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Jerome’s blues …

From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama - a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan

Chapter 35

Jerome had been so deeply affected at witnessing what he believed had been a deliberate act on Jewel’s part to flaunt her admirer in his face that he had said the first thing that had come to his mind, randomly linking it with politics, since the man involved had been a politician, not even remembering afterwards what he had said. Jerome had headed for his office where he had locked himself in and, for the first time, activated the “do not disturb” button on his door.

He could not say how long he had sat and brooded at his desk over the seeming betrayal by the young woman who had, at last, taken over his heart as no one had ever done before, but whose seeming treachery had caused such disturbance to his peace of mind!

When someone had dared to knock at his door in spite of the sign, he had flung it open with such fury that he had shocked Sister Havers, who had come to remind him that his patient had been prepared and waiting for half an hour!

This had been a day of many firsts for Jerome, and they had come one after the other.  He who had never kept a patient waiting in his entire career had forgotten all about his appointment in his eagerness to meet with Jewel!  He had mentioned to Sister Havers that he would take a brief moment to look after an urgent errand and return to the theatre shortly.  Now he who was usually in place at least fifteen minutes before every surgery had been so distracted by the morning’s experience that everything had been wiped from his mind!

Sister Havers, dedicated friend that she was, had recognized immediately that something out of the ordinary had taken place, and in brisk and businesslike fashion had taken responsibility for the lapse, walked alongside him on the way to the theatre and, pretending that what had happened had been her fault, had coaxed him into action.

Much later he had confided to Jewel how Sister Havers had stood beside him and saved his face through her loyalty, encouragement and expertise, every step of the way anticipating and providing his requirements until the successful completion of an operation he had performed in almost a sleep-walking state!

ooo0ooo

One might have thought there had been enough trouble to last the lovers for a long time, but, unfortunately, there had been still more to come; and the politicians had only been getting into gear for the malicious, distasteful and disagreeable campaign of an election which had generated ill-will in the community to a degree unknown before.

In response to the rising popularity of the Black Power movement which had appeared in our midst, they had mounted a giant effort to disprove that colour discrimination existed in the country, courting the black vote with every means at their disposal, in the midst of which Jewel had become an involuntary asset!

Before Jerome and Jewel had even had a chance to recover from the first blow, the second one had struck. Campaigning on a “Tourism” platform, the party had prepared a brochure touting the attractions of the country, and as an example of illustrating the harmonious relationship of the ethnically diverse population, had featured the colour photograph of Jewel and the Area Representative taken at the clinic opening in a prominent place in the publication, without her knowledge or agreement, thereby putting a further spoke in the wheels of a Jerome/Jewel relationship that was foundering and hardening Jerome’s displeasure at what appeared to him to be Jewel’s collusion with their activities.

ooo0ooo

In the midst of all the confusion, personal tragedy had struck our family in the form of a serious illness overtaking our beloved Victor hundreds of miles away from home!

On the Sunday after the episode of Jerome and Jewel’s misunderstanding, if we can call it that, the telephone had rung just as Nigel and I had arrived home from church, Lloyd having let us off before taking the car to run an errand.  I remember watching curiously as Nigel had picked up the receiver, identified himself, and, after listening for several minutes, saying:  “Yes . . .  of course .  . . give me a minute,“ in answer to a question, set it down on the table and walked through the dining-room and into the kitchen.

Putting my bag on the centre table, I had called to ask him who the speaker was, and he had returned to the living-room with a glass of water in his hand, sipping absent-mindedly and wearing a worried expression but saying nothing in reply. I had repeated my question, to which he had finally answered that it was long-distance from Rodney.  I remember thinking it odd that my brother had not asked to speak with me and, also, that Nigel had left the call pending!

Then, as if suddenly awakening, Nigel had put down the glass of water, picked up the receiver, and, speaking disjointedly, had resumed the call with: “Yes, I’m still here . . .  I’ll tell her . . .   them . . . yes, I’ll take care of it . . .  yes, . . .  get back . . . “ and hung up.

I had panicked at Nigel’s unusual behaviour and demanded to know what was going on!  At this he had come over and, embracing me, had said he had something to tell me but that he didn’t want to alarm me, as he was sure we could get through this together.  I had known immediately that it had concerned Victor and heard myself screaming at him to say what he was saying!

“Rodney called to say that Victor is in the hospital,” he had started to say quietly, but before he had been able to go on, he had said later, I had gone heavy in his arms at the same time that the front doorbell had rung.  Burdened by my weight, he had not been able to move and had had to call out to ask who had been at the door.  Luckily it had been Jewel, who had come to pick up her umbrella left behind a previous Sunday.  He had told her the back door was open and to please come through it.

Her response had been quick on entering. She had sized up the situation, assisted Nigel in getting me to the couch, loosened my clothing and set about reviving me.  As I had regained consciousness I had heard Nigel giving Jewel a number at which she could reach Jerome and ask him to come over urgently, then had turned to me and gently broken the news that Victor had been diagnosed with leukemia, but that his doctor was hopeful of his chances for recovery as it had been caught at its earliest stage.

He said that Rodney, like Mama, who had rushed us to doctor at the first sign of any illness, had taken extra care since he had had the responsibility for our Victor and, thus, had been able to catch the signs that something hadn’t been right even before Victor himself had made any complaints.

I must tell you that this news had left me as helpless as a baby, and to everything else that had taken place that Sunday I had become a numb spectator. First of all, I had had no confidence in the veracity of what had been said about recovery as, at that time, I had never heard of such a thing happening even in America, and was sure that the promising prognosis had only been for my benefit.

I had watched as Jewel had dialled the number Nigel had given her, heard her diffident request to speak to Dr. St. John, her respectful acknowledgement of him on the line and then the delivery of Nigel’s message.  She had hardly hung up when she had had to open the front door for him while I had sat inert in Nigel’s arms on the couch.

Entering with the shoulder bag he had carried in place of the conventional doctor’s case, Jerome had come over and asked Nigel what was wrong.  Addressing him with me half-sitting with his arm around my shoulder, Nigel had given a quick report of the bare facts he had received from Rodney, at which Jerome had knelt on the floor in front of me, taken both my hands in his and gently asked how I was feeling.  While awaiting my answer he had started to take out his stethoscope with the intention of examining me and, speaking conversationally, had proposed to give me a sedative if I thought that would be all right; but I had stayed his hand and said I preferred to remain how and where I was for the time being and that all I wanted was to have more information about my baby’s condition.

Nigel had turned to Jewel, who was standing by a window looking on quietly, and asked her to retrieve his address book from his briefcase on the desk in our bedroom; and she had hastily complied and handed it to him.  Without letting me go, Nigel had used one hand to find the page with Rodney’s address and telephone number, then asked Jewel to pass it to Jerome, who had done so and retired to her place near the window. Receiving it and thanking her formally, Jerome had dialled the operator and, arranging with her for the transfer of charges to his personal number, requested the placing of the call to Rodney.

ooo0ooo

Now that the worst is over, I can say that by the grace of Almighty God, Nigel and I and the whole family had survived the ordeal of Victor’s illness, supported by loving friends and family, at the forefront of which had been Jerome and Jewel.

He had taken action immediately by speaking with Rodney and gleaning from him all available details at his disposal, after which he had spoken at length with the main doctor dealing with the case.  Then, speaking to those of us present, which had included Lloyd, who had returned from his errand, and Jewel, who had remained in the background until I had asked her to sit next to me, had given a concise rundown of the situation.

In a calm and factual way he had explained, in as simple terms as he could, the nature of the illness that had descended on Victor. Jerome had taken a positive outlook, treating the problem as if it were manageable and a challenge he was confident we were quite capable of meeting and conquering.  For the present Victor was being given the best medical care available, he had said, and had been surrounded by the love of his uncle, aunt and cousin, who sent their love and good wishes to Mother and Father Burke and to all of us, and expressed the hope and belief that this calamity would soon be behind us.

ooo0ooo

Even as I had gone about that day with Daddy’s maxim: “One step, and then another, and the longest walk is ended” playing like a record at the back of my mind, I had been aware of both Jerome and Jewel struggling to contain their personal distress by reverting to their formal professional relationship.  To watch their interaction you would have thought them to be a hired team rather than family friends showing their concern for us in our hour of need.  Everything else had taken second place to their preoccupation with our immediate problem, and it wasn’t until long after things had calmed down somewhat that Jewel and I had had a chance to discuss their personal problems.

Life went on, as the saying goes, with Mama transferring to Alida’s bedroom at our house to be near me, and Lloyd moving into the extra bedroom in theirs to be company for Daddy; upbeat reports came regularly from Rodney and his family; and even Lionel, whom he had updated about family happenings as soon as he had been able, had written encouragingly from the Far East where his travels had taken him.  Leaving his wife and two boys behind, Robbie visited with us from up North every other weekend. My Uncle Lito dropped in to chat with Mama nearly every evening.  Miss Olive shared herself between the two households, everyone having their meals at our house, Lloyd and Daddy having the run of the other and fending for themselves at other times, and we increased her pay and hired her niece to assist with the extra duties.  Nigel and I continued at our jobs without interruption, finding it much easier to follow a familiar routine than to spend time letting our imagination roam into hazardous places.

And so we subsisted on bare necessities and timely reports on how treatment progressed, with heartening news at the point where the need for surgery had been ruled out, chemotherapy undertaken instead and a hopeful prognosis made; all this punctuated by local news about the election slated for the second Tuesday in November, 1971.

Somehow, the countdown to elections and Victor’s undergoing chemotherapy had run a neck-and-neck race and provided mutual distraction, ending in a victory on Election Day for the party in power and a satisfactory outcome to Victor’s chemotherapy.

During that period, Jewel had had to weather the publicity of a political campaign which, among other things, had targeted the winning party for its exploitation of a public servant, mounted by the Opposition on one hand; and, on the other, the circulation and display of the literature featuring her photograph prominently by the Information Department, exposing the shy nurse to the familiarity of the public as she went about her work in the busiest of all the public health clinics in the capital.

She had withstood her trials calmly by concentrating on her work, and maintained close contact with me regarding news about Victor, investing in phone calls through her landlady’s facility when work or home activities prevented her from visiting me and, overall, being a source of reassurance and companionship to us all.

One of the unexpected consequences of Victor’s illness had been a unity of purpose regarding the hospital’s expansion.  It was as if the need, emphasized by our misfortune, had strengthened the resolve of both staff and public, as also our personal friends at home and abroad, to work towards the project.  Monetary contributions had come from individuals and from patriotic groups in places all over the world to which our citizens had migrated, inspiring immediate commissioning of draft plans by the government for its construction, ignoring the sceptics who thought this premature as much more funds would be needed to commence actual building.

With Victor’s chemotherapy completed, came the matter of his convalescence.  No guarantees had been given, of course, and only time would decide what the final result would be. My dear brother Rodney had undertaken to take care of the hospital bill over time, and Nigel and I, after consulting with Jerome, had decided that it was best that we bring him home, where Jerome would supervise his care here, in close consultation by telephone with his doctor abroad.

After the chemotherapy, Matron, Mr. Reg and Jerome had held a consultation together with the family at our house and had offered to equip Victor and Lloyd’s bedroom with whatever was necessary by way of instruments, medical supplies, furnishings, etc. to function as a hospital room until such time as the Cancer Unit became a reality.

Everyone treated me with the greatest kindness and consideration, but agreed that it was best that an outsider be hired to perform the daily tasks of a nurse in attendance; and when I informed Jewel of our intention, she had offered to call at home and carry out these tasks before and after work each day at the clinic. Jerome seemed to have some doubts whether she could cope with such a demanding schedule, but agreed to give it a try, so we had made preparations for Victor’s homecoming.

 ooo0ooo

Victor had arrived just after the New Year, accompanied by Rodney, his wife Anna and daughter Eileen, who had charmed us all with a personality very like Mama’s, her namesake.  She was slightly older than Lloyd, about twenty-six, with a Bachelor’s degree in Education and working towards her Master’s, intending to become a teacher.

During their one-week stay Mama had temporarily vacated Alida’s room so Eileen could stay there; and returned to her house where she and Daddy entertained Rodney and Anna in their spare bedroom. Lloyd settled into the room shared with Victor, the hospital trappings arranged to be unobtrusive by Jewel, who had come over to help in the preparations but had retired “so the family can have privacy while visiting with each other,” promising to turn up for “duty” once they had left.

ooo0ooo

An aside worthy of note had been that the government, in anticipation of a victory, had produced in its 1972 calendar scenes taken from their tourist brochure, which had featured in its April segment one of a solo photograph of Jewel.

Copies having been distributed widely and to all government departments and institutions, this calendar had appeared in all sorts of places, once more calling attention to the beautiful but shy nurse who was becoming well known throughout the country, and also serving as a reminder to Jerome of the unpleasant episode.

I had taken my two-week vacation leave to coincide with Rodney and company’s stay at home and the settling-in period after they left, during which time Jerome had brought Sister Havers along with him on his visits, to familiarize her with the case and to assist with Victor’s preliminary treatment until Jewel began her “tour of duty.”

At six o’clock on the Monday morning after the departure of Rodney and family, Jewel had appeared dressed for work, and had spent a businesslike period conducting the tests listed on the chart left by Jerome; and after an emotional half hour of catching up with Victor, had ridden off on her bicycle to report to her regular job at the government clinic.

She usually walked to work, but had acquired a second-hand bicycle to facilitate attendance at evening classes in English Language and Sociology at the University Centre, which was more than a mile from her dwelling; for which purpose she had worn a pant-suit uniform, with the permission of an administration which generally disapproved of the female staff’s use of this “modern” convenient garment. The bicycle had now come in handy to reach our house and back to work on time.

After she had left, Victor had commented with surprise at how much more mature and modern she had become in the time he had been away, at which I had taken the opportunity to relate some of her experiences during that period.  I made no mention of anything in connection with Jerome, of course, realizing that he could see for himself that all was not right between them, both having taken refuge in a strict formality on the occasions  that they had been in the same place together.  Fortunately, my Victor could always be counted on to be discreet.

ooo0ooo

Month after month, rain or shine, Jewel had arrived at six every morning and evening, performed normal hospital duties plus whatever Jerome had assigned from time to time in writing, keeping daily charts for his convenience.  He had made private arrangements for the collection and delivery of samples for testing to an independent lab, or to be sent abroad, avoiding infringing on the government hospital’s facilities.

Jewel, who had been successful at the GCE “O” Level examinations in English and Sociology some time before, was looking forward to the beginning of the Advanced Level course in Sociology in mid-February and, until then, often spent some enjoyable time with Victor and me after completing her evening duties, leaving shortly before seven to be with her small family and to keep out of Jerome’s way, as he usually dropped in at that hour.

When the course had started, however, she had attended classes for two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving us after completion of her nursing tasks, thus curtailing our time together.  During that period her caring presence had been a great relief to the whole family, as had been her cheering interaction with Victor and Lloyd.  Only Alida had been missing to complete the four-member consulting group of their post-Easter holidays, while she tried to concentrate on her studies amidst anxiety over her brother.

A slight change of timetable had come in early April, as the “A” level Sociology class at the University Centre had had to be scrapped due to five of the original eight who had signed up for it dropping out,  making it too expensive to be continued.  Through an arrangement with the fledging University College, however, the three had been allowed to join its first-year class in that subject, held on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons.

It happened that several of the nurses from the training school had been attending these classes as part of their programme, the nursing school saving on cost thereby.  The class was taught by a young American who had served some years before as a member of the Peace Corps prior to doing graduate studies, and because of this had been well-known to many of the students, among whom he was popular.

After a while a rumour had begun to circulate that he liked Jewel, which had come to Victor’s notice through visits from his and Alida’s former Sixth Form classmates, and he had asked Jewel about it.  She had shrugged it off by saying that it was only the silliness of some younger girl students who were into matchmaking, because he had praised her performance in class a couple times; due, she had explained, to her facility with some of the material which she had studied at the GCE “O” level and which was being covered in greater depth in the course she was then taking.

There had seemed to be some seriousness on the gentleman’s part, however, as the rumour had persisted.  One of these friends who happened to be working in the University College’s office had paid a visit to Victor one evening when Jewel had been present, and had asked her if she was still being bothered by him, when his name had come up as being a good teacher.

She had denied that he had been a problem, saying later to Victor and I that it was only that he had asked her for a date and had found it hard to understand why she would not go out with him, pressing her for a reason, since other local girls had gone out with him and had found him to be a nice guy;  and had shared with us that she had been able to convince him that it had just not been the custom of people from her background and had nothing to do with the black/white issue that had been uppermost in people’s minds at that time, and that since then they had become good friends, being part of a group which regularly visited a snack shop near the University College after classes.

Before laying this matter to rest, I should mention an incident of Jerome’s having taken Victor for a drive one night, as he often did and, at his request, having dropped in at the popular snack shop referred to, where they had seen Jewel there with the group.  He had excused himself from Jerome and walked over to hail her for a minute, which had been stretched out to several minutes when the young man had introduced himself as the lecturer of the class Jewel was taking and being happy to meet the friend of whom she had spoken.

Victor had confided that he had liked Gary Glassman and found that they had had a lot in common besides their major; and, having been walked by him back to his table, he had introduced him to Jerome, for whom he seemed to have a lot of respect, mentioning that many of the nurse-trainee participants in his class had spoken highly of him.

Victor had commented that although Jerome had been his usual cordial self that night, he had detected a lack of warmth in his manner, possibly due to fatigue he had guessed; and although I had reserved my opinion on this, I believed it to have been an expression of his possessiveness where Jewel was concerned, in spite of their estrangement at the time.

ooo0ooo

Then, as we were settling into a routine, the opportunity had come for Lloyd to follow in Nigel’s footsteps and do training in Public Administration at the regional university, which was offering a degree course in that subject starting in the new academic year beginning in October.  Like Nigel, his field had been Accounting and Finance, and he had started work in the government Treasury Department after leaving Sixth Form with “A” levels in Accounting and Economics.  Like his father, also, he had been sent abroad for tertiary level training in Canada, and, with the credits earned in that course along with his “A” levels applied to this new programme, the time needed to complete his degree had been shortened to two academic years.

Because his absence would leave Daddy on his own, Nigel and I considered inviting him to join Mama over at our place and to offer Jewel and company the chance to occupy their house rent-free for the two years that Lloyd would be away; but before we could act on this intention, my sister Belinda had asked my parents’ permission to live there, as she had decided to leave her husband and come to live in the capital with her two children, thus solving one problem but creating another.

Mama had voiced the opinion before that ever since the incident with Jerome and the custard apple, those many years ago my younger sister had been treated by the rest of us almost like an outcast, which she felt might well have contributed to her very unsettled life with a husband who seemed fascinated by her looks and style but intolerant of what he called her selfish ways.

I was afraid that she might be a source of worry to my parents, who had enough on their hands with Victor’s illness; but Nigel believed that her presence near to home might serve the double purpose of stabilizing her relationship with the family and, being physically near to Mama, reassure her about her well-being.  Besides that, he had reminded me gently, Victor was not my mother’s only grandchild!

I had given serious thought to how Belinda, who happened to be the lightest-complexioned of us, her siblings, and, after marrying a Latin type from up north and producing light-skinned children, tended to reveal a subtle attitude of superiority towards the rest of us, and was not comfortable with the idea of her nearby presence.

Nigel, the peacemaker, on the other hand, was convinced that the reason and conditions of the return to her childhood surroundings would influence her attitude and behaviour for the better; besides which, he had shamed me by saying, it was time to rise above childhood rivalries and show magnanimity towards someone who was clearly having a difficult time.

ooo0ooo

But I am getting a little ahead of myself, and would like to give a short update regarding Jewel and Jerome’s situation.

The government, as a concession to the part played by her in their party’s success at the polls, had, through the Minister of Health, expressed appreciation in a short note to the Chief Medical Officer for what they had termed her “patriotism,” offering an honorarium after the fact.  As a courtesy, Dr. Branche had passed this note over to Jerome, who had been instrumental in bringing Jewel into the fold, as he had put it, requesting that he bring it to her attention.  In turn, he had asked Nigel to take care of it.

Normally, Nigel did not bring office matters home, but in light of the greater closeness between us resulting from our preoccupation with Victor, as well as having sympathetic feelings towards Jewel, he had relaxed his behaviour and confided in me what had been the result of their encounter.

First of all, he had said, he had had to smile after waiting for a long time while she had stared at the note in silence, then asked what would happen if he told them that she had said nothing, to which he had replied that it would be awkward, as he had been asked to deal with the matter.

Her reaction to this had been to say she did not want him to think of her as ill-mannered but would like to speak off the record only to him; and, with his agreement, she had unburdened herself of her hurt at being treated with contempt. “They” had carried out their plans without consulting anybody, had used Absalom Itza to set her up, had done whatever had served their purpose regardless of damage to anybody in their way.  “They” had not consulted her as to whether she was willing or not, and she had had no power to help or hinder them in what they had set out to do.  She had done nothing to deserve any reward, and had ended the interview by asking if he would state her position as respectfully as possible to the powers-that-be so as to safeguard her job.

Impressed by Jewel’s behaviour at this interview and wishing to represent her interests fairly, Nigel   had decided to be as brief as possible, allowing no room for misinterpretation, and thus had written the Ministry a vague memo stating that Nurse Choc did not consider herself deserving of any special treatment.

That seemed to have solved everybody’s problem, as nothing further had been heard from any of the entities involved.

(Chapter 36 in Tuesday’s Amandala)

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