Help with the plates.’
A tall girl of about seventeen emerges from the kitchen. She has polished black skin and her face is a series of planes, her high cheekbones rising to large, almost oriental eyes. She’s incredibly beautiful, moving with the easy grace of a young animal. Then, even as I’m still carrying this thought in my head, I imagine Jan taking on some student about racial stereotyping in one of her lectures on Postcolonialism.
‘This is Etta, my niece,’ says Danny. ‘She sometimes helps me out round the house.’
The girl nods at us and begins picking up the plates. ‘Do you live near here?’ asks Jan.
The girl looks at her, as if sizing her up. ‘Down the road.’ She lifts the plates and walks towards the kitchen.
Back in the room, we get ready to go to the beach.
‘That girl was odd,’ says Jan. ‘It was as if she hated me or something.’
‘You’re just imagining it. She probably just doesn’t get to meet many white people.’
‘What did you think of her?’
I know where this is going. It’s like the groove of an old record, the needle stuck. ‘What do you mean?’
‘She was very beautiful, wasn’t she?’
‘Oh, come on, don’t tell me you didn’t notice. I saw you looking at her.’
I stuff my towel into my rucksack. ‘What does it matter?’
‘Why not be honest? You at least owe me that. You never really wanted me, you made that clear enough.’
I stand up. ‘Come on, let’s get down to the beach before it’s too hot to do anything.’
We lie on our towels on the burning sand. Light seems to bounce off everything. Even with my sunglasses on I feel dazzled. Through my t-shirt I can feel the sun’s heat. I pull my hat out of my bag.
‘You should put some cream on,’ I tell Jan. ‘In a minute. I’d just like to get a bit of a tan.’ ‘You might get burnt.’
‘You always say that. You’re the one who got burnt on our first day here, not me. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been lying in the sun. I’ll be fine. Just stop bugging me about it.’
I look at Jan’s prostrate body. Her one-piece swimsuit is damp with sweat, her white legs puffy in the bright light. It’s hard now to remember wanting her the way I did when she first told me about Matt. After the initial shock I’d felt a searing desire. That weekend we went away to the West Country, just to get away from Brighton and his trace everywhere in our lives. In a tiny campsite in North Devon I’d ached for her in our tent, but she pushed me away, told me I just wanted to ‘plant my flag’, to reclaim my property, and that sex wouldn’t solve our problems. Instead, I’d stood in the cold shower block while she refused to leave the tent. Now, after all those months, it’s like sharing a bed with a sister rather than a lover, both of us avoiding any unnecessary contact.
I pull out an old Graham Greene and open it but it’s too hot to read. My t-shirt is sticking to my back, so I peel it off with difficulty, the cotton tugging at my skin. I pop the top off the Boots sun protector and begin to smear myself.
‘Do you want me to do your back for you?’ asks Jan, without even opening her eyes.
The water is cool on my shins as I wade into the sea. Without my glasses I feel almost blind as the light glints on the waves, confusing me. Something slithers across my foot. For a moment I panic, then calm myself. It’s probably just a flatfish. I lower my body into the water and begin to swim. Ducking my head under the surface, the sudden quiet is comforting, womb-like. I surface and do some crawl, kicking my legs, glad to feel energetic again after the torpor of the beach, and glad to be on my own.
After a few minutes I turn back. I can just make out the bright ribbon of sand and the green hills, and hear the waves slapping the shore. I begin to swim towards the beach, turning on my back for a few strokes, stopping and drifting, then breast-stroking.
As I come out of the water I can see a clump of blurred palm trees but no Jan. Now I realise they’re not the same trees where I left her. A few boys are playing cricket on the beach, using the smooth sand at the tide-line as a pitch. They’re dressed in ragged shorts. Every so often one of them whacks the tennis ball into the water, then sprints between the stumps while two or three of the others swim after the ball as fast as they can. As I draw level with them they all stop playing and rush up.
‘Hey mister, hey mister, you like cricket mister?’
I hated cricket at school, couldn’t see the point of all that standing around, so I just nod and try to get past, but the boys keep dancing about in front of me.
‘You got dollar mister?’
I turn the pockets of my swimming shorts inside out and shrug. The boys laugh, then run back into the water, shouting.
I walk slowly along the beach, idly picking up shells and pieces of wrecked coral, then lobbing them into the small waves lapping the shore. After a few hundred yards I think I see Jan lying on her towel. As I get closer I can make out someone else sitting in the shadow of the palm trees.
‘Have a good swim?’ Jan asks.
I pick up my sunglasses and put them on. ‘I must have been carried along by the current.’
‘Them currents can be strong. You shouldn’t go out too far.’ The figure under the palm trees is Johnny, the machete man from last night. He has a joint in one hand, and his eyes look bloodshot.
‘Johnny was just telling me about this club tonight. It’s in an old rum distillery.’
‘Yeah, it’s cool,’ says Johnny.
I sit down and pull on my t-shirt and hat. ‘When were you in the UK?’
Johnny takes a drag on the joint and offers it to Jan. She draws on it, then has to sit up, coughing.
‘I was there about five years ago.’ ‘Were you working?’
‘There’s no need to interrogate him,’ Jan hands the joint back to Johnny.
‘So, what jobs do you do?’ Johnny asks.
‘We’re both teachers,’ says Jan.
I’m sweating. Jan has turned onto her front and is looking up at Johnny and smiling like a flirtatious schoolgirl.
‘It must be great living with this climate all the time,’ says Jan. Johnny draws on the joint again, then offers it to me.
I hold up my hand in refusal. ‘Must get boring though, the same thing every season.’
‘Well, there’s the wet and the dry. When it’s wet it pours for an hour every afternoon at exactly one thirty.’
‘I wish it was that predictable in England,’ says Jan. ‘There it just rains all the time.’
‘Well, that’s predictable.’ Jan scowls at me.
‘You’ve already made up your mind. What’s the point of asking me?’
‘I haven’t. I just want you to come too and enjoy it.’
We’re sitting on the veranda of the hotel, looking out over the dark bay and sipping rum punches.
‘Come on Phil, it’ll be fun. Johnny’s a nice guy.’ ‘I don’t trust him.’
‘Why not? Because he smokes dope? Everyone here does. Besides, you used to, remember?’
‘We don’t know anything about this place. And anyway, it doesn’t start until midnight. We’ll be knackered. We’ve got to be at the airport by nine tomorrow.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake. You sound like your dad – got to be in by ten, make sure all the doors are bolted. Let’s have a little fun. That was the point in coming wasn’t it?’ Jan pauses for a moment. ‘I am trying you know.’
‘And what did you tell him we were both teachers for? I might be, but you’ve moved onto greater things.’
‘Don’t start that again. You encouraged me to go for a university job.’ I turn and look out over the sea.
‘Well I’m going. You can stay here if you like.’
The taxi seems to drive for miles along cratered back roads, through crazy looking shanty villages. At one point it brakes suddenly and a huge pig looms up in the headlights before crashing away into the trees.
Eventually the taxi draws up outside the skeleton of an old stone building. The walls are all there but there is no roof. Reggae throbs from inside and lights flash out through the empty window sockets. I pay the driver and climb out to join Jan. My head is spinning from the rum.
‘Shit, we should have asked him to pick us up later.’
Jan hesitates. ‘It’ll be okay. I’m sure someone will take us back, or call us a cab.’
A giant of a man comes out to meet us, then blocks our way. He’s wearing a black silk shirt and pressed trousers. I suddenly feel underdressed in my shorts and beach shirt.
‘We’re friends of Johnny’s,’ says Jan.
The man doesn’t seem to hear. ‘It’s fifty bucks. Each.’ ‘That’s ten quid. No local is going to pay that,’ I say to Jan. The man is scowling into the darkness.
‘Just give him the money. It would cost twice that to get into a club at home.’
Inside, the bass feels like a physical force, driving itself into my chest. We stand by the entrance, watching the crowd seething in the stroboscopic lights. Above us are the stars. Even with the lights I can make out the cloud of the Milky Way arching across the sky.
‘I think we’re the only white people in the place,’ I shout in Jan’s ear. ‘I told you this was a bad idea.’
‘We’re here now. Might as well have a drink,’ Jan yells back.
We push our way past gyrating couples to a pallet table. A tall young woman looks us up and down.
‘Two beers please,’ I shout.
The woman turns to a metal keg and fills two plastic cups. She puts the cups down on the table and holds up ten fingers.
We stand on the edge of the wooden dance-floor, sipping our beers. The smell of dope is heavy in the air. Johnny comes out of the crowd towards us, waving his arms. He is dressed in jeans and a shirt with pink flamingos on it. Sweat glistens on his forehead. He beckons us towards the dance- floor. Jan looks at me, and I shake my head.
‘Well I’m going,’ she says, handing me her drink. She follows Johnny into the crowd. I can just make out the occasional flash of white skin amongst the black.
The dancing is a mix of disco and samba, couples grinding their pelvises together, running hands up and down each other’s torsos. The men all seem muscular like Johnny, their hair cut very short, their heads shining in the lights, the only exception the odd dreadlocked head bouncing into view now and again. The women wear small, tight-fitting dresses that emphasise their lithe bodies and prominent buttocks. I try to see Johnny and Jan but can’t get a clear view. One girl close to me is shaking her buttocks at an unbelievable speed, her short skirt flying.
I’ve drunk my own beer and now I’m swigging on Jan’s.
After a few minutes Jan emerges from the crowd with Johnny. She’s sweating and her eyeliner is starting to run.
‘Hey, where’s my drink?’
I look at the two empty cups in my hands. ‘Oh, sorry,’ I shout into Jan’s ear. ‘I thought you had other things on your mind.’
‘Phil, I’m thirsty.’
‘Oh, alright. I’ll get you another one. And I suppose Mr. Wonderful here wants one too.’
At the bar there’s a crowd and I’m jostled as I try to get forward. Bodies press against mine, the spicy smell of sweat filling my nostrils.
When I get back Jan and Johnny have gone. I glimpse Jan’s raised hand waving at me from the dance-floor. I stand there, feeling foolish, the three drinks held out in front of me like an offering.
‘You wan some help?’
It’s Etta, Johnny’s niece. She’s wearing a skimpy yellow dress which hugs her shape.
‘Uh, yes, thanks.’ Unsure of what to do, I hand her one of the cups. She takes it and sips at the beer.
‘Where’s yu wife?’
‘Oh, God knows. She’s dancing somewhere – with Johnny. Do you know him?’
‘Johnny? No, I don think so.’
I realise I am staring at her. ‘Do you work at Danny’s a lot?’ I shout in her ear.
‘Nah, just when he’s busy.’
I try to imagine Danny ever being busy. Etta stares out over the crowd, her haughty face impossible to read.
She’s like a horse, I decide, a dark, muscled horse. Jan would laugh at that, ridicule what she would see as my pathetic attempts to justify my attraction. ‘Do you want to dance?’ I know I‘d never have asked her if I was sober, but I don’t care.
We move to the edge of the dance-floor. I drain the second cup of beer and drop it on the floor where it joins hundreds of others, crushed beneath the feet of the dancers. Etta begins moving sinuously to the music. At first I feel like a buffoon, as if I’ve never danced in my life before, but Etta seems to be ignoring me and looking around the room. The last time I was in a nightclub, just before Christmas, I’d thrown myself at a couple of women. I’d been with Rob, an old friend from school. ‘You’re too desperate mate, they can smell it a mile off,’ had been his helpful words of comfort.
Another song starts and the tempo of the dancing becomes more driven. I move closer to Etta and put my hand on her waist. I expect her to move away, but instead she comes towards me, pressing herself against me. I glance around to see if I can see Jan, but there’s no sign of her.
My face is against Etta’s neck and I can smell her skin, a mix of sweat and something indescribable, a kind of animal musk. I wrap my arms around her back. Etta is drawing on a joint, the smell of dope weighing in the air. She turns it round in her hand and puts it in my mouth. I breathe in. The hot rush of tobacco and marijuana burns the back of my throat. Then I can feel a lightness in my limbs and my head spins.
‘You wan’ go outside?’
Somewhere in my brain I am worrying about Jan, but it seems a separate compartment from the one I’m in now.
Outside it’s pitch black. Even with the music roaring like a pulse I can hear the regular scratching of the night-time insects. Etta pulls me towards her and pushes her tongue into my mouth. She tastes of dope and beer. She puts a hand on my crotch and begins rubbing it up and down. ‘Two hundred,’ she whispers in my ear.
‘Hey, slow down.’ I pull away, feeling dizzy and out of my depth. ‘Look, you’ve got me wrong. I just wanted a dance.’
‘You’re a liar. You wan’ do a black girl. I know.’ 68
I turn and start to walk away. This isn’t how I’d imagined it.
Etta grabs my arm and spins me round. ‘Give me the money, or I tell the police you tried to rape me.’
I think about running back into the club and asking Johnny for help. But maybe he’s in on it too. Suddenly I feel tired. All I want is to be on that plane tomorrow. I pull out my wallet.
I wake with my head throbbing. My mouth feels if I’ve been chewing on a stale sponge all night and for a moment I don’t know where I am. I reach out and fumble for my glasses. The room swims into focus. Jan’s side of the bed is empty with the sheet thrown back. I roll over and swing my feet onto the floor. My clothes are lying in a tangled heap by the bathroom door. Beyond the room I can hear the road.
Even with my sunglasses on, the light is blaring. Jan is sitting at our usual table, wearing her beach dress. She looks at me through her sunglasses.
‘How are you feeling? A bit worse for wear?’
‘You could say that.’ I sit down. ‘My head feels like it’s been kicked by a mule.’
‘Where did you get to last night? Johnny and I were looking for you for ages. When I got back you were in bed, passed out.’
‘Yeah, sorry. I’d just had enough so I got a lift back with some guys in a minibus.’
We stare out over the shanty town to the sea.
Danny brings some rolls in a basket. ‘How was the club?’
‘It was good,’ says Jan. We’re both a bit hungover though.’
When the coffee comes it is Etta who brings it. She has changed into a white dress. She smiles at Jan.
‘We’ve got to talk,’ Jan says when Etta’s gone. ‘I don’t think I can go on like this. We’ve got to make some decisions.’
I lift the cup to my lips, then put it down again. ‘I can’t drink this.’ I take off my sunglasses and rub my eyes. I can hear Etta moving about in the kitchen.
‘Not now, Jan. Not here.’
I stare at my untouched coffee.
After a minute Jan pushes her chair back. ‘I’m going to pack. We’ve got to leave in an hour.’
I put my sunglasses back on and stare out towards the sea. I can feel the sun burning the top of my scalp where my hair is thinning. A searing pain runs up the back of my head and across my eyes.