The spliff pops and fizzles, thick smoke acrid in her throat. Alice crashes down on the grass and can’t stand up. Legs like a newborn foal.
They’re in a field in Jamaica, waiting for a concert to start. It’s 1am and they’ve been here two hours already. They’ve seen the weird middle-aged English man who goes to all the gigs with his young son, and the fire-eater from the beach on a night off. Young guys have been sidling up, wanting to bump fists. “Good evening, beautiful ladies. Welcome to Negril.” But it feels all wrong – why don’t they talk to girls their own age?
The spliff came from a scurrilous taxi driver the day before who made them take it, instead of their change. She doesn’t usually smoke, but there’s nothing else to do, so…
Cut off. Can’t speak. Nauseous. Panic fluttering through her chest, rising in her throat. Friend is unaware. Friend wants to leave. Alice tries to get up and fails. Tries again, sways, lunges forward but manages to stay upright as they make their way towards the exit. Sharp eyes on them, clocking it all. Two fucked-up white women from foreign. When she sees their driver, Dennis, she’s so relieved she runs into his arms. He hurries them out. “Get in the car, fast.”
It’s not safe to be out of your head in Negril. The next morning she cries. She doesn’t want to go home. She wants to stay.
Montego Bay airport had children’s paintings on the walls – it had felt like landing in a primary school. Watercolour paint and crayon. A stampede of Black and White Britons pouring off a stuffy jumbo jet into the soft Jamaican evening.
Alice was 4700 miles away from home. Never in as many years had she thought she’d ever get to Jamaica. She’d bounced down the corridor towards the arrivals hall as excited as a teenager.
She won the prize in a work Christmas draw. A holiday for two and £500 to spend. Alice and her friend were on the plane as soon as they could get leave.
She’s always loved reggae. Basslines so loud they vibrate her body. Shaking it all out. Shaking out the pain. Shaking out the worry. Blasting out the headspace. Shaking out the despair. Shaking out everything. She loves the sweet melodies and heartfelt lyrics, too. It takes her to a good place. It takes her back to herself.
She loves the poetry of the language. She loves the place names. Half Way Tree, Milk River, Nine Mile, May Pen. She loves it all, and now she was here.
Dennis met them at the airport. Big and broad with an easy manner, he had a luxury people carrier and a top-notch music system. In return for their spending money he was theirs for the week, and together they drove all over the island.
Boys on big motorbikes, zooming round the mountain curves like liquid.
Seats set out on lawns for Sunday morning church services.
A garden with pink roses and golden trumpet trees against a jungle backdrop.
Wooden houses with gravestones out front so the dead don’t feel lonely.
Dennis stopping to murmur, Barry White-like, to occasional passing women.
Dennis slowing down to hector red-haired children at Treasure Beach, “where your shoes?”
A commentary on the medicinal and domestic uses of roadside plants.
Builders in reflective jackets, sitting on the sea wall and fishing for their suppers.
Tropical leaves. Jungle trees.
They went to the site of Bob Marley’s summer house, guided by a polio victim who introduced himself as Franklin. They drove past Miss Brown’s Bar.
I went downtown, I saw Miss Brown. She had brown sugar, all over her booga wooga…
The Blue Hole mineral pool was another anything-goes place. Dennis snoozed in the car while they went in. A shrivelled old lady and a young dread held hands at the little thatched bar, a group of elderly Rastawomen reclined around the lido. At the Blue Hole itself, skinny young lifeguards hurled themselves in, or back-flipped in from an overhanging tree. Alice and her friend had climbed down the rusty blue ladder and swum around in the greenish glow, keeping to the sides.
Afterwards they sat by the lido, where one of the Rastawomen had let off a loud burp and collapsed into giggles.
When they left, the skinny young lifeguards had hugged them goodbye – gentle, draping hugs that were strangely touching. They were feeling the love.
They couldn’t believe how different it felt when they went into Negril one night on their own.
The busy road had no pavements and night was falling fast. They found a deserted restaurant and ate outside to the light of an oil lamp and the sound of waves splashing against the sea wall below. Afterwards, the scurrilous taxi driver had seen them coming. He clocked their hotel wristbands, took their big dollar bill and, apart from the skunky old spliff, refused to give them any change.
After the outdoor concert, they didn’t see Dennis again. And back at the airport, they were treated with disdain. Two middle-aged women from H’ingland? It’s obvious what they’d been up to. Sex tourism, innit! They came back down to earth with a bump.
Joseph has two puppies with red, green and gold collars and a wild cat called Sheba. He cooks their supper each evening before his own. He used to be a ganja farmer, and he still has plenty weed. He smokes all day and night, and there’s always a little something to press into the hands of stressed-out taxi drivers bringing guests to his Airbnb, in the middle of a wood by the sea.
When his latest guest arrives around 7pm he’s fast asleep. She’s a curly-haired brunette of about 40, with a young dreadlocked driver. The driver’s been blowing his horn for about 15 minutes. He looks worried. “You better take good care of my favourite auntie,” he says before he drives off.
Joseph takes Alice’s bag up to her room, and shows her around the house. She’s brought her own food, so they pool their supplies and make a righteous Ital stew. She’s brought fresh turmeric in the market, so they grate it over the top.
She tells him she’s been to Jamaica once before, two years ago. She asks if he knew Mr Hog, the ganja pilot who built himself in a big tomb opposite his house nearby. Joseph did know him, but he’s shy and doesn’t engage. He doesn’t get many guests. After supper, they sit on the back balcony for a while. He can’t think of anything to say. Alice says she thinks he should put a sign up on the road to help people find their way here, and then she says she’s going to bed.
The next day he oversleeps and when he wakes she’s already up, needing matches to boil the kettle. After breakfast, he offers to drive her around to orientate her. He starts up his old American Chevy and they bump along the woodland track to the tiny village that consists of a sea-weedy beach, a bar and a rundown hotel. She says she wants to explore, so he drops her off there.
She gets back at teatime and she’s been invited to a party. They eat supper in silence and he wonders if someone’s going to pick her up. Nobody comes. He changes into his long, cool kaftan and they sit out on the balcony in the dark. Around 10pm the music starts across the bay and he can feel how much she wants to go. She’s doesn’t say anything, but he suddenly hears himself say: “Do you want to go and find it?”
Joseph changes into a pair of crisp white trousers, desert boots, cool T- shirt and a natty crochet hat on top of his long locks. He enjoys her surprised expression. They get into the Chevy and drive, stopping for scores of little crabs scuttling sideways across the track, eyes lit up in the main beam on the annual migration from the forest to the sea.
They don’t find the party.
“Never mind,” Alice says. “At least we tried.”
He hesitates. “Shall we drive into Negril?” he asks.
It’s nearly midnight.
“Well, we’re out now!”
“Go for it!”
There’s nothing going on in Negril, either, but they have a few drinks on the beach. They’ve broken the ice.
Joseph and Alice walk to Lost Beach. They go through the wood in the other direction, past the herd of docile cows and bulls, and through the fishermen’s village.
Alice notices how people greet him. “Bless up, Dread.” “Hail up, Rasta.” People give them curious looks but his dreadlocks command respect.
They talk about their lives. They talk about books. They talk about writing. They discuss turmeric – he says he slept well for the first time in months after their stew, the morning he overslept.
When they get to Lost Beach, he shyly recites a poem he’s written. He tries to write, alone in his house, but doesn’t normally have anyone to share it with. When he looks up, Alice is beaming at him. It’s a good poem.
On her last day he makes lunch and a passing vendor brings ice cream to the door. Then they hug each other, and say goodbye.
It’s a mellow Sunday afternoon at the airport. To her surprise the staff are friendly, and in the departure lounge the young man next to her asks if she’s been visiting family. He lives in Seaford Town where there are many white Jamaicans of German heritage.
“No, just travelling around.” She smiles. She’s never felt so calm and strong. It’s as if she’s stepped through an invisible door, from wide-eyed tourist to welcome traveller.
The young man shows her photos of Seaford Town on his phone. It’s lush and green with mountains and palm trees. He’s a chatty guy, but his face is sad. He’s never been abroad before.
“Where are you going in the UK?” she asks.
He says he’s going to join his wife in Hendon and won’t be back for years.
From little-old Seaford Town, to grey, cold, Brexit Britain. Alice fears for him.