Singing the Serpentine Blues


Tweed suit, heels, Dannimac – livery of the middle-class, middle-aged country wife visiting London. Camouflage. Friendly chat in local taxi to the station: I admit I’m meeting my daughter. More camouflage.

Don’t think. Listen to the music of the engine thrumming in counterpoint to the Cornishman’s gentle burr: opera for voice and motor.

Why was he in the Grand Hotel when it blew up.

Watch the hedgerows, frayed and slashed by the Council’s cutters, scraping tawny splinters past your window. No gardener could wound hawthorns like that. Vandals.

Why didn’t he say he’d be at the Conservative Party Conference? I’d have asked why, naturally: I’m Green Party, and he’s always been Liberal. Perhaps he secretly admires Margaret Thatcher.

The train is signalled. I see it curving round distant trees, and I have to cross the line.

“Go,” the driver urges. “Pay when you’m back.”

I run, up dusty wooden steps, across the roofed iron bridge, down into a crush of  campers laden with rucksacks. The usually dour guard guides me to a distant carriage.

“I haven’t a ticket.”

“Don’ee worry about that, Ma’am. Buy it on the train.”

I sink into a window seat. Unexpected kindnesses help ease the tension in my shoulders as I listen to the rhythmic beat beneath my feet. I open my new paperback.

How badly is he hurt? What does “quite extensive injuries” mean? In the context of a bomb in a hotel, part of which collapsed?

Cattle. Sheep. Expanses of green, outlined by walls, trees, broken fences. A field flooded and gulls sitting on the water. Houses, villages, a church tower. God, Rick, why did we quarrel before you left? It can’t end this way. You have to be OK.

Of course, he is. He’s a survivor.

Ricky. Please. Please, please be all right.

At Plymouth, a loudspeaker mumbles. I have the illusion I hear my own name.

The train edges along the Dawlish coast, through short tunnels in red sandstone cliffs, beside a wide grey sea covered in thin mist. Two gulls flash out of the cloud, swoop towards the window, shrieking, mocking.

I know why Richard was in that hotel. Of course, I do. He said a meeting on the south coast, that part was true. The only one. Who was the bloody woman?

What’s the matter with me that my husband turns to another woman? I never imagined he thought I was inadequate in bed. Quite the contrary. He plays my body like a  harp, plucking my nerves in smooth arpeggios, caressing crescendos, creating ecstasy.

Hell, Richard Petersen, sensual skills are no bloody excuse for cheating on your wife. However badly you’re hurt, don’t damn well think I’ll forgive you. Why, why, after all we’ve been together? Why am I not enough?

I gaze at the Autumn countryside jogging past, listen to the drumbeat of the wheels beneath my feet. Age, that’s what it is. The bastard. Age. OK for a man, but I’m sixty, so I’m past it. Find another, younger model. Why are bloody men so bloody predictable?

At Reading, I hear my name blasted out over the tannoy: “Would Mrs Petersen travelling to Brighton please come to the stationmaster’s office.”

But I don’t want to lose this train. I stay in my corner seat, muscles tensed against the scratchy green upholstery, a migraine beginning to flash behind my right eye. Did I hear the same at Exeter? Someone is trying to track me down. But why?

The hiss of brakes, clatter and clang of metal on stone, people talking, calling, trundling suitcases, taxis revving, and the tannoy booms once more, echoing in the roof of Paddington Station. “Would Mrs Petersen travelling to Brighton …” Where the devil is the stationmaster’s office?

“Mrs Petersen …”  “Mrs Petersen …”

They are very kind. The message pencilled by the telephone operator, in large round handwriting: “Mother. Don’t go to hospital. Meet in Old Ship Hotel. Richard died. Love, Susan.”

 

I travel to Brighton as though kidnapped, without volition, unable to stop inexorable movement through dark unreal spaces. A metal helmet is clamped on my skull, slowly tightening. I am in a train, going to rescue Rick, and it is too late. He’ll never hear me say, “I didn’t want us to part like that, angry with each other.”  I want to tell him, “I know you’re having an affair, but it’s not the end of the world. We can survive.” And now I can’t. Because he’s been careless and got himself blown up.

God, Ricky. I wish it weren’t too late. I love you.

“I know, Myriam, I know.” His voice is in my head. He has sought me in the empty spaces where spirits travel, found me in the train. “I love you, Myriam, always loved you.” Then he moves away, into the darkness, dives into the void. He cannot return. But he said goodbye.

I insist on seeing his body, though memories of his shattered beautiful face and  crushed limbs beneath the sheet will never leave me. But I need the truth. The truth about the other woman too. Her name was Amanda, she was twenty-nine, worked in the Cabinet Office, also died. Many are badly injured, but most people survive.

 

Susan takes time off work, helps me with all the practical things.

The funeral is a series of disjointed images. His parents, Randolph and Lynne, are desolate and there is brief comfort in their quiet, dignified grief. When Randolph puts his arms around me, hugs me close, I feel for a short moment safe again.

And then I am alone.

I have been on my own before. But not like this. In the past there was always a husband who would return. Or, during those few years when I’d discarded one and not yet ventured on a risky second, there were always children to remind me why I battled on. Every time I return home now, the house will look exactly as I left it. No one will open a door I left closed, read my library book, fill in the crossword before I’ve seen it. No one will make a cup of coffee, leave the mug on a book shelf where other rings testify to other mugs having rested there. If I forget to put away the bread, it will remain, eloquent on its wooden board, knife cradled in crumbs.

 

So … freedom. To be myself. Live as I wish, eat when I feel like it, go exactly where I want, when I want. What’s wrong with that? There are definite compensations for learning your husband died because he was in bed with someone else.

The rooms in the house hold me too close. I need more space. Outside, even the  terrace feels constricted. A sharp wind shivers copper leaves from the beeches, lifts my hair, whistles in my ear: “Go on, feel it. You are alive.” A gust grabs the ash trees, like a pit-dog, shaking and growling.

I climb the stile, run across the field, let the cold wind try to chill me through, batter my ears, pummel my chest until I can scarcely breathe. The wind recognizes me.

Through all the turmoil of the hospital, the funeral, dealing with family and friends, sorting papers, I supposed I was mourning my lost husband. The pain in my chest had to be that. What else?

But now I’m alone, in a field beside the sea, enchained by a wind that swells in violence, I know. Heart and lungs are molten rock, belly churns with volcanic lava. No wind could cool the fires that rage inside. I want to smash something, destroy, stamp out this outrage to my deepest feelings. How dare he get himself blown up in another woman’s bed? Advertising his adultery to the whole world. Proving that I was a fool to have trusted him. Or that I was not good enough.

Ricky, if you’re listening from that void into which you’ve flown, I’m bloody pissed off with you. I want you to know that.

A tiny bubble of laughter gurgles in my throat. Stupid woman. Pissed off. How pathetic. Wish I knew how to swear.

Rain mingles with the wind. Don’t want to be soaked. Back over the stile, I jog down the lane, enjoying the sensation of blood circulating more freely. I could use that hidden volcano to regain physical health. Exercise. Demolition in the garden. Turn it to account. The rising storm tosses autumn leaves into the turbulence, flattens blue hydrangeas and fuchsias down near the pond. East winds and husbands, destructive natural elements both.

 

Upstairs, in his study, I sit in his black leather chair, watch rain dribble through the scarlet Virginia creeper framing his window. How was it to be him, overlooking the garden to the west, watching rain sweep across the tree tops, or the sun slide down the sky into the sea? Did he like living here, surrounded by farmland, so far from the sophisticated world in which he made a living?

The locked drawer. Bottom left. He always carried the key with him, though he should have known I’d never pry.

Death demands invasion of his privacy.

Deep breath. I insert the small brass key found on a chain around his neck, open the drawer. Several boxes neatly stacked. I line them up on the desk.

I open a large box, covered in gold foil paper. Letters. A lot of letters. Folded letters that I’ll have to open if I wish to know who wrote them. Perhaps not.

The second holds photographs: old black and white snaps of his family, his parents, aunts, some of him as a child and adolescent. In the third, mementoes of Leslie, his son from his first marriage.

I turn back to the gold-foil box, lift out a folded letter with stiff finger and thumb, tremble it open. My own handwriting. A love letter from me. Oh. I venture on a second. Also from me. One after another, I recognize the writing. Everything I ever wrote to him, even silly notes left on the fridge.

In the fourth, all the birthday and Valentine cards, the watch I gave him that stopped working, the gold cuff-links that were my wedding present. And a blue stone.

A smooth curved piece of Serpentine rock that nestles in my palm, demands to be stroked. Not round, but curved, as though a part of the moon were fallen to the earth and polished to a midnight sheen that glows. As the moon glows, with reflected light.

I bought it in the Scillies, gave it to him on the soft white sands of a hidden beach. He caressed it, the way the stone asked to be caressed, and then he kissed me, and kissed me … We made love. How we managed to avoid the abrasive effect of sand on intimate parts, I cannot recall. Just the warmth of love, the delight of shedding clothes and his skin against mine, and a vague, oh so hazy recollection of the glories of passion.

Ricky. Ricky. Why did you die in another woman’s arms? I erupt from the room, aim for our bed, launch my body at his pillows. The searing anguish in my breast becomes so wide and so deep, there is nothing left but to howl, like an animal.

After a long while, I lie quiet, realize the rain has stopped. Watery sunlight flickers through the window. The sun is not wanted now. Nor the moon, nor the stars. Auden was right. Put them out, every one. I turn away. Where he should be is emptiness.

I thought love would last forever. I don’t know what to do with this black hole in my chest, because I can never tell him how sorry I am. I can’t quite remember what I’m sorry about, but I am. I want him to know.

 

Elizabeth Mapstone was a journalist and broadcaster in Montreal, had three children; lived in Brussels for four years; became an academic psychologist in Oxford, England, then a therapist; published numerous articles about social and family psychology, as well as two non-fiction books. The most recent, Stop Dreaming, Start Living, explores how to live a fulfilled life. Now retired, she plans to spend her third age writing fiction. Having recently won a competition for her opening chapter, she is working on a novel. This is her third published short story.

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4 thoughts on “Singing the Serpentine Blues

  1. Ann St James

    A deeply moving story. The letters in the gold-foil box: what an interesting surprise. Liked that she was sorry but couldn’t remember why. “The wind recognizes me.” A great line.
    I enjoyed the writing so much, I ordered a copy of “Stop Dreaming Start Living.”

  2. nancy

    How engrossing! It is sucking me in with each sentence, well done. I work to follow and then wait with baited breath. Been there. I love the dangle of promise!

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