My life seems to have been taken over by the Crichton campaign and fears that I'm not going to meet any of the deadlines for my dissertation. This means that I never seem to find the time for this blog and am not posting new stuff with the kind of regularity that I had hoped. So, as I still don't have time to write anything new here is an old short story:
A Formidable Woman
At six o’clock – sharp – Molly left the desk in her small writing room and went to the pantry. She opened the fridge under the shelves and took from it: a bottle of Chablis; a parcel of smoked salmon; another of feta cheese; a jar of cornichons and a lemon. She then went next door to the kitchen and placed her plunder on the kitchen table. From a cupboard she took a tumbler, a saucer and a plate. From a drawer she took a sharp knife, a zester and a fork. These she also put on the table, before sitting down. She poured a hefty measure of icy wine and took a sip, sighed. Then pared the zest from the lemon onto the saucer before cutting it in half. Onto her plate she laid two slices of the salmon (wild) and a lump of cheese. She then sprinkled it with a little of the lemon’s zest and squeezed over a few drops of its juice. This she ate slowly and quietly before remembering to grind some black pepper over the fish. She ate with her fork in her right hand and her tumbler in her left. Occasionally she put them down and plunged her fingers into the jar of gherkins and crunched: quite satisfying.
She had always felt cheese and fish to be a vile combination, but this was the exception. She remembered asking Ellen, her daughter in law, why she always topped the potato on fish pie with cheese - whilst scraping the cheese to the side of her plate. Ellen replied that it was traditional, cheesy-potato a childhood favourite. But Molly noticed that Ellen ate the cheesy-potato and the fish separately. Feta and smoked salmon, however, were not vile together; they were a sublime combination. Of course one must shop with caution. She had discovered it quite by accident shortly after Peter’s death; not quite herself yet, she had gone to the fridge, hungry. There she found a small lump of feta and a few slices of the fish: nothing else. Compelled by a need to not go out of the house, she ate them together straight from the fridge: surprisingly good. This collation had become a dietary staple. With the addition of the cornichons, the lemon and the wine, it was a comforting ritual she couldn’t do without. It reminded her of Peter in a comforting way way. She felt he would laugh at her: grinding and zesting and juicing for so small a supper. And the daily wine: would he worry or laugh? Probably both. But she only had a little, one glass, perhaps just over. She wiped her mouth with her napkin and placed it back in its ring, took everything back to the fridge but came back with the wine to top up her glass. Once all was neat and tidy again she went, with her glass, back to her desk.
Molly Standish could only be described as a handsome woman: seventy two years old; five feet ten inches tall and exceptionally slender. No barrelling for her. She lived in a beautiful and rather grand, Georgian limestone house in Stamford, itself a beautiful town in the very south of Lincolnshire. She was well known in the town: she had been on the committee of the arts centre for years, only giving up when Peter became dependant on her. She had employed just about every youngster in the locality for two generations, to work in the café or the ticket booth. She had been one of those ‘tireless campaigners for the arts’ since her marriage, and had been on more committees than she could recall these days, with ease. She had had what people call a full life; to the outside world she was formidable.
At her desk she completed the day’s major task: to write, address and stamp all the birthday cards she would need to send this coming year. Into the children’s cards she placed twenty pound notes; the adults would be more difficult. Tomorrow she would take advantage of the post-Christmas sales and attempt to buy the year’s gifts. Her, apparently ruthless, method didn’t arise out of a lack of care for friends and relatives, but from a need to be organised. She had to go about such things in a deliberate way in order not to forget anyone. Her memory, she had noticed, was a little erratic these days. Since Peter died she needed to take extra care.
As she sat, deciding where to go for her shopping - Stamford? Too small; Peterborough? Too grim; it would have to be Cambridge – she remembered how she used to love Christmas. She would drive through to Cambridge and meet Peter at his college and they would choose all the presents together. Then about ten years ago she noticed how exhausting he seemed to find it and allowed him to retire. After that she would shop with friends and Ellen. Now she preferred to do it alone.
The next morning she rose at seven; showered and dressed and went downstairs. She never went down in her dressing gown now: afraid she might not make it back up. She went to her beautiful kitchen and set the coffee machine in motion. She would eat breakfast later, for now she needed only coffee. She took a large cup of it to Peter’s study: the only room in the house she hadn’t changed after his death. Sat in his old leather armchair and sipped, looking around at his things.
Shortly after he died she called in the decorators and rid the house of the dusty old lamps; the overstuffed sofas and the dark colours. She had needed a change and now the whole house was pale and minimally furnished. Her friends had been shocked. Her son, John, mortified: his childhood home eradicated by white-wash. Ellen had been the only one who fully supported her, coming almost daily to check on the progress. She had offered to put Molly up for the duration, but Molly had preferred to stay and witness the metamorphosis. After it was complete she had wandered from room to room with wonderment at the serenity of it: so cool. Now, however, she found herself more and more in Peter’s study with its dark wood and dusty history. She was glad she hadn’t changed it: she had worried about leaving it, it seemed rather shrine like. She hadn’t wanted to be sentimental, but when it came to it she had been unable to make a decision and so didn’t. She had thought she’d get round to it in time, but not yet.
Now, sitting there in the darkness, she remembered long ago summers when she would be working in the garden and would catch a glimpse of him through the French doors at his desk, writing his great works. She was so proud of him, he had been a barrister when they married but had tired of it. So he returned to Cambridge for his PHD and had stayed there until he retired eight years ago. She looked upon those Cambridge years with immense fondness; he lectured in the winter and wrote in the summer. For the three eight week university terms he stayed in Cambridge: they kept a small flat there for the purpose. He would come back to Stamford for the weekends, or she would go there. Once John had left home she spent more time in Cambridge; her duties at the Arts Centre permitting. But the summers at home provided her with her best memories: the smell of his pipe mingling with that of the roses and alliums, the box and the yew. Whilst out in the heat, digging and clipping her eyes would be drawn to the cool of his room where he sat hunched over his desk in earnest. And she’d find she had stopped her activity. She caught herself shivering and realised the French windows were open. She would get up and close them in a minute. She wouldn’t go to Cambridge today.
The next morning Ellen rang the doorbell, then let herself in. As she opened the door a fierce draft rushed past her as if desperate to escape. She closed the door; it was awfully cold in the house. She called to Molly that she was here but received no answer. She went towards the source of the cold: Pete’s study. Inside she found her mother in-law sitting absolutely upright in the old chair. A cup of cold coffee balanced on the arm and the French windows open.