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In God Alone Knows, a London-based reverend, who harbors a personal secret from his congregation, visits his ex-wife in Yorkshire in hopes of a fun weekend.
About the Author
Rajendra Shepherd is a writer, journalist, and academic at the University of the West Indies in St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.
Rajendra Shepherd’s audiobook We’ll Always Have Tea is now on Amazon, Audible and iTunes. His short story Fear: the last assignment was published in Floidoip. His poems have been published by the British Medical Journal, The Good Men Project, and the Dragon Poet Review.
God Alone Knows by Rajendra Shepherd
“Nobody really knows what drives us to be who we are,” he wrote on his notepad. “Not even God. Why would He preoccupy the universal mind with world peace? Isn’t that our job?”
OK, Gerard, now simplify it. Reverend Gerard Besson put down his pencil and stared out his living-room window, listening for the afternoon traffic below. He smoothed the wavy wig. At sixty-three, his head was long ago bald and the colour of weathered mahogany, and he wondered whether Veronica would approve: His ex-wife had always preferred him in his bob. “Yuh playing young Gerard,” she would laugh. “A big man like you trying to be Beyoncé.”
If he’d had time, he would have put on his lashes too. It made him more personable when he was writing his sermons, not that the parishioners would ever see this persona. He stood and drew the net back slightly to peep outside. School would be out soon, and rowdy kids from the local comprehensive would take over the high street. He should make a cup of tea. That would help.
The move back to London without her had been hard. Nothing like the open spaces of Yorkshire, with its country pubs and rolling moors. Veronica liked the village life. It reminded her of Tobago. But oh no, he needed more. Why couldn’t he have just settled down?
When the archdiocesan office had written at the end of his last contract, Gerard had been praying for something more lively. Growing up in Port of Spain, he was used to the grubby nooks and crannies, the vagrants he had gotten into shelters, the drug users he had taken to the hospital, giving his address so they could register for rehabilitation. When his mom found out what he was up to she had simply said: “You’re a godsend.” Of course, when he had told her at eighteen that he wanted to join the church, she was livid: When would someone make she a granchile at this rate? Especially considering his sister was dutty, dutty, her head only in books: No man go want a woman smarter than he.
Mother was wrong, of course.
When he had met Veronica—PhD—and took her home, his mother had acted imperiously. By then Mother was drinking out of chattering bone china, wearing hats to church, and walking with a cane. No woman was going to get between her and her son, especially not a country bookie from Tobago. Veronica was a teaching nurse with two degrees from the University of the West Indies and a doctorate in psychology from London. And Gerard was thrilled by her erudite conversation—and her fulsome butt. Of course, God would make us attractive—how else would we reproduce?
They tried for kids, which was Gerard’s favourite part of the mission, but he wasn’t unhappy when Veronica didn’t get pregnant. She wasn’t unhappy either, and quite liked him as Irene and even more as the vivacious and sometimes irreverent Lady Padmore, with her pristine black bob and scathing tongue. Irene’s long weave would tickle Veronica’s face and make her sneeze as their bodies pressed together. How funny they must have looked.
Now with his steaming brew on the desk, Gerard settled back to explicating his main point: “Man must create and feather his own nest,” he wrote, pondering if the bird metaphor really worked. What would Veronica tell him? He continued: “The God of our consciousness has created the human possibility, which changes with each generation. The nest building has, and always will be, ours to manage.”
By the time he had finished writing, kids were romping up and down Lewisham High Street. His pokey apartment looked out from above a 7-Eleven. He should call Veronica, he thought. Take a trip back to Yorkshire and see what changes she was making at the hospital.
* * *
That morning, Gerard opened his sermon with the headline: “How to be an individual: What is your role?” He surveyed the old stone church, its dark pews dotted with heads like occasional teeth. He caught the eye of Carole, the youngish, jittery choirmistress who was always having trouble with the old church treasurer. Carole smiled. He nodded back. The women had some ongoing fight about whether tea should be 60p or less . . . with muffin or digestive? And who should control the church diary? The Women’s Institute monthlies had been guaranteed the main hall, which had the only piano with a working middle C. It had driven a wedge between the doyennes and the Carole faction, mostly in their fifties. He would write a piece on “parish politics” in the next newsletter. Maybe Veronica would know what to say.
Slouching into his train seat on the 3.30 p.m. out of King’s Cross, Gerard watched the watery September sun flood the carriage. He pulled off his dog collar and stuffed it into a sports bag that carried clothes for a couple of days, his Lady Padmore get-up, and a bottle of Trinidad Angostura rum that he and Veronica always drank. This time of year in Trinidad would be the start of the petit carême . . . those hot, humid days at the heart of the island’s wet season, back when he and Veronica had been at their best. Then still in her forties, Lady Padmore had great legs and made merry on sparkling wine at her architecture friends’ house parties in Port of Spain’s fancy St. Clair district. She would be gyrating in the kitchen playing the part of a lush. Veronica would be in the pool, and when Padmore got properly plastered, Veronica would playfully push her in the deep end. Gerard hated his makeup getting wet, and the water wreaked havoc with his padded hips and chicken-fillet breasts (not real bird, you understand), but it always made the company laugh, so he didn’t mind.
Now his knees were like old buzzards and his teeth the colour of sand. Too much bloody tea.
Gerard stepped out of the taxi in front of their old home. Veronica had been maintaining his petunias, he noted. He walked the garden path casually swinging his bag. The curtains at number 46 twitched. He waved deliberately in that general direction, accidentally forcing a wave from neighbours Dennis and his daughter, who were in their front garden watching the late-evening sunset.
He rang the bell, and Veronica beamed as she opened the door. “Ger-raard,” she mocked, putting on her posh English accent.
“Girl, how yuh is?” Gerard mocked back. He flung his arms around her waist and cheekily patted her bottom. She slid away from him, awkward, and ushered him into the kitchen.
“I brought our friend . . .” he started, but Veronica was already through the door. So, he kicked his shoes off and in a swift move reached into his bag and plonked the Padmore bob on his head, slightly awry, before lurching through the door.
He heard Veronica call out from inside, “Gerard. No—” but it was too late. Gerard locked eyes with a thin man who had mousy hair and flushed cheeks sitting at their white kitchen table, two glasses of wine set out beside a stack of strewn papers. The man tittered, and Gerard, with all the composure he could muster, snatched the wig off his head and held it with both hands.
The young man stood up and stretched out his hand. “Hats these days . . . are getting quite outrageous,” he said, smiling. “Pleased to meet you, the name’s Richard.” He must have been no more than 28. Veronica said they were just finishing. Richard left his half-full glass of wine, and the pair went to the front door to say their goodbyes. Gerard sat in Veronica’s seat and gulped from her glass. Pinot Grigio. Chilean. Not their usual.
The setting sun coming in through the patio doors made his black slacks and shirt look linty. “Sorry, Gerard,” Veronica said, coming back. “You didn’t say what time you’d arrive.”
Gerard laughed. “I didn’t think to.”
“He’s a student.”
“ . . . Yes. I’m helping him with his dissertation.”
Gerard pulled the Lady Padmore wig onto his head like it was a hat. “He’s funny. And kind. I appreciate that. Does he know?”
“About my hat collection.” They both laughed.
In the six months they’d been apart, they had spoken nearly every day. Veronica had never mentioned any students.
She shuffled away the papers at the table while he went upstairs to shower. Eventually he padded downstairs and into the kitchen to find a steaming plate of pelau . . . rice browned with sugar, pigeon peas, and darkened chicken on the bone. A sliver of bright red Scotch bonnet pepper kissed the edge of the white ceramic.
“No Lady tonight?” Veronica said.
Gerard was wearing grey tracksuit bottoms and a ridiculously stretched white t-shirt, almost gossamer from being over-washed. He smiled. “I think she’s said enough for the evening.”
Veronica set her fork definitively at the side of her plate.
“Gerard. Lady Padmore is funny, brilliant, and a gift to all who meet her.” Gerard made to say something, but Veronica shook her head. “I’m not done. We’ve known her for almost 30 years, and she’s been my friend and confidante throughout. She handled our divorce much better than you.”
He laughed heartily.
Veronica smiled. “She showed us we could all be friends.”
With that, Gerard got up and went upstairs. Veronica ate her dinner alone; he was in the bathroom a while. When Lady Padmore returned to the table, she was dressed like Michelle Obama, in a black dress, almost formal. Delicate pearls rested on her scalloped shoulder bones. Her muted lip gloss and bronzed eyes made her look ready for a cocktail lounge. Her hair was immaculate.
“You look great, Elizabeth. It’s been too long.”
Lady Elizabeth Padmore held out a bottle of Trinidad rum. “I brought your favourite. But you know what . . . I think we should have a night out.”
Veronica’s eyes widened. “Wonderful,” she said and went upstairs to get ready.
They called a cab, the driver glancing only momentarily at the two slender black ladies who were heading to the Royal York Hotel piano bar. Elizabeth drank her martinis with two olives; Veronica ordered a cosmopolitan. They commandeered the piano, and by midnight they had almost finished their repertoire of songs. Elizabeth had sat at the Steinway and hammered out Mighty Sparrow’s Phillip My Dear with the calypso chorus causing quite a laugh:
There was a man in meh bedroom wearing your shoe,
Trying on royal costume, dipping in royal perfume,
I telling you true . . .
They had roused enough patrons to join them with “There was a man in meh bedroom . . .” at every chorus—saluting Fagan, the intruder who entered the Queen’s Buckingham Palace bedroom in 1982.
By the end of his few days’ stay up north, Gerard was feeling quite revived. He put it down to the fresh air. He would have stayed longer, but he had to be back for a midweek meeting with the choir about their songs for the Harvest Festival. Carole had been adamant that they wouldn’t do “All Things Bright and Beautiful” as their opening number but had met resistance yet again. Maybe the drama was really all her.
Gerard strode into the church hall and sat at the long table. The green tablecloth smelled of dust; in fact, the whole place smelled of dust. Carole had a stack of notes before her. The other three ladies on the panel and the doddery pianist Mr. Worthington looked quite unengaged. Carole had made the effort of setting a table with teacups and a sampler of muffins. This was probably to hammer home her point about muffins being the best option to accompany the hot drinks on Sunday afternoons after the service. She was certainly strategic in her thinking.
Before he could even open the meeting, Carole cleared her throat. She smiled and glanced up, giving Gerard what he took for a definite look. “Reverend, I trust you enjoyed your trip to Yorkshire?”
Gerard felt warm. “Absolutely, it was most . . . refreshing.” He didn’t recall saying anything to her about going away. Had she managed to take charge of the church diary? But things moved on without any fanfare. She got her way with the song list and even suggested a steel-pan number by some boys from the comprehensive. “It’s important to be inclusive,” she said, giving him an almost imperceptible wink. Gerard ran a finger under his collar. Was it possible she had seen Lady Padmore’s show at the piano bar? No, surely not.
“So, I think we’re done, Carole. Is that everything?” he said finally. This had taken the best part of two hours, and he was starting to feel quite peckish. The rest of the group were packing up when Carole came and stood beside the Reverend, whose eyes were wandering over the tiny table of muffins.
“Would you like one, Reverend?” she said. “I know they’re not popular among some parishioners.” Gerard picked one up. She added, conspiratorially: “But I think they go very well with tea.” Was she stressing T? Gerard felt uncomfortably warm.
“Yes, I suppose they do,” he said, cautiously. She seemed to wink again.
Gerard lowered his voice. The others had begun to leave the room. “Carole, is everything alright?”
“I don’t know, Reverend.” Her words were measured. She lowered her eyes, looking down at her lace-up shoes. “This row over the muffins has made me quite flustered. And I already have issues with my nerves.”
Gerard sighed. “Of course. You mustn’t let people get in the way of you being yourself. You’re a gift to the world,” he said, remembering Veronica’s words.
She smiled, evidently relieved. Gerard touched her shoulder. He thought, this may not be Trinidad, but people’s dilemmas and the solutions they needed really were the same wherever people lived. He said, “Human frailty, and kindness, is what brings us closer.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling my son,” Carole said triumphantly. The others had all left the room, and she picked up a blueberry muffin. “He performed in the Gay Men’s Choir at Yorkshire Cathedral on Sunday. They were fabulous!” And with that, she stuffed a piece of the soft cake in her mouth and ceremoniously glided out the door.
About the Story
God Alone Knows first appeared in the SAND Journal in 2017. The song referenced in the story is Phillip My Dear by the Trinidadian calypso singer Mighty Sparrow. You can find Phillip My Dear and many other recordings by Mighty Sparrow wherever you go for music.
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