By Paul Quarrington
May, 2005, 00:12
There once was an island named Dampier Cay. It lay to the southwest of Jamaica, making a triangle with that country and the Caymans. Dampier Cay was, technically, under English governance; it retained the pound as its official currency, for example, even though no one on the island accepted, or carried, the local money. All transactions were made using the American dollar.
Dampier Cay was a narrow strip of land, a few miles long, that nature had pushed forth from the water for no good reason. Still, it was land, and people built there. Because there was not much of it, property was relatively expensive. Some wealthy white people owned estates. The black people who worked for the white people lived in a tiny hamlet, Williamsville, which was near the centre of the island. Dampier Cay ran north and south, but it was bent in the middle. There was a harbour there; aside from a couple of local fishing trawlers, it was rarely used.
On either end of Dampier Cay were resorts. At the south end was a big hotel. It claimed the best beaches and was popular, by island standards, with tourists. At the north end was a place called the Water's Edge, a collection of buildings that sat near the bottom of the island's only significant hill. That hill was called Lester's Hump. Reporters were confused by that, for a while, because after the storm a man named Lester was found at the top, along with two white women. But Lester's Hump had been so called for over two hundred years, ever since William Dampier had directed Lester Cooper to cart liquor and victuals up to the top. Dampier had seen weather coming.
But the Day ensuing, which was the 4th Day of July, about Four a-Clock in the Afternoon, the Wind came to the N.E. and freshned upon us, and the Sky looked very black in that quarter, and the black Clouds began to rise apace and moved towards us; having hung all the Morning in the Horizon.
The island's east coast, much of it anyway, is a rock cliff that rises a mean height of twenty-five feet. It seemed reasonable protection should the weather and the water get into cahoots, but William Dampier had seen many odd things in his journeys, and heard much odder. He'd heard about waves that stood thirty yards tall. So he directed Lester Cooper to take the flour, sugar, suet, etc., to the summit, and the other men laughed and called it Lester's Hump.
There is, today, a small cross at the summit of Lester's Hump. It is made out of wood and whitewashed, and someone attends to it, keeping the cross pristine and cultivating a small bed of flowers around its base. At the foot of Lester's Hump there are ghostly suggestions of civilization and order-scattered timbers and pieces of metal and machinery. Further south, trees have been thrown over and lie crisscrossed, like wooden matches that have been rattled in the box and then tossed onto the ground. Beyond this is where Williamsville once stood. A handful of black people still live there, in hastily built, ramshackle constructions. Oddly, there are a few estates that stand in good condition, but the owners have boarded the windows and put up optimistic For Sale signs. The big hotel remains, although no tourists ever go there, because Dampier Cay no longer exists.
It was a fairly easy matter for Dampier Cay to disappear, because it had never proclaimed its existence with any authority. It was not even on all maps. Many derive from the originals made by William Dampier, who was the Royal Cartographer, although he spent much of his time buccaneering with his Merry Boys. Ironically, having named the island after himself, Dampier left it off his depiction of the area. Where it should have been dotted, Dampier fashioned a large and ornate C to begin the word Caribbee.
To get to Dampier Cay, in the days when it still existed, either one had to know exactly what one was doing-only one tiny airline serviced the island, the airport a glorified bungalow near Miami, Florida-or else one came by chance.
Gail and Sorvig, whom you will meet, stumbled upon the island, or at least the knowledge of its existence, at a travel agency in New York City. One of them had idly picked up a small flyer from the Water's Edge. The print was crooked, rendered out of Letraset, and announced prices much cheaper than any other resort. The flyer also featured a drawing of a bonefish, sleek and fierce-looking. The drawing was made by a man named Maywell Hope, although, when you meet him, you may find that hard to credit. Hope made the flyer and took it to the post office in Williamsville, where he and the postmistress mimeographed two hundred copies. Hope and the postmistress then used her computer to select random vacation bureaus around the world, and mailed them out.
Maywell Hope made the flyer over the protestations of Polly Greenwich, his common-law wife and the owner of the Water's Edge. Polly possessed a kind of grim optimism, and was convinced that business was as good as could be expected. Polly herself had come to Dampier Cay by chance, from New Zealand. Her first husband had died from cancer, he had withered away; and when he was gone, Polly boarded an airplane, not caring where it was headed, then she bought a berth on a cruising yacht, and one day the ship anchored at Dampier Cay. While the rest of the passengers went snorkelling, Polly wandered the small island until she came upon the collection of buildings at the bottom of Lester's Hump. She had lunch in the little restaurant and, sipping her coffee afterwards, decided to purchase the place. It wasn't a life she would have designed, but at least it was a life, it had purpose and parameters. There was even a bonus, a lover who came with the deal, the tall sunburnt fishing guide and transport captain, Maywell Hope.
Maywell had come to Dampier Cay by the purest of chance-he was born there. So was Lester Vaughan, retained at the Water's Edge as gardener and general handyman. The two had actually been fast friends as boys, and as young men they had shared many evenings at the Royal Tavern, consuming vast quantities of rum in honour of their ancestors. Then, you know, events had taken place. Maywell Hope no longer drank; Lester claimed he'd given it up but too often would return to the bottle. Lester would disappear, sometimes for days on end, and, when he turned up again, most often could be found sleeping it off in the tiny cemetery beside the pale blue church.
There are three more people to meet. These people came neither by chance nor by design-or perhaps more accurately, by a combination of the two. What I'm getting at is that these three came because Dampier Cay was where it was, and they had reason to believe they might encounter something there, something most people take great measures to avoid.
As soon as the tropical depression was identified, the World Meteorological Organization's Western Hemisphere Hurricane Committee gave it the name Claire. The practice of naming storms began after the Second World War; prior to that, hurricanes were identified geographically, for example the Great Storm at Galveston.
The Great Storm at Galveston occurred in 1900. The water began to rise in the early morning of September 8. Families gathered on the beach, and children played in the surf, delighted to see Nature behave so oddly. The chief meteorologist for the city rode up and down the strand on horseback, shouting that the barometer was plummeting and the winds were rising, and insisting that everyone seek higher ground. Many ignored him; those who didn't had no higher ground to seek, Galveston being at most eight or nine feet above sea level. The storm surge that came was fifteen feet tall. By the next morning, eight thousand people were dead.
After Tropical Depression Claire was born, it began to move westward. Meteorological bureaus posted its image, as seen from heaven, a pretty white swirl with a hole in its centre. The swirl changed position, hour to hour, and these movements were monitored by many people, most of them anxious, perhaps because it was their job to be so, perhaps because they owned property that might lie in her path.
A few people were eager to know where Claire might wander for another purpose, and they appropriated her images for their own websites, which had names like Weatherweenies.com and Stormwatch.com. These were chasers, men and women eager to encounter extreme weather. Claire was born on Sunday, and by Tuesday morning she lay in the middle of the Atlantic. The chasers began to make guesses about her trajectory, guesses based on science, history and magic.
Only three guessed right. Many were close. There were a few, for example, who journeyed to Martinique and St. Lucia, and they were slapped by wind and made sodden by rain falling in huge sheets that rippled and roared like bent sheet metal. But in the chaser's own argot, these people merely got wet. The merciless elements that danced around Claire's eye passed between these two islands, on their way toward Dampier Cay.
Read IN's interview with Paul Quarrington about life and writing.
Excerpted from Galveston by Paul Quarrington.
Copyright (c) 2004 Fizzy Dreams Inc.
Published by Random House Canada.
Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher.
All rights reserved.