The charabanc laboured up the last stretch of the hill and then, where the road flattened out and swung left, took the corner with an air of quiet triumph, like a runner finding his stride. There was a break in the trees here which revealed, fleetingly, a glittering strip of sea; on cue, the English passengers exclaimed at the vivid turquoise, which was indeed an extraordinary sight, unless the slate-grey monotony of the Bristol Channel was unknown to you and Caribbean colours were commonplace. Certainly the driver, a local man, didn’t even glance at the view; he only stared ahead, and his face remained shuttered.
They were here to see an old sugar estate, built in 1758 and abandoned some time in the middle of the nineteenth century, after emancipation had done for slave labour and the plantation could no longer meet its costs. There were many such places, and together they told the story of Jamaica. This is what Silas Whittam liked to tell his guests, the ones who politely enquired about the island’s history.
‘Jamaica’s ruins,’ he would say musingly, as if for the first time. ‘They’re everywhere, resonant with sorrow, redolent of disappointment and lost dreams.’ Silas ran the tour from the Whittam Hotel to the old sugar estate out near Hope Bay. He had had pamphlets printed, telling a potted, palatable version of plantation life, spiced up with a few distinctly less palatable details – all perfectly true: a slave whipped to death for looking the overseer in the eye; a Creole heiress, granddaughter of the original planter, who hanged herself when, after the Emancipation Act, her slaves simply set down their cane bills and walked away into the hills. The great house, the sugar mill, the boiling house, the slave huts: all of them stood in varying states of dereliction, and the guests from the Whittam Hotel picked their way in and out of them, imagining the goings on. The estate was on high land and the views were remarkable; it was comforting, said one of the visitors to her companion, to think that the slaves, in the midst of their travails, would at least have been able to enjoy this vista, the majesty of the Caribbean Sea, which winked in the sunshine in the near distance.
The driver always parked in the shade of a cotton tree, and took out his tobacco tin as the passengers disembarked. Once a week he made this trip, and his surliness was as steadily dependable as the heat of the sun. His name was Scotty, but he had nothing to say on that subject or any other. He brought them here; he waited; he took them back. While they explored the plantation he squatted against the trunk of the tree and chewed tobacco, and took very little care where he spat. Sometimes, as they came back towards the vehicle, he seemed to take aim.
It was unsettling for the guests. On their return one or two of them would always complain. Certainly no one ever took the trip more than once.
Ruby Donaldson followed the same coastal road as the chara- banc twice a day, with her boy, Roscoe. She was a cook at the Whittam Hotel, he a pupil at Port Antonio School, and they had walked this route together for three years now, side by side, although he would no longer let her hold his hand. Sometimes, like today, they left home early and took a detour to Eden Falls, where Roscoe liked to swim in the lagoon, while Ruby watched him from the bank, as patient and still as the hill behind her. Ruby never swam: even as a child she had always preferred to be dry rather than wet. But Roscoe – he was half boy, half fish. Sometimes she checked him for fins and gills.
Today he carefully folded his school clothes and placed them on a rock, to keep the red ants out of his shorts.
‘Count until I come up again,’ he said to her. ‘See how long I can stay under.’ Then he swallow-dived into the blue water with no more of a splash than if he were an arrow fired from a bow. For a little while she could see the shape of him, a skinny shadow moving down into the darker depths of the lagoon. Then, too quickly, she lost him, his shadow blending with other shadows, his shape swallowed by the water. On this side of the lagoon, far away from the falls, the water was as still as glass.
Unease came stealthily upon her and her placid, clear-eyed face grew troubled. Roscoe was gone and here was she, sitting on the bank in the early morning, counting aloud like a fool- fool. So she stopped counting and stood, brushing dry grass from the seat of her green print dress, trying to dispel her fear with busyness. She turned her back on the water, told herself that when she turned again to face it he would be there, bobbing like a cork, droplets of water hanging like crystals in his black hair. And she kept herself from turning too soon. If she did, she told herself, he wouldn’t be there; and if he wasn’t there when she turned, he would be drowned.
Something delicious had woven itself into the breeze and carried itself down the mountain, and instinctively Ruby sniffed the air. Someone was cooking up fish for breakfast; herring sprats, blackening over hot coals. She imagined the cook at the barbecue pit, flipping the fish onto a platter with a stick, pulling away the hot flesh, avoiding the pesky pin bones, burning her fingers. She hated her, this unknown woman, for her trivial concerns. Envied her too. Then Ruby turned and the thread of hope she had carefully spun snapped at the sight of the untroubled water. You would think to look at it that no living thing moved beneath its surface, least of all a strong and beautiful boy. She walked to the rock that he’d dived from and picked up the small, tidy pile of clothes. She buried her face in his shirt and inhaled; the smell of him was of warm cornbread. She put the clothes back on their rock, cupped her hands to her mouth and called for her son, summoning him from the depths, demanding that he return to her.
Her voice came out shrill with panic and her chest heaved with the beginnings of grief. Poised, ready to shout again, she waited. Nothing. The pool returned her gaze with a glassy stare. He was dead then, claimed by the water. This she knew for a fact. Still, though, she shouted again.
And then, on the very far side, where the lagoon boiled and foamed as the falls hit the water, the boy rushed upwards like a newborn child expelled from the womb into the world, gulping at the air. Warm relief flooded Ruby’s body then, hard on its heels, fury. She sat down again, made lightheaded by the swift exit of fear. Roscoe, oblivious, trod water and grinned at her from a distance, and his teeth flashed in the sunshine. He began to swim away from the falls with the ease and skill of a water-dweller, until he was close enough to be heard.
‘How long?’ he shouted when he stopped, as if that was all that mattered. She didn’t answer because she couldn’t; she had thought she had lost him to the pool’s bottomless depths, and so she watched him swim back to her across the water, haul himself out of the shallows and step up towards her onto the bank. Then she seized him by his bony shoulders. Her fingers dug into his skin and it hurt. He writhed to get free, but she had him pinned.
‘Lord, chile,’ she said then, not gently.
‘How long?’ he said again, though he knew she hadn’t counted at all, and it was a shame, because he’d almost burst his lungs under there and he knew it must have been four minutes, maybe five. She released one hand, cuffed him on the side of the head and said, ‘Cu ya! Me thought you a dead.’
Roscoe thought, If she caught me talking in that way she’d smack me for that too. He was eight now and since the day he first opened his mouth to speak – early, Ruby said, taking the credit – he’d had standard English rammed down his throat and when he drifted into patois she fell on him like the wrath of God. The king’s English was the way to raise yourself on this island of Jamaica, she always told him; the king’s English showed your brains and your breeding. So when Ruby lapsed into the language of her childhood it was a desperate measure, a signal to Roscoe that his mother had moved beyond anger and into the realm of distress. He felt resentful, not sorry, but he swallowed the temptation to talk back at her, choosing instead the useful device of artful meekness.
‘Sorry, Ruby,’ he said. He called her by her first name because, although she was his mother, there were just fourteen years separating them and she seemed to the world, and to him, more like an older sister. His face was the image of abject contrition: large brown eyes full of pain; mouth downturned, full of sadness. It was an act, but he hated it when she was like this; the sooner he brought her back to him the better. She hesitated, and some of the tension left her face. She let go of his shoulder. He could feel the place on his skin where her nails had dug in and he raised a hand and rubbed, and Ruby capitulated. She pulled him to her and rubbed his head where she had struck him.
‘Come,’ she said. ‘Dry yourself off and get dressed. You’re making me late, and you know what a terror Mr Silas is about tardiness.’ She rolled her eyes and grinned, and Roscoe grinned back at her.
‘I wish you’d counted though, Ruby,’ he said, risking a complaint. ‘I was under a long, long time.’
‘Did you see the water dragon?’
He laughed. ‘Yes I did. He sends his regards.’
‘And did you touch the bottom?’
‘There is no bottom, Ruby.’ He’d always heard this, but now he believed it. ‘I swam and swam, but it never came.’
‘I thought I’d lost you,’ she said, suddenly serious again.
‘Don’t do that again. Stay away from the water.’
‘No. You stay away,’ he said. ‘You stay away.’
He was right, she thought. He shouldn’t be fettered by her fears for his safety. He should test himself, find his limits, explore life’s possibilities: and he should do it unobserved by her.
There was a path from Eden Falls, a narrow strip of vegetation trodden flat leading first up the mountain, through a tunnel of green, and then down again, to Port Antonio. Ruby and Roscoe, single file, picked their way along it and at the top, where it met the road, they fell in beside each other again. In due course, Ruby turned for the hotel and Roscoe continued on to school.
The Whittam Hotel was a fine building, the finest in Port Antonio, although there were plenty of locals who thought the town had done very well without it. Built in the style of a plantation house, it occupied the higher reaches of Eden Hill, which rose to the west of the town in a series of natural terraces. The hotel was a perfect distance from the port: close enough to afford a view of all its colour and bustle but far enough that its less edifying characteristics – the pungent smells, the ripe profanities – stayed where they belonged.
Beyond the port lay the Caribbean Sea, and Silas Whittam, hotelier and shipping magnate, could never look upon it without emotion. These peerless waters reminded him of his younger self: a ship’s lad, seeing the tropics for the first time and believing this to be an enchanted place. The years had passed and the fates had singled him out for special treatment. The fates, that is, and Sir Walter Hollis. His former boss at the Global Steamship Company had been so entirely won over by his protégé’s judi- cious mix of hard work and sycophancy that he had gifted to Silas a small fleet of refrigerated ships. With these, Silas had prospered and grown, wealth coming swiftly and easily as he sailed between Bristol and Port Antonio. He’d bought an old sugar plantation – they were going for a song by the time he was in a position to cast an acquisitive eye across Jamaican soil – and replaced the cane with bananas. In this way he had truly made his fortune, for the fruit he shipped was now his own, and the powerful growers no longer his concern. The hotel had come later, when he realised that his cargo ships could be equipped for passengers; or, rather, that luxury passenger liners could be equipped for cargo. He bought Eden Hill and, with machetes and manpower, had vanquished the jungle. The hotel had been built to Silas’s precise specifications and its grounds meticulously landscaped; now, where ferns and vines had once romped in unchecked abundance, there were lawns and herba- ceous borders immaculately planted with English flowers. It was the garden of a proud colonialist, not the garden of a plantsman.
The indigenous blooms – the poincianas, the alamandas, the trusty plumbago – were cast aside in favour of hollyhocks, delphiniums and Michaelmas daisies, whose pale hues seemed paler still in the unrelenting yellow light of the Jamaican sun, or the periodic onslaughts of warm tropical wind and rain.
A long path zigzagged down the terraces to the wrought-iron gateway at the road and as Ruby approached it from one direction a man was coming towards it from the other. He carried a great wooden box of provisions on his head and moved lethargically, like a soul burdened not with vegetables but with all the cares of the world. His face, when he saw Ruby, bloomed into a wide smile.
‘Good morning Maxwell,’ Ruby said, her words clipped and bright.
‘Miss Ruby,’ Maxwell replied, talking in the same way that he walked: slowly, lazily, taking all the time in the world.
‘How de pickney?’
‘Roscoe is very well, thank you.’
She smiled at the porter and waited with him while he leaned his lanky frame against the gate and lifted the box from his head. He placed it on the road at his feet and they both looked down at it: asparagus, carrots, celery, mushrooms – English vegetables shipped over from Bristol’s costermongers as if nothing grew in the fertile soil of Jamaica. Maxwell gave Ruby a look: a languid, disdainful roll of the eyes. The twisted cotton cotta looked ludicrous with the box gone, but he left it on his head anyway, and dipped into the pocket of his baggy trousers for a tin of Red Man. Ruby said, ‘Maxwell, that tobacco is turning your teeth the colour of wet mud,’ but he chuckled and with gracious irony held out the open tin to her as if she might be tempted to nip out a portion, as he had done, and pop it into her pink and white mouth.
It rots your body from the top down,’ she said sternly, and he laughed again, a full-throated, drawn-out, Jamaican laugh. He liked Ruby. She was full of advice that he hadn’t asked for, but she wasn’t as prim and proper as she made out. She was built for love, was Ruby, with her wide, slanting eyes like a cat and her beautiful round backside. When, like this morning, providence brought them to the hotel path together Maxwell always let Ruby go in front, waving her on in a gentlemanly manner then feasting at his leisure on the sight of her lovely buttocks, which moved against the fabric of her dress like two ripe mangoes in a bag.
‘Shall we?’ she said now, indicating the gate and the upward path. Maxwell bent down, his long body folding itself in two, then, with a fluid, seamless movement, unfolding again to lift the box up and onto his head. ‘After you, Miss Ruby,’ he said and she nodded approval at him, pleased by his manners.
Halfway up the path, where it diverged so that kitchen staff and tradesmen could make their final ascent to the hotel’s back door out of sight of the guests, Silas Whittam was waiting, a scowl darkening his handsome features. He held a fine gold fob in one hand and he shook it at them as Ruby and Maxwell approached.
‘Here de harbour shark to wish us good day,’ said Maxwell none too quietly, and Ruby laughed. It was this insolence, as much as their lateness, which now provoked their employer.
‘God damn it! You were due here thirty minutes ago and you have the brass neck to mutter and smirk at me.’
They couldn’t deny it so they said nothing at all, and continued their measured pace up the path.
‘I should sack you here and now,’ Silas said. His face was hard with resentment. ‘I should send you packing, you useless, feckless, no-good pair. Thirty staff, and not a good one among you. Can you actually tell the time? Or do you just stroll along to work when the cock stops crowing or when the mango drops from the tree?’
Maxwell whistled through his teeth and Ruby nodded slowly as if to say, I hear you and I see you, but I don’t heed you. He had built himself a great house but it didn’t make them slaves, and the plain fact was he needed them more than they needed him. A hundred and forty-six arrivals today, the Whittam liner due in at midday; without Ruby in the kitchen they’d all go hungry, and without Maxwell and Scotty they’d all be carrying their own valises. All of this she expressed with her eyes, cutting the boss a cold, bold look as she passed. Ruby Donaldson had a friendly word for almost everyone, but not for Silas Whittam, no. He was a waste of good breath.