The coffee machine gurgled in the background as Anna’s eyes followed a droplet of water meandering its way down the windowpane by her side. Having been in desperate need of air and exercise she had left the house intending to make a short loop of the village and return to her reading, only to be caught out part way round by a sudden heavy rain shower. It was all the excuse she needed to duck into the café on the corner and treat herself to a slice of something sweet and a change of scenery. As she waited for her order to be brought over the stiffness in her back prompted her to roll her shoulders trying to release the knots. Not only had she been hunched over Molly’s journal for the past couple of hours but she felt sure that she had barely drawn breath in the last few pages. The finality of the parting between mother and daughter had caught her off guard and she had been unaware of her tears until one fell onto the delicate paper, sending her scurrying for a tissue to blot it away from the precious words beneath. Standing up also drew her attention to the headache beginning to tighten around her temples and so an escape to the beach was the medicine required.
Pacing out her thoughts by the lapping waves Anna had begun to wonder which was the more difficult way to lose a mother – for her to die and be gone from your life completely, or to know that she was alive but parted from you by such insurmountable distance, estranged indefinitely by impossible circumstance? Would she rather her Mum was out there, standing on some distant unreachable shore, but alive? Still thinking of her and loving her from afar? Without a doubt, yes, thought Anna. That pain would at least be laced with the hope of one day, perhaps, maybe things could be different. Did Molly and her mother ever get that reunion? Anna suspected she knew the answer. And what of the pain in the loss of her father? He had rejected her, cut her off as his daughter. Was that pain worse for her to bear? It certainly gave Anna a profound sense of gratitude for the slow stitching together there had recently been between her and her dad. There were still plenty of moments of awkwardness and times when he reverted to his well-worn path of burying things that needed to see the light of day, but gradually, inch by inch, they were making progress.
“Here you go love.”
A giant mug of hot chocolate was set in front of Anna with an accompanying slice of Victoria sponge.
“Ooh thank you!”
“Hopefully it’ll not last long.”
“Well it might take me a while, this is huge,” Anna replied, looking at the size of her mid-afternoon snack.
“No, I meant the rain,” the waitress chuckled, “but maybe it’ll last long enough for you to take your time with that. Enjoy!”
Anna was quite happy to savour every mouthful as she continued to digest the fullness of Molly’s story. Such an extraordinary situation for a young woman to find herself in. Yes she had chosen love and not a marriage of convenience, but it had come at such a cost. Reflecting on her own tense conversations with her dad she knew that following her own path and choosing her own career had been fraught with difficulty. She had weathered his persuasive reasoning, cajoling and ultimately his disappointment, because she knew that to choose anything other than what she loved would have been a long slow path to resentment. So far she had no cause to regret that choice, even though it was not the most lucrative career to embark upon, but there was more to life than money. Would she still have chosen the same if the cost had been higher? What if she met someone of whom her father did not approve? Would she still choose who she loved knowing it could drive a wedge between them? With gratitude she acknowledged that she lived in a time and place where that choice was freely hers to make, but all choices have consequences and people still had to make decisions here, today, about who to love and what to do with their lives, decisions that could cut them adrift from their families, sometimes forever.
Her thoughts ebbed back and forth as she watched the rain ease while swirling the remainder of the melted cream and marshmallows at the bottom of her mug. Before long a shaft of bright sunlight burst across the shop floor marking the end of the shower and the arrival of a patch of blue between the clouds. Anna stepped outside and breathed deeply. There was something so pleasing about the smell of the world bathed in sunshine immediately after rain, like everything has been rinsed clean and sits fresh and full of possibility. The street was still empty and for a moment it felt as though Elie belonged to her and her alone. Walking down to the road overlooking the harbour she made her way back towards the house, admiring the tiered gardens stepping their way down towards the sea. The road was almost entirely in shadow and the coolness of the breeze found her wrapping her jacket more tightly around her body and deeply regretting leaving her scarf behind. She quickened her pace, noticing the bruising look of the sky ahead and surmising that the break in the rain would be short lived.
Sure enough, as she reached the front door the first heavy drops began to fall. By the time she was upstairs and standing in front of the French doors out to the balcony the rain was battering down on the glass as though throwing a tantrum at not being allowed inside. She stayed there for a few moments, enjoying the anger of the weather from her safe, warm vantage point. Leaning forward she breathed on the window, clouding her view, before writing with her finger on the pane J + M. Is this what Jacob had carved on the reading tree all those years ago? Could that love weather the storms that surely must have come their way? How many young lovers have carved their initials in wood believing it to be a permanent testimony to their unending passion, only to have those crude markings outlive their ardour? There was so much stacked against Jacob and Molly – was it really possible they had made a life for themselves in Jamaica? And what kind of life would it have been? Nothing of the comfort and security that Molly had known all of her days. As she boiled the kettle Anna began to wonder if Molly had ever regretted her choice. Clearly she had swithered for a moment standing by the ship, with almost a literal foot in each camp. Were there days she wished she had simply kept walking, up that gangplank and into the arms of her waiting mother? Did she replay that moment in her mind on the days that were difficult and long to go back and do things differently? Hopefully some of the answers lay in the pile of letters waiting to be read, the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.
Curling up under a rug on the sofa Anna pulled the box to her knee and opened it. She understood a little more of the context now. These were all letters written to Emily Mackenzie in Edinburgh after they had left Jamaica. A quick glance at the first one confirmed they were from Molly except, she assumed, the final one which was clearly in a different style of handwriting. Anna’s curiosity nearly got the better of her but she tucked the final letter once more to the back, determined not to know the author or contents until the appropriate part of the story. Still she wondered, could it be Jacob’s writing? Or Pastor Phillippo? William Knibb? Whoever it was, the fact that it was the last in the series and clearly not from Molly gave Anna a sense of foreboding.
Holding the first letter for a moment, she tried to imagine the circumstances in which it was written and received. How was it possible to pour all that would want to be conveyed into a few pages of words? Anna knew what it felt like to hold on to the handwriting of a loved one after they had gone, how the stroke of the pen became something you could almost feel. She had spent hours looking at her mother’s style of writing the letter j, so sweeping and elegant, and could imagine that same hand curving gently around the side of her face, brushing her cheek and lifting her chin. Did Emily sit at some dining table in Edinburgh pressing these flimsy bits of paper to her breast as though somehow physically receiving the touch of her daughter? Did she keep the pages with her as a way of holding her near? How long did she wait before writing the reply, knowing the time it would take her words to travel the ocean? Anna felt her heart ache as she thought of it, the separation and the longing. She could wait not longer. Carefully she unfolded the fragile papers and began to read.