Lafferty was a man possessed by islands. From what I knew, his life had been a pattern of them, and he was sixty-two when we met, and three years from death. He was born in England and defended that island, as a pilot in the RAF, during the war. Afterward he settled in Ceylon with his first wife, Mary, for seven years, until her death. Those years with her on that lush island were, he always said, the happiest time of his life—until he moved to Dominica. Where he died.
He used to show me faded photographs from the Ceylon years that he kept pressed in a large book about railways. They were all in black-and-white, and had been taken by his wife, a good amateur photographer. They showed a different man than the one I knew: a healthy, tanned, handsome Lafferty in front of a wide tropical porch half-hidden by luxuriant foliage.
He would shake his head with the weight of the memory and say to me in his quiet tones, "The palm trees there just explode around you, man. They literally seem to explode. And the women are all beautiful—there's a place for a young man like you. They're so beautiful you can't believe it. That's Ceylon, all right.”
And after Mary's death he settled in Manhattan, which he said was a continent disguised as an island. We met there. We were neighbors on the tenth floor of an apartment building in the East Fifties. We were both traveling salesmen, I for a nationwide cargo company, he for an international box manufacturer. Often we didn't see each other for weeks at a time, but he always left me notes detailing his movements—and I did the same, and we managed to see to each other's mail and rent checks. We had the mutual trust, I always felt, of two strangers striking up a conversation at an airport, finding they are in the same profession, and taking turns minding the other’s luggage.
This went on for almost two years. I knew Lafferty was not happy man, and this kept me away; I didn't want to get too involved, much as his travels interested me. He seemed to have few friends, other than an old crony or two from the war passing through town from time to time. And he was thirty-five years older than I; my company would be of little use or interest to him at his age, or so I imagined. It never occurred to me that he might need me.
He had that heavy-weather look of an aging overweight British traveler, with a broad diligent face, carefully tonsured grey hair that whitened in the time I knew him, and eyes the deep grey of an overcast sky. I measured the success or failure of his business trips by the weather reports in those eyes, and by the pace of the rocking gait he'd developed—the straining ease of an athlete who’d ceased to care about his body years ago.
“Off to C.A., old boy,” he’d say—Central America—or “south to the Caribbees.” He was always heading off to somewhere poor and tropical to examine his firm’s box factories. The banana republics, especially, bought thousands of his boxes to transport millions of their bananas. He always came back looking like a damp washcloth wrung out by a circus strong-man.
More often than not, my route took me into what Lafferty called "the flat ass of Kansas.”
Sometimes I tried to sit Lafferty down and get him talking about those places I knew I'd never visit, but he could be difficult to question directly, and that kept me away too. Travel had not turned him into a monologist, unfortunately for me.
Once he said, “You’d be surprised at the coastal life in Honduras." Then he changed the subject to which dry-cleaners I recommended. You see why I kept my distance.
More often his talk would turn to Ceylon (he refused to call it Sri Lanka) and Mary. They’d had no children, but I suspected that had been by mutual consent. She sounded as if she, too, had had the selfishness of the solitary traveler. Lafferty said he wanted to see about getting a book of her photographs published, but I don't think the idea went any farther than me. How could it? He had neither the time nor the energy. He was too old to be traveling through these rough places, he perpetually seemed exhausted, and yet I thought that if he stopped moving he would die. His only pleasure seemed to be the classical music he played at high volume—the loud music of memory. His wife had been a good pianist.
And then he saw the wild green island of Dominica, in the Caribbean, for the first time; he fell in love there, miraculously; he left New York, unexpectedly; and on that island he achieved a new happiness, finally, for a year. And then he died.
I am, I think, the only person who knows the entire story. It happened almost by accident. Lafferty's firm sent him through the Antilles to see about expanding operations. I visited him across the hall the night before he left. He wasn't looking forward to the trip. He hated tourists and tourist islands especially, and he would be stopping at Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Antigua for starters. He didn't mention Dominica that night. Few people have heard of it, and it gets confused with the Dominican Republic, an insult to both.
I watched Lafferty pack. You can learn a lot about a person by watching them stuff a suitcase. Lafferty packed slowly, and he never had to shift anything about. And there was never an item left over. It was as if he had no regrets, everything was at last in order. The only choices involved were what cassettes to bring with him. He had a traveling case that held twenty-five, and ten of those were always the Schnabel recordings of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. They must have reminded him of his wife as much as her photographs did.
He was among his islands for nearly three weeks. During that time I was in south Texas, North Dakota, Detroit, Cleveland, and Denver; I was rained out of San Francisco and my plane diverted down the coast. All that time I thought of Lafferty in the Caribbean, mopping his brow with one of the many folded handkerchiefs I'd watched him pack and changing his suit twice a day in the heat.
The night I returned he was not in, there was no note under my door signifying he'd returned, and I fell asleep on my sofa with the television blaring. I was awakened at midnight by someone rapping on my door loudly. All my lights were on: no wonder.
“Are you there, man?" I heard Lafferty give up and the door across the hall shut.
I was still dressed, so I turned off the set, splashed cold water on my face and went over to his place. The door was open on the second knock.
"Glad to see you, man, marvelous!” He blinked at me, ushered me into his favorite armchair, got me a drink, got himself a drink. Then he started pacing. I'd never seen him pace, he looked like a huge animal about to stampede—and all the time chattering away like a squirrel. His yellow shirt sleeves rolled up, and showed off a deep tan; his eyes looked almost blue. His suitcases stood side-by-side in his kitchen. He looked healthier than I've ever seen him look. He belonged among islands.
"You look great," I said.
“I feel bloody marvelous,” he said. “You look whacked. When did you blast in?"
“This evening. I fell asleep on my couch."
He shook his head. "You ought to invest in pajamas." He was still standing. He seemed to have energy to burn.
“You look like you got more sunlight than I did," I said.
He grinned. “Never thought a place would seduce me again. Thought I was immune to it in my old age. Guadeloupe and Martinique, you can't put a pin between the tourists. Antigua would make you cry, what they have done to the place in the last three years. And the Dutch islands—trust the Dutch to import boredom from back home and find a way to sell it! But Dominica—”
And then he stopped talking and just grinned at me.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
He looked like he'd just discovered electricity and couldn't wait to tell everyone. He said, "You can't imagine this place, man. It's like some vision out of the dim-and-distant. You feel paralytically drunk, almost, at the sight of it. It's paradise. No hotels. No tourists. The rum is cheaper than the ice. Little villages. Mild, sweet air. Steaming jungle. Mountains. Friendly people. The Caribs—”
“Who are the Caribs?”
My ignorance startled him. “My God, man, don't they teach you anything in this country? The Caribs were the warrior race of the Caribbean—you get the name. They were the cannibals, way back, before—”
“Before the Europeans annihilated them, I suppose,” I said. I was too tired for his English I’ve-been-to-school nonsense.
“That’s right,” he said pleasantly. “Well, a few of them are left on Dominica. Won't eat you. They're on the Atlantic side of the island, rough seas, steep coast, no one to bother them. They look a bit like Gauguin or Rousseau, but smaller, like the Amazon Indians. Beautiful little people. Beautiful place.”
He smiled a bent smile that made him look like an exotic old lantern, peculiar and rusted but lit brightly from within. “Anyway.” His shoulders slumped. "I'm almost embarrassed to tell you the worst. I fell for one of them. Yes, at my age, how about that?”
He was embarrassed, all right, but he was glowing.
“One of the Caribs? Honestly? How old is she?”
I had quickly imagined, cruelly, a withered old crone, a witch.
He put up a hand, to halt my evil thoughts; but he had misinterpreted the look on my face. “She's seventeen. But it's not what you think. Different society than ours, that sort of thing. Most of them are mothers twice over by her age."
"What's her name?"
He started pacing again. "Miranda, of all things. They all have beautiful old French and British names. Felicia. Theresa. Andrea. Abelard. Juan Louis du something-or-other.”
“So you had an affair with her? Did she drag you into her hut?”
He couldn't face me. He thought I was making fun of him. He said in a hurt voice, "Why, yes, perhaps you could say that. I did stay in her hut. My work around the islands was done, I thought I'd go see what the last early race of the Caribbean looked like—”
“Did you bring back any souvenirs?" I asked.
I must admit I was thinking of syphilis.
He jerked his head in the direction of his suitcase. “I've got some film to be developed. I bought a little Instamatic in the town, Roseau, to have mementos." He flushed; he must've been thinking of his late wife, and her many photographs. What would she have said? “Say, I wondered where you take your film to be developed. Thought I'd nip out in the morning."
"There's a place on the corner.” I stood up and clapped him on the shoulder. “Congratulations, you rascal! Who'd have guessed all this a month ago?"
I put my empty glass in his sink, and at the door we shook hands heartily. He'd been frightened I would think him foolish, yet I was perhaps the only person he could tell. He shrugged, a grizzled schoolboy.
"Thanks, man, thanks. That's right, who would've guessed it?" He shook his head in happy disbelief.
“Okay, now what happens?" I said.
"Not much. Don't suppose I'll hear from her for a couple of weeks—she said she'd write me. I wonder how well she writes. Probably very simple. Well, that's all the same. Probably never see her again. Can't imagine the firm sending me back anytime soon."
He was talking more than he ever had, out of nerves. I said, “Well, you've given me inspiration for sweet dreams. Thanks."
He chuckled; I'd given him a lift by admitting a smidgen of jealousy for him.
“They’re my dreams,” he said wryly. “Keep your hands off ‘em.”
I was about to turn off my light when I heard a soft rapping at my door. I got up out of bed, thinking: Lord, getting laid has given this man a new lease on life.
The door was chained. I opened it the two inches the chain would allow.
Lafferty was all sotto voce. “Good!” he whispered. “Caught you in the nick. Say, man, I was just wondering—how long d’you think it'll take those photographs to be ready?”
The first letter came not (as Lafferty predicted) two weeks later but a month later. He was in the Canadian Northwest at the time. The envelope was a small light-blue fragile airmail one. The stamp showed a plump fruit, a soursop. It looked like a green, prickly heart. The handwriting was the slow inky hand of a careful child. She had written his address on the wrong side of the envelope, over the flap. There was no return address, but the circular postmark, blurred, said “Dominica, W. I.”
I was tempted to steam the envelope open: who wouldn't have been tempted? And the envelope was so manhandled already Lafferty wouldn't have been able to tell. But I was so sure he’d show me the letter I didn't bother. He’d gotten his photos back, I guessed, but whether they hadn't come out or whether he didn't want to show them to me, not having heard from her—it might look as if he were overly anxious to prove to me that his Miranda did indeed exist—I couldn't tell.
I did wonder whether the scents of his dream island would be preserved within the envelope. Would he open it and catch, for just an instant, all the mingled odors of that tall, sunlit coast of palms?
When Lafferty returned and I handed him his mail with her letter on top, he certainly didn't think about any preserved scents of Caribbean shores. He nearly tore the thing to bits opening it. Then he pulled the letter out delicately, like a surgeon removing a still-pulsing organ, and unfolded the cheap paper on my coffee table, as if afraid to touch it after his early haste. He read through it hurriedly, his face gleaming from the rain outside. When he got through he glanced up at me wordlessly.
Then he read it through again, slowly, savoring the words.
Finally he handed it over.
“She loves me,” he said, and stood up, and began pacing while I read. "Look at it."
"Of course she does," I said. "We knew that all the time." She had laid it out like a proper letter:
hello my sweet Robert
with you in N York. how is life moving on
hope everything is allright with you.
all so you are not ill. you would like to here about me. well i am fing for the time being. am, alright. bout only woun thing I can not take out my mind on you. I hope you will not get vex about that. Well Robert I hope you had woun good time in my country I was sorry when you lafet on Sunday and was sad too. I could not beliv it anyway I know it was ture. the night I went to bed I could not selp at all. I was thinking about you all the time oh Robert I will nevar for get you. every day am thinking about you how good you were too me. every day I wishe you are at my siad or in my arm bout you are not than when I think about that I cry. hope one day it will come true again. if you are ill some wheres i fel ill to. anyway I hope you will be seing me next month on 18th of May o.k. I just hoping that day to come then i'll be seeing again. oh Robert I need you I want you I want to see you now
hope this is all for now
my sweet. until I
here from you
love from me
writ me soon
He watched my face as I read. When I finished he said, "What do you think of that?"
"What happens on the eighteenth of May?"
He shrugged. "Her birthday’s in July. I can't think what it could be. Maybe it's just a day." His grin returned. “She really misses me."
"Are you going to write back?" I asked. I thought: Who's kidding whom?
He glared at me. "Of course. How could I not answer a letter like this?”
"But you're never going to see her again. Your firm won't send you back to Dominica, there's not enough business to warrant it, you told me so yourself."
His mouth twisted into a grimace. “I'll be in the area again. I can island-hop on my own time. And the future’s a hidden proposition. You know that. I might see her in May after all."
He stared at me distantly, then looked past me. He must have been thinking that I could not imagine what he had seen, what she had done for him. But I could see; I saw even behind his eyes. Yet I could not guess how he would act on his vision.
I went away that week, up to Boston to visit my folks, and when I returned the mystery of the photographs was solved. Lafferty was getting particular. He'd sent the entire two rolls of film to some lab in upstate Connecticut to be printed on special high-texture paper in hand-colored enlargements. It had cost him about $200, I guessed. He handed me a glass of scotch, set me down, and proudly deposited in my lap a leatherette book with the inscription PHOTOS. Beneath that he'd taped an index card to the leatherette with his own inscription: Caribs.
"Let's see what this lady looks like," I said. I was surprised he hadn't written Miranda.
I flipped through the photographs. Lafferty was an inept photographer, but I still got an idea of the place—rain forest, hillside sloping to a loud sea, profuse explosions of palms and banana trees, copper-colored men with muscular arms folded, smiling shyly at the camera—and the same girl in all the pictures.
"That cheap camera doesn't do her justice," said Lafferty.
Her hair was long and straight and black, her eyes almond-shaped, her cheekbones strong; I guessed her face would fatten soon enough, judging by the older women in some of the other photos. But for now she was rather beautiful, in a quiet way, and her eyes were filled with doubt and adoration. She did indeed look rather like an Amazon Indian girl, suddenly kindled with hope.
I flipped back through the photographs a second time while I tried to think of what to say. The images disturbed me. They might have been out of some back issue of National Geographic except they had none of that magazine’s professional disinterest. They were like family snapshots, but from whose family? I couldn't help imagining Lafferty standing on some rough path, fiddling with his new camera, asking Miranda to look over there or for her friends to move in a little closer. And there was a desperation about the photographs: through sheer numbers Lafferty was trying to cheat forgetfulness. It was as if he wanted to reconstruct every inch and instant of his visit. There was even a photograph of Miranda bathing nude in the stream, and that embarrassed me, as it could not have embarrassed her: she was staring directly at the camera.
I flipped through again, trying to appear fascinated. How could these people, this girl in particular, have clasped Lafferty so closely? They were from another planet. What could they, or she, begin to guess at of the England of his youth, the RAF, Ceylon, East Fifty-Second Street? What could they guess at of the airmail editions of the London Sunday Observer piled at Lafferty's bedside, waiting to be read?
He must have known, surely, that he was joking, in the most profound sense. The gap between him and Miranda was immeasurably vast, and not to be bridged by the loins.
And yet now, with hindsight, I see that this distance was what attracted Lafferty. I was inclined, then, to underestimate the human need to forget most of one’s life.
“Congratulations." I handed him back the photograph album. "She's a beauty, all right."
"You know," he said, "I bet she'd enjoy some of these. They don't have cameras, you know.”
"Send her some copies. I'm sure she'd like to know how she looks in your eyes."
"Oh, she knows that already," he said. "I made that clear in my letter. She should have gotten it by now."
Her reply this time was prompt; it reached Lafferty the first week in May. It was much to the point, and rather brave, I thought, for a seventeen-year-old.
Dominica W. I. 27
hello my sweet Robert
how is life in New York
hope everything is all righth with you. You know about me life is just cool in one way. but not so much cool in a nother way.
any way I think in the years to come it will be all right. The latter you wrote me on the 8th of April took me free week. I was so happy to hair from you. I was so happy. I no there is somebody care for me in this world you told me about your birthday. I now sweet it was on 18th of May so when it comes happy birthday my sweet hart loving Robert al the bast to you long life and happiness to you. Wish only I was a brid and I had tow wings then I could fly and met you. bout I canit do that. all my love to you. I will be saing a beautiful postcard to you. hope you will be very happy with it. oh Robert every day I am wondring about you. I wished I could see you again. if only I could come to New York then all stop wondring about you. Plase my love tel me. I am baging you halp me tel me how I can get my visa. Plase my love donit let me down. Robert I was in Roseau last week. I phon to see if I could here you. I phon two time I could not here anything I was so mad. if only I had my visa then I would cross the brige and come and met my Robert. but it was impossible.
oh Robert I recive the beautiful dress and robe you send. thank you for care for me evry night when I take off that dress I think it is you taking it off Miranda. one of my sister tel me you shud have sent me a blue dress all so it made me so mad I could kill her. any way Robert dont give a blue dress to anyone else. Robert you are so beautiful I love you very much. Please I am baging you again to send me one beautiful ring for me ok sweet. whan you are sending it. my briday will be the 8 of July I will be 18 years old.
ontill I hair form you
love pace and happiness
from me me me. writ me soon
I LOVE YOU.
I thought: This poor man. This poor man.
He said, “You know, the firm wants me back in Antigua next month. It’s only twenty-five minutes away in one of those tiny planes.”
Two weeks later, he knocked on my door and said, "It's all settled, man. Made my reservations today. I'll be with her for my sixty-third, can you believe it?”
I thought how unlike him it was to be talking so openly about his birthday—and at his age. He felt young again, and yet I did not feel happy for him. I felt his heart would be broken on this trip.
Perhaps I only felt that Miranda might not seem so enchanted this time. Or that she might feel betrayed when Lafferty didn't bring her the visa she wanted. Or the ring. There was no question of the visa. When I asked Lafferty directly, he said, "I can't let her save her money for two years to get here and find she can't get work. She'd be lost, swept up on the streets. She lives in paradise and doesn't know it."
I thought he was right; I thought that in any case if he took her a visa she would ask him for the money for a plane ticket as well. And as for the ring—
"Wake up, man!"
He was banging on my door on a rainy morning in late May. I hadn't known he was back. There was an urgent joy to his rapping, a thrill in his usually quiet voice. He was beaming when I pulled the door open, and he was wearing a grey summer suit that was soaked. He had just gotten off the plane, he'd been traveling all through the night, it was autumn here compared to the tropics he'd left, and yet he had the carefree air of a man about to set off on a long, patient journey.
I knew then that he was lost.
"Not for long," he said, grinning. But his eyes were greyer than I’d ever seen them, and I thought they were begging me to talk him out of it.
I knew in an instant what he was going to do. It was so unlikely I had feared he might do it.
"I'm retiring early," he murmured, looking around my apartment as if he were seeing it for the last time. He was, it turned out, thinking already of what he might give me from his apartment’s walls: souvenirs of travels he'd never make again. “I’ve decided to marry her.” He smiled sheepishly and scratched his cheek.
I felt, suddenly, very old. I said, “You’re a trickster, I don’t know if she’s going to be able to handle you.” I put out my hand. “Congratulations.”
He said, “You’re supposed to congratulate the bride.” He paused while our hands were locked; he didn’t want to let go yet. “I hope you’ll make it down sometime, let me show you around. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up there yourself.”
He let go my hand. Ten days later he was back on Dominica, and that Sunday he was a married man.
I heard from him almost immediately, in a letter written on the same cheap paper Miranda had used. He was doing everything rapidly these days; he’d gone through his apartment like a whirlwind over the weekend, throwing out and giving away and packing what little was left. He’d cabled his firm about his plans and arranged for his pension to be sent directly to what was probably the only bank on Dominica.
"They won't complain about me stepping off,” he said. "You see, man, I could've done this any time in the last decade, if I'd had any sense.” He grinned. "I think I'll be quite content without the usual pomp and circumstance, don't you agree?"
What he meant, I found out later from his New York doctor, was that he had a fluttering heart: he could go at any time. But he was an old RAF man—he never let on to me, lest I think that had anything to do with his decision. Miranda knew, though.
And for all my initial doubts, his letter was the letter of a happy man:
St. Cyr, Salybia, Dominica
7 June 1982
My dear friend:
I shall do my best to keep any faintly superior edge out of my tone-of-voice in this letter, but I’d better say right away I'm glad to be here and not there! If you could see what I see right now (and every morning at this time)—not one but several beautiful girls washing themselves and splashing each other and giggling at me from a stream about twenty yards away from where I'm sitting in the sweetest sunlight you ever saw. It makes a man reconsider his options—I see now I must have been stark staring mad to have stood the fight for so long. No more!
It's going to be pretty hot today, as usual, but the breezes blow almost constantly around this coast and the heat doesn't bother you, it just gets baked in. Not like New York. I wish I could bottle these breezes and mail them to you.
I hope you are enjoying my trusty old armchair.
I have just spent a very enjoyable morning (I stopped writing this to have a lunch of fresh mango) beside the Catholic church—one has to take the bad with the good—watching six young Carib men playing one hell of a game of cricket, with homemade bats and balls. They really are first-class. I saw them play when I visited before. They have done me the honor of asking me, as a once-exceptional bowler in the very dim and distant, to coach them. I agreed like a shot. At this time next year, I predict, our Salybia team will be the equal, no the better, of any on the island.
I've got the Beethoven Op. 111 playing on the machine, which reminds me—can you send me a dozen packages of those long-lasting batteries from the camera store on 54th? The batteries they sell in Roseau wear out in an afternoon.
You'll be happy to know my two trunks arrived at last, having come here by way of Guatemala. It's peculiar to see some of those photographs up on the bare wood walls, that used to hang over my television. Miranda has insisted on putting up the one of me in uniform on the airfield—it amuses me now. What a fat little of anything that young man knew!
I hope the various airlines are treating you nicely these days. You must try ours someday — L.I.A.T. stands for “Leave Island Any Time.”
Anyway, I would be bloody glad to hear from you. And thanks for forwarding those Observers; they’ve got the address change right now. Cheerio.
I sent him his batteries, I wrote him the most interesting letter I could think up. I missed him. Perhaps he missed me a little. I got a letter from him early each month, and then he missed one; but he sounded ecstatic. The cricket, especially, was going well. Then I received a Christmas card from him and Miranda, that showed a snow-white Christmas. She scrawled "Bast Wishes for a holyday seson.” I wondered which of them had chosen the card—perhaps he had; it was just his sense of humor—and at how such a card was available in the Caribbean at all, the ludicrous winter scene without local references of any sort.
And then I didn't hear a word for several months. I was traveling a great deal: late winter was always the busiest time of year for me. I thought he was too happy to write; we'd never been that close, after all. I didn't suspect for an instant that his health might be failing.
Then, in early April, I got this:
Well, well, well my dear friend. I hope you're feeling more energetic than I. Of course I am being very well looked after here but I think this heat will prove too much for me, after all.
One sees the most peculiar things here. Just yesterday I noticed on some of the stones in the path leading past the school to the sea, some of the children had scrawled in chalk the words "I love." No object. Just two words.
I've decided not to renew my Observer subscription. Useless to pretend, that sort of thing. The books they review and the plays they attend and concerts and the politics just don't mean much anymore. Thank God.
Let me hear from you and let me know how you're doing. My Miranda tells me I am going to be a father shortly! I didn't expect any of this.
All the best, old boy
I wrote him immediately, suggesting he go somewhere cool for the summer if the heat was too much for him there. I even offered him my apartment with its air-conditioning; but I knew he wouldn't leave her to have the baby by herself.
I'd been right: he needed to keep moving, or he would die.
The next letter, the last, was from her.
hello in N York
Robert tel me you were his bast frend. I have sad news for you about my sweet Robert. Wel I donit know how to writ you this but he die almost one month pass. just after he have his briday he was 64 years old was his hart was bad
I miss him so much he was so sweet to me as long he was here I no somebody care for me in this world. now no one here to care for me and Victoria our gril. she only see her father one week and no more.
one thing I am asking you is this if you are Roberts frend you can cross that brige and see Miranda and Victoria. maybe you can send me a ring all so ok quick. tel me plese when quick you will be here with the ring. when you are sending it. my briday will be the 8 of July I will be 19 years old. plese all so those music taps Robert bring are all broke now so can you bring more with the ring when you come ok.
plese wright soon here we are sad sad since we bury him near sea so he can slep quiet all night all day
Waiting here to hair from you
Roberts frend you must be sad sad now all so
She signed it “Miranda Lafferty.” But she spelled my name correctly. I am a coward; I couldn’t bring myself to answer her letter.
I sent his daughter a stuffed teddy bear with a red and white Santa Claus hat at Christmas. And I changed jobs. I stopped traveling.