I took a stroll along Seven Mile Beach that first morning at Cotton Tree Inn. Walked along the dotted line of all-inclusive hotels, including the infamous Hedonism II and III where nudity and random acts of group sex are the order of the day. So I am told. Everywhere I look; black flesh seemed tied to the purse strings of foreigners paying for sex with drinks, meals, gifts, and cash. Old men that you could tell would not get much sexual play at home where suddenly walking the beach like the number one don, and all the time flanked by a bevvy of young girls and male hustlers.
Along the sandy seafront, flabby white women laid out across giant-towels like blubber, sun-seeking beached whales, surrounded by what they might otherwise call ‘threatening groups of burly black men’ back home. Black women were paying for company too, of course. Stella didn’t just get her groove back; she encouraged a range of other middle-aged African-American women to come looking to get it on as well in the sun-drenched Caribbean. They, however, seemed more innocuous to me with their fraternising less exploitative. It was not supposed to be like this. None of it was supposed to be like this. My first trip back to Jamaica in over three decades was supposed to be a voyage of discovery – a joy.
The Negril Cotton Tree Inn is, in fact, two buildings joined together as one. There is the older two-storey redbrick block where a single room with no TV, no radio, no fan and no view, will cost you thirty-five pounds per night without breakfast. Then there is the vastly more expensive new build addition, painted all white and enclosed within a rectangular frame like a fortress. Luxury pads along three sets of balconies arranged around a magnificent tropical garden courtyard are offered. This new section provides full twenty-four-hour Maid Services, catering, laundry, room service, dry cleaning, a fully functioning gymnasium, and a private heated outdoor swimming pool. I take it. A small, self-contained, holiday apartment with all mod cons will cost me one hundred pounds per night, but I thank the taxi driver for his excellent suggestion and plan to look around elsewhere tomorrow.
There was a beauty contest taking place in the lobby of the Cotton Tree Inn when I arrived. A winding staircase behind the chirpy contestants led to my room on the third of three interconnected balconies, each one looking out onto the immaculately planted rectangular garden, which smelt of pond life, Lilies and Hibiscus. Along imposing white walls dividing the Haves from the Have-nots, exotic ‘Kiss Me over the Garden Gate’ flowers hung like fluffy rose-coloured cattails. Central to the private closed-in effect was the huge and ancient Cotton Tree spreading giant tentacles way above the roofs. Partially shading the entire swimming pool area, this dinosaur-tree grew so close to my third-floor windows that it felt like I nesting in its branches.
In the starry sweltering night, I heard a voice, a woman singing. Somewhere below under the rustling Cotton Tree, she sang of love and loss. I couldn’t quite pick out the words at first from her softly mournful Creole, but something about unrequited love, and desire for a handsome stranger. It was a reggae song of the Lover’s Rock variety; a plaintive, haunting melody that I knew.
“It sounds like some man must have broken your heart.”
“Who’s that?” she said, “Who’s there?”
A sudden sharp coldness had entered her words, and I recognised the voice of our pretty receptionist. It was she who made me want to stay at this hotel called Jamaica Inn. She had a certain charm about her, and a way of moving that made me think of dancing. A dark girl, with tender talking eyes, she had a firm, fit body that reminded me of my ex-wife.
“It’s your latest guest, Miss Janise. Remember me?”
“Oh,” she replied, “It’s you,” stepping out from under the giant Cotton Tree, and looking up towards my balcony. “I didn’t know anyone was listening.”
“You have a lovely voice,” I know I must have said with a cheesy grin all over my face. I was trying to avert my eyes from focusing too much on the spot where the light from my room hit her chest. “You sound like you should sing for a living.”
“Thank you,” she smiled, sweetly. I suppose that’s why they have me on reception. And, you know, I only ever sing in church.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know, you know. Shy, maybe.”
“A beautiful girl like you?” Her bursting white smile almost lit up the moonless night, and she laughed a deep cackling sound. “No, I mean it!” I insisted. “I saw that they had some beauty contest back there earlier…”
“Yeah, that was the Miss Jamaica Pageant,” she said.
“Oh! So why didn’t you take part?”
She laughed out loud again. “That’s not for me,” she said. “That’s for the pretty light-skinned girls with silky hair.”
“You’re just as beautiful as any one of them.”
“Hmm,” she said, her lips curling into a brief frown. “One thing about you English men, you always know the right words.”
“And what do you know about us English men?”
“Guess, men are the same all over the world,” and she turned to leave.
“Don’t go. I could be gone tomorrow, and I may never see you again.”
“I’m still here tomorrow,” she said, suddenly serious.
“So who broke your heart?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Okay, then, we won’t. Have you worked here long?”
“Five years, ever since I was twenty-two. And apart from church on Sundays and Mondays off, I hardly ever leave this place.
“Well, maybe we can do something about that?”
“I doubt it!” she said. “Now unless there’s anything else I can help you with, I’ve got to go. Goodnight.”
She was gone in a shift of light before I could respond. That was seven nights ago, seven hundred pounds later, and I’m still here trying to ask her out. Says she’s not supposed to fraternise with the guests. So, I thought my luck was in yesterday when she sat beside me at the bar in the restaurant downstairs. She was about to make her way home to Savanna La Mar after a hectic day.
Several rowdy Parisian guests had descended on the Cotton Tree Inn demanding instant service with all the French contempt they could muster. Of course, nobody here understands French, which only made the French more abusive. Janise handled the situation with perfect restraint. Obviously still upset hours later, she wanted a shoulder to cry on, which was cool with me.
“Why are you alone?” she said before we even had time to get cosy.
I was stunned by her bluntness. Shy, she certainly wasn’t, and I didn’t quite know what to say to her at first. Then, I thought, the truth will set you free. “My wife left me for one of my friends.” There – it was the first time I had said it out loud!
My wife left me for an African-American with thick lips and big bug eyes. I’m only five foot nine. Darnell James was six foot five and seventeen stones. To most people, he was the proverbial Gentle Giant, but privately, I called him ‘Stepin Fetchit’. He looked just like an apology. Head bowed, eyes lowered, and a shuffled walk that made him appear as if his ankles were somehow chained. I don’t know what she saw in him. But anything from over there was always infinitely better than anything homegrown to my ex-wife.
I caught them kissing in our car parked outside the library walking home from work one wet Thursday evening. Don’t know what they were doing at the library. Darnell could barely read, and Maxine didn’t care too much for books these days, after failing her bar exams twice. I should have known something was up from the night I invited him over to our place for dinner a couple of years ago.
He wore a bright-yellow string vest showing off his chest under a blue Pierre Cardin shirt that he left unbuttoned. She had on the sexy red dress I’d bought her in Paris for our seventh anniversary two years earlier. She said, “I put it on because you always like me in it.” I guess she must have thought he would like her in it, too. She cooked her favourite New Orleans Seafood Gumbo recipe and offered up elaborate displays of friendliness that seemed inappropriate to me for a first meeting. I didn’t say a thing.
Later, after we’d downed a full bottle of Extra Old Barbados Rum and two litres of wine between us, she started talking to him (about me) as if I wasn’t even in the room. I’d stopped speaking altogether by then. By the end of the night, I just sat there watching her under fading candlelight with an air of detachment for the first time in our relationship.
“So don’t you want children, Darnel?” she was asking him, with the same flirtatious grin on her face she gave to me the night we first met. I wanted to puke. It was she who didn’t want children for nine years while she studied to be a Lawyer. Who could have known that it would take her forever and in the end, she would come out of it with nothing? But here she was, still my wife, looking at this bloke as if he was “the stud” I brought home to impregnate her. It was embarrassing and all clearly visible in her body language. I just didn’t want to see it.
That’s what I told Janise in the restaurant, as she fingered a non-alcoholic fruit punch, and as I prayed to God, she didn’t think me bitter. She took my hand and squeezed it hard. “It sounds like you and me are in the same boat,” she said. I didn’t ask her why, and she didn’t elaborate.
“Can you walk me to the bus stop? I need to get home to bathe my baby brother, cook him some food, and put him to bed. I don’t get to see him much always working.”
Maybe I was getting somewhere after all. As we passed makeshift stalls selling Ital health foods and smoke-scented jerk pork, outside Hungry Lion on West End Road, she kissed me. It was brief, sweet, lingering, but gone. She was on the bus from nowhere, suddenly, waving at me, smiling.