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Don’t Go Under the Coconut Tree


Grief ripples outwards, changing everything it touches. I don’t mean people. I mean the landscape of things. Jades the colour. Songs lose their lilt. Mirth freezes in the air and jabs at your heart. Dessert turns to ash in your mouth.

I sat at my computer staring at a replay of humans-turned-gazelles on an orange-streaked track, unable to turn these feats of motion into any riveting, attention grabbing text. I loosened my tie and leaned back in my chair, my lower back grateful for the reprieve. He’s always telling me to watch that. Demarcus walked past and squeezed my shoulder. It’s become a habit. Once or twice a day. A simple gesture I translate in his voice as “I feel for you, bro”. But how could you? How could you feel for me?

My phone buzzed in my pocket and I found focus in a text from someone I thought was firmly in the past. We agreed to meet at a cafe. His eyes still struggled to maintain eye contact but when they did, they wouldn’t blink, as if they were scared they’d never meet someone’s eyes again. The way he held himself at the table was the same. Shoulders slumped, back away from the chair like he was still afraid to take up space. The bragging was also still there, an embarrassing masquerade.

We drank, we ate, we went back to his and fooled around. He took me back to my more youthful days. Days when I was struggling through college and needed an older benefactor. He was from money and had all the traits I couldn’t stand in older rich men. But there was something sad and lonely about him. Behind the marriage and the children and the wealth, I saw a sad child. A child too brown for his family. Too queer. Too unlovable.

I take the drive home only semi-aware of the hunger pangs in my stomach. I see the almost too-bright kitchen light and finger my wedding ring. I reluctantly agreed to couples therapy online with a woman called Angela, and things have been…tense, after the first session. We don’t speak much. I like to believe the love is still there, floating around, waiting for its vessels to open up again. I step out of my car and walk down the path to our door. I don’t look up. I’ve begun to forget the pattern of constellations above us.

Chicken carbonara. I guess he’s gotten tired of the leftovers. I have too if I’m being honest. Dead yaad food only tastes good to the guests and out here amongst manicured front gardens and fences, the “jerk pork” offered with quiet murmurs is barely passable. I watch Godfrey pour two glasses of Cabernet and choose to make the first offer.

‘How was your day?’ I ask, picking up the glass of red.

‘The Cubans still aren’t budging, and Sandra can’t find a company that will take on the contract.’

‘An impasse…’

‘Yeah.’ He picks up his plate and makes his way to the dining table.

This dance has become a little monotonous, neither of us fully in the room, neither really listening, neither really sharing. I take my shower in silence after I wash up. There’s no longer a need for music to drown out any sobbing. Any tears fall silently, lost amongst the water.

I slip beneath the sheets and lie on my back listening to his breathing. It’s almost imperceptible, but stable, consistent. Our hands find each other. The last vestige of our marriage in New York. We fall asleep as we do every night like that, peacefully. Waking up, he is already gone. I retrace my footsteps from the night before: bathe, ignore the unopened room, back in the kitchen. A simple oats and hemp milk later and I’m back on the road to the office.

I take every call from my mother. I ignore the rest. Today she’s telling me about her troubles with the receptionist at her local surgery. It’s become somewhat of a farcical feud. The smallness of it, the absurdity of something so unimportant keeps me grounded somehow. A tether that keeps me from disappearing into the ether. I forgive these small transgressions of self-centredness, grateful for the rope back to Earth. Or maybe it’s deliberate, I sometimes tell myself. Maybe she’s registered my reticence to speak and has adjusted to fill in my portion of the conversation.

The following call is from the tradesman. I can’t explain why I’m ignoring his call. I told Godfrey I’d handle it. I guess I’m just not ready. I serve this placatory platitude to myself as I take my seat at my desk and run over the lackluster write-up of the race I’m due to hand in at 12. Hand on shoulder. I don’t flinch anymore. Another weird thing grief took from me. Physical contact made me wince. Maybe this is a sign of healing. Maybe I’ve grown numb. I make a mental note to bring this up with Therapist Angela. Can’t say I don’t try.

‘You want to come over for dinner, Friday? Dahlia’s making alfredo, I know you miss it.’ Demarcus asks from his desk opposite mine.

I politely decline by saying I’ll check my calendar. He and his wife Dahlia, a private school teacher, have become good friends of mine since I started working for the paper. He took me in and showed me how things were done differently here compared to my old job. And she would every so often cook for us and a small circle of their other friends. They invited me every time. And they always asked how my husband is.

A news alert flashes up on my phone of another missing child. I exit it without looking. Guilt gets the better of me and I search for the page, force my mind to take in their face, memorize their name. Kingston is a big city, but someone may see them, maybe me.

The days when I don’t have work are the worst. I don’t know how I’ve managed to find myself existing in a space where time creeps by like a slow worm, while simultaneously losing time. I’ll look up and 2 hours will have passed without me reading a full page of the paper. I read papers because my industry still produces them, and because it keeps me from feeling like we’ve fully entered the sterile digital age. Screens simply don’t feel tactile to me. Maybe there is something about a page having once been alive.

A car revs outside, distracting me from the printed copy of another one of my uninspired sports write-ups. I check the time on my phone and notice it’s been 3 days since my shoulders were last touched. He was the only one who knew. Therapist Angela says that will only make the healing harder. We grieve in silence. In toilet cubicles, and empty parking lots. We had not found ourselves in the fabled queer upper echelons of Jamaica. Neither of us white, neither of us from money. Our middle-class jobs and heteronormativity had also put us out of touch with the queer underground. We grieve alone.

‘Maybe we’ll get through this faster without people’s concerned expressions and questions and platitudes. I don’t see how trite commiserations from people who don’t really give a shit about us will help,’ I shot at Therapist Angela.

‘They might not. But we do know that hardships are better dealt with in community. And we also know that you have a habit of sticking to your comfort zone and cutting off to avoid being vulnerable,’ Therapist Angela fired back.

Funny, I felt like I was the one who had been cut rather than the one doing the cutting. But I don’t glance at Godfrey, and I realize I’m scared of being met with confirmation.

Maybe we did the wrong thing, keeping our lives a secret from all but a select few. It is too late to tell them of something we once had that is now lost. Not lost. Gone. Uncelebrated, save for us. Unmourned, save for us. The sorrow of that swallows me at my centre. We deprived him of that. To keep him safe. To keep us safe. He should have been loved by so many more people.

My body still remembers when I saw his limp frame in the grass, the coconut a few feet away. It felt like someone had pulled the outline from it. Pulled it like it were no more than a thread. And there was nothing to keep me together. I simply spread apart into the atmosphere. And there was nothing to pull me back.

I find myself sitting on the wall, looking out across the harbour at Waterfront with a very similar feeling. I’m not sure why I came to be sitting here. I saw the blue peeking between the rows of abandoned buildings as I drove the long way home. I parked by the latest hotel, the one gleaming pillar amidst temple ruins, and made my way over to the sea. And now here I am. Just me and one young wasteman smoking nearby, who occasionally eyes me up but doesn’t trouble me. I take a deep breath and move to stand up.

‘Yow, doan dweet!’

‘Huh?’ I said staring at the man now coming over to me, spliff, or blunt, in hand.

‘Oh. Sarri boss, yuh did look like yuh a guh jump.’

The laugh that escapes me moves on old bones and definitely needs a cane. He holds his hand out and offers me a puff. A blunt. I forgot how it burns. He has a dimple in his left cheek when he smiles. And he smiles a lot, even when what he’s saying isn’t anything to smile about. I ask if he needs a ride home.

He offers me another blunt when I come out of the shower. He’s lying there on one side of the bed, baring his body without shame, without remorse. I refuse.

‘It late, I should go home.’

‘Arite.’ His smile is closed and his eyes never leave me as I get dressed.

‘Wah?’ I ask reluctantly.

‘Mi nuh know. Yuh jus seem different. To di usual. Yuh have supm different bout yuh.’

‘The usual?’

‘Brown uptown man come downtown fi sum fuck.’

I feel my blood quicken and heat up. He doesn’t know me from Adam. He doesn’t know where I’ve come from, what I’ve gone through… I tell him as much.

‘Maybe dat what mek yuh different. Yuh was a regular yute before yuh did hit di highlife. But yuh uptown now. Yuh live uptown life wid yuh uptown wife, an come fi downtown fuck…nuh true?’

‘Nuh true.’ I say and head for the door.

‘Tek care, boss.’ he calls through a grin as I slam the door behind me.

Gene Pearson head at Strawberry Hill, Jamaica. Annie Paul

Staring out at the world through our large windows that were letting in all the light but none of the warmth, I consider asking Therapist Angela for a separate session. Maybe I would need to get a separate therapist for that. Maybe a Therapist Mike, or a Therapist Sandra. Maybe we should both get separate ones. I won’t suggest it. I’m not sure how I would suggest it without coming across as accusatory or a bad team player. I lose time again. The shadows have moved and the light has lost its brilliance.

As I rise from my chair, back stiff — he’s stopped telling me to watch that — I ask my phone to play something random. Unlike me of late but the house suddenly feels empty and cold. A song by some artist called Kidepo starts playing, Little Soul Little City. The melancholy of it, the disparate electronic backing, it throws me back into my chair. I let the sounds wash over me as they fill the white walls of our open plan home. There was a resigned-ness about the sadness in the song, but with that came a peculiar spurring of energy. I wipe my face and settle on my decision.

I called the tradesman back that afternoon and set a date for the felling. I was moving my feet again. A shuffle is still movement. I won’t go back into his room just yet. I won’t see his tiny bed, and his tiny clothes, and his tiny toys. I don’t have the heart to tell them they’ve been abandoned. I’ll save that for when I’m striding.

Godfrey gave me an “Okay.” and a squeeze of the hand when I told him. We didn’t even have to be lying down. I felt my muscles spasm as a smile tried to regain lost ground on my face. And then I felt the guilt. I told him I would go and take a shower. I told my phone to play some music.

I knew all my “what ifs” would be shared by my husband, and I knew they were unhelpful. Why this place to have this family? Why this land? Should we have been more open? Was it fair to have had him at all? None of these can be answered. But I take a moment’s pleasure in imagining different timelines where he’s still here, still running around, still laughing his toothy laugh, eyes full of wonder.

I sat in the empty break room the next morning, listening to the chatter beyond the door when Demarcus walked in. I thanked him for his quiet gestures. I even managed to ask him how his family is doing. I watched a lizard lime in the corner of the window as I listened to mercifully brief updates on his children. He placed a hand on my shoulder and reminded me that he and his wife are there if we ever need them.

The tradesman came the following week with his tools and the truck for the waste as agreed. I don’t look out. I’d spent enough time out there cursing the ground, willing myself to sow salt into the land. I busied myself with tea making and other such trivialities. I’d have left were it not for the chance he may need me for something. And so, I waited for the crash.

There aren’t as many coconut trees since the Yellowing Disease. And now there is one less.

Luke Elliott is a British-Jamaican actor and writer from Birmingham who enjoys fresh work and untold stories. He co-wrote and performed in Buried History (The Play House) in 2017. His children’s picture book Lines, Lines, Lines! was published in 2021. He has written theatre reviews for Media Diversified, and The Understudy. He is currently preparing for a research and development period of his play The Hivvy later this year after winning funding by Arts Council England.
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