The Cleverness of Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith (2012)

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Click on the image of author Alexander McCall Smith to hear him read A High Wind in Nevis, a short story from The Cleverness of Ladies.

The Cleverness of Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith

A High Wind in Nevis

Marlin House sits on top of a hill above an old port on the Caribbean island of Nevis. It was built in the late 1950s by a retired doctor, who wanted a retreat on that part of the island and who enjoyed giving parties. A celebrated American writer would come to these parties, when he was in residence at his luxurious villa further up the coast, along with other well-known and glamorous people who were passing through. The doctor was a generous host, and the maker of a legendary rum punch.

When the doctor died, his son ignored the place, and the house fell into disrepair. The thick, jungle-like vegetation that covered the hillside was meant to be kept in check by a gardener, but this gardener’s sight was bad and became steadily worse. Either he did not see the creepers that were beginning to cover the terrace, or he had given up what must have been an unequal battle. Plants grew quickly there. Then there were the high winds – ‘the breeze’ as the locals called it – which tore down trees and branches, and the rains – the warm, pelting rain that clogged the storm drains.

When the house was eventually put up for sale, it attracted the attention of a couple who happened to be motoring along the coast road in an old Volkswagen car. The man, a small, rather insignificant-looking person, was Dutch. The woman, who was taller and more powerfully built, was from Trinidad and of mixed ancestry.

They had met in a club in Miami, the Blue Cocktail, and decided to cast their lot in with each other. Marcus, the Dutchman, had spent ten years as a schoolteacher on the island of Curaçao, and wanted to stay in the Caribbean. Georgina, the Trinidadian, was undecided about returning, but she wanted to travel with Marcus. Now, rather against her will, she was falling in love again with a world that she had not very long ago left with such eagerness.

They had seen the retired doctor’s house from the road below, from where they could just make out the top of its roof. On impulse, Georgina, at the wheel of the old Volkswagen, had turned up the narrow, potholed track that led up the hillside.

‘You never know,’ she said. ‘When we get to the top we might see a For Sale sign.’

‘And?’ asked Marcus.

‘And then we buy it and turn it into a hotel,’ said Georgina abruptly. ‘What else?’

Georgina had a vaguely angry way of talking, as if challenging the person to whom she was speaking to argue with her. This manner, Marcus had discovered, did not conceal a sweet personality – in fact, she was by nature irritable. But he was smitten, and would hear nothing against her. ‘My ever-so-slightly angry Georgina,’ he said to her. Georgina snapped back, ‘What exactly do you mean by that?’

They had to drive slowly up the track, and at one point Marcus had to get out of the car and attempt to move a tree branch that had fallen and blocked the road. Georgina remained in the car, tapping the steering wheel with her fingers as she watched her friend’s futile efforts. Eventually, after several fruitless minutes, she got out of the car, lifted up the branch and shifted it to the side of the road.

‘You’re truly magnificent,’ said Marcus.

‘And you’re truly weak,’ said Georgina, getting back into the car.

They drove on. There, on the rusted ironwork gate at the foot of the drive that led to Marlin House, was a sign that said ‘For Sale’. They parked the Volkswagen and walked up the drive. A pair of birds of prey circled overhead on the currents of wind from the headland; the fronds of great coconut palms moved like fans against the sky.

‘Our hotel,’ said Georgina.

The hotel opened its doors three months later. The house, rescued from ruin just in time, had been renewed from floor to ceiling. Georgina oversaw all of the work, criticising the carpenters, scolding the upholsterers, snapping at the electrician. Marcus looked after the kitchen: ordering pots and pans and catering ovens, planning recipes, and contacting suppliers of eggs and vegetables.

‘That bossy woman,’ complained one of the carpenters to a friend. ‘She too much trouble, man. One day a coconut go fall on her head!’

‘Even the Lord, he frighten’ of her,’ said another. ‘People come stay in that place, they see her, they run fast, jump in sea.’

When everything was ready, or slightly before, the guests started to arrive. They were generally enchanted with their lodgings. The view from the terrace, over the treetops to a sea of an impossible blue, took their breath away. Guests sat there, their feet up on the terrace parapet, the warm breeze in their hair, sipping at the rum cocktails which the barman brought on a silver tray. They walked down to the beach and swam in the breakers; they watched the highly coloured fishing boats, painted in bright blues and greens, nose out into the waves and then, in the evenings, Marcus’s carefully planned dinners rounded off the day. Everything seemed perfect, from the guests’ point of view, except for the management.

The running of a hotel inevitably brings requests from the guests. Nothing is ever quite right for everybody: one guest will want a larger towel; another will wonder why there is no fridge in the room; and so on. The usual hotel owners will listen to these complaints and make an effort to deal with the problem. Larger towels may be found, or at least promised. Fridges can be held out as a possibility, even if realistically they are not. The important thing, as any hotelier will tell you, is that the guest should feel that their request is a reasonable one and that something will be done to attend to it.

But at Marlin House it was different. ‘What do you need a fridge for?’ was Georgina’s response to a guest who liked the idea of keeping a supply of cold milk in the room.

‘Because the milk curdles so quickly in this heat. It would be nice to make tea in the room.’

‘Plenty of milk in the kitchen. Go ask for it there.’

‘Well, could we at least have some biscuits in the room? To snack on?’

‘Food in the rooms brings cockroaches.’

Georgina’s fierce reputation grew. ‘A delightful setting,’ wrote one travel writer, ‘which is well worth a visit if you are in that part of the Caribbean. The rooms are comfortable and the Caribbean-style cuisine delicious. But do not engage with the management on any issue.’

Such comments served only to fuel curiosity, and people started to choose the hotel in order to experience at first hand Georgina’s highly individual style. Usually they were not disappointed. In fact, they delighted in the disgrace into which an inappropriate request or suggestion cast them. The hotel was becoming legendary.

Georgina’s famous look of disapproval could be imitated over the dinner table but never equalled. Her thunderous expression when a female guest was unwise enough to ask Marcus, in the middle of a party, to dance with her was talked about for months.

At the end of their first five years in the hotel, Marcus and Georgina decided to hold a New Year’s Eve party to celebrate the success of the hotel and the new year itself. Word got out, and it was not long before all the rooms were taken for the new year holiday. Reviewing their bookings, Marcus smiled with pleasure at the thought of what this would do for the hotel’s finances, but Georgina frowned. Although she never admitted it to Marcus, guests annoyed her. They were so needy, so helpless. They made stupidly fussy requests. They never seemed pleased with what you gave them. Their conversation was so dull, their questions so childish.

‘If I’m asked again about those humming birds, I shall scream,’ she said one day. To the next guest who asked her, ‘What are those lovely little birds with their long tails? The ones that hover in front of the flowers? Look, there’s one now!’, she replied, ‘Small vultures,’ and turned on her heel.

‘That was rather unkind,’ said Marcus, who had witnessed the incident.

‘Don’t talk to me about it,’ said Georgina, with her discouraging face which was so much part of her character. ‘Just don’t.’

The New Year’s Eve party was attended not only by the resident guests, but by people from the area. Some guests remembered the retired doctor, his parties, and the American writer who came to them. ‘He would have loved this,’ they said. ‘He loved a party.’

‘Frightful man,’ said Georgina.

‘Oh, did you ever meet him?’

‘Certainly not.’

They had brought in a three-piece band from the town, and the musicians played on the terrace while people stood at the parapet and looked down at the lights of the town and, beyond the town, to the sea. It was a windy night, but the air was warm and scented with the flowers that grew in the windward section of the garden. Down in the darkness below, from time to time somebody would send up a firework rocket that would break into a cone of falling stars, and the people on the terrace would clap or whistle in admiration.

As the old year faded into the new, champagne was opened and the guests broke into a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, linking hands and stepping backwards and forwards on the creaky planks of the terrace. Georgina sat to one side. She looked disapproving for some reason, as if the ending of the old year was a personal affront or a private loss.

Then she went out, by herself, glass in hand, and stood on the lawn under one of the swaying coconut trees. Marcus saw her from the terrace and called out, but his voice was swallowed by a strong gust of wind. It was the same gust of wind that dislodged a large coconut, which fell directly on Georgina’s head.

There was a shout from the terrace. ‘Georgina’s down . . .’ Then a rush as the guests made their way to the lawn. Georgina lay there, unconscious. A nurse among the guests reached down and took her pulse. ‘She’s been knocked out,’ she said. ‘Get her inside.’

They put her to bed while they telephoned for an ambulance. Nobody answered at the other end, and so they tried the number of a local doctor. He said, ‘I’ve been at a party. I’m not sure if I can drive . . .’ But he agreed to come, and when he arrived two hours later, with a small cut on his face that nobody asked about, Georgina had already come round.

‘I hope everyone enjoyed themselves,’ she said. ‘I would not like to think that I had spoiled the party.’

Marcus looked at her in surprise. His surprise continued the next morning when Georgina, back on her feet, went round the hotel wishing everybody a happy new year and asking them whether there was anything she could do for them.

‘Somebody’s made a new year’s resolution,’ muttered one of the guests. ‘It won’t last.’

Marcus was astonished at the change in Georgina’s character. ‘She’s not the same any more,’ he said. ‘Georgina used to be so forceful, so . . . well, so firm. Now she’s . . . well, a bit . . . well, you know what I mean.’

It continued like that for at least a month. Then one morning Georgina came back from a short walk in the neighbouring coconut grove. She snapped at the chef and immediately after that was very sharp with one of the guests, who had told her that his coffee was cold.

Overhearing this, Marcus felt his heart leap with pleasure. She’s back, he thought. My ever-so-slightly irritable Georgina is back!

He looked out of the window. The wind, that warm wind from the west, had started again, making the coconut palms sway backwards and forwards against the sky, gently, but enough to dislodge the fruit, sending it earthwards.

 All was well with this world once more.

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