23. marec 2008

The First Day - Miriam

For Miriam the day could have been quite pleasant and peaceful, even though Tony went on a solo trip. The hotel complex of Nisbet Plantation Beach Club provided every possible comfort for adults and children. After a luxurious breakfast she could have taken Toni and Mariansa to the clean and safe swimming pool where they so much liked to swim (they even preferred it to the beautiful, sandy and unspoiled beach that was only a few metres away). With the children playing on their own she could have rested on a comfortable poolside lounger and browsed magazines. The lunch would have been only a few metres away from the pool, in the restaurant that is partly on the beach, with its tables on the sandy ground and under the big wooden parasols, and with its excellent waiters and waitresses. In the afternoon they could have taken a rest in our bungalow that had a name: Indian Castle, instead of a number. It was surrounded by exotic bushes, palms and flowers so that it allowed us a peaceful rest. There wouldn’t have been much time left for another swim because at 5 pm they would have gone for the traditional English tea. This ritual wouldn’t be so popular with the children if it only included tea. But when the guests gather around the tables, in the shade in front of the Great House restaurant, they aren’t just offered more than 20 different sorts of tea, but also small sandwiches of various flavours, fresh biscuits, other pastries and cold drinks. It would have been more than enough for the children to keep them going until dinner when their father was expected back and the family would have been together again….

But for Miriam the day turned out differently. A feeling of uncertainty had persisted with her since before 6 am, when Tony had left. The day before she had helped him pack a small number of items into his rucksack (he had refused to take more with him). At night she didn’t sleep well, she heard him wake up several times, checking whether it was time to get up. After he left in the morning, she went back to bed, but couldn’t sleep again. She felt restless, wishing the clock would quickly change to four or five o’clock in the afternoon when they could all be together again.

The healthy lifestyle in the middle of winter – lots of walking, swimming, fresh air and lovely food – was very good for the children, so they slept well and long. This is why they didn’t set off for their breakfast before 9 am.

On the way from the bungalow towards the breakfast terrace, walking through the palm tree park, they met the waitress Violet who was rushing towards the Great House restaurant. She asked Miriam: ”And where is your husband?” When Miriam told her where Tony had gone, Violet asked in surprise: “Surely he went there with a guide, didn’t he?” Miriam said he hadn’t and Violet’s face suddenly got very serious, as if expressing some ancient fear of the mountain: “What, he went up the mountain on his own? That wasn’t a sensible thing to do. The mountain is dangerous.” These words, of course, increased Miriam’s worries and restlessness.

Toni and Mariansa had, by this time, grown very familiar with the workings of the breakfast terrace. Both children really enjoyed having the beautifully folded serviettes ritually spread out on their laps by the restaurant staff. Of course, the serviettes didn’t stay there for long, while their mother was ordering food, they rushed off to the special fruit corner. Although there were many different sorts of fruits, some familiar, others unknown to them, but all neatly peeled and decorated with small flags, Toni filled his plate with strawberries, whereas Mariansa took a few pieces of watermelon. Choosing the cornflakes was much more difficult for them because the choice was much bigger than at home. And from the variety of fresh fruit juices, they chose their favourite apple juice, which they had tried many times before. Right on time, the always smiling waitresses brought a basket full of freshly made, deliciously smelling toast on which the children’s mother spread different sorts of marmalade, taking it from the cute little jars. Only at the end of this one-hour meal did Miriam finally find time to have her own breakfast that had been served on the warmed up and tastefully decorated plate. Then she also took the time to admire the sea birds diving into the water only a few metres away from where she was sitting. The pleasant breeze on the open terrace provided constant music by moving the special, carved percussion instruments hanging from the ceiling. Their sounds created an atmosphere one can never forget.

In such an environment the time passes very quickly and it is by no means your ally when you only have eight short days at your disposal. By the time Miriam and the children got back to the bungalow to brush their teeth, put on their swimming costumes, apply the suntan cream and take all the equipment they would need by the pool, the time was already close to eleven.

While the children played in the water, all three of them remembered their father who, they thought, would also surely need to cool down in that heat – he must be really struggling on the way up the mountain, which they can see clearly, even from the swimming pool. Fortunately, he will certainly have a good view from the mountaintop because today only a few small clouds are surrounding Nevis Peak.

Miriam also wanted to be in full view of the mountain so she chose a lounger facing Nevis Peak. She was too restless to read a book. Out of sheer habit, she put a magazine on her lap, but her eyes kept wandering towards the mountain, as did her thoughts and worries. She felt that this time Tony didn’t set off on his hike with his usual ease, that he did it more because he had previously decided to do so: to conquer the peak that had attracted him for such a long time. Soon after their arrival on Nevis he got a bit ill, his temperature was higher than normal and he still hadn’t fully recovered from it. If only he could stay safe and out of trouble, she thought. He does have a lot of mountaineering experience, but he has never before gone into the jungle. Fortunately, there are no poisonous snakes on Nevis! Well, he is sensible enough not to take any risks in the jungle, especially now when he is wearing only short trousers and sports shoes. And as far as I know him, he won’t leave us to worry right up until six o’clock. Normally he is punctual and he knows that we would worry a lot if he didn’t return on time. Still, why did he have to say those words: “If I’m not back by six, you can start the rescue operation.” Surely, it was just because he was joking, and also because he was determined not to take any risks and save enough time for his descent. It’s good that such days of our holidays are the exception. Usually, we are together all the time and only rarely does Tony want to do something that takes him away from us for a few hours. A similar thing happened last summer on the Adriatic island of Brač, when he also set off at daybreak towards the Vidova gora mountain. Like today, he left the hotel on foot and without knowing exactly where he would climb. He got back in the morning, even before we had set off towards the beach. He was tired and sweaty, but very happy, bringing us a lot of new impressions and interesting photographs. Well, let’s hope the same will happen today!

Water makes you so hungry! As soon as Toni gets tired of constant jumping and diving and Mariansa stops splashing, their mother has to offer them biscuits, which will keep them going until lunchtime. And the drinks are plentiful, served by the numerous hotel staff. One of them is “on guard” at the beach, asking the guests unobtrusively whether they would like a drink. The refreshing orders are then served very quickly, and always with a lot of ice.

In order to cheer herself up, at least a little, Miriam joins the children in the swimming pool. Toni and Mariansa accept her with enthusiasm, and immediately they want to show all sorts of new swimming skills and tricks to their beloved mother. Toni’s range of jumps into the pool has grown quite extensively. It is a pleasure to see him so suntanned and healthy while back at home the weather is probably quite cold and dull. It’s amazing how good the children feel with all this sea air and water. Not only has Toni got rid of his constant colds and sniffing, but his skin has improved a lot as well. Back home, his skin was always very dry. Every evening his father had to apply olive oil to it, yet by the morning the skin would be dry again. But here no trace of this nuisance can be seen. For the first time his skin is smooth, moist and well tanned.

Since their father isn’t here today, their lunch will be simpler and served to them on the beach. As soon as his mother allows it, Toni dashes towards the palm trees and finds his favourite round table, the one with a lot of shade. Once he has been joined by his mother and Mariansa, the popular waitress Glendina comes to greet them. At Nisbet the waiters and waitresses not only serve you, they also like to chat and joke, especially with the children. Toni and Mariansa don’t even have to check the menu because by now they already have their favourite dishes. Their English has improved as well, so that they can order for themselves: Toni chooses chicken and french fries whereas Mariansa wishes to have fish and mashed potatoes. And of course, Toni will also have apple juice while Mariansa asks for a coke.

After lunch Miriam doesn’t glance so much in the direction of the mountain any longer, but more towards the Indian Castle bungalow. For a few times during their afternoon swim she tells Toni: “ Have a look at our bungalow to see whether daddy has arrived.” Toni has good eyesight, but he can’t spot his father.

Miriam tries to comfort herself by thinking: Well, it is still too early. Then she wonders: Still, maybe he has finished his trip a bit early, so that he can have a swim in the sea before dinner. I’m sure he will be very sweaty and dirty. I will prepare fresh clothes for him so that he can immediately take a shower and get changed. After that he will definitely enjoy a cold beer.

Like Miriam, the children also become full of expectations, though they don’t yet have any worries. “When will daddy come?” the three of them keep asking and they also have to find their own answers: “He will probably be back by five because he wouldn’t want to miss the tea, or at least before six, so that he can have a shower and dress properly for dinner.”

Miriam is getting very restless and as she also wants to prepare everything Tony will need on his arrival, she tells the children they will return to their bungalow earlier than on other days. Toni and Mariansa are looking forward to seeing their father again and telling him all about their progress in the swimming pool that day, so they immediately obey their mother and together they slowly start to carry all their gear towards the bungalow.

First they have showers, and then they slowly get ready for the dinner. Mariansa chooses the dress for herself whereas Toni puts on what his mother has chosen for him. Miriam is getting increasingly anxious, she glances nervously through the windows in the hope of spotting her husband. However, he doesn’t appear.

Just before six o’clock Miriam decides to tell the hotel staff about her worries. As she meets the waitress Roslyn near their bungalow, Miriam immediately shares her worries with her. The concerned reactions of everybody who she tells that Tony has gone to the mountain on his own, makes her decide to risk her husband’s bad mood at learning that she had panicked unnecessarily in the case he does return before six. She knows that on Nevis it gets dark immediately after six and that Tony hasn’t got a torch or matches. Hence, she will take a risk and make sure that, if needed, the rescue starts as soon as possible.

Roslyn immediately gets in touch with Mr Lynell Nolan, the head of the security service at the Nisbet complex. This tall, black gentleman has been well trained for this post. He was born on Nevis, and after his high-school graduation he joined the police: The Royal St. Christopher – Nevis Police Force, where he stayed for seven years. In 1972 he moved to Canada where he again got a job with the police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Force. After serving for 25 years he retired and returned to Nevis. However, he was still too young and energetic for the life of a pensioner, so he opened the Noles Boutique and the Noles Framing Service, a workshop for picture frames. In addition, he also became a columnist with the local newspaper called The Leeward Times, and in February 2001 he took over the post of the chief of the security service at Nisbet. Every morning he takes a group of girls who would like to lose weight on a demanding run, then he spends most of the day in the Nisbet complex; if required, he can also accompany guests to the other parts of Nevis.

Nolan takes the information about a missing hotel guest very seriously and decides to start the rescue operation immediately after six in the event that Miriam’s husband hasn’t returned by that time. He knows that on a few occasions in previous years a tourist got lost while trying to climb the mountain, and each time the consequences of the accident were quite alarming. Once the rescue team had to look for a missing person in the jungle for as long as three days.

When Miriam returns to the children she is no calmer, but at least she feels a bit better because she has done what she could to start a rescue operation in case Tony did have an accident on the mountain.

Later, Miriam and the children have dinner at a table, above which an old clock is hanging. The hands of the clock seem to move very quickly towards seven. It is night outside, but there is still no sign of Tony….

“Where is daddy?” is an expected question. “He hasn’t arrived yet, but he will soon be here,” is the answer Miriam will have to repeat in different ways again and again over the following days to the children whose faces will grow increasingly serious, with gaping mouths and eyes wide open.

In the Great House restaurant hardly any of the guests knew that one of the meals wouldn’t be served that evening. The news that one guest, the gentleman with the spectacles and the two lovely children, hadn’t returned from the mountain, spread quickly among the hotel staff, but they acted in a professional manner and continued their individual tasks, leaving other urgent activities to those in charge. The people responsible for this were Don and Kathie Johnson. This friendly couple, an enterprising Canadian and his American wife, took over the management of Nisbet a few years before and today they can be proud of an entirely renewed hotel complex that is beautifully maintained. Their business runs successfully and smoothly, so that now they can themselves enjoy some of the luxury that they offer – at a price – to the most demanding guests. However, they are still heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the hotel. Apart from other responsibilities, they also organise the social activities for the guests (this is mainly Kathie’s task). When the staff are serving meals to the children, Don would sometimes suggest certain specialities to the parents such as chopped-and-fried banana wrapped in bacon. Kathie occasionally joins a table when she feels that the guests would like to talk about Nisbet and Nevis. A lot of the guests visit the hotel year after year, so many are old friends of the Johnsons.

Nolan immediately informed the hotel managers that one of the guests, who had set off towards the mountain that morning, had still not returned. They decided to get in touch with the person most capable of giving them advice in these situations: a guide with specialised knowledge of the Nevis Peak mountain, Jim Johnson. When Jim learned about the problem he knew it might be serious and straight away he jumped in his Jeep and set off for Nisbet.

The bridge near the entrance to the Nisbet complex had been badly damaged during the previous rainy season and a new bridge was under construction. As a result, the main road was blocked just a few hundred metres away from Nisbet. In order to avoid taking a long detour, most drivers simply stopped (or turned round) before the bridge and went by foot to the complex. This was why Miriam thought that any taxi that might bring Tony would drop him off before the bridge. During the dinner she often went out, and in the darkness she was watching this temporary parking place. But at this time of the evening very few vehicles arrived and even fewer passengers got out of them. Once she saw a male figure getting out of a taxi, only to be disappointed when she noticed that, unlike her husband, the man was wearing long trousers. Where are you, Tony? Did something bad happen to you?

Mariansa sometimes also wanted to go out to check with her mother whether daddy was coming. So they both stood in the darkness… Nothing, nothing… The mosquitoes began to bite them, especially Mariansa, so they turned back towards the hotel. Just then a Jeep arrived. The driver opened the window and Miriam recognised Mr Nolan and the guide Jim. They were going to start searching for her husband, but weren’t sure how to call him over the megaphone. “Should it be Tony, Anton…?” they asked Miriam.

The atmosphere was very tense and Miriam was still listening to the sounds coming from the parking place. The windows of the restaurant had no glass, so that she could hear every car that stopped out there. That evening a smallish exhibition of semi-precious stones for sale was on display in the restaurant lobby. The lady who was selling the stones showed a lot of understanding for Miriam’s worries and tried to comfort her. Once Miriam heard the sound of a car door being closed and the voices of the people that were getting out of it; one of the voices sounded just like Tony’s. She jumped to her feet, saying: ” It’s him!” However, when she looked out she realised she was mistaken.

After the dinner she took the children back to the bungalow and helped them get ready for bed. Of course, none of them felt like sleeping, but Miriam insisted on their evening habits so that she could keep herself busy, and also because there was nothing else she could have done that evening. When both children were washed and dressed in their pyjamas, they sat down on the bed and prayed solemnly for their daddy. They had said the prayer “my guardian angel, watch over me” several times before, not always with the same personal involvement and intensity, yet, this time Toni and Mariansa clearly spoke every word of it and understood its meaning. On this occasion they repeated the prayer two more times, which calmed the children down so that they soon fell asleep. Miriam made a Sign of the Cross over them then went towards a window with its raised roller blind. She was standing there for a long time staring into the night… Did something happen to Tony? Did he break his leg? She could imagine dozens of other possible accidents.

Tony, where are you? What has happened to you?

Just before midnight somebody knocked at the door. Miriam jumped up and opened it to find only Mr Nolan who regretfully, though calmly, told her that they hadn’t found any trace of Tony. They were going to continue the search at dawn the following day.

From my book: Second Place of Birth: Nevis

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