Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson
arisol brings Lin a glass
of iced tea. Lin is back to drinking and eating on his own after his most recent stroke, and he can walk around using only the cane. He leans back against the sofa and watches Etta Pringle on the television news. Bunny Pringle. The girl must be more than seventy years old now, and she’s still doing those harebrained swims.
Lin should have known it would come to this. He should have known the day he saw Bunny and Covey swimming in the midst of that tropical storm back in 1963. Should have realized that if you were capable of going that far, in that kind of water, if you would take that kind of risk, then maybe you weren’t like other people. Probably, there was a lot that you would be willing to do to get what you wanted, that others wouldn’t dare to try.
ne summer night in 1965,
Bunny heard someone rapping at her bedroom window. Her parents were already asleep. She opened the louvers just enough to peer out and saw Covey standing there in the dark, her mouth wide open in a silent cry. Bunny ran outside.
“What?” Bunny whispered. “What?”
Covey wouldn’t speak. She was trembling. Bunny had never seen her friend like this. This was Coventina Lyncook, after all. The one they’d nicknamed Dolphin. She had swum through squalls, jumped over vipers, ignored the gossip about her parents. Bunny knew that Covey could face anything. Only Covey had not yet told her about Little Man.
As Bunny hugged Covey, as Covey wept and started to talk, Bunny felt the full weight of their girlhood crashing down on them. Bunny and Covey had grown up believing that anything was possible, even for them. But when you were a girl, people could tell you how to walk, how to sit, how to talk, what to do, where to go, how to think, who to love.
And who to obey.
n his daughter’s wedding day,
Mister Lin had gotten drunk even quicker than usual.
“You still in the kitchen, Pearl?” he said. He gestured vaguely toward the table in the reception hall where Pearl had been seated, on and off, unable to take more than the obligatory bite of food. “Come, sit down and have some cake with us. It’s your cake.”
“Just a moment, Mister Lin, I’ll be right there,” Pearl said, turning back to the kitchen. “There’s something I need to take care of first.” There was something that Pearl needed to find.
Glancing this way and that at the hotel staff, Pearl hurried toward the counter, where the cake had been resting before being wheeled into the reception hall. Nothing. She reached down to the shelf below where her apron lay and lifted to check underneath. Nothing. She crouched down to take a better look but still couldn’t find what she was looking for, the small bottle she’d shoved behind a mixing bowl earlier that day. It needed to be kept far away from the food. This was not her kitchen, nor Mister Lin’s, she was merely a guest here. Any number of people could have come along and moved things around.
The sound of a fork going
against a glass and the clearing of a throat against a microphone brought Pearl back to her feet. She smoothed her dress and moved toward the reception hall with what she hoped would look like a confident stride. Someone must have found the container and moved it into a cupboard or locker, wherever
they kept things like that. Things like laundry soap, bleach, rat poison. The container was clearly marked. Pearl told herself not to worry.
But, later, Pearl would indeed find herself worrying. For years, she would ask herself what had happened to that bottle of poison. Surely, someone there had seen it, someone had moved it. And, probably, someone had used it. But who? The police had found something in Little Man’s champagne glass. Thank goodness they hadn’t found anything in the cake or Pearl would have ended up in prison for something she hadn’t even had the courage to do.
Pearl had thought so long and hard about harming Little Man that she would go on to spend the rest of her life feeling some measure of guilt about his death.
But never sorrow.
he biggest moments in our
lives are often just that, a matter of seconds when something shifts and we react and everything changes. Covey had been going through the wedding reception in a kind of stupor, but when she saw Little Man collapse on the floor of the reception hall on the day that she’d been made to marry him, her head began to clear. Covey looked up in four directions, and this became her decisive moment.
First, Covey looked for her father. There he was, just behind her, mouth open. Then she searched for Pearl, who was on the far side of the room, moving quickly toward the commotion. Now she looked at Bunny, who was only a few paces away. Of these three people, only one of them was looking back at Covey as Little Man took his final breaths. Only one of them held her gaze while everyone else focused on the dying man. And that was when Covey knew. Covey had seen what had happened, she just hadn’t understood its significance. Now she turned in a fourth direction, toward the sliding glass door that opened out onto the back lawn of the hotel.
The door was just a few feet away. The lawn sloped off onto a path that led down to the shore, at one point running alongside a series of broad, stone steps where tadpoles were hatching and growing in pools of water that had gathered there. Covey’s mummy used to stop at these steps to show her the tadpoles. They matured at different rates, so that some were still wriggling around like tiny fish, while others were
already sprouting the first stubs of their little frog legs and taking on a boxy look about their bodies until, soon, they would be ready to leap into the bushes and lunge toward the rest of their lives.
As Covey ran through the door, as she stumbled and lost her shoes on the lawn, as she pulled her wedding dress away from her body and left it on the sand, she vowed that she would go to her grave without revealing what she had seen. As a child, she had been taught right from wrong, but even then, she had understood that you couldn’t always separate the two.
Covey never did tell the truth, not in the letters and recordings she’d left for her children at the end of her life, not in her conversations with her lawyer and lover, not in the muggy comfort of her marital bed. Even when she’d dreamed of returning to the island to show her children where she had come from, she knew in her heart that she could never go back because she would never be able to clear her name.
Those four decades of marriage to a man whom she had loved and who had given her two of her children had been an enormous gift. If you had been blessed with such a life, if someone else had taken such a great risk to help you, what would you have been willing to do?
More than fifty years later, Covey’s children will dare to ask the question outright. They will ask their mother’s oldest friend if she thinks that Covey Lyncook killed Little Man Henry in 1965. They will be relieved to see Bunny Pringle shake her head, slowly and firmly. Relieved to hear Bunny say that there were any number of people who had wanted to see Little Man dead. They will realize, also, that Bunny’s answer had not brought them any closer to the truth of what had happened on that day.
ack then, there were no
video surveillance cameras. The wedding photographer was off in a corner changing his film. The music men were busy making music. The waiters were still delivering plates of cake to some of the tables. The father of the bride was finishing yet another drink. The bride was stabbing at her cake with a fork, trying not to cry. Everyone was busy looking somewhere else as one of the guests pulled a small bottle out of her purse.
Back then, everyone knew that champagne could go to a young lady’s head. That she might wander from one table to another with a glass in her hand, that she might lean in between the newly married couple and deposit a kiss on her friend’s cheek, that she might rest her glass on the table, that she might knock a plate of cake onto the bride’s lap then accidentally pick up the bridegroom’s flute instead of her own. No one would think anything of this because, out of the water, Bunny Pringle had always been a clumsy girl.
No one would even realize, at first, that it had been a glass of champagne to bring an end to Little Man’s life. When a police officer finally sniffed at the broken flute and uttered the word
some of the wedding guests would think of their own secret wishes, their own deep resentment toward the dead man. Toward the kind of man who drew satisfaction from the coercion of others. They would hope that the person who had done this would never be caught. So many people had
been in and out of the kitchen that day, it could have been any number of them.
Back then, it was easier to commit murder. You only had to concentrate, know where your loyalties lay, and not think of the consequences.
sn’t there some kind of
law against digging up bodies?”
“But it’s our father.”
“Would it be different because they’re ashes?”
“Let’s ask Charles. He’ll know.”
It has taken a while, but Byron and Benny have finally grown accustomed to calling Mr. Mitch by his first name. Charles is, after all, someone their mother cared for deeply. And he knows more about their lives than most people ever will. Plus, his nose turned pink the first time Benny called him Charles. That alone made it worth the switch, Byron said that day, laughing.
Yes, Charles tells them, they will need a license, but there are services that can help. They’re not the first to make this kind of decision. Eventually, Byron and Benny get permission to exhume their father’s remains.
One year after Eleanor Bennett’s death, Marble and Etta fly in together from London. The next day, Benny and Marble chop scallion and garlic and stir coconut milk into a pot of rice and beans. Byron fires up the barbecue and Etta makes a sweet rum punch that goes down a bit too easily, while Lynette dances with their baby on the deck at their
beachside place. It is the kind of lunch that gathers people as the hours go on, Charles and one of his daughters, Cable and his wife and kids, plus the neighbors from across the way.
The old house, the bungalow where Byron and Benny grew up, belongs to another family now, a young couple with small children who have put in new plumbing. It seems a fitting role for the old Bennett house, to grow a new family, and the thought makes Byron smile. Still, he tries not to drive down that street if he can help it.
When Etta is sufficiently tipsy, Eleanor’s children extract a promise from her. Yes, she says, she will take them all to the island someday. They can work on a plan. They, their partners and children, even Charles, if he wants to. Surely, enough time has passed between
they say, though none of them is certain.
But first, this.
Eleanor’s children are taking her ashes, now mingled with those of Byron and Benny’s father, out to sea. Etta swims out ahead of the boat, her neon-colored cap the same orange as the inflatable buoy strapped to her body. Once they’ve gone three miles off the coast, they drop the ladder and pull Etta out of the water, throwing a towel around her. They stand there for a moment, listening to the creak of the boat against the waves before they nod at one another and scatter the ashes overboard. Then Marble, Byron, and Benny take what’s left of their mother’s last black cake, crumble it, and let it fall into the water.
ot everyone sits down to
write a book but everyone is a storyteller, in one form or other. As I wrote this novel, a lifetime of anecdotes and fleeting impressions shared by the Caribbean members of my multicultural family helped me to develop some of the fictional characters and scenarios from the 1950s and 1960s. The scenes from the unnamed island in the Caribbean reflect some of the geography and history of Jamaica, where my parents and other relatives lived before emigrating to the United Kingdom and the United States. The fictional town where members of the book's older generation grew up is inspired by the northeast coast of that island and uses a mix of actual and invented locations.
Most of the characters in
are people who do not quite fit into the boxes that others have set up for them. They struggle against stereotypes and the gulf between their interests and ambitions and the lives that other people expect them to lead, based on gender, culture, or class. Their difficulties are both universal and specific to the times and places in which they live.
In the process of writing, I read articles and historical accounts from journalists, scholars, and online archives such as those from the National Library of Jamaica and the National Archives and the British Library in the UK. I found interesting online posts by people who identify with Caribbean and British culture, and discussions of the Chinese diaspora by institutions like the Chinese American Museum in Los
Angeles. I have peered at countless photographs, videos, maps, and recipes.
The backdrop for the older generation in the story includes reference to inter-ethnic tensions involving Chinese immigrants and their families in Jamaica in the 1960s. It also takes into account some of the difficulties faced by Caribbean immigrants identified as black or “colored” in the UK during the same period. I found the research process eye-opening.
I was aware, for example, that many Chinese immigrants who came to the Caribbean as indentured servants from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s had faced harsh labor conditions and significant poverty before greatly improving their economic circumstances. I did not realize, however, that despite representing only a tiny fraction of the population in Jamaica in the mid-1960s, Chinese or Chinese-Jamaican businesspeople had come to own a majority of the shops and other businesses in that country. This relative prosperity burgeoned at a time of increasing disillusionment among other Jamaicans, most of whom were of African descent and many of whom were feeling the weight of job shortages, class distinctions, and colorism in their postcolonial society. The novel's depictions of violence and riots targeting Chinese-owned businesses were fictional but inspired by real-life conflict from that period.
I knew that immigrants from the Caribbean and other Commonwealth nations were actively recruited to study nursing and work in other sectors in the UK in the postâWorld War II years. But until I had read firsthand accounts of immigrants, I was unaware of the extent to which some Caribbean trainees and employees found themselves harassed, discriminated against, and limited in work opportunities within their professional fields.
It was my personal familiarity with a particular Caribbean food, black cake, that led obliquely to this book. It started me thinking about the emotional weight carried by recipes and other familial markers that are handed down from one generation to the next. Then it had me
writing about characters who must hold fast to their sense of self when they learn that their lives have been built on a dubious narrative.
Despite the use of some historical and present-day context, this narrative focuses primarily on the emotional lives of the invented characters and is meant to be fable-like in its recounting of some of its main events. For fictional stories more deeply rooted in the political and social discourse of multicultural lives in various Caribbean countries and the Caribbean diaspora in the mid- to late twentieth century, I would like to remind readers that there are a number of wonderful authors to turn to, such as Edwidge Danticat, Marlon James, and Jamaica Kincaid.
I would like to recommend also a few books that I discovered while finalizing this book: The novel
by Kerry Young and the nonfiction account
Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem
by Paula Williams Madison offer different but fascinating insights into the Chinese Caribbean experience. In a related note, I would like to mention Jamaican-born producer and director Jeanette Kong, who did a film based on Williams Madison's book and other documentaries on this aspect of Caribbean life.
The Lonely Londoners
by Sam Selvon and, more recently,
by Andrea Levy do a delightful job of bringing to life some of the nuances of ethnic relations in Jamaica and the Caribbean-UK immigrant experience in the postâWorld War II years. I also found
The Windrush Betrayal
by British journalist Amelia Gentleman to be useful in capturing the sense of dual identity that many Caribbean members of the Commonwealth felt as they settled into new lives in the UK. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I encourage readers to continue their own exploration of these topics.
Even when stories are made up, they typically contain emotional truths. It is my hope that the emotional notes in this story will resonate with people of various backgrounds who have thought about shifting concepts of home and family, about longing, loss, and second chances and, of course, love.