We took a taxi to the bus station. The station was located in an industrial park between large industrial warehouses. There was a dirt track running outside the station and a small burger van had pulled up selling hot dogs and meat sandwiches. Beside it, an open pick-up truck was packed with fruit and we bought a large chunk of watermelon off the old Latino lady.
We were travelling to Keywest, Florida. We had just spent a few days in Miami, staying in a modern hotel suite with a large pool and a view over the gritty sand of South Beach. Miami had not lived up to expectations. We were disappointed by Ocean Drive, which ironically, had no view of the ocean. Instead, it had a large sand bank, behind which lay the Atlantic Ocean.
We had met a former stripper called Hollywood, who promised us a night of VIP treatment in a top Miami nightclub. We took him at his word and he brought us to a dilapidated fluorescent-lit bar, supplying cocaine to a strung out Canadian couple and later, pilfering trough my handbag for cash.
The bus station had leather airport seats and a large coca cola drinks machine. We longed for the bus to arrive in the sticky heat. The other travellers were mostly black and carried single shopping bags. Eventually an old grey-haired driver pulled up and we lifted our two suitcases packed with holiday clothes into the cabinet of the bus.
The journey to Keywest took four hours. Halfway there, the bus driver pulled into a Burger King and we sat outside with our fast food wrapping around us. The houses we passed were colourful solitary dwellings, built right on the road with large cars or pick-up trucks outside. Some had criss-crossed frames for green plants to grow.
Soon the roads narrowed and a single lane stretched out before us across the Straits of Florida. Crystal blue ocean shone on either side and we stared in silence at the drops of islands scattered across the sea. We wondered how they had decided to build a road across essentially nothing.
It was early evening when we reached Keywest and we took a waiting taxi from the airport to our B&B. We worried from the Taxi Man’s chatter and the beige front of hotels that we had brought ourselves to a retirement paradise.
The B&B was covered in white wooden panels, had a large porch with rocking chairs and a beautiful oak wood floor. The round man who welcomed us was full of camp cheer and gave us a large key with a wooden block attached for our double room located at the top of the house, accessible from the outside only. We climbed the stairs to our room brushing away jagged palm tree leaves from our faces. The room was quaint and silent and we absorbed the pleasant eeriness of the two hundred year old house.
We decided to take a walk up the street. The houses were beautiful. They towered over the pavements, wooden panelled with white picket fences and silver mail boxes on the street. We walked towards a low mumbling noise, which grew louder as we reached the main centre streets. In front of us were hundreds of people gathered together in brightly coloured shirts. They were whooping and smiing and dancing in the street. We had stumbled upon a Jimmy Buffet concert.
Jimmy Buffet is Keywest; a balding middle-aged musician who plays guitar in a Hawaiian shirt, opened to his white vest. He wears sandals and sings folk songs. From every window at the crossroads where he was playing fell gaudy plastic beads. Thrown from a height, pink, green and blue beads flew through the air, landing on heads and shoulders and on the street itself. We picked them up and wore them and bought two cans of beer from the open off-licence. We walked through the crowds in wonderment, taking in the shops and noise and ambience. Soon the crowds dispersed and we wished we had arrived earlier.
Later that night we came back for dinner dressed in our smart clothes. We loved the many bars and restaurants and shops. There was live music everywhere. Most people were older, but they wanted fun. I watched a big haired lady in leather pants snuggle into the ear of an aged musician who had just finished playing guitar. She hooked her arm around his neck and pushed her breasts under his chin. He looked slightly bewildered and amused and they soon left.
The next day we had breakfast in the shared kitchen of the B&B. There was a Belfast sink and an island in the middle of the kitchen covered in an array of pastries. We were joined by a New York cop of Irish descent and his wife. The morning chat turned quickly to the rumoured local haunting. Our B&B had a sister property a few blocks away. It had a well documented ghost of a child and sightings were common. The cop’s wife mentioned that she didn’t feel that comfortable in this house on her own. I wondered if I felt comfortable too.
We headed off for the day and decided to take a boat trip. We had a few drinks in the large bar beside the boat dock before we left. It was buzzing, with live music and more older people drinking. The boat was like a small yacht and as soon as we put our life jackets on the crew opened a large cool box full of ice and small beer cans.
After an hour or two, the good swimmers on the boat, dived into the ocean and had a swim. When they climbed back on the boat, sloshing sea water on the white deck, they reported seeing a large barracuda and having to swim through a swarm of jellyfish.
We sailed to an island of undergrowth, not accessible to humans. Large root branches rose from the salty sea to form intertwined trees. We kayaked around the outskirts of the tree island, ducking under branches and enjoying the shallow water. Our kayak leader pulled up a horse shoe crab from the sand to show us and brought us to a land bank where we could get out of our kayaks and stand ankle deep in the water. There was no land to be seen on the horizon. The cool box came out again and the beers were shared out. I clutched the can and watching the ocean rise to our knees and thought about jellyfish and horseshoe crabs.
That evening we returned to shore sunburnt and hungry. We got a table at a Cuban restaurant where salsa dancers were strutting around the paved stones. We ordered large Mojitos and tried plantains and chatted about how we wished to visit Cuba one day.
That night we returned to the B&B with the intention of changing to head out again. Instead we lay on the bed and drifted into a thirsty light sleep. I awoke to find a figure standing at the end of my bed.
It was a man, with long straggly grey hair tied back, steel rimmed spectacles and a red solider jacket with gold buttons. He stared at me, with interest. I was terrified.
He had little expression on his face. Through the figure I could see the white electric radiator attached to the wall. I concentrated on this and watched how it came in and out of focus forming part of the frame of the man.
I didn’t want to look away in case he disappeared. Yet I was afraid to keep looking, in case he didn’t. I pulled the white sheet over my head. Too petrified to move, I buried my head on my partner’s shoulder and swore never to tell anyone what I had seen.
‘I saw a ghost last night,’ I blurted as soon as my partner woke the next morning. His brows narrowed as he tried to make sense of what I was saying. ‘I believe you,’ he eventually said after listening to me. At breakfast I told the cop and his wife about the experience. ‘I knew it,’ said the blonde New Yorker. ‘I can feel it,’ she said.
We borrowed bikes from the B&B and cycled through the quaint streets to a memorial park and beach. We cycled by Ernest Hemingway’s house and I felt guilty for my writing teacher for not stopping to go in. Now I understood why the author was drawn to this place so many years ago.
Cats ran in front of us. We cycled down a poorer part of the neighbourhood and I felt uneasy as the large wooden houses changed into smaller ramshackle dwellings.
We cycled to a building-sand beach and I watched a large pelican swallow down a silver fish. On the water power boats raced in competition. We reached the most southern tip of America, marked by a giant colourful buoy. We felt happier than we had ever felt in our lives.