44 Scotland St
VOLUME 14 CHAPTER 22 A VERY STRANGE HOTEL
The hotel had been recommended to them by Matthew’s father. “There’s a place in Jamaica,” he said. “I’ve never been there, but Uncle Charlie was there back in the late nine - teen-fifties, just before independence. He knew it quite well, because he used to go up there from Kingston.”
Uncle Charlie was Matthew’s father’s godfather. Matthew was too young to have met him, but he was a figure so central to family history that he felt he knew him. He had been a well-known yachtsman on the Clyde in his early years, having been born in Rhu, and with yachting in his blood. He had graduated in economics from the University of Glasgow and then gone to Oxford, to Balliol, a nursery for talented Scots destined for the higher reaches of the civil service. He had opted to go into banking, though, choosing posts where he would be near the water and where he could sail. Being sent to Jamaica had suited him very well, and he had forgone promotions in order to stay there, ending up being responsible for a whole string of banks across the Caribbean. He stayed in Jamaica for six years after independence, having married a Jamaican – an “unacknowledged sprig of the plantocracy”, as Charlie had referred to her. He had then come back to Scotland, to spend his retirement sailing on the Clyde. His wife, though, had sickened in Scotland, which was too cold for her. “She never got warm,” said Matthew’s father. “Poor Matilda. She just shivered and shivered and eventually she went home. They had grown apart. She disliked the water and could get seasick simply looking at it. She died of eating unripe ackee. They love ackee over in Jamaica but you have to be careful. It’s like that poisonous fish the Japanese love to eat. You have to make sure you don’t eat the wrong bits.”
Matthew had heard the story of Aunt Matilda and the unripe ackee as a young boy and had refused for years to eat any fruit with seeds. Uncle Charlie’s demise, too, had put him off sailing; he had fallen overboard while sailing up Loch Fyne in a gale. He had been wearing a safety line, but it was too long, and failed to keep him on board. His going overboard was noticed by his crew only ten minutes or after it occurred, and by then it was too late and he had been dragged through the water at the end of the line for too long.
“Uncle Charlie loved that part of the island,” Matthew’s father said. “He was a great fan of a hotel not far from Ochos Rios. He went up at weekends, from Kingston. He had lots of friends, and they used to go up there with him. It was quite a sociable set, I believe.
“There was a hotel up there that he liked. It had a bar that was famous for its rum cocktails. They served rum with tonic water and Angostura bitters. Uncle Charlie drank there with some pretty exotic customers. Noel Coward was a regular. He had a villa called Firefly not far away, and would drop in on a Friday evening. They had a piano, but Uncle Charlie said that Coward never touched the piano in the Green Island. He didn’t like its tone, apparently, calling it ‘that soi-disant piano’. And Ian Fleming was seen there too. It was quite the place.” He paused. “The original owners sold it, I believe, but it’s still there. And I wondered whether you and Elspeth would care to spend your honeymoon there – I’ll pay, of course.”
Matthew had accepted. There had been a time when he would have declined, but he had stopped doing that when he had realised that his father got such pleasure from buying him things. There was such a thing as gracious acceptance, Matthew thought. So he said, “That’s really generous, Dad” and arrangements were made.
They flew from Edinburgh to London, and then from there to Kingston. On the flight, as their plane soared over the clouds and the cabin filled with light, Matthew took Elspeth’s hand in his and pressed it. “Excited?” he asked.
She smiled. He loved her smile. He loved it, and his heart soared. He could not believe his good fortune that he had found somebody as perfect as she was – a person completely without fault. But then he thought, was that love speaking? Was love, as the Latin phrase would have it of anger, a furor brevis – a brief madness? And if one could fall in love suddenly – in just the same way as one catches a cold – then could one fall out of love equally quickly, and equally unpredictably? He thought of a poem he had once picked up by chance: it was Betjeman, at whom his English teacher had sniffed, and he was talking about a couple in a restaurant; Ingang, they were in love again, and Ausgang they were out. Something like that, he thought. He knew, of course, what his English teacher had meant. He had talked of sentimentalism, and warned against it. “It cheapens real emotion,” he had said. “Real attachment. Real loss. Real love.” But then he had said – and Matthew remembered his precise words – “The problem is that Betjeman was popular. It’s a great sin to be popular.”
Matthew had put up his hand. “But Scott was popular. Burns too. They were great writers, but they were popular.”
The English teacher had gazed out of the window and stroked his chin. Matthew had noticed that he often seemed to cut himself when shaving in the morning. He treated the nicks with an oldfashioned remedy, a styptic pencil, which left a line of white where applied to the skin. Could the Edinburgh Academical Association not pass the hat round to buy the English Department an electric razor? They could leave it in the staff common room for general use. Matthew smiled at the memory. This was exactly what the same English teacher had meant when he talked to them about intertextuality – about how one piece of writing lives on in another; how one thought prompts another, until a tapestry of association and cross-reference results. That talk, of course, had been above the heads of most of the people in the class, and Matthew, closing his eyes briefly in that pressurised cabin above the Atlantic, could see them now. Tommy Maclean, who thought only about rugby, and who almost played for Scotland, but not quite; Bill Sullivan, who thought about the Red Hot Chili Peppers most of the time, and who spent hours cultivating what he described as a “cool way of walking”; Eleanor Mactavish, who spoke a lot about moisturiser and shampoo and who probably thought about them too – she had split-ends, poor girl; and Bob Anderson, who thought about nothing at all, as far as anybody could ascertain. None of them would think about intertextuality on a plane, with a freshlypoured gin and tonic in hand, and on the way to a honeymoon in Jamaica.
He turned to Elspeth, who smiled at him.
“What were you thinking about?” she asked.
“Too complicated,” said Matthew. Elspeth gave him a reproachful look. He could not work out whether it was playful or serious. “I’m married to you now,” she said. “I’m entitled to know.”
Matthew hesitated. Was that true? Was that what marriage involved?
‘Was love, as the Latin phrase would have it of anger, a furor brevis – a brief madness? And if so, could one fall out of
love equally quickly, and equally unpredictably?’