Before dawn, the dream happened again. Once more, I wearily pulled myself up the long flight of stairs, paused outside the door, knocked gently, once, twice. Waited for the answer that didn’t come, that never came. Turned the handle, pushed the door open, looked into the room.
Knowing I was dreaming, unable to break free, I waited for what would happen, for what always happened.
The room was empty. In the sudden flash of lightning which burnt through the un-drawn curtains and open window, I saw the bed, pristine, unmarked by the weight of a body.
Disappointed, I left, hesitated, turned to pace softly down the dimly lit landing, searching, needing … what? What had I been looking for?
Thunder rumbled, lightning flickered again, staccato, other worldly. Around me the old house held its breath. Water oozed onto the thick carpet from my sandals, their sodden leather chafing against the chilled damp skin of my feet. Cold, I was so cold, so alone, confused.
I reached the next door, saw it was ajar, saw my hand stretch out. In my head I heard my despairing cries – no, don’t go in there, don’t …
It was too late, it was always too late.
Silently, the door swung open. I stood and waited. The room was dark, then, in an instant of blinding illumination from a lightning crack so violent it seemed the world trembled, I saw … and I saw … and I saw …
I catapulted out of sleep away from the dream, so abruptly teeth snapped shut over my tongue. Crying out in shock and pain, I sat bolt upright, sweat tangled sheets clinging to my legs tentacle-like, attempting to drag me back into the dream, my heart hammering violently, a desperate tattoo in rhythm with the throbbing of my skull; my breathing, hoarse and ragged, in the quietness of the room.
The dream. That dream. It’d been weeks, months even, since it had last plagued me. I’d thought myself free of it, but knew what had triggered this backward step, this unwanted look over my shoulder, knew what had made it come again. By sending the email to Ruth, I had broken through the confines of my self-imposed, year long exile. I had reached out to the past, to my old life, my old self. Was it any wonder the past had retaliated and was now reaching out to me?
I felt marginally better after I’d showered, standing so long under the rusty Heath Robinson contraption that the water, lukewarm at the best of times, suddenly ran frigid, jerking me back into a sense of time and place. The dream, banished to the outer corners of my mind by morning routine, rumbled discontentedly, demanding attention. I ignored it.
Taking my normal cup of caffeine overload with me, I settled on the rickety wooden veranda, propping my bare feet on the handrail, knowing from year long practice exactly where to place them to avoid the wicked splinters which sought to catch unwary flesh.
Gazing out over the expanse of Montego Bay, I felt myself begin to relax, the beauty of the view acting like an aspirin on jangled senses. Cautiously, I sipped at the scalding black coffee. It was a special brand, unique to the island; in truth, I think it was unique to Reg. I remembered the warning he’d given me, along with the first packet of shiny perfect beans.
‘Don’t drink too much, white girl, your system, it’s not used to it.’
‘I’d accepted the beans, but ignored the warning, much to my cost. I grinned ruefully thinking of the chronic migraine four cups in one day had caused, the way my body had shook for hours, the odd muzzy sensation behind the eyes, the loss of a night’s sleep, the fact for hours after, my pee had stunk of caffeine.
Now I play it safe and stick to one cup a day, drunk first thing, sitting here on the veranda, aware of the hardness of the ancient chair solid under my rear, the thrills skittering up my spine as I swung dangerously back on its unstable legs, the breath-taking majesty of the brand new day, the sea, the sand, the shiny faced sun … Why had I sent that email?
Other than odd emails to my parents to reassure them, prevent them listing me as a missing person, I’d had no contact with anyone since I’d arrived here. Since that night, over a year ago, when I’d run away. Ran as fast and as far as I could.
I knew why. The book was finished. That great cathartic purge, the story which had long niggled inside let loose during my year of self-imposed solitary confinement. A year spent without any modern day distractions which had allowed the tale to pour forth, although far darker, more complex and possibly better than I’d ever imagined it being. I’d agonised over every word, edited it forwards, backwards, inside out. I’d gone as far with it as I possibly could, it was time, if I was serious about it, to show it to someone else; Ruth being the obvious choice.
As risks go, it was a calculated one. Sure, she had my email address now, could reply if she wanted, but had no way of knowing where in the world I was. Also, I’d asked her not to tell the others and knew for all her faults Ruth would probably respect my wishes.
Becoming aware of the passage of time, I hurriedly finished my coffee and washed the cup at the tiny sink in the miniscule cupboard which served as a kitchen. Grabbing my shoes, I let myself out of the house, feeling sand shift between my toes, already warm, despite the fact the sun was barely out of bed. Five minutes’ walk along the beach and I reached work, surely the best commute in the world, sat on the restaurant steps to rub sand off my feet and pull on sandals.
I always ate breakfast at the restaurant; it was part of the deal. In exchange for many long hours of labour, I got board and lodgings. Board being whatever Reg had felt like cooking that day and lodgings the tiny house he owned along the bay. Isolated, dilapidated, it suited my new solitary nature perfectly and I was frequently aware how lucky I’d been to find Reg.
Those early days on the island were difficult to think about. Stunned, in a quagmire of misery so deep it would surely drown me, I’d quickly realised my limited funds wouldn’t last long. Stumbling across the bar and restaurant one evening I’d spotted the simple handwritten sign – staff needed. The rest, as they say, was history.
The owner of the bar, Reg, I’d found alarming at first, in that he was the blackest person I’d ever met. Skin the colour of over-ripe plums, so dark, light seemed simply absorbed by it; he’d looked me up and down, taking in the obvious quality of my clothes, the Rolex on my wrist.
‘You wanna work in my bar, white girl?’ The inference was obvious.
‘I need the money,’ I’d stated calmly. Again, he’d looked me up and down, before nodding slowly, a smile splitting the infinity to reveal perfect white teeth.
He’d taken me on, a strictly trial basis, which now, some eleven months later, had settled into an easy and satisfying working relationship, with a healthy side order of friendship.
Then, I’d been a little afraid of him, his blackness, his physical presence, his over the top personality, booming voice and even louder laugh. But, during the first few weeks of working for him, I’d come to appreciate the hidden qualities of Reg, his gruff kindness, his professional approach to his many enterprises, his spontaneous and eclectic sense of humour. It wasn’t until much later, I’d also come to understand there was a darker element to Reg.
Those mysterious meetings I wasn’t supposed to know about, the individuals Reg kept me well away from, odd packages stored for a brief time in his office. I was aware the island had a murky underbelly of crime. Knew, whatever my personal views, it was a fact of life, so kept my mouth shut and my opinions to myself.
Finishing breakfast I tied an apron around my waist, smoothing its crisp clean whiteness over the cotton dress I’d pulled on that morning, reapplying lip balm. My face was otherwise bare, unmade – I’d left that other me at Heathrow Airport; my hair now a cropped mass of tangled curls, exposure to the sun bringing out golden hints in the chestnut.
I knew Reg liked me working for him, had once confided he felt I was good for business; added a touch of class. I didn’t know about that, but understood tourists far away from the comfort zone of home, whilst loving the idea of places of local colour, found it easier if the places also contained colour they were used too and an accent they found familiar.
I was especially popular with English, American and Australian tourists, a fact my tips reflected. Thankfully so, as it was my tips I mostly lived on, although my needs, now so simple compared to before it was almost laughable, were amply met by them.
Reg stopped me as I left the kitchen, preparing to face the day, the usual round of holiday makers and honeymooners, desperate to cram a year’s worth of relaxation into two short weeks.
‘Melissa, there’s an email for you,’ he said. I paused, meeting his knowing gaze in mild concern, understanding with no words being necessary he’d already read it. And why not, after all, it was his computer and his email account I’d used, still, I felt a tinge of annoyance.
‘What does it say?’ I asked, surprised when his expression softened and he patted me awkwardly on the shoulder.
‘I think you’d better read it,’ was all he said though and turned away from me towards the bar, where customers waited, even though it was barely ten in the morning.
Letting myself into Reg’s office, I crossed to the computer and logged into the email account, seeing instantly my suspicions were well founded, the email had obviously been opened. It was from Ruth, laced with her usual bluntness, it was brief and to the point, much like Ruth herself.
Eve, where the hell are you? Everyone has been looking for you, especially Scott. I won’t mention I’ve heard from you if that’s what you want, but I won’t lie to him. If he asks me again if I know anything, then I will tell him.
Re opening chapters, they look very promising. Have spoken to my agent and based on my recommendation she’s prepared to take a look at it, perhaps with a view to representing you. Is it finished? Can you send me the rest?
PS. Will you be going to Annaliese’s funeral?
Annaliese’s funeral? Coldness touched my heart, hairs rose on the back of my neck. Annaliese’s funeral? With shaking fingers I pulled the keyboard towards me, googled her name, read without comprehension headlines, stark facts. The illness I’d known nothing about, the painful bitter end, the funeral scheduled for three days’ time, details, details, details … they told me nothing I really needed to know. Had the others been with her at the end? Had she thought of me? Perhaps, even, asked for me? Most of all, how could she be dead when I hadn’t forgiven her for what she’d done?
I left the office five minutes later, still shaking, silently went to begin my duties. Unresolved, uncertain, I picked up a tray off the bar; then stood, lost, and Reg looked at me. Sliding a frosted pina colada to a customer, he waited till they had moved to a beachside table then leant over the bar, gently taking the tray from my hand and placing it on the stack with the others.
‘My cousin’s wife’s brother-in-law works at the airport,’ he informed me. I blinked in dumb bewilderment, Reg’s complex family arrangements were hard to follow at the best of times let alone when I doubted my ability to follow the plot of even the simplest nursery rhyme.
‘He can get you a ticket, very quick, very cheap.’
‘Ticket?’ I found my voice at last, husky and low.
‘To England. I think, white girl, it’s time,’ he paused, nodded sagely. ‘Yes, it’s time you went back and faced your demons, Melissa. It’s time you went home.’