Miss Gomez and the Brethren
I really hate when that happens.
If you’ve visited before, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered me in my befuddlement. Almost always, the cause is a work of fiction. I always say it’s important to confront one’s limitations, but still.
This time I assumed I’d be on safe ground. After all, this wouldn’t be my first encounter with William Trevor, the Anglo-Irish writer. I’d read ‘Nights at the Alexandra,‘ which I recall as rich and profound. And I’d read what I always refer to as the serial killer novel, ‘Felicia’s Journey.‘ That latter title plays into the story of my engagement, a tale for another day.
So I had reason to be optimistic. I’d just forgotten that optimism crushes some men’s souls.
“Tender, passionate and very funny,” says the review quote on the cover, courtesy of The Times (of London). I completely missed two of those adjectives. Trevor is always tender with his characters, conveying great sympathy through small detail. I just muffed the passion and humor.
We first meet Miss Gomez as an orphan girl on the cusp of adolescence. The only survivor of a horrific fire–so horrific it is one of those incidents that has earned the distinction of acting as it own shorthand, like Pearl Harbor–she is living at Miss Arbuthnot’s orphanage, excuse me, school, where she stubbornly refuses to get along with the prescribed program.
Despite that exotic surname Miss Gomez is Jamaican. The novel, I believe, is more or less contemporaneous so much of it takes place in the days just after Jamaica‘s independence. Miss Gomez finds herself, as so many others in the diaspora, in London.
She has taken herself there to escape. Miss Arbuthnot’s school is run on a decidedly pre-modern set of principles and Miss Gomez isn’t inclined to accept that. Her departure and subsequent move across the Atlantic are as much flight and escape as immigration. So is it always.
So begins Miss Gomez’s immigrant experience which should not be understood in the sociological sense. At the start it’s a small tale, or rather a tale of small details as she makes her way in an alien world.
It’s also a tale that appears headed for the gutter, or at least that general vicinity. Miss Gomez takes various jobs until, working retail, she’s recruited to earn her living in an easier way. That would entail, as my British friends say, doffing her kit. From there it’s a small step, as it so often is, to making her living on her back.
And then, just as I was wondering if this was going to be a morality tale, fate struck. Or, rather, an advert in the newspaper struck Miss Gomez: “Make Friends in London,” screams the headine. She can’t shake it and so she begins a correspondence with a mail order church that, conveniently, calls Jamaica home.
It must be providential, mustn’t it? The Lord speaks in mysterious ways so why wouldn’t he choose a small space ad buried in a fish wrapper? There is, after all, no such thing as coincidence so it must be fated that Miss Gomez read it, right?
Trevor is not that blunt and I feel I’m not being fair. Miss Gomez is alone, visibly different, in a foreign land, earning her keep in the oldest profession. It would be unfair to render judgement on why she reads and responds to the ad.
It is fair, though, to note it upends her life. It’s out of the cat house and off to find the place the Lord has chosen for her to help do his work. And she finds it in Crow Street, a wasteland of post-War urban development, reduced to two standing businesses: a pet shop and a pub, the latter kept open to service the laborers dismantling what must have been a thriving neighborhood in the name of urban redevelopment. Our heroine is certain this is the place.
Miss Gomez, by force of personality, gets the pet shop owner, Mrs. Bassett, to let her a room in exchange for cleaning services. She also manages to get the pub manager’s wife to hire her as the cleaning lady. So settled, she takes up a routine of cleaning, writing long daily letters to the Church in Jamaica, advising them of the progress of her work trying to convert the heathen.
The heathen are as motley a crew as you’ll ever meet, terribly typically English. The pet shop owner is an aged widow; she’d married the shop owner who was considerably older than she at an early age and has spent her life on Crow Street. More accurately, she’ll also spend what’s left of her life on Crow Street.
The pub manager is fixated on Alsatians (German Shepherds here in the States), their teen-ager daughter on boys and escape. Well, one boy who is a lodger at the pub and who works at the pet shop. He is an Irish immigrant who has done time for peeping in the ladies locker room windows at a badminton club. A trunkful of his mother’s clothes is tucked away beneath his bed.
Another lodger, a hard-of-hearing retiree who lost two sons in the War wanders around like the Major from Fawlty Towers. And then there’s the pub owner’s wife, a souse who immerses herself in romance novels, and cocktails of gin and peppermint schnapps, to the point where plots intrude on reality. She’s caught the eye of one of the laborers, something which has happened before.
All of this figures together and comes crashing down in an almost Orton-like denouement replete with a cartoon detective. I’d say that ends it but it doesn’t because all prodigals must, eventually, return home.
Maybe that’s the point. The less-than-a-dozen residents of Crow Street are seeing the physical aspects of their lives torn apart right in front of them. So what was once a neighborhood is now a collection of individuals held together by the flimsiest of threads.
I always say reality is the most fragile of constructs.