Myrtle – a short story
Rosemary’s hands rest on the ivory keys for just a second and then she starts playing nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor by Chopin. Fingers with nails dark red tap the keys delicately, the small living room zings with a melody that reminds me of zesty oranges, toasted almonds and the slight perfume of lilac. Her curly, thick hair that almost looks dark grey in the twilight sun waves as she moves her head up and forward and sideways to scan the paper, her right foot methodically tapping the pedal. As I sit next to her, I regard her slender body, her long legs, a body that always come when children are spurred into adolescence and I am envious. Although I’m still slender, the skin has started to crease, sink, as if gravity tried to untangle it and stretched it irreversibly in the process.
“I like your nail polish today,” I say after she finishes.
Her smile is shy, a little childlike, endearing, with teeth freshly shaped after braces.
I tell her that she’s improving and that we can try something different next week, a piece of Beethoven perhaps, and she pouts. I don’t understand why. Jane says that Rosemary has trouble at home. Maybe she doesn’t want to go home now.
“Or if you like you can stay and —,”
“No, it’s okay Myrtle, I need to go home for homework anyway.”
Those blue eyes look daring; perhaps she’s smarter than I give her.
She tucks her hair behind her ear and swings the schoolbag over her shoulder and leaves through the backdoor, a flurry of warm air rushing through the room. It reminds me of someone who used to be her age. Her hair was curly too, but not as thick as Rosemary’s.
I start to clean up and I strike my index finger over the top of the piano. I wipe the dust on my navy blue skirt that I bought a week ago. David said that it looked nice, a rare compliment, and I wear it now so he’ll notice when he comes back from work.
Upstairs, I absorb the mess of our laundry; has he ever folded his clothes? I pick up a shirt, dark pink with pinstripes and there is a long, curled hair on the right sleeve. I have it short and straight, and I have let my hair become silvery. The hair feels thick between my fingers. It probably fell off my shoulder after playing with Rosemary.
He always comes home after 6 pm and I like to make sure that he has his beer cold, his slippers warmed near the heater that stands in the hearth, and that diner is ready. I find that it’s the best way to shake him out of his work slumber and it gives me a certain satisfaction that I can influence his mood. Sometimes, I get a kiss on my cheek and the warmth always flushes my face like a teenager.
To amplify the dark, beamed living room, I light long candles and short ones too and place them on the mango-wood side table, the glass desk and the dining table with the chequered table cloth. I pause when I hear the front door open. He often enters the house with certain respectability that changes the atmosphere, a decorum that stems from a dignified charm and a modest vanity that allows him to enchant almost everyone.
I watch him eat his sausage uncut, straight from the fork, and I look at mine, neatly cut in slices and then again halved so that it mixes better with the mashed potatoes. Has he always eaten so quickly, hurriedly, almost barbaric? What’s his rush? He pats his stomach. He’s in good shape still for is age. Although his hair is receding slightly and his beard has turned grey 10 years ago, I find he’s aged well.
I am about to get up to clean the dishes and turn on the TV for him so he can watch the news when he says that he has to go out.
“Why?” I ask.
He slides the chair backwards over our creme carpet. It makes a hushed sound, like when stroking a hand over a woollen jumper.
“Meeting with people from work.”
I want to ask him what meeting could be so late, but I bite my tongue and see him leave through the front door without knowing when he’ll be back.
No kiss on the cheek.
In the damp morning, the sun has fled behind a veil of milky clouds, I notice Sandra, bowing over her daffodils and I consider talking to her. She’s always friendly, but more often I sense she’s just being polite. Jane from two doors down told me a few days ago that she’d seen a man go into her house, pretty late in the evening, and he didn’t come out until at least 1:30 am. Jane has trouble sleeping and sometimes she lets out her dog, just for a quick round, across the street.
“Sandra is seeing someone we know,” Jane says, “and she doesn’t want us to know who.” Listening to Jane’s gossip is so exciting.
As I pluck at the weeds underneath the young willow, I ponder over this mysterious man who goes into Sandra’s house and leaves late. It must be exciting to have a visitor in the night, a secret, that only you and this man share. The thrill when he touches you and whispers into space between you, laying in hot bedsheets where the night air puffs up the blankets; your hands cupping his clean jaw and cheeks, and you listen to his calm breathing that forms a melody -silk violin and ecstatic contrabass. Just him and I.
It’s a thrill I haven’t had for a long time.
A lot changed after she left and it never became quite right again.
Tonight it will be different though. I bought steak from the butcher where I used to go when Lawrence still owned the shop. Steak with garlic butter and peas, I know he’ll like that. Maybe we can watch a movie after. As I season the meat with pepper, salt and rosemary, I try to formulate how I can ask him about last night. The lock of the door clicks and I pop out of the kitchen to greet him.
As we eat, he seems pleased. He’s in an unusually cheery mood, joking, his hands dancing up and down, talking, and he has a boyish smile on him. I smile too. When I stand up, I strike my hands over my new skirt, not the navy blue one, but the one with ombre and dark red autumn flowers, and I pause for a few seconds. I have read that men find women more attractive when they wear red; or was it the other way around? Confidence overflows me and I start to share with him the gossip about Sandra.
“She’s an attractive woman,” he says, gulping his beer, “so what if she has a lover? She’s been alone for a long time, right?”
I agree, my voice not as strong as I intended, and I jerk my hands apart when I notice that I’m pulling the lace of the table cover.
I think about the hair on his shirt. The thickness in my fingers, the soft bends in which it curled, and the dark colour. Sandra has dark curls. They’re about the same age. They know each other. My gaze scrutinises David’s expression, his pale eyes, his grey, round eyebrows, and in my mind’s eye, I see him, his quiet footsteps disturbing the grass, slipping into her house.
I startle when I see David walk across the living room towards the coat rack and he picks his dark leather jacket with lined fur.
“Where are you going?” I ask, trying to hide the panic in my voice.
“I have to get back to work,” I hear him say, “they’re at the bar and we have to go over some papers. Not very important.”
He waves his hand, disappearing into the hallway, and then he strides back and leaves a fleeting kiss resting on my cheek.
My hands shake when I order the sheets and place them in front of Rosemary.
“Let’s start with where we were last week.”
She’s wearing a new perfume, some kind of thick, flowery fragrance that doesn’t suit her age. Her back is straight and she plays.
My mind drifts. I wonder where David goes every night, the bar but a poor excuse. Does he see Sandra? Our marriage indeed changed after our daughter left but it doesn’t justify cheating. It’s greedy, conceited; but I see the appeal. As he said, Sandra is an attractive woman. I search my memory if I’ve missed something, if I’ve ever seen them together; a fleeting touch of the hands, a daring glance that conveyed that they knew and nobody else. The thought buzzes through my head.
The telephone rings. Rosemary’s eyes shoot up, the last tunes muffled by the high pitched ringing. For a moment I hope it’s our daughter, Lisa.
“Is this Mrs Greywater?” A weathered, female voice on the other side. Lisa has a different voice, or could it have changed over the years?
“Your husband has been in an accident,” she says and I hear a gasp leave my throat. “He crashed his bike and has broken his leg.”
I’m nauseous. My gaze wanders around the living room and I think about all the things that I have to adjust so David can be comfortable, laying on the couch and watch TV while he recovers. It’ll be good for us, him being home more.
“I have to go to the hospital”, I say and turn around to face Rosemary.
She looks aghast by the news. It’s kind of her to be so emphatic to my feelings.
“What for? Is David hurt?”
It strikes me that I never knew that David and Rosemary might know each other. Rosemary always comes during the day when David is at work, and I don’t recall talking about him to her. Maybe she’s seen his name on the mail. Now I come to think of it, they may have seen each other that time when Rosemary had left her jumper and David found it. He drove over to her to give it back. That she still remembers his name.
She wants to come with me even though I tell her that it’s not necessary, it’s only his leg that got injured, but she insists and it’s probably because she doesn’t want to go back to her house where her parents always fight.
The drive to the hospital is quiet and I try to think of things to say to Rosemary. Her hands are folded tensely on her lap and I wonder about her age. She’s probably about 17, maybe a bit younger. I should’ve asked her, but now I don’t know how to start that conversation. There is a lot of things I don’t know about her, although I’ve been teaching her for almost a year.
The doors of the hospital are heavy and as we enter, the pungent smell of cleaning detergent and sweat wave through my nostrils. Rosemary looks more nervous than I do – maybe she hasn’t been to a hospital before.
It crosses my mind that, if David is having an affair with Sandra, I could let it happen and pretend it doesn’t exist. It will probably end by itself. He won’t be able to visit her for at least 6 weeks and in that time I could try harder. I could buy a new skirt that would reveal a bit more leg, or buy new underwear. He might like that.
He sits on the bed and smiles apologetically when I come in. Rosemary follows me shyly. It’s a small room with one window; curtains, bed and side table all in that despicable off-white that hospital furniture keeps.
“My poor David, how could this have happened?” I reach down to kiss him, but his eyes are fixed on something behind me. It’s a curious gaze, and for I moment it strikes me that he might be in some sort of shock. It must’ve been frightening to have been in an accident. Softly I stroke his shoulder.
“I hope you’re not in too much pain,” Rosemary says.
Something in her voice, the easiness with which she speaks those words, the familiarity and warmth with which she addresses him, reveals a level of intimacy that makes me swerve around. In that split second, I see her blushing, her demeanour giving away an infatuation for the man sitting on that hospital bed, and then she recoils, her features mystify into a fabricated concern and I know. It’s not Sandra.
I shiver. My heart is bruising my ribcage, my head is a whirl of which I cannot make sense. I resist the urge to collapse, right there on the off-white floor. Instead, I regard the husband that I’ve had for 22 years, that has influenced my life so greatly that I cannot begin to fathom who I would’ve been without him.
He averts my gaze, denying that something significant just happened. I need him to look at me. I find my voice; my feet finding the ground.
“Don’t you dare to look away from me,” I hear my voice say with such imminent malice it frightens me.
He tries to stand up and grab my arm, but his plaster leg prevents him to do so.
“SHUT UP YOUR CRYING”, he screams at Rosemary and she scampers.
How could he treat her like this? Poor girl.
“Myrtle, please —,” he begs. Are those tears on his cheek?
Their affair wasn’t as great as mine. I did love him; he doesn’t love Rosemary.
“It was nothing. She was just passing time.” He sobs, quietly, his hands cupping his face like a child, his shoulders jerking up and down. It strikes me that he’s not who I thought he was. He is not a price husband to be placed on a pedestal. Our bond was lost long ago. The love I had felt had become unquestioning loyalty, for I felt guilt. Guilt for what I had done. I had made a decision then, to stick with him at all costs.
Look what it has resulted into.
The fury changes into something powerful, an encouraging strength, resignation, and I hear the coldness in my voice.
“That’s a shame.”
David’s eyes look pitiful, his body is pitiful, and I can taste the disgust in my mouth like bitter, cold coffee.
“A shame? Is that what you think this is?”
As if he wants me to acknowledge that it was a worthy affair. I feel my lips curl.
“Yes, a shame. You’re a pitiful man, sleeping with a girl that’s almost 35 years younger than you. It’s a shame that it was not worth your while.”
The words reverberate through the room. The tears seem to evaporate from his eyes the moment he looks up at me, his posture changing, enlarging as if ready for a brawl.
“Don’t you think I knew about you and Lawerence?” The words slither through his clenched teeth.
To hear him say his name is as if he grasps my neck and tightens his fingers. He’ll never take the memories I have of Lawerence, sweet Lawrence.
“I let you stay with me and tried to accept what you had done, for the sake of Lisa. And then, when he left, I had to endure your sulking. Don’t you think I fought, for us?”
“And then you sleep with my teenage piano pupil?”
He looks away, his fingers pressing against his closed eyelids.
“She’s still so young!” I say.
“She’s almost 18.”
I pause for a moment. Suddenly, I want to sit on the bed next to him and be hugged.
“She’s Lisa’s age.” The tremor in my voice surprises me.
I thought it would have made everything worse, but instead, he starts to cry again, long, heaving wails and I look around to see if anyone is seeing us. Two ridiculous adults, who are incapable of continuing to live and finally crumble under the unforgiving weight love carries.
“She was Lisa’s age.”
I sit down on the bed next to him.
“It’s my fault she left, stormed out the house that evening. She found out about me and Lawrence, and I always knew she already hated me but stayed for your sake. She found this little note, Lawrence and I used to write on, little things that made our days a bit better. I suppose I’d become careless, the note fell on the floor from my pocket and, I can’t quite remember what it said, but next thing, I see her eyes filling with so much anger and then she left. I couldn’t say anything and it would not have mattered.”
“Our little girl,” David says in one breath as if the words disappear from him as she had done.