“I’ve never seen a dead body,” said Vilna. “Can I come too?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Abbie, and they went down to the morgue together.
As Vilna and Abbie got into Abbie’s little car, Diamond the labrador jumped up at Vilna. Now there was mud all over Vilna’s frilly white blouse. Vilna shoved the animal away with the side of her knee-high boot and then tried to get him in the crotch with a high heel. She missed. So Diamond ran round to the driver’s side and leapt up at Abbie. Abbie was wearing an old grey sweater and didn’t mind. Diamond wouldn’t try Vilna again: he was accustomed to animal-lovers. Vilna’s rejection of him had made a great impression.
“Poor dog,” said Abbie. “Poor dog. He’s lost his master. He’s bound to be upset.”
But Vilna was too busy rubbing her twisted knee to reply. With every movement Vilna jangled. A charm bracelet much loaded with chunks of gold hung from her wrist.
Heavy jewelled strings fell between up-lifted breasts no longer young. She had a hooked nose, deep close-set eyes, coiffeured blonde hair and a wondrous energy best suited to the city. Abbie, on the contrary, was much at home amongst green fields and mud. She wore sneakers, jeans, and an old grey sweater on which dogs’ hair wouldn’t show much. These were the clothes she’d worn when the call from The Cottage came. She hadn’t been home to Elder House since. Neither woman wore a seat belt. Somehow a visit to the morgue forbade it. In sympathy, let them invite death.
The Cottage looked like a child’s idealised drawing of home. Centre path, square garden, drive to the right, tree to the left, door in the middle, two windows flanking it, three balancing above, tiled roof with two chimneys, one on each edge. The place was built in grey local limestone, creeper-covered, and surrounded by fields. It had stood here in its present state, as a home for the gentry, for 150 years. Before that it had been a farm, before that a cottage, before that a hovel, though one mentioned in the Domesday Book, circa A.D. 1070.
Alexandra, the widow, sat without moving on the edge of the brass bed in the marital bedroom upstairs and stared into space. She had been like this for two hours. The space she stared into was framed by fine tendrils of Virginia creeper which had driven in between window sash and frame, and neatly quartered by the bars which contained the window panes. The old glass had survived in all four quarters: it was thin, valuable, glittery, uneven, and probably mid-Victorian. Alexandra could see the duck pond, and Diamond racing after Abbie’s car to the top of the drive where it met the road to Eddon Gurney. Whether Diamond ran into the road and was killed, or not, seemed of no consequence. As it happened Diamond stopped, and lived.
Alexandra sat in suspension. She had a vision of herself as a particle in a test-tube of viscous liquid which drifted neither up nor down, but was obliged by the laws of nature to stay exactly where it was. She found it was easier to have an idea of herself as something inorganic than organic. This was Tuesday afternoon. Ned had died on the Saturday night. Alexandra had not been there when he died. She had been in London, 130 miles away, recovering from an evening on stage, as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Since then, wherever she was, Alexandra had been drifting in and out of this state of suspension. She supposed it was shock.
* * *
Alexandra, exhausted by this spasm of self-awareness, actually stopped sitting on the bed and lay down upon it.
Here, for twelve years, she had been accustomed to lying naked next to Ned, his warmth against hers. When they went to bed she would be cold and he would be hot. When they woke in the morning their temperatures would have evened out, so she could scarcely tell her body from his, nor wanted to.
She did not lie for long. The mattress felt uncomfortable beneath her shoulders. Perhaps a spring had gone. She got up and went to the bathroom. She could tell she was feeling better, but the improvement hurt, just as blood will when it returns to de-constricted limbs.
Her face in the mirror didn’t look too bad, just rather lopsided and like her mother’s. But she knew the mirror was unduly flattering. The glass was mercury-based and dated perhaps from 1790: the surface was agreeably blotched and crazed, and rewarded anyone who looked into it with its kind opinion.
Ned and she would look in it together and he would put his arm round hers and say, “What a divine couple.” No more. She would not find his like again. Alexandra was trying not to cry too much because she was meant to be back on stage a week today. Torvald would have to call her his “little lark” and she would have to give a convincing impression of a lark-like Nora, no matter what her personal circumstances. So much professionalism demanded. The company was playing A Doll’s House: an unexpected success and an unexpectedly long run: eight months to date.
Diamond came pounding upstairs, where he was not allowed and seldom came. He jumped up onto the brass bed and folded himself into a sulky ball. Alexandra went after him to drag him down. He went limp and stubborn, like some protester the police were trying forcibly to remove. Alexandra persisted and succeeded. Diamond skulked downstairs. He growled at Alexandra as he went, which was unusual.
The bed had never been broad enough for Alexandra’s tastes. She liked a wide, wide mattress on which you could lie at any angle, but Ned liked her lying close, so she put up with its narrowness. The bed was a fine piece, probably 1820s, its brass ends finely wrought and curlicued. It had, fortuitously, been left behind by the previous occupants of The Cottage, as this large house was known locally in remembrance of centuries past.
Perhaps the bed had not been so much left-behind as deliberately never-collected. The couple who last slept in it had died in hospital within a week of one another. He was 97, she 94. Their heirs had despised anything old. At least the old folk had not died in the bed itself. Though since in an old house every room you lived in had probably had someone die in it and every old chair you bought from an antique shop had witnessed some dire event, what did it really matter if they had? Life drifted away from everything in the end.
They’d changed the mattress for a new one all the same, but kept the high wooden base, and Ned and Alexandra lay unfashionably but comfortably close at night. A pity if now a spring in that mattress had gone.
Abbie had changed the sheets before Alexandra arrived home from the London flat where she, Alexandra, stayed while working. Abbie had even put the dirty sheets through the washing machine. They’d been hanging on the line in the back garden by Sunday mid-day, which was when Alexandra had got back home. She’d noticed them flapping greenly in the wind amongst the tall artichoke plants.
The corpse was already gone by the time she arrived. She’d been both sorry and glad about that. The body had been taken off for an autopsy: compulsory, since Ned had not seen his doctor within the previous three months. If the ambulance hadn’t taken the body when it did, there would have been a 24-hour delay before it could call again. Dr. Moebius, summoned by Abbie, had made the decision the body should go when it could and not hang about to wait for Alexandra’s return. Alexandra had missed the body’s departure by five or so minutes.
Later on Sunday Abbie had taken the green sheets from the line, folded them, and put them back in the linen cupboard, having already made up the marital bed in candy-striped blue and white. Abbie had a domestic nature, apparently undisturbed by sudden and tragic events. Alexandra wished Abbie had left the sheets alone. They would have smelt of Ned, not fabric-softener as the striped ones did. But other people, plunging about in one’s linen shelves, seldom make the right decision.
Alexandra went down to the kitchen, glad to find that the house was empty. Between Sunday and Tuesday Abbie had rendered the whole house spotless. While others mourned and tore their hair, Abbie cleaned. Now there was a note on the white scrubbed table–a solid block of bleached elm, circa 1880, rough-hewn, with a slab base, originally used as a laundry table. It read: ‘mr. Lightfoot called from the mortuary. Ned’s body has just arrived back, so we are going down to have a look. Didn’t want to disturb you sleeping. Try to eat something. Abbie.”
“We?” Abbie and Vilna? Surely not. Alexandra didn’t mind Abbie viewing Ned’s body before she did. Abbie was a good if bossy friend. It was Abbie who had called the doctor and ambulance in the early hours of the morning. Everyone had thought Ned might be still alive but actually he was dead. No doubt Abbie had gone along to the morgue now to make sure all the arrangements were suitable: that nothing would upset Alexandra that didn’t have to. Perhaps she meant to see that the slab on which Ned lay was properly clean? In any case, Abbie had already seen the body, lying in the dining room, where Ned had apparently fallen in the throes of his heart attack. Abbie had been the very first to see it. Why shouldn’t Abbie continue to communicate with the corpse if it made her feel better?
But Vilna? Alexandra didn’t like the thought of Vilna viewing Ned’s body before she, the wife, had done so. In fact, she didn’t want Vilna to see Ned dead at all. Ned scarcely knew Vilna. What he did know he didn’t like. Alexandra would say, “Oh, Vilna’s okay, just highly-strung and un-English.” Ned would say, “She’s voracious. She’s a monster.” Alexandra could see that Ned had been right about Vilna all along. She had hung around The Cottage ever since the news broke, like a vulture. In fact, thought Alexandra now, Vilna looked like a cross between a vulture and Ivana Trump. If Ned on his slab suddenly opened his eyes and saw Vilna and not Alexandra, who looked like a cross between a flamingo and Marilyn Monroe, he would be displeased.