I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Memento Mori

Gothic's not just architecture
Short story: 1193 words
Note: Initial "dialogue" rewritten for greater coherence

“A great fella, a great salesman. Snowballs to Eskimos - he could have sold anything. Anything…”

Without stilettos I feel naked in front of everyone. Though the front row definitely does help. No one's turning round – facing me.


“… even condoms to Catholics.”

Listen to them snigger. But condoms were his kind of joke!


“Good company too. Showed me the ropes up in Newcastle. Now there was a hard city for our products, but he made it fun.”

How much longer is he going to speak? Christ, I’d kill for a cigarette.


“Anyone who makes Newcastle fun is…”

I never asked: why Newcastle? He was often up there. Was there a bit of fluff?  If so she'd never have been a Geordie. He hated northern accents.


“As you know, our leading rep, three years running…”

And didn't he go on about that!


“Promoted to regional manager. Everyone’s choice.”

See, that’s what I don’t understand. His popularity. No one saw through him. No one recognised the lout. But then they’re all the same, I suppose. It takes a lout to know...


“Our condolences to his gorgeous wife, Megan.”

You should know how gorgeous, laddo. The way you stroked my bum as I came in.


MEGAN had hoped to edge away, her palate yearning for a Marlboro. But the funeral director guided her to the chapel exit where a queue had formed. Mainly men, looking ahead, grinning like wolves.

At least the sixtyish man at the front was no threat.  Tailored three-piece, Barbarians tie and white hair carefully combed, he had to be the MD but the name he gave meant nothing to her. A light kiss on the cheek was more in keeping but then he hung on to her hands: squeeze, slacken, squeeze, slacken.

“I blame myself,” the man whispered. “He worked hard. A third year topping the list deserved something extra. The vote was unanimous but perhaps the car… proved too powerful.”

Powerful or not it had been a high spot in his life. He’d insisted they had dinner at that pricey French place in Oxfordshire and they’d touched a-hundred-and-thirty on the M40. She’d been terrified, then resolutely calm. At that speed dying would be like being switched off. No pain.

Next was Emily. They knew each other over the phone and had spoken many times. “I’ll get him to ring you,” Emily had always said, and she did. Emily, well padded and perfumed with Bourjois, hugged her. “When you’re free here, Megan, we’ll sit in my car and talk about him.”

Megan hesitated.

Emily said, “I liked him, too much for my own good. I did what he asked, I was always loyal. But he was unreliable and I knew you were suffering.  If anything still disturbs you, just ask.”

“I’ll need time.”

Should she rake over her old suspicions? - something to think about tomorrow. But now there were all these men. A sorrowing widow could not, of course, fend them off. She would be in their hands – literally – taking their antics at face value.

Yet it was even worse. The dark suits used their dubious grief to embrace her floridly and kiss her lengthily. With three of them processed a muscular tongue from the fourth levered itself between her lips. She had no defence. Marriage had linked her indirectly to salesmanship and tradition forced her to accept this associate role.

Latecomers tried even harder.  Bodies pressed against her, saliva dissolved her lipstick, and her satin blouse pulled away from her black skirt. Thank God for the funeral director, close by, who cleared his throat to discourage the more ambitious excesses.

And who, when the queueing was at an end, propelled her gently back into the chapel to see to her make-up. A thankful repair as she moved out to the Range Rover containing her father, mother and sister, all po-faced.

Her mother lowered the window. “We came, as promised.”

“So I see,” said Megan.

“Any problems? Money?”

“The mortgage was covered by life insurance.”

“How lucky,” said her mother.

“Unlike my choice of partner,” said Megan. “As you’ve often reminded me.”

“I described what I saw. Unhappily it turned out to be the truth.”

“Unhappily?”

Her mother raised the window and her father drove the tall vehicle away at speed.

Although the funeral director was pear-shaped and his trousers formally striped, he had immense dignity. “My dear, it’s all over now. So much bad behaviour but I thought you coped bravely. I’ll drive you back.”

“Mr Crumple, I know it’s sluttish in a new widow but I desperately need a cigarette.”

“Sluttish? Never in this world, my dear. If you don’t mind I’ll join you.”

Megan leant back against the ridiculously elongated car and inhaled for seconds. A month ago she’d tried to give up. Thank God she’d failed. Mr Crumple moved two discreet steps away leaving her to her thoughts. Except she had no thoughts, only an angry vacancy.  And a mild curiosity about Newcastle. Such a long way to go for a night or two of infidelity.

The car park was empty since hers had been the last funeral of the day. Even Mr Crumple had briefly disappeared into the chapel, called there by a functionary. She dropped the cigarette stub on to the tarmac, treading on it with a hardly elevated court shoe which did nothing for her ankles. They’d been the first thing he’d noticed about her at the charity ball four years ago. Conceivably the last thing he remembered as he succumbed to the car’s multi-function steering wheel. Multi-function: his words.

With perfect timing Mr Crumple walked towards her, his face professionally impassive. “My dear, a small matter. I have made no commitment. You may turn the request down without any guilty feelings. You are entitled to your privacy.”

But Megan agreed the request straight away, perhaps to show solidarity with her own gender, perhaps in reaction to that heartless and humiliating queue. As a result the woman slid unshowily into the limousine to share the back seat with Megan. A woman nearing forty, her brown hair arranged in a timeless – no, old-fashioned – style, wearing a suit that wasn’t even sombre, but then not everyone wore dark fabrics at funerals. A woman who said, “I’m gan the railway station. No distance at all. I’ll not speak. You need your quiet.”

Megan nodded, almost to herself. Trust him; he’d not chosen to make the same mistake twice. An older woman, though. That was surprising.

Now Megan felt the need for another Marlboro, this time to be smoked reflectively. Time to dwell on the failure of her marriage. How she’d mistaken his alertness for intelligence and how he, it seemed, had discovered her prettiness and well-shaped figure weren’t enough. A man who had gone for a trophy rather than a wife and who might well be paying a tortuous price for this as the flames presently reduced his earthly remains to ashes.

But, hey, there was a bright side. There’d be none of Mother’s parchment-flesh turkey this Christmas. Or that revolting  “traditional” bread sauce. She could if she wanted make do with a slice of quiche.

14 comments:

Sir Hugh said...

Read through once, may comment again more constructively after another read, but can't help recording initial thought from a Peter Sellers cameo - it applied to the one who died for PS but here it is good for her: "A merciful release".

mike M said...

I've read once too. As usual the puzzling opening coalesces into a broad picture, begging for a re-read. And as always some of this has to do with the dialect. First impression was from the photo, portraying the downside of mid or rear engined cars. A sordid portrayal of salesmen, groping and tonguing at a funeral, turns from gruesome to macabre when the mistress hitches a ride. Not quite unbelievable.

Roderick Robinson said...

Sir Hugh: Your conclusion is unexceptional, as was the conclusion to the Peter Sellers monologue. In the latter the humour lay not in what happened but in the cruelly detached, aristocratic way it was expressed "With a low moan the unhappy wretch fell back, etc, etc."

As I explain to MikeM, I had different aims.

MikeM: Although you appear to have arrived at the piece's meaning by the back-door (perhaps unaware that you had in fact arrived) you have made my point. This is an RR rarity and the key lies in the short story's title (not the heading for the post). I prefer to read and write fiction that is based on aspects of ordinary life. Thus I am not a candidate for stories about dreams, generic horror, fantasy, imaginary worlds, drug-taking, many but not all forms of sci-fi, the morality of religions (even though I am fascinated by their practice), badly documented passages of history, anthropomorphism, mental illness, etc.

I am however passionately concerned about the inequalities visited upon women by societies like yours and mine that purport to be civilised. Just for once I thought I'd illustrate my sympathies by adapting the Gothic genre. Since I don't read much Gothic material the chances are this one failed through lack of familiarity. However I am sufficiently satisfied by your choice of adjectives (sordid, gruesome, macabre) to tell myself I got part of the way there.

Unbelievable or not. I am not sure about this. In my experience Gothic-ism proceeds by piling one stretched detail on top of another. The logical result of Megan finding herself in the company of her husband's mistress would be for her to protest. Instead, she does something else which may or may not be outrageous. Blame my amateurism.

Puzzling opening. This wasn't wilful; I wanted to offer two diametrically opposed views about the same person in as few words as possible. Some answers are to be found in the later exchanges, others by reading the more conventional part of the story. More difficult than it looks but I wanted to have a go.

Lucy said...

I suppose Gothic rather like those Weird Tales type stories about the man who claws his way out of his coffin at the mortuary and returns home, looks through the window and sees his wife in a clinch with his best friend.

It is indeed bleak and horrible; I can't quite believe in it either, that she was so much at their mercy and unable to protect herself (or even resist the tongue!), that her own family were so cold and hostile even though they had bothered to turn up, that the only blessing she was counting at the end was being spared Christmas dinner (presumably Mother is his mother?). Oddly I didn't find the mistress in the car bit so hard to credit, though wondered why she'd not noticed her before, I suppose she was so busy being mauled!

And yet it there is a point in its exaggerated grotesqueness, Gothic in the sense of larger than life? Realism isn't the only value (and anyway, what do I know of the world, perhaps it's not so unlikely, and there's no indication of the period it's taking place...)

And once I started I couldn't stop reading, and it was over before I knew it, even though I find the long thin blog format, which works fine with your 300 word bites, quite difficult for stories. My favourite line was 'she’d mistaken his alertness for intelligence', that I can believe, and recognise.

Lucas said...

I especially like the beginning of this story with Megan's thoughts juxtaposed against the speechifying friend of the deceased. The story is dramatized immediately which captures the situation.
What then unfolds is indeed shocking yet believable, when you consider the unbelievable facts of domestic and online abuse of women. These gross acts at the funeral are possibly the thin end of the wedge. The final irony of the taxi shared with the mistress from Newcastle leaves the reader nicely hanging over the precipice of Megan's unredeemable bad choice of partner. The story pulls no punches with regard to the harassment of Megan by a gang of bad types yet leaves us wondering why she did not fight harder both while he was still alive and at the funeral to stay afloat as a free spirit.
Perhaps this is exactly the point.

Roderick Robinson said...

Lucy: Your response much appreciated since this is deliberately not a pleasant story and it may have made you wonder whether or not I'd flipped my lid.

In fact, Lucas's speculation (see below) does me a great good service by widening the story's scope; what started out as my cry of feminist despair can also, opportunistically, be taken to include domestic violence. What depresses me is not so much that violence against women (as wives and mothers) happens routinely, but that a medieval attitiude continues to prevail in jokes, pub talk and in male behaviour en masse. As if certain men - frequently in large numbers - believe themselves to be predisposed towards this fearful dominance.

I wanted also to show that things do not stop short with brutal acts. Megan's family in effect blame her for having married a wrong-un.

As to believability it wasn't (as I recall) a priority when I wrote the story. Whatever distortions I came up with are as nothing compared with what happens in real life. However, this is fiction and I didn't set out to write a social tract. I needed to catch readers' eyes, to "entertain" them somewhat. So I am glad that the story had some kind of appeal, however horrible.

Lucas: As I say in my response to Lucy, I am entirely grateful for your suggestion that includes domestic violence as part of the "target". You've helped me make the story more universal.

I'm assuming you read the second version in which I concentrated on making the initial "counterpoint" passage easier to understand. Poor MikeM read the first version and was left confused; I hadn't realised all the technical requirements. Since the fragmented structure is hard to read as a continuum, what is said has to be much simpler than I'd allowed. What you read is more complete, more direct, than the earlier attempt.

As to why Megan didn't struggle harder I have no defence. It simply wasn't part of the story and this raises another point. How intelligent is Megan? Too intelligent and your point is emphasised; less intelligent and one is inclined to wonder if her objectivity is credible.

But then no one says that fiction is easy.

Lucy said...

We always tend to wonder why apparently intelligent women put up with abuse though, as though they ought to know better, it's perhaps another subtle way of shifting the blame to the victim. There's a sense that dignity consists of suffering it discreetly rather than making a visible move to repel it. And I suppose her family's coldness and lack of support offer a clue about her isolation and apparent lack of self-respect, her dislike of seeking help.

Yet it still seemed to me that if she knew what that world and those men were like and disliked it perhaps she might have developed a few strategies for survival and self-protection? But the fact that I'm referring to her as if she was a real person we know of says much for what you've achieved!

I suppose my naive incredulity about the men's behaviour is not that it isn't believable, but that it could happen at a funeral, and that the tentative throat clearing of the funeral director was her only source of defence or the only signal of its inappropriateness. But I dare say you're right, it could happen and real life is doubtless much worse still.

As to the mistress, what you see of her is in fact quite sympathetic, isn't it? She seems to me the only really kind person there, apart from the funeral director who to some extent enabling the abuse while barely limiting it, and Emily, who seems to be too much at a distance to be much help. The husband's choice of her is a good twist, casting a doubt on easy assumptions about his character. I wonder if he'd have taken her on full-time after the collapse of his marriage to Megan that would have taken place within a year or two if he hadn't smashed himself to smithereens?

mike M said...

I think Lucy's opinion: "There's a sense that dignity consists of suffering it discreetly rather than making a visible move to repel it." applies even more to men who are under attack (shall we say with a skillet? This was a weekly source of humor in an American comic strip some years ago). A sense of dignity AND fear perhaps, as grasping at the wrist that wields the skillet will likely result in incarceration.

mike M said...

Oh and I approve the changes at to beginning, especially "stroked" over "fingered".

Roderick Robinson said...

Lucy: But was Megan intelligent? I didn't make this clear one way or the other (quite by accident) and when it was raised as an issue I decided it was better to leave things vague.

Might she have developed strategies? Possibly - the implications are that she is used to the company of salesmen and has learned to dislike them. However, at her husband's funeral she cannot escape them and for me, that seemed like a well-lit stage. From their point of view her prettiness and vulnerability make her doubly desirable as well as easy meat; embraces and kisses are legitimate and therefore it's only a matter of pushing the limits.

Is Megan's reaction towards the mistress likely? To some extent this is the crux. Having been assaulted by men, might Megan be inclined to reflect on what she shared with the mistress, even though there was a significant time difference.

I worried overnight about this story. The motives of men who write about cruelty to women are often called into question: are they relishing what they have written? In my heart of hearts I knew this wasn't the case but readers are entitled to be dubious. However your line "referring to her as if she was a real person" is a great comfort.

MikeM: Alas, the threat of incarceration doesn't seem to work. The sort of men who commit these sort of crimes seem to be incapable of appreciating cause and effect.

The beginning. The main changes in the "dialogue" section consists of adding a number of humdrum details.

Blonde Two said...

I wonder if she (the widow) felt sorry for the mistress. It didn't sound as thought the deceased possessed much in the way of redeeming features.

If I was asked to describe the writing here, I would use the word, 'melodic'. The sounds and statements rise and fall like a song. An excellent read, thank you.

Roderick Robinson said...

Blonde Two: Redeeming features. Don't forget, his choice of wife was just as mistaken as Megan's choice of husband and Megan acknowledges this.

Megan and the mistress. Given Megan's Calvary with the queue, might she find temporary comfort in the company of a woman, however weird this might seem in the circumstances? The suggestion is inevitably ambiguous.

Thanks for "melodic". In some senses there is little difference between prose and verse. When prose works the association of sentences is usually rhythmic: short, short, long, that sort of thing.

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