The Forever Girl

The Forever Girl

ISBN: 9780345804426
Publisher: Anchor Books (Penguin Random House)
Publication Date: first published 11 February 2014 by Pantheon (Penguin Random House)

Independent and determined, at the age of four Clover chooses her own name. Aged six, she falls in love with her best friend, James.

But in the adult world, things are not so simple. When Clover’s mother finds she’s fallen out of love with her husband, she realises that James’s father is interested in her.

As the children grow into adulthood, their connection becomes more complicated. James drifts away from Clover, but she keeps him in her sights. She attends the same college in Scotland, then follows him to London, Sydney, and Singapore, rebuilding her life in every city, and hoping each time that James will see what he is missing.

As Clover and James, and their parents, navigate a baffling maze of emotion, so we are given a beautiful tale about how love, even if unrequited, can shape a life.


“Smith’s writing has charm and wisdom, and Clover’s quest for her beloved is gorgeously romantic”
The Times
“Glows with evocations of place as well as secrets of the heart … life is full of surprises, McCall Smith reminds us”
New York Journal of Books
“A writer who charms many readers … McCall Smith’s characters are well-drawn and alive”
Providence Journal


I have often wondered about the proposition that for each of us there is one great love in our lives, and one only. Even if that is not true—and experience tells most of us it is not—there are those, in fiction at least, who believe there is only one person in this world whom they will ever love with all their heart. Heloise felt that about Abelard, and called him…

I have often wondered about the proposition that for each of us there is one great love in our lives, and one only. Even if that is not true—and experience tells most of us it is not—there are those, in fiction at least, who believe there is only one person in this world whom they will ever love with all their heart. Heloise felt that about Abelard, and called him her only love; Tristan remained in love with Isolde in spite of everything; Orpheus would not have risked the Underworld, one imagines, for anyone but Eurydice. Such stories are touching, but the cynic might be forgiven for saying: yes, but what if the person you love does not return your love? What if Abelard had had no time for Heloise, or Isolde had found somebody she preferred to Tristan?

The wise thing to do in cases of unreciprocated affection is to look elsewhere—you cannot force another to love you—and to choose somebody more receptive. In matters of the heart, though, as in all human affairs, few of us behave in a sensible way. We can do without love, of course, and claim it does not really play a major part in our lives. We may do that, but we still hope. Indifferent to all the evidence, hope has a way of surviving every discouragement, every setback or reversal; hope sustains us, enables us to believe we will find the person we have wanted all along.

Sometimes, of course, that is exactly what happens.

This love story started when the two people involved were children. It began on a small island in the Caribbean, continued in Scotland, and in Australia, and then came to a head in Singapore. It took place over sixteen years, beginning as one of those intense friendships of childhood and becoming, in time, something quite different. This is the story of that passion. It is a love story, and like most love stories it involves more than just two people: every love has within it the echoes of other loves. Our story is often our parents’ story, told again, and with less variation than we might like to think. The mistakes, as often as not, are exactly the same.

The Caribbean island in question is an unusual place. Grand Cayman is still a British colony, by choice of its people rather than by imposition, one of the odd islands and backwaters that survive from the monstrous shadow that Victoria cast over more than half the world. Today it is very much in the sphere of American influence—Florida is only a few hundred miles away and the cruise ships that drop anchor off Georgetown usually fly the flag of the United States—or are American ships under a some other flag of convenience. But the sort of money that the Caymans attracts comes from nowhere; has no nationality; no characteristic smell.

Grand Cayman is not much to look at, either on the map, where it is a pin-prick in the expanse of blue to the south of Cuba and the west of Jamaica, or in reality, where it is a coral-reefed island barely twenty miles long and a couple of miles in width. With smallness come some advantages, amongst them a degree of immunity to the hurricanes that sweep that region each year. Jamaica is a large and tempting target for these winds, and is hit quite regularly. There is no justice in the storms that flatten the houses of the poor in places like Kingston or Port Antonio, wood and tin constructions so much more vulnerable than the bricks and mortar of the better-off. Grand Cayman, being relatively minuscule, is usually missed, although every few decades the trajectory of a hurricane takes it straight across the island. Because there are no natural saliences, much of the land is inundated by the resultant storm surge. People may lose their every possession to the wind—cars, fences, furniture and fridges, animals too, can all be swept out to sea and never seen again; boats end up in trees; palm trees bend double and are broken with as much ease as one might snap a pencil or the stem of a garden plant.
Grand Cayman produces nothing. The soil, white and sandy, is not much use for growing crops, and indeed the land, if left to its own devices, would quickly revert to mangrove swamp. Yet people have occupied the island for several centuries, and scratched a living there. The original inhabitants were Jamaica turtle-hunters. They were later joined by a various pirates and wanderers for whom a life far away from the prying eye of officialdom seemed attractive. There were fishermen, too, as the reef brought abundant marine life, and it was long before people thought of over-fishing.

Then, in the second half of the twentieth century it occurred to a small group of people that Grand Cayman could become an off-shore financial centre. As a British colony it was stable, relatively incorrupt (by the standards of Central America and the shakier parts of the Caribbean), and its banks would enjoy the tutelage of the City of London. Unlike some other states that might have nursed similar ambitions, Grand Cayman was an entirely safe place to store money.

“Sort out the mosquitoes,” they said. “Build a longer runway. The money will flow in. You’ll see.”

Banks and investors agreed, and Georgetown became the home of a large expatriate community, a few who came as tax-exiles, but most of them hard-working and conscientious accountants or trust managers. The locals watched with mixed feelings. They were reluctant to give up their quiet and rather sleepy life but found it difficult to resist the prosperity that the new arrivals brought. And they liked, too, the high prices they could get for their previously worthless acres. A tiny white-board home by the sea, nothing special, could now be sold for a price that could keep one in comfort for the rest of one’s life. For most, the temptation was just too great; an easy life was now within grasp for many Caymanians, as Jamaicans could be brought in to do the manual labour, to serve in the restaurants frequented by the visitors from the cruise ships, to look after the bankers’ children. Such places often have a tawdry little secret that nobody likes to talk about: much of the work is being done by somebody else, a Gastarbeiter, who will later be refused citizenship and invited to go home. A privileged few were given status, as they called it, and were allowed to stay, these being the ones who were really needed, or, in some cases, who knew the right people—the local politicians who could ease the passage of their applications, and be rewarded in due course for their help.

Most children do not choose their own name, but she did. She was born Sally, and was called that as a baby, but at about the age of four, having heard the name in a story, she chose to be called Clover. At first her parents treated this indulgently, believing that after a day or two of being Clover she would revert to being Sally. Children got strange notions into their heads; her mother had read somewhere of a child who had decided for almost a complete week that he was a dog and had insisted on being fed from a bowl on the floor. But Clover refused to go back to being Sally, and the name stuck.

Clover’s father, David, was an accountant who had been born and brought up in Scotland. After university he had started his professional training in London, in the offices of one of the large international accountancy firms. He was particularly able—he saw figures as if they were a landscape, and understood their topography—and this led to his being marked out as a high flier. In his first year after qualification, he was offered a spell of six months in the firm’s office in New York, an opportunity that he seized enthusiastically. He joined a squash club and it was there, in the course of a mixed tournament, that he met the woman he was to marry.

This woman was called Amanda. Her parents were both psychiatrists, who ran a joint practice on the Upper East Side. Amanda invited David back to her parents’ apartment after she had been seeing him for a month. They liked him, but she could tell that they were anxious about her seeing somebody who might take her away from New York. She was an only child, and she was the centre of their world. This young man, this accountant, was likely to be sent back to London, would want to take Amanda with him, and they would be left in New York. They put a brave face on it and said nothing about their fears, although when, shortly before David’s six months were up and they announced that they wanted to become engaged, Amanda’s mother wept at the news, although in private.

The internal machinations of the accounting firm came to what seemed to be a rescue of sorts. Rather than returning to London, David was to be sent to Grand Cayman, where the firm was expanding its office. This was only three hours flight from New York—through Miami—and would therefore be less of a separation. Amanda’s parents were mollified.

They left New York and settled into a temporary apartment in Georgetown, arranged for them by the firm. A few months later they found a new house near an inlet called Smith’s Cove, not much more than a mile from town. They moved in a week or two before their wedding, that took place in a small church round the corner. They chose this church because it was the closest one to them. It was largely frequented by Jamaicans, who provided an ebullient choir for the occasion, greatly impressing the friends who had travelled down from New York for the ceremony.
Fourteen months later, Clover was born. Amanda sent a photograph to her mother in New York: Here’s your lovely grandchild. Look at her eyes. Just look at them. She’s so beautiful—already! At two days!

“Fond parents,” said Amanda’s father.

His wife studied the photograph. “No,” she said. “She’s right.”

“Five days ago,” he mused. “Born on a Thursday.”

“Has far to go ... ”

He frowned. “Far to go?”

She explained. “The song. You remember it ... Wednesday’s child is full of woe; Thursday’s child has far to go ... ”

“That doesn’t mean anything much.”

She shrugged; she had always felt that her husband lacked imagination; so many men did, she thought. “Perhaps that she’ll have to travel far to get what she wants. Travel far—or wait a long time, maybe.”

He laughed at the idea of paying any attention to such things. “You’ll be talking about her star sign next. Superstitious behaviour. I have to deal with all the time with my patients.”

“I don’t take it seriously,” she said. “You’re too literal. These things are fun—that’s all.”

He smiled at her. “Sometimes.”

“Sometime what?”

“Sometimes fun. Sometimes not.”