Beauty and the Beast

January 3, 2017 — 4 Comments

I am fortunate to spend time on St Croix – the largest of America’s surprisingly unknown Caribbean islands. The raw beauty of her beaches and the capriciousness of the sea as it cycles from emerald to aquamarine to turquoise to steel, depending on the clouds sent scudding by the constant Trade Winds, never fail to delight.

History emanates off the foot thick walls of the forts – yellow in Christiansted and rust coloured in Frederiksted – telling of the seven flags under which St Croix has flown. Originally known as Ay Ay, the island has been colonized, captured, lost, recaptured and bought, by the Dutch, British, French, Spanish, the Knights of Malta, and finally in 1917 sold by the Danish government for 25 million dollars to the US, fearful of German expansion during the First World War.

With the benefits of US laws and banking regulations, strong African roots from the days of slavery, a European heritage, and a lingering Caribbean charm, St Croix has much to offer both residents and visitors alike.

Green, hawksbill and occasionally leatherback turtles lumber up many of the beaches to lay their eggs, year after year. 50 to 70 days later, seabirds circle the skies watching with predatory interest as the tiny hatchlings surface through the sand and scuttle down to the ocean to start their journey north.

Cacti and scrub populate the eastern end of the island, with mahogany and genip trees towering high in the rainforest to the west. Bougainvillea, hibiscus, ixora and the island flower, Ginger Thomas, splash colour along the roadsides and hide both million-dollar mansions and less palatial homes from prying eyes. Papayas, pomegranates, pineapples and figs – the delicious little bananas – grow with easy abundance. Mangos and avocados grace many local dishes, and the sea offers lobster and mahi mahi and snapper.

Tranquility and beauty.

The islands – St Croix, St Thomas and St John – like most places have community issues, with elements of society not content to follow the rules. There is domestic abuse, too many guns in the hands of the wrong people, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions and larcenies of various kinds. All man made.

There is though a natural beast which lurks with vicious impunity along some of the shorelines. Known by the Spanish conquistadors as the ‘little apple of death’, the hippo mane mancinella, more commonly known as the ‘manchineel’, provides a natural windbreak and fights beach erosion, ever a problem for areas facing Atlantic hurricanes. The tree, sometimes growing to 50 feet, can be deadly to most birds and animals though, for some unexplained reason, iguana seem impervious to its toxicity.

To mere mortals its small green fruit resemble crab apples and lie temptingly on the sands. Don’t be enticed. If ingested, savage abdominal pain can be expected, followed by vomiting, bleeding and damage to the digestive tract. Deaths have been reported. Don’t even pick that apple up. The leaves and bark produce a milky sap which cause blindness, mostly temporary, and scorching blisters. If scratched by branches not only do the wounds hurt but pulsating pustules emerge over the coming few hours adding to the misery. I have seen the pain.

If Juan Ponce de Leon, the conquistador intent on colonizing Florida in 1513, and later parts of the Caribbean, had survived a manchineel-tipped arrow piercing his thigh, he might have been able to attest to its ferocity. Some though accept the temptations. Carpenters covet the hard timber for furniture and a few risk the dangers, drying the wood naturally to neutralize the sap.

Most manchineel shrubs and trees are marked with red crosses and warnings, but signs can get overgrown. Beachgoers have been burned just by standing underneath the tree during one of the many squalls washing the islands and coasts of South America and Florida. The caustic sap can even burn the paint off cars parked under its branches. And, if burned, the air is filled with toxins causing respiratory problems.

Accepted as the most dangerous tree in the world, the manchineel is relatively rare and is considered endangered – remember, it does have some positive benefits. But really, the best thing to do, should you come upon a manchineel is to give it a wide berth.

Beauty and the beast – part of the allure of the Caribbean.

And, should your kite get entangled in the manchineel’s embracing arms, just cut the strings.

Christmas Winds!

December 21, 2016 — 11 Comments

The Christmas winds, barreling east from Africa, are bringing squalls and as I dodge great splodges of rain I hope for calmer weather when Jake’s Place fills with visitors in a few days. Christmas in the Caribbean sounds exotic, and much of it is, but whilst we don’t have to worry about hurricanes, or polar vortexes, at this time of year, we do want sunshine for friends who have chosen to share the festivities with us.

The last few days have been spent gussying the house up, making the tree and reminiscing as I hang ornaments reminding me of past Christmases. Camels, monkeys and elephants share branch space with more traditional baubles.

Not having children present this year, I have not put out the elf on whose blackboard the days are marked down until Santa magically appears. Not down the chimney but instead, as I explained to my grandchildren last year, on top of the gallery where he ties the reindeer to the defunct satellite dish so they don’t blow away in the aforementioned winds. That jolly fellow in the red suit then shimmies down and clambers in the open window to deposits his goodies. Spending just enough time to swig the rum, this is the Caribbean afterall, munch a mince pie, of course remembering to take the carrots aloft for the patiently waiting Rudolph and his cohorts.

As I listen to carols and sip sherry – another family tradition – I think that Christmas can be a strangely complicated time for many of us. Whether home or abroad. A nostalgic time. A time when thoughts drift back to childhood, either our own or our children’s. And when those children are grown and not sharing the season with us, whether due to distance, work or commitments to others, it is easy to fall into a malaise longing for things past.

A sentimental time – perhaps especially for those not spending it in their home country for the first time. The unfamiliar jostling the familiar. Perhaps the first warm Christmas, or conversely the first laden with snow – finally one that fits cards showing winterscapes with Breughel-like scenes.

Nostalgia though can be confused with homesickness. I think the trick to Christmas either spent abroad or away from home for the first time, for whatever reason, is to start new traditions. – whether we are the ones away or the ones still at home. Create new norms to each new situation. It doesn’t mean turning our backs on the old forever, it just requires a little adaptability. A different take on a familiar event. Watching, sometimes from afar, grown children with their own family merging traditions as well as forging new ones, gives me real joy.

More often than not, I ‘dress’ the house alone now, so when my husband or guests arrive on island all is ready, and as I listen to my favourite carolers I feel a sense of freedom. I have no one to answer too, to cajole into helping me. No eye-rolling teenager, or spouse grumpy because the lights wont work.

Nonetheless, there is a poignancy to the preparations. We relocated internationally a number of times when our children were young, with each place requiring slight adaptations, and of course assurances Santa would find them in their new abode – whether he had to row along a klong, find us in a high-rise or squeeze down a chimney. Memories pop up with each ornament. The elephant decorations came from Thailand, the monkeys from West Africa. The slightly wonky Santa face was the first decoration my son made, oh so many years ago. It has travelled many miles.

When both my grown children were with us last year, with their respective partners and our grandchildren, we reverted to their childhood traditions – though with Mimosas instead of OJ. My daughter took her usual position at the tree doling out presents. My son pretended indifference, except when watching his nieces, but actually enjoyed the roles into which we all naturally fell.

This year will be different again. And that, to me, is what makes Christmas such fun. Old and new customs melding to add to the memories – the odd culinary disaster becoming ever enlarged as it is recounted year after year.

So for those having a different kind of Christmas this year, remember wherever you are is home for the time being, and revel in the newness rather than succumbing to saccharine sentimentality. Santa will find you.

And now I must go and rehang the camel – those darn Trade Winds! May your day be filled with warmth of both hearth and heart as you recall old memories and create new ones.

Merry Christmas!

The silence woke Holly. The rhythmic creak of the anchor chain and slap of water hitting the hull had stopped. So too the groaning sheets interspersed with whistling, like Nonna’s kettle, as wind had whipped through the stays and the sea had spumed. Her initial delight on being aboard had lessened with each shriek of the storm buffeting the yacht – despite the cheerful banter over gin rummy and whisky.

Tying a batik sarong Holly tiptoed up on deck. A ribbon of palest pink tickled the horizon and she knew the drenched decks and sails would soon dry in the rapidly rising sun. Hearing no sound from either Simon or Reed’s cabin, she climbed down to the transom and stripping, dived into the sparkling Caribbean. Surfacing, she gasped. She hadn’t expected the chill. It felt more like her childhood dash into the waters off Lyme Regis.

Shards of silver shimmered as her naked body rippled the turquoise sea in ever-widening circles. Tiny fish feathered her legs as they darted first one way and then the other in uncertainty until, as one, they flashed away. Looking down into the clear waters Holly wondered what was chasing them. Barracuda maybe. She shivered. It was cold. Kicking, she swam strongly, relishing the swish of water over her head, and glad she’d had her long hair cut before she’d left London. New life. New style.

Puffing, she floated a while, her hands idling the water. The beach, like snow from this distance, invited her to make sand angels. The white strip lined by palms, the fronds rustling gently after their frenetic movements of the previous evening. She could just make out what looked like ruins at the top of the hill behind the beach. An old sugar mill she guessed. She shouldn’t have been so hasty – she’d like to walk along the beach but doubted her nakedness would be appreciated by those on other yachts anchored nearby, and who might also be early risers.

“Holly!”

She waved. Even from this distance Simon was tall. Beckoning her back, she saw Reed join her brother on deck. Almost the same height but not living up to his name – Reed was a sturdy man. A rugby player to her brother’s cricket. They had met at university and been fast friends ever since. After one marriage and divorce, and one near miss, they’d pooled their resources and, leaving the dank European winters behind, had set sail for warmer climes on their 45’ sloop, Henrietta. The freedom seemed to have had a positive effect on their finances too – freelance marketing and writing brought in more than enough and, whilst Holly knew they had both had flings, the men were happy with their lives. How would they find life with her aboard for the next few months?

Until she could face the Highbury Fields flat again. Until she could face London again. No Malcolm. No Nonna. Holly couldn’t tell whether it was tears or seawater making her eyes smart. Couldn’t tell whether it was the thought of her lover in someone else’s bed or her dead grandmother which made her chest constrict.

“Holly!” Simon’s deep voice skimmed over the shimmering water again. “Breakfast.”

Powering back to the yacht, she remembered her nakedness.

“Go below, both of you!” she called, hearing her brother’s laughter. Clambering up the ladder, she retied the sarong and followed the smell of bacon into the galley.

“Bacon butties on deck,” Reed said, turning from the hob with a grin. “Up you go. You earn your keep from tomorrow.”

The sun dried her corn-coloured hair into loose curls, softening her angular face and grey eyes. She sighed. There were worse places to be. Smiling, she heard Nonna’s favourite carol drifting up from the saloon – Bing Crosby singing The Little Drummer Boy. Turning she saw Simon carrying a tray set with a guavaberry branch in an empty wine bottle, tiny baubles glinting above a miniature reindeer with a red bow and two small parcels wrapped in gold paper. Then Reed with glasses and champagne – both wearing board shorts, fur-trimmed Santa hats and tinseled sunglasses.

“Merry Christmas, Holly!” Simon said, kissing his sister.

“Happy Ho, Ho, Ho.” Reed filled the plastic flutes, bubbles joining the condensation as they spilled over. “Here’s to your first Christmas aboard!”

Memory Keepers

November 29, 2016 — 11 Comments

Sadness washes over me like a warm tide. The tears are salty too. A childhood memory surges through the wave of grief, and I smile.

The undiluted joy of receiving a tiny, tinny transistor radio from my aunt and uncle when they stayed with us in Singapore, en route back to England from their posting in the Solomon Islands. I was about seven and confined to bed for six months with suspected rheumatic fever. That little wireless was my constant companion as I whiled away the long days, and I remember thinking it fantastic that people like Cliff Richard or Brenda Lee, or The Beatles, all came to our little island. They didn’t of course, but no one dissuaded me.

I called my uncle and aunt ‘Jonjulu’. Their names, John and Julia, merged into one amorphous and interchangeable sound. In those early days, before the islands in the Pacific became their home, Jonjulu lived in northern Nigeria where my uncle was a district officer. We lived mainly in the south, in Port Harcourt, Lagos and Aba. Christmases were spent together. And I, as the only child around, was very spoilt. Early on I tried to adopt my aunt’s favourite pose. That of standing on one leg, the other tucked up behind her calf. I, a chunky toddler, of course would fall flat on my face.

Julia reminded me of that this summer. We had lunch together when I visited her in Sherborne, England. She was by then in an old people’s home conveniently located across from a very nice hotel. Her short-term focus was drifting away but her long-term memory was remarkably intact. We talked about my uncle, long dead. About my father – also dead – and his delight when, after introducing his commanding officer to his sister via letter, their meeting culminated in marriage. We talked of their cottage in Suffolk and the joy their children had given them in that idyllic part of England.

Whilst reading and talking about the menu was enjoyed, deciding what to eat was an ordeal for my aunt until, with a little nudging, she finally decided and we ordered from the busy waiter whose patience never wavered.

We talked about the gardens surrounding the hotel, of the self-important robin redbreast hopping beside the raking gardener and, suddenly, Julia reminded me of arriving on their Dorset doorstep at three in the morning. Saudi, their spaniel, shushed by my voice licked my hand and bade me enter the unlocked door to the kitchen. She followed me up the stairs, her head cocked as I whispered through the bedroom door, asking for a bed for me and my friend. “Do you want to meet Fiona,” I, by then a young woman, remember asking. “No, I do not. You know where the beds are. We’ll talk in the morning,” my sleepy aunt replied.

Along with stories, we shared a bottle of wine. Probably excessive at lunch time, but I’m so glad we did. Because my much-loved aunt died on Sunday.

The final person who knew me well as a child despite not always living in the same country. Who knew my parents in their early days of courting and who answered my questions, as well as she could, when I first learned of my half-sister’s existence – my parents, who I would not see for a year, having left London to return to Papua New Guinea. An adaptable woman who was often easier in the company of Hausa tribesmen or Pacific islanders than her compatriots.

It was Julia who taught me the subtleties of English dining – artichoke and asparagus – “Only ever eaten with the fingers, Apple.” I was thirteen and more used to rambuttans and breadfruit.

Remembering her influence, I think of how many expatriates worry about family ties being broken by miles and oceans. A few years in Nigeria and a couple more as a young woman in England are the only time I lived in the same country as my aunt, and yet she knew me better than most – my foibles and my dreams. Distance was never an object to our closeness.

My aunt was the product of an era now passed. Of when duty was considered paramount. Of when doing the right thing was expected and not rewarded. She had sadnesses, like everyone, but she was a private person brought up to not make a fuss, to get on with it. Truisms seen now as anachronistic.

My father, Julia’s brother, was a military man and when I was a child he would say to me, “A soldier’s daughter never cries.” Not something I espouse and, as I type, my tears fall for Jonjulu, my last true memory keeper.

April 7th, 2010

November 9, 2016 — 4 Comments

I looked around the school gymnasium and was humbled. We were a polyglot of tongues and colours, from many cultures – all immigrants. I stood with all the other immigrants to swear my allegiance to the United States of America. A country which I thought stood for decency. For equality for all. A still young country to which many others in the world looked to with hope.

In 2014 the population of America was 318.9 million and it seems, in the bleary light of a dull Houston morning, as if Secretary Clinton will win the popular vote by a squeak. America, though, is a representative republic as opposed to a direct democracy, and it is this that has allowed Donald Trump to win the Electoral College. The system whereby the number of electors for a state is based upon the voting membership of that state in Congress.

The system put in place by those who wrote the Constitution. James Madison, considered the pivotal writer of the Constitution, believed “factions” of the public with a common interest could arguably harm the nascent nation as a whole. I would argue that system has just irredeemably harmed the now 241 year old nation.

This is not the first time the popular vote has been defeated by the electoral system. George Bush beat Al Gore in 2000, and the same has happened on three other occasions in the 1800s. I wasn’t able to vote in the Bush v Gore contest but I cared, and was disappointed in the outcome. I was not, though, riven with a feeling of utter horror. Mr Bush might not have been my choice but I never questioned his belief in his country or his inherent decency.

The man-who-would-be-president in January 2017 fills me with such disgust and distrust that I feel truly ill. And almost worse, my anger at the millions of people in this incredible country who have turned their back on progress. Who have accepted the slogan “Make America Great Again” – when the merest glance over the border to the chaos in many countries in Central and South America, across the oceans on either side of us, would see just how great America is.

Fed on fear, much of America has shown the watching world just how ignorant we are of what is happening in the world. We are in danger of being considered an inward-looking, inbred country of misogynistic men and cowed women, uncaring and uninterested in life outside our borders. Unwilling to take a stand for the rights of people everywhere.

And everywhere includes the United States. Mr Trump has denigrated so many people here – women, African Americans, Muslims, the disabled, immigrants, those who have fought and died for this country, those who love someone of the same sex – and I suppose, as I wipe the tears away, I am shell-shocked at the gullibility of people through broad swathes of this country. People who have voted for a man who is proud of not paying taxes, a man who holds women in staggeringly low esteem, who sneers at climate change and believes coal extraction is a good way to increase jobs, a man who brags of business acumen but who is alienating many trading partners with his rhetoric of slashing international trade deals, won through diplomacy and patience.

Diplomatic and patient – two words never used to describe the man we the people have elected to the White House. To fill the rooms of that venerable mansion with crass flamboyance, and crude utterances. To replace a family who have lived there with grace, humour and courage.

And I am shell-shocked at the blatant disregard by women in this country of a man who threatens their very wellbeing, and that of their children, particularly their daughters.

The markets settled slightly after Mr Trump’s acceptance speech, more gracious than expected, but how can a country become “great” when the person leading it has such a low opinion of so many of its citizens, and the world outside its borders?

On April 7th, 2010 I proudly became a citizen of this incredible country. On November 9th, 2016 I am beyond dismay.

Writing is a lonely business.

A thick outer skin must be ordered – I believe they are available online – and worn so the writer doesn’t disappear into a tightly wrapped ball of fibres, which can later unravel into the distance hauling away what little snippets of self-confidence have been painstakingly garnered through the occasional success.

Pitching brilliant ideas to magazines is a thankless task often shot down by breathtaking silence from editors. We shake our phone, switch our computer on and off, in the vain hope the longed for acceptance and promise of small monetary gain has merely disappeared into that great universe called the ether. But no, the phone is working, so too the computer – every email from that online site from which you so rashly bought two years ago is managing to escape the junk box.

For those of us trying our hands at longer pieces – a book for instance – rejection from literary agents becomes a way of life and we really do grow an extra epidermis. We nod and smile wanly when our well-meaning friends trot out J K Rowling, again.

In need of moral support recently, I wasted hours but eventually came across a wonderful piece which cheered me no end. Did you know, for instance, that Agatha Christie had five years of rejection? The Da Vinci Code, two years. Fireburn, my manuscript is not a thriller, but I found the following critique of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold of utmost comfort, “He hasn’t got any future.” Mary Higgins Clark, J G Ballard, Stephen King and many other now respected authors have received numerous dismissals. And whilst I don’t put myself in their elevated ranks, their perseverance and self-belief does provide an inkling of hope.

Why do I need hope? Well, I almost blew it. Only time will tell. An email arrived from a relatively new, small press chosen because it was young and, I hoped, hungry. Keen to make a name. Eager to do the best for both me and themselves. I read those magic words – we want more. And then seven – count them – seven days later another email appeared saying they were interested. A flurry of further communication, culminating in a phone call, and then, and then, the moment when the contract lands with a ping.

The cork is popped. Texts to loyal readers of both early and later versions of my book, three years in the making, are sent with exultant responses of the ‘told you so’ type. And then, and then, you actually open the contractual attachment and the fizz goes flat.

Having been verbally assured of the stringency of editing – both content and copy – you find the contract is full of typos and inconsistencies. A cobbled together document, which would ensure any lawyer worth his fee slit his throat rather than let out it the door.

The bubbles have truly fizzled. And those little inconsistencies tamped down during the phone call merge to create a cacophonous roar. You have been seduced.

No, let’s be honest! I was seduced. Seduced by the thought of a publisher who promised marketing to all and sundry – here and abroad. Foreign rights – no problem. Film rights – of course. I was already sashaying along the red carpet – a yellow dress, I thought – as actors clamored to praise the role I had written for them.

The harsh hand of reality grabbed my throat on the seventh or eighth reading of the contract. How could I sign with a company who didn’t care about their own words, let alone mine? So yesterday I wrote thanking them for their interest and time, and closed that portal.

Now, I shall pull on my newly-bought skin and head back to the computer screen to scroll through pages of literary agents and publishers.

There must be one out there who might be interested in a book called Fireburn!

Tears for Thailand

October 14, 2016 — 3 Comments

Years ago and far away, in what now seems like another life time, we lived in Bangkok. Those fortunate enough to spend time, not just a vacation, but time enough to absorb some of a country’s culture, will forever have an element of that country in their souls.

As Thailand mourns the death of King Rama IX, my heart is heavy for what the country has lost and what the country now faces. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is the ordained successor to King Bhumibol – the only son and a man considered by many to be a serial philanderer. He has been married three times, has numerous children, some of whom he has denounced and is not held in the same high regard as his father. Or his sister.

I had the honour of being presented to Princess Sirindhorn when Cheshire Homes opened a new centre for the physically disabled on the outskirts of Bangkok. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn or as many Thais call her, Phra Thep – Princess Angel – is another matter. Admired by all for her steadfast devotion to the Thai people, she was elevated, with a tweak to the constitution in 1974, to Princess Royal which, in theory, would allow her a claim to the throne should something happen to the Crown Prince.

Soi Attawimon, where we lived our first time in Bangkok was a narrow street over a klong littered with daily detritus and which, in the monsoon season, regularly flooded our garden and occasionally our house. There were bonuses though to living on our little lane. Late afternoons were often punctuated by delighted squeals from our daughter, Kate, when she would feed sugar cane to the elephant ambling back to his home. We also had an early warning system of any coup. Tanks and trucks filled with soldiers would rumble along from military barracks at the far end of the soi. Being essentially a dead street did have its drawbacks though. We were regularly delayed as it was closed and city traffic idled to an even slower pace than usual, in order to allow the Crown Prince clear passage.

The Glorious Twelfth is not only the start of the grouse shooting season, it is also the now Dowager Queen Sirikit’s birthday, and so a public holiday. Kate, whose birthday is also on August 12th, grew up believing the whole world stopped for her one day every year.

There were many happy occasions in Thailand. From the serene to the surreal.

Loi Krathong, which falls on the full moon of the twelfth month in the Thai calendar – usually the end of November – is a charming ritual. Baskets woven from banana leaves into ornate shapes are filled with flowers, trinkets, incense, candles and coins, sometimes even nail clippings or hair so character flaws are released, and are then floated down the waterways taking away misdeeds and paying obeisance to the water spirits. The Chao Phraya, the river flowing through Bangkok, is the main repository for the floating mass of twinkling baskets but, in my mind’s eye, it is our little fish pond where the spirit of loi krathong is wedged.

Inordinate skill is required to weave banana leaves into a floating receptacle. A skill I did not have despite expert guidance from Es, our maid. She fashioned a basket in the shape of a lotus blossom for Kate which was duly filled with flowers, a candle and a small doll, “For to be lucky”. The house was dark and our garden became a magical wonderland as lights from the soi sent shadows dancing. Kate, as she had been taught by Es, put her hands together in a deep wai and slid her loi krathong into the pond. Water splashed up and, as we watched her basket eddy amongst the reeds and curious gold fish, my two-year old turned to me laughing at her wet nightie and said, “Mai pen lai, Mummy!” And she was right. It didn’t matter. The world was in harmony in that darkened garden – if only for a moment.

Surreal came from the machinations of monkeys in Wang Kaew stealing our breakfast of papaya and pineapple when, as I shouted and flailed my arms at the intruders, Kate reminded me that being kind to kleptomaniac monkeys was considered good luck in Thailand. Es taught her well.

And Edward was born in Bangkok. Not on an auspicious date in the Thai calendar but a day to be forever celebrated in our family. Our children were playfully pinched and pampered by Thais wherever we went – scooped away the moment we sat at restaurant table – to be heard chortling as they devoured sticky rice and mango with their new friends.

And so, as Thailand mourns King Bhumibol, my heart is with them and my deepest hope for that gracious country is that the transition to a new monarch is peaceful. That, in the not too distant future, Thailand again becomes the Land of Smiles.