In the five years they’d been together, she’d only once caused Clinton to lose his smile. It was early on, when they were still dancing around the fine detail of the arrangement, and Julia had poked her nose where it didn’t belong. As soon as she heard herself laugh – more of a hiccup, really, serving to emphasise rather than disguise her anxiety – she regretted it. For three days her texts went unanswered, leaving her to lounge beside the pool drinking pina coladas and feigning absorption in a trashy paperback. Finally, on the day before she was due to fly home, he turned up as she was helping herself to slices of papaya and pineapple from the breakfast buffet, holding the answer to her question by the hand.
His cute little girl was rendered cuter still by her fussy party dress, all lace and bows with layers of scratchy net fanning out the skirt. Her hair was moulded in intricate cornrows and, sweet as she looked, Julia felt sad that a child so small should be capable of sitting still for the time it would take to construct such an elaborate hairstyle.
Julia had whisked her off to the hotel shop while Clinton lingered on the terrace fiddling with his phone. She’d been disappointed when, told she could choose whatever she wanted, the child had gone for a white doll. Julia didn’t know how to suggest something different without making her yet more solemn and serious than she already appeared.
If Julia wondered why Clinton never brought the girl along again, she didn’t say so. She’d learnt her lesson. If she wanted to keep him, she’d have to curb her curiosity about Clinton the family man.
Later, Julia came not only to accept the existence of Clinton’s wife and child, but to regard them as the cornerstone of the arrangement. Some of her compatriots, or so she’d heard, had been seduced into long-distance affairs with men who were after a ticket to a new life in the UK. A foreign husband, or a husband of any kind, was the last thing Julia wanted.
Working twelve-hour days with weekends devoted to catching up on sleep and laundry, Julia didn’t have time for a partner. Besides, she was hellish to live with; if she was wedded to anything, it was to doing as she pleased.
Did she feel guilty? Not when men had bought themselves access to the bodies of nubile young women since trade was conducted in salt and seashells. Julia had money, money she’d worked hard for; surely she was entitled to dispose of it how she chose? She didn’t see it as paying for sex, but helping to redress the imbalance between rich and poor economies. She bought him clothes, gave him cash to pay for their lobster bisque and Cuba libres, and never asked for the change. In her head, that little bit extra was her contribution to the college fund that would free Clinton’s daughter from a future of drudgery like her mother’s.
Julia didn’t need to meet his wife to know all about her. Women’s lives followed a similar pattern throughout the Third World. Small and self-effacing, a new baby the instant the last one was weaned. Old before her time, too busy looking after other people to attend to her own appearance. She pictured her stirring a pot of stew over a wood fire, smoke stinging eyes that had never been enhanced with mascara. She envisioned her handwashing his T-shirts with a block of green soap under a tap dribbling water that was only ever lukewarm. Julia pitied Clinton’s wife, but the arrangement did not cause her oppression. On the contrary, Julia was convinced it eased her burden.
But it wasn’t the spectre of his wife that had made Clinton’s face cloud over that morning as, loosely wrapped in hotel bath-robes, they drank coffee on the balcony of Julia’s room. Was it the decision itself that upset him, or that she’d fixed it without consulting him?
She’d had no thoughts of such an arrangement on her first trip to the resort five years earlier. Ironically, the holiday had been Debra’s idea; Julia had preferred museums to beaches. She’d never had any desire to visit the Caribbean.
It was sheer chance that Clinton’s boat and not some other had taken them to the secluded snorkelling spot on the other side of the reef. It was his smile, and his dreadlocks swinging as he turned his head, that had seduced her, and the firmness of his grip as he hauled her back into the boat. Even so, she hadn’t expected to go beyond the flirtatious banter that was almost de rigueur between the local men and single female tourists.
Debra had been furious. The arrangement had cost Julia that friendship but, by then, she was tired of sharing with a woman who left bits of dental floss in the plughole. She was tired of the protracted negotiations over the selection of the right holiday, the right hotel. Now she was free to return to the same resort, the same hotel, even the same room if it were available, two or three times a year. The same handsome hulk to escort her from bar to beach. No overlap between her work life and her holidays, apart from a photograph on her desk and the right to drop his name into water-cooler conversations to show her colleagues she wasn’t some fusty old maid.
Nor did he do so badly. The arrangement wasn’t only financial; Julia kept herself trim and she’d always looked good with a tan. So why did he hesitate when she told him she’d decided to stay a week longer?
He brought the heel of his hand to his forehead. “Dat great, Julia, but next week, shame, I carn see you so much. Gotta take out da boat.”
“I realise that,” she said, although she hadn’t. He spent so much of each day in her company, she’d forgotten he had a job. “But we could meet up at night.”
Her cup rattled in the saucer as she placed it on the wrought-iron table. Gazing beyond the balustrade, beyond the bougainvillea in the gardens, beyond the beach to where the waves frothed like meringue above the reef, she wondered if she might have misunderstood the terms of the arrangement. She’d never asked herself why Clinton needed to clarify her dates so far in advance. Why sometimes he’d email to ask her to swap one week for another. She’d assumed he was juggling childcare, his wife’s antenatal appointments.
If he can cheat on his wife, he can cheat on you, Julia. When Debra had tried to warn her, she’d dismissed it as sour grapes.
Clinton was glad his mouth wasn’t full of coffee, for he’d surely have spewed it down his front. For a beat he was speechless; she’d never before shown any inclination to postpone her flight home.
He couldn’t deny that he was fond of Julia. Their arrangement would have been intolerable if he were not. He liked the way she tucked her hair behind her ear when she laughed, how she always forgot to rub that last dollop of sunscreen into the bridge of her nose. He liked watching her dress in the evenings, choosing her outfit with care even if they were only going to a reggae party in a shack by the shore. But after two weeks, his pleasure in her company was waning. Only a couple more hours, he’d told himself, to endure her opinions on global inequalities, to laugh at her inane jokes. Breakfast, a farewell kiss at the security gate, then a glorious interlude of freedom: a solitary coffee to clear his head before picking up the next.
It had begun, as they all did, with a boat trip. Clinton remembered it clearly because it was the other one who’d caught his eye, Julia seeming too aloof. But it was Julia who, after cocktails in the hotel bar, had ordered another drink for her friend and led him up to their room.
For five years, the arrangement seemed to suit her. No histrionics on departure, no wrangling – apart from one occasion – for a bigger part in his life. He wondered if growing older unsettled her, igniting a fear of running out of time. Clinton had seen her passport; he knew she’d not been honest about her age.
He told her he’d be working next week and, when she still seemed dejected, he lifted her hand to his lips. She smiled then, the way his daughter did when trying to act older than her years.
It would take more than a kiss to solve the problem. Clinton was skilled in the seduction and the swagger, but he wasn’t a fixer. Could he salvage something, or was it time to let Julia go? Could he juggle two women, pretending to be busy with the boat? But in such a small resort there was a high risk of bumping into one when his arm was around the other. If he didn’t deal with this correctly, they’d lose them both.
The computer screen went black. The blades of the ceiling fan slurred to a stop. Without the buzz of the fridge in the back room, the silence of the shop was suffocating. Selecting a brochure from the pile on the counter, Leticia fanned her face with an image of white bodies roasting on a palm-fringed beach. With only the stilled fan as her witness, she tugged at the collar of her cotton blouse and blew down her cleavage. She did not dare remove her stilettos lest her feet swell so much she’d never get them on again. First impressions were vital in her industry and, with her salon-sculpted hair, her crisp white blouse with Leticia’s Travels embroidered in blue above the breast pocket, with her navy skirt, her heels and American tan pantyhose, she certainly looked professional. Sometimes, stuck behind a desk in the sweltering heat, she envied her husband’s beach-bum uniform of vest, shorts and flip-flops, but not much. Leticia was proud to be the brains behind the business.
Seven years they’d been in operation; Suki still in nappies when they’d picked up the keys. Now the pickney could read and write, and run errands to the market. By the time their daughter joined the family firm, they’d be so established her husband could go back to full-time ferrying tourists across the reef.
Her friends were unimpressed initially. They thought a degree in tourism should have earned her a post with one of the major airlines or, failing that, a desk in an office with air con and a generator to kick in when the electricity failed. Of course, they were unaware of the arrangement but they should have known Leticia well enough to realise she’d never kowtow to some bossman.
Leticia had been online when the current died, scheduling texts to be sent from her husband’s phone. She could do them from her own cell, no problem, but it was less fiddly on the computer with the larger keyboard and screen. Changeover day meant extra work, and extra tension, for Leticia. Today’s change was further complicated by the similarities in the two women’s names. She could ensure his texts told of his grief at Julia’s leaving and his excitement at Judy’s arrival but might he, dispatching one and greeting the other in the flesh, muddle their names?
Leticia rose to her feet the moment she detected movement at the door. She wasn’t surprised to see the white woman but she was shocked at the sight of her companion. It had never been part of the arrangement for Clinton to bring one of his women to mission control.
He greeted her like a cousin or the wife of a friend. “How dat no-good husband of your?”
“Getting into mischief I don’ doubt.” Leticia did not say, You tell me! I staring him right in da face. “And who your glamorous friend?”
When Clinton introduced them, Leticia did not say, You look ten years older in da flesh! She did not say, Nobody told you girl don’ go wearing da hotpants with those thighs? She did not say, this time to her husband, What mess you got we into now? Instead, she asked Julia if she needed assistance with her travel arrangements.
Julia looked like she’d been hit on the head by a falling coconut. Clinton spoke on her behalf. “Well you see, my friend here, she so relax and content on our little island she decide stay an extra week.”
Leticia could tell from the slope of her reddened shoulders that Julia realised Clinton was not enthused by the idea. But what did he expect her to do about it? Pretend Immigration wouldn’t allow it? Claim there wasn’t a single vacant room in the resort? “Madam,” she said, “I see you got sense.”
“Oh, call me Julia, please,” said Julia.
“You seen da east side of da island, Madam Julia?”
“No, I haven’t been out that way at all.”
There was no time for pity. She had to spirit Julia away from the resort before Judy checked into her hotel. Theatrically, Leticia kissed the tips of her fingers. “Oh but you should, Julia Madam!”
Grinning, Clinton nodded his assent. Leticia loved how the movement made his dreads bounce. Damp seeped between her legs, and it wasn’t sweat. Beyond the boost to their income, the arrangement gave their sex life an extra edge.
“What would you recommend?” Julia blinked back tears.
Leticia was surprised she caved in so easily. “I know da perfect place for you, right on da beach.” Leticia unlocked her desk drawer and brought out a brochure. “Too small to have a website.” Julia would consider that quaint.
As Julia scanned the pamphlet, Leticia stole a glance at the racks of client files at the back of the drawer. Paper was cumbersome but, with the electricity supply so erratic, a spreadsheet posed too much of a risk. As she drew the woman’s attention to the rustic features of the guesthouse on the east of the island, her thoughts raced ahead to tidying up the files, disposing of those that had lingered in the system too long.
“So, you tempted, Madam Julia?” Beaming, Leticia touched, for the first and last time, the white woman’s bare arm. “Shall I make da arrangement?”
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, was published in May 2017. Anne is also a book blogger and author of over 70 published short stories. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.
You can purchase a copy of Anne’s first novel; ‘Sugar and Snails‘ by clicking on the cover image below:
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If you enjoyed The Arrangement, leave a comment and let Anne know.
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