Remembering… R I P Jimmy James

Nigel’s Story
Gail Gilbride Bohle
Stories from the heart
Copyright © Gail Gilbride Bohle
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system or tranmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright
Published by allaboutlove
Postnet Suite #43, Private Bag X7,
Parkview 2122, South Africa
I was playing the piano. I hadn’t had much chance to practise since I
started university. Someone always seemed to be playing chopsticks on
the ill-tuned common room piano. But now everyone was in the
garden, waiting for the tea and scones to arrive for tea.
Residence teas were legendary – for the scones as much as the
men they attracted. I had finished lectures early though, and didn’t feel
like hanging about in the garden. It seemed just that bit desperate –
whether for the scones or the men, I wasn’t sure. But neither was a
good idea.
As I teased the notes from my out-of-practice fingers, a shadow
crossed the French doors. The first thing I noticed was denim. Hands
still on the keys, my eyes carried on up to blond curls. But his eyes
were the most arresting thing about him. They were the deep blue of
an early sky.
As I describe him now, he hardly sounds real. I know sentiment
can toy with our memories, but sentiment is something I have never
felt about Nigel. It was too real for that.
I stared until the laughter reached his eyes. “I’m looking for
Sally. Could you tell her Nigel’s here please?”
That, too, was predictable. What had I expected, after all?
I’d heard Nigel’s name mentioned as an activist. Those were
heavy times, lived under an oppressive regime. But they were heady
times too. Secret political meetings across borders made those who
attended them seem the bravest and most dashing. Nigel could have
anyone he chose.
For a while I looked out for him. But then he faded, a chimera
in the everyday life of lectures and library.
* * *
It was the week of the residence ball. There was a flurry of
preparation. We discussed partners and compared dresses, long and
made, for the most part, by our mothers.
Not quite sure why it hadn’t occurred to me, since Sally and I
were in the same res, but it gave me a start to see him at our table.
My partner didn’t get much of a look-in. Nigel was on the other
side of me and I discovered we shared a love of wild, quiet places and
enjoyed the same books. When it came to photographs, I found
myself standing between my partner and him. His arm went around
my waist and it was all I was aware of.
For the weeks that followed, I always hoped he’d be around the
next corner. He never was.
A month later a group of friends invited me to join them for a
long weekend on the Wild coast. I threw my backpack into the jeep
without looking and it was caught in mid-air. I looked up into very
blue eyes.
For a moment I hoped … and then I saw Sally.
As the sun rose the next day, I crept out early, determined not to
wake anyone, to enjoy the beach all to myself. The sky was deep blue
and the world was slowly waking. I wandered aimlessly along the
shore, watching the ripples fizz and foam about my feet. And suddenly
he was beside me.
“Race you to the end of the beach,” he yelled, laughing and
breathless. I stayed ahead for a while, but he easily reached the rock
before I did. He pulled me up and asked, “Do you ride?”
I shook my head. “Well this morning you will.”
Taking my hand, he led me up to a small cottage, where a brief
conversation took place with an elderly woman, whom he must have
known from previous trips. He teased her and made her laugh.
A groom appeared from behind the cottage, leading two
chocolate-brown horses. I took a step backward, but Nigel lifted me
into the saddle. Then he mounted, took my reins and led us down to
the water. As my horse waded in the shallow waves, I leaned forward
and buried my face in his soft mane. I breathed in the smell of horse
and sea air.
He pulled my reins towards him with one hand and, with the
other, reached tentatively across to touch my face, and then my hair.
The moment passed and I saw Sally walking towards us from a
I didn’t care how real life was supposed to go. I didn’t want to
know that men like this didn’t end up with me.
* * *
The December holidays came and went and, in mid-January, I caught
the student train back to university. Back in res, I caught up with
friends and heard of those who hadn’t returned. Later I walked down
to the student caf and, in what had become a habit, scanned the tables
and spotted Nigel’s crowd. I willed him to be there, but he wasn’t.
Snippets of the conversation drifted over to me. “Nigel back
home … working … failed an exam … too much politics … folks not
I felt the tears form. Ridiculous. Stupid. Idiotic to have hoped
for so much.
* * *
Two years passed. It was the start of another academic year. Hot and
perfect days dragged us listlessly through days of lectures.
I’d never forgotten him. Just before I slept at night, I would
treat myself to the mind’s eye sight of him mounting his chocolatebrown
horse, wading into the shallow waves and coaxing me to follow.
I had moved out of res. On our first Saturday back, my new
flatmate and I drove to the coast for the day. It was too hot to do
anything else. My flatmate couldn’t drag herself from the waves while
I, more cautious by nature, tucked myself into the shade of a sanddune.
By the time we returned, she was horribly sunburnt and I was
dashing between bathroom and bedroom, emptying sick buckets and
bringing damp cloths. As I balanced another bucket on my hip, I
heard the doorbell.
I very nearly didn’t answer it. God, I looked like death myself,
my hair draggling limply into my damp neck. I peered through the
small stained glass panes and dropped the bucket.
“I’ve come back to finish my degree,” he said. My throat closed
and I couldn’t make any words come out. “Are you still studying
I nodded. He laughed. “Are you going to offer me a cup of tea?
You look as though you need some.”
Later that week, I found myself sitting on a log at a campfire
talking to Nigel across the flames. It was my birthday. No-one knew,
but I didn’t care. I couldn’t think of a way I’d rather spend it. I
watched Nigel get up slowly and make his way towards me. Denim
legs crouched beside me.
He didn’t say anything. I broke the intensity of the gaze and
looked down at the sandy ground. I had to. I didn’t know what it
He waited for me to look up at him. Then he pulled me against
his chest and whispered over the top of my head: “It’s okay. It’s true. I
have loved you for a long time. I just never had the courage to say it.”
* * *
I was happy. Happier than I’d ever thought I could be. Things like this
didn’t happen to people like me. Nigel was special – and he wanted to
be with me. It was still hard to take in, but I’d get used to it. I’d enjoy
getting used to it.
I was brushing my teeth, humming in time to an absurd tune
that was playing on my old radio, thinking how many days Nigel
would be away. Nigel was travelling with a couple of other students to
Lesotho, for a secret political meeting. I loved the drama of it. I loved
not being able to mention it to anyone.
When he returned, there were so many things we were going to
do. We would move in together. Next vac he was planning to meet my
The words of the newsreader penetrated sluggishly. I think my
brain didn’t want to hear, wanted to protect me, to go on humming its
absurd little tune, thinking about Nigel’s return.
“A car crash … sand road on the Lesotho border … three
students injured, one critically …”
* * *
I have been married for some years now. I met my husband a few
years out of university and we married almost before I’d had time to
think about it.
I’ve seen my share of sorrows. And of joys. Like most people, I
suppose. In many ways I’m lucky. I have a good life and a beautiful
daughter. Most days, if asked, I’d say I was content.
Every year, Nigel remembers my birthday. When he phones, he
asks after my daughter, and how the year has been.
Every year, he asks the nurse aides to dial my number, and hold
the receiver so that he can speak to me. He can’t hold it by himself.
Every year, once a year, and only on my birthday, I cry.

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