Under the Blue

A Short Story by Keith Jardim

Illustrations by Shalini SeereeramIllustrations by Shalini Seereeram

Nicolas arrived on the island in early summer, after his third year at university, with plans to begin writing a novel about his family. He’d lugged along 20 books for ideas and guidance; they took up half his bed, and each night he fell asleep to their voices.

The mass of Caribbean Sea and its sky were cool blues, the colours he loved most. The island was dry, its green fading, and there was heat to contend with, relentless even when breezes rustled trees on the island’s northeast coast, where Nicolas’s grandmother lived, with her dog Tina, alone. Her villa overlooked bright, green-blue bays, coves and smaller islands with suggestive names: Manacles Reef, Hell’s Gate, Little Man of War Island, Exchange Bay. On moonless nights smugglers used the dark bulks of the islands and coves to conduct their business. Nicolas imagined their boats sliding across the black water towards them, engines softly puttering. Once, late at night, he heard a gunshot.

Cacti, red and purple bougainvillea and small citrus trees were all arranged with the attentive eye of a landscape artist in the dry earth beyond the grass that surrounded the house. His grandmother’s several acres had been fenced to keep the bush out. In the dry weather she had the gardener work regularly, but nothing more could be done where grass grew in withering patches. A cistern under the house collected rain from the roof, but anything growing beyond the house’s 30-foot perimeter was left to fend for itself.

Wind made a sound like rain through the trees beneath his grandmother’s property. Nicolas looked at the dying leaves and then up and over them at the neat line of morning horizon. It was the beginning of another time and place, where someone might, he fancied, think about somewhere else under the blue and try to imagine what was happening out of their sight. It had been a theme of his drawings in school: men and women, on an island, separated by hills of trees and curves of green coast, or hidden away in yachts behind bluffs and peninsulas. Often there were scuba divers in the drawings, people at peace in the silent, dense blue of sea.

 

Nicolas, on mid-afternoons, usually walked down to the small cove below the house, where his grandfather first took him years ago, to swim. Like the rest of the land around his grandmother’s property, it was uninhabited.

There were whitecaps on the sea: pillows of cotton drifting in on blue. Bright, green water haloed the small islands. Africa, Nicolas knew, was somewhere over there, far away to the east. His grandfather had been the first one to tell him that. A yacht, like a white arrowhead in the distance, passed behind one of the islands. Keeping very still, Nicolas could detect its resolute movement into the blue. He felt cool breeze, the sun’s heat, and there were scents of earth and sea, iron and salt, and the light rot of vegetation from the land below.

Nicolas’s grandfather had been retired a year when he died. He was a man who had worked hard all his life, starting in his father’s shop in Guyana, then called British Guiana, at age eleven. He had taught himself maths and accounts while his first two children played around his legs under the kitchen table. He had paid for this house to be built, had helped the workmen with a sense of joy they found peculiar in a white man.

Nicolas wrote the scene in his mind, like a memoir.

Boss, come go take a relax. We soon finish.

Cedar, my grandfather had said, sliding his palm along the smooth length of a fat plank. I love the smell. Take your time … There’re beers in the fridge for later. His expression at such times was that of a man savouring the fact that he’d finally found time to do what he wanted most in his life. Light smile just lifting the corners of his mouth, and blue eyes soft, appreciating the task at hand, the simple, physical pleasure of it. Shirtless and still in the socks and brown dress shoes he wore to work, with his balding head of gray-brown hair tufting at the sides, an occasional strand of it lifting upwards in the warm-salted breeze, and belted khaki shorts just above his knees, he looked like an unkempt lord. I later gathered a handful of cedar shavings, a curly mass of blonde, springy Rasta locks, and stuffed my nose into it, breathing deeply.

And the workmen had accepted my grandfather with tacit respect, seeming to think he was an old man just playing young. Thirteen years old at the time, I heard the offer of beer through the window of the master bedroom, where my grandmother sat knitting on her bed, her back up against the headboard, separated from my grandfather’s bed by an antique desk. Every day after lunch she was to be found knitting there, her head bent as if in prayer, and I had gone in to give her the glass of water she had sent for. The maid usually left right before lunch, so I was often told to do things. At my grandfather’s words, she’d sighed and said, Honestly, God give me strength. Beer. He’s going to give them beer. 

 

“Where is Africa?”

In the late afternoon his grandfather pointed to where the sea was darkest, to where clouds were gathering on the horizon, tinting the blue and green east in sadness. “Far, far over there.”

They were standing on the point just above the cove where they would soon be going. The workmen were gone and his grandfather was sipping a beer.

“Want some?” His grandfather, shirtless, had been working with the carpenters. Dark and red moles were scattered on his upper chest.

Nicolas drank some beer and made a face.

He smiled and said, “You’ll learn in time to like it . . . You’ll learn enough.”

“Is it a storm?”

“Think so. Maybe a squall. It just needs to come a little closer.”

“Why?”

“Colour.”

“What?”

His grandfather began walking down a path through the bush, brambles catching at his arms and legs and scratching the skin bloody. He ignored them and told Nicolas to come if he wanted to see something beautiful.

 

Black night, black time: Nicolas was on the roof of the house, sipping a beer and sitting in an aluminium recliner. All through dinner at the kitchen table with his grandmother, Nicolas had heard Tina whining outside for him. Now she lay happily around his feet, keeping them warm, at the end of the recliner. She would not bark: there were no other dogs for miles.  Nicolas, drowsy, gazed at the stars, looking for words in them. Meteors fell. In the distance, to the west, a light on the sea signalling caught his eye. It flashed now and then, a series of one, two, pause, one, two, then no signal for a few minutes: smugglers.

 

The stones on the path, edgy bits of glittering quartz and coral, almost punctured their shoes. Nicolas, wishing there was a boat hidden below somewhere, and they were going to escape from his grandmother and have adventures, asked, “How long would it take us to go to Africa?”

“Sailing?”

“Yes, a sailboat,” the boy said thoughtfully, glad, as always, his grandfather was taking him seriously.

“As long as it took the storm. A couple weeks, maybe more, depending on wind.”

The storm was rising on the faraway horizon, tinting the blues and greens of sea, darkening the east, soothing his retinae. The man and boy came upon a pebbly, sandy beach, no more than 20 yards long. There were several jagged rocks, like the remains of an ancient citadel, reaching out in a broken embrace toward the sea’s east. The wind began to gust and water flopped and slapped on the beach; behind them, near the path, stood a large, triangular rock, taller than Nicolas. His grandfather looked at it, his face solemn for a moment, then at Nicolas. He smiled.

“We’re going swimming, boy. Come on.” His grandfather removed his shoes and socks, and stripped, revealing a slack-skinned but fit body. There was gray hair on his shoulders down to his chest and stomach. He waded into the water, dove under and surfaced beyond the rocks.

There was a little island low against the storm, one of many along the coast, and his grandfather began swimming to it when lightning started in the distance, blue-white cracks in space and time. Nicolas sat on white sand in the water, watching his grandfather breaststroke to the island. Thunder was distant, a fading sound of rusty cannonballs dropping onto a wooden floor and rolling overhead. The boy remained where he was, feeling a hot thrill of nervous excitement flush through him. What was his grandfather doing? Surely Nicolas wasn’t supposed to swim out there; he couldn’t; there was too much drama in the sea and sky, too many shifting colours and waves whipping into the air, some of them suggesting, in an instant, the dark-gray fin of a shark. So he stayed on shore, saw his grandfather clamber up the beach of the little island, and wave. Nicolas waved back at the naked man against the green-almost-black vegetation and the dark light of the world.

The storm, with its dark watercolours, shading the blue sea with sadness: Nicolas was leaving tomorrow, returning to his parents. That summer of Caribbean blue was over, and he would never see his grandfather again.

 

Tina stirred, growled, and Nicolas sat up. He was thirsty. Tina was staring into the night. She growled again. Nicolas saw nothing, heard nothing. His heart beat faster. There was nothing but black space, black time and millions of stars curving around the world. He moved forward, closer to Tina; she wagged her tail once, looked at him expectantly. Then she began a low growl, without stopping, at the night.

 

Read the entire story from which this excerpt is taken at Caribbean Beat’s website, www.caribbean-beat.com