A curiously reclusive co-worker maintains a secret of undefined proportions in Lillian Sciberras’ short story. Illustration by Aurélie Garnier.
Gerald is, by all accounts, a dull and dreary wimp. Things you’ll notice on a first encounter are that he’s had decent breeding, sticks to conventional values, is pathologically shy and won’t utter a word if he can help it.
His dress sense is inspired by charity shops flogging stuff that was trendy a couple of generations ago. It is as though a dead uncle from those years had left him a full wardrobe so that Gerald need never again visit the shops for something to wear.
Shoes are usually brown, occasionally grey, forever unpolished, strictly 1970s, and worn with cosy woollen socks that are predominantly white. It never occurs to the man that money can, even if seldom, be frittered on looking good. With some attention, his round and rosy face might even recover a bit of whatever original shine there was to it but, overall, the look is one of plainness, of a sixty-five year old living the reality of preordained drabness, when the man is barely forty-five.
His shape eases into a globe from the neck downwards, all the way to his knees. He carries his weight in the manner of a penitential cross to which he mystifyingly adds more — namely, a bulky plastic bag crafted in his own image which he hauls with him everywhere. In silhouette, you see two bags of different sizes, the larger one on legs.
His house, at the edge of town, is a privileged refuge and as far as anyone knows, is visited by no one. No dog, cat, parrot or songbird shares the seclusion of his days; no woman or man his nights. Diffident and withdrawn, he clearly wants it that way. Gerald, though silently, is a keen and intelligent observer who, even if he cares to note how others live their lives, how they mix and mingle with little or no effort, remains indifferent to, or perhaps incapable of, knowing how to channel his own life in such directions. He did have a handful of friends — albeit co-workers — and for a time, I had been one of them.
When he had first joined the company, he was shown round by the sectional head who used the wrong name for him each time he introduced him to the staff. Gerald would whisper a correction, but at the next encounter it would again be Ronald or Donald. After the initial settling down, he was given the task of preparing the staff payroll and related accounts in my office, just a couple of desks away.
By common consent, as a way of showing friendliness to an awkward newcomer, Gerald — and his bag — was provided with a little extra space and a wider berth for his desk. We hoped he would in time overcome his shyness and the long pauses of silence. When he heaved himself out of his desk for a coffee, for lunch, or to visit the bathroom or another office, he never once left the bag behind. At first, in the cafeteria on the fourth floor, he stuck himself to a corner table, as far out of the way as possible. On being invited, however, he (probably reluctantly) joined a table closer to the centre; the same one the rest of us usually frequented. There, too, we made extra room for him and his burden.
Gerald grows on you. His ways become acceptable once you realise it’s the only way he knows how to be. It had also occurred to us that we would learn nothing about him if we didn’t ask direct questions, and there was a limit even to these. When asked about family, he tersely replied that they had all died. When asked if he was ever married, any children, any pets, a deadpan ‘no’ was all he uttered.
Yet, Gerald is an asset to the company, possessing a keen brain that belies his appearance. It’s clear he reads every page of the newspaper for he is always well-informed. He borrows copious amounts of books from the public library, reads them (and their indexes), and maintains a solid recall of everything. On the odd occasion, his default silence gives way to voicing witty remarks, revealing a peculiar sense of humour that is often funny and sometimes wicked. His wit lives somewhere between his most reclusive self and rare moments of daring, when he timidly struggles to morph into a social being. Some months after his arrival, we promptly realised he had become one of us.
A year or so had passed when Jennifer, Veronica, Ray and I began to think of him as not just a colleague, but also a friend. His oddities were, by then, routine. We would, very occasionally, ask him to join us at the weekend for a picnic, or a trip to the cinema, concert or theatre. On those occasions when he consented to come along, his plastic bag came too. When Ray once noticed him walking with a limp and offered to carry it for him, Gerald barked ‘no’ and shot a mean ‘don’t you dare ask that again’ look.
Time didn’t diminish our curiosity, and our prying increased. One day, when he was away on leave, we turned to probing his peculiarity. What might that bag contain? Why carry it everywhere? What can it mean to him to be forever attached to it? ‘Simple,’ Jennifer said. ‘He doesn’t trust leaving his valuables at home, so he carts them around.’ Veronica thought he was old fashioned and despite, or perhaps because of, working in accounts, he doesn’t trust the banks. ‘I’ve never seen him use cards. Always pays in cash. It’s obvious he keeps his money at home, in that bag, and he doesn’t dare leave it behind, or leave home without it.’ Ray, our horror film buff, wearing a studied Vincent Price expression, declared that ‘Gerald who silently shares his days with us has a deep and disturbing secret he wants no one to ever discover. Remember his look when I offered to carry it for him? I wouldn’t put it past the man to carry his mother’s ashes, or even her pickled head in a jar if you ask me.’ James from Reception, dropping in on the cabal, proffered an esoteric possibility: ‘I really think he must have, at some point in his life, made a pious vow and undertook to accept a permanent burden as recompense for an impossible favour granted from heaven. I remember Robert De Niro doing exactly that in the film The Mission.’ Not knowing much about his state of health, we then wondered if he might be fearful of needing emergency admission to hospital, so carried with him pyjamas and a change of underwear, in addition to whatever else bulked up that bag.
It was April and the days were getting longer, with the persistent nip in the air of a prolonged winter finally giving way to balmy comfort. We discovered it was also close to Gerald’s birthday, so I gave the occasion some thought and decided to invite my workmates to a dinner at home. Since my sister, Helena, was visiting from Brussels, I asked her too. Apart from Gerald, all had been to my flat before, and all had met Helena and liked her. Besides, it was time for a get-together, and I thought it would be a caring gesture towards him; he would be the guest of honour.
Helena came to help me immediately after visiting the shops, slipping into sisterly mode while I ascended into a flurry of anxiety about having Gerald over for the first time. As Helena laid the table, I chopped away at the onions, garlic, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower, the repetitive action steadying my nerves. The chicken had thawed nicely and was trimmed and cut up in turn. I sought out my arsenal of spices and prepared a tasty Garam Masala, mixing cumin, turmeric and chilli with bay leaves, ground mustard and coriander seeds, cinnamon, cardamom and black pepper. It was going to be a fine curry, done in my own time-honoured way.
Ray offered to pick up Gerald and Jennifer and drive them to my house. Veronica, who lived close by, made her own way. It was Saturday, my cheerful sister was here, and it was a mild spring evening. I was told that the aroma escaping the flat into the landing had already built up an appetite for my guests as they climbed the stairs.
I asked everyone to place coats and belongings in the bedroom, and to make themselves comfortable with a glass of wine out on the balcony while the sun began to set. Gerald, unaccustomed to being a guest, appeared cautious but cheerful. In his look, I spied a furtive enjoyment of that young evening easily unfolding.
The conversation flowed smoothly with Gerald butting in from time to time, carefully awaiting his moment during those all too brief pauses in-between torrents of banter. He was clearly not a drinker, but the evening proceeded so well that it must have seemed to him, wine glass in hand, that he should not pass up this chance to, for once, have a good time. Even if I say so myself, the curry turned out to be memorable, and there was an overall request for seconds. Veronica brought lemon sorbet for dessert, and Ray had acquired a bottle of Sicilian liquor. We remained in a jolly frame of mind throughout and, as we sang happy birthday to Gerald, it was apparent that he had reached his nirvana — and a very tipsy one. We had never known him to be more relaxed, talkative, or light-hearted, and I felt extravagantly good about it.
As the evening slipped into night and into the early hours, one by one the group began glancing at their watches, then reluctantly rising from their seats. As they prepared to leave, I hugged my sister first, agreeing to meet again the following day. At the door, exchanging thanks and banter, I reminded them to collect their belongings from the bedroom, and to please be as quiet as possible going down the stairs for the sake of the neighbours.
It was a terrific evening, well spent, and well turned out. I had insisted from the beginning that I would not be accepting any help with the dishes, so it was past three by the time I was ready to retire. I was exhausted in the best sense of the word and all set to plunge into bed, satisfied with the outcome, satiated with my own cooking, and with the ample enjoyment of the party. I ambled into the bedroom, seeking that exclusive comfort that only one’s own bed can provide when, at its far end, I noticed there were two large plastic bags.
One of them was certainly Helena’s, but not the other. An impossible reality suddenly lit a firebomb inside my head. Gerald, inebriated, had either forgotten about his bag, or had taken one of Helena’s by mistake. The contents were there for the prying and I was to be the only privileged witness. In the stillness, I could hear my heart thumping as my hands mechanically made for the top covering until conscience, predictably, irritatingly, kicked in and held my hand, forcing me to think out my motives and their consequences. I groped the bag from the outside. Its contents were clearly enveloped in layers, in obscurity, in a mystery I was now free to unravel. But I was overcome by misgivings, by an unwillingness to contaminate the bond that had painstakingly built up between us. I found myself suddenly, alarmingly sober and, vowing not to be swayed into temptation, locked the room and went to sleep on the sofa.
The following day, I received calls from the group thanking me for, what they claimed, was a superlative dinner, confirming what fun the evening had been, and what pleasure it was to see Gerald forget himself wholeheartedly. With fortitude I didn’t know I possessed, I managed to shut up about the bag in case I might be persuaded to do the unthinkable. Predictably, there was no call from Gerald; I never saw him use a cell phone and I doubt his house has a phone installed. In the afternoon, as agreed, I met up with Helena and gave her the bag she had left behind. ‘I left two actually’ she said, but I explained about the mix-up, and that I would return the proper one on Monday when I could exchange it with Gerald.
When Monday came it was one of those days when spring forgoes mellowness, and hangs heavily in the form of high cloud and a muggy air that makes everything arduous and demanding. Proudly carrying Gerald’s bag from the parking area to the office, I considered what a strain it must be for him, with all his bulk and without a car, to forever cart around all that extra weight. I thought about how relieved he was going to be to know his precious possession was safely back intact.
He sat irritably at his desk, rising as soon as he saw me come in. With a haunting scowl, he handed me Helena’s bag, which I then confirmed was practically identical and, without a word, grabbed his own. For the rest of the day, he didn’t look at me or utter a single word, reclaiming the silence with which he had started his days with us, refusing to look at any of us, his companions of mirth from two evenings before.
The following day, Gerald went on leave, never to return.
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