Coup de Grace
Fiona J. Mackintosh
I’d never have done this, made the trip all the way across the city on this draughty bus, if she hadn’t had the nerve to send me that condolence letter. Sitting among the clacking women with their baskets on their way to the market, my ankles chilled to the bone, I read the tissuey slip of paper over and over.
“You’ll forgive me for not coming to the funeral. It seemed best not. But I want you to know how truly I feel for you. We who loved Jack best mourn the most.”
The brass neck of her. She thinks she’s as much his widow as I am.
The gate creaks, there’s the tang of new creosote on the fence. The frost has been at her roses. She should have dug soil to cover the roots, but that’s her look-out. Two raps on the letter box and here she is, the surprising pinkness, the laciness of her even in her dark dress. The cheek of her wearing black. A large bosom, thin legs like a heron, I’d forgotten those. Hair too silver-blonde for the age of her face. Jack must have sunk into her like a cloud. Or a sofa whose springs have gone.
“Phyllis. I’m glad you’ve come. Come on into the warm.”
Her parlour, too, is all of a billowing, no hard corners.
“Will you take a cup of tea?”
I won’t give her the satisfaction of refusing.
“Sit yourself by the fire while I make it, will you? It’s nippy out today.”
The clink of cup against saucer from the kitchen. Does she have a picture of him up? It’s probably tucked away in a cupboard to spare my feelings. More likely it’s with his letters, in some absurd box she’s glued with ribbon and lace. She’s the type.
Only a year ago, Jack and me were visiting his brother Walter and his wife. She was there too, Gwen, Alice’s friend, past her first flush but well-tended. A blossomy hydrangea bush, not a thorn to be seen. We drank beer and played whist outside in the dusk, the nephews playing badminton over the clothes line till they could barely see the birdie. She, Gwen, with a mottling between her breasts where her neckline slipped as she reached for a card. They saw it, the men, their eyes skidding away from looking. Alice, laughing and throwing her arms in the air when she won a rubber. Always so loud, always close to some bursting forth. Walter’s had to forgive her more than once. And her friend, another one, looking at Jack beneath her eyelashes. Alice might as well have joined their hands across the table. “Here, Jack, here’s what you need. Phyllis has sucked the joy from your bones. It’s time you had some fun at last.”
I knew and yet I didn’t know till I found the letter in the crested pocket of his schoolmaster’s blazer. She’s a one for letters, Gwen. I knew it’d be a jumble of yearning and pandering and dried scent like a rotting tooth. Jack begged my forgiveness. He said she’d been a folly. He’d been weak, he said, rubbing his head. His hair stood up so absurdly I couldn’t look at him. We motored to Bournemouth for a holiday. November, a silly time to go. The sea was grey and churlish. We did our best, tea dancing at the Pavilion, walking down the Chines and along the Undercliff at Boscombe, the palm trees rattling in the cold wind. There was nothing to say, nothing but the pathways of empty chat. Every road we ventured down had obstacles impossible to avoid. On the third day, sitting on the boarding house bed with our backs to each other, we agreed it was no use staying on.
The nonsense of her, making tea in that silver pot. There’s tarnish deep in the creases of that handle. She’s trying to impress me. Her hands shake as she puts the tray down.
“Shall I pour?”
“Do as you like. This isn’t a social call.”
“No, of course.”
The tea goes down warm. The fire is thawing my ankles. The small comforts quaver me so I shake my head when she offers cake. It looks moist and crumby, jam oozing from between the layers.
“I’m glad you’ve come.”
“I don’t know why you should be.”
“We’ve so much in common.”
“Only Jack. And he wasn’t yours to have.”
She drops her eyes, fiddling with the tea things, her nails pearly peach ovals. At least she doesn’t insult me by saying she’s sorry. It’s time to begin.
“I feel you should know what happened.”
“That night on Kempshott Hill.”
Her eyes skitter from the fire to the window and back.
“But I do know. He was struck by an automobile.”
“Struck. Yes, he was.”
“It said in the paper the man was drunk?”
“They found him in a pub five miles away. Blood all over the bonnet and him none the wiser.”
Her turn to flinch. I stir my tea in circles. We both watch the spoon go round.
“It must have been terrible.”
I lay the spoon in the saucer.
“He got out to wipe the windscreen. It had frosted over as we came up through Winchester, you see, so we had to stop. He’d wiped the screen and then it seems he must have been kneeling down to check the front tyre. That’s when I saw the lights heading towards us.”
“You didn’t see -?”
“I felt it. The car shook.”
A shudder of those black-clad shoulders.
“And I heard it. The softness of him being smashed.”
Gwen’s hands rise from her lap like tethered birds.
“He just vanished.”
“The car carried the body off.”
I put down my cup and look at her. Her edges have blurred, the black oozing into the pink. I stroke my gloves on my lap like a cat.
“I got out of the car. I thought I must have dozed off and dreamt it all. I can’t tell you how quiet it was. I called out to Jack though I knew it was useless. I walked back along the road behind the Austin. There was a moon, but the high trees blocked most of the light. I held my hand up – isn’t that foolish? I could just see the paleness of my glove. Then I stumbled on something and reached down – it was his hat. And further on I found a shoe.”
She sits very still, her hand over her mouth. I’m making a story of it, building up to the climax.
“Then I made out a dark shape on the verge.”
A tiny noise comes from her throat.
“I could see better by then - my eyes had adjusted. Funny how that happens. I could see his legs were sprawled every which way. I came closer and said his name, but I knew he couldn’t hear me. His coat was pulled up sort of inside out over the top of his body. Blood all over the grass, sticky like motor oil. I felt it under my shoes.”
She reaches for her cup with a shaking hand, then thinks better of it. I feel almost happy.
“How did you... When did help come?”
“I stood there for ages, getting colder and colder. And then someone came along at last. The headlamps lit me up like I was on stage. Funny the thoughts you have. The nice couple took me straight to the police station in Basingstoke.”
“But all the while Jack was lying in that ditch.”
“Yes but I told you, he was dead already. Shall I tell you how I know?”
This is what I’ve come for. I take my time. She’s leaning forward, her mouth agape, one gleaming tooth snagged on her lip. Almost half-witted she looks, and I haven’t even told her the main thing. Perhaps a part of her knows what’s coming. I lean forward to put my cup on the table.
“I’d found his head lying in the road.”
There’s no more pinkness. She slides sideways in her chair, her face turned away. I can tell she sees it too - the severed neck, blood still bubbling from the arteries, one eye torn from the socket. This is what she’ll see every time she tries to close her eyes. Just as I do.
It is done. I reach for a slice of sponge cake. As I bite into it, the jam slides viscous from between the layers onto the plate. She hurries from the room, her face like wet paint running down a wall. I push the plate away and lean back in her easy chair. A tiny hole in her net curtains gives onto the January sky. It looks damp out there, the kind that hurts your bones.
The pipes bang after a muffled flush. I hear her blow her nose. Back she comes. Jack should see her now. There’s powder in the creases of her eyes. She looks like her own roses, veiny and brittle. Crisped around the edges. Her back to me, she throws a scoop of coal onto the fire. The flare of it warms my legs. She bends to the tea table, avoiding my eyes.
“I’ll freshen the pot.”
I let her.
Fiona is a British writer who has lived in the US for over 25 years so her fiction draws on influences from both sides of the Atlantic. Her short stories have appeared in, among others, The Washington Review, Harpers & Queen, Metropolitain, & District Lines & are forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine & Abundant Grace, an anthology of women writers. Her story “Noli Me Tangere” was longlisted for Plymouth University’s 2015 Short Fiction Prize.