They’ll be down on the beach waiting for the mystical green flash, thinks the judge, as the dying sun hits the water and extinguishes itself for another twelve hours. He surveys his carefully set scene, unaccustomedly alone, this time having to cope for himself. One final polish to the row of borrowed highball glasses, a check that the ice bucket is full and the mixers standing coolly in the bathroom sink. God, how he misses Vincent, now almost more than ever, but this is a ritual that has to be got through, practically a sacrament after all the years he has been performing it. They are late but there’s so much to think about he doesn’t mind, scrambling to get his thoughts in order before he has to face them all again.
To begin with, there’s the guilt. At not having been more vigilant, at taking far too much for granted. At lowering his guard and allowing strangers to come too close. And then for not having worked it out earlier, with all that evidence spread before him and the main players performing right in front of his nose. Shame on him, once the youngest member of the US judiciary system. And the camera, Vincent’s camera, lying there all those months unlooked at, the film still in it waiting to be developed. Evidence so obvious it took a senior law enforcer to ignore it. Let his colleagues at the Bar never hear about that.
But they’re here now and he goes to greet them, gaunter than last year but still austerely handsome in conservative chinos and a buttoned-down Brooks Brothers shirt. There are a lot of grim truths to get through this evening but first things first. Once he’s made them comfortable, each with a glass in hand, he proposes a toast.
‘To my dearest friends and surrogate family... and to many, many more holidays like this.’
They raise their glasses in heartfelt agreement.
It was hot on the feet but Jo was too anxious to reach the water to have bothered to pause first and dig out her flip-flops. She had had the forethought to remove her lenses and leave them safely in her room but now her prescription dark glasses lay abandoned on top of her towel and Jo was alone in an unfamiliar world of scorching sunlight, silver sand and a tantalisingly beckoning blue sea. The Caribbean was all it was cracked up to be and more, though she’d not yet had a chance to absorb it properly. As she cut through the water with her neat, economical crawl, she drew in great lungfuls of healing ozone and screwed her mind’s eye as tight as she could in an effort to eclipse the dying child’s horrifically damaged face.
Fifty yards out the diving-raft bobbed at the top of its anchoring chain and, viewed from this vantage point in the water, through bleary, half-focused eyes, appeared to be blissfully empty, a natural haven to one in flight from chaos. She reached its side and hauled herself up the slimy steps, only to discover herself disappointingly wrong. In the very centre of the weathered boards lay a couple entwined – a lithe young man in the briefest of bathing trunks, with a pale-skinned mermaid on top of him, apparently lost in the grip of greedy passion, practically smothering him with her thick, wet hair. Oops, sorry. Silently Jo retraced her steps and slithered off backwards into the welcoming water, as keen not to be seen as they obviously were to be with one another.
As she swam swiftly back to the beach and the safety of her recliner she couldn’t help observing that one thing better than a holiday alone in a tropical paradise must be to share it with someone you so ardently desired. Well, if ninety-five plus was all she could notch up this time, she was still doing far better than those other poor suckers left behind in London in the rain and flu germs of pre-Christmas frenzy.
‘Whatever you do,’ said Sebastian, as he watched Jo pack in her tiny Chelsea flat, ‘don’t let on what you do for a living. That’s crucial.’
‘Why’s that?’ Shorts, Jo was thinking, and T-shirts, loads of them. And a couple of denim shirts filched from Sebastian, and her own white trousers, fresh back from the laundry. And suntan lotion. And mosquito repellent. And something from the pharmacist in case she got a gippy tummy. It was ages since she’d last had a holiday, a proper one like this, and until this evening, on the brink of departure, she’d been far too preoccupied to give it more than a thought.
‘Elementary,’ said Sebastian, switching from Bach to Haydn, ‘it’s a matter of simple psychology. What else do the hoi polloi obsess about, once they’ve dragged their fat bums to some sunny shore and plonked them in deck chairs, but their health? Their general hypochondria and tedious little ailments; their bowels and bunions, heat-stroke and insomnia.’
‘It’s true. If you don’t believe me, suck it and see. I’m just protecting your quality time ... since you’re mean enough not to wait till I’m free to come with you.’
‘Oh, sweetie, you know that’s not the case.’
She turned and looked at him but his smile was intact, his eyes observing her with lazy fondness. She went across and put her arms around him.
‘I’m sorry. But you know I can’t get time off in the New Year and, besides, after all that studying I’m totally knackered.’
‘I know.’ He kissed her lightly on the nose. ‘Which is all the more reason to keep your mouth shut. Don’t let the buggers know your secret or you’ll get no peace.’
‘OK, Doc. Message received, over and out. Now how’s about one final American Hot before I finish this, for tomorrow night, if I’m not mistaken, I’ll be feasting on flying fish and sweet potatoes.’
That and masses more, Jo saw, as she strolled past the burgeoning buffet table and into the bar for an early evening aperitif. Taking her seat at a corner table, on a white wicker armchair beneath a potted palm, she smoothed down her neat linen skirt and waited for one of the handsome black waiters to catch her eye. This was the bit she hated most about travelling alone; no matter how emancipated she liked to feel she was, she still had inhibitions about entering a bar and ordering a drink on her own.
‘Hello there!’ The greeting came from just behind her and Jo looked up, startled, to find the bluest, friendliest eyes imaginable beaming down into hers, for all the world as if they’d met already.
‘Mind if we join you?’ And before she could respond, he was pulling up another two chairs to her low, glass table and beckoning to his friend at the bar to join them.
‘Vincent van der Voorst,’ said the Dutchman, extending his hand, ‘and this is my venerable friend, the judge. But out here you may simply call him Lowell Brooks.’
‘Pardon the intrusion,’ said the older man, with a slight smile. ‘Vincent does get carried away at times and you’re doubtless waiting for friends.’ He didn’t take a seat, just stood there hovering, tall and elegant in blazer and immaculate flannels, with an Ivy League accent and hair just touched with silver.
‘Absolute nonsense!’ said Vincent energetically, signalling to the waiter and moving closer to Jo. ‘You know what they say, the more the merrier, and this young lady was clearly waiting for us. Am I not right?’
Jo laughed. In the face of such flagrant charm she had no defence; besides, they both looked friendly and accessible, a welcome relief from what she had been dreading. They sat and Vincent brushed aside her suggestion of a white wine spritzer and instead ordered vodka gimlets all round.
‘Start as you mean to go on,’ he instructed, ‘and if you’re vacationing with us, you’ll need to develop a good head.’
‘He’s not kidding,’ said the American. ‘My dear, we are delighted to know you and please don’t stand for any of Vincent’s nonsense.’
Lowell was from Boston, Vincent from Amsterdam. They had both arrived an hour ago, and were here for ten days.
‘We come every year,’ they told her. ‘We’ve worked our way through most of the Caribbean, and Antigua comes out tops in our book, especially this hotel.’
This Jo was pleased to hear. She had taken potluck with Thomas Cook’s computer and now realised how lucky she was to have landed so quickly on her feet. With such entertaining company on tap as well. Better than she would have dared dream of; wait till she let Sebastian know.
‘My boyfriend warned me about travelling alone,’ she said. ‘Thank you for being so welcoming. I had no idea what to expect.’
‘Don’t worry about a thing,’ said Vincent, handing her the peanuts and toasting her with his glass. ‘Now you’ve got us to fight your corner you can relax with confidence. Pretty soon you’ll meet the rest of the gang and they’ll tell you.’
Jo turned her eyes to Lowell for reassurance but all he did was laugh apologetically and shrug.
‘He’s right, I’m afraid,’ he affirmed in his soft, New England accent. ‘You’re stuck with us now. At least for ten days.’
Two people were already seated at the table when Vincent ushered Jo through an archway and into the spacious dining room, one side dramatically open to the elements.
‘We always make a point of bagging the best table,’ explained Vincent, ‘the minute we arrive and have seen our room. Not too close to the band, that’s essential, but situated where we can keep an eye on all the various comings and goings.’
‘Now meet the other half of our team,’ said Lowell, pulling out a chair so that Jo could sit.
Cora Louise Ravenel extended one tiny, exquisite, heavily bejewelled hand and nodded graciously in response to Lowell’s introduction, while her daughter, Fontaine, archly stretched up her powdered cheek to receive his kiss.
‘Well, how are y’all after all this time?’ she beamed with delight, taking his hand in both of hers, eyes brilliant with happiness, head thrown back in a glory of auburn curls. Lowell took the seat the other side of her and immediately the two were in close conversation as Vincent explained Jo’s presence to the older woman.
‘We found her abandoned like some poor, lost seabird on the shore.’
‘Y’all going to like it here,’ said Cora Louise confidentially, patting Jo’s knee. ‘Goodness knows, we’ve been coming here for years – "mainly with these two dear boys" – and just can’t get enough of it. Is that not so?’
She wore navy silk, tied with a pussycat bow, and her hair was drawn back sleekly from her face into a chignon as tight and polished as a hazelnut. Real diamonds glistened at her delicate ears, matching the rows of them on her doll-like hands. Tiny but perfect, thought Jo with appreciation. What a knockout she must have been as a young girl. Both ladies were from Charleston, South Carolina, and had arrived mid-afternoon by prior arrangement with Vincent and Lowell.
‘But wait till you hear the news,’ she exclaimed, tapping her daughter’s hand to draw her back into the general conversation.
‘What say? Oh yes,’ cried Fontaine with animation. ‘So exciting! There was a truly terrible drama just this afternoon, we gather, minutes before we arrived.’
They’d heard it from the head waiter when they went to announce their return. An English tourist, from a hotel just down the coast, had drowned while out snorkelling on his own. A freak accident, unknown in these parts where the water was so clear you could easily see the sea creatures fifty feet down.
‘Poor soul,’ said Fontaine, ‘what a way to start a vacation.’ Then broke into helpless peals of laughter as she realised how odd that sounded.
Where exactly had it happened, Lowell wanted to know, but the Ravenels had no further information. There were three hundred and sixty-five beaches on this island, one for each day of the year. But, as Cora Louise had said, the Caribbean was renowned for its calmness, particularly at this time of year when scarcely a ripple disturbed its surface.
‘Except,’ she said darkly, ‘when the Lord is feeling wrathful. We certainly know all about that, don’t we, mah dear? After what Hugo did to Charleston just three years back.’
Jo nodded and smiled in sympathy. Even she had heard of the terrible devastation Hurricane Hugo had caused when it bowled in from the Caribbean in 1989 and struck the Southern States head on.
‘Did you suffer any damage yourselves?’ she asked politely. She had read in the papers that they’d virtually had to rebuild the town. Cora Louise clasped her hands theatrically and raised her eyes to the heavens.
‘Thankfully we were spared,’ she said, ‘but only by a whisker. Our poor old house was so badly shook, it’s a miracle we got out alive.’
A steel band struck up on the beach outside and the chefs, in their tall, white hats, began to serve as the diners fell into line at the central table and piled their plates with sumptuous food. Jo kicked off her sandals and let the cooling sand pour through her sun-starved toes. Less than twelve hours from a London winter and already she was into a bright new world. Things were looking promising.
That night, when she’d brushed her teeth and slipped into one of Sebastian’s worn old T-shirts, she slid apart the doors out on to her veranda and stood in the darkness listening to the languorous movement of the waves. All along the water’s edge were flashes of sulphur which created an eerie effect. She breathed in the health-giving salt air and thanked her stars, one more time, that she’d taken this precipitous step and come on holiday on her own. She fell asleep almost instantly that night; a dreamless sleep, for once uninterrupted by the terrible grimaces of that dying child.
‘Sleep well?’ Vincent was already up and about when Jo went down to breakfast, his hands filled with exotic blooms carefully culled from the hotel’s abundant gardens. ‘Just let me put these in water,’ he said, ‘and I’ll join you in the dining room.’
He’d eaten already, after his morning swim at some unearthly hour, but Lowell was still lingering and the ladies had just arrived. It was not quite nine, a civilised hour for a holiday, Jo thought. This morning both Ravenels were casually yet strikingly dressed, Cora Louise in beige, her more flamboyant daughter in flame-red linen which contrasted effectively with her glorious hair. She wore huge tortois-shell sunspecs which half eclipsed her face and was chatting animatedly to an attentive Lowell, as suave and dapper as last night. They greeted Jo with genuine warmth and moved around to make room for her.
‘What’s happened to the weather?’ asked Jo, peering out. This morning there was no sign of the sun; the sky was a uniform, overcast grey with occasional spots of rain in the air.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Cora Louise, ‘this happens. Part of the glory of the Caribbean climate is its variability. Just when it’s getting uncomfortably hot, the clouds roll in. A short, sharp storm then all is clear again. You’ll see. By the time you’ve eaten your breakfast you’ll find you need to sit in the shade.’
‘Which is why,’ said Lowell, ‘your chair already awaits.’ He nodded towards the beach where a row of recliners were grouped together beneath a clump of palm trees, secured from invaders by pristine yellow towels.
‘All part of the service,’ he said, when Jo expressed her thanks. ‘Vincent and I have been up for hours, getting the beach habitable for you ladies.’
Jo was digging into fresh pineapple and coffee when Vincent returned from his wanderings with another lost soul in tow.
‘Meet Merrily Morgenstern,’ he announced. ‘Fresh in from New York last night where she tells me the weather is truly atrocious.’
The new arrival was petite and svelte, in an apple-green smock of such superlative cut it instantly made Fontaine appear blowsy and overdone. Her glossy black hair was woven into an intricate French plait and she surveyed the group appraisingly with frank grey eyes and no smile. Oh dear, thought Jo with a slightly sinking heart. She’d met this type before; they were invariably trouble.
‘Hi,’ said Merrily, in response to their greetings, sinking into the vacant chair and scrabbling in her raffia hold-all for her cigarettes.
‘So what’s with this fucking weather?’ she asked, lighting up, and everyone watched her in silence. Jo, seated next to Cora Louise, was aware of a sharply in-drawn breath, so she covered up by smiling brightly and asking about the new guest’s journey.
‘Shit,’ said Merrily, in one expressive word. Then: ‘Eggs,’ to the waiter, ‘lightly done. Sunny side up and hold the salt.’
Then began a chapter of complaints which drove the levity right out of the party and had them leaving, one by one, on suddenly remembered errands that could not wait. The flight, she said, had been a nightmare: three hours late leaving Kennedy because of snow and then an unscheduled stopover in Miami due to engine trouble or some such damn thing. She puffed hard at her cigarette, shedding ash into her eggs. Jo watched silently in distaste, the last of the group to linger at the table yet too polite to leave the newcomer alone.
Merrily was quite startlingly pretty but her permanent scowl made this less apparent. And then, she continued, when she’d finally got here it was the middle of the night and the water wasn’t hot. And now, just look at the weather; could you believe it? All this distance for an overcast sky.
‘I might as well have stayed in Manhattan,’ she complained. ‘And holed up there for ten days watching I Love Lucy re-runs.’
Damn, thought Jo to herself as she made her own excuses and hurried away, who does this pushy New Yorker think she is, butting in like this and spoiling our fun?
Vincent was standing by the chairs beneath the palm trees, smooth-skinned and well-muscled in the briefest of trunks, listening to his personal stereo and dancing on the sand. His face lit up when Jo approached and he removed his earphones.
‘What are you listening to?’
‘Aspects of Love. Now, quickly, grab this chair next to me and let me rub oil on your back.’ He glanced at the sky. ‘It’s already beginning to clear. Any minute now the sun will appear and you can’t risk getting caught in it without protection. Not with skin as pale as yours.’
‘Out there.’ He pointed into the middle distance where a head was just visible, cleaving through the waves. ‘The moment he gets back, it’s time for a Planter’s Punch.’ He saw Jo’s incredulous look and laughed. ‘Over here we start early. You’ll soon adjust. After all, we’re here to enjoy ourselves and there isn’t a lot else to do.’
Jo obediently lay face-down on her towel while Vincent pulled off his heavy signet ring and dropped it into her hand for safekeeping, then, with firm, practised fingers, smoothed oil into her back and shoulders as well as the backs of her thighs for good measure.
‘That ought to do it. Ten minutes in the sun for starters, then move into the shade.’ He wagged one finger at her sternly. ‘You may look at me like that now, my dear, but you’ll thank me later, when you don’t get a burn.’
Jo handed back the ring. It was solid gold and heavily ornate with a stone as milky blue as Vincent’s eyes.
‘That’s some ring. I’m surprised you risk wearing it on the beach.’
He laughed and slipped it back on to his finger. ‘I’ve had it so long, it’s part of me,’ he said. ‘Fifteenth century, school of Cellini. There’s quite a story attached to it which I’ll tell you some time.’
Then he peered at her more closely as she removed her dark glasses in readiness for her swim.
‘My goodness, your eyes are different colours. How truly remarkable. I swear I’ve never seen that before.’
Jo was used to it; she grinned. ‘Just an accident of birth,’ she said. ‘And at least it makes a talking point in an otherwise uneventful life.’
The morning progressed and Jo lay back in her chair to dry off, a hefty cocktail placed in one hand by Vincent, the comforting buzz of muted conversation from all sides. Though by no means crowded, the private beach was dotted with hotel guests, most of them returnees who greeted each other with pleasure. There was a family of affluent Canadians from Vancouver and a couple from Manchester who strolled over for a chat.
‘Meet Donald and Marjorie Barlow,’ said Vincent, one arm slung matily around each of their necks, prodding Jo into wakefulness with his toe. ‘This is our new discovery,’ he explained. ‘Joanna Lyndhurst, all the way from London. It’s her first time here but we’re going to make sure it’s not the last.’
He smiled his infectious smile and ruffled Jo’s wet hair. His tan was already developing, making his remarkably blue eyes seem even more startling. Marjorie, a slender, well-cared-for woman in her fifties, perched on the edge of Jo’s recliner while Vincent fetched her a drink from the nearby beach bar. After he’d ordered Jo in from the sun and brought her a dry towel to cover her legs.
‘Vincent and Lowell are the dearest men imaginable,’ she said. ‘We’ve been meeting them here for years now, and they feel like family. They even visit us when they come to England. You are lucky to have fallen in with them, particularly since you’re on your own.’
She glanced pointedly at Jo’s empty ring finger but made no further comment. Jo smiled inwardly. People were so curious; she’d come across this so many times. What’s a nice girl like you doing travelling on your own? she knew they wanted to ask. Pushing thirty and yet with no man in sight. It was all so patronising and out-of-date. She would do what she wanted to do, as she always had. Which was why she continued to live alone despite Sebastian’s occasional suggestions of a shared life together.
‘It was a last-minute decision,’ she explained. ‘I’d just finished exams and felt I deserved a break.’ And my boyfriend couldn’t get the time off, she nearly added but didn’t. It was none of Marjorie’s business; let her just wonder. As it was, Vincent and Lowell were already on to her case, probing in the nicest possible way but definitely keen to winkle out her secrets. Marjorie, however, like most people, seemed far more concerned with talking about herself. Donald was a scientist, affiliated to the cotton trade, with a large house in the Wirral which Marjorie was all too keen to describe.
‘It’s taken me years to get it exactly right,’ she sighed. ‘And now the glossy magazines are beating our door down, keen to take photographs because they’ve heard how good it looks. Isn’t that right?’
Vincent had returned, with two more Planter’s Punches, and he nodded agreement as Marjorie described her home. Definitely worth a visit, he confirmed; as spectacular as any of the stately homes. Then he winked at Jo and moved off round the group.
‘Never still for a minute is Vincent,’ said Marjorie approvingly. ‘Just like a will-o’-the-wisp, he is, and so kind-hearted.’
Merrily appeared shortly before lunch and tiptoed towards them over the sand in impractical strappy sandals which displayed to perfection her immaculate, pedicured feet. Vincent found her another recliner and dragged it next to Jo’s without a word. Thanks a bunch, Jo thought silently, as she saw the wickedness gleaming in his eyes. And resignedly put aside her book, raised the back of the recliner two notches and prepared to entertain her malcontent new acquaintance from New York.
And actually, once she’d slathered her nose with Ambre Solaire, fidgeted with her recliner until she had found the best angle, sent back her Planter’s Punch because she preferred a Bloody Mary, smoked two cigarettes in rapid succession, – lighting one from the other, – and complained about the sand flies and the fact that her digestive system was playing up after the change of time zone, she wasn’t entirely bad company and even had Jo laughing once or twice. She was, it turned out, a Personnel Officer with the Chase Manhattan Bank.
‘Wow!’ said Jo, genuinely impressed. ‘That sounds high-powered.’
‘You better believe it. I work my ass off fifty weeks in the year and they still complain when I decide I need a break. Like two weeks before Christmas, when half the work-force is out of the office sick, the others bunking off.’ Out came the Camels again, as Merrily warmed to her subject, and Jo – in order not to seem unfriendly – resisted an urge to wave away the smoke. Smokers, more than anyone, were selfish these days. It seemed not to occur to the American to ask if Jo minded.
But it was good to lie here in the sun and just schmooze. After the hospital and her recent nightmare experience, pretty near anything would have to be an improvement.
And so the days slid by - indolent, dreamy, seamlessly merging from morning to night, then back to bright morning again. The group stayed together in their charmed circle under the palms, while Vincent danced attendance on them and played the fool and Lowell entertained them on a slightly more serious level with anecdotes from the law courts and his vast experience as a New England judge. Jo noticed with approval how the passing of the days was beginning to make him relax.
‘He seems young to be a judge,’ she remarked to Cora Louise who nodded enthusiastically, as though he were in some way a credit to her, and said he’d held that honour for the past ten years.
‘Since he just turned forty, in fact,’ she said. ‘My, but he’s smart, though far too modest to show it.’ She turned her bright chipmunk eyes to where Lowell was sitting, calm and elegant even on the beach, with an air of lazy indulgence as he listened to Fontaine’s prattle. Fontaine, spilling out of a lime-green swimsuit, was waving her arms around with animation. You didn’t have to be much of a sleuth to detect her fixation with the handsome Bostonian. And Cora Louise, seeing the direction of Jo’s gaze, picked up on her thoughts and echoed them proudly.
‘Don’t they just make the handsomest pair?’ she glowed. ‘My daughter could have anyone she wanted in Charleston, but there’s always been that extra special something with Lowell. Right from the moment they met, I can tell you. Pity he lives so far away and is always so busy, though these days you can fly direct. So I’m told.’
Sweet, thought Jo benevolently, stealing another look, but Vincent had just joined them and was joshing the judge as he perched on the edge of his chair. She glanced once more at Fontaine. For a woman in her forties, she must be remarkably determined if she hadn’t picked up on that special something between the two men which surely went beyond ordinary friendship. Either that, or incredibly naïve. But what the hell, on holiday anything goes. And if they saw each other for only ten days each year, where possibly could be the harm?
Halfway through the week, Vincent returned from one of his mid-morning rambles, triumphantly towing another trophy. He grew restless just lounging and liked to do the rounds, seeing how the other guests were faring and catching up on the gossip. He’d encountered this young woman lurking in the lobby and immediately brought her out to join the group. Jessica Sutherland, she introduced herself; newly arrived from England and on her own. She looked all right, thought Jo idly, as she reached across to shake the newcomer’s hand; reed-thin with colourless, almost transparent skin, made up for by marvellous, sandy, almost marmalade-coloured hair which was certainly her crowning glory. The sun shot darts of pure gold from its depths and caused her to screw up her eyes in the bright light. As with Jo, she told them, this holiday had been an impulse. Overworked and underpaid and all that, she had suddenly decided she needed a break. Her nose was slightly red, as if she had a cold, and there were unhealthy mauvish shadows under her eyes.
‘So I just hopped on a plane and here I am,’ she said cheerfully, ‘more or less in the clothes I stand up in.’
Merrily tipped down her Jackie Onassis dark glasses and studied the new arrival critically for a second or two.
‘So what does this broad think she’s doing butting in on us?’ she muttered. ‘And do we need another woman tagging along?’ She meant it, too. Luckily the others hadn’t heard so Jo said nothing. Just grinned and shrugged and dipped back into her book. From the way the New Yorker sized up each new arrival, it was clear where her own motivation lay. It just needs someone even halfway eligible to appear, thought Jo, and she’d drop the rest of us like hot potatoes.
Jessica worked in the music business, as an arts festival organiser, currently based in Cheltenham. It was her first time to the islands, she said; a blessed change from the rigours and damp of a small English town in winter.
‘But you’ve got a bit of a wind burn already,’ said Marjorie.
‘That’s from riding my bike through all kinds of weather. And going out without an umbrella.’
Lowell was particularly fascinated to hear more about her job. A keen music-lover himself, he had a season ticket to the Boston Symphony. Along with his mother, though he didn’t mention that. He warmed instinctively to this new arrival and looked forward to getting to know her better. Apparently more benign than the spiky Merrily, though also slightly jumpier than the serene Jo. An interesting mix; one of the reasons he so much enjoyed these winter holidays.
‘If you ever hit Boston,’ he said politely, ‘you must allow me to take you there as my guest.’
Jo saw a flash of alarm cross Fontaine’s face but Jessica simply smiled and said she’d love that. It was hard work, she confirmed, but all she’d ever wanted to do.
‘I suppose I was born with music in my blood. Which is about all I did get so I have to count my blessings.’ When she smiled, it transformed her and made her finely boned face almost pretty. Jo decided she liked her. Approximately her own age and presumably also single. A nice new friend, as her mother would say. Well, they’d see about that once the holiday was over. Certainly Sebastian would approve of Jessica’s musical connections.
The company was so congenial, Jo was shocked to find how rapidly time flew. She’d been here seven days already; soon it would be time to go home. It was amazing how busy a person could be, just lolling indolently on the beach, with the occasional foray into St John’s in Lowell and Vincent’s rented Jeep. There wasn’t a lot to do there, but it made a change from all that sun. And she enjoyed their spirited company so much, it was fun just to tag along. Vincent was an art dealer with a passion for taking photographs. He was always looking at new, more powerful lenses and clicking his shutter, wherever they were, with the speed of a practised paparazzo.
‘My problem,’ said Jo, as they pored over newer and better cameras in one of the island’s duty free shops, ‘is that I never get round to looking at snaps again, once I’ve taken a film and had it developed.’
Lowell laughed in sympathy. ‘I know the feeling. One look and you throw them into a drawer and forget all about them. I’m like that myself.’
‘Philistines,’ said Vincent. ‘It’s art in the making. An immediate record of contemporary life, as valid as the gossip on the beach.’
‘I rest my case,’ said the judge with a laugh.
I’m really going to miss those guys, Jo told herself on their last night, as she smoothed a touch of bronze make-up on to her flaking nose and tried to do something reasonable with her hair. Lowell was a dream of an escort – handsome, urbane, eternally interesting – while Vincent kept them all in stitches with his antics as well as dancing like Fred Astaire. With each of them in turn, what’s more; amongst this group he appeared to have no favourite.
Even Merrily had lowered her frosty guard and was keeping them amused with her whiplash wise-cracks. When she laughed she revealed her startling beauty. In less than a week, Jo found she had really warmed to her and was pleased to see Merrily doing herself justice. It was a cliché to suppose she might be shy but it seemed to apply to Merrily.
‘We will keep in touch?’ she said to her anxiously.
‘You better believe it,’ said Merrily gaily. ‘Just try and get rid of me now, doll, and you’re dead!’
Then they all hugged and swapped addresses, and made impossible promises and vowed to meet again next year. And Jo found her eyes unaccountably misting and turned away quickly to hide her emotion.
Only later on the plane, a gin and tonic in hand and Jessica nodding off in the seat beside her, did three things occur to Jo. They’d heard no more about the poor drowned Englishman. Her secret had remained intact despite the probing. And, in the whole ten days since she’d met her new friends, she hadn’t thought once about the dying child.
© Carol Smith 2003