Friday, January 24, 2014
The Last Time I Saw Gemma
You know how sometimes you just can't sleep - you're in an unfamiliar environment, unfamiliar bed, you hear unfamiliar noises and you just can't fall asleep. That's how it is for me right now, so I'm going to have to do what I usually do under these circumstances, and write.
This afternoon when things were slow I was talking with a co-worker about my time in Glasgow, and that triggered a memory of a young woman I knew from a small restaurant there. Her name was Gemma (pronounced Jem-ah) and she was originally from the city of Galway on the west coast of Ireland, but relocated to Glasgow to attend Glasgow Caledonian University, where she was studying to become a Nurse.
I guess it's been about sixteen and a half years since I last saw her. It was near the end of the summer of 1997 and I was returning from a weekend trip to London. It was fairly inexpensive to get a return trip bus to London from Glasgow then, about 25 pounds if I remember correctly, and I stayed at the Youth Hostel in Holland Park in the heart of London for another 18 pounds or so. I think the whole weekend might have cost me $80.00 U.S., and that included meals.
The bus station in Glasgow is about two miles from where I lived in the west end, almost straight down Argyle street (which is a joke, because Argyle street is crooked). Gemma worked at a small restaurant near the bus station, though that's not the one I met her at - I met her in a chip shop actually, which is where the other person involved in this story worked. That would be her boyfriend, a man about 27 or 28 (never got his age pegged down). His name was Alex, and he was an odd sort, very racist, especially towards anyone who looked even remotely Asian (which was odd, as he was half dark Malaysian and half pasty Scottish) and who always seemed to be borrowing money to feed a nasty gambling habit.
He also considered himself quite a stellar Rugby player, and would go on and on about how much better Rugby was than American Football, and that he himself was a better athlete than any American Football player. Bear in mind that Alex was about 5'7", 130 pounds tops. I never told him he was too small for even a Pop Warner team, but I wanted to.
Alex also had the habit of assuming, like so many of his racist brethren, that as a white man I must share the same attitudes. He would whine aloud about the "Paki's" whenever I stopped in for fish & chips - and laugh at his own lame jokes with a dull thuggish Glaswegian slur. If it wasn't for that place being not only a conveniently located chip shop, but also a damn good one, I would have avoided it like the plague.
The Sunday evening I returned from London I walked straight away to the restaurant Gemma worked at. I hadn't eaten since early that morning, and my stomach was growling like a cornered rotty. Walking in I spotted Gemma near the rear of the place talking with a cook, so I sat myself at the counter and pulled a menu from the rack that also held the condiments. Within minutes of me sitting down Gemma was at my side with a smile and her order book open, pen at the ready.
I looked up at her when she greeted me and returned the smile, and that's when I noticed the black eye that the heavily caked make-up did a poor job of concealing. My surprise must have clearly registered on my face, as Gemma looked down and turned her head a little to the side such that I couldn't clearly see the eye that had been injured.
Without hesitation I asked her directly what the hell happened. Gemma stood quiet for a minute and then told me she and Alex had gotten into a fight. I, being all chivalrous and whatnot, replied something to the effect that I would take care of him for her if she wanted me to, and that's when she laughed.
Oops, should have given a a physical description of Gemma when I first started writing this, as it is central to the story. Gemma was not small. It is doubtful "small" had ever been used to describe Gemma, except maybe when she was a baby. Maybe...but I have doubts. Gemma looked like how the members of the East German women's swim team looked in the '70's, before the IOC got up to speed with the drug testing. Oddly enough, even though she cut an imposing figure, she was very feminine in her mannerisms. It was an interesting juxtaposition.
So, with that description in mind, picture her laughing. Not loudly, but not really softly either - just laughing in a somewhat nonchalant way. Then she told me what happened. The Friday last she had come home to find Alex passed out on the sofa, which, she related, was not uncommon. What was uncommon was that he was passed out with a woman wrapped around him - the woman being passed out as well. Gemma said that was the last straw, and she had flown into a rage, punching and kicking at the both of them with a blind fury. They of course had come to immediately, and had started kicking and punching back at her, as well as trying to push past her in order to get out of the apartment.
Being the only sober combatant, Gemma had the upper-hand, and was giving them both quite the beat down. The commotion however had drawn the attention of the neighbors, and as she told it, the police seemed to be there within minutes. Four of the largest officers had insinuated themselves between her and Alex and the girl, and two others were behind her trying to pull her out of the living room and into the kitchen.
She said she fell into a chair at the small dining table almost reflexively when she realized she was in the kitchen surrounded by police, and watched through a cordon of men as Alex and the girl were allowed to grab their clothes and then escorted out of the apartment.
A policewoman then came into the apartment and sat down at the table across from Gemma, and asked her if she wanted a glass of water. Gemma told me she told the policewoman she wanted a beer. She couldn't have a beer, so she settled on the water.
For about a half-hour she had to sit with the policewoman and give a statement as to what happened, and also had to show her the copy of the lease that proved she was the sole named tenant. The police left her with explicit instructions that she was to stay away from Alex, and if he was foolish enough to try to return to the apartment, she was to call them straight away.
Her telling me all that took about twenty minutes. No one had come into the restaurant during that time, so I asked if I could get a Shepard's pie and some tea. Gemma took my order and then came back to the table. I asked her to sit down and asked in my best concerned friend manner if she was okay. I remember her shrugging her shoulders and then letting out a few soft sobs, and a few tears started rolling down her face. I leaned over and gave her as good a hug as I could from my chair. She quietly sobbed for a bit, and then the cook hit the little bell dealio (Yep, they have those in Scotland too) and she pulled herself up and went to get the plate.
When she came back with my dinner I looked at her and noticed the tears had smudged her make-up a little. I commented on it and then told her she hadn't actually told me how she got the black eye.
That's when she laughed again. She grinned sheepishly for a few seconds and then told me that after the police had left she had started going around the apartment gathering up all of Alex's stuff and throwing it in a big pile in the middle of the living room. It was while she was reaching up on a shelf to grab one of his grade school Rugby trophies that it slipped from her hand and fell hard right into her eye.
She said she embedded that trophy right smack into the wall.
After I finished eating I told her that I had to go, but if she needed to talk she knew where to find me. I walked back to my little flat in the cool night air wondering what it must of been like for the police to walk in on something like the battle that was going on in that apartment. One for the books for sure.
Almost two weeks after that night I found myself going to the bus station again for a trip to Aberdeen. I stopped in at the restaurant to check in on Gemma only to find that she was gone. The waitress who was behind the counter told me that Gemma was back in Galway, visiting her parents, and wouldn't be back until October. I don't know if she ever did return, as I never saw her again, but I do hope she was able to get over what Alex put her through and find a slice of happiness in her life. She was a nice woman, she deserved some.