Small Island

Missed the first episode of Small Island? Watch a short video recap for episode 1 or read the full synopsis below.

Hortense Joseph arrives in London at Queenie Bligh's house to live with her new husband Gilbert Joseph; a man she only married to fulfill her dream of leaving Jamaica to live in England. Dismayed by Gilbert's dingy attic room, she pauses to remember Michael, her first love in Jamaica, and his betrayal that led them to be banished from their childhood home on the eve of war. Queenie, meanwhile, reflects on her own unsatisfactory marriage to dull Bernard and a passionate meeting with a Jamaican Royal Air Force airman during the Blitz. Gilbert remembers his desperation to leave Jamaica and fight for the mother country, and then his meeting Queenie in Yorkshire, and the tragic shooting that separated them. Now in 1948, their lives converge in London and their long-held secrets threaten to derail their already fragile marriages.

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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers

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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers

In 1948 Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica, expecting her new husband, Gilbert, to meet her at the docks. When he accidentally fails to show up, she takes a cab to the one-room flat he has rented from Queenie Bligh, a working class Londoner. The shabby room hardly lives up to Hortense's exalted expectations of life in England, and she lets her forlorn husband know it. When Hortense is alone, she opens her pocketbook to gaze at a picture of a handsome Jamaican black man, who is not Gilbert. It is her first love: Michael Roberts.

In a flashback to 1939, Hortense is a teenage foster child being raised by Michael's family in Jamaica. She has a crush on the older boy, and she dreams of marrying him one day and moving to England. Later, when she is in teacher training, she discovers Michael in the arms of the English wife of the head of the school. Even so, she continues to delude herself that Michael intends to share his life with her.

World War II comes and Michael joins the RAF to fight for England — along with many other patriotic Jamaicans, including Gilbert, a car mechanic who is the sweetheart of Hortense's friend Celia.

Meanwhile, also in 1939, Queenie is a Yorkshire farm girl who has just moved to London. She is wooed by Bernard Bligh, a humorless bank clerk, and she reluctantly agrees to marry him, if only to escape the farm. He joins the RAF, and Queenie is left alone in their house with his father, Arthur, a shell-shocked veteran of World War I. As the war progresses, servicemen are assigned to live in Queenie's empty rooms. Among them is Michael. True to form, he seduces Queenie. Later his squadron returns to active duty, and he is lost on a bombing mission.

Unlike Michael, Gilbert spends the war on the ground as a driver at an air base in Yorkshire. One day he is accosted by an old man on the beach: it is Arthur, who has wandered away from the farm where Queenie has sought refuge from the Blitz. Arthur has mistaken Gilbert for Michael, with whom he used to play cards. Gilbert takes Arthur back to the farm and meets Queenie. Later he runs into Queenie in town, where they have tea and then stand in line for a movie with Arthur. Objecting to a black man and white woman together, two American soldiers start a fight. When military police arrive and fire shots into the air to break it up, a stray bullet strikes Arthur, killing him.

After the war, Gilbert returns to Jamaica, where opportunity is even poorer than before the war. Eventually, he decides to seek better luck in England, where Jamaicans now have full rights as citizens. However he lacks the fare, and Hortense — desperate to fulfill her dream of living in England and resigned to Michael's death — makes a bargain: she will loan Gilbert the money for passage, if he marries her and sends for her after he is established. On their wedding night, she refuses conjugal relations, and Gilbert starts to wonder what he has gotten into.

With Hortense's arrival at Queenie's door in London, where Gilbert has found lodging, fate brings together two women who don't realize their shared love for Michael. Other complications are that Bernard, though demobilized, has never returned home; and Queenie is hiding the fact that she is pregnant.

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