There was a paragraph in the newspaper today that I can’t get out of my mind. Since it was a crime committed in Belgium, and of interest only for its novelty value, it ran a mere eight lines. The story, as reported, was essentially of a guest who, after a dinner party, having packed up the leftovers and deciding to freeze them, had taken them down to the basement, where, opening the deep freeze, she had found the bodies of her host’s wife and of his twelve-year-old stepson. Cultural differences should perhaps be considered – Belgium – although no image associated with the country helped set the scene.
More interesting to me, even than the apparent crime, are the details surrounding it. One assumes a murder, but even if the two had died as the result of some bizarre accident, and even if there were a plausible if misguided explanation for the bodies having been thus concealed, one is curious about a man who in the circumstances, even some weeks later, elects to give a dinner party. Was the evening a long-standing engagement that he had forgotten to cancel? And who was the woman, helpful or officious, who took these housewifely duties upon herself? A friend of the dead wife?The man’s mistress? Her domestic impulse and knowledge of the household suggests a certain level of familiarity, if not of intimacy.And what did the woman do, when she found the bodies? Scream? Run upstairs and tell the assembled guests, drinking after- dinner coffee, some of them perhaps slowed by wine? Or did she creep off to the telephone, dial the police, and whisper what she had found to them? Would there have been a moment when horror turned to a kind of embarrassment? Although I couldn’t imagine taking it upon myself to freeze the remains of someone else’s dinner party, what would I have done in the circumstances? And who had cooked?
Henry was hardly cold in his grave – no. I must have used that phrase a thousand times without ever before feeling the full implication of “cold in his grave”. Henry was not only cold but – fortunately I don’t know the stages of decomposition – let’s start again.
Henry was, or rather had been, my husband and he had died suddenly. It did no one any good to dwell on the flaws in our marriage or in my own shortcomings as a wife. And since obviously any failures of Henry’s own were now better left unaired, an unreal but conventional attitude was taken by me and by Henry’s friends. He didn’t have much of a family; a brother came from Kansas, stayed only one night and left almost immediately after the service. Any kind of attention due to the widow of a popular local figure had to come from his friends at the golf club or from nowhere. Since no one thinks that a widow without a family needs a casserole, I found myself invited to dinner once by each of those golf partners of Henry’s who had a wife to cook the meal, make the arrangements, keep the conversation light but not raucous, and generally take responsibility for the evening going smoothly. It was usually just the three of us: difficult to make the numbers even without it looking as though a replacement were being suggested.
I was both grateful for the company, and aware that these invitations would not be repeated; there was little room for widows or divorcees in our small local society. Usually during the course of these evenings, some one would ask me a delicate question about my future plans.
Three weeks after Henry died, Marcia and Bertram invited me to dinner. While I was dressing with a care that reflected my awareness of my new vulnerable status, both social and material, Bertram called. He told me that he and Marcia would collect me, since we were going to eat out. While dinner in a public place would be less sticky than some of these evening a trois tended to be, I was immediately certain the evening had been Bertram’s idea, and that Marcia had at some stage refused to cook. It was not an insight I would have had a month before.
The food at the golf club was not bad, although one felt committed to three conventional courses. The ordering took quite a long time, Marcia questioning the waiter about ingredients to which she was allergic. I thought how much nicer it would be if any of these well-meaning people had just asked me to come over and join them for a regular meal in the kitchen. That no one had, of course, was less a reflection on them than it was on me.
I hadn’t made friends; if I had, I would have had some now that I needed them. And I might have known, or been warned, that Henry was financially irresponsible, or whatever it was that now left me so short of money. He couldn’t have spent it all buying rounds at the golf club. Or could he?
The delicate question about my future plans came rather earlier than usual; we had just finished the first course. It came, of course, from Marcia. She had been largely silent, and Henry and I making perfectly pleasant but self-conscious small talk. Books, I think, which of course made Marcia furious. Reading was important to me, though less so than it has since become. I didn’t like much of my life and lived a good part of it in an alternative world that was a mixture of my own fantasy and other people’s light well-written fiction. Bertram, being a man, read biographies and books about important moments in history. With a good-natured social responsibility, left by most men to their wives, he was talking about the Michael Holroyd biography of Shaw. I hadn’t read the book, and the truth was I hadn’t read much Shaw, and what I had had been many years before. I was doing a poor job of keeping up my end of things, although in other circumstances I would have been happy enough to listen to him tell me about it.
“The new doctor’s wife is having a baby. They’ll be looking for a larger house.”
It took me a moment, during which I accidently met Bertram’s eye(and saw in that split second a look of sympathy and recognition), to realize that Marcia’s pointed silence had been spent in considering how quickly I could be got out of the neighborhood. We both looked at her, my expression one of polite gratitude for her interest in my affairs; I could no longer afford to show the disdain I had once been perhaps profligate with, and which she now certainly remembered. I saw that she had laid all her anchovies in a neat row on the side of her plate, and with a piece of wilted lettuce, made them a shallow grave. I supposed she was not quite sane.
Conversation was a little harder after that. Gardens, where they would go (or had been) on vacation; clearly I wasn’t going anywhere temporarily. We were half way through our main course (I had a large serving and little appetite) when I realized that in addition to any perfectly reasonable dislike Marcia might feel for me, she was one of those women who consider any single woman a threat, both to themselves and to the community at large. At this stage I should mention that though I kept myself fit and made a point of dressing neatly, there was nothing extravagantly feminine or provocative in either my appearance or demeanor. I had in recent years been mistaken both for Henry’s secretary and for the headmistress of the local girls’ school.
Bertram was embarking on the obligatory laudatory reminiscence of Henry when I became aware that my shoes, which should have begun to feel tight by this stage of the evening, were in fact remarkably comfortable. I reached into my purse for a handkerchief and took a look at my feet. Although I was otherwise dressed neatly enough, I was still wearing my slippers. It could have been worse: they were old black ballet slippers rather than tiny little pink mules with marabou, but they were not the elegant if uncomfortable high-heeled shoes that went with my dress. They also didn’t look quite clean: I seemed to have spilled something on them. I was completely unnerved, which is probably why, when Marcia said her bit about Henry, I stepped out of my self-appointed character.
“Died. Henry died. You don’t “pass on” on when you have a heart attack on the seventh tee, you die. He’s dead.”
I thought for a moment I might begin to cry, but I didn’t. Moments later Bertram called for the bill.
Marcia sat silently in the front seat all the way home. Bertram, in what I imagined to be desperation, reverted to the Shaw biography, and I, repentant and grateful for his lead, simulated greater interest than I felt. Bertram suggested that I should borrow the first volume; he was already half way through the second. I demurred; he insisted. He pointed out that their house was on the way to mine and it would only take a second. I expressed gratitude, and that got us to their gate. He got out, she got out. I got out too since I could not remain sitting in the back seat of their otherwise empty car. Bertram asked if I would come in for a drink. Marcia said nothing. I said that I should be getting home. Bertram asked Marcia to make him a pot of coffee; he would be back in a moment. I could see Marcia consider getting back into the car, then instead allowing herself to be thanked. We said goodnight, I hesitated before I got into the seat she had vacated, but I could hardly sit in the back, and let Bertram drive me home like a chauffeur.
I wondered if he would say anything about Marcia, but instead during the three or four minutes the drive took, he asked questions and made helpful suggestions of a practical nature. It was as though he had made a mental list of the tasks and problems I would be facing during the next months. I thought how grateful I would be for more or this kind of help, and thanked him for the several useful things he had told me during the last few minutes.
We drew up outside my door. The porch light was on but the rest of the house was in darkness; I had recently been learning to turn off lights. I turned to thank Bertram, this time with real gratitude, but he had already opened his door. I stepped out; we paused. I closed my door; he left his open, the light from the car emphasizing that the stop was to be a brief one. We walked up the short path, past the hostas, to the front door.
“Do you have your keys?”
I handed them to him. He unlocked the door. I switched on some lights.
“Do you want me to come in and make sure everything is all right?”
“Thank you, no. I am sure everything is fine. I locked up before we went out.”
It was the moment when I would, had Henry still been alive, have offered him “a nightcap” (the local men tending to think of blood alcohol levels part of a good-natured game they played with the local police, who didn’t much stop eminent local businessmen provided they were not swerving all over the road or otherwise acting irrationally). But I imagined Marcia glancing pointedly at her watch, and held out my hand, beginning my thanks all over again.
He ignored the gesture, pushed the front door closed, and kissed me. He had eaten tuna – rare – for dinner. It was a little like kissing a seal.