JENNIFER VAN BEYEN
from In the Silence of Orchids
Peter stands at the top of the stairs; he begins coming down them one by one. There is Mrs Braithwaite, big and strong with clouds of blond hair. He can smell her sugary smell just by looking at her. Beside Mrs Braithwaite is his mother; today she is smaller. She looks especially small next to Mrs Braithwaite; she is fading into her clothes.
‘Lamb,’ she says, her voice coming to him quietly; it is meant only for him.
‘He is a dear little lamb,’ says Mrs Braithwaite, her voice big and strong, big and strong. He feels his bottom lip stick out. His mother’s voice is meant only for him. He reaches the bottom of the stairs and stands by her, close to her skirt. She puts her hand on the back of his neck and he shivers, pleased. Mrs Braithwaite reaches out and pushes at his hair, tousling it beneath her big pink fingers. His mother bends down and brings her face close to his. He looks into her eyes and sees a black island drifting on a grey sea. The sea is dangerous and the island is all alone.
‘Now honey, daddy and I are going out this evening. But Mrs Braithwaite will be here with you, okay?’
‘Okay,’ he hears himself say. But he doesn’t want them to go, not tonight. His mother is not strong. She needs to stay home with him. Her grey eyes are still looking at him, unsmiling. ‘I want you to stay here,’ he whispers but she has already stood up, is far away and closer to Mrs Braithwaite again.
Karl’s wife takes their coats at the door.
‘So good of you to come!’ She stands up on her toes, feet encased in red pumps, her calves straining as she lifts their coats to the hook. ‘I’m Dorothy,’ she says to Rosemary, grasping her hand, smiling at Richard. Her hand is small, like the rest of her, but strong. She wears a deep green dress, ruffled and belted, and mint-green eye shadow. Rosemary and Richard step into the lounge, his hand on the small of her back.
‘Richard! Good to see you out of the office – or should I say, my office!’ Karl chuckles and gestures towards the sideboard. ‘Drink?’ He turns to Rosemary. ‘How’s it going? Sorry your husband’s been keeping such late hours.’
‘Well, I know you’ve all been working so hard.’
‘Let’s hope it pays off.’ A man Rosemary doesn’t recognize has joined them.
‘Rosemary, have you met Nathan? Well known for his optimism and general good cheer.’
Rosemary shakes his hand. He has a hard face, well-worn grey eyes. She looks back at Richard but he is immersed in conversation; he has taken his hand off her back, ‘…basically we’re trying to get across that action on campus should be treated the same constitutionally as off campus’ he is saying to a younger man.
‘Rosemary!’ Nancy Chivers stands nearby in a group of women, wearing a lemon pantsuit.
‘Hello Nancy.’ Rosemary approaches the group; there is nothing else to do. They part automatically, a seam tearing in their circle, then close back up over her.
‘We hear Richard’s quite the ideas man at the moment,’ says Nancy, winking.
‘Rosemary knows that! Now,’ she turns to her, blinking green, ‘drink?’ Rosemary feels pinned to a wall. She shouldn’t, she knows she shouldn’t. Richard might notice, the world might slide around her.
‘Just soda water is fine.’ The words she had said to Richard the first time they met.
‘Anyone’s glass need freshening?’ Dorothy takes a couple of empty martini glasses to the kitchen.
‘So you’re not drinking at the moment?’ Harry’s wife Isabelle looks at Rosemary with her dark eyes.
‘I wouldn’t say that, it’s just – I don’t really feel like it.’
‘There’s no –’ Nancy leans in, glances down at Rosemary’s stomach then back up ‘– special reason?’ The women laugh. Rosemary flushes. She wants to scream at them to get away from her. But she manages a smile.
‘Why Nancy! I don’t know what you mean!’ That is it, that is perfect; that tone of playful indignation. They laugh again, this time appreciatively. Rosemary, Mrs Hunter, is allowed her mystery. Dorothy is beside her, holding a glass of soda water.
‘Cheers,’ says Dorothy briefly. She gulps at her martini and glances over to where Karl, Harry and Richard are greeting a tall man – is he Italian? – and a girl, her hair swept up in a headscarf. The young man has a strong face; he looks older than he probably is.
‘Who’s that?’ asks Rosemary.
‘Mario Savio. Richard must have told you about him? One of the student leaders. Apparently he’s quite brilliant. Spent most of the summer down south, down in Mississippi I think? Very influenced by the civil rights movement. Karl seems to think the administration have met their match with him.’
‘Oh, they’re just the end,’ says Dorothy. ‘I mean of course you have to be careful, they’re so close to the faculty. I know Nathan’s been quite concerned about his position. It’s okay for some of the others, they’ve got tenure, but…’ Rosemary turns and looks at Richard. He appears to be drinking scotch, he is laughing. The girl Mario has come in with is talking with Richard, it looks like she too is drinking scotch. She throws back her head and laughs, curls escaping from her headscarf. She looks like the sort of girl you would find in a field of flowers. Mario – he is not drinking – leans in, says something in Richard’s ear. Rosemary turns away. What if Richard was to leave her? And why shouldn’t he? If you could have a young girl in a headscarf, a field of flowers. She sips at the soda water. Has she lost Richard? Her stomach tightens. Dorothy’s voice cuts into her thoughts.
‘You know, I considered doing my Ph.D a while back. And you know what my sister said? She said, ‘Honey, you’ve already done your Ph.D – your Putting Hubby Through!’ There is a sprinkling of laughter.
‘Dorothy, I don’t know how you did it. College, a husband…’
‘It was part time!’ Dorothy protests.
The soda water is flat and dry in Rosemary’s mouth, but she drinks it. She angles her body so she can watch the rest of the room. Karl is trying to refill Richard’s glass from a large bottle. Rosemary catches Richard’s eye just as he relents; he lets Karl fill his glass. He raises his eyebrows at her and tries a smile. Rosemary looks down at her tumbler.
‘Rosemary!’ Richard’s voice is solid against the chatter. ‘Come over here and meet Mario!’ Rosemary leaves the circle of women; they don’t seem to notice, closing in amongst themselves. ‘Mario, this is my wife Rosemary.’
He grips her hand, brown eyes looking down into hers. He doesn’t wear a tie but has on a loose shirt, a coat. He smiles, but behind the smile is worry. He needs to be somewhere else, this is just a passing frivolity.
‘Pleased to meet you. This is Suzanne.’ The flower girl, the headscarf girl, shakes Rosemary’s hand.
‘Hi.’ She has freckles, Rosemary notices, and an upturned nose. Mario puts his arm around her.
‘We probably shouldn’t stay too long.’
‘No rest for the wicked.’ Karl claps him on the back.
‘We’ll be circulating the open letter to members of the Senate tomorrow.’ Richard looks anxious.
‘Great. That’s great.’ Mario and Suzanne look at each other. ‘We’re still serious about the strike.’
‘We know. And the sit-in?’
Mario nods. ‘It’s getting horribly close. But we don’t feel we have a choice.’
Rosemary takes a gulp of her soda water, draining it to the ice cubes. Mario turns to her.
‘Good to meet you, Rosemary.’ He claps Richard on the shoulder, turns away. The tumbler is wet against Rosemary’s fingers and she needs something else. Richard touches her hand.
‘Just soda water?’ he murmurs.
‘Yes,’ said Rosemary. ‘But I’m thinking of getting a proper drink.’
‘Be careful,’ says Richard.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing. I just want you to take care, maybe you shouldn’t have a drink.’
‘Richard, I’m not feeling so good. I really need a little something.’
‘But it might make you feel worse.’
‘Do you want to go home?’
‘No.’ And leave him here, take him away? All that in front of all these wives in their pumps, his colleagues?
‘It wouldn’t be a problem.’
‘No.’ Rosemary leaves him and goes to the hallway, where she follows the sound of voices to the kitchen. Nathan is there, talking with a man Rosemary has never seen before. Why does she feel as though she’s been drinking? It’s just soda water. The kitchen smells like lemon juice and alcohol fumes and the benches are wet. The window looks onto the neighbours back fence, a tiny strip of night sky visible. Nathan is talking with another man who is drinking bourbon from a tumbler. He turns as she comes in.
‘Hello there,’ he says. She can tell he is slightly drunk, but gallantly attempting to be polite. ‘This is Earl Cheit, but call him Budd.’
Budd nods at her and puts a handful of ice cubes into his glass.
‘Were you looking for something?’
‘Just a drink. But I think I should really ask Dorothy, now I think of it.’
‘Ah now, that’s what we’re here for. You’re Richard’s wife, aren’t you?’ asks Budd.
Rosemary nods. Budd takes a step towards her, holding out his hand.
‘Well now, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Richard’s a terrific fellow.’
She takes his hand. Budd steps towards her, still holding her hand. She glances over; Nathan is busy pouring himself another drink.
‘So what were you after? A gin martini? That’s what the ladies are drinking.’
His face is close to her; she knows he doesn’t mean any harm but she can smell those dark brown fumes from his mouth, can smell them falling through the pit of her stomach, feels the blood red sofa against her back. She clenches her fingers and tries to pull away. He lets go at once, raising his eyebrows and stepping back.
‘Everything alright, Rosemary?’
‘I’m sorry, it’s awfully close in here. I need some fresh air.’
‘Sure, sure. The garden’s just out there if you like.’
‘Thank you.’ She pushes the back door open and steps outside into the warm night air. It still feels close, everything feels too close. There is a pain in her stomach, pulsing with the alcohol fumes up through her rib cage. The night air won’t go down into her lungs. Music comes through the glass windows into the garden, music and trills of laughter. There is a hard taste in her mouth. What would it be like to leave this parade of people, their talk and their drinks and their wives? The whole damn charade. She will stay for Richard, that is what she will do. Richard who has been left confused in the lounge, hoping she is drinking soda water. She looks around the garden, willing her thoughts to stay with her. Don’t go back, she tells them. A silence comes from inside the house, she can almost hear the needle of the record player falling into a fresh groove. There it is, the certain strum of a guitar and the lull of a man’s voice. She will stay here. Her heart slows. She stands and returns to the kitchen.
‘Everything alright?’ Nathan looks unconcerned.
‘Oh yes, thanks.’ She picks up her tumbler of soda water, ignores the assorted liquor bottles on the bench. She goes back to the party.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer van Beynen lives in Wellington and has recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University. This extract is from a novel-in-progress, tentatively titled In the Silence of Orchids – which, although set in California in the early 1960s, was inspired by an afternoon walk in Dunedin.