Ghosts of Jamaica

by Julia Bohanna on Wednesday, 13 September 2006

The day after our father’s funeral, Toby and I took a flight to Jamaica. My brother slunk low and sulky into his seat, blowing misty shapes on the aeroplane window. He was quiet, not the boy who had pinched me on long car journeys to the seaside. In those everlasting summers on everlasting motorways, we had yelled the lyrics to silly songs as if our lungs would explode.

Dad led in a mock tenor voice, my mother pretending to doze. We always forgot the last verse – instead we hummed, whistled or giggled our way to the end. Now Toby drew smiley faces in that exhaled breath, with the clouds beyond, just as he always had. They faded as quickly.

“We need this holiday,” he said, as if someone had suddenly accused him of
a crime. “And Dad would approve, whatever she says.”

Cassie was our stepmother and when I was made sole executor of the will, there had been a row. “I can understand why your father chose Jenny,” she said to Toby. “But I’m asking to be treated as if I’m a member of the family. To be kept in the loop.”

“But you’re not one of us,” Toby had said. “Not any more...”

Later, toward dusk, a hired boat slid slowly past the mangrove trees into the Luminous Lagoon. The knots in my neck disappeared one by one, like butterflies flying from my hand. Finally, it felt as if escape had been a good idea. We trailed our hands in the lagoon as the vehicle slowed, then flicked water at one another. As the sun faded, the droplets shone blue then green.

“She thinks we don’t care,” said Toby, looking at the phosphorescent organisms that flickered like Tinkerbell’s mischievous lights in his cupped hands, lighting his face. “But we loved him. We were there when it counted.”

Our gap-toothed Rastafarian guide stood large and calm at the helm, moonlight snaking around his long brown hair. It was a full-time job distracting my brother from his hatred – he was obsessed, to a boy of 20 yet to leave his self-absorbed adolescence behind, she was the fairytale evil stepmother. To me – well I didn’t know how I felt.

“It’s not as if she spent a lot of time at the hospital,” he said. “She’s like the Little Red Hen. You know, coming in at the end to get something.”

I remembered her tears though. Had they been real? There was her trembling face as she hesitated at the door of his private hospital room – the shake in her voice. “I can’t do it today,” she said, as her heels clicked a retreat. “Tell him I’ll visit tomorrow.”

Tomorrow of course had been too late. Tomorrow was when we made funeral arrangements, when Toby stared as Cassie folded one skinny leg over the other, her face drawn and anxious. After that, I telephoned the solicitor. My father had what Jane Austen might have called a “considerable fortune”, so it was complicated...

Even though it was dark, heat hung in the air like butter – I untied my sarong and went over the side in my T-shirt and knickers. Now I could only think about the water around my body and my hands turning it luminous with every stroke – like magic.

A few minutes later, Toby was stripped to his underpants and in there beside me. Afterwards, we would sit dripping but still warm at the Lagoon café, ripping at tender spicy jerk chicken and finishing off our third glass of white rum. Back at the villa, I could remember only the smell of spice and fug of alcohol as I fell asleep...

“Have you seen those men on the beach, sis?” He was awake at five, wide-eyed and dragging me to the door. “They’re clearing the seaweed away.”

We stood outside the villa that nestled in the hotel complex. The air was ripe with a promise of thunder, small spots of hot Caribbean rain fell almost apologetically on our faces. The men had finished their beautification of the beach and were now collecting fallen coconuts in cloth bags. A waiter in a blossom-white uniform whizzed past us on a bicycle and grinned, a full breakfast tray balanced on his head.

By nine o’clock, after a breakfast of muffins and the freshest bananas I had ever tasted, we signed up for an excursion. What could be better to distract us from sadness than a haunted plantation, a reminder of the evils of the slave trade? Someone else’s misery is always better than your own.

Toby wanted his legs to tan and he stretched them out into the aisle of the bus like a lion. As we arrived at Rose Hall, he grabbed my arm. “Just imagine you’re a slave,” he whispered. “Maybe only in chains and dirty rags, your possessions in one tiny bag, about to arrive at a plantation with the worst reputation for cruelty.”

Sun dripped through the trees that framed the façade of a gloomy old house. Flowers that looked as if children had crafted them from crêpe paper billowed their faces towards the sun. The guide was a beautiful Jamaican girl with glittering black hair and a layered orange dress that swirled like a dancer’s as she walked.

“So you’d come to see who we cal de White Witch of Jamaica, Annie Palmer,” said the girl in orange, with a look of devilment in her face. She clicked the back of her teeth with her tongue. “In the 1700s, she was de wicked plantation owner here and as she de boss, we’d better not keep her waitin’.”

There was a murmur from the tourists. “Got to hand it to her for theatre,” said Toby. “Not bad looking either.”

As we walked up the baronial staircase behind her towards the first bedroom, a small green lizard clung like a brooch to the chinoiserie wallpaper with only his bulbous eyes moving. He would still be there after seven of us had trooped from bedroom to bedroom, having been shown the four-poster beds on which three husbands were reputedly poisoned, strangled or stabbed.

The guide was happy to spellbind; her voice soft and low. Annie kept a tidy house – she never killed in the same room twice and she organised slaves to take the latest victim by secret tunnel down to the sea for disposal. In a final twist, like a housewife folding towels for the cupboard, she would then have the slaves killed upon their return, so that the whereabouts of each body would never be located.

“Makes Cassie look like a pussy-cat,” laughed Toby. What would it take to get his mind away from her?

“She was a wick-ked wick-ked woman. Ruled by voodoo that she learnt from the slaves,” sighed the guide, as we stood before a small oval mirror. “Yet not one picture of her remain, so we have no idea what she look like. It had been said though that if you take a photograph of dat mirror, a shadowy face sometimes mysteriously appeared. Each slave she killed she got a little magic. Each husband, money. And she was English.”

Toby and I queued up to stare into the glass. All we saw were two siblings, the family likeness most prominent in the wide greyness of the eyes. Sometimes in him I saw my father too – the way he used to laugh and mock the world and question everything.

“Did you know that you can sleep here?” he said, as a few of us drifted out to the back of the house towards Annie’s grave. “They actually dare you too.”

I gave him my best disapproving look, then a hug that diluted the sternness. It was good to see the shine in his eyes again, even if it was for some ridiculous dare. Although I had seen him sad, furious and needy, he had not cried. We stood at the unornamented brick grave and I thought of the wicked soul within.

“Would you take our picture?” An American couple and their reedy teenage son had asked for a shot of them linking arms next to Annie’s grave. It was macabre but comic and suddenly Toby and I were fighting giggles. The teenage boy, obviously hating every minute of the excursion, would not show his teeth for the camera and looked at his feet instead.

“He reminds me of me,” said Toby. “Please, Dad, no more ancient monuments. I know all about Romans, Cistercian monks and the Tudors. I just don’t care any more.”

“Nice trainers,” I said, before I clicked the shutter. “Say Nike.” The boy gave a half-smile and Toby, in a moment of solidarity, gave him the universal thumbs up.

Back at the hotel, it was beginning to rain. We sat on a pollen-dusty table beneath a tree on the restaurant terrace for lunch, waiters frantically shooing away a small flock of grey, chattering parakeets from above our heads. Even a bony tabby cat that had previously been fanatical and systematic about begging at the tables slunk away to find dry shelter.

“They’ll think we’re those crazy British,” I said. “Sitting eating lunch in the rain.”

“Not as crazy as those kids,” said Toby. “Have you seen the size of the monster crab who lives down there?” Two blonde children were poking into a manhole cover with sticks.

There were delighted squeals when their efforts were rewarded and they jumped back, waving now only half a stick in the air. One belligerent snap had halved the weapon of torment. They ran away laughing, their intricately braided hair thumping down on tanned honey-coloured backs.

It was getting unpleasantly hot, so after a very large lunch we went back to the villa and stretched out on the newly made beds, groaning with excess. Toby fell asleep almost immediately, the air conditioning flickering slightly at his hair. I touched his forehead that was smooth and untroubled for once.

He murmured. He was all that a little brother should be – annoying, difficult and secretly beloved...

Walking towards reception, I liked the feeling of sizzling white sand on the soles of my feet, seeing the curl of each wave tickling the shore. I went past the terrace again and could smell fish frying, hear the sizzle of the hotplate.

Yet there was something I had to do, so I bypassed the temptations of the food and the beach. In reception, there was a reggae song playing on the radio – music that seemed to fit the island like a caress. I left a short message to Cassie on my father’s answer phone – it still had his voice and I dialled twice, just to hear. Only then did I go down to the beach and lie in a hammock, swinging in the shade of a palm tree until I fell asleep.

I woke up feeling sticky, still heavy with sleep. There were telltale red indentations of the roped hammock patterning the back of my legs. The villa felt miraculously cool. There was no Toby. Instead, there was a crumpled ball of paper on the bed in the indentation where his body had been. On it a message from Cassie, scrawled by reception.

“Thank you,” it said, “for letting me know you’re safe. I was worried.”

God, that was all I needed – Toby would react to the fact that she was talking like a parent. I remembered the brutal way he had spoken to her a few hours before we had sneaked away to the flight. He would have rejected her concern, maybe even hated me for betraying him.
I checked the beach, where people lay in happy clumps, their skin glistening like freshly peeled mangoes.

I wanted to be back at the Luminous Lagoon, swimming with tiny mercurial dashes of light all around me. How Toby and I had laughed when we realised that our feet could easily touch the bottom and we were only waist-deep in water, mud underfoot.

Everything was reduced to warmth and the safety of one another. We could forget in the water our father’s illness, the dull lamplight outside his hospital room, the slowing of his breath. When you lose one person you love, you cling to the ones you have left so much more fiercely. I couldn’t find Toby – every face was another stranger.

“Have you seen my brother?” I asked the receptionist. “He is tall and blondish, in khaki shorts.”

She smiled in recognition, put her elbows on the desk and leaned forward so far I could smell the coconut oil in her hair. “I not only see him,” she said. “I arrange one of our drivers take him out.” “To where?” I said, trying not to panic. “Rose Hall,” she replied, whispering the words as if they alone could hurt her. “He took a bag.”

Idiot. Idiot. He had decided to sleep in the haunted house. To prove himself a man? Or to run from the possibility of Cassie coming out to confront us. But her note had not sounded angry – if anything it was sad, relieved.

“Wouldn’t you rather go and see the friendly crocodiles?” said the driver, as we reached Rose Hall. “They look nasty, but people they leave alone.”

He leant against the car, smoking. There was a bar in the Hall where he could have had a drink, but it was on the site of the old dungeons, where rumours of whispers and screams that came from the walls persisted. With no tourists and the windows all closed, the house looked hostile.

There was a guide in the hallway, looking wonderfully fresh despite the heat that made my shoulders sweat, my head dizzy. She looked at me with a bemused smile, but did not remember that I was connected to Toby. I had to ask twice.

“He’s upstairs in bedroom number one. That’s the one with the balcony.”

I remembered it. Annie Palmer used to stand upon it early in the morning, give orders to the slaves working or being whipped beneath. She would decide on the next one that she wanted to take as a lover. When she tired of them, they would be dispatched as efficiently as the husbands. That was where I found Toby, looking out onto the lawn.

“I’m expecting to see her tonight,” he said, his face impassive at seeing me. “Maybe riding across the plantation grounds with her whip in one hand.”

“And if you see Cassie?” “Well, that’s another witch entirely. If she wants his money, she’s got a fight on her hands.”

“Look, Toby, everything will be divided equally, as Dad would have wanted. He was with her for six years. Don’t you think that she deserves something?” “No,” he said, and his face was hard.

Then his expression changed abruptly. He looked as if he was going to cry. That tough little boy who had held my hand throughout the funeral, kissed my cheek as we walked away from the graveside. He had snubbed Cassie of course, in the church, at the cemetery, even on the day of Dad’s terminal diagnosis.

He was always wanting something, my little Toby, never content with his lot. It was then that I realised that the flip-side of hatred can be too much love. Girlfriends had dumped him because he was always too intense, too soon. He was the kind of person who wrote long verses of poetry to them, bought up the flower shop, became devoted.

“Toby, you need to come back…” I nearly said home. “What is it you want?” I said. He sat down on the bed, not looking me in the face. “Why did she get so much of him?” he said suddenly. “She was always there. He was my father. He had everything, that house…” His voice choked.

“He had her.”

My poor brother. But he wouldn’t be the first to have a crush on someone unsuitable, unattainable. He had to learn that he couldn’t have it all, emotion or money. “But at the end?”

“Then I knew she loved him, really loved him. I saw the pain in her face. And she let us be there at the end.”

The pretty Jamaican guide was leaning against the door, her eyes upon Toby’s face. There were lizards like the one I had seen earlier climbing over the walls, flicking out pink tongues.
“I always wanted to be with him. I don’t think he liked me, Jen. I don’t think I was the sort of son that he expected. He wanted a rugby-playing son, a pint in the pub son…”

He trailed off because he had noticed the girl standing by the door. “This is Ameilia by the way,” he said, finding stability to his voice. “She looks after the place. And me.” “But I go home before it gets dark,” said Ameilia. “I don’t want to hear the swish of green velvet up the stairs, or the scream of those poor souls down in the dungeons.” All trace of her Jamaican patois was gone, cultivated as if for the tourists.

“Maybe that’s what we should do. Go home,” I said. “We’ll leave Annie Palmer and see a friendly crocodile, go rafting up the Black River – then get a flight home. Just tell me what else you want to do?”

“I’d like to climb the waterfall,” he said. So that’s how we found ourselves slithering barefoot up wet, green-encrusted rocks to get to the top of Dunne River Falls. The water hammered at our ankles, then frothed around our knees.

There was no more word from Cassie and no more word from Toby about Cassie. And when my brother slipped, I let him pick himself up, put his hands down into the water and hold himself steady until he was ready to stand up again. There was no more word from Cassie and no more word from Toby about Cassie.

And when my brother slipped, I let him pick himself up, put his hands down into the water and hold himself steady until he was ready to stand up again. So when we were at the top, all bright and hopeful, he knew he had got there on his own.

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