Authors: Caryl Phillips
Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts, West Indies, and brought up in England. He is the author of three books of non-fiction and eight novels. His most recent book,
Dancing in the Dark,
won the 2006 PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and his previous novel,
A Distant Shore,
won the 2004 Commonwealth Prize. His other awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and currently lives in New York.
ALSO BY CARYL PHILLIPS
Dancing in the Dark
A Distant Shore
A New World Order
The Atlantic Sound
The Nature of Blood
Crossing the River
The European Tribe
A State of Independence
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Published by Vintage 2008
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Copyright © Caryl Phillips, 1991
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First published in Great Britain in 1991 by
Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd
Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London SW1V 2SA
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
The ship was ready to sail. She remembered.
A tall carriage drawn by a pair of horses bedecked with shiny harnesses. Father returned. What now? And daughters sacrificed to strangers. A woman might play upon a delicate keyboard, paint water-colours, or sing. Her father conducted himself as a stern audience. He stood before her, his legs slightly apart, his hands clasped behind his back. She sat upright, her hands knitted together in her lap. A woman must run the household, do the accounts, command the domestic servants, organize the entertaining, but her relations with her children were to be more formal. (Hence the governess and the nursemaid.) She remembered her mother, who had died when she was a young girl. Her mind carried a vignette of her mother in her matutinal pose upon the
It seemed so long ago now. It must be difficult for Papa to understand the heart of a woman without the refining influence of a wife. Papa's decision was that she should travel to his West Indian estate and on her return marry Thomas Lockwood (who was ably provided for). She looked into her father's eyes and thought she saw his pity for the daughter who was being offered a fifty-year-old widower with three children as a mode of transportation through life. She spoke no words. She locked eyes with him, as though to drop her gaze would be to end the years of painful communication
they had sought to construct. Still she spoke no words. Papa, I have buried feelings. She listened as her voice unspooled in silence. Feelings locked deep inside of me, hopes that demand that I must not abandon them for years of cold fleshiness made intimate only by the occasional brushing of lips against cheek. Do you understand? He gazed imperiously at his daughter. She saw now the determination to insure his own future. Lowering her eyes she fell into a gloomy study. The rude mechanics of horse-trading. She had once overheard her father insisting that sensible men should only trifle with these children of a larger growth. And then he laughed. To reside under the auspices of a 'petticoat government'! But she had never doubted that Papa loved her. That evening he planted a light kiss upon her forehead. For a few moments it began to live a life of its own. Then, as ever, it faded. And now she simply waited for the ship to haul anchor. The truth was she was fleeing the lonely regime which fastened her into backboards, corsets and stays to improve her posture. The same friendless regime which advertised her as an ambassadress of grace. Almost thirty. Too old to be secretly stifling her misery into lace handkerchiefs.
The ship was ready to sail. She remembered.
We are now on board and can truly claim to be a part of this wooden society. Isabella and I are heavily fatigued but worse than this we cannot but be appalled by the condition of what will pass for our home during the weeks ahead. In short, the cabin is in a state of disrepair. This is a perfectly chaotic world of men and freight, but were they not forewarned of our imminent arrival? I upbraided the captain, a rough-hewn brute of a man, no doubt the veteran of much trafficking. He bared his stumpy tobacco-stained teeth – presumably a greeting in his private language – and feigned surprise that we should be concerned with such trifles. Furthermore, he made little effort to disguise his disapproval of this sudden inbreak of distressed women. I pray that he be discovered the worst fellow on the whole property, for any more detestable than he I hope I shall never have to suffer.
In the coming weeks and months my observations, for good or ill, shall be set forth in a journal. It is hoped that by the time I return to these beloved shores I shall have a record of all that I have passed through, so that I might better recount for the use of my father what pains and pleasures are endured by those whose labour enables him to continue to indulge himself in the heavy-pocketed manner to which he has become accustomed. There is, I suspect, small virtue in leaving one's creatures to the delegated dominion of some overseer or manager. Perhaps my
adventuring will encourage Father to accept the increasingly common, though abstract, English belief in the iniquity of slavery. It is these days heard abroad, and argued with much vigour, that the lordship over one's own person is a blessing far beyond mere food and shelter. However, to many of these
slavery is simply a notional term to be equated with whatever propaganda they have read in prose or verse. It is therefore unsurprising that despite the outcry raised by their communal voices, there remain many persons scattered throughout our kingdom who inwardly cling to their old prejudices, and secretly mourn over actual or designed reforms.
And so I prepare to leave England which, with all its faults, still bears the title of 'my home'. My heart is heavy and even the prospect of new and more beautiful scenes cannot altogether relieve my sadness.
my country, I have no pride but that I belong to thee, and can write my name in the muster-roll of mankind, an Englishman. If thou wert ten times more cloudy, and rainy and bleak, I should still prefer thy clouds and thy storms to the spicy gardens of the Orient.
The chamber to which we are confined is no more than six or seven feet wide with a narrow plank – this is the only way I can describe it – protruding from each side wall, and a thin gap in the middle which barely allows one to describe a full circle without bruising knees and legs against these
Attached to each
are straps of rope. We have been informed that these are to lash us in of an evening irrespective of the weather appearing clear or inclement.
whence the wind blows;
to which it blows;
the right of the stern;
when you go to the left; but when to the right, instead of larboard helm,
the handle of the rudder; the
the weigher of the anchor; the
the ropes which move the body of the sail, the
being the body; the
those which spread out the sails and make them swell.
Out on deck Isabella and I surveyed the dingy sky. It promised rough sea, sudden squalls and a stormy passage. Littered about us were a company of squealing porkers and their suckling infants, whom I assumed would provide us with some sustenance during the voyage to come. There is with us a small carrot-headed cabin-boy who has brought with him for companionship a pit-bull terrier, whose legendary ferociousness of spirit is likely to be tried by the larger and more exuberant porkers. One can only hope that the terrier is able to fend for itself, for already my Isabella has been obliged to dispense saline drops to the boy and accompany him back to his cot. This voyage is to be his debut, and if custom is maintained it will no doubt be the first of many, until merely a few years hence he will have
as opposed to
and find it difficult to reside in a world that is devoid of motion.
Isabella awoke at the dead of night and accused me of betrayal, prosecuting me with the evidence that I had managed to achieve sleep in this incommodious hole to which we have been condemned. She complained of feeling the motion sickness, of throbbing temples, burning head, freezing limbs, feverish mouth and a nauseous stomach. There was little that I could do except listen to her pitiful moaning and study the sound of the men's feet moving backwards and forwards at the helm, as the ship was now fully engaged about her business of traversing the ocean. Moments later a cock, the harbinger of day, informed me and others unfortunate enough to lie awake that it was a new dawn. Much as I desired a dish of tea, I found it impossible to prevail upon the ailing Isabella to furnish me with such a luxury. I decided to venture in search of the cabin-boy, or some other assistant, who might help me slake my durst, and I abandoned my poor servant to her cot.
What a strange manner of men are these captains. There is little wind yet we are being blown hither and thither like a kite in the sky. Meanwhile our leader protests that the vessel's motion is so gentle and smooth that one might play bowls on deck. He claims that the waters, while not displaying the mirror-like surface upon which one hopes that all such journeys should commence, are truly becalmed. I had to question myself as to whether we were speaking of the same waters. Having procured a dish of Indian tea, I was wont to hammer my teem on every occasion I lifted it to my mouth. The captain informed me that were there more wind we would ride these waves in easier style, but at present, at least to my observations, we were forced to rise and fall like a cork according to Neptune's whims.
the rope ladders by which the sailors climb the shrouds; the
the divisions by which the sails are contracted;
additional sails, spread for the purpose of catching all the wind possible; the
FORE-MAST, MAIN-MAST, MIZEN-MAST; FORE,
TO BELAY A ROPE,
to fasten it.
The air has turned bitter, and the rain merely dribbles and denies us the spectacle of a cascade. The sailors have found some difficulty in surviving their watch, and I am unhappy to report that three have already been consigned to the ocean, their hardiness expiring in these trying conditions. As for Isabella, I fear the worst. Her malady has assumed a more active appearance. In our kingdom we have a
who claims to have some formal training in medicinal science, but he is unable to pronounce upon her condition beyond useless generalizations that a child might deliver upon a cursory glance at the poor creature. His parting advice was to
me that sea-sickness soon masters us all. I am truly distressed to see Isabella in such a plight and can discover nothing to give her relief. Both food and physic have been employed to little purpose. Nothing will sit on her stomach, and through the night she thrashes about her cot as though intermittently possessed by the devil.
This morning, as though nature were bestowing a gift upon us, a fair wind rose and a gentle gust filled our sails and ushered us forward with most marvellous ease and swiftness. But she did not stop there. The gust become violent, the face of the sea grew ruffled, and waves were dashed against our stern causing the ship to pitch from side to side as though about to roll over. This wind continued to rise and punch the ocean in all directions, whilst the horizon vanished as a sheet of rain approached joining sky to sea. The distant, towering clouds were soon obscured as the heavens assumed an ominous hue of bluish-black.
I was, when this drama commenced, consulting with the captain, who took the precaution of snuffing out one of his candles and readying himself to affix the other to the table. However, before he could make it secure, the sudden lurch of the ship threw it from the table-top and for a moment we were plunged into complete darkness. And then the noise! Never did you hear such an intolerable clamour. The cracking of bulkheads! The sawing of ropes! The screeching of the wood! The trampling of the sailors! The clattering of crockery! Everything above and below all in motion at once! Chairs, writing-desks, boxes, books, fire-irons, flying all about as though emancipated from gravity's governance. The livestock screamed and grunted, causing a cacophony no less disturbing than the cries of distressed humanity. And, of course, there was always the fear that the demise of the animals might lead to hardships of diet.
I took advantage of a momentary lull and returned to my quarters, where I was alarmed at the febrile condition of my faithful Isabella. My servant and constant companion for these past twenty years, there is nobody who knows more of the sorrows and joys of my heart than dear Isabella. Since my late mother's departure abandoned a sorrowful ten-year-old girl to my father's jurisdiction, Isabella has been both mother and friend. I now cursed myself for having inflicted this voyage upon her, for her life's journey had proceeded far beyond the
first fresh bloom of youth. Yet her outward vigour always seemed to belie the true nature of her advanced and advancing years. But what now? She no longer attempts to put food on her stomach, and she talks already of what we have done and passed through, as opposed to the adventures we intend to achieve at our journey's end. The captain came down to inspect his ailing passenger and left without a word, but with a grave mien painted upon his visage. It would have cost this rum-soaked man little to have advertised some outward display of affability, for his melancholy must have served only to increase the inner misery that my dear Isabella was trying so hard to conceal.
This sad night has passed with difficulty, and I am now resigned to the prospect of continuing my voyage alone. The captain asked to speak with me, and so for a few moments I abandoned my Isabella. The bluntness of this curmudgeon occasioned little surprise, but his missive took the wind from my sails. It appears that Isabella has contracted a fever common to sailors from which she will not recover. And, in order that I might be spared potential suffering, the captain insisted that come morning she should be removed to solitary quarters. Although reluctant, I could see that I had little choice but to comply with his wishes, and so I composed myself and returned to Isabella. However, the seas were once again running mountain-high, and the waves breaking with such outrageous strength that they could clearly be heard pounding against the decks. They soon punished the caulking, and by dint of some pertinacious efforts wormed their way through the exposed seams, flooding our small private world. All night we were saluted by streams of brackish water which poured over our faces.
This morning there was little relief as the clamour achieved a pitch of frightening intensity. Bright scarves of fire lit the sky, and the wind raged with unabated force. All hands were now called, not only the crew but every man or jack who could assist in this dreadful emergency. The ship was one moment being
tossed up towards the clouds, the next descending with such violence that she trembled for a full half-minute, beholden to Him that her planks were still joined together. Throughout this torment, Isabella clung to my sodden hand with her weakening fingers. Then, as though involved in this thundering drama, my dear Isabella contrived to depart from this world with a theatrical flourish, so that both the tempest and her world were gone as one, and sorrow was stealthily ushered through my door. It came to pass that the sailors and myself muttered the same prayer having both witnessed a tremendous scene of suffering.
'At last from all these horrors, Lord,
Thy mercy set us free,
While in the confidence of prayer,
Our souls laid hold on thee.'
A burial at sea is a pitiful ceremony. I cannot help but shy from describing it for fear of reviving the hurt that it occasioned to my soul. Suffice to say our lugubrious captain did his best to mutter a few solemn words, and men he had the melancholy office of dispatching the swollen corpse of my Isabella to the watery depths. Sad to recount, but she was swiftly followed by the cabin-boy, whose life never afforded him the pleasure of travelling shore to shore, and whose pit-bull terrier leapt over after him in a flight of loyalty that elicited from the scorbutic crew little more than howls of rude laughter. My schemes for the present frustrated, I therefore submitted myself to His powerful hand, and prayed that trust in His goodness would control this evil known as fate.
I took to my bed stricken with grief, but not until the carpenter had recaulked the seams so that there could be no further repetition of my aquatic night. Not only my cabin, but my life too was empty without Isabella. I tried in vain not to throw back my mind over our acquaintance, but how could I
not do so? Clear two-thirds of my life had been spent in the company of this Iberian maiden who in earlier years could have given her allegiance to many eligible men. Natives of her own country, and some Englishmen, would gladly have offered their hands in marriage, and proffered their often not inconsiderable fortunes to have retained such a faithful and caring intimate. But she chose instead to remain loyal to her young mistress, whose heart beat in time to her own. Were I a poet I would compose some lines to her memory, but I am simply a lady of polite status with little talent, artistic or otherwise. 1 hope that one day I might persuade others to pay tribute to the greatness of Isabella. Meanwhile, my journal is now my only true companion, and the airing of thoughts and feelings that in other circumstances I might have shared with Isabella, shall henceforth form a part of its purpose.