Richard Crawford’s widow, Dorothy, entered the front hall and set her luggage down. In the oppressive heat, dust floated upward in the fading beams of light. During her visit to friends in England after his death, the house had stood empty. Everything was exactly as she had left it.
If they had had children, even only one, perhaps now she would not be so alone. With children, she thought, you could see along the dark tunnel to the future, like a silver thread of life down the years. Richard had not been opposed to having children. It just never happened. Once, so long ago, she was thought she was pregnant. She imagined new life wiggling within her. My little tadpole, she smiled clasping her hand over her belly. But then, in a torrent of red, it was simply gone.
Then later, without words between them, Richard and she began to sleep in separate beds and then in separate rooms. Of course, with his odd hours, it was for the best. Who was that child, she wondered? Would it be here with me now?
After removing her Chanel suit jacket, she steadied herself against the hall table. In the dining room, the buffet and hutch looked like dark, monstrous forms crowded into corners, waiting. Turning back to the hall, she caught her breath. Richard’s suit jacket still hung on the coat tree. Was he somewhere in the house? She shook her head as if to clear an apparition. With a tiny sob, she held his collar to her cheek, her face powder clinging to one spot.
Bits of the funeral were coming back. Mostly women packed the home for the visitation. Dry-eyed beside the open coffin, she had been amazed at the number of women engaged in public displays of grief.
“Harry? Who are these women?” she whispered in his ear.
Harry patted her hand and replied smoothly, “Clients, Dorothy.”
“But why are they all so upset?”
“You should be very proud. Richard was a wonderful solicitor. He advised so many women, after the death of their husbands. They were very loyal to him.”
Dorothy was no fool. She knew of Richard's affairs, but how many had there been?
At the funeral home, a small, round-faced woman peered up at her. Through pursed lips, she said, “Mrs. Crawford? We'll all miss Richard, terribly. Did he go quietly in his sleep?”
Tensing, Dorothy drew herself inward. “No. He died at the office.”
“I'm Norma Dinnick, dear. Richard was such a fine man.” When she squeezed her hand, Dorothy winced.
Another woman approached the casket. Buxom and well dressed, Dorothy thought. As Richard lay cold in the casket, the woman touched her fingers to her lips and then gently touched his. Dorothy was dumbfounded by the sorrow passing in her eyes.
“Harry! Who is that woman?” she hissed.
Harry turned around. “Her? Marjorie Deighton. Why?”
“She just kissed Richard!”
“With her fingers, I mean.”
“Oh, well, then….” Fortunately, Marjorie had disappeared in the crowd. “Her whole family has been clients of the firm for years.”
In the darkening front hall, Dorothy hung his jacket in the closet and shut the door firmly. The silk lampshades in the living room were limp with humidity, just like herself. Nearing seventy, she felt herself shrinking, and her energy ebbing. Richard’s mantle clock had stopped at two. She set the hands to eight o’clock and wound the key. The harsh ticking filled the room, just like his hectoring voice.
Noticing the mail on the floor, Dorothy stooped wearily to retrieve it. One envelope was covered with large, spindly handwriting. She knew it was from her friend, Clarissa, who would not write so soon unless there were trouble. Dorothy sank into the hall chair and slit open the envelope.
My sister Grace died suddenly, just after you left. Gone. She was planting begonias in the garden, when she collapsed from a massive stroke. Best she didn’t suffer. I had to tell you as soon as I could. Hope your trip home was good. Write soon,
Dorothy sat motionless. The letter slipped from her fingers and floated to the floor. Poor Clarissa, she thought. Poor Grace. One never knew when it might happen.She tried to imagine being in a garden and then not. But where would she be? Closing her eyes, Dorothy hoped to be elsewhere when she opened them. But no! The minute her lids flew open the damned stifling house was still there, and so was she.
Rising with determination, she pulled at the buttons on the cuffs of her silk blouse and shoved up the sleeves. “I am leaving this house,” she whispered.
Slowly, her energy began seeping back. She pulled open the dining room curtains and struggled with the window. She threw open the back kitchen door in hopes of getting a cross draft. But there was no cool air outside. She opened the front door wide. The hot night closed in.
Why is he still here? I have to get away, while I still have time for a life. She sank onto the staircase and decided to call Harry Jenkins in the morning and tell him to sell the house. Once she had made that decision, restlessness coursed through her.
In the kitchen, she made tea and toast and ate looking out over the garden. Vines and weeds had run riot over the patio. Eager tendrils pushed up between the flagstones and wrapped around the leg of an iron chair. Their lushness revolted her. Even without Richard, life went on. At first, she had almost hoped that without him, she would wither and die.
She decided to clear out Richard’s attic office. With little notion of what to keep, she pitched most of his papers into the wastebasket but set a few aside for Harry to look at. Only once did her eyes mist over, when she looked at a few photographs of the two of them standing stiffly apart. The state of their marriage was recorded in the distance between them.
She dragged a lamp into the back of the closet and sank to her knees before several boxes. Opening the first one, she saw a number of small, bound notebooks. Overcome by the mustiness, she dragged the box out into the room.
She expected to find old office agendas. Instead, they were personal diaries. She sank onto the small chesterfield near the window.
Entries sprang from the page and drew her in.
February 4. Visited dear Q around dinnertime. I am most concerned about her. I like to think that she will come to her senses soon and realize the danger she may be facing. But she is infuriatingly determined. After we had sherry and sandwiches, she told me to leave. I felt quite ill, but I suppose it may be the tension arising from these conversations about her husband.
Dorothy stared out the window. She had never heard Richard complain about feeling ill. And what about this husband? She read on.
February 14. Brought flowers for Q, hoping to put her in a better mood. However, she still insists that neither she nor her husband has done anything wrong. Got away just in time to see M D who was, by way of contrast, in a very jolly mood and happy to see me. Then home to Dorothy. The ever dutiful but exhausted husband. PS: the pains didn’t start until about 2 in the morning.
Dorothy’s intake of breath was sharp. Typical of Richard, she thought. Running off to see his women and then too tired for her.But he was the kind of man women could not resist. He never said anything about pain to her.
The diaries became repetitious, and she flipped past several pages. The entry for March 21 caught her eye.
March 21. I've been feeling so sick for the past week. Stomach cramps and even vomiting some blood. The doctor can’t seem to find anything wrong, despite the battery of tests. I wonder if someone is trying to poison me. Surely not Dorothy?
Dorothy sat rigidly for several moments. He was accusing her of attempted murder? The page blurred before her eyes.
Staring down into the shadows of the garden, she saw nothing. She struggled to control her mounting fury. Carefully, she shut the window and pulled the drapes. In the absolutely still room, she slowly took deep breaths. He must have been utterly mad! When she had calmed herself, she pulled back the curtains and opened the window. The cursed world was still there.
She settled on the chair and read one more passage.
March 30th. Was at Q’s this evening. She cooked my dinner, and then we talked. I think she may be softening in her views about her husband’s actions. It is hard to criticize him, particularly now he is dead. The stomach pains are growing quite severe. I really must get some better medication from the doctor.
On the day before his death, he had eaten at Q’s house. Dorothy flipped back to the February 4 note. Richard had eaten there that night and become sick. Quickly, she checked the dates she had skipped in late February and early March. Numerous visits to the mysterious Q’s house were followed by bouts of stomach problems. Instead of accusing his wife, the fool should have put it together. But who on earth was Q?
Dorothy frowned in deep concentration. If Harry would let her go through Richard’s old files, surely, she could locate Q. Quentin, Quance, Queen? How many clients starting with the initial Q could there be? She felt the tiniest pinprick of life and challenge within, but then it subsided, and her shoulders slumped. She knew nothing of his work, his law practice. How could she, only the dutiful wife, never included in his world, ever unravel such a problem? She heard his snort of disgust and imagined his turning away at such silly notions. After a moment, she rifled through more pages until Richard’s cutting scrawl blurred before her eyes. She could not let go of the puzzle! What if it were the initial for the first name? She could think of no woman’s first name starting with Q.
Richard’s hectoring voice grew fainter in her mind. She pulled herself up from the chesterfield. Strange and furious excitement rose within her. A puzzle. A mystery. At last, a challenge! To find Richard’s murderer, she would have to enlist Harry’s help. She was suffused with an energy she had not felt in years. Hoping for some clues, she dragged more boxes from the back of the closet. A battered tin container caught her eye. Popping the latch, she withdrew the contents and spread them on the desk.
My Darling Dickie,
I received your letter, which must suffice until you return and I can feel your loving touch once more. I think only of our long walks and chats. You cannot imagine how much I miss seeing you at the house. I know you must be away with Dorothy [she is very elegant and loyal]. You must know how lucky you are [you devil] to have two women in love with you. When you get back from your trip, do come to see Suzannah and me.
All my love,
A mortal cry came from her breast. She clasped her hand to her mouth and then sank to the chesterfield. Once her tears abated, Dorothy checked the date. April 25—their wedding anniversary. The bastard had been corresponding with another woman while they were in Paris on their anniversary! She tossed the letter down and kicked the metal box. Her anger nearly blotted out all her curiosity. But who was this Suzannah?
Dorothy stiffened, as she read the next letter from years back. MD was no brief fling. The bastard had been with this woman for most of their marriage. How many had there been?
Suzannah is so beautiful. She grows so quickly. You must come and visit our daughter as soon as you can!
With all my love... waiting for you,
A strange and furious beast raged within Dorothy. Tears of rage stung her eyes. Blinded, she jumped up, tipping the chair backward to crash on the floor.
“Daughter?” she shrieked, clutching her head as if she would go mad.
“Not a daughter!” She scurried in ever tightening circles about the room.
She flung open the dormer window. “Dear God! Take me from this!” She tore at her blouse, making the buttons scatter on the floor.
The June night sky was hazy with starlight. The heavy, choking air made a cruel mockery of her pleas. Her rasping breath filled the room, and then she slammed the window shut.
Silhouetted in dim light, her tiny form teetered at the top of the stairs. From her heaving chest came the deep keening of a mortally wounded creature. “What child did you give to her and not to me?” she screamed in the silent house.
She sank to the stairs and, biting hard into her hands, she slid downwards chattering, “A daughter. A child. To her, not to me.”
Shrieking from the upstairs landing, she sought anything to grab. Her hands scrabbled along the planter filled with pots of dead foliage. At last, she grasped one and, holding it high, she screamed, “I hate you Richard, with all my heart!” And then she pitched it down the staircase. “All I ever wanted from you was a child, a baby!”
She looked downward. Shards of pottery, dry earth, and rotted tendrils were spewed across the tiled floor below. She sank in grief at the foot of the stairs.
“Why, Richard? Why? I wanted your child with all my heart!”
She looked at her hands, covered in blood, and dragged her fingers down her face. “I am so alone.” With dirt smeared on her cheeks, she wept loudly, until only dry, racking sobs could be heard.
In the night, she awoke to the sound of a baby’s cry. Dazed, she felt her way along the hallway and into the other bedroom. She sank onto a straight-backed chair by the dresser and waited. She heard nothing. No baby, after all. She went into the bathroom and took the sleeping pills from the medicine chest. It must have been a dream,she thought.
Sinking to the toilet, she stared at the tiny black-and-white patterned tiles on the floor until they began to shift, then spin before her eyes. The golden-haired child must be haunting her. Richard’s child. Not hers. She took just two pills and prayed her restlessness would subside. She left the bathroom.
Her wraithlike figure, in its long white gown, wavered at the top of the stairs. When she heard the baby’s fussing from somewhere in the house, a strange, heaving sensation seized her breast. She cried out and raced down the steps, through the dining room, and into the kitchen. Snatching up a carving knife, she hurried to the front hall and flung open the closet door. Her eyes gleamed in the dark as she arranged Richard’s overcoat on the rack. Fury seized her, and she tore time and again at the black cashmere with the knife.
Each thrust was direct to his heart. Goddamn you for murdering me!
Each yank of the knife through the cloth was a joyous frenzy. Bastard! You left me without a child. Where is that golden-haired girl?
Dorothy reveled in the sound of the knife ripping through soft fabric. Furious tears sprang from her eyes as she cut and tore. At last she was spent and sank to the chair. The coat hung in tatters. She would not permit his commanding presence to inhabit her.
At last, she rose and went outside to the patio. The first rays of sun had turned the night sky to an angry red. She surveyed the rank, tuberous growth that nearly choked off the tiny garden. With shears in hand, she attacked one stem and then another. Dry rot had set in and the vines and tendrils could not be sliced through. As she labored, the heavy shears twisted in her hands, making her cry out. She sank to the garden bench and examined her raw hands. Too bad. The blades must be dull,she thought. Tears of frustration made trails down her soft cheeks. I want to wither up too. I cannot stand the pain of this fury.
Dorothy sat in the garden watching the light creep over the rockery. If I cannot die, then I must find a way to live. But how? As the cool morning air crept around her ankles, she tried to form a plan to retain her sanity. Although she could never forgive Richard, his death presented her with a mystery. If only to save herself, she would find Q and congratulate her. Harry could help. In the morning, she would show Harry the letters. At last, she went inside. She folded up Richard’s coat and tossed it on the floor at the back of the closet. Upstairs, she fell exhausted onto her bed and into a deep and dreamless sleep.