past and present tense by stephen voss



The day after I’d missed the photo I’d been sent to Jamaica to take, I lay floating on my back in the ocean. The clouds coalesced to blot out the tropical sun and the few people sitting on the beach began packing up their things.

I was in Jamaica for a Finnish tabloid to photograph a woman accused of hiring a man to kill her husband, a Finnish doctor. They had been driving together about an hour outside of Montego Bay when an approaching car bumped them from behind. The doctor was shot as he stepped out of his car. On the day we visited the murder site, the verdant tropical undergrowth came nearly to the road’s edge and nothing remained of the violence that had occurred there. That evening, the Swedish journalist and I sat in our hotel room drinking Red Stripes and talking through the next day, when the accused would be making an appearance at the courthouse.

The courthouse was on the 2nd floor of a government building in Trelawney surrounded by palm trees and Bermuda grass. The wooden benches for onlookers reminded me of pews in a church, all of them empty. I positioned myself near the bottom of the stairs where I’d have ample room to make a photograph of the suspect as she left the courtroom and walked to her waiting car. 

The reporter stood on the veranda outside the courtroom, a floor above me. As the court proceedings wound down, he nodded his head towards a woman walking down the stairs and I backtracked with her, shooting photographs the whole way. I turned back and another woman brushed past me as I went to touch base with the reporter. 

“You get it?” He asked in his heavily accented English, pointing to that 2nd woman. 

I had not.

It seemed so clear just a moment ago that he’d meant for me to photograph the first person leaving the courthouse, not the woman lingering on the stair landing between the 1st and the 2nd floor, waiting for her ride.

I looked back to see the 2nd woman, the suspect, get in a car and drive away. I stammered out an excuse but mostly I felt ill.

We stood there in silence, sweating as the sun found us through the palm trees, for there was nothing further to do. 

The next day, the journalist left to fly back to Sweden. I paid a few dollars to swim at the beach near our hotel. It began to rain as I floated in the dark blue water, the color of a fresh bruise.

Photo: Doctor's Cave Beach, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Stephen Voss