I have often wondered about the proposition that for each of us there is one great love in our lives, and one only. Even if that is not true—and experience tells most of us it is not—there are those, in legend at least, who believe there is only one person in this world whom they will ever love with all their heart. Tristan persisted in his love of Isolde in spite of everything; Orpheus would not have risked the Underworld, one imagines, for anyone but Eurydice.
Such stories are touching, but the cynic might be forgiven for saying: yes, but what if the person you love does not reciprocate? What if Isolde had found somebody she preferred to Tristan, or Eurydice had been indifferent to Orpheus?
The wise thing to do in cases of unreturned affection is to look elsewhere—you cannot force another to love you—and to choose somebody else. In matters of the heart, though, as in all human affairs, few of us behave in a sensible way. We can do without love, of course, and claim it does not really play a major part in our lives. We may do that, but we still hope. Indifferent to all the evidence, hope has a way of surviving every discouragement, every setback or reversal; hope sustains us, enables us to believe we will find the person we have wanted all along.
Sometimes, of course, that is exactly what happens.
This story started when the two people involved were children. It began on a small island in the Caribbean, continued in Scotland, and in Australia, and came to a head in Singapore. It took place over sixteen years, beginning as one of those intense friendships of childhood and becoming, in time, something quite different. This is the story of that passion. It is a love story, and like most love stories it involves more than just two people, for every love has within it the echoes of other loves. Our story is often our parents’ story, told again, and with less variation than we might like to think. The mistakes, as often as not, are exactly the same mistakes our parents made, as human mistakes so regularly are.
The Caribbean island in question is an unusual place. Grand Cayman is still a British territory, by choice of its people rather than by imposition, one of the odd corners that survive from the monstrous shadow that Victoria cast over more than half the world. Today it is very much in the sphere of American influence—Florida is only a few hundred miles away, and the cruise ships that drop anchor off George Town usually fly the flag of the United States, or are American ships under some other flag of convenience. But the sort of money that the Cayman Islands attract comes from nowhere; has no nationality, no characteristic smell.
Grand Cayman is not much to look at, either on the map, where it is a pin-prick in the expanse of blue to the south of Cuba and the west of Jamaica, or in reality, where it is a coral-reefed island barely twenty miles long and a couple of miles in width. With smallness come some advantages, amongst them a degree of immunity to the hurricanes that roar through the Caribbean each year. Jamaica is a large and tempting target for these winds, and is hit quite regularly. There is no justice in the storms that flatten the houses of the poor in places like Kingston or Port Antonio, wood and tin constructions so much more vulnerable than the bricks and mortar of the better-off. Grand Cayman, being relatively minuscule, is usually missed, although every few decades the trajectory of a hurricane takes it straight across the island. Because there are no natural salients, much of the land is inundated by the resultant storm surge. People may lose their every possession to the wind—cars, fences, furniture and fridges, animals too, can all be swept out to sea and never seen again; boats end up in trees; palm trees bend double and are broken with as much ease as one might snap a pencil or the stem of a garden plant.
Grand Cayman is not fertile. The soil, white and sandy, is not much use for growing crops, and indeed the land, if left to its own devices, would quickly revert to mangrove swamp. Yet people have occupied the island for several centuries, and scratched a living there. The original inhabitants were turtle-hunters. They were later joined by various pirates and wanderers for whom a life far away from the prying eye of officialdom was attractive. There were fishermen, too, as this was long before over-fishing was an issue, and the reef brought abundant marine life.
Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, it occurred to a small group of people that Grand Cayman could become an off-shore financial centre. As a British territory it was stable, relatively incorrupt (by the standards of Central America and the shakier parts of the Caribbean), and its banks would enjoy the tutelage of the City of London. Unlike some other states that might have nursed similar ambitions, Grand Cayman was an entirely safe place to store money.
“Sort out the mosquitoes,” they said. “Build a longer runway. The money will flow in. You’ll see. Cayman will take off.” Cayman, rather than the Cayman Islands, is what people who live there call the place—an affectionate shortening, with the emphasis on the man
rather than the cay
Banks and investors agreed, and George Town became the home of a large expatriate community, a few who came as tax exiles, but most of them hard-working and conscientious accountants or trust managers. The locals watched with mixed feelings. They were reluctant to give up their quiet and rather sleepy way of life but found it difficult to resist the prosperity the new arrivals brought. And they liked, too, the high prices they could get for their previously worthless acres. A tiny white-board home by the sea, nothing special, could now be sold for a price that could keep one in comfort for the rest of one’s life. For most, the temptation was just too great; an easy life was now within grasp for many Caymanians, as Jamaicans could be brought in to do the manual labour, to serve in the restaurants frequented by the visitors from the cruise ships, to look after the bankers’ children. A privileged few were given status
, as they called it, and were allowed to live permanently on the islands, these being the ones who were really needed, or, in some cases, who knew the right people—the people who could ease the passage of their residence petitions. Others had to return to the places from which they came, which were usually poorer, more dangerous, and more tormented by mosquitoes.
Most children do not choose their own name, but she did. She was born Sally, and was called that as a baby, but at about the age of four, having heard the name in a story, she chose to be called Clover. At first her parents treated this indulgently, believing that after a day or two of being Clover she would revert to being Sally. Children got strange notions into their heads; her mother had read somewhere of a child who had decided for almost a complete week that he was a dog and had insisted on being fed from a bowl on the floor. But Clover refused to go back to being Sally, and the name stuck.
Clover’s father, David, was an accountant who had been born and brought up in Scotland. After university he had started his professional training in London, in the offices of one of the large international accountancy firms. He was particularly able—he saw figures as if they were a landscape, instinctively understanding their topography—and this led to his being marked out as a high flier. In his first year after qualification, he was offered a spell of six months in the firm’s office in New York, an opportunity he seized enthusiastically. He joined a squash club and it was there, in the course of a mixed tournament, that he met the woman he was to marry.
This woman was called Amanda. Her parents were both psychiatrists, who ran a joint practice on the Upper East Side. Amanda invited David back to her parents’ apartment after she had been seeing him for a month. They liked him, but she could tell that they were anxious about her seeing somebody who might take her away from New York. She was an only child, and she was the centre of their world. This young man, this accountant, was likely to be sent back to London, would want to take Amanda with him, and they would be left in New York. They put a brave face on it and said nothing about their fears; shortly before David’s six months were up, though, Amanda told her parents that they wanted to become engaged. Her mother wept at the news, although in private.
The internal machinations of the accounting firm came to the rescue. Rather than returning to London, David was to be sent to Grand Cayman, where the firm was expanding its office. This was only three hours’ flight from New York—through Miami—and would therefore be less of a separation. Amanda’s parents were mollified.
They left New York and settled into a temporary apartment in George Town, arranged for them by the firm. A few months later they found a new house near an inlet called Smith’s Cove, not much more than a mile from town. They moved in a week or two before their wedding, which took place in a small church round the corner. They chose this church because it was the closest one to them. It was largely frequented by Jamaicans, who provided an ebullient choir for the occasion, greatly impressing the friends who had travelled down from New York for the ceremony.
Fourteen months later, Clover was born. Amanda sent a photograph to her mother in New York: Here’s your lovely grandchild. Look at her eyes. Just look at them. She’s so beautiful—already! At two days!
“Fond parents,” said Amanda’s father.
His wife studied the photograph. “No,” she said. “She’s right.”
“Five days ago,” he mused. “Born on a Thursday.”
“Has far to go …”
He frowned. “Far to go?”
She explained. “The song. You remember it … Wednesday’s child is full of woe; Thursday’s child has far to go …”
“That doesn’t mean anything much.”
She shrugged; she had always felt that her husband lacked imagination; so many men did, she thought. “Perhaps that she’ll have to travel far to get what she wants. Travel far—or wait a long time, maybe.”
He laughed at the idea of paying any attention to such things. “You’ll be talking about her star sign next. Superstitious behaviour. I have to deal with that all the time with my patients.”
“I don’t take it seriously,” she said. “You’re too literal. These things are fun—that’s all.”
He smiled at her. “Sometimes.”
“Sometimes fun. Sometimes not.”
Excerpted from The Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith. Copyright © 2014 by Alexander McCall Smith. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.