Matt Lancaster sat hunched forward on the bar-stool, leaning both elbows on the bar, as he gazed around at the low-lit scene. A few older couples and a larger number of solitary men were among the patrons, but his eye was drawn to several attractive women in their early twenties — his own age-group — some of whom seemed to be alone. As ever, his thoughts turned to Mandy, back home.
Sadness clouded his mood for a moment, as he remembered her last phone call, telling him it was over between them; that she couldn’t bear being alone while he was out here on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands; that she wanted to be free to find someone else. As upset as he’d felt, at hearing this, he couldn’t bear the thought of her being unhappy. He’d told her he loved her, but that if being happy meant finding someone else, he would understand. And he did. Mandy’s happiness had always been the most important thing, for him.
After the moment of sadness passed, came the thought that he was now free to have fun with someone else. He wondered who he would choose, among the girls here, if he got up the courage to try. Which of them were really alone, and which were just waiting for their boyfriends to turn up? Indeed, which of them were looking for something other than a few dollars?
His eyes were drawn, not for the first time that evening, to a young and very attractive black girl, sitting at the opposite end of the bar, in the company of a slightly older man. There was something about her that made Matt wish he was in the other bloke’s place. The way she laughed and smiled was endearing and vivacious, and the black dress which she was wearing looked amazing, with its neckline showing off her shoulders, back and neck to their full advantage. She was stunning.
He watched the man point to the bar and raise his eyebrows in question. The girl nodded, and the man beckoned to the barman and gave him an order. The barman proceeded to mix some kind of cocktail, pour it into a glass and put this on a fresh paper mat in front of the girl.
Before she could drink any of it, her phone must have rung. She turned away from her companion to fish in her handbag, her attention completely taken by something inside it. But it was her companion’s behaviour which made Matt sit up. As the girl turned her attention to her bag, the man fished in his jacket pocket and brought out a very small bottle of some kind. Unscrewing the top, he glanced quickly at her, and, sure that she was still distracted, tipped something from the bottle into the girl’s drink.
Matt’s heart began racing. He had spiked her drink! He found himself remembering newspaper stories he’d read about this kind of thing — about girls being drugged, to make them helpless and unable to fight back when the bloke raped them.
What to do, though? He had seen what the guy did, but no one else seemed to have noticed. If he confronted the man, it would be his word against another’s. And if the other bloke turned out to be rough, he might get knifed.
Don’t be a coward, Matt, he told himself. If he might knife you, what might he do to her?
Then it occurred to him that drinks sometimes got knocked over by accident, especially by people who were drunk.
The barman happened to be standing at the end of the bar nearest the girl, so getting off his stool, Matt walked along to the other end of the bar, staggering a little to make himself seem drunk. He stopped right next to the girl and clutched the bar, as if to stop himself falling. Then he raised his arm.
“Hey, barman!” he called loudly. “Another whisky and soda, please!”
As he lowered his arm, he staggered again, lurched towards the girl, and let his hand knock against the top of her glass, just as she was reaching for it. It tipped over, spilling its contents across the bar and over the edge, where she was sitting.
“Shit!” she cried. “You clumsy idiot! That’s gone all over my dress!”
“Sorry! Sorry!” Matt slurred, in his best drunk voice. “I’ll buy you another.”
“What, another dress?” she snapped.
“Hey, buddy, she’s with me!” her companion growled angrily.
“‘M sorry! ‘M sorry, folks,” Matt said, raising his arms calmingly. He fished in his pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar note, holding it aloft. “Barman! Same again for the lady!”
“Just get out,” the other man said, jerking his thumb towards the exit.
“I think you had better leave, sir,” the barman said, coming and standing directly opposite Matt. “You’ve already had too much to drink, clearly.”
Matt tried to protest, fearing that the girl’s companion would simply spike her next drink, and that no one else would realise. But a couple of the bar’s bigger employees appeared next to him, and he had no option but to follow them to the door. He wanted to save the girl, not cause a fight.
As he stepped into the street, an older white man, wearing a business suit, brushed past him and entered the bar. Matt turned to watch, and saw this man walk up to the girl, dismiss her companion with a firm jerk of his thumb, and persuade her to leave the bar with him.
Matt walked a few yards away and continued to observe, as this new man came out with the girl. Was she in even more trouble than he thought?
“…you even know where I was, Dad?” the girl was demanding, as they came into the street. “Have you been spying on me?”
“No, Derek happened to be driving past, when you went in,” the man retorted. “Don’t you know what sort of men hang out in the bars, in this part of town?”
Matt felt relieved, as he turned away. Her Dad was looking out for her, even if she wasn’t. Feeling good with himself for having prevented some kind of assault, Matt headed towards the hotel where he was staying.
Matt had really fallen on his feet, with this job. Not only was it in the Caribbean, in a place most people had to pay a fortune to visit, his employer was paying a lot of his living expenses, on top of his wages. The hotel, breakfast and an evening meal, were all included, and he could even choose whether to eat at the hotel or one of the many other eating places in Road Town. Even flights to and from the UK, were included. Unfortunately, that consisted of just one flight out and a return flight home at the end of the contract. Matt could afford neither the time nor the cost of flying home for a break during the contract. He also had to pay for his own travelling costs to and from the site where he was working, and lunch. But being marooned on a beautiful, warm Caribbean island wasn’t exactly punishment. It was a more expensive place to live than home, but with his biggest costs met for him, Matt could hardly complain.
The evening after his run-in with the girl and her friend, Matt decided to eat in one of the more expensive restaurants. It would mean having to pay the price difference himself, but he could afford it and he felt like treating himself.
As he sat drinking a tiny espresso, at the end of the meal, he could not help overhearing a loud conversation between a man on a table behind him and one of the waiters.
“…and, on top of everything else, she’s fuming over the fact that some clumsy drunk knocked her drink over, last night. Spilled it all over her new dress. Ruined the damn thing! I’d sue the idiot, if I knew how to find him. Last thing I need, is for her to be upset about that, too.”
Matt turned in his chair to look at the man who was speaking, and recognised him as the older man who had brought the girl out of the bar, the previous evening. He turned back quickly, in case the man remembered seeing him and recognised him. He had no wish to be sued by someone who looked as if he could afford expensive lawyers. His conscience wouldn’t let him hide, though. Didn’t the girl’s father, and through him, the girl herself, deserve to know what had nearly happened? She might be in danger, if she didn’t realise what kind of man she had been with.
When the waiter had left, Matt got up and went over to the table where the man was sitting.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said.
“Yes?” the man asked brusquely, looking up. He frowned. “Do I know you?”
“We passed each other briefly, yesterday evening,” Matt said. “I’m afraid I’m the clumsy drunk who knocked your daughter’s drink over, last night.”
“What!” the man exclaimed, anger clouding his face. “You have some nerve, coming and telling me. That dress is ruined, and my daughter is beside herself over it.”
Matt held up his hand in a conciliatory gesture. “I’m very sorry for ruining her dress. That wasn’t my intention. But you might like to know the reason why I knocked her drink over.”
“Well?” the man asked impatiently, as Matt hesitated. “I’m listening.”
“I saw the man she was with tip something into her drink, while she was distracted. I think he was spiking it, and I realised I needed to do something to stop her from drinking it.” Matt shrugged. “Acting drunk and knocking it over, apparently by accident, seemed less likely to start a fight than just confronting the guy, so that’s what I did.”
The man’s expression had changed from fury to alarm, on hearing that his daughter’s drink had been spiked. For a few seconds, he stared at Matt in shock. Then he gestured at the seat on the opposite side of his table, saying, “Take a seat, please.”
When Matt had seated himself, the man said, “Tell me exactly what you saw, that made you think my daughter’s drink had been spiked.”
Matt described what had happened in as much detail as he could remember. He described his own shock, and his realisation that he needed to act, along with his reasoning for acting drunk, rather than simply confronting the man.
“It’s every father’s worst nightmare,” the older man said, in a low voice, after Matt had finished. Then his expression became sceptical. “But how do I know you’re telling the truth, rather than making this up as an excuse to stop me suing you for the cost of the dress?”
Matt shrugged. “I’ve no idea how I can prove it. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t confront the guy; there was no evidence, and no one else seemed to have noticed anything.” He sighed. “I’ll pay for the cleaning bill, for your daughter’s dress.”
The other man hissed impatiently. “It’s ruined; cleaning it won’t help.”
“Then I’ll buy her another dress.”
This seemed to amuse the man. “It cost $500, and it was a one-off.”
Matt swallowed. “Well, that will put a dent in the money I’ve saved, but now that my girlfriend has dumped me, and we’re no longer getting married, there’s no reason why I can’t give you the money.” He chuckled humourlessly. “It’s not as if Mandy’s going to get jealous about me spending money on another woman, now. And if this is the price for stopping a young girl from being raped, or worse, it’s a price worth paying.”
The man looked hard at him for long enough that Matt started to wonder what he was going to do. Then he simply smiled wryly and shook his head. “No, I won’t take your money. As you say, my daughter’s safety is worth more than the price of a dress. And your explanation does accord with my own worries, when I heard she’d gone in that bar.” He extended his hand across the table. “My name’s Cameron Staniforth.”
Matt shook his hand. “Matt Lancaster,” he responded.
“Have you eaten, Matt? You’re welcome to join me, if not.”
“I’d just finished my meal when I heard you talking, Mr Staniforth,” Matt said. “I only came over because I recognised you and realised you were talking about me. I thought you should know why I did what I did, and the danger your daughter might be in if she carries on seeing the man she was with.”
“Call me Cameron, Matt. I’m more grateful than I can express, for your intervention. Are you on holiday on the island?”
Matt shook his head. “No, I’m working here for a few months.”
“I’m a bricklayer, helping to build a big house on the other side of the island.”
“Oh, Douglas Poindexter’s new villa?”
“Yes. Do you know him?”
“Yes, Douglas and I go way back. We were at Cambridge together. I heard he’d found a really good bricklayer and all-round builder, to help with that place. Maybe I’ll have some work for you, when you’ve finished there.”
“Wow! That would be fantastic!” Matt exclaimed.
“Listen, since you’re living here, would you do me the honour of dining with us, at my place?” Cameron asked. “Think of it as a proper thank-you, for saving my daughter.”
“I’d be very honoured,” Matt said.
“Here,” Cameron said, fishing a flat metal box out of his pocket and extracting a business card from it. “This has my address on it.”
Matt looked at it, and read, “Cameron Staniforth, CEO, UniLantic PetroEnergy, Inc.”
“Come over at seven on Saturday evening, if you’re free,” Cameron said.
“Thank you very much, Cameron, I will,” Matt said, hardly able to believe that he had just spent half an hour talking to the boss of the world’s biggest oil and gas company.
As the taxi stopped outside the address which was on Cameron’s business card, Matt wondered if he would ever get used to the fact that cars in Tortola drove on the left, but also had the steering wheel on the left. After paying the driver, he got out and looked at the house properly, for the first time.
It was as big as the one he was helping to build! A 3-metre high surrounding wall had a pair of equally high wrought-iron gates protecting the property’s privacy. Through the gates, he could see a big house, with a wing on either side of the facade that he could see, and other buildings that looked as though they might enclose a courtyard at the back. He guessed there would be a swimming pool, and maybe other things such as a tennis court, a private gym, or maybe a croquet lawn. The house he was helping to build was going to have all of those luxuries.
There was a bell-push on the gate pillar to his right. He pressed it, and when a voice asked who he was, he gave his name and said Mr Staniforth was expecting him. The gates immediately started to swing inwards and open, just like in a movie. Matt walked through and made his way up the drive, towards the house.
To his surprise, it was the girl who was standing by the open front door to greet him. He had been expecting Cameron to be alone, but then he realised that had been an assumption on his behalf.
“Hello,” he said. “Your Dad invited me over.”
“I know,” she said. “We haven’t been introduced, have we? I’m Dawn — Dawn Makesane.” She pronounced the surname “Mak-e-san-ay” and emphasised the third syllable.
“Matt Lancaster,” Matt said, shaking the offered hand.
Evidently, his curiosity over her surname showed on his face, but she misinterpreted it.
“You’re wondering how come I’m black but my father is white,” she observed.
“Actually, I was wondering how come your surname isn’t the same as his.”
Her face relaxed into an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I’m so used to people noticing the other thing. I changed my name by deed-poll. The surname reflects my Mum’s Ugandan clan name, Masane.”
Now Matt was even more puzzled. “Why would you change your name to be different to your Dad’s?” he asked.
She sighed. “It’s a long story. First, though, I owe you my thanks for what you did the other night, and my apology for how I reacted to you spilling my drink.”
“Don’t apologise. I’m just glad I got to it before you drank any. If anything, your reaction was so natural, I don’t think the bloke with you suspected I’d done it on purpose.”
“Well, you did a good job of covering it up by looking drunk. Even the bar staff were convinced. But come on in, and let’s eat. I hope you’re hungry.”
She led the way into the house, and out of another door onto a back terrace. Matt hardly had time to glance around and feel self-satisfied at having correctly guessed there was both a courtyard and a pool; here were both. But Cameron was there, waiting for them, and Matt suddenly felt a little self-conscious.
After Cameron had greeted him and bade him sit down, the surreality of the situation struck him. Here he was, a bricklayer from a small town near Southampton, sitting on a terrace in a courtyard belonging to the home of a very wealthy family, in a setting which would not have been out of place in a James Bond movie. To make it seem even more like a dream, he was seated to Cameron’s left, while Dawn had taken the seat directly opposite, on her father’s right. Words deserted Matt, as he gazed across at the beautiful woman that he’d wanted to get to know the other evening, and he could think of nothing to say.
“I thought Dawn should be the one to greet you, when you arrived, Matt,” Cameron said. “She wanted to thank you herself, after I told her what you told me.”
Matt smiled and shrugged deprecatingly. Then, deciding he should say something, he asked, “Will your wife be joining us, Cameron?”
A look of pain crossed Cameron’s face, and Dawn said, “My Mum died a few years ago, Matt.”
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry!” Matt stammered, feeling embarrassed to have made such a faux-pas.
“You weren’t to know,” Dawn said. “It was a natural question to ask.”
“It’s one of the reasons I’m so protective of my daughter, Matt,” Cameron said. “She’s all I’ve got, now.”
A dark-skinned young man, dressed like a waiter, appeared next to Cameron.
“Ah, George,” Cameron said, glancing at him. “You can pour the wine, now, and then bring us the starters.”
“Yes sir,” George said. He picked up the bottle of wine which had been standing in the middle of the table, uncorked it, and poured some into each of the glasses which were there. Then he replaced the bottle on the table, went back into the house and returned a minute or so later carrying three small plates laden with salads.
“Matt was puzzled about my surname,” Dawn said, as they began eating.
“Oh, that,” Cameron said, in a resigned tone. “Well, don’t let my being here stop you from explaining.”
“I had two reasons for changing my name, Matt,” Dawn said. “First was that I wanted a name which better reflected my Ugandan heritage.”
“Miremba, her mother, was Ugandan,” Cameron interjected. “Her clan name was Masane, which Dawn has adapted for her own reasons.”
“I spell it M-a-k-e-s-a-n-e,” Dawn said.
Matt furrowed his brow as he absorbed this, then laughed. “As in make-sane? What do you consider not to be sane, then?”
“Wrecking the planet for the sake of profit,” she said, glaring at her father.
Cameron put his cutlery down noisily. “The world needs energy, Dawn, and that means we need oil and gas. Would you have us live in a pre-industrial world, with all the disease and hard labour that had?”
Dawn smiled wryly at Matt’s embarrassed expression.
“As you can see, Dad and I disagree strongly on this subject. I believe we urgently need to cut back on the use of fossil fuels, and do other things, to protect the planet. Dad thinks climate change is a myth, and that we should carry on as if nothing’s wrong.”
“What’s your position on this, Matt?” Cameron asked.
Matt felt trapped. He had no wish to offend Cameron, especially after his hospitality, but he also couldn’t disagree with Dawn. After a long silence, he finally said, “I’m not really interested in politics.”
“This isn’t something you can afford to be apathetic about,” Dawn said sharply. “In the not-too-distant future, no one will be able to ignore what we’ve done to the planet.”
“Or else they won’t be able to ignore having no petrol for their cars, no gas to heat their homes, and no jobs because of factories shutting down,” Cameron countered.
Matt sighed. “I can see both sides of the argument,” he said. “Surely, we could cut back, without completely shutting things down? People could use less energy — dry their washing outdoors, rather than in tumble-dryers, take busses and trains, instead of driving cars with just one person in them, and other stuff like that.”
They had all finished the starter, by now. George appeared, removed the plates, and returned shortly after with the main meal — lobsters.
“I’ve never had lobster, before,” Matt observed.
“You get the meat out like this,” Dawn said, demonstrating.
They ate in silence for a while. From Matt’s perspective, this was because of having to concentrate on eating something whose outside was almost bullet-proof.
“The lobster is from one of the fisheries on the island,” Cameron remarked, after a while. “We like to get our food locally, when possible.”
“It’s good,” Matt responded, as he attempted to get at the last of the meat from inside one of the claws.
“One of the industries in the British Virgin Islands which is under threat from climate change,” Dawn observed dryly. “So enjoy it while you can.”
Just then, George reappeared. “There’s a call for you from your Alaska office, sir,” he said.
“Oh, damn!” Cameron hissed. He sighed. “Oh, well, I’ll have to take it. Bring me my coffee in my office, George.” He turned to Matt. “Please excuse me, Matt. One of the disadvantages of being the CEO of a global company is that I’m always at work.”
He went into the house, leaving Matt and Dawn alone together.
“I think I’m about done with this lobster,” Matt said.
“Me, too,” Dawn agreed. “Do you want a dessert? There’s usually a selection.”
“No, thanks,” Matt said, patting his stomach. “I think I’ve had enough food.”
“Listen, it’s been lovely to get to know the guy who saved me,” Dawn said. “I just hope you’re nearby, the next time someone tries to spike my drink.”
“If I was the one buying the drink, I’d guarantee not to spike it.”
Dawn’s eyes opened wide, and she laughed. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that,” she said.
Matt felt his face burning; the quip was the kind of banter you got used to making, on a building site, and was out before he even realised he was saying it. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make things awkward,” he apologised. “That just slipped out.”
“It’s okay, Matt,” Dawn said, still smiling. “It didn’t feel awkward; just a nice compliment. But it’s made me realise that I haven’t asked you anything about yourself. Dad says you’re a bricklayer? Where are you from?”
“Swanwick. That’s a small town near Southampton, in the UK.”
“I know it,” was her rather surprising reply. “I grew up in Poole, in Dorset. We moved out here when I was eleven.”
“Ah. That explains why your accent keeps reminding me of Dorset. I thought it was just a variation on the Tortola accent. Listen, I hope I didn’t upset either you or your Dad, with what I said about the environment. I’m afraid I don’t really know much about the issues, as I don’t keep up with things.”
“You didn’t offend me. And if you’d offended Dad, you would be in no doubt about it.”
“I saw how passionately you care about the subject,” Matt observed. “You and your Dad must argue a lot.”
“About that subject, yes. But don’t think that means I don’t love him. He’s my Dad, and since Mum died we’ve done a lot to support each other. He dotes on me, and that makes him very protective. But it also means he’s been very generous to me. He built up a portfolio of investments in my name, while I was growing up, and when I turned 21, six months ago, control of that passed to me. I’ve started using some of that money to develop a project to help with the fight against climate change denial.”
“And what does your Dad think of that?”
“He thinks I’m foolish, because he’s one of the deniers. But I think he also views it as a way for me to gain skills which he thinks he will be able to use in his company. So he lets me carry on with it.”
“He respects you.”
“Yes, he does. What about you? What do you think of me doing that?”
“I respect you, too. But you haven’t told me anything about this project, so I can’t say what I think of that.”
“I’m planning a sailing trip, as part of a book that I’m writing on climate change. There’s lots of islands in the world, like this one, that are experiencing the effects of rising sea-levels and sea surface temperatures, and regions where extreme weather events are causing problems. I’m going to visit some of the less well-documented places where environmental effects are changing things, see them for myself, talk to locals about their memories of the place over the years, take pictures, and make notes. Then, when I get back, I’ll finish the book and maybe do another trip to promote it.”
“That sounds very ambitious. I couldn’t even write a book, let alone sail a boat around to gather material for it. I’ve never even been in a sailing boat.”
“I could soon fix that. I’ve been sailing since I was little, and my catamaran is moored in the harbour. How would you like to go out in it, tomorrow? In fact, why don’t we go snorkelling? There’s a nature reserve, a little way from Road Town, and it’s far enough for you to get a sense of what sailing is like, as well as a chance to see what sort of things we could lose, if climate change continues the way it’s going.”
Matt was agog. Dawn was inviting him, a man she barely knew, to be alone with her on her boat. “Wouldn’t your Dad mind us sailing off together for the day?” he asked.
“Well, you can ask him, if you’re worried. I’m sure he’d appreciate that. But I’m up for it, if you are.”
“I guess so,” Matt agreed. “But only if your Dad is okay with it.”
“It’s a date, then,” she said.
Cameron reappeared, just then. “Sorry about that,” he apologised. “I hope you two have been getting to know each other better, in my absence?”
“We have,” Dawn said. “I’ve asked Matt to come sailing with me, tomorrow.”
“And what did Matt say?” Cameron asked, looking at him.
“That it would depend on what you think about it,” Matt said, returning his frank look. “You might have reservations about me being alone with your daughter, on a sailing boat.”
“I might have, if you hadn’t already gone out of your way to protect Dawn. No, I won’t object to you going sailing with her, as long as you promise to take care of her.”
“Any time,” Matt said, glancing at Dawn.
“Well, if that’s settled,” Dawn said, getting to her feet, “I’ll say goodnight. I’ll meet you at eight, by the marina. Do you know where that is?
“Yes,” Matt said.
“Good. Well, it was nice meeting you properly,” she added, holding out her hand.
Matt got to his feet and shook her hand. “It was nice getting to know you, too, Dawn. Sweet dreams.”
He sat back down, as she went into the house.
“What do you think of my daughter, now you’ve got to know her a little?” Cameron asked.
“She’s smart, she knows her own mind, she has a purpose in life, she thinks the world of you; and she’s beautiful.”
Cameron smiled and nodded.
“I like the fact that you’re allowing her to work on this project of hers, even though it’s a subject that the two of you clearly disagree about,” Matt added.
“She would work on it whether I let her or not,” Cameron responded. “Better that don’t forbid her, so I get the opportunity to hear about it from her.” His brow furrowed. “But that idea of sailing around the world scares the daylights out of me.”
“Around the world?” Matt exclaimed. “I thought she just meant she was going to sail around the Caribbean, and maybe some nearby places.”
Cameron shook his head. “No, she’s intending to go round the world, on some kind of semi-scientific expedition.”
“Is that an admiring ‘wow’ or a fearful one?”
“A little of both. I mean, she’s brave to consider it, but I can see what you mean about it being risky. People die, doing those round-the-world sailing trips.”
“Exactly. I could wish she’d find someone who could take her mind off such ideas; give her something much closer to home to be interested in.”
Matt pursed his lips. “I guess it’s not impossible. She’s a very attractive girl. To be honest, I’m surprised she doesn’t already have a boyfriend.”
“She’s too focussed on her environmentalism,” Cameron said, shaking his head. “She’s had a few flings with men, but she just seems to do that to satisfy her natural urges. She’s never had a long-term boyfriend. Then there was that business the other night.” Cameron shuddered.
“I’m glad you believed me,” Matt said.
“The owner of the bar is an acquaintance of mine, and I had him check the CCTV footage from that evening,” Cameron said. “It corroborated your version perfectly.” He smiled. “That was resourceful, the way you pretended to be drunk. If you hadn’t told me you were play-acting, I would have been certain you were.”
Matt simply nodded.
“You’re not shocked that I checked up,” Cameron observed.
Matt shrugged. “She’s your daughter. It’s your prerogative to look into anything like that.”
“You seemed to be quite interested in her, in the footage I saw.”
Matt shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “She’s a pretty girl,” he said.
“I’m not disapproving,” Cameron said. “It’s obvious you respect her as a person, and I can tell she likes you. If you and she decide to pursue a relationship, just promise me you won’t hurt her.”
“We’re from different worlds, Cameron. I’m a bricklayer, and you’re the boss of one of the world’s biggest companies. Who am I, to think she could be my girlfriend?”
“My Dad was a labourer in the construction industry, and I started off as a plumber in an oil refinery,” Cameron told him. “Your honesty and integrity are a better measure of the kind of man you are than your salary, in my book. Aren’t you the man who found some buried jewellery, at the place where you’re working, and brought it to the owner’s attention? You could have pocketed it without anyone being the wiser, but you didn’t.”
Matt stared at him in surprise. Only three people had known that story, until now.
“You see, I’ve been checking up on you.”
Matt shrugged once more. “I’ve nothing to hide.”
“No. And because of that, I’ve nothing to fear. Enjoy the trip with Dawn tomorrow, and if it leads further, don’t worry about my opinion. Dawn is wealthy in her own right, and whoever marries her will get a dowry from me, into the bargain.”
This shocked Matt. “If anyone needed that kind of bribe, he wouldn’t deserve her,” he said.
Cameron beamed back at him. “No, he wouldn’t; and that’s exactly the right reply, my friend. Now, Derek, my driver, will run you back into town, to save you the taxi fare, and I’ll look forward to hearing all about your sailing trip with Dawn in due course.”
The next morning, Dawn arrived at the marina in a small electric car.
“I’m surprised you didn’t walk or cycle,” Matt quipped, when he saw the vehicle.
“Too much stuff to carry, for cycling,” Dawn said, as she took a large holdall from the boot. “And walking would have taken too long.”
She opened the holdall, to show him what was inside. It contained swim-fins, snorkels and face-masks for both of them, as well as life-vests and shoes suitable for walking on the slippery deck of the catamaran, and a packed lunch and drinks.
“I hope the fins and shoes fit,” she added. “I forgot to ask your shoe size, but you look about the same build as Dad. These are his spares.”
Dawn used a security pass to get through the electronic barrier which protected a nearby marina walkway, and led the way along a few twists and turns to where a large cruising catamaran was moored. She stood with one foot on the boat and one on the walkway, held his hand to help him on, then stepped on herself.
“Odd pattern,” Matt said, looking down at the black-tiled deck.
“Solar panels,” Dawn replied. “They cover the whole of the upper surface of the boat, including the roof of the cabin. They’re covered with a high-transparency polymer, to protect them from our feet and from other damage.”
“What do they provide electricity for?” he asked.
“To electrolyse sea water, breaking it into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen then gets compressed and stored in a tank, and is used to power fuel-cells, which in turn generate electric power for the outboard motors, to let the boat navigate without sails in harbours. One hundred percent zero-carbon.”
“Why is burning hydrogen better than burning oil? Don’t they both cause global warming?”
Dawn shook her head. “Hydrogen just turns back to water, when it burns. No CO2 emissions, so no greenhouse gases. At least, none that stay in the atmosphere for long. Hang on, while I cast off.”
She put the holdall in the boat’s cabin, jumped off, untied the two mooring ropes from their bollards, threw the ropes back on board, then jumped back on before the boat could drift too far from the quayside. Then, going to the wheel, she reversed the catamaran out of its berth, turned it to face the harbour exit, and set it moving forward.
“Could you hold the wheel, while I change into something more appropriate for a day at sea?” she asked.
Matt took hold of the wheel, as she released it.
She pointed ahead. “Just hold that course, until we’re out of the harbour, and keep the speed as it is now. It’ll take us five minutes or so, to clear the harbour, and it won’t take me that long to change. Just watch out for other boats and make sure we don’t hit anything.”
Matt was expecting her to go into the cabin, to change, but instead she simply slipped down the turquoise skirt she was wearing and pulled her white t-shirt off over her head. Underneath these, she was already wearing a white bikini. She carried her clothes into the cabin, then returned to stand next to him.
“Do you need to change?” she asked, looking him up and down.
“Just to get these shorts off,” he said, indicating the ones he was wearing. “I don’t have any swimming trunks or shorts, so I’m wearing boxers underneath. They’ll be okay for swimming in. At any rate, they’re better than skinny-dipping.”
She laughed. “Well, it wouldn’t have been the first time I’d done that with a guy I barely knew.”
“And what a way to barely know someone.”
Dawn shrieked with laughter and smacked his arm playfully.
Eight minutes later, they were well out of the harbour and heading directly away from it, out of the narrow bay where Road Town was located.
“Okay, now do you want to find out what sailing is really about?” she asked, cutting the motor. “We’ve got enough sea-space around us, while I’m setting the sail. We won’t drift too far, in the time that’ll take.”
The boat was drifting slightly in the wind, but not much. Matt watched with interest, as Dawn unfurled the sail and fastened its line at the back of the boat.
As soon as the sail was full, the catamaran lept forward, and by the time she rejoined him at the wheel, they were skimming through the water. The sail flapped noisily in the breeze, and the water hissed against the hull, as they headed directly away from Road Town.
“This is amazing!” Matt exclaimed. “I’ve watched these boats sailing around the solent, but I’d never appreciated how fast they go, or wondered what it might feel like, to be on one.”
“Now you know,” she said. “And it’s free energy. It isn’t costing us a penny, to travel at what must be about fifteen knots, with the wind directly astern. I could cross the Atlantic for nothing but the cost of food and water supplies.”
“Even the solar power is free,” Matt remarked. “But I didn’t quite get why you go through the complication of using that to make hydrogen. Why not just use it to power the outboard motor directly?”
“Because the motor needs a steady power supply, not one which varies according to the amount of sunlight. I also need it to work at night, or when the sun is very low. By electrolysing sea-water to get hydrogen, the system is storing that energy until I need it. It can also be converting sunlight into hydrogen all the time, even when we’re sailing, like now, or when the boat is moored in the marina. So the energy gets stored even when I don’t need it, until I do.”
“Ah. That’s clever.”
“Some of the solar energy is used directly, to power the compressor which stores the hydrogen. So it’s a very efficient way of using solar energy.”
“Do you want me to steer, while you sunbathe?” he asked.
She chuckled. “Do I look as if I need a sun-tan? No, you do whatever you want. Maybe you want to strip down to your boxers, ready for a swim?”
“I’ll wait until we get closer to wherever we’re going to be snorkelling,” he said.
“You’re not shy about me seeing you in your shorts, are you?” she asked in surprise. “It’s no different from you seeing me in my bikini.”
“Well,” Matt said, nervously. “Let’s just say you might see more of what that bikini does to me, than I want you to.”
She giggled. “Do you think I’d have invited you to come with me, and worn this bikini, if I was worried about you getting a hard-on?”
“You’re not scared about me raping you?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head emphatically. She looked sidelong at him. “It would only be rape if I didn’t want it.”
He stared at her.
She shrugged. “I figured we should get that subject out of the way, so that we can be more relaxed.”
“Maybe I’ll get down to my boxers, then,” he said.
He went into the cabin, took off his shirt and shorts, and returned to stand next to her.
“That’s better,” she said. “Now we’re even.”
They continued on their heading, and Matt could now see that they were heading towards a small island, a few miles away from Road Town.
“Norman Island,” she said, when he remarked on this. “There’s a popular snorkelling site just the other side of that headland, on the west of the island. Or, if you prefer to snorkel in a sandy bay, there’s a place called The Bight on this side of the headland. The headland is better, in my opinion. It’s about twenty metres deep, very clear water, and there are always hundreds of fish to see, as well as corals.”
“We’re here all day, so why not both?” Matt suggested. “The headland first, then this Bight on the way back?”
“Good call. Okay, let’s do that.”
As they rounded the headland, a few minutes later, Dawn lowered the sail and used the outboard to move them to a suitable position. There were half a dozen other boats there, with people snorkelling and scuba diving near them, so she carefully steered them well away from anyone who might be in the water. Then she threw the anchor over the side to hold them in place.
Once they were safely anchored, Dawn asked Matt to fetch the snorkelling gear, while she lowered the steps at the back of the catamaran. Then she helped him into the mask and flippers, put on her own, and followed him down the steps into the water.
“It’s amazingly warm!” Matt remarked, once they were floating side by side.
“Haven’t you ever swum in the sea, here, before?” she asked in surprise.
He shook his head.
“This is a day for firsts, then, isn’t it? I’m glad I thought of inviting you. So let’s get snorkelling. Remember what I explained about breathing, and just take it steady. I’m right by you, I’m a strong swimmer, and I’ve had lifeguard training. If you get into trouble, I’ll be there for you. Okay?”
He nodded, pulled the mask over his eyes, put the snorkel into his mouth, and let himself settle into a floating position, face-down.
There were fish everywhere! Not just any fish; the kind you saw in zoos and aquaria: red ones, blue ones, yellow-and-black stripy ones, and all other colours and patterns. They seemed quite tame, until he reached out towards them with his hand. Then they shot away, and remained out of arm’s reach. Presently, he thought of looking past the fish, to the sea-bed, and then he could see things down there. Apart from the rocks, there were fan-shaped corals, long, thin corals, and odd, spiky black balls.
He took a deep breath, turned his head downwards, and lifted his legs out of the water to force his body down. Then he kicked his flippers to push himself down further. It was hard work, though, and he couldn’t hold his breath long enough to go down all the way to the bottom.
As he surfaced, Dawn was next to him.
“Amazing!” he said.
“Yeah, but don’t touch anything,” she warned. “Those spiky black things are a kind of urchin, and they sting, and the fire-coral burns if you touch it.”
“Which is the fire-coral?”
“The fan-shaped ones, with the pale-coloured edge. In general, it’s a bad idea to touch anything in the sea, unless you know it’s harmless. Besides, we don’t want to damage anything. There’s enough damage being done to the marine environment, without us adding to it. Here in the Caribbean, some coral reefs are being damaged by coastal development.”
They stayed in the sea for some time, until by mutual agreement they decided they had had enough. Matt swam to the ladder, climbed up it, then leaned over the side to offer his hand to Dawn, to help her up.
She hesitated for a few seconds, then reached for his hand and pulled herself up the ladder. Together, they pulled up the steps, stowed their snorkelling gear, weighed the anchor, and Dawn used the outboard motor to move them away from the other boats.
“To the Bight, then?” she asked.
“Aye, aye, captain,” Matt replied.
Dawn chuckled, as she steered the boat around the headland. Then she got Matt to hold the course, while she once again set the sail.
“I probably need to do this bit, as we’re heading into the wind,” she said. “That means tacking, and it’s a skill that takes a bit of getting used to. I’ll need your help with the sail, though.”
Matt followed her shouted instructions, as she steered the ship and told him what to do with the sail. Presently, they were heading into a wide, sandy bay, in which some kind of building was visible.
“This is the Bight,” she said, as she furled the sail and Matt steered the boat under the power of its outboard motor.
“What’s the building? Does someone live here?”
“It’s a cafe and gift shop.”
“So we can get a bite, in the Bight?”
“Yep. And probably keel-hauled for the bad joke.”
Presently, they anchored in shallow, sandy water.
“Do you want to do some more snorkelling, or just have a swim?” she asked.
“Let’s just have a swim,” Matt suggested. “I don’t imagine there are fish here that compare with what we’ve just seen.”
“Well, they’re different, and perhaps harder to spot. But okay, let’s just swim.”
She dived overboard, with no further ado, and Matt followed suit. There followed a playful water-fight, some half-hearted swimming races, and a lot of laughter from both of them.
“Today’s been a lot of fun,” Dawn said, as they waded chest-deep in the warm water.
“For me, too,” Matt agreed. “You’ve been a lot of fun, Dawn. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed being with someone as much as this.”
“That’s nice of you to say. I must admit, I’m also impressed.”
“By what?” he asked.
“By you. And it’s not many men who can do that, with me.”
“What have I done?” Matt asked curiously.
“It’s more what you haven’t done. I gave you the green light hours ago, but you haven’t taken advantage of it, even though I can tell you want to. You’ve been hard a lot of the time, and you keep staring at my crotch and my bottom. Yet you haven’t tried to touch me once.”
Matt was silent.
“It’s okay, Matt. There’s no pressure. I’m just letting you know that you can, if you want to.”
“I suppose I’ve got so used to thinking I had a girlfriend back in England, that I try not to let myself get involved out here,” he told her. “I haven’t got used to the idea that she dumped me, yet.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Dawn said, and her voice held genuine regret. “Were the two of you serious?”
Matt nodded. “In fact, me being out here was down to her. It was she who saw the advert for a bricklayer to come out to the British Virgin Islands, and she who persuaded me to apply. It was supposed to be for me to earn enough money for us to get married.”
“So what on earth happened?”
“She got lonely, and couldn’t bear the idea of us being apart until I finished working out here. In the end, she decided she needed to be free to find someone else.”
“And you didn’t just pack up here and go back?”
Matt shook his head. “I’m under contract. If I quit, I can be sued for breach of contract, and I’d have to pay back everything I’ve earned. But I want Mandy to be happy, so if someone else can do that for her, I’m happy for her.”
Dawn moved closer to him and put her hand on his cheek. “That’s so sweet of you, Matt.”
Matt suddenly found his mouth on hers, and that she was responding eagerly to his kiss.
When they separated, her eyes remained closed, a contented smile playing on her lips.
“You look as happy as I feel,” Matt said.
“That was a good kiss. Makes me want to… well, you know.”
“So let’s,” she said enticingly. “Hang on — not here,” she added, as he slid his arms around her waist and pulled her towards him. She nodded towards the shore. “Up there, where we can find privacy.”
He looked where she pointed, up the slope to where the dunes were covered with leafy vegetation.
She inclined her head towards the shore. “Let’s go. There’s an out-of-the-way nook that I know of, where we can have a bit of fun without too much risk of being seen.”
She led the way up the beach and into the dunes.
“I don’t have a condom,” Matt whispered, when they were surrounded by silence.
“We don’t need one, for contraception,” she whispered back. “I use oral contraceptives. As for the risk of STDs, I’m willing to trust that you’re clean, if you’re willing to trust me.”
Matt nodded, and followed her to her nook.
A couple of hours later, as Dawn sailed them back to Road Town, Matt stood next to her, occasionally glancing at her. Neither had said much, since the intense intimacy that they had shared, and he wondered whether Dawn’s silence meant she was wishing they hadn’t had sex. But what about his own silence? He certainly didn’t regret what they’d done. He just hadn’t known what to say.
“Happy?” he asked, at last.
She turned and smiled beautifully. “Very,” she said. “You?”
“Me too. You’ve been very quiet, so I was wondering if you were regretting what we did.”
“Not at all!” she said, with a surprised expression. “I was just enjoying feeling comfortable together. Do you regret it, then?”
She took one hand off the wheel and grasped his with it. He kissed her cheek, then her mouth when she turned her face towards him.
“Careful, else I’ll want it again,” she teased.
In reply, he put a hand on her bottom.
“Yeah, that’s really helping,” she responded.
“I take it you’d like to do it again?” he asked.
“Well, we probably can’t get away with it on the open sea, like this. Too much chance of being seen, or of crashing the boat. But yes, I’d like to carry on seeing you, if that’s what you’re really asking.”
“Same here,” Matt agreed.
Over the weeks that followed, Matt and Dawn saw each other every day. Matt wanted to know everything about this beautiful and fascinating girl who had appeared in his life, and she seemed to want to know everything about him. They went to the cinema, shared meals, visited bars, spent their weekends doing sailing trips, and everywhere they went, they talked and talked and talked.
Her friends were mostly people who shared her commitment to environmentalism. Matt discovered how much respect they had for Dawn, who was apparently as much of a bain to some of them, as to people who disagreed with them. She would not tolerate sloppy research from either side of the debate, but would call out fearlessly any exaggerated claims from anyone. The book that she was collecting material for was to be about assessing both sides of the issue, drawing together good research and good work from all sides, and drawing everyone’s attention to anything which was not balanced, thorough and well-researched.
These were the happiest days that Matt could remember, and most of them were filled with Dawn. Even when he could only spend a couple of hours with her, in the evening, she was with him in thought the rest of the time. Thoughts of returning to the UK began to fade, as he found himself wanting to spend the rest of his life here, with her. Indeed, that began to seem a distinct possibility, when Cameron discussed with him the project he had in mind. Matt also started being approached by people he had never met, asking when he might be free to do work for them. Even if only a few of these possibilities happened, they could keep him on the island for another year, at least.
He and Dawn spent most of each weekend together, more often than not on her catamaran. She taught him how to sail: casting off, setting the sail, dropping anchor, manoeuvring in harbour, and everything else about handling a sailing vessel. Soon, he was almost as adept as her at handling it. They would often set sail, going out way beyond Norman Island and letting the boat drift, while they made languid love on deck. Or else they would stay out until dark, then drop anchor in a secluded bay and skinny-dip as a prelude to sex. On occasion, they even went back to their “nookie-nook”, as Matt called it, to make love in the place where the magic had first happened.
“I love you, Dawn,” Matt told her one evening, as they skinny-dipped in a bay, by the light of a full Moon.
Her reply was to burst into tears.
“I love you, too, Matt,” she wailed.
“Then why are you crying?” he asked.
“Because it’s never happened to me, before. I’ve never felt like this about anyone.”
“Oh, babe,” he whispered, pulling her to him and kissing her.
It felt completely natural, at that moment, to find her with his rapidly-hardening member and thrust into her. Emotions overwhelmed both of them, and they cried out their joy as physical satisfaction arrived quickly.
They were both silent, as they shared the familiar task of navigating back to harbour in the dark. For Matt, it was a silence borne from contentment; a sense that nothing needed to be said. He found himself contemplating the idea of proposing to her, and decided it was something he liked the sound of.
Maybe he missed the signs of Dawn’s growing tension, after that. Maybe he didn’t want to see them. He was so happy to spend time with her, perhaps he was projecting his own happiness onto her, and imagining she shared it. Certainly, she said nothing to make him think she didn’t completely share his enthusiasm for what they had; although, afterwards, he remembered how she always seemed to deflect the line of conversation, whenever he started to sound her out, to get an idea how she would react if he proposed.
Even when, for a couple of weeks, she seemed to want to do something different to sailing, he didn’t see that as anything wrong. They had done a lot of sailing, over the previous four weeks. Even a keen yachtswoman could get a bit bored with it. Why should he have realised anything was in the wind, just because she fancied going for walks or cycling, instead of taking off together for another sexy adventure in the catamaran?
So the morning when she wasn’t around came out of the blue. She wasn’t in bed with him, at his hotel, where they had gone to sleep together the previous night. He called Cameron, but she wasn’t with him, and Cameron hadn’t heard from her. Matt walked the short distance from his hotel to the marina, and discovered that her boat was not in its berth. That meant she must have gone out in it. But where?
It wasn’t until he got back to his hotel, that he thought of asking the receptionist if Dawn had left any messages for him. The receptionist handed him an envelope, which Dawn had left on the desk, sometime during the night.
Matt hurried up to his room, locked the door, and tore the envelope open.
“Darling Matt,” he read. “I’m so sorry about this. I love you more than anyone I’ve ever met, and I can tell how much you love me. I know, from the way you’ve been talking recently, that you’re thinking of asking me to marry you. Please believe me, when I say that just knowing you wanted to bind us together forever means so much to me. But if I marry you, I’ll never be able to pursue my life’s dream, which is to write this book to help fight for the future of the planet. I must do this now, before I can ever think of settling down. I must go on my expedition, collect the material and write the book, otherwise I will never do it.
“If this means we are finished, I am more sorry than you will ever know. I would have liked to settle down with you, if that were possible. But not until after I’ve completed this work, which is so important. If you are willing to wait for me, I will be more happy than you can imagine. But if you are not able to wait — if my leaving like this destroys your love for me — then I will understand, just as you understood Mandy’s need to go on with her life.
“I love you, Matt. I hope you still love me, and I hope we will see each other when I get back.
“All my love and best wishes, Dawn.”
Matt’s eyes were too blurred by tears to read the last line.