We all find some space at home for souvenirs from our travels, but the one I brought back with me from Antigua in 2005 is not like any other I have collected.
I climbed the slimy rope, fingers slipping through weed thick with twitching sea creatures. Using my foot to search for some kind of purchase, I found a hanging tyre and heaved myself onto the dock. Gunge had collected in my hair and was smeared on my arms and legs. Oily water slid off my waterlogged sundress.
You fool! Why did you jump into the harbour? It’s full of weelywongs and scudflappers. Not to mention the slime and jellies.
Nearby yachts had been emptying their bilges and holding tanks directly into the sea for the past few days; fish were growing fat on human detritus.
“Let’s do it again!” I shouted, and jumped back in.
Sod the scudflappers, it’s nice and cool in here.
“Don’t jump,” someone shouted as I went in, “it’s filthy in there!”
But it was too late. Others followed, including the man who had yelled the warning. We splashed about, revelling in the cool water, relieved to have found an escape from the Caribbean heat.
Christmas day at English Harbour in Antigua is a community event: islanders and visitors, sailors and tourists, workers and freeloaders, old and young, everyone goes down to the two hundred year old Nelson’s Dockyard for one big party.
I looked around for my friends. A crowd was dancing to a local band, some using the enormous capstans as podiums. The music — an assorted playlist of soul, soca, reggae and rock– rolled round the harbour. Old baths were stacked with ice and bottles of beer, rum, champagne and wine. A stranger passed by and handed me a bottle of Wadadli, Antigua’s local beer. I gave up looking for the others and went off to dance.
My weary friends and I, escaping midwintry London, arrived in Antigua on Christmas Eve. Pale and jet-lagged, we were greeted at her white-washed clapboard cottage by the owner, Libby, a middle-aged hippy generation survivor, all flowing robes, silver rings and beads.
“A present from me to help make your stay real mellow.”
She gave me a box.
Tucked away in the corner of the balcony stood a four poster bed draped with mosquito netting, its lime-washed wooden frame studded with shells. Luminous flowers grew beneath tropical trees in Libby’s shady hillside garden. In the bay below yachts rocked and hulls glinted in the afternoon sun. I could think of nothing I wanted more than to spend my holiday sleeping outdoors in this milky, sea-green haven.
It took Will and Steve five minutes to divi up the two traditional bedrooms and dump their luggage.
I opened the box; it was stashed with weed.
I left the dancers and wandered over to the quayside. There was no sign of Will who I had last seen chatting to a smiling girl.
Steve was sitting under a tree talking to a man. His face was tanned and unlined, incongruous against close-cropped, grey hair. He smiled at me. Steve was telling me the man’s story, but I didn’t listen. I had noticed this stranger the night before at the table next to us. I smiled back.
“I’m Jamie,” he said.
For a fortnight Jamie and I swam, walked, and partied on the island whose strap line is “a beach for every day of the year”. But mostly we talked. About his business and why he’d sold up to learn to sail; about the burnout I was feeling from my unremitting workload; about travel, books, politics, racism, feminism, music, films and the meaning of it all. He cancelled his next crewing job.
A few weeks later I was back in London with the biggest and best souvenir I’ve ever brought home from a trip abroad: Jamie. Two years later I’d quit my job, rented the house and we were living together aboard our boat in Turkey.
Last year, on Christmas day in Langkawi, we celebrated the tenth anniversary of our first meeting under that tree in Nelson’s Dockyard.