The screams were serrated, guttural; they cut through the air with chaotic precision. Everyone in the store turned at the sound. The woman, her face pulsating and purple, had buckled to the ground, the security guard bent over her with his hands clasped under her arms. A shop assistant, physically shocked at the outburst, took a few steps back and put her hand to her face. The screams cleaved into the cold muted air of the place. The pan pipe musak was drowned out in stabs.
Viola held the shirt up to the light but the shop assistant at her side was staring with some concern over toward the furore at the counter.
‘The blue?’ Viola said.
The assistant did not hear her.
‘My girl,’ said Viola with some agitation.
The assistant came to and offered Viola a blank smile.
‘The blue?’ she repeated.
The assistant smiled again and nodded with faked consideration.
‘Not the red?’ Viola said.
‘The blue,’ said the young girl, her mind obviously elsewhere, the screaming fading as the security guard hauled the woman out into the street.
Viola had not even noticed the goings on, it seemed.
How was it Jason stood? She was trying to remember. He walked straight, but his narrow waist made his shoulders swagger; he was athletic, a tense v-shape from the broad shoulders to his groin. This shirt billowed at the chest and cuffs and cut sharply down to the midriff. She could see him at the mantelpiece in it, entertaining, holding their guests in the palm of his hand. The blue was bloodless, she thought.
‘The red,’ said Viola with a solid glare.
It was important she got this right. It was a special evening ahead, after all. She would wear that black dress that he liked but which she also felt comfortable in, not the one that excited him but made her feel like a bad actor. She would wear the black dress that suited her age, made her feel like the sophisticated society woman she had been raised to be. Jason would wear the red shirt. It was the least he could do.
The assistant was saying something. Viola had been staring out of the shop window, to the quiet frosty Main Street.
The screaming woman – just a teenage girl – had gathered herself, and she was being lectured to by the security guard. He was holding a strap dress in his fist and gesturing with it. She was drying her eyes with the backs of her hands. Their breath pumped out in gusts in the cold air. It looked like a silent puppet show, Viola thought, one where the violence was always just a few moments away.
‘Are you okay, miss?’
Viola regained herself, run her fingers through her hair.
‘Of course,’ she snapped, and tucked the shirt under her arm.
At the counter Viola tried not to catch the eye of Abigail Tundry, wife of would-be-senator Dash, but it was no good, and Abigail waved, her false smile hung in the air like rotting meat, and she came over, cantering top heavy. Abigail was tall, well-kept rather than pretty, and twelve years younger than Viola, just like everyone else seemed to be in this goddamned town. She had known Jason since school. She was one of them – acted like a convivial ol’ family friend, but just wanted Jason for herself, was waiting for the right moment.
‘What a scene,’ said Abigail as she sidled up to Viola. ‘What is the world coming to?’
‘Hello, Abigail,’ said Viola, flatly.
‘I wonder what they’ll do with her?’
And Abigail prodded her Mulberry Bayswater in the direction of the diorama outside.
‘Oh,’ said Viola. ‘What usually happens to bad people in Westlanding: nothing.’
Abigail adjusted herself to Viola’s tone.
‘How are you getting by?’ she said, pouting.
‘What do you mean?’ Viola handed the shirt over to the till girl.
‘Well, we just worry about you.’
Abigail stuttered her reply. The aggression in Viola’s tone was uncommon for Westlanding – it was the small talk capital of middle America; the serious talk was for over the billiard table amidst the cigar smoke, or the golf course beneath the sheen blue sky, or at the yacht club, picnics and Martinis. But for the high street, the department store, for the women, talk was barren and dry.
‘Your friends,’ Abigail said. The words were as brittle as they were insincere.
She meant the wives of Westlanding. The cold, rich sorority of politician’s wives and daughters. They had never taken to Viola – they were certainly not her friends.
Viola breathed shallowly, examined with a steady eye the deep red lipstick of the till girl, the way it darkened at the creases of the skin, the light at the curves, the sparkle of the wetness of the tongue tip.
‘There is no need to worry about me, Abigail,’ she said.
In recent months Viola had been driven often to thoughts of what it had been that had attracted her to Jason. He was young, brilliant, handsome, of course, the son of old money; but there was something else, wasn’t there? A promise. She had no choice but to admit it now. Her father and brother had told her the union would be a grave error.
‘I spent enough time in Washington, Vi, to know the world of the political dynasties over there,’ her father had said. ‘And you are inviting a world of misery by trying to find a place at that table.’
Viola chided him for his ignorance and his cruelty.
‘Listen to me, I can’t say it any straighter than this,’ her father said, ‘You are too old for him. He has his life mapped out – he has done since the day he was born – he is destined for the homecoming queen and the White House. God help anyone who gets in the way of that.’
Viola hurled a glass at the wall and it crashed into a thousand pieces. Was that then, or more recently? Did she hurl it at her father or at this memory?
‘Shopping helps,’ said Abigail.
Viola handed over her credit card.
‘This is for Jason,’ said Viola. She couldn’t resist. ‘It is our anniversary.’
Abigail’s face lit – but it wasn’t joy or compassion, it was something dreary and cynical.
‘Oh, dearest Viola,’ – the melodrama in Abigail’s voice made Viola’s stomach lurch – ‘You must not torment yourself like this. Are you going to try and win him back?’
Viola took her receipt and card and pressed them into her purse.
‘I do not need to try and win him back, Abigail,’ she said. ‘He is mine. I am his. That is all there is to it.’ And then she turned and looked Abigail dead in the eye. ‘We’ve been through a great deal, Jason and I. There is nothing we cannot overcome.’
Viola rolled up the bag with some annoyance and walked off. She was not in the mood for conversations as trivial as this. She was not in the mood for the trivialities of this town. She did not say goodbye to Abigail.
‘Happy anniversary,’ Abigail called after her with faint ardour.
In the car, Viola took a moment to reprimand herself for being so open. She and Jason had indeed been through a great deal in the last few years, but that was their business and their business alone. She was forty two, cut off from her family, her friends, everything she knew, and she had done that to herself for him. She was not about to end up alone in this god-awful town while Jason went to Congress with the homecoming queen.
The frost was hard and sheen across Main Street. Westlanding was a skeletal habitat. Few people stayed here during the winter months, and Jason would not have been here either had Viola not insisted they spend this night, their anniversary, together. He had flown back from Washington the night before. Viola had embraced him on the doorstep, the dutiful wife, she had looked perfect, her hair was full of life and her face a soft velvet welcome. She had baked, and the house was candlelit. She did not breathe in too heavy as she flung her arms around him and held on, just in case he smelled of that bitch.
She drove a little fast to the supermarket at the top end of Main Street. Her temper always made her do things quicker, but on thinking of Jason, young and strong and renewed, she slowed and parked with calm.
She needed soup; good soup to complement the New England lobster that had been extremely difficult to get hold of at this time of year. She couldn’t spoil that entire endeavour by getting the wrong soup.
Butternut Squash and ginger? They didn’t have it in England. She was not entirely sure what a butternut squash was but it was quite likely that, as a native, Jason would. Sweet potato soup. Canned. A few extra herbs and ground pepper and he would never know. She placed it in the basket and moved on to the vegetables.
Viola picked up a beef tomato and held its firmness in her hand. It felt like Jason’s upper back, as she leaned up on tiptoes to kiss him, her hands reaching under his arms and coming up to his shoulders. She would look into his cobalt-blue eyes, feel his breath upon her lips, she would tap the tiny bristles of his chin with her tongue, press her teeth gently into his jaw. She would climb him, wrap her legs around his legs, she would grapple him and suffocate him. Her eyes wandered to the white reflective floor of the supermarket aisle and she could fuzzily see herself, her hand lost in the red of the fruit – she had squeezed it to pulp, the flesh and juices rupturing out from between her fingers and dripping and slopping onto the floor. She felt shock go through her, disgust, she had not seen herself do this. She jerkily flung the crushed red pulp to the floor and saw a shop attendant – a young man, acned and wide-eyed – looking at her from the far end of the aisle.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I dropped it.’
But she hadn’t dropped it – and the young man had seen that. They were in silence, looking at each other, twenty yards apart. Viola looked at her red stained hand, and at the floor. She walked away down the aisle from the mess and from the young man. She paid for the soup only, quickly, frantically, the till girl staring at the stains on Viola’s hands.
‘What are you looking at?’ said Viola with a spit, and pushed the cans of soup into the pockets of her coat and moved swiftly back out into the street.
Viola looked at herself in the rear-view mirror. She looked tired. Her hair was untidy, hair that had once been her most arresting feature. She had pinned it up in a hurry and it looked like an abandoned bird’s nest. Jason used to call her ‘Birdy’. He said they would be in the White House one day, and she would be known as Birdy, a nickname like those grand First Ladies of yesteryear. She hadn’t thought of the whole package in that allusion – that Jason would be an adulterous bastard just like those old Presidents.
She felt a tear come to her eye and she couldn’t be sure whether it was the last remnant of pain forcing its way out of her, or whether it was to do with the hope and happiness she had for the future. She had made Jason promise that things were going to be different. Things had to be different. No more nights away, no more nights alone, no more talk of divorce. Now it was going to be forever, like they had promised each other in their vows.
She had driven back to the house slowly, breathing in through her nose and our through her mouth. The frosted pavements forecourts and houses gave way to stark craggy woodland, the trees plinths of snow, and every shadow and branch seemed to come together to form an unearthly mask. She had driven slowly not to ignore them, but to examine them. Her father had always suspected her dark side. Her brother had spoken of a delicate balance. They had only been repeating, predictably, what the doctors had said of her when she was a child. But it was people who made her sad, not better. It was the constricting greyness of human lies that made her skin buzz and her mind ache. Jason had promised her a road around all of that. This house in the woods, up away to the north of Westlanding, was to be their den – like the one the doctors had built her at the clinic when she was small. That is why she could not go to Washington with him when he first asked. Travel with me, he had said; be my wife. She needed to keep this place safe for them both. Come back soon, she had said. He did not come back often enough.
With too many bags for her tired arms – when had she last slept? – she climbed the treacherous frosted steps to the house. She kicked off her boots at the bottom of the stairs and looked up the large oak staircase. Jason was still in his study.
In the kitchen she emptied the shopping bags and hung the new shirt on the back of the pantry door. He would look so good in it. She poured the soup into a pan and put it on a low heat on the stove. She wanted all of this to go perfectly. She was not a great cook, but she had heart and Jason always appreciated the effort she put in. Tonight would be more effort than ever. Tonight would be perfect. Perfect.
In the bedroom she smiled at his shirt and looked willingly at the black dress. No, she thought; she would wear the other one – the one that Jason liked better, the low cut one she felt uncomfortable in. She looked at their bed. No more thoughts of the homecoming queen. It would just be the two of them now.
She lifted the shirt from the hook by the hanger and took it down the long corridor to Jason’s study.
Knocking gently once she entered with the shirt in her hand held out like a matador’s cloak. She suddenly felt nervous that he may not like it. She felt nervous that he may not like the food she was preparing. He may not be happy about any of this.
Jason was sitting in the corner of the room in the cushioned latticed chair that he often sat in to ‘do some thinking’; his wrists and ankles wrapped with tourniquet where Viola had sawn off his hands and feet with a bow saw the previous night. He was tied upright in the chair, his head bowed to his chest.
‘I bought you a new shirt, dear,’ said Viola approaching him cautiously – she was not sure what kind of mood he was going to be in. ‘I don’t mean to wake you. I just wanted to let you know I have everything under control. Dinner is on.’ She cautiously stepped forward and put her fingertips to the top of his head. ‘And I’m going to wear that dress you like so much.’
Jason’s head bobbed up drowsily, a disappointing side effect of the morphine, Viola regretted. He groaned achingly from behind his gag, his glazed eyes, ringed with a deep darkness, sticking out from his sheet-white sweat-soaked face, were pleading in their confusion and dread.
‘How about we get you washed and then we’ll dress you up, shall we?’ Viola leaned forward and kissed him long on the forehead. Jason groaned again, almost in comfort at the gesture.
‘I’ll run you a bath,’ Viola said, and took a moment to look at her husband. She smiled warmly, lovingly.
Viola folded the shirt as she exited the study. Tonight was going to be so special. Their marriage was going to be stronger from this night on. She would be there for him. No more nights alone, no more nights away, no more talk of divorce.
As Viola walked along the corridor back to the master bedroom, she remembered she would need some fresh towels and turned to enter another room. But as her hand touched the doorknob to enter she had second thoughts. She didn’t want to go in that room just yet. That was where she had left the children.
original illustration by Dean Lewis