Chapter 22

3rd December 1835

Dearest Mama,

The arrival of your letter and package was the sweetest moment in a long and tiresome few months. Despite having grown up in the heat of the island I confess that my current circumstances are considerably less comfortable on baking hot day. Does the sun seem so very distant to you? I was so glad to read that you are well despite the challenges snow and ice have brought to you. I recall how, as a small girl, you would sit me upon your lap and try to describe to me what such inclement weather was like. Such was your gift as a storyteller I confess it all sounded rather thrilling. The notion of being able to skate upon a frozen lake seemed to me the most adventurous and mystical of pastimes. However now as an adult, knowing that you are in that cold grey climate without your daughter, it sounds like the most miserable place on earth. Yet I should endure it gladly to be with you once again. I suppose it shall be a long time still before that is possible.

Is there much talk in Scotland of what goes on here? What is the feeling toward emancipation? In some ways the situation here has become worse, if you would believe that possible. The planters and overseers have responded to the prospect of freedom for their slaves with a good degree of harshness. It is widely reported among the Negros that beatings have increased in number and severity. I am so very glad that Jacob is now a free man. He always held himself with such dignity, even before, but now there is a look on his face through the toil and sweat, an expression of satisfaction, knowing that he works only for himself and his own household. I am so proud to call him my husband. I do not think I should ever have felt that way towards Robert. All of his wealth and status was handed to him through birth. What I have now most people would consider as nothing in comparison, but it brings me great joy knowing that whatever we have shall be earned by ourselves alone.

How is Papa? Has his heart softened towards me at all? I experience a great conflict within me when I think of him. I love him so dearly in spite of our great differences and yet the more I live among those who have spent their whole lives under the yolk of enslavement the more my sense of shame grows. Will you tell him how much I miss seeing his face and hearing his laugh? My heart aches to write of him knowing that he thinks ill of me. I cannot erase from my memory the look upon his face when we parted. How I wish it were an altogether different scene in my mind. And yet I cannot think I was wrong to act as I did. The Bible counsels me to respect my parents, yet how can I obey such a command when in every other way it sets me against God?

I thought of you on Sunday past – in truth I think of you daily, indeed most every hour – as we attended church and sang your favourite hymn, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun”. I confess to being so overcome by emotion I could scarcely make it through the first verse. When we arrived at verse four it was Jacob’s turn to lose his voice. You will, of course, recall the lines that read:

Blessings abound where’ere he reigns

The prisoner leaps to lose his chains

The weary find eternal rest

And all the sons of want are blest.

It was scarcely noticed that he was not singing, such was the swell of other voices around those words. I believe there were equal parts delight and longing in the rendition. Freedom is a most precious commodity and there are many here still waiting to bask in its light.

For ourselves, we have indeed been much blessed these past months, although it has been a wearying journey. Pastor Phillippo, being a man of great wisdom and foresight, has begun to set up so called free villages for those slaves who have already gained their freedom and, I believe, in anticipation of the greater emancipation to come. Freed persons will need a place to live and land to farm in order to keep themselves and yet they will not be at liberty to do so, as the balance of power lies with those who do not wish the Negro to succeed in any way. The landowners would never sell to a former slave and so our friend the minister has himself begun to buy parcels of land in order for them to be divided up and given to those who wish to begin a new life for themselves. I believe he makes the arrangement through a third party, so as not to arouse suspicion. Being so well-known on the island as a great ally of the enslaved, there are many who would not do business with him. To look at him he has all the appearance of a kindly grandfather, yet there is a sharpness of mind and such a desire for what is just, that he shall employ all manner of cunning and guile in the pursuit of what he believes is right.  

The first of these free villages has recently been established on a piece of green and fertile farming land in the hills of the parish of St.Catherine, about ten miles outside Spanish Town. We are part of this new dwelling, known as Sligoville, and have endured many weeks of building, digging and planting afresh in order to establish a permanent home here. There are many months of labour ahead to ensure a harvest will be successful. For now Jacob is working every hour, both here and in assisting others to build their houses. Come the day’s end he has barely the energy to eat some simple food before falling into a deep sleep of exhaustion. We are sorry to now live further away from the Pastor and his church, however he assured me of his plans to start a small congregation right here in Sligoville as soon as he is able. In the meantime we shall walk the ten miles when we are able in order to join them in worship. In due course I hope we shall set up a small school here where I can teach the children to read and write, thereby increasing my usefulness. There is a small piece of land at the end of the village which would be perfect in my opinion, however it may be settled for some other purpose.

A number of the freed slaves among whom we live still hold me with suspicion but I have made one dear friend for which I give God thanks. Mary Jacobs is an older woman, gentle in nature yet strong as an ox. She came from a plantation in St. Thomas having weathered many a beating and decades of toil and strife. In spite of it all she has a peaceful spirit and generous heart, taking me into her confidence almost the moment we met. She has become the matriarch of this new community and her friendship will, I am certain, make the way for further acceptance of me over time. For now I have much to keep me occupied in the work of ensuring we have enough to eat and in keeping our small and humble home as clean and tidy as is possible. I confess that I did not fully appreciate what effort it took to keep our grand house looking as perfect as it always was. The dry dust of the earth lifts with any small breath of wind and settles itself upon any surface it finds. I can only imagine the daily task it was for Beatrice and the others to sweep the floors and wipe the surfaces in order for all of our fine clothing to remain unspoiled. At least I can count my blessings in that my new home has no polished wood on which to gather dust and my clothing ceased to be fine many weeks ago. I have tried to set one of my three dresses aside for church, however as we have no wardrobe or such a place to it keep it, it is a challenge to keep it good. I am quite certain that, were I to find myself once again in any respectable company they should scarcely recognise me, and if they did would look on me with such withering pity I’m sure. But I shan’t worry, as that seems a most unlikely occurrence.

Jacob has just returned, wearied from his day of work and yet sits with me attentively, asking about my day, concerned for my wellbeing. He asks of you, and of Papa, which is a kindness I cannot fathom. His heart is good and true, he makes me smile every day and we declare our love for one another each night before we fall asleep. There are times we cling to each other, as if to a rock in a storm, certain only of the bond between us.  Do keep us in your prayers Mama, as you remain in mine. We need strength and courage in these days in order to keep strong and healthy as well as fed and watered. A great deal of sickness runs among many of the former slaves. Their bodies being weakened by years of hardship and not enough sustenance they become easy prey to whatever fever or disease finds them. I do hope that we shall not succumb. I long to live into such a time when true freedom rules in this land. I believe those days are coming, if we stand together. I know that you long for that too. We are one in heart and spirit although separated by oceans.

Write to me as soon as you are able and know that where written words take such time to travel, my love and prayers are with you always.

Molly

Chapter 21

17th March 1835

Dearest Mama

How wonderful it was to receive a letter from you at last. I am sure Pastor Phillippo had begun to dread the very sight me as each time I would eagerly ask for any word from you and he would have to disappoint me. Only last week he threw up his hands in exasperation, exclaiming, “My dear lady, the moment I hear from your mother I shall ride over to you myself and deliver the good news. If I do not call, you can be assured that no letter has yet arrived!” I fear from this outburst that I had begun to make a nuisance of myself, but only from an aching heart and deep, deep longing to know you are well. Oh I have missed you. I can hear your sweet voice in each sentence and have read your letter aloud at least twenty times already. I am certain I could recite it by heart.

Your words paint such a vivid picture of Scotland for me! Even after all you had told me in the stories at bed time and around the dining table, hearing about it now is like learning afresh. I cannot imagine what it is to be cold and although you spent a good number of years there before coming to Jamaica, I believe from your writing that your body had entirely forgotten the sensation. How miserable you must be to need so many blankets simply to sleep. The house in Edinburgh sounds very grand – I do so hope I shall see it someday. In the meantime I must make do with your descriptions, of which I shall plead for more. I shall be glad to read your description of every minute detail from the corner of the room in which you sit. I should be delighted to read of your cutlery, the patterns upon your china teacups, the drapes by the window, any number of everyday items which one would not normally share in a letter, I will devour with eager anticipation as they allow me to inhabit the place where you are. My mind shall take me there when my body cannot.  

How is Papa? Dare I ask – does he speak of me? Am I forgiven? You write that he is eager to establish himself in society – making amends for my actions I have no doubt. I cannot say that I regret my choice, even with all that has transpired, except that I am separated from you both.

Oh Mama there is so much to tell you I almost do not know where to begin. The first weeks without you were the most difficult of my life. I love Jacob with all my heart and was glad to have realised that fact before it was too late, yet I wondered at the sensation of having a heart so full and desolately empty at the same time. I cried every night for a month longing for you to be there to smooth my hair and sing your lullabies to me once more. Yet each day made me a little stronger as I had no choice but to embrace the life I have chosen and make the very best of it, however hard it may be. Jacob spoke to Pastor Phillippo about marrying us so that we might truly be together. I knew this would be important to you, and being under the protection of a minister I wished to honour his good name also. I do not want my actions to have further consequence for those I love and respect. And so it was that one Wednesday afternoon, with only a couple of witnesses from the congregation, we stood in the Baptist church and made our vows before God. It could not have been a more different occasion than the one planned for last October. I had no special gown and wore a simple gathering of wild flowers arranged in my hair. None of society were there to see it, there was no music and no banquet to follow – and none of that bothered me one bit. I was only deeply sad not to be on the arm of my father, nor to have your face smiling back at me as I took my vows. But as I looked into Jacob’s eyes and made my promises I knew you would be proud and that gave me great comfort. We were proclaimed to be man and wife and walked out of the sheltered stillness of the chapel to go about the business of making a life together.

We have been shown great kindness by the pastor in finding a small plot on which to make a home. Jacob got to work at once in building a suitable dwelling for us and digging out a patch of land where we might grow fruit and vegetables to sustain ourselves as well as some to sell. He has taught me all he knows about tending the land so that I might take that role while he hires himself to a local carpenter. He has great skill with his hands and learns quickly, but the rate of pay for a freed slave is still a pittance. I hope that I am as good a gardener as he is or we may go hungry – only time will tell. I know that I am diligent in my planting and watering, keeping a keen eye on every green shoot that comes through the soil, but this is not the light-hearted joy of maintaining a beautiful bed of flowers but rather the desperate need to fill our bellies.

Our home is simple and sparse yet full of love. The few items I brought in my trunk have helped lend a delicate and feminine touch to a dark and dreary interior, and the trunk itself serves as a small table or extra chair should anyone come to call, which they seldom do. I wish I had packed more books for I miss their companionship of an evening, but I am now so weary at the end of the day that I often fall asleep within the first few pages

Being far from the city and now in the most humble of circumstances I have largely been spared the prying eyes and tittle tattle gossip of those who would glory over this fall from grace, as I’m sure they would have it. However I am still quite the curiosity where we are, finding myself not to be entirely accepted by any group of people, experiencing glances of suspicion from the Negros and thinly disguised looks of derision from the white population. Jacob and I keep our own counsel and there is very little time for idling. However news has reached my ears of the new engagement of Robert McKay, a piece of information shared between two ladies in a dramatic and overly-stated whisper which I believe was solely for my benefit, given the comments that followed.

“I am so delighted he has found a good match this time, much more suited in standing and temperament. Miss Lucy Jones will prove a worthy choice I am sure.”

I do not know the young lady of which they spoke but I can only hope she has made her choice of husband willingly and freely, or if not that she shall enjoy the fruit of their wealth that it might bring her much satisfaction and joy. That choice was not for me but perhaps it shall be perfectly adequate for another. I am sorry for Father that he could not have a more compliant daughter. At times he seemed to delight in my strength of spirit which I believe must have reminded him of himself. I am certain he did not anticipate the ways in which passing on that particular trait would have such a sting in the tail. Poor Papa. Will you tell him I have written? Will you read this letter to him as I have read yours to Jacob? Perhaps that is not wise, now that I review it. There is much here that would only serve to keep his anger and disappointment alive. Perhaps it is best to tell him I am well, that I am loved and that I am sorry. Oh you will know what to do for the best sweet Mama. I shall leave it in your hands.

Have you received word from Pastor Knibb? It seems he arrived back to Jamaica at the same time you were departing. I have heard from Rev Phillippo that he received a mighty and overwhelming welcome from his congregation who came to meet him at the harbour as he sailed into Rio Bueno and accompanied him by road to Falmouth. Despite finding his chapel in ruins he held services which were overflowing with thankful participants. The local press, as you can well imagine, have been less than pleased by his return and rail against him and the other abolitionists with the same venom as before. There is still much work to be done in this new era. Slaves are free and yet they are not, at least not in any way that you or I understand the word. My social standing, being what it is now, I shall have very little opportunity or influence to assist in the continued struggle, but if I might be an encouragement in any way to Pastors Knibb, Phillippo or their friends I shall surely do it.

Will you write to me as soon as you are able? It is an insufferable amount of time to wait for ships to cross the ocean with news. Knowing that these words shall not reach you for many weeks is a torture for one who, not so very long ago, could wander to the next room and merrily chat a while, passing time with conversation of such little consequence. If I knew how precious those talks would become I should have stayed for hours, discussing every detail of life and drinking in your voice and wisdom with each and every word. Tell me all you can in your letters – I am eager to know more of Edinburgh and our home there. Nothing shall be too mundane for me to read if it has been written by your hand.

Oh I must finish these pages to send them to you, knowing the sooner I do then your reply shall come all the faster. Yet I am loathe to lay down my pen for as I write it is as if I keep your company, despite the fact that we are separated by so many miles. Rest assured I hold your close in my heart each and every day.

Your loving daughter,

Molly

Chapter 20

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.

Chapter 19

October 14th 1834

I woke this morning with a start, following yet another uncomfortable night.  We have come to Pastor Philippo as instructed and he has greeted us with kindness. He is truly a passionate friend of the enslaved people of this island and his face glows red when he speaks of their plight, in great contrast to his white hair and whiskers. His eyes are constantly moving, seeking the next task he must set his hand to, and yet there is a gentleness amid his near constant activity which I have found most comforting. He has given us assurance of assisting us in finding a place to stay but for the time being I am sleeping upon a settle in the kitchen and Jacob is on a chair. I slept fitfully, partly from discomfort and also from not wanting to sleep late and miss this day. Fleeting whispers of dreams filled my mind, images of ships and distant shorelines, cries of distress and anger. Several times I woke to Jacob’s hand on my arm, bidding me to be still, telling me I was safe, reminding me of his presence.

When we left home there was not enough daylight for us to travel all the way to Spanish Town and so we stopped just outside Kingston, seeking shelter among a gathering of trees where we might spend the night undetected. Curled together on the bare earth we made ourselves as comfortable as we could before trying to sleep. Being used to considerably less comfort than myself, Jacob was soon snoring gently at my side, while I felt every piece of uneven ground on my back and lay awake for the longest time staring at the stars. I thought of Mama and Papa, picturing them asleep in our house surrounded by all that is familiar to me. In my mind I imagined Mama wakening in the night, stepping out to the veranda to look at the same night sky, wondering and worrying about where I might be at that moment. I longed to call out to her, to tell I was safe, to ask her for guidance and simply to hear her speak my name.

 At first light we gathered ourselves together and journeyed onwards to the pastor’s home. I was glad of the food we were offered on arrival as weakness had begun to overtake my body and indeed my spirit. I have felt at a loss many times over this past day and a half, looking around me to take in my surroundings, wondering how it was I came to be in this position. None of this was planned and so I find myself entirely unprepared for each hour I walk through. Jacob has been a great strength, wearing an expression of peaceful determination, as though he has stepped into the fullness of his being. I have been glad of his leading and feel proud to stand by his side. Last night in his sleep he murmured “Mi free, mi free,” smiling as his head nodded from side to side.

I need not have worried about waking in time this morning, as this is the busiest household I have ever known. No sooner had I opened my eyes than the room was a hive of activity with the fire being cleared and pots and pans clattering on to the table. Although we have been welcomed here I immediately felt in the way and out of place and so after breakfast we made our way out to the carriage and began the journey back towards Kingston and the harbour. Jacob and I did not speak much as we travelled. I believe he sensed my sorrow and left me to my thoughts. The sky was overcast with only glimpses of the pale blue beyond, peeking through the billowing grey. Coming close to the city, the familiarity of the surroundings brought a yearning in my heart. This was the place I knew, the place where I belonged. Or at least it was. A small voice inside told me there was still time to change my mind. I strained to see what masts were rising above the buildings, wondering which ship was the right one.

Down by the harbour there were two ships moored by the dock but only one getting ready to sail. Stepping down from the carriage I wrapped my shawl around me covering my face as the wind whipped the dust from the ground, and pushed my way through the crowds. At first I walked steadily but gradually my pace quickened until I was desperately running towards the ship, no longer caring for politeness or decorum. People went about their daily business paying no heed to this frantic young woman urging them out of her way, oblivious to the anguish and turmoil in my heart as I passed them by. Finally the throng were behind me and I found myself in front of The Black Rose as she waited silently, tethered to land but yearning for the ocean. Gulls cried overhead as the final boxes of provisions were loaded onto her deck, men called instructions to one another, ropes creaked and strained to hold her in place, waves hitting against the harbour wall as though eager to get things underway. For a moment I was entranced by the sights and smells before a deep voice brought me sharply to the present.

“All aboard”

I found myself making a dash towards the man in uniform standing at the bottom of the gangway with a ledger. He was checking the passenger list, casting an eye around for any latecomers. Stopping a few feet short of him, I was suddenly breathless and uncertain. I gave him the names of my parents and asked if they were already aboard.

“They are Miss. And there’s a Molly Mackenzie booked on this sailing too. Is that you Miss? Last chance to board.”

One small step onto the gangway and I would be back in the embrace of my parents and returned to the life I was born to. There was a place for me here, on this ship. My name was right there, on the sheet of paper, waiting for me to say yes. Once in Scotland this episode would soon be forgotten and I could find another love, one which would not come at such a heavy cost. Surely I could be happy there? Could I truly be happy here? Would Jamaica still be my home without the presence of my parents? Was there really a place for me here? With one foot on the walkway and the other on the harbour stone I felt my weight ebb and flow through my body, as though my whole being rocked back and forth in a final moment of decision. I looked up to the ship, ready to sail for a new world, then back over my shoulder. Jacob emerged from the crowds. His face was full of love and longing as he observed my silent wrestle yet he waited, leaving me to make my own decision once more. This was the last strand tying me to this place. One simple motion would set me loose to float away and never look back. I turned back to the ship’s officer.

“No Sir, I’m just here to say farewell, but it seems I have missed my chance.”

With that he called the ship ready for departure, the walkway was pulled back to shore and ropes cast off from their moorings. Slowly the Rose was pushed from the harbour wall and began to turn away from the island. Jacob came alongside me and together we stood to watch. Through the sailors still busy on deck I saw a figure emerge to stand at the back of the boat.

Mama.

Her eyes scanned along the harbour, searching. Lifting my hand I waved until she saw me. She waved her response before holding both hands across her heart. Neither of us moved an inch as the ship drifted further and further away, until we were only distant figures to one another. As they rounded the point of Port Royal and out to the open sea I could not bear to say goodbye. We returned to the carriage and I urged Jacob to make haste as we travelled out of the city along the coast in order to catch one final glimpse. By the time we were far enough along the road to see the open water the ship was half way to the horizon. I stayed planted to the ground straining my eyes to see her as she headed out of sight. Grief came upon me then, like a great wave threatening to overwhelm me. Jacob stayed beside me, steadying me as an anchor, until it was time to leave.

When we stepped up into the carriage I sat alongside him, no longer afraid of what anyone may think, no need to care for reputation or responsibility. I have made my choice, freely. I have chosen one love over another and my heart shall always have that scar. But this is our life now, together, to make of it what we will.

Chapter 18

October 12th 1834

Late yesterday afternoon I was reading in the study when I heard a great commotion along the corridor. Beatrice appeared in the doorway, face wild and arms outstretched.

“Mistress yuh muss come!”

“What on earth is the matter Beatrice? Take a breath and speak to me calmly.”

“No Miss! There is trouble. Di masta inna great rage.”

“You know my father by now surely, he is often in a rage about something.”

 “No Miss! It Jacob, yuh muss come.”

At the mention of his name I stood from my chair, the book falling from my lap.

“What has happened?” I asked, fear pulsing through every part of me.

She began to speak, calling over her shoulder as she led me from the house and pointed in the direction of the garden. Her words swam together making no sense as we raced across the lawn and out to the place where I first met Jacob all those years ago. My eyes blurred as I ran with all my might until I came crashing upon a horribly familiar scene. There was a small gathering of Negroes being held at bay by a snarling Thomas and in the midst of them, in direct opposition to one another, stood the only two men in the world of any importance to me. As I came closer I saw Jacob’s face, held high in defiance, becoming the recipient of my father’s fist. He fell to his knees as Papa raised the whip aloft ready to fall. Crying out I threw myself between them, shielding Jacob and cowering ready for the pain of the lash. Instead there was a stunned silence. I held Jacob’s gaze for a brief moment and his eyes registered with surprise and joy. Then fear. Daring to look around I saw my father’s face wearing an expression of confusion and shock. He had not yet grasped the fullness of the situation, thinking his daughter simply too compassionate to stomach more of his ire and violence, and in a moment his mood darkened once more.

“Out of the way Molly” he bellowed.

I stood and shook my head.

“No Papa. No.”

“What is this? What do you think you are doing?”

He was panting, breathless, anger still coursing through his veins and yet now he was unsure of where to place it. The whip twitched in his hand as I felt Jacob stand behind me. Instinct made me spread my arms that I might form a barrier around Jacob and then something of the sight of the two of us standing so closely together brought realisation and then disgust to my father’s face. There was no going back now.

“I love him Papa.”

The world seemed to stop. A breeze rustled through the cane, as though a great crowd was looking on, whispering among themselves to guess what might happen next. All emotion seemed to leave father’s body and he looked at me as though I were suddenly a stranger. Taking one small step toward me he lowered his voice to speak to me slowly.

“I don’t care who you love. This boy will be shot for his insolence, you will marry Robert McKay, and this family will keep its good name.”

Standing back he raised his voice for the rest to hear.

“And anyone here who wishes to keep his life will not breathe a word of this moment to another living soul.”

He began to back away, eyes flitting between us all.

“Thomas, take care of the boy,” he called, as he turned to go.

Thomas had no such opportunity. Instead he found himself the one being seized as the three other men with Jacob took hold of him, keeping him back from their friend, joining him in bold defiance of their master. Papa came rushing back towards the fray and for the first time in my life laid hands upon me, pushing me side to get to Jacob himself. This time it was Jacob’s turn to stand in front of me, protecting me from my father and pointing the finger back at his accuser.

“You will not touch her,” he screamed as I scrambled to my feet and stood behind him, looking across his shoulder at the contorted face of the man who once bounced me upon his lap. How had we come to this? Papa lowered his hands and tried, without much success, to regain some composure.

“Molly, you will come with me now and we’ll say no more of this.”

He held out his hand to me, beckoning me to follow him up the hill to home and the future he had laid out for me. I looked into his face, seeing both the tyrant master and my sweet Papa all in one fragile human body. His voice still held a hint of the softness with which he used to sing to me and yet the longer I delayed the gruff frustration in his breath truly frightened me. I saw just a glimpse of what it felt to be under the rule of the Masta. This was truly it, the moment of decision, the fork in the road. A life in society, surrounded by comfort and wanting for nothing, if I simply took my father’s hand and allowed him to lead me to Robert McKay. Or the other path, towards Jacob and an entirely unknown future, yet certain to bring shame and scandal, possibly even ruin to my family. I wished desperately for my heart to break into two pieces, so that all might have what they need of me and be satisfied. Instead it urged me on to the road I had moments earlier embraced, allowing it to finally be free whatever the cost.

“I’m sorry Papa,” I whispered, shaking my head.

He looked at his feet for a moment and then up at his surroundings, taking in the enormity of the scene before him, the possible repercussions of this wild and reckless act of betrayal, before a cloud of disdain drifted across his face and a cold note of hatred entered his voice.

“Then you are no daughter of mine.”

He turned to leave, a glimpse of defeat revealing itself in his shoulders as he threw his whip to the ground. I slumped against Jacob’s back watching my father walk away from me and with each step of distance I felt my strength fail me and the tears began to fall. The others backed away, slave and overseer both confused and uncertain of what had just happened and what it meant for them in the hours and days to come.  Jacob turned and wrapped his arms around me as my whole body heaved with sobbing. What had I done? Thoughts and fears flooded in, images of Mama, of a wedding dress waiting in my chamber, the whispers and the disgrace about to befall us.  And yet here I was back in the arms of the man I loved, the place I have longed for each night as I fell to sleep. Slowly we knelt together in the dirt, finding each other once more, holding each other desperately like two souls cast adrift on the ocean.

“What happens now?” I wondered aloud, my voice a weak blend of hope and fear.

Jacob’s body trembled but his voice was strong.

“Yuh come home wid mi an wi face di day togetha.”

Rising to our feet he led me by the hand through the cane, out to the slave village. As we passed the other Negroes they moved aside, a hush falling upon the place. Each person looked at this curious sight, uncertain of whether to be jubilant or terrified, some daring to smile while others looked away and shook their heads. Finally we came to one of the smallest dwellings I have ever seen, a simple hut with only a single door.  As my eyes came out of the bright sun and adjusted to the darkness my nose registered the smell of the earth beneath my feet, the stale straw which stuffed the bed and the sweat of Jacob’s body all around me. Tiny shafts of light found their way through the gaps where the roof met the walls, allowing a dim view of my surroundings. It took the briefest of moments to see all there was in the room – a single bed fashioned from mismatched timber with a hand-stuffed mattress and a simple linen sheet, a chair with a couple of shirts draped over the back, and an empty bucket by the doorway.  I had walked less than half a mile from where I was born yet had travelled into a new world and it was suddenly overwhelming. Exhaustion swept through my body and as I weakened Jacob lifted me in his arms and laid me upon the bed.

The turmoil in my body began to subside and as Jacob sat in the chair beside me stroking my hair I fell into the deepest of sleeps.

I awoke early this morning to the sound of Beatrice outside shooing chickens from the path and announcing herself at Jacob’s door with a mighty bang of her fist.

“Mi ave di Mistress tuh see Miss Molly,” she announced.

Jacob stepped outside dipping his head as Mama walked past him and came in to sit on the bed beside me. Silently we held each other for a long time, as she rocked me in her arms like she did when I was a little girl and had fallen and cut my knees. Everything about her had a softness that spoke of the world I had just left behind – her skin, her dress, her smell, her voice – all wrapped in a gentility entirely unfamiliar with the harsh reality in which we now sat together.

“Does Papa know you’re here?”

“No,” she said quietly, “he was still asleep when I left. I think he drank half the rum on the island last night.”

“I’m sorry Mama, I truly am.”

She shook her head.

“No my darling. You followed your heart. Although I fear for you in all that lies ahead and my mother’s love would want to keep you safe by my side all of your days, I know that you have chosen that which is true over that which is easy, and for that I could not be more proud.”

“And what of Robert and the wedding?”

I was aware of Jacob outside the door, could sense him leaning in to hear the answer.

“Your father went up there last night to break the news to them. I do not think he spoke to Robert directly but rather with Mr McKay who said that if we leave quickly and quietly and return to Scotland then he will smooth the way for as little indiscretion as possible. I believe there is a ship due to leave on Friday in which we are to seek a berth, leaving Thomas to run the estate for the time being.”

“Friday?” I whispered, my voice stolen away by the shock of it all. “That is but two days away.”

Mama nodded and looked at her hands.

“And what of the money, the claim?” I asked, thinking that I may have ruined my family’s financial as well as social prospects.

“It is all settled, your father will get what he needs to pay off any debt and we shall still be able to live in some comfort. It may not be all that he hoped for, but it is more than enough.”

A heavy silence hung between us as we both searched for a compass to guide us in these uncharted waters.

“I cannot tell you what to do now Molly, and I cannot know what your father will say, but will you come and speak with him?”

 “To what end?”

Mama made to speak again but words failed her. She looked up and into my eyes and I saw her deep sorrow and fear.

“Let me gather myself and I shall be there presently.”

As soon as she was gone Jacob came into sit by me on the bed.

“Mi wud like fi come wid yuh,” he said, more a declaration than a request. “Yuh will nuh go an see yuh fada alone.”

“Mi ave worked haad an mi ave di money now tuh buy mi freedom. Mi wi ask yuh fada fi it an then as a truly free man mi ask fi yuh han inna marriage. Him wi nuh say yes, but mi wi ave done what is right an proper. Mi ave weathered many a storm til now. Yuh choose mi an mi choose yuh. Togetha we can face anyting.”

Within the hour we walked up the perfectly manicured lawn and approached the Great House, my home and place of refuge for the last seventeen years. Never could I have believed it possible that I would enter it with such trepidation, feeling adrift from all I had ever known. I stood in the hallway with Jacob at my side, the ticking of the grandfather clock marking each anxious second of our waiting. Beatrice had gone to fetch Papa and as she did I tried in vain to think of how I might begin the conversation. My mouth ran dry as agitation filled my body. And then in a moment he was before me, my sweet and loving Papa, the fearsome intolerant master of this place, looking back and forth between his daughter, his only child, and the slave she had chosen as her one true love. His hands were clenched by his side, his face tried to keep its composure but with each moment the mask slipped further to show his anger and confusion, hurt and disgust. I wanted to throw myself into his arms and have him spin me around and around one more time, to hear him laugh with his whole being as we would fall to the ground breathless and joyous in each other’s company. I cast around for something, anything to say, but no words came. Jacob stepped forward and as he did Father stiffened his body and hardened his face.

“Masta,” his voice faltered and he paused to compose himself. “Mi work hard fuh yuh all mi life, an mi work hard for miself, tuh grow vegetable tuh feed miself an also tuh sell. Mi ave been diligent an saved so mi come tuh yuh one day wid di means tuh buy mi freedom. Dat day have now come.”

He produced, from behind his back, a pouch full of coins and held it in front of him.

“Mi ave inna dis purse di price fi slaves of mi age fi be release. Mi ask yuh sir, fi mi freedom.”

Father said nothing but his nostrils flared as he puffed and panted like his finest horse being held back from wanting to cut loose and run wild. On not receiving an answer Jacob stepped forward and placed the pouch on the ground between himself and Papa.

“Go and be free,” Father growled slowly and quietly, “and never set foot on this property again.”

Jacob breathed deeply, a look of peace and satisfaction settling upon his face. But he was not finished.

“Now dat mi a free man mi wish tuh marry yuh dawta.”

The words hung in the air, like a spark released from a fire, dancing for a moment in the gentle breeze, carefree and mesmerizing, as each of us watched to see where and how they would land. What had smouldered in Papa was at once set alight as he contorted into a fiery rage, flying towards Jacob and calling for someone to fetch his rifle. I called to Jacob to run and I threw myself upon Papa’s back as he made to give chase, holding on until he stumbled and fell, his body surging with energy. He roared into the floorboards, thumping them with his fists until they bled, rolling on his back and spitting profanities to the sky. Kneeling nearby I watched, waiting in wonder for my father to return to himself. For a long time after the last curse had left his lips we stayed on the floor, close in distance but never farther apart. Eventually he got to his feet and began to walk away.  

“You shall return to Scotland with me or never more be called my daughter.”

It was then that I found my voice.

“You were satisfied to leave me behind with a man I did not love as long as I played my part in your game of fortune.”

Father spun around on his heel to address me.

“I was doing what was best for you. You’re young and foolish with no idea of what you need in this life.” He turned to walk away once more, thinking he had the final say.

“You were doing what was best for you! I know my mind and my heart very well. Scotland is not my home. This is the only place I have ever lived and loved. You have your blood money now, so take it and go. I have rolled the dice for myself and shall take what is waiting for me.”

He paused in the doorway and heard me out without turning to look at my face. Then he was gone. I stood for a few minutes utterly lost amongst all that was most familiar. Turning around I tried to take in my new landscape, the way one looks to find the familiar after a hurricane has shifted all the usual points of reference. Mama appeared at the top of the stairs and held out her hand beckoning me to join her on the veranda. We sat together, arms entwined, looking out over all that we were about to leave behind. After a time she turned to face me, full of tenderness and love.

“My darling girl, I cannot imagine what lies ahead of you, but you will need a friend. I have written to Pastor Philippo in Spanish Town. He is a friend of Pastor Knibb and a good man. He has many slaves in his congregation and is seeking to help those who are free to find somewhere to live. Go to him first, he will be expecting you. Take the small carriage and have Jacob drive it, so as not to arouse suspicion. I have told Samuel you will be coming for it and so he will not question you or stand in your way. Beneath your pillow is a small bag of coins. It won’t last you long but it will be enough to get by for a time. Go now, gather your things and meet me on the porch.”

I did as my mother had told me, gathering a small bundle of belongings together and packing them into my smallest trunk. As I was about to leave I stood in front of my wedding dress still hanging by the side of the wardrobe. I ran my hand across the delicate fabric appreciating the beautiful workmanship of Mrs O’Shea, sorry that her labour would be in vain and yet relieved to abandon the gown hanging where she was, now truly the ghost of a bride who would never be. For one last time I turned my back on Molly McKay and made my way downstairs to Mama.

“I will get Samuel to put your things in the carriage and drive it down to the gate. Jacob is waiting for you just beyond the garden. I shall write to you through Pastor Philippo once we are settled so that you can send me word of how you are.”

The enormity of the situation began to overwhelm me and my stricken face caused Mama to pull me close and hold me as tightly as she has ever done. Then taking me firmly by the shoulders and speaking intently she reminded me that the world was changing for the better.

“It is a slow and painful process Molly, not fast enough for either of our liking, but there is a different future ahead and we simply have to hold on until it is here. Then it might be possible for us to be together again. When all of this business is over I can send for you both. I will not lose you.”

We walked out to the garden together, arm in arm, drinking in every last moment in each other’s company. At the bottom of the lawn Mama stroked my hair, kissed my cheek and told me how proud she was of the woman I had become. Despite the fear in my belly and the grief in my heart I gave a final embrace to my mother and turned my back on the Great House for the very last time.

Chapter 17

May 12th 1834

These past months I have walked like a shadow, stepping towards a future that is drawing me in and which I have neither the strength nor substance to resist. During daylight my feet still take me to hide among the trees, to watch Jacob from afar as he toils and sweats in the sweltering sun. He has grown yet taller and stronger since last he stood in front of me, his face no longer has anything of the boy left in it yet his eyes still flash with fire. As far as I am aware he has never seen me watching and has no notion of how my heart still leads me to be near him.

Yet when the sun falls behind the far hills and darkness descends then I go to play the part of dutiful daughter, at least as well as I can manage. I sit at the table to smile and nod through dinner, offering the occasional hollow laugh when it is required. I dress as a lady ought and remember my manners, because to express what is truly in my mind would see us all ruined. Robert McKay has become a regular feature around our table, no longer coming with his entire family but as a man of the world entirely about his own business. He has been cunning in his approach, gathering my father as an ally in the first instance before wooing my darling Mama, that she might speak softly to me in his favour. She knows, she sees that my heart is not in it and at times her endorsement of Robert is transparently lacklustre, but I see now that she is also playing the part given to her and while both of us dream of choices far beyond our reach, reality binds our hands.

And so I have come to tolerate Robert McKay and his advances, trying to look for the good in him, willing myself to find some part of him toward which I can feel enough affection. He can be amusing, that is certain, and has the ability to tell a tale around the dinner table that has his listeners waiting with baited breath. There have been times of late when, in spite of myself, I have been wrapped up in his story and hanging on his every word to discover the ending, and he has looked across the table delighted in my attention. He smiles and winks with triumph at having drawn me in and at times I am disgusted with myself, and in others I find myself laughing in spite of that because I cannot deny the humour or the gift he has for delivering it.

Last night, towards the end of his visit, he spoke with me alone in the garden. It seems the plan is set in place and I am simply a pawn being moved on the board at will. In a few months, as we transition from a system of slavery to apprenticeship, the compensation fund will open and our two families shall apply, with Father riding on the favourable coat tails of Sir George McKay ensuring that we will find ourselves fully reimbursed for our loss of property and earnings. How can we speak of human flesh and blood as property? The very act of writing these words turns my stomach! Once this tawdry transaction is complete, Robert and I shall marry and remain in Jamaica to oversee both plantations, allowing our families to return to Scotland and enjoy their considerable wealth, the fruit of other people’s labour.

“Won’t that be marvellous my dear?” Robert asked, fully expecting my ringing endorsement. I could not speak, feeling suffocated by the future laid out for me. I tried to gather myself but a tear began to fall. Stepping forward Robert reached to brush it away.

“Oh I know it’s overwhelming and you shall miss your Mama, but we can be happy here, you and I. I wish this to be a good match for us both and I will play my part in making you happy Molly. This makes sense, you must see that? But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be a good and loving marriage.”

And like the sensible and obedient girl, I nodded before lowering my head to hide my despair. Robert put an arm around my shoulder and kissed the top of my head before bidding me goodnight. 

The die is cast, the deal is done. I shall be swept along with this tide of events and try to keep myself from drowning.

August 28th 1834

We have passed into a new era and almost nothing has changed. The slaves are now free but it is a counterfeit freedom, for they have neither choice nor opportunity of which to truly avail themselves. Their masters hold all the cards and have dealt them a rotten hand. They work the land, as they always have, with the same brutal punishments meted out as before.

The compensation claims are under way, but the sums of money being distributed are considered to be barely enough and so the slaves shall continue to work for nothing until such times as the planters are satisfied that they have their full worth from what they will lose. Papa has submitted his paperwork to the committee and he has been given reassurances of favourable consideration. Robert’s Father says there is no question of them getting their full amount, although it may take several months for the process to be completed.

“Be assured sir, that all of my connections are in the right places. We will not be seen to go short.”

This was declared with more bravado than I could stomach, chased down with more rum than was necessary. In the meantime, a wedding date had been set for mid-November, whereupon I shall apparently become mistress of all I survey.

October 3rd 1834

I daresay there was never a more reluctant and sullen bride than I, entering into Mrs Pettigrew’s haberdashery this morning. Mama and I had taken the carriage into town to inspect the latest fabrics recently arrived from Europe, hoping to find something suitable with which to make my wedding dress. During the journey we made polite conversation with each other about the weather and people passing by, neither of us wishing to acknowledge our heavy hearts or that this day is not how either of us imagined it would be. We pulled up outside the store and as we waited for Samuel to help us down Mama reached across to me and patted my hand. Such a small and seemingly insignificant gesture, but within it were a thousand words of understanding and sympathy. We paused by the shop window to gather ourselves, every part of me wanting to take a backwards step, but before I could move Mrs Pettigrew rushed to the door in a blaze of excitement to usher us inside. It took a little time for my eyes to adjust to the darker interior but I was led by the arm and shown to a seat as Mrs Pettigrew began to call her young and much put-upon assistant Edith to carry bolt after bolt of fabric for us to consider.

“The wedding everyone is talking about Miss Molly. You’ve made a wonderful match there. Master Robert is the most eligible bachelor on the island I’d venture to say – oh but not anymore, for you have stolen his heart that’s for certain. ”

She clucked and fussed about me until my head was spinning, Edith being dispatched again and again with instructions to retrieve corresponding ribbons and trimmings for each new material under consideration.  I had resisted coming to her store, preferring instead the smaller and more discreet Mr Franklin on Harbour Street, but Papa had scoffed at such a notion, insisting that I would not marry into the McKay family in the kind of plain garment that might be fashioned from anything available at such a small establishment. Pettigrew’s are known to be the best in town, and for all her many faults, the proprietor does have exquisite taste. She is also, unfortunately, known to be the biggest gossip in town and when not serving her customers, takes full advantage of her shop’s prime location on the corner of the busiest street in Kingston to keep an eye on everyone’s comings and goings.

“Why only this morning I saw young Annabelle Lewis making her way past here with not only a brand new parasol but also a couple of militia men, one hanging on either arm – and not the same two who escorted her last week.”

All of this was shared with a knowing glance and more than a hint of delicious disapproval. She delights in other people’s business with a distasteful amount of relish and can sniff out the faintest possibility of scandal at twenty paces. I can only assume that this is her only source of diversion as I have met her husband and he is the most unspeakably boring man I have ever encountered. He has an office upstairs from the shop and looks after the book-keeping side of the business, as well as attending to the finances of several other small store owners in town. I cannot believe that anyone craves his company as he seems to have next to nothing to say, however an hour spent with his wife makes me wonder if he has simply never had the opportunity. Perhaps he would be a great mine of fascinating information and a wealth of brilliant knowledge but, never having been afforded the space to contribute more than two sentences at any one time, his conversational muscle has been rendered utterly useless.  Poor man.

Mrs Pettigrew paused from her social commentary to gush over a new ivory satin that has just come in this week. As Edith obediently unrolled the cloth Mama declared it to be the finest she’d ever seen, running her hand along the length of its softness. That was all the excuse needed for me to be ushered to my feet so that it might be draped across my body to see how it held up to my complexion, as talk of styles and patterns, bonnets and petticoats swarmed in my ears. I cannot say for certain but I believe decisions were made about delivery and payment but I had simply begun to agree and allow myself to be carried along by other people’s knowledge and enthusiasm, having none of my own available in that moment.

From there we called with Mrs O’Shea the seamstress, whose small workshop is in a quiet side street away from the noise and dust.  I stood in a daze as a tape measure weaved its way expertly around my person and my particulars jotted down by her slender, nimble fingers. Every other dress I have owned has been made by Mama or Kitty, her lady’s maid, but neither of them would dare take on a project so grand nor would it be deemed appropriate, I daresay, for such an apparently auspicious occasion.

Towards the end of our appointment Mama excused herself to run a short errand nearby and we agreed to meet back at the carriage once we were both finished. Mrs O’Shea stood behind me as I faced a mirror dressed only in my undergarments. Her delicate touch as she placed the end of the tape measure on various points of my body, along with her still, gentle presence was quite the contrast from the previous hour of frantic excitement. As I looked at my reflection I tried to imagine the dress I would wear in a few short weeks, of how it would feel to have Papa walk me up the aisle of the church and into a new life as Mrs McKay. All of the fear and uncertainty must have shown in my face as Mrs O’Shea made her way to stand in front of me. She paused and draped the tape measure around her neck before reaching forward and taking both my hands in hers. For the first time since entering her small room I looked into the face of what I now came to realise was quite an elderly lady. Her diminutive stature had me looking down into her kind face and she wore an expression of such understanding and empathy that I almost knelt before her to pour out all my heart and every secret it carries. Although I said not one word she reached up to place a finger to my lips. “Hush now Miss Molly.”

I found myself wondering how many brides she had dressed over the years, how many fears had been allayed by her calming spirit. She seemed to reach into my mind, sensing what I needed to hear most in that moment.

“There are many ways to make a good marriage my dear – kindness, cooperation and understanding – and in the midst of it all love will grow day by day. I have seen the most excited brides turn into bored and bitter ladies of leisure, and faces of concern and care can become the picture of happiness, given time and the right attitude.”

She finished her work around my body and stood back for one final assessment.

“Yes, that will be enough I think. I have all I need now my dear.”

We shared a warm smile and a sense of resolve settled upon me. Being with Jacob was a childhood fantasy and one which I entertained for too long. It is time to grow up and that means doing what is expected of me and making the best of it. Robert McKay is not a bad man, could be a good man with the right influence, and perhaps that shall come from me. He seems to have genuine affection for me and if I set my mind to it I am sure we could make a satisfactory partnership. I have seen Mama pursue her own interests, some of which even go against her husband’s wishes, and so I may still do some good in this world despite my circumstances. Robert is calling this evening and I shall look at him with fresh eyes, accepting him finally as my husband and determined to start making a path towards our future.

October 10th 1834

This week Robert has come calling most days, and with each visit he grows sweeter in his affections to the point that I now almost look forward to his company. There remains a stiffness and formality to our interactions at times, particularly when we talk alone, as his confident appearance falls away and he is more uncertain, and there are other times when he still can feel like a stranger despite the many hours spent in each other’s presence. There remain flashes of the arrogant and brash boy I first encountered, but rather than allow those to vex me I now intend using my position to soften those troublesome characteristics, as one polishes a rough stone into a gem. I noted how he recently amended his words and temperament favourably after I had walked into the room and even smiled across at me to see that I had noticed. If he truly wishes to please me then perhaps I can harness this intent for good.  I must certainly try.

I took delivery of my wedding gown yesterday morning and it hangs now in my chamber awaiting the day for which it was made, ticking closer with every moment. Last night as I lay in bed I tried to settle my mind to read. The moon cast her light through the window bathing the gown in a shimmering glow. In that moment it was as if she became another person in the room with me, silently pointing me towards my destiny. I longed to speak to her, to call out to the Molly who had worn her and ask if all was well. I tried to cast my mind into an imagined future, to life on the other side of her, as wife and mother. But alas I could not summon anything of substance to bring comfort or hope. Indeed as the time passed I rather thought she began to take on more of a ghostly quality, representing the girl who would step into her form in this very room, only to be left behind here forever. This thought troubled my heart to the point I could stand to look at her no longer and so I rose from my bed to place her on the other side of the wardrobe, where she could haunt me no more.

Chapter 16

October 15th 1833

What a blessed day this is!

It began ordinarily enough. Mother and I were in town this morning attending to some errands. She had gone into the haberdashers to inspect the latest delivery of materials as she has promised to make my father a new waistcoat.  I was idly casting my eye over the wares in the window of Mr. Clarke’s bookshop, my eye being drawn to a new title that sounded most interesting. I was about to go in and seek it out when I became aware of a great commotion coming up from the waterfront. Several men were waving copies of a newspaper aloft, making a great deal of noise and before long a crowd had gathered around them. One of the men stood upon an upturned crate and began to read aloud to anyone who could hear. I hurried over and stood on the tips of my toes at the back, craning my neck to see and straining to hear what was being said over the animated reactions of my fellow listeners. Additional copies of the papers made their way back through waiting hands until one made it to me and I saw for myself the extraordinary news. On August 28th the King gave royal assent to the Slavery Abolition Act and it shall be enacted next year. Freedom is coming to Jamaica!

I thought of Jacob and my heart ached. I longed to be the one to deliver this piece of news to him but knew that it was not possible – and even if it were I was unsure of what reaction I would receive. I thought also of Papa, who would surely respond in the same fashion as many of those around me, with great cursing and dramatic depictions of ruin and downfall. The agitation of the crowd began to build so I clutched the paper to me and hurried to find Mama. I saw her pacing the boardwalk looking out to the crowd obviously concerned for my safety. As I approached she looked ready to give me a scolding but observing the expression on my face her demeanour changed.

“What is it Molly, what has happened?”

As I showed her the front page of the newspaper her hand flew to her mouth.

“God be praised,” she exclaimed, before glancing around and ushering us both to where Samuel was waiting with the carriage. Away from the noise and clamour we read the full details of what had been decided and what will come to pass.

“Samuel, come and gather round with us and let me read to you what has been decided about your future.”

Mama laid the paper out in front of her and began to read the details aloud. The Slavery Abolition Act would become reality in August next year. We both glanced at Samuel whose face was a picture of wonder.

“Di King? Him mek us free?”

Neither of us could hide our delight.

“Yes Samuel, yes he did. You shall be a free man.”

Samuel could say no more, but kept scanning his eyes across the paper even though he could not read one word of what was written there.

“Let me see what else it says,” continued Mama scanning through the script in front of her while continuing to steal glances at Samuel’s beautiful smiling face.

“Now, there are some details here which change things a little…” she began.

“We still free?”

“Yes,” she continued more slowly, “but there will be a period of apprenticeship where you will stay working for the master for three quarters of your time and receive your board and lodgings and then you shall be able to work elsewhere for the rest of your time, so that you might earn some money for yourselves. It says here that this process will be part of helping the slave population learn how to be free.”

A hint of a cloud passed across mother’s face but she looked up to see if Samuel had understood all she had said.

“So you won’t be able to leave straight away Samuel, you understand?”

“Yes mistress. But di King did mek us free. So we shall be free.”

In that moment he stood a little taller and straighter than ever before, pulling back his broad shoulders and lifting his chin.

“You shall indeed.”

Mama spoke with a softer voice and a more subdued smile as she folded the paper away and stepped up into the carriage. This precious moment we had all shared together was over. Now there was a bigger picture to which this news must be applied, starting with Papa.

“Let us head for home Samuel,” she requested, clasping my hand into hers. The initial excitement was beginning to dispel as we made our way out of the town. I turned to ask the question which made me fret.

“What will Papa say? What will happen to him?”

Mama shook her head and sighed.

“Oh there’ll be a storm, of that I have no doubt, and it may last for some time. But when the quiet comes again your father shall be fine. They have some notion that this will ruin them all, but the government will not have passed a law to bring us to our knees, of that you can be sure.”

We sat back then, letting the carriage take us home while silent thoughts weighed on both our minds. I imagined Jacob as a free man at last, no longer shackled or beaten into subservience. I saw him dressed as a gentleman and coming to Papa for my hand. As the rhythmic sound of the carriage wheels hypnotised me into a trance I dreamed of my father placing his arm around Jacob’s shoulder to welcome him into our family as an equal, raising a glass to our future happiness and beaming with pride at his daughter’s choice of husband. Children, picnics and laughter blurred together in one happy tangle of possibilities. I was whipped back to reality in an instant at the sound of breaking glass. We had arrived in our courtyard where there was a great deal of shouting and what sounded like items being smashed inside the house. Looking over at Mama her face wore a grave expression.

“It would appear that news has already reached your father. Molly why don’t you take a walk in the garden for a time and let me speak with him. I’ll fetch you in later when all is calm.”

I needed no further invitation and slipped down from my seat and round to the front of the house. If word of abolition had reached my father already then perhaps some of the slaves had heard too, and Jacob would know that what he has longed for all these years is now within sight. We have never gone to our meeting place in daylight but it is where my feet took me. They had faith where my heart did not, walking to the spot that had been the scene of my happiest times but also my undoing. Would this news be momentous enough to smooth over all that had gone before? My pace quickened as I picked my way among the trees and my foolish heart began to hope in all the nonsense that had filled my mind on the way home.

He was not there, of course. I waited the whole afternoon tracing my finger over our names carved in the wood again and again, willing him to appear. I returned again this evening but stood alone, watching my childish dreams fall to the ground, as dry and dead leaves fall from a tree when they no longer have enough life left to hold on.

October 25th 1833

The dust has somewhat settled on the news of the King’s decree. A great deal of rum has been consumed to dull the pain of the planters, along with the realisation that they shall be compensated by the government for their financial losses. They say that the compensation is not anything like enough for everyone to receive what they ought and so there are those who are feeling further aggrieved. Whilst this news of emancipation is ultimately good for the slave population in the short term they are feeling the effects most severely as the frustration of their masters is forcefully felt upon their backs.

And so life goes on as before, at least for the time being. I have idled away my days, feeling little joy or purpose. The cause to which I was beginning to align myself has achieved its aims and for that I am truly glad. However I have even less idea of where to direct my energies now. My schooling is finished, I have no interest in frivolous society and I have lost my love. These past two days have largely been spent sitting on the veranda staring at a book without managing to read a single word. However this afternoon the stillness was interrupted with a most disturbing development.

I was lost in thought, enjoying a gentle breeze sweeping up the hill and providing refreshment for which I was most grateful, when I became aware of the clatter of horses from the far side of the house. This was not the sound of a single beast but several, followed but noisy male voices laughing and boots stamping their way into the house. I detected that one of the men was Papa but the others were, at first hearing, not so familiar to my ears. Being in no mood for company, least of all that of any friends of my father, I began to creep my way along to the door at the farthest end of the veranda so as to exit there and make my way up the stairs to hide in my chamber. However after just a couple of steps the exchange I overheard stopped me in my tracks. The assembled party had just entered the drawing room behind me when Papa exclaimed, “Now young Robert, I believe you have an interest in my daughter?” Father’s voice was jovial and not in the least bit challenging. Pinning myself to the wall I strained to hear what followed. There seemed to be much laughter and back slapping for several moments before another deep voice proclaimed “You won’t find a better young man in all of Jamaica I’d venture to say. Oh I know I’m biased because he is my firstborn but I believe it is the truth.”

If there is a man on this island more pompous and proud than Robert Mackay then it is surely his father, Sir George. Portly, red-faced and always sweating profusely, he has a view of himself and his family which appears to me to have only a slender resemblance to reality. He is indeed a most wealthy and powerful individual but seems to have equated money and influence to good character, handsome looks and a fine sense of humour yet I would say that all of these are missing entirely from every member of the Mackay family I have ever encountered. I have never been able to establish if Papa has any genuine regard for the Mackays or if his associations with them are purely for the purpose of business and social climbing. Whatever the reason, this latest interaction with them was leaving me cold, and things were only to get worse.

“Well now, let us see how well he drinks and then we can establish if he is made of the right stuff! I shan’t give her away to just anyone you know.”

I could not believe my ears! Papa was actually entertaining the notion of me marrying this pathetic excuse of a man? Was this real, or was he just using me as some kind of bargaining tool to further his prospects?

“Why don’t you call her in? I haven’t set eyes on the girl for the longest while and I should like to see this wild beauty my son has spoken of.”

I did not need to see him to know the leering expression on Sir George’s face. Taking my cue I quietly make my escape to the garden and far away from the group of men who seemed to hold my fate. I know that a woman’s lot is not one of considerable choice in this world, but I will fight with every ounce of my being against being married to a man who I could never consider worthy no matter how rich or influential he is. Surely father would not force me to such an unhappy state? He had assured me of such, but hearing him speak today he sounded so different. This was not the Papa who came home to us and with whom there was still some warmth and tenderness. No, this sounded more like William McKenzie the man of business, assessing the purchase of a new horse or piece of land, making jovial exchanges with the seller in hopes of striking a better deal. Am I simply an animal reared for breeding, who is fed well and cared for until the moment when that nurturing could be cashed in for profit?

I made my way to the reading tree, no longer with any hope of finding Jacob there waiting for me, but simply because it was my place of refuge and comfort. Tucking myself into the branches as I had a thousand times before, I picked up an old familiar story to while away the time until it was safe to return to the house. I needed the narrator to tell me of worthy adventures and lucky escapes, of gallant heroes and noble causes. Most of all I yearned to read of true love and happy endings.

December 12th 1833

I have been truly ambushed in the most distressing way. After no word of the McKay family for a couple of months, my father announced over breakfast that they were all coming to dine this evening! Despite my mother’s protestations that this was very late notice for such an affair, her complaints were waved away by Papa who simply called for all of the house slaves to assemble in the dining room and ordered them to do exactly as Mama instructed, before calling over his shoulder that he would see us this evening and we should both be sure to look our very best.

Mama began at once, directing operations of menu setting, provision purchasing, cleaning and decorating our home and all the while I have felt sick to my very stomach at the notion of once more entertaining the company of Robert McKay. I do hope this is not some kind of forerunner to a proposal endorsed by my father, and yet I cannot shake that sense of dread as we have never before received the entire family around our table. Had I more warning I should have taken several days to gradually develop a truly terrifying sickness which would surely have kept me in my bed for a week or two, and from which I would need much rest and solitude to recover, thereby keeping all unexpected visitors at bay for a lengthy period of time – but alas, all have seen me fit and well this morning and so I fear that there is no escape for me today. I have been dispatched to inspect my wardrobe, ensure that my finest dress is clean and ready, and I am to be primped and brushed to my most respectable and ladylike self in preparation of receiving our visitors. I shall endeavour to paint on enough of a smile so as not to appear rude or disgrace the family name, but my heart and spirit shall remain as far out of their reach as I can keep them.

After midnight

What an intolerable evening! The three McKays sat around our dining table and were as full of their own self-importance as any people I have ever encountered in my life. They gushed with praise for one another but none more so than Robert who, if his mother is to be believed, is a prince among men, the finest catch in all of Christendom and oh how proud she will be on the day he marries but oh how desolate at having him leave her company! I am sure that I spent the entire duration of the meal counselling my face not to give away the thoughts of snorting derision that filled my mind.

Once dinner was finished, my mother and Mrs McKay made their way through to the parlour, after the men had gone for rum and snuff. I was about to follow Mama when Robert reappeared in the door blocking my way and requesting to speak with me on the veranda. I told him that my father would not approve of such liberties and he informed that that he had already sought and gained Papa’s permission. In the moment I could think of no way to extract myself from the situation and so gave the most curt response I could muster before turning on my heel and walking in a most business-like manner to the veranda. I stood facing out to the garden so as not to have to look at him and displayed every ounce of indifference within me. He could not surely now be encouraged to pursue whatever intention he had? But oh how I had underestimated his arrogance!

“Very well,” he chuckled to himself, “I see you’re going to make me work for this.”

He stood alongside me, adopting my same position of looking outward before leaning over to me and whispering, “I always get what I want. I shall win you over, and even if I don’t, we shall be married Molly. Your father needs my father’s favour in these changing times. The compensation being offered for the negroes is not enough for everyone to get what they should. It will turn into a mighty scrap before long. But of course those of us who know the right people, are the right people, will be at the front of the queue and will get all of what is owed to us. Your father needs to get every pound and shilling that is due to him.”

There must have been a look of confusion on my face and Robert took my lack of understanding and used it to press home his advantage.

“Ah you don’t know? Of course, why would you. Yes you see your father is in debt, considerably so. We can help. We will get him what he wants, but only if we also get what we want.”

Reaching across he stroked the back of my hand as it rested on the balustrade. I snatched it away and took a step back from him but he came towards me and I found myself pinned in a corner. Standing above me he leant in to my ear.

“What a fine pair we shall make Molly, gadding about this place like we own it. Think on that.”

As he stepped away he winked at me and headed back into the house where, before long, I could hear the raucous laughter of men from within. I spoke to no one, no longer caring for politeness or decorum, and ran to garden and amongst the trees to hide, tears coming hot and fast. Is this really my future? Am I part of a deal which sees my father ruined if I do not comply?

I stayed hidden even when I heard my name being called from the house as the dining party were making their way to leave. Only once the carriages were away and the lanterns dimmed downstairs did I dare to venture back, creeping into the darkness. 

Chapter 15

In the lull between Christmas and New Year, when the twins had gone back to their own lives and all anybody else seemed to want to do was shop, Anna packed herself and Hector into the car and headed away from the city and back to Elie. The revelations from her Dad were still fresh and the new found openness between them was something of an awkward joy in the household, but neither seemed to want to push their luck and so while Struan took his vulnerability hangover back to the office for several days, Anna took the opportunity to return to the box of family history, ready to explore its secrets. As she pulled into the driveway opposite the harbour Hector’s head appeared expectantly at her shoulder.

“Yes, yes, we’ll go to the beach first,” she reassured him, rubbing his nose and reaching for his ball.

The tide was out leaving several of the boats abandoned on the sand. The sight of them made Anna think of girls at an old fashioned dance, sitting at the side, forlorn and waiting for someone to ask them to dance. They would have to wait a while longer today as the beach extended far past their bows providing a vast and abandoned playground for Hector. These few days were always quiet here, but as the New Year approached more and more people would come roaring in from elsewhere to enjoy the peace and quiet of this tiny sleepy town. Anna knew it was all a bit of a cliché now, for the well-heeled from Glasgow and Edinburgh to have a holiday home in Elie, or to borrow someone else’s for the weekend. She took comfort in the fact that her family had been doing this long before it became fashionable, before you could buy ‘I’d rather been in Elie’ mugs and cushions in the local gift shop. Not for the first time she wondered what it must be like to be one of the residents here, watching your home being eaten up piece by piece, first by those with enough for ‘a little place by the sea’ but more recently by nameless, faceless entities turning one time family homes into anonymous holiday lets. It wasn’t only here that it happened. All along this coastline, tiny picturesque villages were having their prime seafront properties snapped up, renovated and rented out to visitors so that no local could afford to live there. Anna wondered what her Mum would make of it all.

With the sea in retreat Anna was able to walk the full length of the beach to the far side of the town and as she turned to make her way back her stomach growled. Clipping Hector onto his lead they made their way off the sand, meandering back through the town to see where might be open. Nautical-themed ornaments adorned windows and walls, while the sand crept along the edge of the road, carried inland by many feet and paws, a souvenir to the streets from the daily beach-dwellers. After stopping in the café to pick up a slice of carrot cake they made their way along the main street before turning back down towards the harbour. A couple of hardy kayakers made their way across the sand but apart from that the beach was still deserted. A short while later, fed, watered and satisfied, Anna was back in the lounge and ready for the task at hand.

“Now then,” she began, lifting the cardboard box from where it had been abandoned in the middle of the floor and placing it beside the coffee table. “Let’s see what we have.” Taking off the lid she lifted the large piece of paper containing the family tree, opened it out and placed it on the table. Next were the leather notebooks, followed by the Christening robe and finally the box of letters. The name Molly Mackenzie had been swimming around in her mind for days. Who was she? What was she like? Why had these particular artefacts been kept? And how did her step-grandfather’s family have a connection to Jamaica? Opening the first book, she turned through the pages with great care and realised she was looking at a diary spanning the years 1827 to 1833. The writing at the start was clearly that of a child but as the pages progressed the penmanship matured. The second volume was less complete, running only from 1833 until 1834. Next she unfurled the christening robe on the carpet in front of her, running her hands along the delicate lace, marvelling at how it had remained in such good condition.

 “Where do you fit in the puzzle I wonder?” she spoke to it, imagining it filled out with a kicking, cooing child. “Were you Molly’s, or someone else’s?” Folding it carefully, Anna placed it back in the box out of harm’s way, not wishing the dog or a wayward mug of coffee to do any damage. Finally she came to the bundle of letters and looked at the dates, trying to curb her greedy mind from reading something out of its timeline. The first half dozen or so letters were already in date order and seemed to come after the dates in the journals. The final envelope was inscribed with different handwriting and was the last date in the series. Anna felt the temptation to jump ahead in the story and so she tucked them away without looking to see who they were from, hoping that all would be revealed soon enough. Satisfied that all was now in order she lifted the first journal and took it to the sofa to read. Anna was used to dealing with historical documents and was always excited to get her hands on some authentic connection to the past, but sitting holding this diary suddenly felt very different. This ishistory with a very personal connection, she realised afresh. The person who held this book wasconnected to her family. Opening to the first page, she began to read.

 4th August 1827

Herein lies the diary of Miss Molly Mackenzie aged ten years old. I live on the Harlaw Vale Estate, in the parish of St.Andrew positioned outside of Kingston, Jamaica, in the shadow of the Blue Mountains. 

**

An hour later Anna closed the first volume of the diary, rubbing her temples to try and ease the fuzziness in her head. It had been a strain to decipher Molly’s faded handwriting and piece together the dates and gaps in entries and she had taken to scribbling place names and questions on a scrap of paper in order to do some further research once she was finished. The professional historian was in part thrilled to discover such insightful first-hand accounts and equally embarrassed by a clear gap in her own knowledge but the more she read, the inescapable and overwhelming personal revelation was that her family had been plantation owners in the Caribbean. It didn’t matter that it was a side of the family not related by blood. The connection was real. She had known about Britain’s past with slavery, but it had always concerned someone else, somewhere else. Not here. Not us. Not…her.

As Anna allowed the reality of what she had read to take hold, a deep sense of unease began to settle over her, forcing her up from the sofa to pace the room, back and forth, rolling her shoulders, moving her body, trying to shake off…what? What was she feeling? Stopping by the window she looked out at the sea and found herself no longer comforted by its presence. In a short space of time it had come to represent something entirely different, a dark highway to the unknown, to the past, to another place that held a painful connection. Memory of an old, dog-eared atlas sent her to the book shelf and she opened the cover turning first to the double page world map at the front. Tracing a line with her fingers from Scotland across the Atlantic, the elegant font of that ocean speaking only of noble adventure, hinting at awesome wonder, betraying nothing of bondage or suffering. Her hand moved slowly left, finding the correct region, then island and finally the small dot of the capital. For several minutes Anna simply knelt and stared at the tiny faded patch of yellow in the middle of the light blue Caribbean Sea. Finally she named the feeling that had been coursing through her veins these last minutes. Shame. A profound sense of shame. In her mind surfaced the woman from the museum, accusing her of not knowing her own history. Anna had been so sure of the story she’d been told, felt secure in all she’d been taught but she had been wrong, and the woman she met that day clearly knew things that Anna did not.  

Turning to the index to find a map of the island she found that this particular atlas had only a slightly larger picture of the entire region. Casting the book aside, hungry for information she opened her laptop and began to search. The internet fed her every kind of map and survey and as her appetite became more voracious she found herself following every link to a new angle, a fresh insight until she had gorged herself to the point where her head was swimming with knowledge and the words on the screen began to blur together. Lying back onto the carpet she stared up to the ceiling, gathering her thoughts. In amongst the disquiet a small voice of hope began to rise.

Molly.

Despite the facts of what she had been born into, this girl’s character was finding its own way, making her own path. Was there some redeeming part of this history to be found in the life of this young girl? Anna was intrigued by Molly’s strong sense of self, knowing that she was setting herself against her own father and the whole of the society to which she belonged. And what of her friendship with Jacob? The more that Anna allowed Molly’s personal story to take centre stage in her mind the more she felt driven back to the source, despite a strong distaste for the subject matter.

And so steeling herself for further unpleasant revelations she opened the book and began to read.

Chapter 14

The Saturday before Christmas Anna decided to use her day off to escape the crowds of the city and headed to the refuge of Abigail’s once more. If ever she struggled to feel in the festive mood, an hour spent in the home of her aunt brought back all of those child-like emotions of anticipation and excitement. Abigail’s house at Christmas was crazy but wonderful with fairy lights draped throughout, a simple tree covered with an eclectic array of ornaments and the scent of fresh mince pies an ever-present feature. Abigail loved this season with a passion and no corners were cut in making it special each and every year. For some people Christmas began once they’d seen the tree at Jenner’s department store or visited the market, but for Anna it didn’t truly feel like Christmas until she’d been to Abigail’s. She had a lovely memory of a year they all came for dinner, driving down after the early morning madness of stockings and presents to arrive in North Berwick for a feast of turkey and trimmings, films by the fireside and family games around a huge box of chocolates. Anna remembered it as the best Christmas Day ever and now as she walked through the town towards the harbour she smiled wistfully recalling the sleepy little girl who was carried to the car at the end of the night, cheeks rosy and belly full, unaware that it was one of only a few Christmases that would feel so special. Thankfully this year there was a glimpse of hope for something new, a different dynamic at play in the relationship between her and her Dad and the possibility that a touch of the magic of the season could be restored to their home once again. The previous weekend the two of them had decorated their tree together for the first time ever, that usually being the job of Anna and Julia. Standing side by side with the task accomplished they had admired their handiwork with shared satisfaction.

“Your mother loved Christmas,” Struan recalled, as though remembering something long forgotten. “I’ve always found it so painful since she left us. I couldn’t bear to decorate or celebrate, but I tried for you and the boys. I don’t think I did a great job though. Thank goodness for Fran and Julia.” He smiled and let his fingers lift an ornament on the nearest branch, a star made from ice lolly sticks with a few remaining patches of glitter still holding on after many years of use.

“Was this yours?”

“One of the boys did that I think.”

A festive hymn on the radio filled the space between them.

“Dad, there’s actually one more thing to go on the tree.”

Anna produced a small box from behind a picture on the fireplace.

“I just bought it. For you.”

She offered the gift to her Dad who looked almost confused by the gesture. Anna nodded encouragement as he fumbled with the ribbon before opening the lid, pulling out a purple glass bauble. Holding it up by the string and watching as it spun around, he saw the letter J written on one side in gold script. A glimpse of a smile appeared at the corner of his mouth as he watched it twist back and forth in front of his face.

“I think we should remember Josie on the tree. She’s a part of this family too.”

There was a pause as Struan gathered himself.

“Thank you,” he whispered, clearing his throat. “So where shall we put it?”

Anna cast her eye over the tree and found a spare branch on the side nearest to her father’s favourite seat.

“How about here? Then when you’re in your chair she’s on your right, exactly where she should be.”

He nodded, not quite able to speak. As she watched her father hang the ornament on the tree Anna had a sense of years silently being restored. She was profoundly grateful.

Standing on Abigail’s front step Anna admired the luscious wreath, verdant and rich against the bright yellow door. The blend of the fresh intertwined branches caught up with ribbon, cinnamon sticks and slices of dried orange came together to bring the aroma of Christmas to your nostrils before you’d even crossed the threshold. However because this was Abigail’s wreath, there were also a few unconventional additions; a small toy car, a thimble, several items once belonging to a dolls house and sitting at the top an ancient bear complete with festive jumper. If I had made this, Anna thought, it would look a mess. Shaking her head in admiration of her aunt’s creativity Anna rang the doorbell. The person to answer was Nigel, bedecked with an apron and Santa hat, sherry in hand.

“Welcome, welcome,” he declared with a flourish and a bow. “I am but a humble servant of this fine establishment. May I take your coat dear lady?”

Anna stepped inside and kissed Nigel on the cheek before playing along.

“Thank you kind sir, you may.”

“The mistress is in the kitchen at a critical stage of baking process. If you’d like to follow me.”

They walked together through the house, Anna drinking in every twinkling light and festive flourish, feeling joy rising in her with every step. The kitchen was a riot of activity with mixing bowls and baking trays stacked precariously, a light dusting of flour or perhaps icing sugar covering every surface and in the midst of it all stood Abigail, sleeves rolled up, swaying to the carols playing on the radio while mumbling instructions to herself.

“You are now entering Christmas HQ Anna. Tread carefully,” warned Nigel. “I was handed a bowl and asked to stir, or maybe it was fold…whatever it was I did the wrong one and she nearly had my arm off!” he winked conspiratorially.

“I can hear you over here you know!” Abigail scolded, before offering apologetically to her niece, “I’m a little behind in my schedule today. How are you my love?”

“I’m good thanks. Can I help with anything?”

“Please. The butler here will get you sorted with a pinny and a sherry and then I’ll set you to work.”

The next couple of hours passed in cosy haze of stirring bubbling pots and rolling pastry, keeping a watchful eye on the baking shortbread and double checking instructions in the wine-splashed recipe book propped up beside the cooker. The three of them co-ordinated their moves around the kitchen with the nudge of a hip or a ‘watch your back’, falling into a rhythm of harmonious activity until finally Abigail could find no other tasks to be completed. The three of them sank into the large sofa in the living room and enjoyed a well-earned cuppa and some of the fruit of their labour.

“So, now that I’ve worked your fingers to the bone, tell me what’s been going on with you,” Abigail began. “Did you get to Elie to investigate the cupboards and boxes up there?”

“I went a few weeks ago and found some stuff. Mum had actually done a lot of digging into family history, but more on your stepdad’s side than your biological family. There were letters and a diary and a family tree that seemed to go back for generations.”

“That sounds fascinating. Did you read it all?”

“Not yet. There was something else I found that sort of distracted me. Did you know that Dad had a twin?”

Abigail’s eyes widened in surprise.

“I know,” Anna continued, “a sister. She died when they were seven, run over by a car. It seems he never really got over it. Mum found a way to get through to him, at least in some way, but when she died it brought everything back all over again. It’s why he fell to pieces like he did.”

Nigel sniffed beside her.

“Nigel are you crying?” Anna asked gently.

“Sorry, that took me a bit by surprise. I lost a sibling too, a brother. I was older than your Dad was, and he wasn’t my twin, but it’s still a devastating thing to happen. Like part of yourself is taken away, part of the landscape you’ve always known and navigated by suddenly disappears. You grow up knowing that someday you’ll lose your parents, but I hadn’t ever considered that I might lose my only brother. It just never occurred to me. ”

He took out his handkerchief, wiped his face and took a deep breath.

“Your poor Dad.”

He put his arm around Anna and pulled her close as she in turn rested her head on his shoulder. Abigail turned to face her friend.

“I never knew you had a brother. We’ve been friends for twenty years and I didn’t know this.”

Nigel shrugged apologetically.

“It was a long, long time ago. And it was painful, so …” his voice tailed off.

Abigail reached across to take the hand of her friend.

“Losing someone dear to us certainly shapes who we are. And who it is, and how and when it happens, has a huge bearing on how we experience it and how we navigate what comes next. It certainly gives me a new perspective on your father Anna.”

There was kindness in her voice, and a hint of regret.

“Yes it explains a lot, doesn’t it? We’ve had some good conversations around it all and things feel quite different now. He’ll tell the boys when they come home for Christmas. I’m so glad you sent me in the direction of Elie. Now that I know, I would hate to think we might have gone through the rest of our lives not understanding each other like this. Thank you.”

Anna leaned over to give her aunt a squeeze.

“So what about the rest of this family history?” Nigel asked. “When are you going to read the diary and letters? I’m intrigued!”

“Yes me too,” Anna smiled. “I might try and get back over between Christmas and New Year. I want to be able to take my time with them.”

“Well promise you’ll come back and tell us what they say.”

“Deal,” Anna nodded, reaching for another round of shortbread.

**

It was the loveliest Christmas Anna could remember for a long time. Both brothers were home for the holiday for the first time in several years, having previously been with girlfriends or working too late in London to get away. This Christmas Day the four of them sat over their meal laughing and telling stories, spurred on by the items brought back from the boys’ bedroom at Elie. It led them to naturally talk about their Mum and this time Struan joined in, finding himself able to speak about his wife in a way that he hadn’t for a long time.

“It’s nice to hear you talk like this Dad. It’s good to remember her when we’re together.”

Robert smiled across the table and raised a glass towards his father.

“To Mum.”

James and Anna joined in as Struan reached slowly for his wine with a simple “yes indeed” as he clinked glasses with his children. Feeling the need to break the emotional tension after an awkward pause, James drained the bottle of wine into his glass and nodded at his brother.

“Right then Rob, time for your customary whooping at chess. I’ll set up the board shall I?”

“Go for it. I’ll grab another bottle and bring it through.”

James swaggered through to the lounge quietly singing We Are The Champions and getting ready to beat his brother for the umpteenth time. Hector and Struan followed behind as Anna filled the kettle and dug out a tin of chocolates from the cupboard. Turning around she saw Robert leaning against the kitchen cabinets seemingly lost in thought.

“You ok?” she ventured.

She didn’t expect too much in return. Their ten year age gap meant that there hadn’t been too many meaningful conversations between them over the years.

“Yeah, good. That was nice just then, the moment with Dad. Thanks for bringing the stuff from Elie, Anna. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been up there. I guess Mum must have tucked those things away for us. How’s the old place looking?”

“Same as always. That’s why I go – helps me feel close to Mum because she loved it so much. You should come up some time.”

“I’d like that. Not sure I’ll manage it on this visit, but maybe we can go next time I’m here?”

Looking across at Robert she realised that the ‘we’ he talked about included her. The ‘we’ had always been the brothers as a unit and she had been the little sister tagging along far behind. It would never even have occurred to them that she wanted to join in with them, but she had. Always. Finally and perhaps for the first time she was being spoken to as something of an equal.

“Great, let’s do that then,” Anna smiled in response.

“Robbo?” came the challenging call from the front room.

A wicked grin spread across Robert’s face.

“What are you hiding Rob?”

Leaning closer and whispering to Anna, Robert confided, “I’ve been taking lessons. Little brother’s about to get his ass handed to him on a plate!”

Gathering up the wine, he relieved Anna of the chocolates and headed for the chess board. Left alone in the kitchen Anna surveyed the detritus of their Christmas meal with a deep sense of warmth and satisfaction. Perhaps she could find a true sense of home in this place at long last.

Several hours later James slept on the sofa still wearing the quizzical expression of one entirely surprised by an ambush he never saw coming, while his brother basked in silent glory by his side. Their father dozed in his favourite chair cradling an empty whiskey glass, having hypnotised himself to sleep staring at the new ornament twirling on the tree by his side, and Anna sat beside a panting Hector in front of the hearth. The buzzing of a mobile phone disturbed the brothers and James roused himself to take the call. A plan was made to go and meet friends for a late drink and as they prepared to gather themselves from the sofa Struan woke with a grunt.

“You boys heading out?”

“Just a quick drink with Stu and Mark. You don’t mind do you?”

“No, no, not at all,” he replied, his eyes drifting back towards the tree and then to the floor.

“Actually, before you go, could I have a minute? There’s something I need to tell you.”

The hesitation in his voice changed the expression on James’s face. He leant forward, nudging his brother to do the same.

“What is it Dad?”

“I should have told you all this years ago, but it was just too painful. And then when your mother died, well… it just made everything so much worse.”

A weighty silence filled the space as he searched for the right words.

“I was a twin too. I had a sister, Josie, and we were, well… you know,” he gestured between his sons.

“Closer than close. We were everything to each other. And then there was an accident when we were young and she died. At that point…” he shook his head, once more lost for any language to convey how he felt.

“You lost half of your world. Half of yourself.” 

Robert filled in the blanks.

“I can’t even begin to imagine Dad. I’d be a mess if that happened to me.”

Struan nodded in agreement.

“Exactly. Then at Watson’s I was given structure and discipline and that became the box in which I survived. Survived by striving, seeking to excel, to make up for what was lost. Except really, I was the one who was lost. Your mother brought me back to life. She helped put the pieces together, so when she left us, they all fell apart again and I didn’t know what to do.”

The revelation sat between the three men for several moments.

“So,” James began and then hesitated, rubbing his chin as he grappled for the right way to shape what came next.

“How did you feel when we were born? Was it hard? To watch us be twins I mean.”

Struan tilted his head back and exhaled deeply.

“I felt so many things. Of course I was overjoyed to have children, to have sons. And I was terrified that something would happen to one of you and the other would be left alone. And sometimes, yes, there was deep pain and envy as I watched you together, saw your connection and unspoken ways, and was reminded of what I had lost. It’s a strange thing, to love your children so much and yet feel sorrow at the same time. I’m sorry if it meant I was sometimes a bit distant with you. And I’m sorry that I didn’t cope with your mother’s death better. I didn’t know how.”

James came across and knelt on the floor beside his Dad, placing a hand on his arm. “You did the best you could Dad. We seemed to turn out alright. Well I did, you might have screwed Robbo up a bit but…”

Struan gave a short laugh and smiled in appreciation of the joke. He patted his son on the arm before glancing back towards the bauble hanging by his right hand. James looked across at it and joined the dots.

“J for Josie,” he nodded, “that’s why you’ve been staring at that ornament all night.

“It was a gift from your sister. She thought we should remember your aunt and have her with us.”

“Josie is short for Josephine,” Robert realised aloud. “That’s why you gave Anna that middle name.”

For the first time they all looked across at the hearth to see Anna’s tear-stained face looking back at them.

“I think this was harder for you than for us. We had each other and were away from home a lot.”

The emotion caught suddenly in Robert’s throat as he thought of his little sister and it finally occurred to him what she must have dealt with over many years. Anna scuttled over to the sofa and tucked herself under his arm and let herself be held. In this conversation, as in so many others through the years, she had felt on the outside. Being so much younger, a girl and not a twin and not driven by the same things as her father and brothers, all of these things had kept her on the edge of this family after her Mum had died. It’s why she had gravitated to Abigail so much, and to Julia and her family, because with them she felt a place of belonging. But perhaps now, now that the truth was known and real words had been spoken, she could find her place in her own family.

“Anyway, I’m glad you all know now. I should have done this years ago. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

Struan’s eyes met each of his children’s faces in turn.

“But for tonight you boys need to be heading out and this old boy needs to go to bed. Thank you for a lovely Christmas.”

He rose and gave each of them a tender kiss on the head before making his way out the door and up the stairs. Robert sank back into the sofa.

“Bloody hell,” he whispered, staring at the ceiling, taking it all in.

“Anna when did you find out?” James asked, coming to perch on the coffee table to face them.

“Just recently. I found a family tree that Mum had researched when I was up in Elie. Josie was on it and so I spoke to Dad about it when we were out for my birthday. It felt good to know the truth, like it explained so much about him.”

The fire popped and hissed in the grate as the light from the muted television danced around the room.

“We haven’t always been great brothers to you Anna. I guess we had our twin thing and then we were off living our own lives. Sorry if that’s been a bit crap for you.”

James wrinkled his face in apology.

“Yeah, we’ll do better now, promise,” Robert added, squeezing her shoulder.

“Thanks,” Anna smiled at them both.

Hector stretched himself from in front on the fire and nosed in on their trio with tail-wagging expectancy.

“And yes, you need to go out boy.”

“We’ll walk with you the first bit on the way to the pub,” James offered, extending his hand to pull her up from the sofa. A few minutes later, coats on and gloves in hand, the three siblings headed out onto the night, parting on the street corner for the first time as friends.

Chapter 13

Julia stood shivering between the stone columns of the National Gallery, stamping her feet in a vain attempt to stay warm. Through the bustling December crowds came her friend, late as always.

 “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Anna called, approaching Julia for an embrace.

Anna could never seem to figure out why she was always running behind everyone else. Organised and efficient in so many other ways, she swore that she almost always left on time for where she was going, yet somewhere in between destinations things seemed to move more slowly for her than for other people, so that every time she looked at her watch she was late.

“Well just this once I’ll forgive you, seeing as it’s your birthday.”

“I think you’ve been forgiving me on a weekly basis for about seventeen years now,” laughed Anna.

“So I’m well practised in the art,” Julia grinned in response. “Anyway, which of our traditional birthday activities are we doing first? Burger, shopping, big wheel or hot toddies?”

The two friends had a regular practice for Anna’s birthday of coming to the Christmas market together, soaking up the festive atmosphere and buying each other a new ornament for their respective trees. It started with Fran as their guide, the year that Anna’s Mum passed away. The funeral had been a week before her birthday and if it had been left to her dad then the day may have gone entirely unmarked. There were gifts already bought and wrapped by her mother, but Struan Ferguson was missing in action, a shell of the man he’d been only a few months before. Fran had swept in like a fairy godmother, pampering both girls with sweets and snow globes, using every bit of distraction the city had to offer. What began in necessity became a yearly treat, still funded by Fran even after the girls decided they were old enough to go to the market on their own. In more recent years she left them to their own devices for most of the day, but insisted on joining them for a little glass of something later in the afternoon.

“You look like you could use some warmth,” Anna said, noticing Julia shivering despite her coat and scarf.

“It’s like you read my mind,” Julia nodded while her teeth chattered. “How about we start with a hot chocolate and leave the hard stuff for when Mum joins us?”

*

A couple of hours later they sat across from one another high above the city as the ferris wheel took them away from the clamour and chaos below and up to where they could enjoy the lights and sounds in their own little metal bubble. With stomachs full of burgers and waffles and shopping bags at their feet this was a small oasis of calm and quiet. Both sat back, enjoying the view and the well-worn path of this yearly practice.

“So, I assume it’s dinner with your Dad tonight?”

Anna sighed and nodded in response.

“You know that it’s your day and you can do what you want. If dinner with your Dad isn’t fun then you can ask to do something else.”

“I know, I know, but it’s his way of connecting with me, which I do appreciate. And it is nice to get dressed up and go somewhere a bit fancy. It’s just that there’s something I really need to speak to him about and this is the first proper chance we’ve had to sit down together and talk.”

“Well at least you’ve got some conversation lined up.”

“Except,” Anna hesitated, looking across the city at the twinkling and hopeful lights below, “it’s not really a fun birthday chat. It’s pretty serious and I’m not sure how it’s going to go.”

“Are you ok?” Julia leaned across to place a hand on Anna’s knee.

“I’m fine. I just found some family stuff in Elie that I didn’t know anything about and I need to talk to Dad about it. I’ll tell you about it when I know more, but it’s really something I need to speak to him about first. I guess I’ll just see how this evening goes and decide in the moment if it’s a good time to bring it up. But I’ve been sitting on it for a few weeks now and it’s starting to drive me crazy, so I might just have to bite the bullet, birthday dinner or not.”

“Well let’s get you prepped then,” Julia suggested, lifting her mobile from her pocket to answer a text message. “Right on cue. Mum’s down at the bar and is getting the drinks in. Time for some Dutch courage and to toast the birthday girl.”

**

“To my darling daughter,” Struan smiled, raising his glass across the table towards Anna. “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks Dad.”

Glasses clinked and a nod towards the waiter produced a slice of cake complete with sparklers and a birthday message in chocolate script written around the edge of the plate. Anna beamed at the gesture while simultaneously feeling a little conspicuous and embarrassed by the fuss. They ate dessert in relative silence. Having chatted amiably for most of the meal they had finally run out of conversation. Or at least Struan had. Anna made an assessment of the situation and decided to make the most of the moment, hoping to harness the warmth between then rather than douse it to extinction.

“There’s actually something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about Dad,” she began tentatively.

“Oh yes? What’s that?”

“Remember when I asked about our family tree and you told me to speak to Abigail?”

“Mmm hmm.

“Well I did. But she didn’t know anything.”

“Ah. Well there you go.”

Anna sensed her father’s relief and desire to move on, even amongst his still cheerful manner. She paused and took a deep breath.

“She thought Mum might have looked into it and suggested I have a look in the house at Elie to see what I could find. So I did.”

Struan looked intently at his glass of wine, suddenly avoiding the gaze of his daughter.

“Did you know she’d researched her family? Her step-father’s family?”

“She mentioned something about it once. She did love her history.”

He was a peculiar blend of wistful and tense as he spoke.

“It seems she was good at it too,” Anna continued. “She found stuff going back generations.”

A silence sat between them littered with unexploded secrets. Tread carefully, Anna told herself.

“There was a box with some papers in it. And a family tree.”

Her father signalled for the bill and Anna could feel her grip on the conversation loosening.

“Dad.” She was calling for his attention, pleading with urgency. His eyes met hers and she saw before her a little boy, desperate and afraid.

“Let’s go home. This isn’t the place for this conversation.”

They made the short walk home in silence but arm in arm. For the first time Anna felt her father leaning on her, as though he had been carrying a weight and was now tired of it and ready to set it down. Entering the house they walked through to the kitchen where Hector rose to great them expectantly.

“Soon, buddy, we’ll go soon,” Anna reassured him with a pat on the head. She put the kettle on and made an offer of tea.

“I think I need something a bit stronger,” Struan replied reaching into the cupboard for a bottle of whisky. Pouring himself a large glass he settled into a chair at the dining table and waited for Anna to join him.

“Dad,” Anna began softly, “you had a twin sister.”

It was a statement but also a question. An offer to open the door to something locked away for a long time.

“Josephine. But I only ever called her Josie.” He took a deep breath and exhaled, still trying to keep a lid on things. “We were inseparable,” his voice faded away to a whisper and his face began to crumble. “I can’t remember the last time I said her name out loud.”

Having said it once, he suddenly wanted to say it again.

“Josie, my Josie,” he called quietly, swirling the whisky in his glass as the first tears began to silently fall. “I still see her in my dreams sometimes, still feel her right here,” he said searching in the air with his right hand. “She was always on my right, I could always reach for her. We slept entwined in each other’s arms for years, because it was how we were most comfortable. It was how we’d been formed. I was never without her. And then I was.”

Anna didn’t want to add to his misery, but there was still a question to ask. She moved around the table to sit beside her Dad and hold his hand.

“What happened?”

“She was knocked down by a car. We were seven years old and out for the day. She had a red balloon which my father had bought for her and she carried that balloon around all afternoon as though it was the most precious thing she’d ever owned. She would glance back at it bobbing along behind her as we went along the street.”

He smiled to himself at the memory before being overtaken with pain.

“We were messing about, teasing each other and laughing. In all the fun she let go of the string for just a second and the balloon slipped away from her. She didn’t think, didn’t look, just gave chase after it. She ran straight into the road and into an oncoming car. Just like that she was gone, right before our eyes.”

“Oh Dad. I’m so, so sorry.”

Anna waited, knowing there was more to come, instinctively letting her father speak only when he was ready. The whisky circled the glass several more times.

“If only I hadn’t teased her, if only I’d simply walked beside her instead of messing about, she’d have kept hold of that balloon…”

Finally the dam broke. Struan Ferguson hunched over the table and let go of a lifetime of tears. Anna wrapped her arms around her father’s shoulders and held him tight as Hector rose from his bed to stand sentinel on the other side. After a while the torrent subsided and a sorrowful peace settled upon the trio. They sat together in silence, truly comfortable in each other’s company for the first time in years, despite the uncharacteristic outburst.

“I don’t remember many details of the aftermath, just a sense of terrible sadness. In my heart I knew it was my fault that she was gone. When I was sent to boarding school it confirmed that my parents blamed me and so I tried be the very best at everything to somehow make amends. I never could of course, either for my parents or for me. But that didn’t stop me from trying. I’ve been chasing absolution ever since.”

He sat there slowly shaking his head, years of effort etched on his face.

“Dad, you were just a little boy playing with his sister. This wasn’t your fault.”

“But if I’d…”

“No, Dad,” Anna’s words were firm. Gently she lifted her father’s face to look at her. “It was an accident. A sad and tragic accident. But it wasn’t your fault.”

The clock ticked loudly in the background.

“That was what your mother said,” he whispered, a look of devotion and longing in his eyes.

“Somehow she found a way into my darkness and set me free. But when she died it was as though I fell through a trapdoor back into my worst nightmare and I had no idea how to get out. I’ve been stumbling around ever since unable to find my way. I’m so sorry Anna. It’s like there were times I could remember the father I used to be before she was gone and I longed to be him again but I didn’t know how. I could feel you slipping further away from me but I didn’t know how to draw you back. So I went back to what I knew, what I’d always done. Working hard, trying to be the best. If I couldn’t do anything else I could provide for you all, give you that platform. I know now that it wasn’t the best thing, but it was all I knew how to do. The boys were older and away, so it didn’t cost them as much. But it cost you a lot. And me.”

Anna saw everything differently now, as though finding the place for that one piece of jigsaw puzzle that sits to the side until the very end. You keep looking at it, sure that it doesn’t go anywhere in the picture your building, not seeing where it’s shapes and colours fit, until eventually you slot it into place and in the context of all the other pieces it finally makes sense. So much of who and how her father was crystallised right in front of her. She was heartbroken for him and for all that had been lost between them over the years. Wrapping her arms around him she hugged him tightly, allowing her own tears to surface as she did.

“You did the best you could Dad. And now that I know, I understand. I just wish you’d told me sooner, or maybe talked to someone who could have helped.”

“That doesn’t seem very like me now, does it?” he confessed with a wry smile.

“Well no, that’s true. But keeping all of this locked up inside you hasn’t done you any favours, has it?”

“No, no it hasn’t.”

“None of us can change the past. What’s done is done. We can either learn from it and grow, or bury it. But then it just festers and poisons our view of the world, and that’s no way to live.”

Struan took hold of his daughter’s hand and looked at her in wonder.

“How did you get to be so wise?” he smiled.

“History is a good teacher, if we pay attention.”

Anna leant her head on her Dad’s shoulder and he kissed the top of her head. Not wishing to be left out of the affectionate embrace, Hector began to paw at them both and wag his tail in anticipation.

“Hector old boy,” Struan placed a firm hand on the dog’s head, “you’ve been a good and faithful friend to Anna.”

“Yes he has,” she agreed, reaching over to rub the dog’s ears. “And he’s been very patient as we’ve talked, but I think it’s probably time for you to go out and stretch your legs, isn’t it pal? Will you be in bed by the time I come back?”

“I think so. It’s been quite an end to the evening, but I’m glad we talked.”

“Me too. I know it’s hard Dad, but some other time can we talk about Josie again? I’d like to hear more about her.”

“Of course. Actually I think I’d like that a lot.”

“And can we talk about Mum too? I have so many things I’d like to know.”

“We can – but let’s go gently? This is a lot for me Anna.”

“Sure.”

Anna pulled on her coat, clipped on Hector’s lead and headed for the door.

“Goodnight Dad.”

“Goodnight sweetheart,” Struan replied, raising his glass towards his daughter.

Hearing the front door close he drained the last of the whiskey, set the tumbler by the sink and headed for bed. Walking up the stairs he found himself lighter with each step, as a man lifting stones from his pockets and letting them fall to the floor. As he lay his head to the pillow his sister’s face swam before him, laughing and calling his name.

“Josie, my Josie.”

The words tumbled almost silently from his lips as he drifted off to the most peaceful sleep he’d had in a long time.