GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) — Chapter 15: “The Serenade at St. Dymphna’s” (Part 1) — 19 September 1964

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Sunday morning rolled around, and Mum, Dad and I returned from services at St. Cyprian’s at twenty past noon. They were mildly surprised I didn’t make my usual beeline to bedroom to shed my monkey suit, but didn’t think anything seriously amiss until I grabbed my guitar about one, heading out the door, kissing Mum on the way out and telling them I’d be back in a few hours.

I arrived at the park early, but found Lois already waiting. At her suggestion, I removed my guitar from its case before we took off, stowing the case in the back seat, taking the guitar to the front with me. (“Y’wan’ her t’know you’re playin’ for her,” she said, “not out tryin’ t’panhandle.”) I played the song for Lois as she drove, and found it heartening when she said that she liked it.

“Ah’d sure forgive someone who’d write a song lahk that for me, then sing it t’me ‘n’front of ever’one,” she sighed. She smiled encouragingly “Sing it t’her like y’sang it t’me, Boog, and it’ll all work out – you’ll see.”

 

We arrived at the steps of St. Dymphna’s at about ten ’til two.

 

 

 

 

At five ’til I saw Angles run out one of the side doors. He caught up to me in less than a minute. “Snuck out the door soon as offertory was finishedt,” he panted. “Soonest I couldt leave.”

“You’ve missed nothing,” I said gratefully. “Calm down, catch y’breath.”

Uh – Reggie ladt, maybe we shouldt holdtoff on this –” he began nervously.

“C’mon Angles,” I interrupted. “As y’say, n’guts, n’glory.”

Before he could reply. the front doors opened and the parishioners began leaving.

We waited a few moments.

Then he suddenly shouted, “Now!”

Too nervous to laugh, I began to play and we both began to sing.

Angles explained later that he could never have seen a girl as short as Connie through the throng of adults. He knew what Mr. Capuletto looked like, and signaled me to start when he saw him at the door, assuming, and quite correctly, that Connie wasn’t far behind. Unfortunately, so was someone else, but I didn’t realize the significance – not then.

It was maybe 20 or 30 seconds more before I saw Connie. For a moment or so, I thought my voice was going to catch when I first saw her face. It didn’t, but I had to concentrate for all I was worth to keep it from being so, smiling all the while.

Mr. Capuletto looked shocked, then cross, then amused, and Mrs. Capuletto was impossible to read. There were two boys with them, both about 15, who didn’t look much like Connie, or like each other, for that matter, but looked enough like her parents that I knew they were her brothers. One had a grin I’d seen too many times on Angles’ face to doubt its meaning. He’d be giving Connie a hard time for the rest of the day. The other looked stunned and curious; I remembered a saying that there were few things in a young boy’s life more stunning, shocking or mystifying than realizing another boy’s in love with his sister.

Connie was more difficult to read: Not due to an inscrutable poker face as her mother had (though in a epiphanic moment, I realized she might well have such a face later in life), but because her face had frozen in surprise … fear … or shock … the instant she caught sight of me singing and playing the guitar to her on the church steps.

She stared as I continued playing, and Angles and I continued singing. For an instant, I thought she mightn’t be Connie at all, but Gilbertine in disguise, pretending to be Connie, given the “deer-caught-in-the-headlights” expression on her face.

An elderly lady stood beside her, likely a grandmother. She looked genuinely moved. She might not have recognized the music, but she clearly understood the message. Her eyes had a faraway look, and I thought I saw a tear in one of them. Her smile was gentle and dreamy.

Suddenly, Connie buried her face in her hands, standing still a minute or so longer before suddenly dropping her hands and taking off running down the steps, into the meditation and prayer garden that led to the parking lot.

Sixteen bars later, Angles and I finished the song. Several people round us applauded, including Connie’s father and brothers, though Mrs. Capuletto had gone off running after Connie. Her grandmother even walked over and kissed me lightly on the forehead, the way my Grammer in Solihull did whenever I’d managed to pull off something especially sweet or clever. The rest of the Capulettos left, seeking to rejoin Connie and her mother.

No sooner had they gone than I saw Gilbertine across the way, on a circular faux Edwardian stairwell leading to somewhere on the sanctuary’s upper level, her face and hair the same way I’d seen them at school, save that there were now baby roses in her hair. But, her expression was softer, more vulnerable.

She’d abandoned both her nautical look and her purple satins in favor of a gown similar to the one Bethany wore at Christmas, but in white with a black cinch beneath the bust, and long bell sleeves with vertical stripes, about a quarter inch wide each, spaced about two inches apart at the base of the sleeves.  She carried a white parasol that had similar black stripes and a black fringe. She was too far away for me to make out what cameo was on her choker.

She stared down at me, resting her parasol on her left shoulder instead of elevating it. Her skin was clear, no longer waxen, but so pale. Her face had a stricken, stunned expression – deeply hurt, verging on tears, almost heartbroken. I was at a loss to know why she was feeling that way, but for the first time, my blood didn’t run cold.

Instead, for the first time, I actually began to feel a bit of her pain, and it made me sad. For the first time, I began to feel sorry for her. She suddenly dropped the parasol.

I felt a hand tightly grasping my shoulder.

“Good show, boys – care to do another?”

The question came from the owner of that hand, a big, avuncular priest, who reminded me quite a bit of Rev. Farnsworth.

 

I glanced at him, then back to where I’d seen Gilbertine. She and the parasol were both gone.

 

 

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