KEEPING GERALD ALIVE
I fell in love with my cousin, Gerald, when I was eleven and he was seventeen. My love for Gerald buoyed me through years in which, without it, I would have disappeared into the emptiness of my own existence.
We weren't direct cousins. Gerald had been born to my grandfather's brother, John, who scandalized the family by marrying, at fifty-five, his thirty-seven-year old secretary, and producing Gerald a year later.
Gerald and I were introduced a week after I was born, the same year his mother died of a blood disorder. Great-aunt Lily said he couldn't get over the way my tiny fingers latched so trustingly onto his. She said they had to drag him away from my cradle.
As my awareness of a world beyond myself developed, I learned Gerald's mother had fallen ill shortly after his first birthday and lingered for five years, hollow-eyed and ethereal. According to Aunty Lily, Gerald devoted his early years to caring for his mother, instead of rough-housing with cousins, or throwing temper tantrums to get his way, or demanding unlimited attention. He ate with her, slept with her, made sure she took her medicine, accepted her frequent bleeds, helping mop up and change her bed linens.
He'd been stoic at her funeral, solemnly shaking hands and passing around sandwiches, seeming to accept her passing as the inevitable consequence of the conditions under which she'd lived. His father fell back into solitude, with only Gerald to remind him he'd ever digressed from that orderly state.
Gerald and I saw each other at Christmases, family weddings and christenings, his birthdays, mine; family gatherings celebrated in neighborhoods of the most dangerous city on earth; Belfast, Northern Ireland.
For my sake, my Scottish-Presbyterian family tolerated the presence of my drunken, quarrelsome father, who they'd never forgiven for marrying my working-class, Irish-Catholic mother. Of course, no one mentioned he'd had to - because of me. The family treated my mother with a mixture of religious compassion and assertive dislike.
Shortly after my seventh birthday, my mother got blown up, along with a number of British soldiers, in a barracks just outside Belfast. Even though we lived in a Protestant district, the IRA slipped through to apologize. She wasn't supposed to be there. They were only after the barracks.
My father, working towards a rare moment of sobriety for my mother's funeral, roared at them that, like Humpty Dumpty, apologies weren't going to put her back together again, were they? I stared at the foot-shuffling, black-masked gunmen, filled with rage and defiance, but over what and at whom, I couldn't have said. Politics were rarely brought up in our house, no matter what was going on outside. My mother made no attempt to conceal that her five brothers were IRA.
Later, the rage and defiance withered away into the aching anguish of loss. My father disappeared into an alcoholic haze, saying his life was destroyed after he discovered my mother'd been about to run off with an English major. I was sent to live with his parents in their little semi-detached bungalow on the Malone Road.
"And don't think she'd have left the major to come back for you," my grandmother scolded, during one of my weepy spells. "Your mother wasn't all you think."
Only years later did I learn of the reckless, alcohol-driven infidelities committed by my father that sent my mother to die in Major Neill Buckminster's arms.
It became my habit, whether at home with my grandparents or at family gatherings, to seek out places in which to hide; under beds, inside cupboards, behind curtains, beneath tables, in attics. No amount of adult wheedling or reproach altered this pattern. I simply wished to be invisible.
Gerald, however, treated my disappearances as a game of hide-and-seek. I would hear him tiptoeing around, chanting, "Ready or not, here I come."
I allowed him to find me, knowing he'd squeeze himself in beside me, no matter how cramped the space I'd chosen. I considered this physical proximity with Gerald my reward for compliance.
Sometimes, we sat in silence. Others, we took dreamy journeys; in a magical wooden boat with large, red sails that could fly through the air as easily as skim the surface of the ocean, clinging to faithful dolphins who knew exactly where we wanted to go, or soaring on the broad backs of giant swans to our destination; a small, hidden, tropical island.
We spent hours designing the huts in which we'd live, detailing the types of nuts and fruits we'd grow on our island, picturing the white stretches of beach, and lapping, clear, warm sea. We planted the island with bright flowers and kept it free of biting snakes and spiders, cannibals and, most of all, adults. This was a secret, children's island, known only to Gerald and me.
At my grandparents' house, on long, wet days, I loved nothing better than to scrunch up in one of my hiding places and relive the details of these whispered, deeply private conversations. In this way, without my knowing it, these brief, blissful moments with Gerald gave meaning to my life, bright interludes scattered through long stretches of nothingness.
On my eleventh birthday, Gerald, now seventeen, found me in an unused room on the third floor of Aunty Lily's house in Bangor, a small, seaside town some twenty miles east of Belfast. I sat on a broad, cretonne-covered window seat, knees drawn up to prop the book I was reading; Treasure Island.
He broke the silence of the room with his cheerful, "Ready or not, here I come."
His voice had developed a croak, and I now had to tilt my head back to see into his deep blue eyes. I smiled at him across the hushed, immaculate room, and he smiled back.
Aunty Lily always said Gerald had a smile that would melt rock. I'd never seen it before, but this time, the radiance of his smile dissolved the stone into which my heart had hardened, and I knew, in that moment and with absolute clarity, that I loved my cousin, Gerald, deeply and unshakably and forever.
He joined me on the window-seat, resting his chin on my shoulder and, as we read Treasure Island together, he recited the dialogue in alternately posh and cockney accents tinged with the sing-song lilt of Ulster.
When I wasn't reading in one of my hiding places, I wrote poetry in a copy book. I seemed to have a natural ear for the rhythm of language, but found it difficult to make the words rhyme and still say what I wanted. I modeled my efforts on a poem I'd memorized when I was five - four ducks on a pond, a grass bank beyond, a blue sky in spring, what a little thing, to remember for years, to remember with tears - but my poems came out like and tiny little violets, with perfume oh so sweet, hidden in the tall grass, we tread beneath our feet. I couldn't get beyond flowers and birds and blue skies and trees. I yearned to write something significant, something Gerald would think wonderful.
I started a poem I love my cousin Gerald, but couldn't come up with anything that rhymed with Gerald. I ended up writing something silly about a mouse in a house. It was frustrating.
A month later, my grandmother told me Gerald and my Uncle John, now in his seventies, had fallen out, because Gerald insisted he wanted to travel. Uncle John promptly packed Gerald off to school in England to come to his senses.
Being an only son, Gerald was expected to apprentice himself to the aging team of leather-makers in the family business and learn how to carve out handbags, suitcases, leather coats, shoes and boots from the hides Jeffrey's Leather Goods imported from all over the world to supply their shop on High Street.
I went into freefall, switching between inward ranting at this further evidence of adult treachery and stupidity, and mindlessly drifting through the days and nights, while I waited for my handsome prince to light up my life with his gorgeous smile.
Gerald wrote a couple of times, polite letters, asking what I was reading and if I was well and how big I must be getting, adding little about himself except he wouldn't be home for the summer holidays.
For my twelfth birthday, he sent me a card picturing a busty-looking girl in a skimpy bathing suit sitting under a palm tree, drinking from a tumbler shaded by a paper parasol.
My grandmother clicked her tongue when she saw it, snatched it from my hand, and threw it on the fire. "What is Gerald thinking, sending you a card like that?"
I watched the card blacken and curl, smiling to myself, knowing very well why Gerald had sent me a picture of a tropical island.
I wrote back, thank you for the card, I hope this finds you well, I had a nice birthday, unable to say what I really wanted, which was I love and miss you so much, when are you coming home, knowing my grandmother would peruse the letter before posting it.
Although I attended a co-ed school, I never bothered with boys, nor they with me. I'd arrived at fifteen, gawky and plain, my nose too big, my eyes too small, my lips crimped in a perpetual sneer.
If pressed, I admitted to having thick, naturally-wavy, auburn hair and long, well-shaped legs, neither good enough to make up for my shortcomings. No Cinderella me. I'd become one of the ugly step-sisters, with a personality to match.
In my sixteenth year, in quick succession, my grandfather ran off with a woman he met in a pub, my grandmother collapsed into raving lunacy, frantic telegrams flew back and forth as the family tried to locate my father, who hadn't been seen in years, and the school in England sent Gerald home for coming to his final exams staggering drunk.
His arrival back home triggered a blazing row within the family; half of them shouting let the boy alone, let him travel if he wants to, get it out of his system, and the other half yelling, along with my Uncle John, that Gerald can either return to England and sort himself out with the school or learn to make leather handbags.
I was sent to Bangor to stay with Aunty Lily until the uproar died down and, hopefully, my grandmother stopped hurling everything belonging to my grandfather into the street and running up to women she didn't know to warn them that, at any moment, their husband's could be enticed away by a daughter of Beelzebub, as hers had been.
All I wanted was to see Gerald. It never occurred to me to ask. I knew better than to expose my wants or desires to adult scrutiny. That only assured denial.
Gerald had been home ten days when my grandmother, to whom I'd returned after she subsided into a kind of fretful apathy, informed me Gerald had decided to return to England and sort himself out with the school. He was to take the train to Dublin to visit an old chum and then cross the Irish Channel on the night boat from Dublin to Hollyhead.
I felt as if a knife had been slashed across my heart. "You mean, I won't see him?"
The breathtaking idiocy of the question left me gaping at my grandmother in wonder that anyone so dead to the world would even bother to make the effort to get up in the morning.
I dragged my lead-encased body off to school the next morning, trailing weighted feet, refusing to lift my head, snarling through my teeth at anyone who so much as looked in my direction, and inciting Miss Findlay, our music teacher, to soundly slap me across the face for telling her to feck off.
I didn't get a detention card. Allowances were made for orphan girls whose mothers had been blown up by the IRA.
I wandered listlessly home to find my grandmother in a lather trying to fold the double page of a newspaper into a small enough rectangle to line the bottom of the cage in which she kept Mr. Bluebird, a wretched-looking budgerigar, who spent his days drooped over his perch in the living-room window, apparently afflicted with the same fretful apathy as his owner, stirring himself only to peck viciously at any part of human anatomy that came within a foot of his cage..
"Gerald rang," my grandmother said, rustling madly at the newspaper. "He wants to take you out this evening, for your sixteenth birthday."
"Gerald rang? This evening?" I screamed at the top of my lungs, sending Mr. Bluebird into a frenzied attack on his cage and causing my grandmother to crumple the half-folded newspaper.
"God sake, don't break my ears. He'll be here for you at five."
I bolted down the hallway to my tiny hole of a bedroom, hurled my school satchel onto the narrow cot in which I slept, and threw myself in front of the small, oval-shaped mirror over my dressing-table.
"Gerald rang," I told the wide-eyed, pink-faced reflection in the mirror, one cheek of which still carried a faint imprint of Miss Findlay's hand. "He's taking me out. Oh, Gerald, my lovely Gerald, you didn't forget me."
My love for him erupted like an exploding fireworks. It fizzled all over me, tingling my skin, lighting up my eyes, sparkling my hair, shaping my lips into an exultant grin, sending hot shivers down my belly and into my groin.
I'd wear my Sunday frock, the white one with the navy-blue leaves printed all over it. I liked the way I looked in the frock. It was one of the few garments I owned that fit me properly, emphasizing my narrow waist, and at least giving me the appearance of breasts, even if they had no more substance than a pair of fried eggs.
I brushed my hair until it crackled and hunted for a hair clip to give myself a sophisticated look by pinning the flying mess back on one side.
Surveying the result in the mirror, I acknowledged I looked better than usual, but I could use a touch of lipstick. However, the word lipstick in the Jeffrey family was akin to the word shite; no one mentioned it let alone wore it.
Tightening the belt on the frock to make my waist look even smaller, I slipped my feet into my navy-blue, Sunday shoes. They gave me blisters if I wore them for more than two hours, but they had grownup heels that clicked when I walked, and white, velvet bows over the instep.
The hour between four and five o'clock ticked by one slow second at a time. Mr. Bluebird's cage had finally been cleaned, accompanied by much screeching and flapping between him and my grandmother who, after inspecting me and poking at an errant wave with her fingers, grumbled, "I don't know why you're going to so much trouble for Gerald. He's turned out to be a great disappointment."
"Not to me," I silently retorted and escaped back to my room where I sat on my bed and stared in the mirror at the not-so-bad-looking girl there, feeling my life draining away as I waited for five o'clock.
The fifth chime from my grandmother's mantle clock barely shivered into silence, when the doorbell shrilled. I rushed down the hall and flung open the door before my grandmother could awaken from the dead sleep in which her confrontation with Mr. Bluebird had dropped her.
Gerald stood there, incredibly smashing in navy blazer and grey trousers, immaculate white shirt, and red, black and gold striped tie. He grinned at me. "Ready or not, here I come."
"I'm ready," I gasped, and hugged him, hard. I couldn't stop myself. I'd never done such a thing before and, imagining I'd created a horrible embarrassment, I quickly let go. "Sorry," I mumbled, heat rushing into my cheeks.
God, what had I done? I couldn't look at him.
"What are you sorry for?" His voice resonated over my head. "I'm only glad someone's pleased to see me."
I lifted my eyes, amazed to see uncertainty in his blue ones. "I would have died if you'd gone back to England and not even rung."
I wanted to add, I love you, Gerald, I love you, I love you, and nothing you do, or what anyone says about you, will change that, but my grandmother came down the hallway, patting her hair, her voice thick with creaminess.
"Gerald, dear, how nice of you to find the time to take our birthday princess out. We heard you're on your way back to England?"
He nodded courteously. "Day after tomorrow, Aunty Elizabeth. I hope to redeem myself."
"We'll pray for it. What time will you have her back?"
Gerald glanced at me, then at his watch. "Ten?"
My grandmother's beige eyebrows rose into her fringe of beige hair. "She has to get up for school in the morning. I can't get her out of the bed as it is."
"It's my birthday," I exclaimed, and saw my grandmother's lips tighten. Feck. I'd revealed a desire, and now she'd never allow it.
Gerald drew me outside and gave my grandmother a radiant smile. "Half-past nine, then. It may be a while before I see her again."
He half-pushed me down the front door steps and towards a little boxy Renault parked by the curb. "Don't look back," he whispered and, reaching past me, yanked open the car door.
I climbed in, head first, catching my heel in the door-frame, tangling myself up in my frock. It took me several seconds of silent cursing to sort myself out so Gerald could shut the door.
Swiftly, he slid into the driver's seat, started up the Renault, pulled away. Neither of us looked back at the white shape standing in the doorway.
Gerald began to chuckle. "I thought for certain she'd say nine at the latest, so I said ten. I got us a whole extra half-hour." He grinned at me again, like a schoolboy who'd sneaked a tack onto the teacher's chair. "Are you hungry?"
"Where would you like to go?"
"I don't care, so long as I'm with you."
I felt the car slow down, as he'd eased his foot off the accelerator. "You're fond of me, then?"
"I love you, Gerald." How easily the words slipped out, now that I'd seen the uncertainty in his eyes.
He reached for my hand, pressed it to his lips. "You're probably the only one who does."
Wrapped in the glow of my love for him, I missed the edge to his words. "Well, I do."
He drove silently for a moment, still holding my hand. "We'll go somewhere nice. The Palace."
"The Palace? In Bangor? They're very dear, aren't they?"
He released my hand, revved up the car, shifted gear. "We'll get a table overlooking the sea, and you can eat anything you want."
He accelerated onto the road leading out of Belfast towards Bangor and we flew through the golden twilight. I thought, no matter what else happens in my bedlam of a life, I will always return to this moment, sitting in a magic chariot, next to the person I loved most in the entire world, hurtling towards Paradise.
We found a parking space outside the Palace, and sat in the car overlooking the shining sea. Gerald seemed lost in thought so I waited, watching a small yacht with a red sail slowly scribe its way across the horizon.
Gerald turned to me. "Sweet sixteen and never been kissed?"
"Well, then, happy birthday." He leaned over and placed his lips on mine.
The blood rushed to my head. I had no idea what, if anything, I was supposed to do, except my love for Gerald blossomed in my chest, like a great peony, compressing my lungs, making it hard to breathe.
He moved away, seemingly unaware of the turmoil his light kiss had created. "Come on, darlin'. The Palace awaits its princess."
I asked for fish and chips. The Maitre D appeared alarmed by my humble request. Gerald, who'd asked for sweetbreads, inquired, "Do you not have fish and chips?"
The Maitre D crossed his eyes to look along his nose. "We have grilled plaice and petite pommes."
"Fish and chips." Gerald winked at me.
He seemed not the least perturbed that the Maitre D plainly regarded us as ignorant ruffians from the city, who'd unfortunately invaded his tasteful, seaside restaurant that evening.
In spite of the fuss, the plaice and petite pommes were delicious, and Gerald seemed to enjoy his sweetbreads.
After watching me polish off a plate of raspberry jelly, loaded with raspberries, and smothered in whipped cream, he asked, out of the blue, "What do you want to do with your life?"
"Write poetry." I said it with complete confidence he would neither laugh, nor say, sarcastically, of course you do, with your head always in the clouds, or point out writing was a good way to starve.
"Have you written any?"
"Lots." I shook my head. "It's really hard. I make lists of words that rhyme and even then, half the time, it comes out silly."
He considered me with those deep blue eyes. "Have you read T.S. Eliot?"
"Who's T.S. Eliot?"
"A poet." He laughed, gently. "I wish I'd known. I'd have brought you my T.S. Eliot. His poetry doesn't rhyme. Neither does Sylvia Plath's."
"But if it doesn't rhyme, how do you know it's poetry?" I countered.
"A poet is someone who lays their heart down on the page. That's why people read poetry, so they can tell what's in their own hearts. Most of us don't have the words." He unclipped a pair of pens from his blazer pocket, handed them to me. "I didn't buy a present for you, so I'd like you to have these. I got them for my twenty-first."
The pens flashed gold as he laid them in my hand. "I can't take these, Gerald. They've got your name on them."
He shrugged. "I'll only lose them. I'd rather you kept them safe for me."
"But what if I lose them?" I constantly lost things; people, destinations, intentions, big things, let alone a small and slender pair of gold pens. The hair on the back of my neck prickled at the thought I might wake up one morning and have no idea where I'd put Gerald's golden pens.
He waved away my worry. "You can't lose them. They're magic pens. They'll follow you wherever you go, and they'll only write poetry."
We walked by the sea with the evening stars glimmering on the horizon. Gerald held my hand. At one point, he stopped to say, "You used to hold my hand when you were a baby."
"I don't remember."
He squeezed my fingers. "I do."
"I love you, Gerald," I said again.
That was all. I know.
Yet, in that moment, for the first time in my life, I received affirmation that I was a whole, complete human being, capable of loving and being loved. I danced beside him in the sand as we continued our hand in hand walk by the sea.
We pulled up in front of my grandmother's house on the dot of half-past nine.
"Do you have to go to England?" I wept.
"I do. I've disappointed a lot of people," he murmured.
"But I would, in time."
"Never," I raged, ready to rip the face off anyone who dared contradict me. "Who said so? They're liars."
The front door of the house opened and my grandmother's shapeless body, backlit by the hallway light, filled its frame.
Gerald leaned over and dropped another swift kiss on my mouth. I caught hold of his blazer lapel, wanting more, but he shook his head. "Go on in, now. You have to get up for school in the morning, and I have to go to England."
"I hate you," I cried, hurling open the car door, flouncing out, slamming it behind me. "I really hate you."
I saw his lips move. I know.
Three days later, I arrived home from school to find Uncle John pacing the living-room and my Aunty Lily crouched on the couch, red-eyed and exhausted looking.
"What did Gerald tell you when you and he went out?" my grandmother demanded, offering no explanation for the baffling presence of Uncle John and a distraught Aunty Lily.
I felt accused, as if caught holding something valuable that didn't belong to me. "He didn't tell me anything."
"He must have said something."
It was on the tip of my tongue to say I didn't steal the gold pens if that's what you mean, but my experience with the concrete-like reasoning of adults cemented my lips shut. I was not about to part with those pens. "About what?"
"We don't know where he is," Aunty Lily sobbed.
That made no sense. "He's in England."
Uncle John stopped pacing. "He got on the night boat in Dublin, but he wasn't on it when it docked at Hollyhead."
If I hadn't understood the misery Uncle John had caused Gerald by the ferocious imposition of his will, I might have dredged up a smidgen of pity, my uncle looked so old and ill.
"You're sure he didn't say anything that might have led you to think - to think -?"
This seemed to incense my grandmother. "He took her to Bangor for her birthday, brought her back at half-past nine, drove away without a word." She sounded as if she was the one being accused.
"He told me about someone named T.S. Eliot," I volunteered.
Uncle John picked up a green-bound volume from the small lamp table at one end of the couch. "He rang me from Dublin to ask me to give you this."
I took the volume from him. In large, black letters on the cover it stated, simply, T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland. I flipped the book open. A poem stared up at me, unlike any I'd seen before. April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.The words stunned me. Gerald was right. Nothing rhymed. They called me the hyacinth girl. Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden, Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
I tried to speak. My mind whirled frantically as I gazed down at the page on which this poet had laid his heart. I must find a place to hide and let his words pour over me, into me, through me, tell me what was in my own heart, give me the words.
"He also asked me to give you Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar when you turned twenty-one," The quiver in my Uncle John's voice snatched my attention away from the book in my hand. "He said you'd understand. Are you quite certain he didn't say anything that would lead you to believe he wasn't going to England?"
"Well, you wouldn't let him travel when he wanted to." The reproach burst from me, but I wasn't prepared to have my uncle double over, choking, as if I'd punched him in the gut.
Aunty Lily erupted into loud crying. "It wasn't only that."
My grandmother advanced upon me, looking so grim, I thought I was about to be hit again. "Go to your room. Don't say another word. Not one more word."
I fled, knowing I'd uttered something hateful but determined not to care as I sat on my bed, staring at the skinny, ugly, brown-eyed girl in the mirror.
What did they mean, Gerald had got on the night boat in Dublin but hadn't been on it when it docked in Hollyhead? How could he have got off without anyone noticing? Where would he have got off? There was nothing but frigid Irish Channel between Dublin and Wales.
Out of the corner of my mind's eye, I caught a glimpse of a thought trying to arrange itself, but I struck it away before it could take shape. I knew exactly where Gerald had gone and, one day, a knock would come to my door and there he'd be, smashing in his navy blazer and grey trousers. He'd have his little, square Reneault sitting at the curb and he'd grin and say, "Ready or not, here I come."
I used Gerald's gold pens to write poetry, poetry than ran all over the pages, pages upon which I laid down my heart. Every poem I wrote, I wrote for Gerald. I ventured into a novel, my first, and found myself writing about a lovely, blue-eyed Irish boy who longed to travel.
Gerald's gold pens rest next to my laptop, and I can never stop writing because, so long as I put words on a page, Gerald will be alive, sitting under a palm tree on our tropical island, drinking from a tumbler shaded by a paper parasol, waiting for me to join him.