The Carlie family left on the Tuesday early in the morning amid many cheerful farewells and promises to come more often. Pamela had wanted to stay on, but since she was going to a holiday camp with a group of young friends from the church early in January, it was decided that she should return to Buenos Aires with her parents.
Once they had gone, after all the bustle of their departure, the silence settled in gentle wreaths, fanning out from the corners of the rooms to which it had been banished. Juli felt a great sense of relief, for the activity and excitement of the last few days had left her feeling edgy and she longed for the quiet routine of her days.
Due to the great success of the Christmas weekend, Dereck ‘s mood was joyful and he went around whistling tunelessly once more, something everyone noticed and secretly gave thanks for. Gavin accompanied him about the farm and to a Cattle Fair so they were away all day and then it was New Year’s Eve and, as Dereck had invited the Ewances and the Madwells for supper, preparations for the evening started early. He had also bought three dozen fireworks and several packets of sparklers for the children.
The guests arrived at eight thirty, the Madwells accompanied by their grandchildren, two boys of six and seven, so that once again the laughter and chatter of children’s voices drifted across the lawn lifted and sifted by the light breeze which had sprung up at sundown.
They ate on the veranda, and after supper Gavin and Dereck set out empty bottles and placed fireworks in them, readied the matches and saw to it that the rest of the fireworks were in a safe place and out of harm’s way. The servants washed up excitedly and set out the champagne glasses on the waiting tray. New Year had not been celebrated with fireworks since the Señora Phyllis had died and Marta had no idea what they were. Josefina and Hernán remembered and tried to explain the wonder of the explosions, the lights and the colours, their simple language unable to convey much to Marta who listened enthralled and imagined something quite different and rather terrifying.
At eleven-thirty Marta took the tray of glasses and a bottle of Gavin’s champagne, nestling in a bucket with ice, out onto the veranda, while Juli went to fetch her guitar to help pass the last half hour playing and singing. On the dot of twelve Gavin lit the first firework and everyone began to ring the different bells they had been given for the occasion; brass, silver, ceramic and tin, large and small, they rang them vigorously as the firework hissed, flaring brightly before rushing with a swoosh into the air to burst against the sky in a great fan of sparkling, softly falling coloured lights which every now and again exploded anew forming fan after fan of coloured diamonds.
Marta, Josefina and Hernán, who were watching from beside the guest house, gazed with shining eyes at this almost unearthly wonder, for the silence of the falling lights was almost as impressive as the initial explosion.
As Gavin continued to light the fireworks Dereck opened the bottle of champagne and served it into the waiting glasses. While the adults drank to the New Year, Gavin lit the sparklers for the children who raced about the lawn waving them in the air, breathless with excitement and delight as they created flashing circles and figures of eight in the darkness. In the farm-workers’ quarters the men drank cider which Dereck provided every year, and watched the display of fireworks beyond the house, their simple souls filled with laughter and good fellowship.
Once the last firework had spent it’s beauty the guests reluctantly gathered their belongings and drove away, discussing the little party as they bumped over the earth roads lit up starkly by the headlights of their cars.
“Fun wasn’t it?”
“Almost like old times …”
“Lena is much quieter than Phyllis ever was …”
“Gavin’s grown into a nice young fellow, hasn’t he…?”
“Pretty little thing, the nanny … what’s her name?”
“It’s a wonder Lena agreed to have her … knowing Dereck!”
“The children are sweet, aren’t they…?”
Juli put the children to bed. Once they were asleep she slipped a cassette into the tape recorder and sat listening to Wagner and thinking.
1982 …. what did it have in store for them all?
Sitting by the pool the following day Gavin once more broached the subject of Peter.
“When are you going to let me read the private letter Peter wrote to you?” he asked Juli.
She looked up sharply, her face flooding with colour as she said irritably, “Oh, do stop going on about that. Why should he have written to me? We only knew each other for three days!”
“Because he sent you all the letters to deliver your discretion. It stands to reason Juli, and, anyway, my sixth sense tells me. I want to know where he really is and how I can get in touch with him in Brazil. Please Juli. He’s my cousin. He didn’t know I would be here for Christmas.”
Juli raised her shoulders slightly, looking away from him into the clear lapping waters of the pool. The silence between them stretched taught and then sagged as Gavin gave in and shrugged mentally. Juli shuddered suddenly and said, with a sigh, “O.K. Yes. I got a letter. I’ll show it to you at siesta time.”
Gavin drew in his breath sharply, hardly able to believe her words. He had never expected to feel so exultant and excited, it was like being invaded by his fourteen-year-old self and not quite knowing how to deal with the situation. He leaped to his feet, caught Juli’s hands and pulled her with him into the pool, ducking her several times as he said with mock indignation, “So you did get a letter, you devil! So you got one after all!”
They were still struggling and laughing in the shallow end when Dereck appeared. It irritated him to see the two young people fooling about in such close contact and a surge of possessive jealousy ran through him.
“Juli,” he called sharply. “I pay you to keep your eyes on the children, not on Gavin. We don’t want another incident like the other day, do we?”
Flushing, Juli clambered out of the pool and went back to her place near the paddle pool where Marina and Tishy were flopping about and splashing each other. Gavin was about to take the blame but decided not to. He realised that his father was jealous and felt the least said the better.
Lena arrived draped in a white towel bathrobe. “Hello,” she said cheerfully. “How’s the water?”
“Delicious Lena, come on in,” Gavin replied.
Marina ran to her side crying, “Mummy, can we swim too? Daddy, come and swim, come and swim with Mummy!”
Juli put on her water wings and Marina jumped into the pool and swam to Gavin. Dereck dived in with a mighty splash as Lena slipped out of her robe displaying her new one-piece bathing suit. Her slim, long limbed elegance made Juli, as usual, feel gawky. She watched Lena dive neatly into the water and swim an enviable crawl to join the others then she lay face down and felt the rays of the sun pricking her back and legs, and tried to overcome the smart which Dereck’s words had caused her.
She did not move when they all got out and sat in the garden chairs after helping themselves to iced drinks. From where she lay she had a good view of all their feet, Lena’s slim and long with painted toenails; Gavin’s stubby yet nicely shaped, and Dereck’s. Surprised she noted that Dereck’s second toe seemed to cover his third toe completely on both his feet, as if the third toe which was twisted over on it’s side grew slightly underneath the second. She wondered briefly if it caused him discomfort but decided that he probably never noticed it, then she turned her head and gazed at the water, still and clear now that no one was in it.
Why had she admitted to Gavin that Peter had written to her? His letter had been a secret and she had betrayed him. She felt unhappy and a poor friend, for she knew in her heart that she wanted Gavin to go and find Peter and that that was why she had told him.
Gavin sat in silence, finding it difficult to contain himself. It seemed impossible that Juli had managed to hide the fact that she too had received a letter, and very probably with a great deal more information than the letters that Peter had written to his family.
“You’re very quiet, Gavin,” his father remarked.
Gavin smiled. “It’s 1982,” he said. “I’m wondering what ….. destiny has in store for us all.”
“I hope it’s a democratic government, that’s all I can say. These military devils … but I’m afraid there’s not a hope in hell that they’ll give up the helm for many years to come, they’re too well entrenched, and what have the Peronistas to offer? Isabelita and all her cohorts, who have failed once already!”
“Marta starts her holidays this week,” Lena said, changing the subject for she was tired of it. “She wants to go home for Reyes, Pentecost. I told her that would be alright but someone will have to take her to Victorica to get her bus.”
“How long is she going for?” Dereck asked.
“Two weeks officially, unless her mother or father or grandparent conveniently gets ill on the last day.”
“Bloody servants, one can never rely on them!”
“You’re lucky to have them,” Gavin murmured.
“Yes, I know, but sometimes they’re as much trouble as they’re worth.”
Irritated, Gavin rose and dived into the pool. Watching him Juli thought, “I suppose a nanny is really a sort of glorified servant. I wonder if Dereck thinks I’m more trouble than I’m worth now that he has gone to bed with me and Tishy can talk English and Spanish fluently?”
There was still a lot of work to do with Tishy, but to a man like Dereck that would not be very evident. Juli thought a little bitterly, “If he wants to go to bed with me again and I refuse he’ll probably sack me.” She contemplated the prospect carefully and then shrugged inwardly. It would be horrible to leave but no one was going to force her to do anything against her will. Even to leave for that matter. “I can always threaten him that I’ll tell Lena.”
Upset by her thoughts she sat up abruptly and asked Lena if she would watch the children as she wanted to have a quick swim. Lena assented with a smile and Juli dived into the pool, and swam under water until she reached the other end. When she surfaced Tishy was weeping inconsolably. The memory of Marina’s long moments under water and her limp little body when Juli and Dereck had finally got her out of the pool, together with Juli and Dereck’s obvious fear and anxiety had suddenly gripped her when Juli failed to surface after her dive, and the child became convinced that Juli was drowning. Lena, mystified, was trying to console her. Juli, hearing Tishy’s wails, jumped quickly out of the water and ran to her.
“Tishy,” she said gently squatting beside her, guessing yet not sure if she was right, the reason for the child’s distress. “I’m here. Look, Juli’s here Tishy.”
Tishy flung her arms around her neck and clung to her sobbing hysterically which made Marina start to cry, so Juli gathered her to her as well.
“I think we’d better go and get dressed,” she said. “Come on little ones, and when you’re dressed I’ll read you the story of Peter Rabbit.”
“Whatever got into Tishy?” Lena remarked in amazement as Juli walked away with the children. Dereck, remembering the incident with Marina, decided not to mention it.
Gavin said, “She must have thought Juli had disappeared, not being able to see her under water.”
“Quite strange,” Lena said thoughtfully.
After lunch Gavin followed Juli into the nursery and sat down on the sofa. “I’m ready,” he said.
“So I see,” she replied a little acidly, and fetched Peter’s letter. While he read it she took the children’s dresses off and made them lie down. “Portly is terribly tired and hot,” she said to Marina. “But you know how he is, unless you lie quite still he won’t go to sleep.”
She kissed and cuddled Tishy, pushed her glasses within easy reach under her pillow and gave her several knitted dolls and cats for company, then she went and sat down on the rocking chair. After a moment or two she slotted a cassette into the tape recorder and Beethoven’s music filled the room.
“Is that one of the ones I gave you?” Gavin asked.
He had given her a set of Beethoven’s symphonies as a Christmas present. He re-read Peter’s letter twice before leaning back, looking up at the ceiling and stretching his legs.
At last he said, “I shall go to Chile and then I shall go to Brazil.”
“But Peter …”
Gavin ignored her.
“It shouldn’t be difficult to find out who this fellow is for whom he works. There can’t be many who do that sort of thing, and then I shall go and see Pete. I shall find out how he is, what gives, if I can do anything.” He looked at Juli. “One can’t be sure that this might not be a cry for help behind a smokescreen of pride. He’s given you quite a lot of info after all.”
“But it gives me the impression of being a very positive letter,” Juli sighed. “I’ve read it so many times.”
“Yes, I agree, but all the same …”
“I wish I could go with you.”
“No, not now when the maids take their holidays, and anyway I’ve only been here half a year! You would be going to Brazil, well … this month I suppose?”
“Yes, about the twentieth, I calculate, and then I don’t know how long I’ll be there.”
“When are you leaving? Here, I mean?”
“So soon!” Juli could not hide the dismay in her voice. She was going to miss Gavin.
“I’ve got to get to Mendoza and then from there over to Chile. I should be back in France by the first days of February. I will have been away quite a long time.”
“Yes, I suppose so. Dereck’s going to miss you.”
“And you, Chèrie? Are you going to miss me?”
“I suppose we all are one way or another. Like a corn after the chiropodist has dug it out!”
“Charming Chèrie. How nice to know that one will be missed so much! Certainly I shall miss you. If I write will you answer me?”
“Surely. I love getting letters.”
“What are you afraid of that you keep us all at arm’s length?” Gavin asked, and before she could reply he added. “Could you lend me a pen and some paper?”
Juli rose and provided him with what he needed in silence and he jotted down the salient points from Peter’s letter.
“Would he go to prison if he came back?” she asked.
“Arthur seems to have a good many important friends. I’m pretty sure that could be fixed.”
“Poor Arthur. I wonder if Marion will stop drinking now.”
“She’ll only stop when something deep inside her makes her. Until then I’m afraid …”
“I suppose there is an AA Association in Buenos Aires?”
“Oh yes, but they can only work with someone who is willing.”
“Poor Dino, he’s the cousin, Arthur’s godson, who lives with them. It must be terrible having to go through it all again. His father drinks.”
Gavin nodded sympathetically.
“I probably shouldn’t have told you,” Juli sighed. “I went to a concert with Dino one evening and afterwards he told me a little of his family history. Apparently his father is a super man, but just weak. He gives up drinking and then he starts all over again.”
They sat in silence for a while and then Gavin stood up and said, “I shall emulate my small sisters I think, it being the first day of the year and a holiday. See you later, ma petite Juliette.”
“Chau,” she grinned and sat rocking herself in the rocking chair, all at once feeling a little melancholy. Sometimes a friend, a partner, was a comforting and necessary thing, however independent one was. She wondered fleetingly what it would be like being married to Gavin. If it would be easy to live with such an uninvolved person, if his smoking marihuana would affect any children he fathered. His decision to go to Brazil surprised her. Could Peter’s letter be really a disguised call for help? Well, she had shared the responsibility of knowing the details of Peter’s life now and she felt relieved. If Gavin went to see him and he did need help, what could be better?
A small rash of parties took them out and about to three different house-holds that weekend, for Gavin was in great demand, so there was no time for private conversations. At siesta time on the Monday before he was due to leave Gavin knocked gently on the nursery door and Juli let him in. The room was dim as she had drawn the curtains and the two little girls were asleep.
“Juli,” Gavin said, speaking softly so as not to disturb them. “Do you use that Bible I read from at Christmas? It was my mother’s and if you don’t need it I’d like to take it with me.”
“But of course Gavin, wait and I’ll get it for you.”
Juli fetched the Bible and gave it to him. He riffled through it and came upon the folded papers which had fallen out when Juli had fetched it on Christmas Eve and which she had replaced before putting it back in its place on the bookshelf.
“Are these yours?” he asked.
“No, they were there from before.”
He opened them and said, “This is my mother’s handwriting …”
He began to read walking slowly over to the sofa as he did so. He sank down, reading intently, and something about him made Juli feel uneasy. She stood by the round table fiddling with a coloured chalk and looking at him nervously. Suddenly he took a long shuddering breath and threw the papers onto the floor. Covering his face with his hands he began to rock back and forth, trembling violently. Frightened, she wondered what Phyllis could have written to have made Gavin react in such a way.
“The bastard .. the bloody f…….g bastard,” Gavin gasped at last in a strangled whisper. Juli said nothing, she stood watching him forcing herself to appear calm
“I’ll kill him…! I’ve got to! The bastard! Oh, my God… how COULD he …?”
Gavin looked up at her, his eyes wild and round, with a half mad look about them. He registered her and steadied himself a little. “Here,” he said, jabbing at the scattered sheets of paper with a trembling finger. “Read.”
Juli sank down on the floor beside him, leaning her shoulder against his knees, feeling instinctively that he needed human contact. She picked up the papers and began to read the untidily written lines, the jerky handwriting hardly recognizable as Phyllis’s.
‘Dereck, I am going mad. I can’t stand it anymore. What to do? I loved you so much, how could you have done this? How could any man do such a thing, as if it were the most normal thing in the world? I cannot bare it. Life isn’t worth living now. I can’t remain here but where can I go? What can I do? I can’t go and live with father and mother in Buenos Aires. What would the family say? The children? I must protect them! They must never know! But I must write, I have to, to get it out of myself. I feel I’m going crazy, my mind is spinning my whole head is spinning, as if I had an elastic band and it’s pulling my brains tighter and tighter, round and round.
I found out three days ago when I saw Hernán limping and Josefina was over at Don Elizondo’s. I took off his sock and shoe which he always wears, summer and winter. I took them off and I saw his bare foot. His toes. I made him take off his other shoe and sock as well and the toes were the same. He is your son Dereck. It’s impossible that he should have exactly the same formation in both feet as you have. Now that I know I can see it in the child’s gestures, how he stands, how he walks and it’s driving me crazy. The pain in my heart is unbearable. How can you have done this? How did you imagine that I would never find out? Seven years it’s been. Seven years I have had your mistress and your bastard son under my roof, working for me. Fat Josefina and Hernán. Hernán Birnham … half brother to Gavin and Rowena, and Josefina laughing at me behind her face all these years, making a fool of me all these years. Who else knows? How many people know? I can’t go on living. This is too much to bear … cancer and now THIS.’
On a new page, the writing now neater , Juli read:
‘I’ve decided to commit suicide. What the hell. If I have to have my breast removed I’ll be ugly, unattractive, you won’t want to be with me anymore, how can I go on living? I shall choose the moment, when I’m quite alone. I’m not given enough sleeping pills so it will have to be my veins. You’ll find me in a pool of blood. My blood. Spilt from a broken heart. When you lift my body my blood will stain your hands and clothes. You’re mine. You will always be mine and only through killing myself can I tie you to me forever. My mind is made up. You’ll find these pages and you’ll know the truth. I am going to kill my body because you have killed my soul and spirit. My body is a sick husk not worth bothering about. You are MINE Dereck, however many women you’ve had, however many bastards with twisted toes you’ve fathered and are growing up here in the Pampa , in Argentina even. That’s why I’m not going to kill Josefina and Hernán first. They are certainly not the only ones. No,no. I am going to cut my veins and spill my blood on the floor and your hands will be red with my blood – forever – for it is YOU who have killed me!’
Juli looked up at Gavin with a dazed shocked expression. Gavin was deathly pale, his eyes stared blankly into space.
“I’ve got to kill him,” he said after a while, through stiff lips. “Redeem my mother’s death. Kill the whole bloody bunch, Josefina and Hernán as well. Fancy accepting a job here, the fat bitch! Swaggering about showing off her relationship, her son, in front of my mother, my mother who adored my father. My mother who was always so happy, so full of laughter, so completely alive! He has not RIGHT to live any longer.”
Horrified, Juli stared down at the sheets of paper in her lap. What to do? Phyllis’s words echoed through the chaotic jumble of thoughts crowding into her mind.
“I hate him,” Gavin said viciously. “I knew he was unfaithful to my mother. I’ve known since I was fourteen and I really believe that I’ve hated him ever since then!”
“Hate is like a cage,” Juli whispered.
“What? What did you say?”
“If we lock ourselves up in our hate it’s like locking ourselves up in a cage and throwing away the key.”
“And he doesn’t even know, he hasn’t even read this letter!! What do you expect me to do? How do you expect me to react? Throw my arm about him and say ‘Well done you old bull, I couldn’t have done better myself!’ He even made a pass at you … you admitted it. At his age, the filthy bugger! With Lena and the three children and he goes and makes a pass at you. Right under their very noses. A fine man! My father! Moral to the core! An example of rectitude and ethics! Bah … he’s a worm, Juli a worm! And as such …”
“Please Gavin, please … calm down.”
“He’s a snake, a poisonous snake! What did he do to you?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“I believe you. Otherwise he wouldn’t behave towards you as he does. I’m going to talk to Josefina. I’m going to find out exactly how my mother died. She was here, she’ll know. Go and call her Juli. Tell her to come here…”
“No Gavin. The children…”
“Well to my bedroom then, God damn it. I have the right.”
He picked up his mother’s letter and left. Juli, trembling, went in search of Josefina. She found her hanging out the laundry in the back garden.
“The Señor Gavin wants to … talk to you, Josefina,” she said carefully.
Josefina looked at her sharply, aware that Juli was in an unusual state of nerves and was having trouble with her breathing. A warning premonition of danger flickered in the simple woman’s heart. She dried her hands on her apron, trying as she did so to fathom what the danger could be.
“Come,” Juli said quietly, and Josefina followed her into the house an along the passage to Gavin’s room. Gavin was sitting on his bed smoking an ordinary cigarette. He had set two chairs for Juli and Josefina and he indicated that they should sit down with a small gesture of his hand.
After a long silence he said, “Josefina, I have just found a letter in my mother’s Bible which she wrote sometime before she died. It has no date. Tell me, how exactly did my mother die? Did she cut the veins of her wrists?”
Josefina’s sallow features turned ashy grey. She began to clasp and unclasp her hands and her small black eyes glazed over and became mute and expressionless.
“Tell me Josefina. You must tell me. You were here so you know perfectly well. She says in the letter it is what she had decided to do.”
Beads of perspiration trickled down the gentle woman’s face and she brushed them away with a trembling hand.
“Speak Josefina,” Gavin commanded.
At last, licking her dry lips and staring at the wall behind Gavin’s back, she said, “Si, Señor Gavin. The Señora cut the veins of her wrists with the kitchen knife in the kitchen. I found her there.” Tears welled up in her eyes and flowed down her cheeks.
“Tell me,” Gavin repeated. “Tell me everything.”
“We were all out. The Señor had gone to Los Perdices next door, and it was arranged that Hernán and I would go and help at the asado too. A friend offered us a lift home early and, I don’t know why, I decided to come back. I was worried about the Señora. She wasn’t well. I found her in the kitchen … it …it was terrible.”
“Go on.” Gavin’s voice was like sandpaper.
“I ran outside and told Hernán to ride over to Los Perdices and to tell the Señor as secretly as possible to bring a doctor, quickly. And then I locked all the doors and shut the windows and went to my room and prayed. I prayed for the Señora’s soul.”
Josefina shook her head sorrowfully as the memory of those horrifying moments rose in her heart and made it impossible for her to speak. When she had recovered a little she continued.
“The Señor came with Dr. Martinez who was also at Los Perdices and was a good friend of the Señor and the Señora. And they found her as I had found her, lying there all … covered … with ….” Josefina pressed her hands to her face and Gavin and Juli waited patiently until she could continue speaking. “Hernán never saw her. I don’t know what they did, but hours later the Señor called me and told me to clean the kitchen which I did. After that he told me to say that she had died of an overdose of sleeping pills. That I had not been able to waken her and that I had sent Hernán because I was afraid. To say that and never anything else to anyone, and I never have. Never.”
Gavin nodded and said, “And then?”
“I think the doctor had sewed up the Señor’s wounds, they had laid her out in a white blouse with long sleeves so that the wounds were covered. The priest came but he refused to read the service because she had committed suicide, because everybody knew she had committed suicide, so then the Señor read the service himself. She was buried here. Well, you know that. You arrived with the niña Rowena the next day in the morning and she was buried in the afternoon. Afterwards there was a mass held for her in Victorica and the church was full.”
Gavin took a deep breath and lit another cigarette. He wanted to say ‘And Hernán? Isn’t the Señor his father? Wasn’t he the reason for my mother’s death?’ But he could not bring himself to do so. At last he said, “How did you come to work here?”
“I had been very ill, with a fever. I nearly died and the baby only a few weeks old, Señor Gavin. It took me a long time to recover and then I heard in the pueblo, the village, that the Señora needed a cook so I spoke to Don Elizondo to ask if I could come with the baby. Hernán was just six months old.”
“Why did my mother kill herself, Josefina?”
Josefina shook her head. “She had cancer Señor Gavin, in her breast. She began to cry a lot. When the Señor Dereck was out or away she would shut herself in her room and cry. She changed very much, she lost her appetite, she would not speak . Rosa, the maid who was here in July had left, and she didn’t want to take on any other. I did all the work as best I could. The Señora never spoke to me, or very seldom, just to tell me what she wanted done. She changed very much, she never laughed any more.”
Gavin raised his cigarette to his lips and inhaled deeply. “Bueno,” he said at last. “Thank you Josefina. You can go now.”
“Coffee,” Juli said. “D’you want some coffee, Gavin?” Gavin shrugged. “Could you bring some coffee Josefina? Bring big mugs and the coffee pot.”
The woman nodded, “Very well niña Juli,” she whispered and left the room dazedly, her heart cramped with the memories which her conversation had revived.
Gavin flung himself back on his bed and burst into tears. Juli sat and stared at him, stunned and almost paralyzed. It had all been so sudden. A thunderbolt which had fallen without warning. Gavin had been so happy, finally reconciled with his father, the shadow of his mother’s death almost overcome. And now … ? Juli felt that he could become deranged at any moment. That the thread which held him back from rushing out and slaying Dereck and even Josefina and Hernán with the first thing he could lay his hands on was so fine, so tenuous, that it could snap at any moment. Let him cry. Didn’t they always say that crying healed?