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Article  •  25 October 2017

 

Short Story Club - 25 January

Read the story being discussed on Jesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 25 January 2018

How Women Behave When Men Are Losing Their Wives

Sue Orr

 

Joe knocks on your door and tells you there is no more hope for Annie.

So you hold him in your arms for as long as your heart will let you, and wait for the beginning of the grief. It comes fast and wet, but when you lift your face from his shoulder, he has not changed at all.

Joe is not a handsome man. Garrulous eyes — real chatterboxes — but too close together. Sometimes, you think, they’re going to collide when his face folds in on itself in laughter.

A scrum-weary nose, and a mouth that dances all over the show during the spinning of a good yarn. Usually it lands back above his chin, but not always.

Not a perfect man, Joe, but a face to be trusted. A pot luck dinner that has turned out well.

 

Annie is dying quickly. Of course, loitering has never been her way. She would tornado into a room, spin it crazy with tales needing passionate punctuation, and then be gone. You never quite understood the stories, but you wouldn’t miss them for the world. They were too exciting for endings and you had to make up your own.

Now isn’t that a gift to treasure.

Hope-generating ‘good days’ pass her by, and you are glad. They always turn out to be death taking a cruel break in its goosestep to the finish line. Her final two months will give her time only to plan her departure, then begin it.

‘I will be beautiful, when I’m laid out at home,’ she says.

No church service for Annie — where would the many hundreds of mourners stand in a tiny church, she wants to know. No, the farewell will be of her own design; there will be wailing and weeping.

People will gather, she says, on a cold rainy day at the beach. The theme will be misery. People will talk about her wonderful life — but, mostly, they will dwell on their loss. Only her tiny daughter, Skye, will be excused. She may go swimming in her new dress, if she wants.

Annie says, when the talking is over, her violet and gold coffin will be passed down the line. Everyone will touch it.

‘You must cry.’ That’s what she says.

 

You visit Joe and Annie. Their home no longer belongs to them — it has been pitied into a strange place.

Life and living have vacated the kitchen. No more dirty baking dishes. No more cookie cutters. No more crayons, paper dolls, apple cores, fairy wings. No more of Annie’s lovely projects, her making madness.

Instead, there are cakes. Angel cakes, compassion cakes, morbid curiosity cakes. Hives of housewives, scared of scrambling their words, have turned to their mixing bowls. The cakes scream for Joe’s attention on that sparkling clean bench.

You can hear those cakes, no mistaking what they are saying.

‘Look at me — I care about you more than she does.’

Joe is there, awkward, like a buyer at an open home. You see layers start to fray. They are ready to peel back, underneath is the red raw grief.

The changes begin. They are hardly visible at first. They start with his chin. Joe’s old chin was forever backing away from an argument. But stress draws it out. It is proud; not Supermanly, but nearly. Strong enough, now, to carry his burden.

Does he notice, when he looks in the mirror? You suspect not.

 

Two weeks pass. You and Annie laugh and cry and argue and laugh. You are vicious about others — a luxury permitted in conversation with the dying.

You giggle about the sparkling kitchen, the vacuumed floors, the cake stall. Heads buried under her duvet, in case one of the cleaning maggots squirm in. You remember her infidelities. Not the names, they never mattered; just the pick-up lines. Annie’s, not the men’s.

She makes you promise never to tell Joe, never to ruin his perfect memories, and you promise.

One time, she sends you out to find what colour the floor tiles are — she’s forgotten. She won’t let you back until you drop something on them, dirty them again.

Joe isn’t around and you are glad, you want her to yourself.

 

A few days later, you see Joe, you nearly don’t know him. His beauty is shocking.

All his features are on the move; mobilised by the distortion of life around him. His cheeks are gaunt and defined, no longer man-next-door. Unshaven, honest. His mouth says vulnerable and fragile, no matter what words are spoken.

The other women notice. They cannot stay away from him; they hold his hand, they touch him, rub against him; they hug and wrap themselves around him, drawing him in.

They say they are supporting him — they are lying. His trauma has turned him beautiful: nerve ends exposed and sparking. They are wanting him. Just plain wanting him.

They speak quietly to him, drawing him aside for a private audience. Always touching. When they are ready to leave, after a hard day of longing, they turn to him for one last embrace. Joe holds each of them close, saying goodbye.

Is he fooled into thinking he is receiving, not giving? He is praying for one more day of Annie. The women are praying for more of Joe. Annie has noticed, how could she not. You, Anne and Joe are in the bedroom and she is screaming. Taunting him. ‘You’re loving this, you bastard . . . sick bitches all over you . . .’

Joe stands there hurting, crying, no idea what she means.

But you know.

And where are the men? He might be thinking about that, wondering where his friends are. But it’s just as well, isn’t it, that they stay away. They would not want to see their wives burn.

 

She isn’t easy to be with, now that the end is close. You feel her soul has already departed. Her friends say their goodbyes — even the bakers down tools, face their fears and spend time with her.

It is so hard for them to give her a kiss and simply say bye. Embarrassed by finality, they cannot resist addenda . . . I’ll pop back . . . The farewells are absurd; they will start over tomorrow.

Her physical self catches up with her soul on July twenty-eight, and the timing is perfect. Joe is at the peak of his beauty and cold rain is forecast for days to come.

 

Joe drifts through the hell protected by his beautiful shell. The women are beside themselves. They ache and cry for him, not Annie. But they have to back off, don’t they. It is time, finally, for husbands to step forward, lock hands and murmur their discomfort. And wonder when they might get their wives back.

In the days to follow, his beauty is intact and the foolish women stay close. Joe is a carapace; content to be handled, passed around. But he has given them the slip.

You know that he is with Annie, but you will wait.

Then he comes back. His beauty collapses, one stunning feature after another, until he looks like Joe again. And every day there are fewer visitors, fewer cakes.

The women don’t like what they see: an ordinary man, housekeeper required. They return to their neglected homes and forgotten families, seeking praise for their kindness.

Joe is lonely and alone.

 

After a suitable time of waiting, you tell him.

How he would leave town, and she would bring the men back to their bed. Not once or twice, but every time.

How many? he wants to know.

How many times did you go away? you reply.

You tell him what they looked like, what they did to his wife. You tell him everything you know; you make up what you don’t.

You remember a promise, but he needs to know that perfection is a matter of perception. That there is hope for a lonely, ordinary man. It falls upon you, now, to be there for him.

 

‘How Women Behave When Men Are Losing Their Wives’ © Sue Orr

First published in Sue Orr, Etiquette for a Dinner Party, Vintage, 2008

 


Etiquette for a Dinner Party Sue Orr

Varied and accomplished, these stories of sustenance are entertaining, stimulating and original.

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