The Perfect Man
Gerard Travers lifted the little dark boy off the train and onto the platform at Victoria. It had been a hard journey from India for the child, who had cried constantly for his mother and had wet himself every night. Gerard heard a shout and turned to see his older brother, waving and pushing through the crowd.
“Raggy, Raggy boy,” Haig called. He was a crude muttonchopped version of the tall and leonine Gerard.
After they embraced, Gerard raised the child in his arms, confronting his brother with a pair of large mournful eyes. The boy was sucking and gnawing at the back of his hand. ‘Here’s the sprog, Eggy—as forewarned.”
Haig peered into the boy’s plump face, smiling and patting his leg. “Crikey, he’s already got a permanent frown. How old is he?”
“Five…ish.” Putting the boy down, Gerard surveyed the station as if he could see limitless opportunity in every aspect of this dirty bustling place.
“Born during the monsoon, apparently.”
“Well, that’s helpful. What are you going to do with him, Rags?”
“I have an honest proposal. Where’s Brenna?”
“Oh, had something she couldn’t get out of today.”
“And how’s . . . ? What is she, six now?”
“Cecilia. Seven. She’s tip-top.”
Abruptly, Gerard set off toward the baggage carriage at the front of the train, drawing Haig into the giddying wake of his headlong energy. As he walked, he continued to subject everything around him to his speculative gaze, though his open face, with its wide-set eyes, tempered this look with something nearly naïve. He was a man one could imagine being foolishly brave in pursuit of self-serving ends. Though self- serving wasn’t quite right, either, for Gerard clearly had no desire merely to possess, any more than the true gambler wants only money.
In contrast Haig seemed plodding, with a bland literal face that would have lacked any force without those muttonchops inherited from his father.
As they were slowed by the crowd around the baggage carriage, Gerard rested a hand on his brother’s shoulder, examining him with uncharacteristic gravity, and said, “I got a shock when I saw you coming through the crowd.”
“Thought it was the old man.”
“Well, I’d never be able to deny I was his son, much as I’d want to.”
They pulled the luggage from the pile on the platform, and just as they were about to exit, Haig said, “The boy!”
They rushed back to where Gerard had got off. The little Indian boy, crying, held the hand of a woman who was bent over him, talking gently.
“There’s the little blighter,” Gerard said. “Oh, my lord.” He met the woman’s scathing face. “Lost him in the crowd.” He called down to the boy, “You must stay with me, Raj.”
“This is your child?” the woman said.
“He’s in my charge, madam. An orphan. I brought him here to treat his leprosy.”
The woman snatched her hand out of the boy’s.
“Thank you for your kindness,” he called, as she hurried away.
He took the child’s hand, and they all left the station and got into a taxi.
“Heard from Olly?” Gerard asked as it pulled out.
“America. He’s as all over the map as you are. He was in New York. Met some woman who runs a nightclub. Older than he, as usual.”
“Always lands on his feet, doesn’t he. Women love him. It’s that abandoned look. They start lactating the minute he walks into the room.”
“Raggy!” Haig laughed.
Gerard’s own laughter clenched his face like an impending sneeze but never came. It rarely did. Joy was simply unable to collect in sufficient intensity to become laughter. Gerard couldn’t stop, only stall, and if he stalled he would plummet. As he stared back out of the taxi window, a frown vaguely breached and receded in his face—clearly, joy wasn’t the only emotion at his heels. “Does Olly still have his . . . problem?” he said softly.
“With him for life, I should think.”
“I’m surprised he’s lasted this long.”
“Did he come back for Father’s funeral?”
Shaking his head, Haig said, “I had to tell everyone you two were too grief-stricken. Couldn’t tell them Oily had sent a note asking me to make sure they put a stake through his heart before they closed the coffin, and you sent a very expensive telegram: C STOP A STOP P STOP I STOP T STOP A STOP L STOP. I can still hear the old bastard saying it.”
The two men smiled and sat in a silence that grew heavy until Haig finally said, “I think Brenna’s worried you’re coming for the rest of your share.”
“I wouldn’t make you sell the house. God knows, though, it should have been burned with his body in it. I don’t know how you can live there.”
“Only, things are a bit tight. I lost a lot in that Italian—”
“It was the war,” Gerard cut in, “Would have made a fortune. I’ll steer you right, though. Got my fingers in a prime opportunity.”
“Brenna would kill me.”
“What Brenna doesn’t know won’t hurt you.” Gerard snatched the boy’s hand out of his mouth. “Stop that.” He had been sucking on it for days, and the skin had become raw.
The boy pointed out of the window. “Chirdiyao ka rang gharo jaisa hai.”
“What’s he say, Ger?”
“English,” Gerard said to the boy, who frowned and flapped his hands. “He’s speaking Hindi. I don’t speak Hindi.”
“Good lord, Ger. Didn’t you ever talk to his mother?”
Gerard didn’t respond.
“No need. I’ve been a fool. You know, I’ve often thought that when there’s siblings they share everything out between them. Oily got all the luck with women.” Gerard pulled himself up and cleared his throat. “Brenna’s great. I don’t mean—”
Haig nodded, raising a hand to show no offense had been taken.
“But my God, Eggy, you met a few of them: Heather, Chloe, Loretta—women to die for. All crazy about him and he broke their hearts.”
“You bravely stepped into the breach a few times, as I recall.”
“We can’t have people misusing beautiful things, Eggy. Anyway, on the whole I’ve had no luck in that department. Nina took me for pretty much everything I had.”
“You mean she didn’t give you everything she had.”
Gerard ignored this. “And that Argentinean woman almost got me killed.”
“As I recall, she’d just finished tying you to her bed for a spot of kinky high jinks when her husband walked in.”
“I was damn well helpless.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t kill you.”
Smiling, Gerard said, “You know why, don’t you? Have I never told you?”
Gerard leaned in. “He was of the other persuasion. A patented palm tickler. Ordered his wife out and had the time of his life.”
“Tell you the truth, I was so relieved I still remember it fondly.”
Gerard sat back again, his face contorting with that near sneeze of laughter. “Nothing’s ever as bad as you think, Eggy boy, long as you survive.” He nodded toward the child. “His mother was the most beautiful creature you’ve ever seen in your life. Sprog’s got her eyes—look at them—huge ruddy great things. Stunning. She was like every strange and beautiful thing in that country in one face. And her expression. . . .” He shook his head. “The wisdom of ten thousand years.” He pulled the boy’s hand out of his mouth again. “Wish he didn’t look so bloody Indian. Nothing of me in him. He’s black as pitch.”
“He’s not that dark. And he does look like you.”
Becoming aware that he was being talked about, the boy looked at Haig with an expression that was utterly pitiful, over at Gerard as if at something brutishly incomprehensible, and then back into the street with a resigned anxiety that suggested just how much he had already endured.
“Why didn’t you leave him with his mother?”
“No clue where she is.” He hesitated. “I am a fool. You know what I’m like when I get something in my head.”
“I know: idée fixe.”
“And an astonishing idea it was too, Eggy. I mean, I thought I was going to stay in India forever. And this woman would be—well, like my wife.”
“Except no one would know about her, of course.”
“Not at first, but I thought eventually yes. I’d teach her to speak English, educate her.”
“Oh, my God.” With exhausted despair, Haig rubbed his closed eyes with both hands. “Oh, my God.”
“Anyway, I won’t go through everything. I bought her—outright—for twenty pounds.”
“You bought her?”
“I think from her parents, but I can’t be sure. And I married her. I did marry her—in the native way. I didn’t want her to get . . . you know; tried to be careful. Only knew when she began to show. Asked her to get rid of it, but she didn’t understand. Had no luck teaching her English.”
“Always the bloody same. Ever since you were old enough to speak. You’d get something in your head. You’d get obsessed, and as soon as you got it you’d lose interest.” Haig gestured toward the child. “This isn’t a damn investment scheme.”
“I know that. I know that.” As he glanced at his son, Gerard’s expression suggested a fear that no matter how much he risked, all he would ever get in return was encompassed right here in this dark, plump, lonely little boy. Quickly he turned back to the street. “I tried to teach her, but she didn’t seem able to retain a single word. So finally I hired this Indian chap to work with her full time. And he spent about an hour with her on the first day, and be comes to me, and he’s cringing as if he thinks I’m going to kill him. And he says, ‘Sahib, your . . . your woman.’
“‘My wife,’ I said.
“‘She’s. . .’ “—Gerard acted like the Indian man, searching for the word, staring abjectly into Haig’s face—“‘she’s simple—like a simple
Haig stared open-mouthed for a moment. Then he began to laugh, doubled over—wheezing, body-racking laughs. Moments later, the taxi stopped outside a three-story Georgian house that had somehow survived the bombing. Haig went up the stone steps, still wiping tears of laughter from his face. Gerard, holding the boy’s hand, remained on the pavement staring at the house.
After opening the door, Haig looked back and became serious. “Would have been better for you to see his body, see him buried.”
“Better for you,” Gerard said. “For Olly and me . . . I don’t think we could give him the satisfaction of dying.”
“Tati jana hai,” the boy said, whimpering.
“English, Raj” Gerard pulled him up the steps. “And stop eating your hand.”
The second the door closed behind them all, a woman’s voice summoned Haig sharply from the next landing. Grimacing, Haig pointed Gerard toward the sitting room and hurried upstairs.
Gerard sat the boy next to him on the slightly worn green velvet couch, pulling his hand out of his mouth again.
“Tati jana hai.” The boy looked as if he was about to cry.
“You know English, Raj. Say, ‘My name is Rajiv.’ My . . . name—”
There was the sound of someone descending, and Gerard stood as a tiny, stiffly elegant woman entered, wielding the exquisite, intricate weapon of her face. She acted as if the boy weren’t there, not even glancing at him, and without a word or gesture of greeting sat at the very edge of the armchair that faced the couch. It was as if she had come in to interview a servant and had decided the instant she had seen Gerard that he wasn’t suitable.
“Brenna, you look—”
“How long do you intend to stay?”
“Five days. I’ll be out of your hair on Tuesday.”
“Back to India?”
“Off to Australia. A lucrative opportunity.”
“Really? What’s her name?”
“It’s minerals. It’s not interesting.”
“Are you here for money?”
“I’m here to visit my family—of which you are one.”
“That’s a long trip. That’s going to be hard on—” She stopped, her face a little stricken.
Taking a moment to gather herself, she began again.
“Is his mother going to join you there?”
“Haven’t a notion where his mother is.”
“How careless of you. But then you’ve always been a little.—” She flushed, seemed suddenly furious at herself, as if she had spent years composing and memorizing lines for this brief scene, which she was now massacring. She glanced at the boy, who was chewing on his hand. Then she frowned, noticing something: a constellation of dark spots on the rug beneath him.
“Oh, oh, oh!” she shouted and jumped to her feet. Gerard flinched, as if she might strike him. She picked the boy up by his waist. Brown streams braided his bare legs.
“Haig!” she shouted.
Haig, who must have been listening at the top of the stairs, thundered down.
“Take this. Put it in the bath.”
Haig received the boy gingerly, holding him at arm’s length, and ran out.
“What kind of man are you?” she screamed at Gerard.
Hurrying out, she returned a few minutes later with a bucket of soapy water and a cloth. As she got on her knees, though, something seemed to occur to her. Looking furiously up at Gerard, who had sat on the couch again, she flung the wet cloth into his lap.
“He’s your son. You clean it up!”
Helplessly, Gerard examined the cloth until Brenna, with a strangled squeal, snatched it back and began to scrub frantically at the rug. The house’s front door opened and a girl’s voice called thanks to someone in the street. A clatter followed as she ran upstairs. A few seconds later, the sound of her sprinting down.
“Celia,” Gerard exclaimed warmly, standing as a girl in a gray and maroon school uniform entered.
“Ce-cilia,” she corrected, staring at him with unabashed curiosity and delight. She was as petite as her mother, her mousy hair tied back in a ponytail, but had a Travers face, blunter and more candid. Indeed, she resembled Gerard—strikingly so.
“Mummy, what are you doing?”
Brenna just continued to scrub furiously.
“We’ve had a bit of a spill, I’m afraid,” Gerard explained.
“You’re my bad uncle.”
“Suppose I am.”
“Is that boy upstairs yours?”
“Did you adopt him?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
Stepping closer, she took his hand. “Can I show Uncle Gerard my sea-glass collection, Mummy?”
Still Brenna didn’t respond. Cecilia threw Gerard an amused glance, which he returned, complicit, as she led him out of the room, the two of them stepping carefully around her mother.