Date Published: 22nd June 2016
Marlin House sits on top of a hill above an old port on the Caribbean island of Nevis. It was built in the late nineteen-fifties by a retired doctor, who wanted a retreat on that part of the island, and who enjoyed throwing parties. A celebrated American writer would come to these parties when he was in residence in his extravagant villa further up the coast, and they would also be attended by other well-known and glamorous people passing through the island. The doctor was a generous host, and the maker of a legendary rum punch.
When the doctor died, his son ignored the place, and the house fell into disrepair. The thick, jungle-like vegetation that covered the hillside was meant to be in check by a gardener retained by the absentee son, but this gardener’s sight was bad, and became steadily worse. Either he did not see the creepers encroaching upon the terrace, or had given up what must have been an unequal battle. Plants grew quickly there; and then there were the high winds, “the breeze” as they called it, that downed trees and branches, and the rains, the warm, pelting rain that clogged storm drains.
When the house was eventually put on the market it attracted the attention of a couple who happened to be motoring along the coast road in an old Volkswagen car. The man, a small, rather insignificant-looking person, was Dutch, the woman, who was taller and more powerfully-built, was a Trinidadian of mixed ancestry. They had met one another in a club in Miami, the The Blue Cocktail, and had decided to cast their lot in with each other. Marcus, the Dutchman, had spent ten years as a schoolteacher on Curacao and wanted to stay in the Caribbean. Georgina, the Trinidadian, was ambivalent about returning, but she wanted to travel with Marcus, and now, rather against her will, she was falling in love again with a world that she had not all that long ago left with such eagerness.
They had seen the house from the road below, where the top of its roof could just be made out. On impulse, Georgina, at the wheel of the old Volkswagen, had turned up the narrow, pot-holed track that led up the hillside.
“You never know,” she said. “When we get to the top we might see a for sale notice.”
“And?” asked Marcus.
“Then we buy it and turn it into a hotel,” said Georgina abruptly. “What else?”
Georgina had a vaguely angry way of talking, as if to challenge the person to whom she was speaking to contradict her. And this manner, Marcus, had discovered, concealed not a sweet personality, but an irritable disposition. But he was smitten, and would hear nothing against Georgina. “My ever-so-slightly angry Georgina,” he said to her. And Georgina snapped back, “What exactly do you mean by that?”
They had to drive slowly up the track and at one point Marcus was obliged to get out and attempt to move the branch of a tree which had fallen over the road. Georgina remained in the car, tapping the steering wheel with her fingers as she watched her friend’s futile efforts.
Eventually, after several fruitless minutes, she got out of the car herself, lifted up the branch and shifted it to the side of the road.
“You’re truly magnificent,” said Marcus.
“And you’re truly weak,” said Georgina, getting back into the car.
They drove on. And there, on the rusted ironwork gate at the foot of the drive that led to Marlin House was a sign that said, “For Sale.” They parked the Volkswagen and walked up the drive. A pair of birds of prey circled overhead on the currents of wind from the headland; the fronds of great coconut palms moved like fans against the sky.
“Our hotel,” said Georgina.
They opened their doors three months later. The house, rescued from disrepair just in time, was renewed from floor to ceiling. Georgina oversaw all this work, criticising the carpenters, berating the upholsterers, snapping at the electrician. Marcus looked after the kitchen, ordering pots and pans and catering-size ranges, planning recipes and contacting suppliers of eggs and vegetables.
“That bossy woman,” complained one of the carpenters to a friend. “She too much trouble, man. One day a coconut go fall on her head!”
“Even the Lord he frighten of her,” said another. “People come stay in that place, they see her, they run fast, jump in sea.”
When all was ready, or slightly before, the guests started to arrive. They were generally entranced; the view from the terrace, over the tree-tops to a sea of impossible blue, took the breath away. Guests sat there, their feet up on the terrace parapet, the warm breeze in their hair, sipping at the rum cocktails which the barman brought on a silver tray. They walked down to the beach and swam in the breakers; they watched the highly-coloured fishing boats, painted in bright blues and greens, nose out into the waves; and then, in the evenings, Marcus’s carefully-planned dinners, rounded off the day. Everything seemed perfect, from the guest point of view, except for the management.
The running of a hotel inevitably brings requests from the guests. Nothing is ever quite right for everybody; one guest will want a larger towel; another will wonder why there is no fridge in the room; and so on. In the usual hotel, these complaints would be listened to and an effort made to deal with the problem. Larger towels may be found, or at least promised. Fridges could be held out as a possibility, even if realistically they were not. The important thing, as any hotelier will tell you, is that the guest should feel that the request is a reasonable one and an effort will be made to attend to it.
But at Marlin House it was different. “What do you need a fridge for?’ was Georgina’s response to guest who liked the idea of keeping a supply of cold milk in the room.
“Because the milk curdles so quickly in this heat. It would be nice to make tea in the room.”
“Plenty of milk in the kitchen. Go ask for it there.”
“Well, could we at least have some biscuits in the room? To snack on?”
“Food in the rooms brings cockroaches.”
Georgina’s reputation grew. “A delightful setting,” wrote one travel writer, “which is well worth a visit if you are in that part of the Caribbean. The rooms are comfortable and the Caribbean-style cuisine delicious. But do not engage with the management on any issue.”
Such cryptic comments served only to fuel curiosity, and people started to choose the hotel with a view to experiencing at first hand Georgina’s highly individual style. Usually they were not disappointed, and revelled in the disgrace into which some inappropriate request or suggestion cast them. Legends built up: Georgina’s famous look of disapproval could be imitated over the dinner table but never equalled; her thunderous expression when a female guest was unwise enough to ask Marcus, in the middle of a party, to dance with her was talked about for months.
At the end of their first five years in the hotel, they decided to hold a New Year’s Eve party to celebrate the success of the hotel and the new year itself. Word got out, and it was not long before all the rooms were taken for the new year holiday. Contemplating their bookings, Marcus smiled with pleasure at the thought of what this would do to the hotel’s finances; Georgina frowned. Although she never admitted it to Marcus, guests irritated her. They were so dependent; so helpless. They made such absurdly fussy requests. They never seemed content with what you gave them. And their conversation was so banal, their questions so juvenile.
“If I’m asked again about those humming birds, I shall scream,” she said one day. And to the next guest who asked her, “What are those lovely little birds with their long tails? The one’s that hover in front of the flowers? Look, there’s one now!” she replied, “Small vultures,” and turned on her heels.
“That was rather unkind,” said Marcus, who had witnessed the incident.
“Don’t talk to me about it,” said Georgina, putting on her characteristic, discouraging face. “Just don’t.”
The New Year’s Party was attended not only by the resident guests, but by people from the area. Some came who remembered the American writer and his parties. “He would have loved this,” they said. “He loved a party.”
“Frightful man,” said Georgina.
“Oh, did you ever meet him?”
They had brought in a three-piece band from the town, and the musicians played on the terrace while people stood at the parapet and looked down at the lights of the town and beyond the town the sea. It was a windy night, but the air was warm and scented with the flowers that grew in the windward section of the garden. Down in the darkness below, from time to time somebody would send up a rocket that would break into a cone of falling stars, and the people on the terrace would clap or whistle in admiration.
As the old year faded into the new, champagne was opened and the guests broke into a rendition of Auld Lang Syne, linking hands and stepping backwards and forwards on the creaky planks of the terrace. Georgina sat to one side. She looked disapproving for some reason, as if the ending of the old year was some personal slight, some private loss.
Then she went out, by herself, glass in hand, and stood on the lawn, under one of the swaying coconut trees. Marcus saw her from the terrace and called out, but his voice was swallowed by a strong gust of wind. And it was the same gust of wind that dislodged a large coconut, which fell directly on Georgina’s head.
There was a shout from the terrace. “Georgina’s down …” And then a rush as the guests made their way down to the lawn. Georgina lay there quite unconscious. A nurse among the guests reached down and took her pulse. “She’s concussed,” she said. “Get her inside.”
They put her to bed while they telephoned for an ambulance. Nobody answered at the other end, and so they tried the number of a local doctor. He said, “I’ve been at a party. I’m not sure if I can drive …” But he agreed to come, and when he arrived two hours later, with a small cut on his face that nobody asked about, Georgina had already recovered consciousness.
“I hope everyone enjoyed themselves,” she said. “I would not like to think that I had spoiled the party.”
Marcus looked at her in surprise. And his surprise continued the next morning, when Georgina, back on her feet, went round the hotel wishing everybody a happy new year and asking them whether there was anything she could do for them.
“Somebody’s made a New Year’s resolution,” muttered one of the guests. “It won’t last.”
Marcus was astonished at the change in character. “It’s not the same any more,” she said. “Georgina used to be so forceful, so … well, so firm. Now she’s … well, a bit …well, you know what I mean.”
And it continued like that of at least a month. Then one morning Georgina came back from a short walk in the neighbouring coconut grove. She snapped at the chef and immediately after that was markedly sharp with one of the guests who said that his coffee had been cold.
Overhearing this, Marcus felt his heart soar. “She’s back,” he thought. “My ever-so-slightly irritable Georgina is back!”
He looked out of the window. The wind, that warm wind from the west, had started again, making the coconut palms sway backwards and forwards against the sky, gently, but enough to dislodge the fruit, to send it earthwards.
Alexander McCall Smith’s latest book, The Careful Use of Compliments is published by Little,Brown and available now.