by Martin Toman
Rachel left the kitchen quietly, crossing the atrium to ascend the staircase, her foot fall soundless so as to not attract attention. The noises of the wake receded as she climbed, and by the time she had reached the third floor she was in near silence. She could hear her own breathing, made more rapid by the climb. She looked down the cylinder formed by the spiral staircase, the floor below illuminated by the round skylight above. There were moving shadows reflected across the glossy parquetry, but no one was following. Her absence was unnoticed. It’s as if I don’t exist. She paused, I can only imagine what’s taking place below.
The door that she had been unable to open since the accident loomed in front of her. It was only a door, as it had always been, but it had become something else. Rachel stilled herself, looked up at the skylight. The clear blue eye of the sky stared back at her. She held her breath and turned the handle, pushed the door open.
Veronica’s room was as she had left it when she went to university. Standing in the doorway, Rachel saw the afternoon light slanting through partially closed blinds, the bands of light and dark like prison stripes. Motes of dust swirled in the light shafts, but otherwise everything was unchanged. Her daughter was a neat person, and had stored everything away when she packed her suitcases. Rachel entered the room, closed the door. She was sure that no one was missing her. The business of discussing her daughter’s life and death was taking place two floors below, and as for her husband Robert he was out of her hands, as he always had been.
Before Rachel had climbed the stairs she had watched Robert in conversation with a woman she had only met today. In the blur of events at the funeral, all that Rachel could recall was that she was the girlfriend of a junior partner at Robert’s firm. As Rachel advised the caterers of the dietary requirements of various guests, she saw her husband extend his leg under the table to brush the woman’s calf. Because of the opulent carpets and floorboards in Robert and Rachel’s house, it was a rule that no one wore shoes inside. Visitors were given guest slippers to wear so as to not mark the floor. Given the gravity of the day it struck Rachel as comical that the parish priest, a local member-of-parliament, community leaders, distant family members, friends, colleagues, and various hangers on were all shod as if they were invited to a teenage movie sleep over. From where Rachel stood she had watched Robert’s stockinged foot slink forward like a question mark, his toes gently massaging the woman’s leg. Then she saw the woman had leaned forward, opening up the view of her cleavage for Robert’s consumption. Rachel has seen enough. She left.
In Veronica’s room Rachel crossed the space to sit on her daughter’s bed. Placing her hands flat on the bedspread she closed her eyes and breathed in the air of the room. The faint line between her eyes deepened as she did so. She couldn’t detect the scent of her daughter. The maid had changed the bedding in the week after Veronica’s departure, so the sheets had lost their smell. There wasn’t much point in Rachel holding the pillow to her face either as Veronica had packed her sleeping pillow when she left. Rachel turned and opened the top drawer of the bedside table. Most things of interest had been taken away in the move. The watch that Rachel had given Veronica for her high school graduation was on her wrist when her car left the road. Its face had been smashed on impact and the movement broken, the stilled hands cataloging the moment of Veronica’s death. At least it was quick. The space between one second and another.
Rachel moved to the walk in robe, opened the doors and started working through the chest of drawers. In the third drawer she found what she wanted: Veronica’s school scarf. The one that she wore through her senior high school years. There was a photo of Rachel wearing the scarf in her graduating yearbook; she was screaming support for the boy’s hockey team as they took on an inter-school opponent. Her daughter’s face was alight and excited, her blue eyes so wide her iris was framed on both sides by the white of her sclera. No doubt one of the boys in the hockey team had caught her heart, but knowing Veronica she hadn’t acted upon her feelings. The daughter did not take after the father.
The scarf was well worn, slightly pilled. The scarlet and blue bands ended in gold piping; the school colours. A band of foundation has been left on the fabric from where Veronica had held it to her face. Even though it had been months since it had been worn, when Rachel held the material to her face she could smell her daughter’s perfume, and beneath it another scent. The elemental smell of her daughter. She had first smelt it when she had held her newborn child to her chest in the birthing suite, an olfactory connection that could never be erased. Rachel’s head swam in the rush of sensations. She felt as if the pores on her newly waxed legs may pop out from her skin, each hairless hole an individual goose lump standing upright. Rachel’s breasts suddenly ached at the thought of her child as a baby. Rachel took the scarf back to the bed, folded it carefully, and held it in her hands. She held her breath for a moment to push down the pressure in her chest, the onrush of tears, and gradually silenced her mind. Her skin smoothed out again, her body relaxed.
The strips of light moved slowly across the room, the bars shifting their place as the winter sun traced its arc across the late afternoon sky. In Veronica’s room the movement of the light was the only way to measure that time was passing. An occasional sound floated up from the wake, but did nothing to shift Rachel’s stillness. She continued to sit with her hands neatly folded in her lap, cradling the scarf, focusing on the space that hitched between each breath.
Then there was a noise from the other side of the wall, from Robert’s study. Robert’s bedroom was the second floor, in the middle of the house. For many years Rachel had taken to sleeping in the guest quarters outside the main building. As parents Robert and Rachel had tried to give their daughter as much privacy as possible, hence her room was away from those occupied by her parents. The only other room on the third floor was Robert’s study, and as he worked mostly from the office, Veronica had space and solitude. It was unusual for anyone to use Robert’s study.
Rachel closed her eyes to concentrate on the new sounds. A rhythmic thumping, muffled human voices. Then she knew. Robert was fucking that woman, the junior partner’s girlfriend, in the next room. The banging was from the movement of the desk that was pushed up against the wall. He probably had her bent over the desk top as he thrust into her, her face pressed into the leather desk blotter, skirt hitched up, panties on the floor. Robert would be rocked back on his heels, still in slippers, pants around his ankles, eyes staring fixedly ahead into the void.
It was far from the first time he had fucked another woman in their marriage (ha!), nor was it the first time that Rachel had heard or seen him doing it (sigh). But it is the first time that you are fucking someone on the day of your daughter’s funeral, she thought. You complete louse.
Before Rachel had married Robert it was an open secret that he was unfaithful to her as both a boyfriend and fiancé. The night before the wedding Rachel’s best friend had confided that she knew of at least two women who had been with Robert while he was affianced. She had neglected to mention that she was a third. Of course Robert was charming and handsome, and with his family connections was destined to succeed. From the outset Rachel understood that as a corporate lawyer he would be away from home a great deal, and would work abroad. She also assumed that from time to time he was likely to end up with someone else, and had accepted this reality so long as she didn’t know about it. Rachel had made a conscious choice to be ignorant of anything she did not want to know. But she never thought that he would be so indiscreet. When Veronica was born Rachel took comfort in her child, and found being a mother far more satisfying than being a wife or having a career. Compared to Robert’s income her wage was superfluous, and now she was a mother the idea of her working was somehow perceived as a slight toward her husband’s reputation. So she gave away all the parts of herself that were not connected to being a mother, and she easily delivered the outward impression that she was a suitable wife for a successful corporate lawyer. As her child grew Rachel hoped that she could remain an ignorant mother forever. It was only when she contracted genital warts that she chose to confront Robert. The conversation went something like this:
I saw Doctor MacLean today. He told me I have genital warts.
Ha! He told me the same thing a month ago! It took some doing, but they are on the way out. I imagine with treatment yours will go too.
How could you be so stupid and reckless Robert? Why do you have to keep fucking any woman you find?
I have a problem Rachel. I have a sex addiction. I need treatment.
Of course he did. By saying those words: sex addiction…treatment, Robert was able to shift responsibility from himself and become the victim. There was now something else to blame. An addiction rather than a set of broken promises. A compulsive dependence rather than a moral failing. There was no endless series of betrayals, no inability to keep his indiscretions secret. It was an addiction. He was absolved and innocent. It was no wonder Robert was so successful at his trade.
Rachel stopped having sex from that point. She moved permanently out of the middle floor bedroom, and in doing so closed a door in her life. It was only on the day that they had interred their only child into the ground that Robert’s infidelities chafed. Couldn’t he stop fucking for just one day?
Through the wall Rachel heard the thumping increase in volume and rapidity, a series of grunts, and then some laughter. Shortly thereafter there were some quiet footsteps on the landing, and then silence.
Rachel returned to herself. The bands of light let through by the blind were almost horizontal against the far wall. Soon it would be dusk. The guests and staff would no doubt be wondering where she was by now. She closed her eyes. Let Robert handle it. He can handle anyone.
Rachel held the scarf to her nose again, and was once more struck forcibly by her daughter’s scent. She stood, walked to the window, drew the blinds. The last light of the day seemed to almost have a texture in the blue black gloaming. In that moment she understood.
Rachel tucked the scarf under her arm and left the room, descended the stairs. She didn’t bother being quiet, and made her way past the atrium, through the kitchen, and into the utility room. A number of guests saw her passing but she paid them no mind. She opened the cloak closet and pulled out her coat and boots. By now a small crowd had gathered at the entry way to the utility room. Rachel looked up. These people, some of whom she had known for decades, all looked like strangers, shod in ridiculous guest slippers. At the front was Robert, handsome as always, leaning against the door frame. His expression was quizzical, brow furrowed, but his posture was relaxed, confident. His most recent sex partner stood in the background, just one of the anonymous staring faces.
Can I do something for your Rachel? Do you want to talk?
Rachel tied the laces of her boots. She tucked the scarf into the inner pocket of the coat and stood up. The crowd took a step back as she went to the walk through the door.
Rachel found the words: Robert, I’ve really nothing to say to you. Feel free to fuck that woman again if you like. You never asked for my permission anyway, so why start now? We buried our daughter today. Not that it means anything to you. You may as well use Veronica’s bed to fuck her again, or failing that, yours or mine. What’s the difference after all? As for everyone else, thank you for coming to my home, enjoying the hospitality, and wearing the slippers. I’m going for a walk.
When she had looked from Veronica’s window into the twilight Rachel had seen that now she was childless there was nothing to define her, no anchor point from which she could tether her existence. She was unhinged from her previous self. She had no reason to be the same person.
Rachel walked past her husband and her guests. They parted as if she was a vengeful character from the Old Testament. The spiral staircase loomed overhead. With the coming of night the skylight was now a black disc. Rachel opened the front door and breathed in the outside air. It was sharp and crisp. She could smell the clean scent of the earth and trees of her garden. At the cemetery nearby her daughter lay at rest, cradled by the same earth. Rachel looked up at the sky. The first stars had appeared, specks of light punctuating the dark. She could walk in any direction.
About the Author:
Martin Toman is a writer of contemporary fiction who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He studied at Australian Nation University and the University of Canberra before becoming a teacher of English Literature. Martin has been published online and in print, and recently in publications such as Across the Margin, Fresh Ink and Literally Stories.