Seeing Phyllis’s letter on the bedside table, impulsively Juli leaned over and picked it up. She lit the cigarette lighter and held its flame to the folded sheets. They caught and burned rapidly until only a corner remained and all the ugly, hate-filled words had curled up into the black feathery furls of burnt paper.
Gavin said hoarsely, “What are you burning?”
“Your mother’s letter.”
“Juli,” he exploded sitting up and stretching out his hand in a vain effort to stop her. “What the…?”
“It was full of hate, Gavin. It was a sick letter. It would have made you ill.”
“You had no right ….”
“It wasn’t written to you.”
Gavin fell back listlessly and said, “Burning it doesn’t change anything.”
Juli crushed the remains of the letter in the ashtray with the stub of a cigarette until nothing but a black powder remained. Josefina brought the coffee, Juli thanked her and laid the tray on the chest of drawers. She filled the two cups added plenty of sugar and took one over to Gavin.
“I don’t want any.”
“Drink it anyway. It’s hot and strong. I’m sure it will help.”
With an effort Gavin raised himself onto his elbow and took the cup from her outstretched hand. He took a sip and said bitterly, “I can’t kill them. Any of them.”
Juli nodded, relief making her feel weak. Silence enveloped them as they drank their coffee. Gavin set his cup down and began to prepare himself a reefer.
“Oh Gavin,” Juli remonstrated, pained. “Drugs don’t help.”
“Oh, God. Don’t start in telling me what to do,” Gavin snapped. “How the hell do you think I shall be able to go to Santa Rosa in the car with him tomorrow if I don’t get stoned? I couldn’t even speak to him at this moment.” He lit the reefer and lay back.
“I don’t want you to stay here,” he said angrily. “You’re not safe.”
“Don’t be a fool Gavin. You know that’s not true.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to stick it out until I can get into that ‘plane tomorrow. If I leave today there’ll be a showdown which will involve you and he’ll sack you on the spot. If I can stick it out until tomorrow I can just leave and wash my hands of the whole bloody family.”
“That’s easy to say,” Juli thought. “But in reality it’s just not possible.”
Gavin began to speak again in a suffocated voice, “Why do people do these sort of things, Juli? Who meant more to him, my mother or Josefina? What sort of sadistic, inverted sickness of mind makes a man bring his bastard son and the child’s mother in to the heart of his happy family? Because we were a happy family. And then, the irony of it, he has Mum buried here and fixes up the little garden and the chapel and keeps it all blazing with flowers, and what’s more Lena has no idea that the chapel exists or the garden or anything. She just lives here in the house, together with Josefina and Hernán, and quakes about snakes. All his women and children … and Rowena thinks Mums killed herself because of the cancer. How can I tell her … how?”
“But Gavin, why tell her?”
“Why not my God? Why NOT?”
“Because telling in this case is simply destroying. Feeling pain and wanting to make sure that everyone feels the same pain. Why?”
“That’s just a label.”
“You don’t understand!”
“I understand that if either of us start ‘telling’, seven people’s lives will become distorted and deformed.”
“And me? What about me? What about my life?”
“That’s up to you. It’s up to you if you let yourself become distorted because of all this or not. But Marina and Tishy and Toffy are too little. If there’s a bust up between Lena and your father it’s their lives which will be affected, and Lena’s and Hernán’s, AND probably Rowena’s if you tell her. Gavin, all this started because you wanted your mother’s Bible. Doesn’t it say there that one should forgive seventy times seven?”
“Are you suggesting that I should forgive my father? Are you crazy?”
“Forgiving is a process, but it’s possible. It must be. My mother never forgave my Dad and in the end she died of cancer. She never let the wound heal, on purpose, and in the end it killed her.”
Juli choked with emotion. She clenched her fists and shut her eyes, lowering her head to hide the tears that slid out from under her eyelids. Gavin, pained at having upset her, stared up at the ceiling with wild aching eyes.
“Love,” he thought. “Forgiveness, compassion. Love your enemies. Do good to them that hurt you. Return good for evil. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son …”
“I started smoking pot because my mother committed suicide and I couldn’t bear to think of it,” he mused aloud.
“I understand that marihuana kills the cells in your brain, one by one. Is that the memorial that you are building for your mother? Ending up a decrepit, half crazy old young man?”
“Your mother loved you. If you believe she’s here, right here in this room with us, do you think she’s pleased to see you wrecking yourself?”
“Go. Get out of here!”
Gavin sat up with a jerk, a wild expression in his eyes.
. “D’you know what I should do?” he exclaimed. “I should stay and get Josefina pregnant with my child. That would be shit in his eye for him!”
“You’re really mad, Gavin. What about the child?”
“What about it?”
“It would be a human being you know, with feelings and thoughts.”
“God, you’re unbearable Juli. Always so bloody objective.”
“My father says that unless one is objective, one is rudderless in a sea of emotions.”
“Very pretty. If all this had to do with your father I’d like to see how objective you’d be!”
“I know it’s hard, Gavin. I honestly do.”
“Come away with me tomorrow, Juli. I’m afraid to go alone. You can’t stay here now…”
“I can’t possibly, Gavin. Tishy needs me. If I hadn’t come Tishy might have turned into an idiot child. Mute, half blind, completely shut up inside herself.”
“Tishy? Mute? What are you talking about’”
“Lena was convinced that she was Mongolic when I came. She said Tishy should be interned in a home somewhere, probably Buenos Aires. She never invited anyone here and when people came Tishy was shut up or sent down to Don Elizondo’s house. She completely rejected her and the poor little soul is so sensitive she remained like a bud that never opens. Apart from that she was so short sighted, she stumbled a lot and all she must have seen was a cloudy unreal world. Your father didn’t realize because Lena was always saying how worried she was and mentioning all the doctors she’d taken Tishy to, and what else could they do and so on.”
“And when did you come? In June wasn’t it?
“And Tishy couldn’t talk?”
“She never said a word. She seemed hopelessly backward, hanging her head and sucking her thumb all the time.”
“And when did she start talking?”
“On November the 9th.”
“The Anniversary of my mother’s death!”
Juli remembered the overpowering desire she had had to run into the kitchen and cut the veins of her wrists that fateful night, and she wondered if Phyllis Birnham had perhaps had anything to do with it. Had she been reliving her own agony of soul through her, Juli? The same room, the same day, the same method … Frightened, Juli shivered. One thing was to think one believed in ‘Life everlasting’, quite another was to experience it. How easy it was to adopt ideas and attitudes and never bother to question them or think them out to their ultimate consequences. If life was everlasting, then it was quite possible that Phyllis Birnham had in some way tried to influence her. Possible, but – – probable?
Juli stood up and said, “I must go.”
“Tell them I’m sick.”
“I’ll tell them you’re getting stoned.”
“Tell them what you bloody well like.”
“My mother used to get terrible migraines. I’ll say you have developed one of your migraines.”
“What exactly is a migraine?”
Juli explained all the symptoms carefully.
“Very well, tell them I have migraine,” Gavin agreed flatly.
Juli heaped the cups and the coffee pot on the tray and left the room. To her amazement Marina and Tishy were still asleep. She felt she had been days in Gavin’s room. She woke them gently, it was very hot in the nursery and outside the air was still and sultry heralding a storm. She sponged the children down and put them into shorts. Josefina brought the tea things and Juli took them outside where the children sat on the bench on the veranda and drank their iced cocoa and ate scones with butter and honey.
“Where’s Gavin?” Marina asked.
“He’s lying down, he’s got a very bad headache.”
“Can I go and see him?”
“I don’t think so. He wants to be very very quiet. He wants to be quite well by tomorrow.”
“Is he going away tomorrow really?”
“I don’t want him to go away! Why does he have to go?”
“Because he has to work, Miss Muffet. He only comes here for his holidays.”
“Why doesn’t he work here?”
“Because he loves making wine and he is learning how to grow grapes with make delicious wine.”
“Why doesn’t he grow grapes here?”
“Because the water in the ground is too salty, the grapes would turn out salty and make horrible wine.”
“I don’t want Gavin to go away.”
“None of us do. But do you know, tomorrow we’re going to do something very exciting, but it’s a secret. I can’t tell you until tomorrow.”
Marina, instantly curious, wriggled up and down. “Is it a surprise?”
“Tell me, pleeeease.”
“No, not until tomorrow.”
“Does Daddy know?”
“No, no one knows.”
“You’re making it up!”
“No, I am not”
Tishy, who had been looking on, turned her attention to Portly, her teddy bear. She rocked him in her arms singing softly and began to feed him crumbs of scone.
“What’s the matter with Gavin?” Dereck demanded later that afternoon, when Gavin didn’t appear for the evening swim; he had just returned from taking Marta to catch her bus.
“He’s got migraine,” Lena said. She had been to see Gavin when he had not turned up for tea. “He says if he remains quite still and only drinks water with lemon it should be alright by tomorrow. Any letters?”
“How ridiculous to go and get migraine on his last evening here,” Dereck growled irritably, handing her a sheaf of correspondence. “Goodness knows when we’ll see him again!”
Lena lit a cigarette and began to look through her mail. She wrote regularly all her friends and there were nearly always one or two letters in the postbag for her.
JUli thought.”Out here all is as usual. Us three chatting away about this and that, the children playing in the paddle pool, and just across the lawn Gavin is eating his heart out, suffering all kinds of hell imaginable and only I know, and I can’t do anything.”
She wondered if Gavin would go to Brazil now. Would he ever find Peter in that huge country on one hundred and twenty odd million inhabitants? It seemed unlikely.
“Dereck,” Lena exclaimed excitedly. “My friend Veronica writes that they have rented a house in Punta del Este in Uruguay for the whole month of February, but now Larry has to go to Europe in the middle of February on business and would we like to take over the house for the second two weeks. Oh, Dereck, Punta! That would be really lovely! The baby will be three months old by then and for the little girls it’ll be …”
“What’s wrong with Neuquén?” Dereck asked with surprise.
“My father’s not well and we’re such a crowd now. I thought we’d invite them for a week once Gavin goes. We’d have to rent a flat or something this year anyway, and Punta del Este is so much prettier that Neuquén and warmer. I’ve never been, they say it’s beautiful there.”
“But February, Lena, such crowds of people go there in February!”
“But with the car we can go to a beach where there are not so many. Veronica says there’s miles and miles of beach there, she says it’s wonderful.”
Juli tried to imagine miles of beach and couldn’t. She had been to Brighton with Ann and her parents and remembered a beach which was pebbly and crowded, sloping into a rather cold grey sea. But in Punta del Este one would be face to face with the Atlantic Ocean in all its vast grandeur. She looked at Dereck who was fiddling with a loose screw in the arm of his chair as Lena’s excitement flowed about them while she continued to enthuse about Uruguay and Punta del Este. At last he said heavily, “Well, if we can get the car across we’ll go. I’ll have to find out about that but I expect that all the ferries are booked up by now.”
“One can go via Entre Rios, can’t one?” Lena asked eagerly.
“With a baby and two small children, that is out of the question; the trip alone would take us days!” Dereck replied a little roughly. Lena, undeterred by his tone stared at him with shining eyes filled with visions of Punta del Este.
“Oh Dreck,” she said dreamily. “I do hope you can arrange it. Such a nice class of people go to Punta Veronica says, and I have always wanted to go. Living in a house will be much cheaper than going to a hotel, that would be prohibitive of course, with so many of us.”
“Has Gavin got any medicine for this migraine of his?” Dereck asked, changing the subject.
“He said he did,” Lena replied.
“Damn stupid getting ill on the last day! And it’s so hot and heavy today too, a bathe would probably help him.”
“All one wants is quietness and darkness when one has migraine,” Lena said firmly and added. “I must write to Veronica at once. When will you know about the ferry?”
“Oh God Lena…”
“She wrote to me before Christmas, isn’t the post shocking? We must answer her by telegram just as soon as we know, or we could even ‘phone her from Santa Rosa. Really I am so thrilled.”
“Lena!” Dereck exploded. “Don’t start getting the idea…”
“What’s migraine?” Marina asked loudly. She had been running the words round her tongue for several minutes and found its sound rather attractive.
“Very bad pain in your head,” Juli said.
“I hope Gavin has migraine tomorrow,” Marina said. “Then he won’t have to go away.”
“Would you like to swim now?” Juli asked, picking up the limp water wings and beginning to blow them up.
“Yes, yes,” Marina shouted and both little girls donned their water wings and jumped into the water as Juli dived in to receive them.
“She’s a genius at handling children,” Lena remarked. “We really were lucky with Winnie Horn’s choice!”
That evening when Juli popped her head into Gavin’s room to find out how he was he said urgently, “Once my father and Lena have gone to bed Juli, please come and talk, I’m going crazy lying here.”
“O.K.” she murmured, and returned to the nursery.
Much later, when she returned, she found him sitting on his bed smoking a reefer.
“How many have you smoked?” she lamented.
“Not so many. Don’t start to harp. What shall we do tomorrow? I’m not going alone with him!”
“I don’t know. Perhaps Lena…”
“In this heat? Never! You’ll have to come.”
“But what excuse can I give? Dereck wants to be alone with you, you know what he’s like.”
“I shall insist that you come too. I’ve been thinking all about everything, my parents, Rowena, myself, Josefina, Hernán all the other Hernáns that are probably dotted about the countryside. About Lena and the kids, little Toffy; I’m his godfather dammit! How can I wash my hands of the family? Luckily I live in France, a couple of presents once a year and that’s that, but it means one can’t forget they exist, one can’t cut the ties. What makes me wild is that he’s getting off scot free because of all the others. I shall not speak about Mum’s letter because if I do I may lose all control and do or say anything.”
“I suppose I can say I want to ‘phone my Dad.”
“I’ll say that I’m wildly in love with you and that I want you to come too.”
“More shit in his eye? Are you planning to get me pregnant too?”
“Are you suggesting it, Chèrie?”
“Most certainly NOT!”
“How vehement. And your father, when did he leave your mother?”
“When I was twelve.”
“And he married again.”
“Uh huh. There was such a mess, fights, accusations, rows, my mother always miserable. Whenever I went to see my father I had to pretend I was going to see a school friend. If she could I think she would have gladly poisoned him.”
“What’s he like? Do you get on with him?”
Juli thought of her father, of his gaiety, of his many promises so seldom kept, his warmth, his weakness.
“Yes,” she said. “We understand one another. Sadly, Paula, his wife, doesn’t like me very much, she’s jealous. My sister Ann has nothing to do with him. But then she was always very close to my mother and she couldn’t forgive him for making her so sad.”
“What I can’t understand is what made my father bring Josefina into this house like that.”
“So, she’d been sick, nearly died. He could have got her work with some friend in Victorica or Santa Rosa. Why did he bring her here? My mother would probably have had to have a mastectomy and she’d still be with us if Hernán and Josefina hadn’t been here. It would have been a matter of an operation and then back here and on with everything as it was before.”
“But sometimes a mastectomy can have a very deep effect on a woman’s mind. Maybe if she hadn’t had cancer she would have reacted differently.”
“Kicked Josefina out and had a showdown with Dad you mean.”
“Mmmm. But then there would have been no Lena and no Toffy or Marina or Tishy.”
“Oh God, don’t add that to all the rest!”
They talked on for more than an hour. At last Juli rose and said, “I’m going to bed. Try to sleep Gavin. Once you get to Buenos Aires you have to be compos mentis you know.”
“God, how you do go on!”
“O.K. Good night then and to heck with you.”
Gavin stood up and laid his hands on her shoulders. “Sorry Chèrie,” he said. “And thank you for, well, being what you are. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been around.”
“Destiny,” Juli said for something to say, but she wondered why she had said it when she walked back to the nursery, for the implications of that one word were pretty overwhelming.
Dereck was very put out the following day when Gavin insisted that Juli and Marina accompany them. “Marina will enjoy the ride and it’ll give her self-esteem a lift,” he declared. “And anyway Juli wants to ‘phone her family if she can get through.”
Gavin was chalk white and moved stiffly, almost like a marionette. He wore dark glasses so that his father would not notice that he could not look at him. Torn between anxiety and irritation Dereck observed his son obliquely, feeling that there was something strange about him which he could not pin point. The boy insisted that he was feeling better and only a little weak, and refused to say another word about all this migraine business.
Gavin kissed Lena and Tishy goodbye and took his tiny brother in his arms for a few minutes. Looking down at his placid little face he remembered Juli’s words. It was true, one could not ruin the lives of small innocent creatures like Toffy and his sisters simply to assuage one’s own hurt. Josefina and Hernán were hovering near the car to say goodbye. Josefina caught Gavin to her in a fat fond embrace, love and compassion overflowing in her dark eyes and quivering lips.
“And the worst of it is that I still like her,” Gavin thought a little bitterly, feeling that in some way he was betraying his mother. Hernán, tall, slim and darkly good looking, gripped Gavin’s hand and smiled his goodbye. His smile changed him, made him look fairer. His smile too, once one knew, was very like Dereck’s.
Juli climbed into the front seat and took Marina on her lap. She knew this was one of the reasons Gavin wanted her to accompany them. The look she received from Dereck was shrivelling but she sat firm and pretended not to notice. Thoroughly vexed, Dereck jammed the car into gear and drove off as Gavin waved to the figures on the front porch from the back seat. He observed the achingly familiar house and trees, the dusty road and pale ochre grasses in the fields, as memories crowded into his heart. It was a poignant moment.
“Are you really alright Gavin?” Dereck asked anxiously about ten minutes later.
“Yes. I’ll be fine by this evening. Don’t worry,” Gavin replied.
“Since when have you been getting migraine?”
“Oh, er, about two or three years.”
“You’ve never mentioned it. What’s it from?”
“No one knows. It just starts up.”
“Look, there’s a snake!” Marina cried pointing. But no one else saw it for Dereck was driving too fast. Normally she would have insisted on sitting on Gavin’s lap but something about him repelled her. She felt he was not himself, in fact, almost a stranger, so she remained sitting on Juli’s lap watching the road and surroundings alertly and enjoying the bumping speed of the car. Juli remembered the snake which had nearly bitten her near the chapel and wondered what would have happened if it had.
“By such small things hang the thread of life,” she thought. “It was a deadly poisonous snake. I might have been dead too, by now.”
They saw Gavin into the departure lounge and waved hard as he walked across the tarmac to the ‘plane. They stood in the shade of the buildings outside and watched it take off and sail away into the hazy sky heavy with heat, then they got into the car once more and drove to the telephone exchange where Juli, calculating that her father would be home by then, put a call through to him. After a tedious wait listening to the crackles and buzzes in the receiver she heard the sound of the ‘phone ringing and then she heard her father’s voice, so familiar and dear she had to swallow hard in order to be able to answer him. The usual banal words reached across the ocean joining father and daughter.
“How are you?” “Fine thanks. How are Paula and the children?” “All A.1. Juli how lovely to hear you!” “How’s Ann?” “No idea love. You know Ann. Susan and Bernard are out, they’ll be so disappointed not to have been able to speak to you.”
They talked about Christmas and the New Year. The weather. The Christmas play Susan had acted in. Odd bits of news, and then it was time to say goodbye. Juli hung up and returned to Argentina with a bump. Once she had paid for the communication she joined Dereck and Marina.
“How’s the family, all well?” Dereck asked.
“All well, thank you. It’s pouring with rain just now and it’s been very cold.”
“Difficult to imagine really,” Dereck said, standing up. “I’m going to ‘phone B.A. Take Marina to have an ice-cream and I’ll join you there, O.K.?”
He indicated an ice cream parlour nearby and gave Juli some money before going to book his call. As Juli took Marina’s hand to cross the street she glanced at her bare suntanned arm and felt the heat making her blouse stick to her back. Icy Europe seemed very far away.
At the ice cream parlour Juli ordered their ice-creams and they went to sit on a long bench opposite the counter.
“What did you do?” Marina asked after a while.
“I spoke to my Daddy,” Juli replied, knowing what Marina meant.
“How?” Marina’s eyes grew round.
“Like television?” nodding towards a T.V which was flickering away hanging on one of the walls.
“Well, we couldn’t see each other, we could just talk to each other.”
Marina kneeled on the bench and leaned lightly against Juli, running a finger gently down her cheek. “How old is you Daddy?” she asked.
“Fifty-one,” Juli replied, realizing with a shock that he was four years younger than Dereck.
“Fifty one,” Marina repeated pensively. “Is that more than ten?”
“A lot more?”
“This is ten,” Juli said, holding up her hands and spreading her fingers.
“One two three…” Marina began to count.
“Fifty is all my fingers, and all yours and Daddy’s and Mummy’s and Tishy’s.”
Marina thought about it and then said, “And one of Toffy’s.”
Juli laughed and hugged her. “That would make fifty one, you’re perfectly right you clever little girl.”
They played stone, scissors and paper until Dereck appeared looking pleased with himself.
“Well,” he said. “That’s settled. I’ve fixed up about the trip to Uruguay and advised Veronica and I decided to go with the car first and meet you all there, much easier. That way you have a twenty minute flight straight to Punta del Este and no long journeys cooped up in the car. It’s all fixed.”
“How quick,” Juli said admiringly.
“Yes, luckily. As we were here I thought I’d get it all over and done with now. That’ll make Lena happy. Punta del Este is very nice. You’ll all enjoy it.”
Lena was overjoyed at the news and Juli realised that the three long years cloistered at Los Alamos had begun to weigh on Lena and now that Tishy had become a perfectly normal little girl, the outside world beckoned irresistibly.
Outside the weather broke and it began to rain softly, welcomed by the lilting concert of a chorus of frogs.
“Fogs,” Tishy exclaimed running out onto the veranda. “The fogs are singing to the rain Marina.”
It’s raining. It’s raining,” Marina chanted and rushed out onto the lawn where she jumped about performing a whole series of wild dance steps.
“What a child,” Lena sighed.
“Rain dance,” Juli grinned. “It’s instinctive.”