For Laurence, trauma came in the form of a random act of violence that claimed his wife and daughter a decade ago. For Clara, it was something she has kept hidden, confined to her own memory and unknown to those closest to her. By chance, they meet atop a cliff overlooking Dublin Bay, where Laurence finds Clara standing uncomfortably close to the edge. Days later they encounter each other again, this time at a pub, and begin a tentative friendship rooted in their kindred heartbreak. Through conversations at once witty, somber, and cuttingly honest, they find a soothing sense of connection and respite from their own lonely grieving. Poignant and engrossing, The Gingerbread Woman is a stirring novel of love and mourning, and of the unlikely friendship that leads two broken people toward a renewed sense of hope.
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The Gingerbread Woman
By Jennifer Johnston
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Jennifer Johnston
All rights reserved.
My mother makes jam.
Raspberry, blackberry and apple, loganberry, marrow and ginger, golden crabapple jelly and, of course, marmalade.
Not a million miles from here – just down the road, in fact, across the railway line and turn right.
Five minutes' walk.
She makes other things too: shortbread biscuits, sponge cakes, rich fruit cake, brandy snaps ... could go on for ever, but where's the point. I'm sure you get the message.
There is no one left in the house now for whom to make jam, but she continues to do it as she has always done. And we, her four children, mark the seasons, winter, spring, summer, autumn, by our dogged and grateful acceptance of the jewel-coloured jars that she packs neatly into cardboard boxes and hands to us as we leave her house after our brief familial visits.
'The jam, dear,' she will say. 'Don't forget the raspberry jam. I know the children like it even if you don't.'
She is right, of course. The children love it; and they love the sponge cakes filled with rich chocolate cream and the gingerbread men.
'Run, run, as fast as you can, you can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man.'
They think she's slightly dotty when she says that to them. They prefer deadly war games or other adventures on their computer screens to stories about foxes and silly little gingerbread men.
I have to admit that I love the gingerbread men too; their slightly cinnamon taste and their chewy texture. She knows this, remembers it from long ago, and though I don't have any children for her to indulge, she indulges this childishness in me happily. None of us have to worry about her yet; she is hale and hearty and fully in control of her life and, she thinks, of ours. We let her think that, but in reality we get on with what we have to do and don't run to her as we used to with the grownup equivalents of cut knees and broken hearts.
I didn't choose to live round the corner from her, in the way that I do; my little house was left to me by an aunt and though I haven't spent much time in it, except for recent months, I have never mustered up the energy to sell it. It has become a sort of repository for my bits and pieces – old clothes, childhood's books that I could never bear to give to my nephews and nieces, other oddments that I have collected on my travels – and at this moment I have become a temporary part of this consoling mess.
I am by way of being the cosmopolitan one in the family. I have lived and earned my living in London, Paris, briefly, and New York and am seriously contemplating having a look at Sydney when i recover my full strength and energy. As you may gather, I am not an adventurous person. i don't go looking for danger, I just like to get out of this cage away from the jam and the familial duties, both of which i love and hate at the same time.
I suppose I should tell you at this moment how i earn my keep, how I manage to wander as I have done around the world – not that it matters all that much, but people, you people always want to know so much irrelevant stuff. What? you ask? How? Why? When exactly did this happen? What was her motivation? Who? Whom? Whither? All those wonderful w.h. words that only we, the Irish, can pronounce properly. Writers tell you as much as they wish – that should be enough for you, but it seldom is. Anyway, i'm not really a writer; I always thought that I would like to be a poet. I would like to be able to write stuff like Roger McGough.
They don't fuck you up, your mum and dad
(Despite what Larkin says)
It's other grown-ups, other kids
Who, in their various ways
Die. And their dying casts a shadow
Numbering all our days
And we try to keep from going mad
In multifarious ways.
And most of us succeed, thank God,
So if, to coin a phrase,
You're fucked up, don't blame your mum and dad
(Despite what Larkin says).
Yes. I like the notion of a poem ending with a bracket. I also like to laugh from time to time. This sort of stuff makes me laugh. Not Larkin, I do have to say. Not Larkin.
I went briefly several years ago to an analyst – that was during my spell in London – and he tried to persuade me that i wanted to sleep with my father and somehow exterminate my mother. I found this quite confusing, so i stopped going to see him. No harm to my father, but i had seen sexier men around, I had actually lusted after and been to bed with younger and sexier men. I had no problems in that area of my life. Then I told him about my mother's jam, and how I would be bereft without that but he didn't believe me. Analysts don't really care about things like jam. Roger McGough seemed more helpful and indubitably less expensive.
i am digressing ... by the way, you may have noticed that I am having problems with some of the upper-case Is. I'm sorry about this. It has happened to me since my operation and I think has something to do with loss of self-esteem. Please bear with me.
Where was i ...? About to tell you how I earn my living. I do odd jobs for newspapers – write book reviews, features on entertaining topics, arty pieces and interviews with reasonably famous people ... not film stars. i draw the line at film stars. My main source of income though is lecturing. I am by profession a lecturer in Modern Irish Literature. Not Synge, Yeats or Joyce. That's a mug's game; that's big business these days, something I have no head for at all. I took a year's sabbatical from Trinity College several years ago and got a taste for the roving life. I discovered that the world is full of universities delighted to give me a year's work talking to their students about Elizabeth Bowen, John McGahern, Edna O'Brien, Francis Stuart, Aidan Higgins, John Banville, Sean O'Faolain ... the list is endless and growing every day. I stick with prose writers: talking about poetry to an ocean of undergraduates makes me feel ill in the head. And i bring things home from my travels and stack them round the walls of my little house here in Dalkey. Centre of the World. Then I come here to lick my wounds and eat my mother's jam, take big deep breaths and get ready to go away again.
At this moment in my life I listen to a lot of music, i sing in the bath and the kitchen, i read books by writers who are younger than I am; sometimes I find it quite difficult to breathe and the doctor has told me not to lift heavy weights or laugh too hard. I don't really see much around me to laugh about, and yet I have always needed to laugh. Someone, some Irish writer but stupidly i can't put a name on him at this moment, said, 'Take away this cursed gift of laughter and give us tears instead.' He was right, of course. Laughter is one of our curses in this country. Great roaring jeering laughter, titters behind the hand, satire, mischief, savage little jokes. We don't seem to be able to manage without any of that. Anyway i have to manage for another few weeks or my stomach may burst open and all sorts of horrible things fall out.
I walk each day, quite gently up here to the top of Killiney Hill and sit in the sun by the obelisk watching the mothers with prams and the toddlers running over the grass and the real walkers striding out, their hips swinging satisfactorily from side to side. Soon i will be fit enough to do that too and then I won't want to do it; i will want to go to Sydney or Ascension Island or Anchorage – now there's a name to conjure with. I will take my abilities with me and when I come home, for indubitably, this will always be home, I will bring with me more odds and ends and stack them neatly round the walls of my house.
One day when I come back i won't be able to open the door. 'Too much rubbish in there, dear,' my mother will say. 'There's not even room for a pound of jam.' Then I suppose I will give up travelling, or running or whatever it is that I am doing and stay at home.
Below me today the sea is a startling silver colour; in fact, it hurts my eyes to look at it for more than a moment or two. Like a huge animal it crawls with white lines of foam moving across its wrinkled back. Then i shut my eyes. I feel the touch of the sun's April warmth and then the cutting edge of the bloody east wind blowing from God knows where; the Steppes of Russia we have always been told, but I make a point of not believing everything that people say to me. I could stand here with my eyes shut for a long time, if it weren't for the east wind. It carves through my clothes and presses its knife edge against the scars, the visible signs of my mutilation. I pull my coat around me. I listen to the sounds of normal life behind me; the calls of mothers to their children, the barking of dogs, and the brisk thudding along the path of the occasional jogger.
At such moments in the last few months I have sometimes become engulfed in a frightening fog of self-pity. i really hate this. I have never intended to be that sort of person. I have always tried to be well balanced, resilient – cool, they call it now. Self-pity is not cool.
I did speak to my doctor about this.
He laughed. He is an old family friend, so he has the right to laugh. 'For heaven's sake, Clara, you are post-operative. Give yourself a chance.'
He then wrote something on my case notes; probably a memo to himself, for future use. Remember to send Clara to a shrink if she carries on like this. Maybe not, of course.
He then repeated what he had already said. 'Give yourself a chance.'
I am doing just that.
Now when I feel the edges of my mind beginning to mist over with despair I fill my head with music. I sing – mainly in my head, but sometimes also aloud. I conjure up such singers as Callas, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Ferrier – I give them the acoustic in my head and let them rip.
I open my eyes again and stare into the wind and then down the coast past Bray Head to the little snout of Greystones leaning into the sea. The wind buffets me, quite gently. It is veering now to the south, not so disagreeable any more and inside me the voice of Benita Valente sings with a charm that at this moment I find very seductive.
Wenn auf dem höchsten Fels ich steh',
In's tiefe Tal herniederseh',
German was never one of my best subjects.
In fact, to be perfectly honest it wasn't one of my subjects at all.
I sing along inside my head.
'Fern aus dem tiefen, dunkeln Thal ...'
It is not one of the world's most beautiful languages. It's not a happy language, like Italian; nor a romantic language, like Russian, or indeed my own unspoken language, Irish, both full of soft curvaceous sounds that embrace you, invite you to listen. German halts you in your tracks. Stop right there, it seems to say. Do not come one step nearer.
'... schwingt sich empor der Wiederhall.'
It sings well though.
I sing well in my head.
'Der Wiederhall der Klüfte.'
On the edge.
I stand here right on the edge and sing.
'Und singe ...'
I like the feel of the land dropping steeply away below me, the narrow road and then the railway tracks and beyond them the shining sea.
A bird's-eye view.
'Je weiter meine Stimmer dringt,
je heller sie mir wiederklingt von unten ...'
'Miss, ah ... excuse me. Hello?'
I ignore such invasive voices.
Und singe. He hadn't thought to bring his coat.
The sun and the blue sky had beckoned him out from his bedroom in the hotel where he had spent the last week, and for the first time he had snatched up the dog's lead from the table by the door and gone out without putting on his coat. Now the wind found its way through his jeans and sweatshirt and made him shiver. Made him swear too about his own stupidity.
Pansy was happy though and thumped her tail against his leg as he walked up the road towards the park. She was even happier when he bent down just inside the park gates and released her; she was away off at once into the trees, her nose to the ground snuffling and searching for some exciting scent.
She was not made uneasy by the unfamiliarity of her surroundings; from time to time she would look back towards him just to check that he had not disappeared, her tail would flick for a moment and then she would continue with her search.
He smiled a sour little smile and two children ran past him, calling to a woman who pushed a buggy up the hill in front of him. They were breathless with laughter.
'Mammy, Mammy,' one of them called. 'Wudja hang on a minute. You're going too fast.' Obediently the woman stopped walking. She turned and waited, smiling at the children as they scrambled towards her.
Laurence began to shake; his whole body was struck with what seemed to be an ague. He couldn't move, couldn't put one foot in front of the other, he could only stand trembling, his arms wrapped tightly across his chest in an effort not to fall apart. The woman with the pram looked in his direction for a moment and then turned and went on her way up the hill, the children chattering beside her.
He had no idea how long he stood there; it was Pansy gently nudging at his leg that brought him back to reality.
'Yes, girl.' He touched her head with a finger. He began to walk again and Pansy, for a few moments, walked sedately beside him.
The sunlight flickered down through the tall trees, just starting to come into leaf.
I thought I had left all that behind me.
Legs move, in out, scuffed old suede slip-ons, in and out. In, out. I would like to run. I would like to come out into the sun, out of this green trembling light. I would like to burn up in the sun, self-destruct. I would like to explode.
Explode. Echoes of explosion carrying on the wind, the smell of exploding flesh floating with the echoes. I carry that smell in my nose. In there with my hatred, the smell of exploding flesh.
All my imagination, of course. I have never seen flesh exploding, only in my mind's eye. Tender flesh.
Snap out of it, Lar.
They'll be coming for you one day, the men in white coats. The men with the needles and the straitjackets and the bottles of liquid that take away the pain, if you don't snap out of it. That's what people say anyway.
'It's time you snapped out of it, Lar. Aye it is. Well beyond time.'
His father's tired face as Lar had opened the front door to him; eyes drooping at the corners, faded blue now and full of sadness and at the same time a curious anger.
'You must listen to me. You've got to snap out of it, son.'
And he had slammed the door in the old man's face.
The paint on the inside of the door was losing its whiteness now; he had stared at it, stared through it at his father's stooped figure on the other side.
The door needs painting, he had thought and turned and walked back into the kitchen. He heard the creak and slam of the garden gate as his father had stepped out onto the street, squaring his shoulders, sticking out his chin, swinging his walking stick with bravado. Such bloody bravado.
Legs move, in out.
His father's face melted into the trees and a small cloud passed across the sun and created for a few moments shade where before there had been light.
I must send them a postcard.
Mum and Dad.
I must let them know that I am alive.
Here, in Dublin.
City of their dreams.
Don't worry, I will write on it. I'm all right. Sorry. Will I write sorry? No, definitely not. X.O. Lar. I will do that, later today. I will find a suitable card. Picture of The Four Courts? Trinity College? Panoramic view of Dublin Bay? City of their dreams. Wish you were here. No, I won't write that either.
Such thoughts brought him out into the windy sunshine; children kicked footballs and women held their hair and chatted to acquaintances, the sound of their voices fluttered and swooped like birds on the wind.
He walked past them up towards the obelisk and then turned and looked out towards the sea.
He never had any desire to go to the edge and look down.
'Why can't I fly?' he had once asked his father. Dad had smiled at him and launched as was his wont into a long dissertation on aerodynamics. Laurence was none the wiser at the end and his fear of heights had remained the same.
Excerpted from The Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston. Copyright © 2000 Jennifer Johnston. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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