From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama – a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan
Chapter 34 continues
Jewel, reflecting a continued radiance from the night before, when she had received many compliments about her appearance in Gertrude’s creation, had attended the Communion service at nine the following morning along with Sonia, Safira and Emerson, as had Jerome, Nigel, Lloyd and I.
Although we had sat in different places, after the service we had all met together under the wide front porch of the church, Jewel next to me, when Jerome had come over to greet us and had mentioned that he had intended to spend the afternoon at our house but had changed his plan on receiving a request from the Betancourts to join them for the mid-day meal and a post-mortem of the fund-raiser, which had exceeded all their financial expectations. He had anticipated success judging from his observations throughout the night, but the actual gross quoted to him had been outstanding and very heartening.
I could not say exactly what had passed between Jerome and Jewel before the group had broken up, but I had had the feeling of subtle communication having taken place, noticeable to Nigel also, who had remarked on it on the way home.
There had been a glow to them both during the following week, but Jerome had been absent from church that Sunday, at which Jewel had seemed to register keen disappointment. He had been missing the next Sunday again, which had elicited the remark from my usually reticent protégé that she was being transferred to the Southside public health clinic as of the next day, March 1st, seeming to imply a linkage between the two facts, and causing an unhappy reaction from her.
Jerome had been absent from church during the whole of March, and I had begun to notice a growing sadness in Jewel when we met each week, and that she hadn’t taken Holy Communion in over a month. On the third Sunday of that month she had mentioned during conversation after the service that she felt it was time to return to her home district for a while, and I had been puzzled at what could have brought this on so suddenly.
On Friday the 27th, she had come to the hospital to pick up her pay voucher and had mentioned then that she had had a request from her Pap, via their Area Representative (yes, the same Absalom Itza who had tried to get his land away from him), that she attend the Opening of a public health clinic in the oldest Creole village in our district on Palm Sunday, at his invitation.
Jewel had told me frankly that she suspected that the Representative’s objective was to cater to the Creole element in their home district, which had been turned off by his mistreatment of her father in connection with the twenty-five acres; but that if Mr. Lino’s daughter was seen with him at the clinic-opening – and the Information Department would make sure of this, usually flooding the whole country with photographs of these events – it might quell the rumours of his treachery and improve his chances of re-election the following March.
She had said that she believed that her father shared her suspicions, but that it was not in his nature to harbour grudges against anyone, so she had decided to attend the Opening at his request, as well as for other reasons which she had not mentioned.
In the interests of continuity, I am now inserting an account of incidents which had taken place after the Valentine dance but which had been unknown to me at the time.
Jerome had taken Jewel home after dropping off the others, as she had been the last stop before reaching his house. He had carried her kit-bag to the door and put out his hand for the key, observing her closely as she had searched for it in her purse. According to her, she had felt self-conscious with his eyes on her while he had waited and, when she had handed him the key, he had taken it and then bent down and kissed her softly on the lips. Nervous and overcome by this unexpected action, she had kept her eyes down; and he had put her kit-bag on a nearby stool, unlocked the door but left the key in it, then turned again to her, saying nothing.
When she had finally looked up she had been startled by his expression when their eyes had met; and he had reached out and, holding her face in both hands, had kissed her a second time, very differently from the first, then leaned back and looked her fully in the eyes. She had returned his look and, encouraged by it, had lost all restraint and had moved into his arms as he had reached for her, returning his long kiss and giving herself to him.
When she had related these details to me, which had actually been long afterwards, I remember having been stunned even then both by such an admission and by the words she had used, and had interrupted involuntarily with: “Jewel, what are you saying? What are you saying, Jewel?”
She had shaken her head slowly and replied quietly, “Don’t worry, Sister, he didn’t accept.”
I had waited as she had calmly picked up the thread of her story, continuing that the kiss that had followed had been long and deep, but had ended suddenly with her stiffening at the sound of her name being called and, simultaneously, becoming aware that he had been waiting for her to move away first.
She had realized at the time that she had shocked Jerome – not only herself – by her behaviour, and had taken all the blame for how things had turned out, for their relationship had undergone a rocky two years since that night.
She had confessed to me that from looking into his eyes she had recognized his desire and, wanting to please him, had recklessly resolved to make the most of the moment, regardless of the consequences. She had long acknowledged to herself that she loved him, but had believed there had been no chance of his feeling the same.
She had continued that it had been Emerson who had called out his name for her, “Jill!” just at the moment that she had remembered what Jerome had said at Caye that Easter about the heavier burden the woman carried, and that as she had stiffened he had started to back away from her, then had taken hold of both her hands and put them to his lips. She had felt his kiss on her hands until, slowly, he had let them go; but before his hands had fallen to his side she had taken his right one in hers and rubbed it against her cheek. They had looked into each other’s eyes for a magic moment until, finally, he had said softly, “Goodnight, my dear,” and left. She had marked the sound of his departure, his footsteps on the veranda, down the three steps, the gate opening and closing, then the car door opening and closing, the motor starting up, and the car moving off!
As if in a dream she had picked up her kit-bag, stumbled through the door, closed and leaned against it, then had slipped to the floor as her shaking legs had given way under her. Huddled there she had closed her eyes and dreamily gone over the recent events in her mind, until, for the second time that night she had heard Emerson call out her name, and had looked up to see him reaching for her across his mother, who had been sitting quietly with him in the rocking chair. As she had taken him from Sonia their eyes had met and Jewel had nodded her head up and down as if saying: “Now you know!” then Emerson had pushed out of her arms and returned to his mother.
Jerome had told her, more than two years later, that when he had left her house he had turned onto the Northern Highway without thinking and had continued driving at high speed until, suddenly realizing it, he had reached the border and an Immigration officer had called out to ask him if he wanted to cross. He had answered in the negative, circled and turned back in the direction from which he had come, arriving back in the capital with the sun in his eyes on the return trip. He had travelled the two hundred miles to and from the border in about three and a half hours!
He had gone home, taken a shower and, remembering that it was Sunday, had started to dress for church when the telephone had rung; and it had been Mr. Betancourt with the good news about the financial success of the fund-raiser and an invitation to dinner and a wrap-up.
He had told Jewel that ever since that night she had been in his thoughts constantly, and he had known without a doubt that he wanted her as his wife, many times going over in his mind how he would go about it. He had overheard her talking with my children about her experiences with the different young men who had shown an interest in her, but ever since her twenty-first birthday he had tested her from time to time and been convinced by her behaviour, especially that night, that she would be receptive to a proposal from him. It had become only a question of how and when he would make his move.
He had given thought to the matter of her parents living so far away, as well as concern whether their permission would still be required, considering their age difference. After all, he was an adult who knew his mind, not some immature boy with high aspirations, although he was aware that he would be lucky to gain a prize such as she.
He had worked with new vigour and enthusiasm the following week, looking forward to seeing her that Sunday, when a female friend on the staff (he hadn’t called any name but I had found out that it had been Irene Hendy, one of the senior sisters) had accosted him when he had been leaving the operating theatre late Thursday evening, after a challenging day of surgery, joking how she had heard all about him and had noticed how he had been bouncing around the place like “Top’na’chick” (the local name of a breed of chicken known for its vigour and energy)!
She had warned him to be careful and mind he didn’t get into trouble, because “they” had their eye on him, remembered young Franklin and how Jerome had jumped in and spoilt all their plans, for which “they” had not overlooked or forgotten him. She hoped he knew “they” were planning to bring forward elections from March next year to this November, and that maybe it would be better that he put off his “jolly” until after then, as “they” would be grateful for any excuse to undermine or discredit him!
Irene Hendy, a strong and bold supporter of the Opposition, whose preoccupation was with the everyday warfare of party politics as practiced in our country at the time, was warning Jerome about the machinations of the governing party, which had allegedly been greatly frustrated by Dr. Francis’ departure from the medical services of the country, making necessary the re-casting of their manoeuvres to place supporters in positions of influence in a department that was allegedly neutral from party politics.
Those had been precarious times for us the darker-skinned population of our country, as the majority of leaders in the party in power had been either light-skinned or of Hispanic extraction, or both. To all appearances they had adopted a policy of “Latinisation” of positions and departments of influence, advocating the appointment of Spanish-speaking individuals to positions of power.
Being the only officially English-speaking country in the area, surrounded by Hispanic republics, the black population had been alarmed and/or threatened at being sidelined by their Hispanic countrymen’s ascendancy, as there were many citizens of that extraction within the population, joined by refugees of the Central American wars taking place at the time, creating a formidable and intimidating presence to an already disadvantaged group.
Whenever someone in line for promotion appeared to be eased out of his position or replaced either by someone light-skinned or of Latin extraction, the suspicion of having been discriminated against had been very strong. And when such incidents had appeared to occur at an increasing rate, resentment had become a natural result.
Irene Hendy’s experience had been a case in point. Her husband had been deputy to the Chief Mechanic in the Police Department, on whose retirement he had been in line for promotion to the post. However, he spoke no Spanish, so that when a gift of vehicles had been received by the Department from one of the surrounding republics, it had been perceived that the powers-that-be had deemed it justifiable to promote someone of that extraction from the northern district, who could interact with the donors, to another post of deputy along with Inspector Hendy.
Alarmed and resentful of what he had interpreted as the handwriting on the wall, he had resigned from the service at fifty-one, foregoing his pension, and had departed for the United States, where close relatives had sponsored his migration eventually. Irene had stayed behind until the retirement age of fifty-five, so as to qualify for hers, their having agreed for the sake of the children that it would be foolish for them both to sacrifice pensions for which they had worked hard.
Their physical separation had resulted in the deterioration of their marriage and, since there had been no visits in the interim, by the time she and the children had joined him as permanent residents, they had become estranged, absence along with rumours of infidelity having taken a toll.
They had stayed together for some years until the children had been sufficiently grown to fend for themselves, never formally divorced but functioning independently of each other until she had qualified for Social Security, when she had returned home and been re-employed on a year-to-year basis by an always short-staffed department.
The difficulties experienced by her husband and herself had hardened her resolve to actively oppose a government she had felt responsible for driving them from their country, and had returned with the intention of doing her best to bring it down.
Colour discrimination against the darker-complexioned of the community had been nothing new to our world, and it had become like second nature to withstand it by all legitimate means at our disposal, one of the most effective tools being education. Both major political parties recognized its value, those in power having greater resources than the Opposition naturally utilizing that advantage to train and educate its avowed or prospective supporters.
One of the many reasons for Matron’s popularity in the community had been that she represented hope for that segment of the population, for which she had been a great resource; and, aware of this, the Opposition had courted her diligently, but she had always maintained a strict position of non-alignment in the matter of party politics, and also remaining neutral about colour, ethnicity, gender, denomination or any other affiliation.
Independent and self-reliant, Matron had conducted her life according to her perception of her Christian duty to her fellowman, recognizing no obligation to anything but her conscience.
She had long ago given up attendance exclusively at any particular denominational church services, believing them all to represent expatriate interests, and appeared in congregations all over the country, participating in worship with the Salvation Army, the City Mission, Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, Nazarenes or any other religious group appearing to acknowledge One God.
She gave financial assistance to individuals and groups by grants or loans for education, training or business purposes, often utilizing her personal resources when it was not feasible to use the Bertram Fund, the criteria, apart from good character, being need, ability, patriotism or good intentions.
She herself lived an austere life, empathizing with all those she encountered in the course of her unofficial social work activities while serving on numerous boards and committees and spent very little on her personal needs.
Jerome, who shared with her control of his grandfather’s estate, many times had reminded her of her entitlement to its assets for her personal use, to no avail; and when he purchased gifts of clothing or jewellery for her from his earnings, she would protest to my mother that he was wasting money on an old lady whom nobody was noticing, his response being to ask whether she was referring to him and his father as nobody; for by this time Mr. Reg had gradually returned home after the departure of Ms. Olivera along with their daughter to a more sophisticated lifestyle in the cities of the First World.
Justin getting married had been the occasion for turning over his living quarters upstairs of his office to Miss Olivia and the young couple, transferring his remaining personal effects to the marital home and, with her agreement, reuniting with the wife with whom he had always maintained a close relationship.
To return to the subject of the lovers, Jerome had taken the decision to postpone his marriage plans until after the annual budget meeting of the government, scheduled for the end of March, allowing him time to marshal his forces to make a strong representation in favour of formally inaugurating a plan to construct a wing to the hospital to accommodate a Cancer Unit and provide space for other pressing needs; his objective being to propose the creation of a special fund for this purpose, with the proceeds of the fund-raiser as its nucleus.
The tip from Irene Hendy about the bringing forward of general elections to November that year had convinced him of the timeliness of pushing this cause; and, for this purpose, individuals and institutions like Mr. Betancourt, the Hospital Auxiliary, the Nurses and the Doctors and Dentists Associations, etc. would have to be organized within a short time to reinforce the Department’s position with the Ministry of Health, requiring the concentration of all his energies and attention on this objective.
Annoyed by Sister Hendy’s use of the word “jolly” in connection with his feelings for Jewel, thereby implying a trivial fancy, Jerome had decided to throw everyone off the scent by avoiding unnecessary contact with her until after achieving his pressing goal.
Typically, he had confided his personal plans to no one; and Jewel, in ignorance of them, had put her own interpretation to his actions, regarding her transfer away from the hospital compound, and the lack of contact with him for over six weeks as an indication of his embarrassment and disappointment over her boldness in having offered herself to him once he had had time to think matters over carefully.
I had noticed her growing dejection, but had had no idea of its cause. Knowing Jerome as I did, I might at least have been able to enlighten her about his single-mindedness when involved in any important undertaking, to the exclusion of everything else. It was not unusual for him to disappear from our lives without explanation for long stretches of time, then cheerfully popping up suddenly and resuming our usual association once he had achieved his particular goal. Sometimes one of the children, Mama, or someone else might be privy to the reason for his preoccupation and be able to predict when he would reappear, but that was his way of doing things, and we had become accepting of it.
Additionally, I strongly suspect that despite the enlightened state of the males of my family, there still remained in their psyche a trace of the traditional male attitude that “decent” women could be expected to adjust to their convenience.
Apart from this, Jewel, in this instance being remorseful over what she had viewed as her moral lapse the night after the dance, had interpreted his absence as God’s punishment for her sin and the sacrilege of her preoccupation with worldly matters in His House when, try as she might, she had found herself unable to control her gaze from straying to Jerome’s customary seat during the service in the hope of seeing him.
In the circumstances she could not bring herself to partake of Holy Communion, the words of the confessional prayer that “we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts; we have offended against Thy Holy Law; we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us!” as a persistent reminder of her guilt.
Convinced as she had been that she had made a hopeless mess of their relationship, one of the things delaying her retreat to her home district had been the hope of seeing him, if even at a distance, before leaving the capital, as the last time she had set eyes on him since the fund-raiser, ironically enough, had been on Sunday, Valentine’s Day!
Reluctant to leave on a negative note, she had sought an opportunity to attract his notice and/or of demonstrating the unlikelihood of being an embarrassment to him by removing herself from the scene.
She had known of his habit of perusing all literature published by the Government Information Service in order to be kept informed on civic matters, bringing to the attention of the family anything concerning the Medical Department in particular.
In the tradition of the older heads we avoided discussion of party politics, preferring to concentrate instead on civic affairs. It had been her hope that if the subject of her attendance at the Opening had come up, I might have been able to mention her intention of returning home and, thus, relieving him of the embarrassment of her presence.
As luck would have it, the same Friday that Jewel had told me of her decision to attend the clinic opening had been the day the House of Representatives had passed the 1971/72 Budget, which had included the establishment of the Fund for the Construction of the Hospital Extension to house the Cancer Unit, subject to the submission of minor additional information from the Medical Department to the Cabinet by the following Tuesday.
Jerome, satisfied that the first phase of his mission had been accomplished, had returned to normal and attended the Communion service that Sunday. When he had noted Jewel’s absence he had enquired whether she was all right, knowing the importance which their family attached to attendance at Sunday service; and at my explanation, had raised his eyebrows at what might have appeared to him inconsistent with her priorities, commenting that she must have an important reason as the others of her group had been present.
The following Sunday being Easter, he had left on Holy Thursday for a short vacation at Paraiso, not returning to work until Easter Tuesday; while after Easter Sunday service Jewel alone had dropped by for a visit and had brought me up to date regarding the ceremony the week before. She had been relieved to get that off her plate, as the Area Representative had made her uncomfortable with a show of greater friendliness than he really felt towards her, confirming her suspicion that it had all been for effect.
The first wrong note had been his comment, when he had picked her up in his vehicle, that he was glad she was not in uniform, at which she had felt obliged to point out that it had not been her understanding that she had been invited in an official capacity as a nurse, for which she would have needed departmental approval.
He had been very jittery throughout the ceremony and had seemed to keep a close watch on her movements, while, on the other hand, she had tried to keep on the outskirts of the group in attendance.
At the high point of the occasion she had stood at the back of the crowd as the officials had introduced the Representative, and a little girl had come forward and presented him with a bouquet of flowers and a pair of scissors with which to cut the ribbon. He had suddenly swung around and, walking straight to where she had been standing, had handed her the bouquet and asked her to hold it for him. Instantaneously there had been the flash of a camera, and she had realized right away that it had been planned to have her photographed receiving it from him; after which he had turned and walked back to the door, made a short speech and cut the ribbon.
As she had turned around to see from which direction the photograph had been taken there had been two more flashes and she had realized then that, after trying so hard to be only a bystander,,it had been deliberately arranged for her inclusion in the ceremony. Worse, and unknown to her at the time, the photographs had been taken in colour!
On Friday following Easter, being mid-month, Jewel had come to collect her pay and had dropped by my work station to say hello, when who should appear but Jerome! I learnt later that before coming over he had called in at Nigel’s office to enquire whether Jewel had come in for her pay, as he had wanted to see her; and when Nigel had replied that she had come but already left on her way to hail me he had expressed his intention to try and catch up with her. Nigel had taken the opportunity of asking if he would kindly hand her an envelope left for her by the Area Representative, to which he had agreed.
And that had been the high point of their drama, as, totally unaware of it, Jerome had been carrying in his hand the dynamite that would explode and almost destroy their relationship forever; for in it there had been copies of the beautiful colour photographs of Jewel holding in her hand the bouquet of flowers received from the Representative, the one on top seeming to catch him in the act of making a presentation to her with a gracious bow!
Jerome turning up casually at my work station that Friday, had broken every rule by which he had bound himself in conducting the affairs of the institution; and I had watched in wonder as he and Jewel had looked into each other’s eyes for a moment as he had told her of the envelope he had been asked to pass to her, smilingly asking whether she would mind sharing its contents with friends. She had replied softly that of course she wouldn’t, and picking up my paper knife he had slit the envelope open.
At just that moment I had been distracted by a question from a passing nurse, and had turned back just in time to receive the open envelope from him. Whilst looking at the photographs I had heard him say something to Jewel, which I hadn’t caught, and then move away quickly. Returning the envelope to Jewel with the comment that the photographs were lovely, I had asked her where Jerome had disappeared. In answer I had heard a moan from her and the words: “O God! Salo ruined everything for me. No wonder he looked at me like that!”
She had seen the photographs for the first time and related how Jerome after a brief glance at them had looked at her like an enemy, remarking that he didn’t know she kept company with politicians and had walked away abruptly.
It turned out that Jerome had been so stunned at the sight of Absalom Itza, Jewel’s ex-flame according to him, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers before an audience, that all he had been able to think of was getting away! He had felt that he was being stifled when in reality he had caught his breath involuntarily and closed his eyes to shut out the sight of Jewel decked out in new clothes to please “that fellow” and enhance his political image, that being his impression of what had taken place!
Incidentally, the dress referred to had not been new but one of three “suitable for church” made by Lucille from one pattern but of different materials and colours, and which Jewel had worn before during the month of March when he had been absent from church services!
(Chapter 35 in Friday’s Amandala.)