Here’s a story for you, a story about a missed opportunity, but no regrets. Every word is true as far as I know – or rather was told – but I am sure there are lots of people who might remember things differently.
No matter how well we remember events, our memories can play tricks on us. We had spent a decade of wonderful holidays down at Halcyon Days in Vieux Fort, the whole of the Seventies, and were in the process of building our first house up on the golf course at Cap Estate, opposite the entrance to Smugglers’ Village, which in those days the local ex-pat community called ‘The Flintstones’, and during this process we had got to know a gentleman named Charteris Bailey – I’m not sure I got the spelling of his given name right, but his surname was Bailey – who worked for, or was somehow connected to, Cap, but had other interests on the island. He was an ex-pat, from Scotland. A couple of years later, when he and his wife left the island, they sold us some of their furniture that we used to furnish our house on Cap when it was finally finished. Well, Mr. Bailey – he walked with a limp, I seem to remember – was also in some way in charge of operations down at a failing estate in Soufriere. He travelled down there a couple of times a week to check things out. Of course, way back when, the whole of the island was one big mystery to us. Roads – except for the one from Castries to Vieux Fort, and even that one was one long zigzag between potholes when descending the Barre de l’Isle – were pretty awful. The road to Soufriere hugged the hillsides, in places no more than a narrow track, with patches here and there of shiny, smooth cobblestones that probably had been laid by the original road-builders – wonderfully evocative of times gone by, but hell to drive on.
Mr. Bailey announced one day that ‘his’ estate was for sale, and was I interested in having a look at it? I seem to recall that he told us that the owners – I may be mistaken but I believe he said it was some foundation, probably religious, in the States – had decided to sell. The place was nestled between the Pitons, quite inaccessible from land, and sounded fascinating, so I agreed to meet him in Soufriere. I suppose I must still have been vacationing in Vieux Fort or I would have travelled down from Castries with him. The house ‘up north’ was still not ready – it took forever to build.
Mr. Bailey and I hopped aboard our luxury cruiser – well, that’s a slight exaggeration; it was a slightly leaky, painted canoe – and, with the help of its crew, made the short but fairly adventurous trip round the base of Petit Piton into the bay at Anse des Pitons, where, as far as I could see, there was very little to see except for the most magnificent sight ever of a long semicircular beach fringed with palm trees, and protected by two giants, one on either side. It was like entering a massive cathedral and being filled with the wonder of creation – as close to a feeling of religious ecstasy as I have ever been.
Gosh, what a sight! And it was for sale. Of course, there was no surface connection, on land at least, from Soufriere, and the chances were minimal that permission would ever be granted for a road to be cut along the base of the Piton, and furthermore, Environmentalists would be up in arms if anyone ever suggested developing the spot, but was I interested in purchasing the place? Well, I was, but not wildly so. I could foresee problems and expenses in keeping the place in order. I also worried about squatters. But the place was so magnificent it was worth a try.
“So what are they asking?” I inquired in as disinterested tone as I could muster.
“Around 200,000 US.”
“Offer them 180,” I replied, “and hear what they say.”
Now remember, Dear Reader, that this was almost 40 years ago, when a dollar was still worth a dollar and prices in St Lucia had yet to sky-rocket, and in any case, the place was “undevelopable”. A month or so later, Mr. Bailey informed me that Colin Tennant, Third Baron of Glenconner, the ‘Lord of Mustique’, had bettered my offer ‘by about USD 6,000’, and how did I feel about it? Of course, I only had Mr. Bailey’s word regarding the price Colin had paid. I felt nothing, but some time later, I met Colin at Vigie Airport and congratulated him on his purchase. He asked me what I would have done with the land if my bid had been successful. I told him, “Nothing. I would have left it as it was. Perfect, like a rare stamp.”
His ears pricked up and his nostrils quivered as if scenting a new bargain. “How many rare stamps do you have?” he asked eagerly. Colin, despite his floppy hat, his air of post-colonial decadence, and studied oddness, was quite an astute chap, whatever others might say.