Halfway across Flat Bridge, Rowena Murphy made a hard right and ran her pickup truck over into the river. Yes, we were with her in that truck and no, it was not an accident. One minute we were heading for Ocho Rios singing along with the radio and the next I was grabbing at water plants and wishing for solid ground. I remember her in the white spaghetti strap dress disappearing downstream and whatever she was shouting had all come out in bubbles. Janis was above me, trying to keep her head above water and when they pulled us out, we looked back for a trace of the truck, but the surface of the Rio Cobre only gave us oil slicks and our own twisted reflections.
That was February, 1983. We were 10 years old. I think that over time I willfully forgot the details and for years Janis lied that she couldn’t remember a damn thing. She really didn’t need to, because we spent 30 years hearing all the versions of why our mother did it. I guess it’s open season for faux pas once the Breath Collector pays your family a visit because nobody ever thinks it’s a good idea to just sit beside you with some tissues and shut the fuck up.
At the funeral one lady “prophesied” that my mother was sorry because she saw her crying in the hem of Jesus’ garment in a dream. Meanwhile—in real life—Janis stood at the spot where they broke the earth to put Rowena in, and just kept watching for even one wisp of smoke, because according to Jeremiah Creary’s parents, our mother went straight to hell and it said so on the funeral programme. It didn’t, of course, but the liturgy on the back didn’t have that lovely part about angels welcoming her into paradise either.
Vultures circled around to see what they could pick from my father’s wallet. For a fee, two men wanted to pass us back and forth over the casket “so that the wandering spirit would leave the girls alone,” but my old man said hell no. Fresh cement and saccharine songs were still being slobbered over the burial vault when the entire island took to cursing Mrs. Murphy. Radio talk shows gave people airtime to tear the woman apart or pray for her poor children. Evening tabloids were the worst. They wrung the story dry: Mrs. Rowena Murphy, 38, Teacher and Vice Principal of St. Gregory’s Catholic Prep School in the environs of Villa De La Vega was the wickedest woman in Jamaica. That was at least until India beat the West Indies by 43 runs to win the Cricket World Cup in June and John Public found 11 people to hate instead of my mother.
In 1990, when our faces no longer looked like the grainy newspaper photo of two children being scooped out of a river by a bauxite excavator’s bucket, I realized that a small town like Villa De La Vega could be a bit bovine. It sits around with nothing to do and eventually brings up a cud. That was the year an 18-wheeler carrying poultry had flipped off the bridge into the river, so the Murphy name was brought up once again and chewed over with the chicken parts. Our story was on its way to becoming bad legend right alongside the local bullshit about “river-mumma-mermaids” and “the ancient Spanish gold-covered table that surfaces in the Rio Cobre at sunset.”
I found out thanks to a man who interviewed me for a summer job in Kingston that same year—an older guy with hair sticking out of one nostril. He took one look at my application and smirked.
“Julissa Murphy, eh? Villa de la Vega? You’re not related to those Murphys though?”
“Rowena Murphy, the judge’s wife, man. Tried to drown her daughters off Flat Bridge a couple years ago.”
You kind of choke on your own breath when the past catches you in a corner and your mother’s name lies mangled in somebody’s mouth.
“After 14 years of marriage. Nobody knows why she did it. The kids survived but they must be screwed up by now”.
I was 17. Ran out of the man’s office and bawled all the way back to Villa. My old man had no words of sympathy. No surprise. He told us the night after the incident—while the water in our ears had us half-deaf and we shivered in front of him in shock—that we should not discuss it with anyone. “Stand tall and wear your name proudly.” That was it. All those years through the stares, whispers and punch lines, he didn’t say another word to us about what happened. He didn’t even speak to anyone at the funeral and I remember being relieved in a weird way that my mother didn’t have to face him. It was closed-casket, because they’d found the pickup truck deep in the bauxite mud lake after about four days of rain and everything was red and corroded.
* * * * * * *
I left Villa De La Vega and went to live in Kingston when I turned 18. That was over 20 years ago. Had to pack my kit and get the hell out of my father’s place after I finally talked to the priest at St. Gregory’s about my nightmares and the judge banished me for contempt of his house rules. Moving out increased the emotional distance of the man and time didn’t answer any questions, but I had my own life to deal with. My sister stayed with the old man in Villa De La Vega for all those years. She grew up and got herself a social life plus all the benefits of sticking by ol’ Barrington Murphy, while I struggled to build a business in the city and watched my relationships pile up on Broken-Heart Highway. Janis might have hated talking about the pickup truck incident, but funny enough, she really got into cars.
She was also into Burke, her boyfriend since high school, one of those puerile types, who would buss shots with index-finger guns every time he heard a supercharger engine. The guy talked about “The Fast and Furious” like it was something he could slap on a resume. Every time I paid a visit to Villa de la Vega I promised my sister I’d come watch her race but that boy Burke always got in the way. Funny how Barrington Murphy was always up in my face but never once discouraged Janis from using the family’s money to modify cars. She and the old man never argued about anything except for one brief exchange about Burke that was as soft as a butterfly fight.
I’m the asshole of the family so usually I say nothing, because the last time I raised the topic of her getting a real career, home girl went off on me.
“Hmm. Maybe I just love cars because of the lovely smell of the gas and all that motor oil up my damn nose. I mean, that stuff and the stinkin’ river has been in my lungs my whole life”.
I had tried to be helpful. “I don’t know, Janis. Maybe you need to, you know, talk to somebody?”
“I know, right? So could you get my mother for me? Always wanted to ask her what the hell happened on that bridge.”
Well, that did it. I opened my big mouth and trouble came out. Shortly after that conversation Janis chased Burke and his boys away, abandoned the junk in her father’s front yard and found something else to fix. Suddenly she was obsessed with filling the space in her chest. She would call me late at night on the phone from Rowena’s room at the house, telling me about every trinket she found under the dust and mildew, as well as all the things she recalled while searching, and I hated myself for saying anything. Maybe I could help her stop the blasted digging. Maybe I could try and dredge up the details in my head again.
But you know memories—they are slippery things. They mock you from the corners of nightmares and then hibernate in the daylight. They drain away like the liquor you promised yourself to stop sipping a half a bottle ago. Sometimes you think you have a firm hold of a memory but you only catch the tail before it slips back into time without leaving as much as a goddamn splash.
Didn’t take me long to realize it made better sense to talk to Cherry. Ah, Cherry. Growing up, the easiest way to find your socks was to ask the helper. Sneak her some of your old man’s Jameson Whiskey and she’d also tell you where to find the remote for the TV, the electronic gate control and your old man’s Cuban cigars. Another shot of whiskey could also make her keep her damn mouth shut about who broke the crystal ware or brought a stranger into the house. Used to be our housekeeper for years but our mother fired her just before the incident.
Thirty years on, I was sure Cherry could help me dig things up especially since she loved to chat and probably still couldn’t hold her liquor. Took me weeks, but finally I found her just after dark one evening at a cliché of a bar on the rising above Ocho Rios, one of those joints with no liquor license, lots of smoke, too many old men flirting with the bartender and no limit on how many times you can play Dennis Brown’s “Here I Come” in one night.
Cherry was late. I had to sit and suffer through a drunken marriage proposal—that included a version of Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual”, and a loud old prostitute chatting her business to the bartender.
“Yeh man! My foreign customers, dem love me. You have some tourists who only nibble ‘round the North and South Coast and never dig into the real Jamaica.
But as soon as ship dock, I see repeat customers from all over the world, even though business not boomin’ like one time.”
Sure enough there was a cruise ship with blazing lights down in the Bay, as if a brand new building had appeared at sunset and extended the old town into the sea. Soon as the woman turned around I recognized the face even with the long lashes, caked-on makeup and a fake Madonna mole. Cherry. She whispered something to the bartender and wobbled over to me on six-inch heels, fussing with her wig and wondering aloud if I had just come in.
“Ju-lis-sa! Look how you look good! What you been doin’ wit’ yourself?”
“Hi Cherry! I was just saying the saaame thing about you”.
“So tell me what you drinkin’?”
“No Cherry, it’s ok, my chest too high, darlin’”.
“Not at all chile. Business boomin’ these days. And is years now I don’t see you”.
I wasn’t there for the small talk and I let her know it. The stool creaked when she sat down. After that her words came out in such a hoarse whisper you’d think she was a gospel singer fresh from choir practice.
“Julissa, Mr. Barry paid me good money not to say a word to you or your sister. But you deserve to know de truth, eh?”
That woman and my old man were upsetting me in less than two minutes. Felt like ordering white rum. Cherry called for a drink of whiskey. When the Jameson came, she gripped the glass from above and swirled it real slow.
“Julissa. Your modda…”
“Your mother was kinda different, you know”.
“Yes. She was… ahm…”
Cherry looked away and some of the whiskey whirlpool leapt over the rim of the glass.
“Just gimme me a second, Julissa, please”.
Kept my mouth shut. It’s best not to cut these kinds of people off when they’re tipsy and nervous. They’ll abandon the conversation and you’ll end up wasting your precious time. I leaned forward on the barstool. She swallowed the drink in one gulp, slammed the glass down, looked up and breathed fire across the table.
“Your mother tried to rape me”.
I ordered the white rum.
“She and your father had some problems, y’know. Maybe outta spite she wanted somet’ing with me. I don’t know. I tell har no, she fire me and after dat I hear she drive offa de bridge with the two of you. Some people even say I set somet’ing on Rowena. Eh! Like I could even afford St. Thomas obeah man with what she was payin’ me to slave those days. I just thank the Lawd dat good, good Bog Walk people was dere to pull you children outta the river”.
I swallowed the rum shot and a bomb went off in my chest. Dropped one more on top of that and my eyes probably blazed red. As red as the words “Cherry’s Bar” that flickered and then came on full bright on a neon sign behind the bartender. Drove into Ocho Rios on autopilot and checked into a hotel. The pillows were cool, the sheets luxurious, and the sea said “hush” all night. But when I tried to fall asleep, Cherry would be sitting there under my eyelids doing the same thing over and over like a goddamn GIF:
There was Cherry nodding to the bartender to flip a switch. Cherry’s name appearing in lights. Cherry with the sign behind her head like a halo, her expression triumphant as if she’d finally gotten back at my mother for everything that happened a generation before.
Going to find her was a stupid idea. That river had drawn a clear line perforating the past and the present and I crossed it.
* * * * * *
Headed out before daylight, hugging the coast and taking the long way home to Kingston, but the sun came up like a blister on the sea and the events of the night began to smart like a bad burn. Took a detour, rolled around to my old man’s house, slammed the car door and demanded to know why my mother ran a pickup truck into the goddamn-blasted river. He told me to watch my language and got up from the old armchair, his usual drinking spot on the porch. I picked my way around the junk in the front-yard, asking the same question over and over as he retreated into the house, whiskey glass in hand. Barrington Murphy didn’t like it when you put him on the spot. You need a special kind of strength to break through his defenses. He whirled around.
“All I ever did was take care of this family. I took care of everything, you understan’? And what do I get? Nothing except you comin’ to cross-question me all of a sudden about some wickedness your mother did years ago?”
“Barrington Murphy. Your wife…was not well.”
“Well, there’s your answer. She was only in her right mind when she was spendin’ money. Your sister is the same damn thing.”
The whiskey glass sailed out of his hand and came apart in a corner of the room leaving a liquor stain on the wall like an angry full stop. I decided it might not be a good idea to bring up Cherry’s name in the conversation. I left my father picking up the pieces and went to talk to Janis instead. Wanted to tell her about the bar but soon as I saw her face I knew she’d found something.
* * * * * * *
My mother had left long before, but she was still alive in the little things.
I could hear her saying “Julissa” under the rush of a morning shower. Sometimes the seasoning in a neighbour’s Sunday dinner would toss a few recollections over the fence just before the wind snatched them away again. Little things. Like the recipe books Janis found in my mother’s room—hard cover exercise books, dozens of them—all hand-written in the same style I would see on my back-to-school belongings: lively, flowing cursive, with happy-looking e’s, roller-coaster loop-de-loops and a flourish at the end of each sentence. Janis thought I might be interested. I read a recipe for Christmas cake and decided I’d had enough.
Days later when I went to visit, my sister had stopped digging through the room and got back into the junkyard. Burke and his boys reappeared bearing bags and boxes. They all pitched in to help her build one hell of a racing machine under a shed out front. Now, this car was a monster. They turned it on and the thing roared and whistled and blue fire came out of its ass. Burke and Janis were having orgasms over the damn contraption.
“I’m going to call her Rowena,” Janis said, holding on to Burke’s upper arm with her eyes all misty. “But she needs more power, Burke. Maybe we should give her more nitro.” Sorry I couldn’t share their enthusiasm or even give a rass about what nitro was. Try to talk to me about horsepower and all I hear is bullshit.
* * * * * * *
Well. Two weeks after confronting my father, I finally faced the Rio Cobre all by myself for the first time in years. They say nobody knows exactly where the Rio Cobre begins. But old people say seven streams writhed themselves into one river and when the rains come through, the monster remembers itself. By the time I got into the gorge, the water was Milo-brown from evening rain and the treetops had transformed into gnarly fingers scraping a pregnant sky. Rolling alongside the river I imagined it was a real serpent with a belly full of souls and words unheard. Nothing would ever get me to make this trip at this time of day. Nothing except Janis calling my phone with tremors in her voice.
Driving through the gorge I tried to distract myself. I thought about what the river was like that day before life changed. That morning in 1983 when the rainforest fattened by the Rio Cobre rushed by and made the sun look like one giant Christmas starlight chasing us through the trees. The river went narrow, disappeared under water hyacinths and re-emerged as deep-green syrup. Then it charged forward and turned into boiling blood when it spilled into the mud lake at the end of the gorge. That’s where the great Rio Cobre leaps into the bauxite mine itself: one everlasting hole, like what would be left if you lifted up a mountain. You pass by and hold your breath, for the sulphur and the view of hell itself.
Rain. Windshield wipers bowed down to the gorge and my head got filled with bubbles again. This was the place where the worst memories could find refuge from forgetfulness. I could smell the fuel, the stink of the water-hyacinth roots and the grease inside the mechanical hand that plunged into the river to save us. Whatever was upsetting my sister, I was hoping it was worth my braving this damn trip into the underworld. Fell asleep behind the wheel for a second, I swear. It was the cell phone that woke me up. Janis had quieted down, but her voice was still urgent.
“Julissa. The recipe books…”
I cut her off.
“OK, Janis, right now I’m driving through hell. It’s night and I’m almost there. Why are we talkin’ about the books now?”
“Julissa…only the front pages of those books are about frosting. The back pages are full of bitterness.”
“What? You’re losing me, right now.”
“Then listen. They were journals. Her journals. Your mother was unstable but your father was just plain sick. All the shadows in your room were flesh and blood.”
I told her to keep going even though my chest heaved and my ears rang. But the gorge swallows everything including phone calls. I wondered if I had really heard what Janis said before she faded: that Mrs. Murphy had done everything to satisfy him, that our mother gave up, and that somewhere in the mud of her mind, Rowena slipped and thought she could save her children from something worse than drowning. I was coming up to the bridge when her voice vanished. Saw the old river slithering underneath the bridge with the moon like a silver scale glistening on its back. Dropped the phone on the passenger seat, took a breath and me and Jesus, put our hands on the goddamn wheel. The car slid across the bridge and thirty years of tears came up over my eyelids.
When I steadied myself and grabbed the phone, my sister was gone.
* * * * * * *
Two police cars washed Barrington Murphy’s yard with Listerine-blue lights while an ambulance slipped past me, flashing red without a sound. I could see inside the house. Janis’ monster car had charged through the electronic gate, veered off the driveway and cut through all the crap in the front-yard. It had crashed through the hedges, leapt up the steps of the porch and smashed a hole in the wall beside the front door. Now it sat on top of Barrington Murphy’s whiskey chair, muscular and crouched, like an animal feeding. I ran up the steps expecting the worst, but my father stepped out of the house in a blue bathrobe, calm as ever. He stood with motor oil and spilled whiskey under his feet and told me the same thing he said to the Constable.
“She came home tipsy. Mistook the gas pedal for the brake. She’ll be fine”.
* * * * * * *
Janis kept looking at the ceiling of the hospital ward, trying to avoid the questions she knew were bracing against the back of my teeth. But when her eyes came back from wandering around the room they landed on Barrington Murphy who had appeared at the foot of the bed. Somewhere between the nurses rushing in with a syringe and Janis trying to crawl backwards in the bed while tethered to the other needle in her arm, I walked away from him.
“Julissa Murphy, come back here!”
His voice was above my sister’s bellowing in the background, but the Rio Cobre was in my ears again. My knees were not mine and my eyes were full. The man could call me till Jesus come, I was not looking back.
* * * * * *
The coroner’s report said that Justice Barrington Murphy drank himself to death. He never came back from under his waters, so to speak. Some people say a woman had appeared at the house and stayed overnight. She drank and laughed with him. When the woman left the property a nosy neighbour saw him sitting too long on the porch in his brand new rattan chair and called the police.
My sister is doing better these days. She came away from Villa De La Vega without going back for anything except our mother’s recipe books. I took her there. The electronic gate had been thrown open and the yard was overgrown with weeds up to the windows. Janis stayed in the car. My set of house-keys still worked but when I swung the door open, the only thing inside the house was an echo. The place had been swept clean, as if the river had changed course, come through and washed away more memories. My mother’s room was painted over, but not even the odor of fresh flat emulsion could hide the fact that the entire house had a Cherry smell.
Image credit: Rio Cobre by Roland Watson-Grant
Roland Watson-Grant was born in 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica. In 2011, the Advertising Creative Director added short story writer to his resume and was named a winner in the Lightship International Literary Prizes held at the University of Hull, England.
Roland’s debut novel was published in 2013 to critical acclaim from The Times
(London), GQ Magazine, The Literary Review, The Spectator, Bookseller
Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald and others, and was an editor’s pick to
contend for the Amazon Rising Star Award. In 2017, Roland’s short story: Cursing Mrs Murphy was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize. In October 2018 Roland was awarded a Bronze Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica for
eminence in the Field of Literature.