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A Different Ocean (concluded)

About the author
Jacob Ross was born in Grenada, and has lived in Britain since 1984. He is a poet, playwright, journalist, novelist and creative writing tutor.
To read the first part of this story click here.

It was their eleventh evening in The Silent and even Anna May seemed to have grown if not more tolerant then at least less concerned about her visits to the boat. Something else seemed to be bothering her. No one, the woman said, had ever known a yacht to remain so long in the Silent. Why de hell dey didn go back where dey come from? Missa Jonko had long since ceased to comment on her diving. In fact it had been some days since she’d heard him mention competing for Missa Olympics.

That evening, she’d slipped into the water, and after taking several turns at hooking up the rope to the ring on the box he’d lowered on the floor of the lagoon, he raised his arm, shouted something and sent what looked like a great silver plate skidding across the water. It was no more than a disappearing dazzle by the time she responded. She moved quickly but she found she could not keep up with the object’s ghostlike plunge. She followed it though, even when she noticed a difference in the way the water felt, even when the cold began to curl itself around her and, like a giant living muscle, the ocean began to shrug her back. It was an odd sensation and she wasn’t prepared for it. Nor was she prepared for the fright that flooded her senses.

She curved and headed upwards surfacing explosively, choked and mystified because for some reason the lagoon had lost its bottom. The strangeness did not stop there, for when she’d popped her head above the water she could have sworn she heard the woman’s shout but when she blinked the water from her eyes, Sookramer was sitting at the front of the boat as relaxed as ever.

‘I didn, I couldn,’ she spluttered.

‘Fergeddit’, Jonko laughed. ‘Just an ashtray, that’s all.’

‘It didn have no bottom down dere… it.’

‘Aww, c’maan, kiddy. I admit it. I been pushing you. Everybody gits tired. Tell you what, Susie’s gonna make you some of that custard stuff you like and we’ll fergeddit for the day. Okay Susie? Give her whatever she wants, she’s earned it.’

It was too early to go home, or anywhere else for that matter. She was glad to see Jacko, struggling under the weight of a basketful of coralfish on the beach. She addressed him without pleasantry or protocol. ‘How come de Silent have bottom one minute, an next minute it don’t have none Missa Jacko?’

The man turned his head as much as the basket would allow him. Perhaps he had not forgiven her for keeping all his fish that last time, or perhaps the weight of the basket had put him in a bad mood but his mouth twisted itself around an obscenity before he rumbled, ‘Whey’s you manners! Whey you come from! What you talkin to me for! Go home y’hear me? Go home an keep yuh broad-mout’ little backside quiet. It have more tings in dat water dan nobody round here don know nothing bout. GO!’

She waited the anger out. Tell me,’ she muttered, her voice quiet and entreating.

‘Leave me, girl. Is you flippin funeral you askin for!’

Because he hadn’t answered her, she decided to swim back to Jonko’s boat. She hadn’t worked out exactly how she would ask him; she would perhaps put it the way she had put it to Jacko, not forgetting her manners this time. The ladder was still down and she clambered onto the craft, uncomfortably aware that she had never boarded without their invitation. Sookramer’s shouting froze her. They must have heard her because there was a tumbling down below and then a sudden silence. Jonko emerged, grinning. The seagull’s eyes were narrowed down and there was a frown above the smile. ‘Forgot something?’

She shook her head, licked her lips to begin the question but he cut in pleasantly. ‘Actually, I’m glad you came back. Got something for you.’ His head popped down and up again. ‘This – this is for you.’

She stared at the man dumbfounded. It was a pair of yellow flippers. New. And by the look of it, her size.

‘Nice, huh? It’s yours, but you’ll have to leave it here. Of course you’ll keep it when we leave.’

‘Leave?’ She stared at his face, the boat, then at the water.

‘Didn’t Susan tell you? Let’s talk about it tomorrow. Okay?’ She nodded. He pointed at the flippers. ‘Leave them there. Tomorrow I’ll show you how to use them. See yah.’

She clambered down the ladder noisily so that they could hear her leave.

Neither Jacko nor Jonko had answered her question; Jacko out of rage, Jonko out of an avoidance she could not understand.

She had no doubt that Sookramer would have told her what had suddenly become so important for her to know. Sookramer, whose scream she carried in her head now, whose blue-sad stare reminded her of that of the women of The Silent only theirs were darker and seemed to be fixed on things much, much further away. Sookramer, whose voice she knew she’d heard and which had died the instant it had taken her to clear the film of water from her eyes. Sookramer, on whose arms and back and legs the long, red marks she’d said the sun had burned there made a different kind of sense now.

She swam fast in the sleek and noiseless sideways manner that the man had taught her. She headed for The Mouth. There, with an almost experimental distraction, she allowed its pull to take hold of her, forcing herself to drift with it until she felt the silent, sucking cold. Then, with a violent flash of limbs, a sudden twist of rage that both surprised and pleased her, she pulled herself loose from its grip and headed for the beach.

She stared almost with a stranger’s eyes at the little yacht, framed against the dark embrace of mangrove. Everything was quiet out there, even the gulls seemed to have vacated the sky and the whole world had turned a seashell pink. Silvery ribbons of clouds hung over the place where the sky curved down and melted with the water. For no reason she could identify, she suddenly felt like crying. Was snapped out of it when she heard the engine of Jonko’s dinghy.

She watched it cut a frothing path along the edges of the lagoon. Soon it was heading out of the bay towards the grey smudge that was Krill Island and in no time at all it was a small dot on the darkening heave beyond.

She heard her name then, pronounced with the by-now-familiar drawl, which she used to find so pleasing. Sookramer, dripping and barefooted, was making her way over the stones which served as a jetty for boats and a place where the children caught whelks and harassed conga eels. She walked with the daintiness of one of those speckled long-legged birds that visited the lagoon during the Easter months. The girl did not look up. The woman lowered herself beside her. There was an aura to her, or rather an odour – a mild freshness – which Sienna could never decide whether she liked or disliked.

‘I couldn’t come up to see you, Millie. Not in the state I was in. Sorry. Hedgehog’s gone over to one of your little islands. Left something out there.’ She stretched out her feet and examined them. They were the colour of one of Tan Lin’s loaves. The toes were long and pink like earthworms.

‘What’s it like up there?’

‘Uh?’

‘Up there where you live.’

‘Dunno, we live up dere. Dat’s all.’

The woman laughed. ‘You make it sound like a stroll on the beach.’ Still smiling she wriggled her toes, pulled her feet in and began picking at the nails. They were painted a silvery blue. She turned her eyes on Sienna, her forehead pleated in a tiny frown. ‘I watch your shapes sometimes, moving against those fires in what I suppose is your front garden?’

Sienna, pretending to be fascinated by what the woman’s hands were doing, did not respond.

Sookramer flung her hair back and released a long, hissing jet of air. ‘Well, there is something terribly warm and close and unconnected about it. A bit like a dream I suppose, only you – you make it real. Those fires, is that what you cook on?’

‘No,’ she muttered. ‘We just like fire.’

‘How do you live? No I don’t mean that; well not like that. What makes your people laugh? How do they love?’ She paused over that, seemed very worried about something, and then she added smiling, ‘I’ve heard it said that different people love differently, although John is one of those who don’t believe that people can love at all.’ She began laughing, the way cats mew, a soft high pitched sound. And then the blue eyes got darker, the lips tighter and somehow thinner. ‘What frightens you, Sienna? I mean.’ She brought her hands up to her face and stared thoughtfully at Cincinnati Dreams, now pink like the inside of a conch shell. ‘I don’t want to waste this chance.’

‘You didn tell me dat y’all – y’all leaving.’ Sienna spoke as if it had never occurred to her before. And it hadn’t. Not really. Not until Jonko had said it. These people were like something she had wished for and had woken up one morning to find standing on the beach. Like a present. Presents did not go away. Presents were things you kept.

Sookramer pushed her hair back from her face and swung her head to face her. The hair flowed promptly back in place. Her eyes had gone a depthless amethyst. And she wasn’t smiling now. ‘We have to go. There’s something he left back in St. Vincent. Thought he wouldn’t need it. But he has to come back. He must.’

‘You coming back with him?’

It seemed an eternity before she answered. ‘Only if I, er, if I have to. If I have to protect you from him. He’ll come back and he’ll call you. He’ll offer you more things and you’ll come and do what he asks because, at the moment, that’s what you want to do more than anything. He knows that. What he doesn’t know is why. I’m not sure I know why either, but,’ she rested speculative eyes on the girl, ‘I suspect that it hasn’t got a lot to do with us. Not all of it. That makes sense?’

‘Lil bit,’ she mumbled, herself sobered by Sue’s sobriety. She thought she’d seen her thoughtful before, but not like this, not with this querying uncertainty.

Sienna fixed the stone at the base of her throat. ‘He does beat you up.’

The woman sucked in her lower lip and stared across the water. Sienna could hear her breathing, soft like the way she spoke, like the way she walked and touched and laughed. Like the way she seemed to be with everything. Like she had imagined Lucille, alive and whole.

‘Don’t you have a single idea of what this might be all about?’ The voice tightened and the woman swung round to face her. For some reason Sienna felt mildly chastised. She shifted her gaze to the red crabs that had surfaced on the sand, their yellow eyes like small revolving flames above their heads.

Sookramer was about to tell her bad things. Things she didn’t want to hear. Everybody was like that. People started off by saying nice things and then as soon as a person began believing them they turned around and spoilt it.

Like that time Tan Lin had called her by those awful words, Petit jamette laid! She did not understand them, but coming from her aunt’s mouth with that quiet sizzling violence, those words sounded like a curse. They seemed to carry the weight and sting of one. They were in fact, a couple of extra barbs on that nasty hook that people were so quick to string her on: the ugliness they reminded her of so often. The ugliness she had once offered Cedric all her food to deny, just once, for a moment, over dinner. And even then he could not bring himself to do it. ‘Well, you not ugly,’ he’d told her reaching for the plate. ‘You more like a fella, dat’s all.’

‘I give you my food to tell me what I is, not what I is not!’ And she’d snatched the plate of food back, which made him smile and lower his eyes.

Maybe all Sookramer and Jonko had told her about how good she was at diving, how nice they thought her teeth were, how quickly she’d learnt the things they’d shown her, maybe all of that hadn’t been true.

‘He does beat you up,’ she repeated, her voice slightly more insistent.

‘We fight – yes, more and more now – over you.’

Sienna’s eyes widened on the woman’s face.

‘Look. You must not come back. You must stay away, d’you hear me?’

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s wrong. Because we’re strangers. Because you don’t know us. Because it’s, it’s not a place for you.’

‘Why?’ Suddenly the hot-eyed clenching, the sudden fizz of irritation, which had never been necessary with these strangers, began to rise and clog her throat.

Sookramer’s face and neck had reddened and Sienna had the odd sensation that the woman was about to cry.

‘Because I – I do not want you to.’

‘Missa Jonko want me to!’ She was halfway to her feet when the woman’s hand closed on her wrist with shocking strength. ‘Sit down! And listen to me! I’m trying to tell you something. I’m trying to save your god damn life! This!’ Her fingers traced a large, furious circle on the sand. This is your lagoon. How d’you call it? Never mind. This – can you guess what this is?’

Sienna squinted at the shape. ‘The boat…’

‘Right.’ Sookramer looked up briefly at the sea. ‘Here – this is where he’s had you diving.’ She made a small circle near the boat. ‘Have you noticed that its getting deeper all the time, that now you’re almost doubling the depth you began with?’

The girl nodded.

That’s because he’s shifting that boat every time.’

‘I know.’

‘You know!’ The woman looked at her with wide, bright eyes. Then I shouldn’t have to tell you that this is not about teaching you a better way to do anything. Right? I don’t need to tell you that he’s taking you closer to where he really wants you to go. Do you know where that is? Do you know what it’s like down there?’

‘Course – I been…’

‘No you don’t!’ Sookramer’s ferocity stunned her. With an urgent sweep of the hand, she cleared the drawing off the sand and began to draw again. She stopped abruptly and with a toss of her hair she looked up about her. The stone sparkled in the light like blue fire.

‘Look up there. That tree, the one with all the flowers, d’you see that tree?’

She could have told the woman it was her tree. It stood a little way back from the edge of the cliff that dropped sharply down to the lagoon. She could even tell the woman the way the roots curled out of the soil like a tangle of brown eels and the secret hollow she had dug there for her things. Sookramer did not wait for a response.

‘Now imagine the top of that tree is the surface of the water and the foot of it is the bottom. That’s where you dive to normally. Now imagine you’re swimming forward from the bottom of that tree. What happens?’

The girl looked up and then across to where Sookramer indicated and then she held the woman’s gaze in terrified, tight-lipped wonderment. ‘Dat – dat’s why! It got another…’

Sookramer nodded grimly. ‘Yes – another bottom a little way further out. That bottom where you dive to is just the top of, well, a sort of precipice.’ ‘Deep – like a precipice?’

The woman nodded grimly. ‘Like a precipice, except it’s underwater. Although it is, well, put it this way: there are a couple of ledges, shelves, stairs – whatever you want to call them – on the way down. You can’t get to the last, er, bottom. It’s too deep, thank God for that. What’s lost down there will stay lost. The weight of the water will kill you, anyway. There are eight boxes down there – on the first ledge – with rings on them. The sonuvabitch who dropped them there just dropped them in the wrong place.’

The girl held her breath. She remembered Mosan’s words and the evening talk amongst the adults about the boats that passed and dropped crates of gin-an-whisky along the edges of Krill island for other boats that hauled them up at night.

In fact, Missa Jacko and his friends had gone one Low-Tide night and retrieved a dozen bottles for themselves. But never in their lagoon. ‘Gin-an-whisky?’ She exhaled.

‘You’re so god damn naive, you make me want to cry. In a few places less than a hundred miles from here some things are worth a lot of money. More money than you people here will ever earn from selling your bananas.’

There’s a little canvas bag down there weighted with lead. He didn’t tell me it was there at first, and when he did last night he wouldn’t tell me what’s in it. Money, shit, ice – I don’t know, I don’t care, but he wants it more than all the rest. Enough to think your life is worth it. It’s on the second ledge. After you place that hook around those boxes, he’ll send you down there last. I know why he’s gone this evening – the sonuvabitch. He’s gone for grease – do I need to tell you why?’

The girl stared blankly at the blue stone.

‘For the cold. At least you know that much. And then there is the pressure. You won’t feel it straight away. We’ll both be gone by then. But the cold and the weight of the water will hurt you. That…’. She waved tiredly at the sea. ‘That’s nothing. Down there it’s a very different ocean.’

After a while she lost track of Sookramer’s words, absorbed more by the sound of them, the way the woman wrapped her tongue around them, the emotions that they rode on – at once soft with rage and harshened by a frightening indignation – as if she were railing more against herself than Missa Jonko.

How, she wondered staring at the markings on the sand, how did they – strangers to her world in every way – how could they know so much more about her place than the very people who lived here?

The fact that they found it so easy to explain everything was as astonishing as the idea of a deeper drop, another bottom to their lagoon. Even the way Sookramer described what lay below the glittering heave they looked on every day held its own benumbing fascination: a different ocean.

It was as if in presenting it that way Sookramer was telling her something, not just about The Silent, but also about herself and her people. That there were other worlds around them, realities against which they rubbed each day without knowing they existed. And because they did not know, because they had not gone beyond the idle wondering, the short-lived pulse of a curiosity which they never gave themselves permission to pursue, because they did not know their place, it belonged less to them.

Awareness then was the beginning of a kind of ownership. A doorway to belonging. It came more as a feeling than an idea and when it did it felt whole and round and not at all uncomfortable. She blinked it back, swallowed hard on it lest the woman saw or sensed the change of mood in her.

And it was that mood that made her wonder with the same detachment with which she regarded the remains of some odd new creature or bit of flotsam on the sand; why would Jonko or any person for that matter want to do something like that to someone else? To call them nice names, smile with them, make them feel they were important; and then, by some means she did not fully comprehend, with that same smile, the same gestures of kindness, seek to make the sea destroy them?

She knew, as everyone else on The Silent did, that every time she turned her heels up at the sky there was no law that said that she would ever see the day again. That the ocean might simply decide to embrace her and not release her until it had drunk her breath and added her life to its own. But that awareness did not frighten her. It was not the same thing. Her people often said that no one could predict when the sea would take a life but what was certain though was that it would never waste it. With Jonko it was like showing her a room in her own house, which she had never known was there and then deciding to lock her up in it to die.

A question occurred to her, which she wanted to ask Sookramer, and she might have done so hadn’t the woman still been speaking. ‘One thing I’ve learnt about you, you’re smarter than you’re letting on. You’re.’ Sookramer’s mouth stayed open. She reached under the nest of hair at the back of her neck and her fingers fumbled there. The silver chain cascaded like water into the palm of her hand and made an island of the blue stone. ‘You like this, don’t you? Take it. I – I have to go.’ It slipped onto Sienna’s knee, flowed down on the sand and settled at her instep. The girl picked it up, wide-eyed, speechless. She moved to hand it back. But her friend had scrambled to her feet.

‘Go home,’ she hissed. ‘Go to your people and don’t come near this place until we leave. Y’hear me! And – and for Gawd’s sake don’t tell him what I told you.’

And then she was running, her eyes not on the sand but on the boat approaching in the distance.

Later, she told herself that she did not have the time to tell Sookramer that it was not Jonko’s boat because the woman was off the moment her eyes had fallen on the speck that had emerged from behind Krill Island. More truthfully though, Sookramer’s terror had fascinated her. Fear was something she simply had not thought was possible with them.

How, she wondered idly, her eyes fixed on Mosan’s approaching craft, how did Sookramer expect her to say anything to Jonko when she was supposed to keep away from him?

Missa Mosan did not greet her. With his usual deliberation he was trying to get his hand under the tail of a hefty tuna. This was a man, they said, who never sold the things he caught; who, by some baffling agreement with the sea, returned always with enough to feed his crowd of children even when the ocean offered nothing at all to others.

‘Missa Mosan?’

‘Yaas!’

‘What is de deepest deep a pusson kin dive.’

‘Deep? What deep?’ He did not look at her. He was still working his hand under the fish.

‘Deep Missa Mosan! Deep-deep-deep – where a pusson kin hardly see de bottom from de top.’

The man straightened up, began working his jaw, as if he were passing the idea around his mouth to get the exact taste of it.

‘What kind o pusson?’

‘A pusson like you. A pusson like anybody,’ she replied, her eyes avoiding his.

‘How deep is deep?’

‘Deep,’ she insisted. ‘Like from de top o dat tree to halfway down de cliff.’

‘Dat what dem askin you?’ He was looking at her closely.

She frowned a quick denial. ‘Is not dem dat askin nothin Missa Mosan, is jus know I want to know.’

He chewed some more. ‘From dat tree up dere you say?’

She nodded.

This time his mouth clamped down on his thoughts deciding perhaps that what he’d tasted was not good at all. ‘Not nice, not nice.’ He muttered. ‘Not nice at all! A dive like dat kin kill a man. I hear you hit de bottom of de Dredge?’

She nodded again.

‘Dat what dem askin you? Dat why dem makin you skin kufum across dat water dere?’

‘Dem teachin me to dive. Dem..’.

‘Don’t lie for me. Next ting you goin tell me is dem tryin to make de water wet!’ He turned his back on her.

She watched him haul the small boat up the sand. There was something flat and angular about him that reminded her of those one-sided fish she often spotted on the sea floor. Even his head was like that, with hair like hers, scorched a rust-brown at the fringes by sun and salt. But it was his feet that fascinated her, narrow at the heels and flared like spatulas at the front. Feet that had the same compact toughness of his body and it was there she decided, thinking of the yellow flippers that Jonko had given her, it was in the size and shape of those amazing pair of feet that lay the secret of his diving. She looked down at her own feet and decided they were like his. Not as large, but that would come with time.

‘Nobody in de worl kin dive like we. Cos nobody make to dive like we.’ She said this finally, tentatively, without pride or gesture, like something that had just revealed itself to her. And he took it the way she meant it. The man swivelled his head around and a broad surprised smile pleated his face. ‘When dey leavin? Cos dem have to leave here soon.’

She realised that he too had been counting the days. He too had been having thoughts about Sookramer and Jonko.

‘Tonight, p’raps tomorrow.’ She shrugged. ‘It don’t matter.’

She could not decide whether it was a cough or curse that issued from Mosan’s mouth. Nor was she sure about the look he gave her. He turned to squint speculatively at the tree above the lagoon. Again he turned his back on her. His words came faltering and subdued. ‘If was me, if is have I have to go. I goin to tek it fast.’

He seemed taken by his own idea. He chewed on it furiously for a while and then he straightened up and fixed the tree. ‘Speed, speed is what is nerecerry for dis kind o dangerousness, cos is dangerousness I call dat. An before I go; before I decide to play rummy wid mih life for nothing, I’ll tell meself, I’ll say, ‘Mosan don ferget to tek your time comin up. Strong as de water is, cold as it is down dere, hurt as mih chest goin be hurtin, bustin as mih lungs goin be bustin, I have to come up slow. Becos comin up fast kin leave ah whole heap o bubble in yuh blood an when it reach yuh heart.’ He brought his palms together with a sudden thunderclap that shook her to the core.

‘What time o day a pusson might be thinkin bout?’ He threw a worried glance not at her but at the sea.

‘Dunno – no time, Missa Mosan. I was only askin. I was.’

‘Mornin!’ He growled. ‘Early as a pusson kin make it. Before de sun come up an hit de water. Ain’t got no tide dat time. De water don’t wake up yet. It have to be early mornin.’ He looked at the sea as if seeking approbation for those words, took up his crocus bag and swung the tuna off the sand.

He was half way up the hill before he checked his stride. ‘Once, Miss Lady! Jus once.’ He shouted without turning. ‘Yooman-been not make to do dat twice. Jus once – o else.’ He did not say the rest but that clap of his hands still echoed in her head and without realising it, she nodded.

She never spoke about what happened afterwards and the little that The Silent learned came from the mouths of those who went out hours before the stirring of the gulls, when morning was still a faint suggestion against a sky the colour of mud-soaked canvas. Those who boasted eyes that could spot the markings on a gull’s wing in the middle of a squall claimed they saw the flash of yellow flippers in the lagoon near the boat. It was something their minds rejected at the time since it fitted into nothing a straight-thinking person expected.

What was certain was the emergence of the girl, bone-soaked and shivering, from somewhere near the tree above the lagoon. The women claimed that it was the chattering of her teeth that had made them lift their heads from their breakfast fires in the yard. And it was the oddness of the sight of her, more shape than substance in that early morning, that had turned their eyes down towards the beach a hundred yards or so at the bottom of the dry, white hill of cactus and mint grass. There, they too spotted the yellow flippers arranged side by side on the sand like a pair of outlandish parrot fish.

She’d gone into the house, stripped and pulled around herself every spare bit of dry clothing she could lay her hands on, including Cedric’s underpants. And then she had laid herself down on the floor and sank into a kind of darkness which they all agreed, was nearer death than sleep.

They knew it as The Chill, an illness that was as hard-to-come-by as a queenshell. A person recognised it by the pallor of the skin and the coldness that seemed to surface from the bones and settle in a kind of sweat there.

The ‘sleep’ lasted four days. Tan Lin’s candlelight inspection of her body had not delivered any answers. If Sienna had been tampered with, she said, it was in a way that went beyond her understanding.

By then the whiteman’s boat like all the other boats that had come before had left.

And when Sienna came out of it, with her eyes still turned in on the ocean from which she had just emerged – reluctantly it seemed – she smiled as if she had surfaced with some secret. And from then they could not keep her inside the house. She sought light and air greedily like a baby seeking milk. So that The Silent was moved to say that she was born again. That the thing that had brought her back that morning all wet and trembling had taken away a life from her and replaced it with a new one.

Cedric told her about the boat leaving, less intrigued by her friendship with the strangers than the odd sight of a woman at the prow, looking up at them, then across at the yellow flippers on the beach, her blue dress fluttering in the wind like that ill-fitting garment she’d sewn for Lucille, her face as pale and expressionless as an early morning moon. That, he told her, was two days before a couple of big grey boats with bright disturbing lights arrived and began circling The Silent.

The flippers were no longer where she’d left them after she’d swum back to the beach, emptied the heavy little canvas bag and slipped into the sea again, this time to toss the empty sack on deck where she thought Sookramer ought to see it since mornings, she was always first to come up from below.

Sienna imagined the white trail that the boat would have made all the way out past Krill Island and Sookramer, sad and smiling at the prow, casting a last glass-blue stare at the houses and the beach. Surprisingly, the sense of abandonment she had anticipated was not there.

Indeed The Silent was empty as if they had never come.


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