From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama – a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan
Either late November or early December, things had started to move briskly, first with an interesting little incident involving Jerome and, eventually, Jewel and Victor, indicating some relaxation of the tension surrounding their relationship.
I should give some background concerning a subject not directly related but which will help to explain the circumstances. It had to do with the fishing industry and, especially, the export of the roe (eggs) of the Red Grouper, a great delicacy and one particularly appealing to my dear mother, who spoke of the deprivation caused by a moratorium on fishing for this item imposed by the government Fisheries Department.
Overfishing had resulted in large-scale depletion of the stock, which had come about through indiscriminate harvesting of the eggs (roe) of ever younger specimen. Those fishermen who supplied the local market had foreseen what was coming as a result of this practice, but their warnings had been overridden by the powerful and rich exporters until things had gone so far that it was affecting the whole industry. This kind of situation had not been unusual in the case of ex-colonial entities which escaped regulation during the transition period before the attainment of full control of the country’s resources and, unfortunately, sometimes even afterwards, if the stakes were high and the powers-that-be susceptible to inducements.
Those who supplied local needs were allowed to fish for the mature grouper on a small scale, and when they happened to have roe, would save them for their favoured customers, which is where Jerome came in. One of his ex-patients, a local fisherman, knowing that the item was popular with sea-going people like him, had reserved two pounds for him acquired legitimately in the course of his work, in appreciation of the kind treatment received from him while in hospital.
Jerome, who often arrived at work before six in the morning and stayed until late in the evening, had taken a break on a Wednesday morning to bring the roe over to our house so that Mama could have it for dinner that night.
As luck would have it, Jewel, who had been delayed at home soothing Emerson, who had been upset by Sonia hurrying him to get ready to be dropped off to day-care on her way to work, had started for our house later than usual and had had a puncture to the front wheel of her bicycle and, having to walk it for half the distance, had arrived exactly at six in a hot and flustered condition.
While attending to Victor she had related what had happened on a day when she had to ride to her evening class and, therefore, having to take the bicycle to the repair shop on her way to work at the clinic so that it could be ready in time for later in the day. Sympathising, Victor had suggested that she ask Jerome, who had not left yet, for a lift to work; but Jewel had hastily rejected this advice, saying that she could not “discommode” the doctor, causing Victor to laugh at her use of the archaic word.
Just then Jerome had come up and had asked the cause for his laughter and Jewel, putting her finger to her lips to discourage Victor from repeating his suggestion, shook her head at him and departed hurriedly after wishing all a good morning.
I had followed Jerome into the room in time to hear him ask Victor what it was that he was not supposed to hear, having detected Jewel’s signal, at which he had mentioned her use of the old-fashioned word, causing us both to smile. Refusing to be sidetracked, however, Jerome had asked who was not to be discommoded, and Victor had given in and related how the word had come up.
Jerome had remarked that if he had known earlier he would willingly have helped out, adding that because Jewel had been too conscientious to ask before, it was now too late as he was overdue back at the hospital. His taking the time to acknowledge this trait in Jewel had come as a pleasant and welcome surprise to both Victor and me, since making reference to her during conversation was something he had not done in a long time.
A few evenings later, Jerome had brought Sister Havers along for a visit with Victor; and we had noticed them in deep consultation while on their way out; and one morning the following week, when Jewel had completed her attention to Victor sooner than usual, she had explained in answer to my query that doctor had not left any instructions regarding samples, thus curtailing the amount of tasks she had had to perform.
Then, on the Wednesday evening before Christmas – a date I can never forget – just as Jewel was getting ready to leave to attend an end of term get-together of her Sociology class, Jerome had arrived along with Sister Havers and had asked her to remain for a few more minutes as there was something he wanted her to hear. She had mentioned to me later that they were the first personal remarks he had spoken directly to her since that fateful day in mid-April of the year before.
Besides Jerome, Nigel and I had been the only people in the room along with Jewel, Sister Havers and Victor; and I had become aware that something momentous was about to take place when Jerome had started his sentence with the words that he had something to tell us that he was now relieved to be able to say with confidence.
Before he could go on Victor had asked quietly: “You mean my condition is improving?” I feel that Jerome’s nod followed by enfolding my baby in his arms had been the best gift I had ever received in my life up to that time! I couldn’t wait to take Victor in a tight embrace along with Nigel, then hugging Jewel, Jerome and Sister Havers in that order.
Jerome had later enlarged on Victor’s status with a report that his doctor in San Diego had been the first to venture the opinion that “things were going very well,” judging from the record compiled up to then; and just that day had called with the good news after seeing the results of the latest samples sent.
The whole family had piled into the room for the update, and had been told that the disease appeared to be in remission, and that Victor could return to his studies in San Diego where he would remain in close contact with his doctor there who would continue to monitor his condition carefully.
As Jewel had tried to slip out of the room Jerome had told her to wait, as Sister Havers would give her a lift; later putting her cycle on the vehicle’s wrack with the intention of transferring it to his when it was delivered to him at the hospital so he could go and take her home later.
They had left shortly after, Jerome having opened the rear door for Jewel before seating himself in front next to Sister Havers; and on reaching the University he had asked, when opening the door to let her out, at what time he should return for her.
When we had compared notes about the evening’s happenings afterwards, Jewel and I had agreed on how unbelievably overjoyed we had all been by what had taken place; while she had remarked on how unexpectedly kind and attentive Jerome had been to her that evening after having avoided her for nearly two years, then had added, sadly, that he had failed to show up later.
Jewel said how she had felt greatly let down when at nine-thirty that night Sister Havers alone had turned up to take her home, explaining that Mr. St. John had asked her to apologise on his behalf for reneging on his offer due to the postponement of the delivery of his vehicle until the next day, relating how on the way home Sister had eulogized Jerome all the way, lavishing praise on his skill, dedication and self-sacrifice, finally ending, to Jewel’s shock, with the observation that she, Jewel, must of course be aware of his sterling qualities, caring for him as she did!
Jewel confessed to having been struck dumb by this remark from Sister, who had continued the conversation on her own, ending that she (Jewel) should not be unduly troubled by his preoccupation with his work but take consolation from the knowledge that she was Number One with him!
She admitted to having been very confused by these remarks, from which she had only recovered sufficiently to thank Sister for her kind words when they had arrived outside her gate; later observing to me her puzzlement about what being “Number One” meant, as it had not seemed to have much effect on Jerome’s treatment of her for a very long time, wondering on what Sister was basing her comments.
Before I had been able to get my bearings properly, what with the excitement over Victor, Jerome’s unusual behaviour, the holiday season, the outpouring of good wishes on all sides about both the season and Victor, Jewel’s intentions had not registered with me until after she had left the capital two days after Christmas and transferred home for a year.
At our last discussion about her situation, I do remember her saying that Sister Havers could not speak for Jerome and was only giving an opinion, that it would be foolish of her to put her faith in what a third party believed, and that her best option was to follow her original intention and leave for home now that her services to Victor were no longer needed.
It had been at this point that I had learnt of a further complication, which had been that Sister Isaacs, the Principal Nursing Officer, had told her last June of the Health Ministry’s offer of a Pan American Health Organization scholarship/attachment in Public Health at one of its regional centres, which she had refused on the grounds of having a prior commitment (to Victor).
One of the inducements Sister Isaacs had mentioned at the time had been a “glowing” recommendation given by Dr. St. John to PAHO, which she had said had been influential in clinching the offer.
What Sister Isaacs had revealed about Jerome’s part in the episode, although intended by her as another strong reason for Jewel to accept, had had the opposite effect, being interpreted by her at the time as just one more indication of his preference for her distance from the hospital compound.
I had been greatly distressed and saddened at how things had finally turned out with two of my favourite people, and only the joy of Victor’s recovery had kept my spirits up all through the holiday season. It wasn’t until we had begun to make preparations in early January for his departure on the 13th that I had spoken about the matter with him, mentioning how much I would miss seeing all three (including him) daily, as I had during the past year.
“Its Ullojay and Jewel, isn’t it?” he had asked openly, admitting that it had been a concern of his also, and confiding that he had asked Jerome about it one day. Jerome had put him off by recommending that he ask Jewel, who, when he did, had replied that it had had to do with the photographs and the political fiasco resulting from their use, but adding that she believed there was more to it than that, but that only Jerome could say exactly what.
Victor had lightly quoted Ecclesiastes that, “to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” which wishful thinking could not influence; consoling me that maybe the time was not yet right.
The holiday season had lasted for us from that fateful Wednesday when Jerome had given us the good news until Victor had left for San Diego. Nigel and I, who had been lucky enough to be allowed to have our two-week vacations synchronized, had spent the whole period entertaining relatives and friends who had come to celebrate with us our good fortune over Victor’s reprieve from the deadly illness, along with Christmas and the New Year.
Jerome, who had temporarily resumed his boyhood position in the family during this time, had maintained an urbane presence, being particularly attentive to Sonia and Safira when they brought Emerson to visit, but had not once mentioned Jewel’s name.
She had sent us a gift of a large box of homemade local sweets during the season and I had made sure to place them in a glass bowl on the dining-table and call everyone’s attention to it, inviting them to help themselves; and had noticed Jerome partake on at least one occasion, but without comment or a message to the donor.
It had been Mama who had broken the ice one night at dinner by asking if we had received any word about how Jewel was settling home after being away so long, inquiring of Jerome what year it was that she had come. He had given her the information and settled into silence as Mama had remarked on how much she was missed, in which we had all joined, even Daddy, who had joked that if he ever became ill Mama should be sure to send for Jewel to care for him.
When the subject of the photographs had come up, I had answered questions from around the dinner table concerning the various rumours that had been circulated about her having been compensated financially by the government, whose Information Service had been so efficient that many members of the public believed that Jewel had received a generous honorarium from them for services rendered. She, on the other hand, had avoided comment whenever asked for confirmation or otherwise.
Linda, who had been absent from the capital during the clections, had received various accounts from Miss Olive and others; and in enquiring into their accuracy had given me the opportunity to set a few things straight in Jerome’s hearing. I had informed those present that Jewel had told her parents that she would soon be coming home for a year’s break, and it had been her father who had asked her before doing so to attend the formal opening of a village clinic in our district at the invitation of their Area Representative; and although he had not said so at the time it had been to get the politician off his back.
Revealing the story of how the fellow had attempted but failed to confiscate Mr. Lino’s land, I had shown how that had caused people in his constituency to turn against him. Trying to boost his image he had tried to be seen with Mr. Lino’s daughter in a public place, and Jewel had played right into his hands in trying to please her father, who was doing his best to pacify a troubling situation.
I had explained how they had set her up at the clinic opening by arranging for colour photos to be taken of them together at his signal. As soon as he had received a bouquet of flowers, he had walked straight to where she had been standing and asked her to hold it for him. Three photographs had been taken instantaneously, and before a week was over they had been developed and printed. Normally they wouldn’t have wasted colour photographs on a routine clinic opening, but they had had plans for later on. Eventually the announcement had come out that elections were being brought forward and a sophisticated technicolor brochure featuring the photograph of her and the politician together had been published and made available in every constituency all over the country.
Jewel had kept her cool all through the election fever while working in the busiest clinic in the country; and it had only been Victor’s illness which had kept her in the capital, so she had left as soon as he was out of danger.
Jerome, who had made no contribution to the conversation, had left for the hospital a little after dinner; and although I may have been heavy-handed in Jewel’s advocacy, I hoped he had at least digested the facts.
After Victor’s departure, Nigel and I had entered an “empty nest” phase of our life where we were parents without children. Mama being present in the house, however, had attracted all the cousins, nieces and nephews and, combined with Linda’s Ernesto and Chela and Sonia’s Emerson, our house was soon lively again with the sound of children.
Jerome ate with us often and was soon busy again with fund-raising activities towards the Cancer Unit, enlisting the support of Belinda, who became one of its chief enthusiasts.
From time to time, I received a letter from Jewel, who had thrown herself into her job, as well as parish and community work along with her parents and Nurse Pauline, who had spearheaded a mid-day meal feeding programme for children of elementary school age, on a Salvation Army property, adopting their slogan that “whosoever will may come.” Her middle brother, Kiah (christened Hezekiah), was in the final year of high school, and Caleb, the youngest, two years behind him. She ended her letters with best regards and God’s blessings on each and everyone at home, without naming anyone specifically; and I heard through Sonia and Safira that she spoke to them by phone once per month. Emerson, who had been heartbroken at her going, had boycotted her at first, but was now reconciled to his “Jill” and eager when the day for her call arrived, which was the third Sunday of each month.
The days passed in a steady rhythm until April came around, a month memorable for the historic Easter holidays as well as for Jewel’s and Jerome’s unhappy encounter two years before.
At about eleven a.m. on the first Saturday of that month, Jerome had passed by my work station and mentioned that he was taking the eleven-thirty flight to visit his aunt and did I have any message for her in case he saw Jewel? At the sudden and unexpected request, all I had been able to do was ask that he give her our love.