What would you do if you were handed a secret letter from a woman who claimed she was being held prisoner by her husband? It takes all types in the Caribbean..
“Many years ago, people used high-tech and filled me up with drugs to try and make me crazy. They said I knew too much about Tom’s activities and, one day, Tom told me that his people wanted to have me terminated. They’d make it look like an accident. Then I got cancer, and they hoped I’d die a natural death. But I didn’t. I had chemotherapy and recovered. I was scared. These people are serious – they would stop at nothing and now I’m really frightened.
I’m a prisoner in my own home. Tom keeps the car keys and controls all the money. I’m not allowed out after dark and Tom would punish me terribly if I ventured out at night. He knows everything I say and do – I’ve had entire conversations of mine repeated back to me verbatim. Remember when I arranged to meet you at the restaurant that day? Well, somehow he found out about that. See what I mean? Please destroy this note.”
The letter was written in a careless scrawl on six miniscule scraps of paper. A few words had been deleted and then reinserted as if the writer, a woman, had hesitated over her disclosures. Nor was it personally addressed to me, though I felt sure that it had been intended for my eyes for it had fallen one day from its hiding place between the pages of a romantic novel that the woman had pressed into my hands before I set sail. I remembered that she had been persistent in her efforts to persuade me to accept the book. On two or three occasions she had told me that she wanted to give me a book ‘I know you’ll love’ and, finally, she had appeared with the volume in question and handed it to me, a mischievous gleam in her eyes as she commandingly wagged her finger and extracted my promise that I would read it.
It was a thick paperback written by some obscure American authoress and the back cover claimed that the book was yet another “best seller” from the pen of its uncelebrated creator, and hinted that the leaves concealed a tale of spell-binding passion and intrigue. On the front cover was the photograph of an embracing couple.
I knew that nothing should induce me to read the book but, not wishing to appear ungrateful, I had accepted the gift and thrown it onto a bookshelf in the fore-cabin of my yacht. Then I had forgotten all about it. Until one day when, in a particularly lively sea, the boat heeled and all the books fell onto the cabin sole – and there, whilst gathering up the fallen contents of the bookshelf, I discovered the letter.
I had known Tom and Molly Hill for a number of years and, when I first came to the island, they were already well-established there, one of a number of older American couples who have retired to the islands to while away their remaining years. They lived in a large, rambling villa on a residential estate at the southern end of the island and one could always distinguish their house on account of the large American flag that flew proudly atop a tall white flagpole on the front lawn. I had never been inside the house and knew of few people who had for, whilst the Hills were affable enough at the yacht club or in one of the bars frequented by Europeans, they were not given to entertaining at home.
Tom was a lean, wiry man of average height, with close-cropped grey hair and a trim, square, grey beard. He must have been well into his sixties and had a gaunt face and a sallow, wizened complexion. He wore large spectacles and his melancholy eyes and perpetually languid expression implied a profound weariness with everything about him. He habitually wore an old t-shirt and a pair of shorts, and his arms were inscribed with heavy tattoos, now faded and smudged with the passage of time.
He spoke with a heavy drawl and as if he had ill-fitting dentures or a mouth full of food. His manner was laconic and blunt; he was not a man to mince words and on the infrequent occasions when he did make some comment, it would generally be delivered with a joyless cynicism that inhibited further exploration of the topic that had momentarily enthused him.
There seemed always to be an uneasiness about him, a remoteness, and, although the acquired wisdom of his years earned him a universal respect from those amongst the ex-patriot community, there was no-one to whom he could be considered close. He was liked by all but intimate with none.
Tom was a keen yachtsman, not particularly skilled but possessed of an unobtrusive enthusiasm that marked him as a sound member of the local yachting fraternity. He was a yacht club committee member and was probably the only one who unfailingly attended the monthly meetings; whilst the remainder of us often overlooked these meetings due to the exigencies of our work, Tom, retired from work, would invariably be found at the bar, hunched over a glass of lemonade and gruffly inquiring as to the whereabouts of his fellow committee members. One might remind him that they had been delayed at work but he would simply scowl at his watch and mutter irritably as if he would be delayed for some later, imagined engagement.
Although he dressed modestly and abstained both from tobacco and alcohol, Tom was moneyed. This was evidenced not only by his large home in an expensive part of the island, but also by his acquisition of a large sailing yacht. He rarely sailed the vessel himself; preferring instead to potter about the upper deck, coiling lengths of rope and assuming the appearance of a mariner diligently going about his nautical chores, whilst Molly would sit below, reading one of her passion-filled tomes, pausing from time to time to admire her bejeweled fingers.
Molly Hill was an extraordinary-looking woman. She stood barely more than five feet in height, and the top of her head was invariably swathed in a mountain of silk, fashioned into an enormous turban, with a large jewel set in the middle. But there ended her brief resemblance to an exotic princess.
She had a neat, round face with large, bright eyes, long fluttering eyelashes and a small, pert nose. The extent of her maturity was skilfully concealed by the liberal application of cosmetics. Her barely-lined forehead and creamy white skin, stretched tight over the bones, suggested that modern surgical techniques had played a significant role in her later life. Her face perpetually wore an expression of restraint and dignified self-control and, regardless of her current disposition, it seemed to be permanently and inflexibly cast in a mould of resolute solemnity. Even when she laughed, which was frequently and with gusto, only her large eyes betrayed her emotion. It was as if she feared that excessive facial activity would result in the decomposition of her surgically-preserved features.
Her mode of dress was positively outlandish. Even in the heat of a Caribbean afternoon, Molly would choose to wear a multi-coloured trouser suit or a sequined gown, with full-length sleeves and high collars obscuring as much bare flesh as practicable. She dripped with jewels – glittering necklaces, gaudy brooches, pendulous ear rings and heavy bracelets, all authentic and whose undoubted exorbitancy might, I felt, account for the impoverishment of her husband’s attire.
Molly rarely ventured out of doors without her husband by her side. They hardly conversed with one another and when Tom did speak to her, it was usually to ill-temperedly reprimand her for having said something that he considered to be foolish. Molly, on the other hand, seemed impervious to her husband’s reproaches and would chatter on unconcernedly, usually about something trite or faintly ridiculous. You felt that she conversed more for the sake of human contact than for the significance of anything that she said. She had a playful sense of humour, not shared by her husband who gave the impression that he was weary at having to endure her absurdities with unrequited and monotonous regularity.
Whenever I met her, Molly’s eyes would light up and, in her high-pitched, doll-like voice, she would exclaim her delight at seeing me again and would offer me a heavily-powdered cheek which I would dutifully kiss. Them, in furtive tones, as if sharing some important secret with me, she would whisper that we must meet up for a private drink, emphasising the word “private” as she giggled and looked mischievously in the direction of her husband. Then she would wink, hold a finger to her lips to underscore our shared confidence, and matter-of-factly resume her dignified composure.
There was something decidedly child-like about Molly and indeed her husband behaved to her more with paternal sufferance than in the manner of a spouse. She conducted herself, on her infrequent outings, much as enthralled child on a rare day’s excursion. She was clearly eccentric and one might even have been forgiven for thinking her simple for she displayed a candour and effervescence that one does not often find in an adult. I wondered whether Tom’s apparently brusque reaction to his wife’s comments was in reality his way of protecting her. It was more as if he was her guardian than her husband.
It was only when I discovered Molly’s astonishing letter that I began to seriously contemplate the curious nature of their relationship. All of a sudden, my fertile imagination attributed the man’s retiring nature and dour manner to the concealment of some sinister background. When I thought about it, Molly did surely appear tense in her husband’s presence; in fact the more I thought about it, the less I ever recalled having seen her away from his stern, disapproving gaze. Had he, I wondered, some macabre secret? Had he formerly been master of a criminal empire? And was his wife, privy to his shady past and now a prisoner in her home, accordingly fearful for her life?
I considered also Molly’s temperament – her fanciful disposition and florid imagination. Perhaps spurred on by the fantastic intrigues of one of her vulgar, romantic novels, she had concocted the entire matter? Perhaps in order to escape the monotony of her solitude, she had in her own imagination woven her theory of conspiracy, with herself as the lead character? If so, then she had clearly not considered that I might take her seriously and pursue her allegations in some way.
I was at a loss as to what, if anything, to do. I went to a friend who was well acquainted with the Hills and showed him the letter and asked him what he thought. He read the letter carefully and shrugged. He pointed out that Molly’s eccentricities were well known. He felt that the letter was a product of her imagination. He reasoned that whilst Tom was certainly a serious man of few words, he was nonetheless well-liked and had been in the island for a number of years and seemed hardly the type of fellow to do away with his own wife.
“if you’re worried,” he said, “why not take the letter to a lawyer?”
I replied that if there was any substance to the woman’s assertions, then a lawyer would not be of much help as he would be able to act only after a crime had been committed. I was loathe to approach Tom for, quite apart form the intrusion into his wife’s affairs, if Molly’s claims were not genuine, then my approach could result only in embarrassment for all concerned; and if her claims were genuine, they would assuredly be denied. And nor could I discuss the matter with the writer of the letter herself for she was never out of her husband’s sight. I resolved, therefore, to take the simple solution and to do nothing.
Whenever I returned to the island in subsequent years, I anxiously asked my friend how Molly was and each time he smiled and told me that she was fine, as capricious and jaunty as ever.
On one occasion, a long time after I had discovered the letter, I saw her for myself. She was at the marina with her husband, and when she caught sight of me, she threw out her arms and waltzed towards me with a tight-lipped smile and a familiar twinkle in her eyes. She appeared quite unchanged and, proffering the inevitable, powdered cheek, she surreptitiously leaned towards me and whispered that we must go off for a private drink one evening. And then she thrust something into my hand and went back to her husband who was sitting wearily outside the bar. I looked at what she had placed in my hand – it was a singly ruby ear ring, set in gold.
I smiled and returned to my yacht. We never did have that private drink together but I have kept the letter and the ear ring as mementos of my passing acquaintance with that singular little woman who momentarily but erroneously feared that she knew too much.