Palimpsest /ˈpalɪm(p)sɛst/ noun – a manuscript on which more than one text has been written with the earlier writing incompletely erased and still visible
The man lurched across the road, dodging the rush-hour traffic. His hat, an orange tasselled affair with over-sized ear-flaps, sat at an angle on his head, allowing dark blonde curls to spring out on the right side around his bright blue eye. His left eye, deep and brown, winked as he leaned down to smile and wave to the drivers of the cars through their windscreens. He dragged his feet as if they were giant boulders, trailing frayed boot-laces in the grime and oil sheen on the road. When he finally made it across four lanes of honking vehicles, he had drifted from his starting point and was now the wrong side of a metal fence. What should have kept him out now kept him in.
Banging two woollen fists down on the top of the barrier, he leapt in an effort to swing his legs and clear the metal grill, but his boots with their flapping laces and lolling tongues hit the fence, making him spin backwards and come down hard on his back in the road. The honking turned to a scream of horns as a black cab swerved, another braked hard behind to avoid collision, then a pandemonium of cars careered and screeched, people acting and reacting in chaos. The man in the hat lay on his back in the filth, arms and legs moving in the air like a stranded beetle. Above the sound of the car horns and shouts through wound-down windows, one sound cut through the air – the man was laughing.
‘I’m telling you, it was the best thing in the world, the best feeling ever, just trying the role on for size in public, like pulling on a new skin. Finally, a new skin,’ Jerry lay back in the middle of his sister’s couch, hands locked loosely behind his curly head to watch her upside-down as she walked behind him. The legs of his jeans were rolled up to his knees, bare toes wiggling on the coffee table, soaking up the full three bars of electricity coming from the fire. ‘You should have seen them, swerving around, sounding their horns. Best of all they believed me! They believed me – no one wanted to touch me, even the ambulance guys who deal with crazies like that every day.’ The grin fled from his face as he turned abruptly to look at his sister. ‘I’m OK by the way, thanks for asking.’
‘You could have left your stuff in the hall,’ Joy threw a glance at Jerry’s muddy jacket and boots that were thrown carelessly on the floor next to him, along with the orange hat, fingerless mittens and a pair of threadbare socks. He didn’t answer, just grinned and wriggled his toes. Joy turned her head away and sighed.
‘But they’re not mine,’ Jerry winked his brown eye at her. ‘They’re his – homeless Hector’s. He saw you unlocking your door and forced his way in with you – remember?’ He hugged his knees to his chest and his shoulders shook slightly in a muted chuckle. ‘Get Hector another glass, will you, doll? They don’t call him “wino” for nothing.’
‘Why do you always have to do this?’ Joy said, circling the sofa and bending down to pick up two burgundy-stained glasses. Jerry leaned over and slapped her hard on the behind. Joy turned, purple blotches appearing on her neck and cheeks. ‘What’s wrong with you!’
‘Hey, that was Hector too!’ Jerry said, ducking his head slightly, pale hands high, long fingers spread above his shoulders. ‘I would never do such a thing to my own sister. Do you think I’m some kind of pervert?’
Joy breathed deeply and walked out to the kitchen and Jerry watched her, expressionless. Then he slumped back slowly into the sofa, tucked his hands back beneath his head, stared at the ceiling for a second before closing his mismatched eyes.
‘Yes, he’s here right now, Mum,’ Joy leaned into the far corner of the kitchen, a small but sparkling modern room lined with pale cabinets. Her hands cupped a mobile phone as she spoke softly into it. ‘Look, I can’t handle him right now, I just can’t. He’s got this new part and he’s doing what he always… yes, I know, he’s brilliant, too brilliant most often… yes… I know. No, I’m just not able… please, put Dad on the… Mum, you’re not listen… tell Dad he’s got to come over and take him… just tell him!’
Joy moved the phone away from her ear slightly and stared at the gleaming white sink as the tap let a huge round drop of water plop into an over-flowing white china mug. A voice continued to crackle from the phone but the words were no longer intelligible. Joy reached over and turned the tap, wrenching it closed and choking off the water supply.
‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Jerry. The hospital just phoned – I’ve got to get to work early tomorrow.’
Joy stood in the doorway of the living room, a glass half-full of wine clenched in one hand, the other winding itself into the curls behind her ear. Her pale blue eyes surveyed her brother as he lifted his head to look back at her.
‘So soon? I just got here,’ Jerry gave her a lazy smile and patted the sofa next to him. ‘Come and catch up with me. I brought you a book, thought you might like to borrow it.’ He leaned over and picked up a slim red volume from the pocket of his jacket and tossed it onto the coffee table. Joy watched him but didn’t move.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I promise I won’t mess around anymore. Pure Jerry now, don’t worry.’ He smiled and winked his blue eye at her. ‘I won’t stay long, just one more glass and then off to bed.’
Joy turned her back slowly on her brother and returned to the kitchen. Her hand shook as she poured wine into an empty glass, then she topped up her own glass, letting the bottle drain completely. She picked up the two glasses.
Jerry was right behind her, silent in his bare feet. He clasped his hands over hers, enclosing the shaking, his eyes penetrating her, blue into blue, brown into blue.
‘What’s the matter, little sister? Have I shaken you up with all that Hector shit?’ Jerry spoke gently, his face getting closer, his breath mixing with hers, then curled his lips into a crooked grin. ‘You’re shaking like a leaf. Let’s put these down before there’s an accident.’
Joy was silent as he took the glasses from her stiff fingers and put them on the kitchen top. Before she had time to move, he wrapped his arms around her and held her close. Joy’s hands lay limp at her sides like a cut puppet.
‘It’s just me, little sis, just me, Jerry. Nothing to be afraid of now.’
Joy’s eyes were wide as she stared at the second hand of the wall clock behind her brother’s shoulder. Jerry leaned over and took one of the glasses of wine, raised it to his lips and drained it in one gulp without letting her go.
‘You know I love you, Joy,’ he murmured into her hair. ‘You know I love you and I wouldn’t ever hurt you. Wouldn’t let anything happen to you.’
His arms squeezed tighter still. Joy could hardly breath. She moved her arms vaguely, tried to push him, to release his grip.
‘Jerry, you’re hurting me right now,’ she croaked in his ear. ‘It’s too much…’
‘No, little sister, I would never hurt you.’
The door bell rang, a shrill alarm. Jerry made to turn and Joy pushed and ran. She tore the door almost from its hinges and fell into her father’s chest.
‘Are you OK, sweet girl? Did he do anything to you?’
‘He didn’t do anything, he never does. He doesn’t have to. Take him home.’
Joy watched through a gap in the curtains as her father’s car pulled away. She saw a movement at the rear window, Jerry’s hands flapping, like the wings of a butterfly, or the pages of a book opening and closing. Then the car’s red rear-lights receded and the unlit street faded back to black. She breathed deeply and sat down in the middle of her sofa in the dent left by her brother. She shuddered and moved to one side. Leaning back slowly and breathing deeply again, the air caught in her throat. As she curled her legs beneath her, she saw the red-bound book on the coffee table. Jerry’s book. It bore no title on the front so she picked it up and turned it to read the name on the spine. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. She frowned slightly and flipped it open. It fell automatically to a well-worn page, a sentence clumsily underlined in thick red ink.
No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one may be true.
Joy wiped her nose with her sleeve, then let the book close and slip to the floor.