Passing Cloud

An early, poignant short story by Sam Sevlon

Like many other West Indians, Dan had gone overseas to study, and found his world different when he came back . . .  This poignant short story, written nearly half a century ago by a youthful Sam Selvon, explores territory quite different from the comedy for which he was to become famous

I remember the day I came back to Trinidad from England — things like departures, returns, have a habit of sticking in your mind not so much because you want to remember, but because you can’t forget. And I remember how my family and friends were waiting there on the quay for me, and my heart swelled until it came right up to my throat and I wanted to cry.

Four years studying law. Graduation day, success. Was it worth it? I had a funny philosophy of my own. The aim of life is happiness, and during the time I pored over books and argued justice and right with my colleagues, I used to wonder if I were happy, if I had not made a mistake in leaving Elsie and the acres of land and livestock which would have been ours if we’d got married.

Graduation day they made speeches, and there was a lot of cheering and merry-making, but in the midst of it I thought of Trinidad, keskidees, the pouis bursting in the folds of the hills, and I had a horrible fear that perhaps Elsie wouldn’t wait, and all my striving would be in vain.

There were relatives and friends and sweethearts waiting. Hugs and pats on the back and kisses. I felt lonely; pangs of nostalgia swept over me, and I thought again. What if everything is changed? Suppose Elsie met someone else and fell in love? Four years is a long time . . .

But when the ship entered the Boca and I saw the harbour and the church silhouetted against the clouds up on Laventille, I felt good. They kissed me and shook my hands and it was such a warm homecoming that I didn’t realise that Elsie wasn’t there, until we had all bundled into a car. It wasn’t an opportune time to ask then, and as a matter of fact, it was only in the night when Kenneth was home at a party they held for me. He and I had been good pals before I went away; he was my best friend. We thought very much alike; he would have gone with me to study, only he didn’t have the money, and when I offered to help him he shook his head and smiled. “I like to stand on my own feet,” he had said.

I looked at him that night and I wondered if he had got nearer to happiness than I, a lawyer with a future spread out at his feet.
He said, “Well old man, how was it in the mother country?”

“Just as we used to tell each other,” I replied. “You remember how we used to say it was the same all over the world? Tears, laughter, something to eat, ‘see you later old chap’. Only there was the feeling I was in a strange country, and I was sort of born again, and could start all over.”

Kenneth nodded understandingly. “Well, nothing much has changed since you went away. Everything is as it was yesterday, and as it will be tomorrow I expect.”

And then I nodded understandingly.

“Of course you know Elsie’s married,” Kenneth said casually, offering me a cigarette.

I tried hard then to still my pounding heart, to show him I’d been out in the world, had had experience, knew what to expect. I must have failed visibly for he paused before lighting his cigarette and asked, “Are you still in love with her?”

And I thought how awful it all was, four years in England, ‘’ave a pint mate,’ and the Trinidadian memories before I’d gone away — she and I promising each other the world, and that night on Farallon Rock in San Fernando.

One evening in St Ann’s she said, “I like flat houses without any steps, so that you can walk right into the drawing room. We’ll build ours like that, won’t we?”

I said to Kenneth, “How long ago?” and I lit my cigarette unsteadily.

“Oh, just about four months,” he replied. “I thought you’d known.”

I shook my head. Four months ago — what was I doing then? Swotting away at books to learn a profession to make Elsie happy, and she finding it with someone else.

But I didn’t have much time to think, or talk with Kenneth, as I had to go around chatting and laughing on the outside with everyone, telling them about England, though I couldn’t tell them the way I did Kenneth.

I saw Elsie a week after. I arranged it. I found out where she lived and I sent a message telling her to meet me in St Ann’s at an old rendezvous.

I never thought much of the guy she’d married, that is, I never worried about if he was worthy of her. I knew she’d choose a husband carefully, securely.

I saw the same wind-blown hair, the brown eyes, the soft and tender lips I had once known. And the way she walked — that moment it was as if I’d not experienced four years. I wanted to run and hold her tight, and hear her laugh. But I waited till all the people who’d stepped off the tram walked away, and I thought funny how you never do the things you want to do. I’d wanted to marry her before I went away.

She didn’t say anything. We walked together like we used to, and I kept telling myself remember you’ve knocked around, you’ve had a world of experience, and you know what to expect.

Yet when she spoke her voice shot through me opening up again the wound of my love. Thoughts raced madly in mind: England, knowledge, “I know enough not to be disappointed.” But love was stronger than all that. Why had she come if she’d forgotten?

She said, “Hello Dan,” and it was too banal for the poignant moment. She might have said luminous, or bedridden, or any other irrelevant word for all the impression I got. By the bridge I held her hand fiercely. When I spoke, my words had meaning, what I said mattered.

I said, “That’s the way it happened? All I did was for you, the time I spent abroad, so that I have a profession and you’d be proud of me.”

She cried, “Hush Dan, don’t say such things to me.”

I looked down in the bubbling stream, and suddenly my heart went limp. I felt ashamed. I thought, a lawyer . . .

“Do you remember we used to wonder about happiness, what life was all about? We never found out,” Elsie was saying slowly. “Time makes a great difference. I began to think differently when you went away. I felt what was the use of waiting. And then you never wrote letters. True, we’d said we wouldn’t write each other, but I couldn’t bear the loneliness. But you’ll find happiness, Dan. This is just a passing cloud in your life, and the sun will shine again.”

“Are you happy?” I asked.

She looked at me with depth. She shrugged. “What is happiness?”

We were both silent for a long time, leaning there on the bridge and gazing in the water. And then just like that, she said “Good-bye Dan,” and she slipped her hand from mine and walked out of my life.
I stood there until dark came, and candle-flies.

 First published under the pseudonym Denmar Cosel in the Guardian Weekly, September 1948. Reprinted in Foreday Morning (Longman 1989). Republished by permission.

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