All entries for Monday 15 September 2008

September 15, 2008

The Innocence of Serpents

Ralph, with the conscious grin of a ‘worldly man’, likes to bring up during family gatherings the fact that Fiona’s innocence had attracted him to her from the very beginning.

        “She had no idea how to use a computer,” he says, “and she never read the newspapers. I thought, this is something different.”

        Her brother-in-laws chuckle at this, and her sisters perceive him consequently as the voice of experience, as if he is somehow a polar opposite to her ‘unworldliness’; an image which suits his powerful shoulders and his red beard. She’s never been able to understand the beard. Its shape lies somewhere between a fashionable goatee and the heavier trawlerman’s fuzz; she often finds herself tracing its contours late at night, a gesture he seems to take as sexual approval.

        “Tell me, Ralph,” her older sister purrs. “What do you and Fiona think about getting another car? William won’t hear of it, because of the environment, but I…”

        The third or fourth time this occurs, Fiona realises with a thick shudder just how good Ralph is at handling people; both parties end their debate with the sense that he’s definitely on their side, but that, as a result of an unfortunate technicality, a compromise is be the most sensible option- and, in fact, he expects no less from them. Her sisters, in Ralph’s absence, always turn the conversation back to him, with shared glances as if they somehow have access to him in a sense that she, Fiona, does not.

        When they move in together, she takes the instinctive move of cultivating her innocence, in the certain knowledge that he finds it attractive in her: she stops watching the news altogether and cuts down on her lunches in town with Mimi.

Ralph dislikes Mimi, who is so well-informed that she always seems to know more about the latest scandal or violent outrage than the actual reporters or authorities involved.

        “Did you hear about the hoodies down

Chiswick Lane?” she asks once over their salads.

        Fiona remembers vaguely having seen a group of overweight young men lounging about by the road sign a few mornings ago. Mimi’s eyes bulge.

        “My dear,” she exclaims, “last night they stabbed a young Indian man to death in the suburbs. To death!”

        Fiona takes a mouthful of salad.

        “Weren’t you frightened?” Mimi asks.

        Fiona isn’t certain. She may have been worried that they’d look at her as she passed. From an early age, she’s always blushed beneath the stares of men.

        “I wish I was more like you,” Mimi replies with a gaze of infinite wisdom. “You’re so much better off than I am, being so innocent.”

        Fiona breaks off their next lunch, and Mimi appears early the next morning, peering through the windows and shouting,

        “Yoo-hoo! I thought you might be feeling down!” while clutching a posy of forecourt lilies and a small jar of tablets which, she informs Fiona, always lift her up while she’s suffering from depression. This infuriates Ralph so much that he spends the entire day in his craft workshop, and the next week Fiona meets Mimi for lunch in a new restaurant on the other side of town,

        The craft workshop consists of the basement, or ‘cellar’ as Ralph keeps referring to it, insisting that the space is far from the vulgarity of the American term. This room, it is continually made clear to Fiona, is out of bounds.

        “A man needs his space,” Ralph says helplessly on the day she moves in, as if he has no choice but to obey this well-known law of the sexes.

        That Ralph is a creative type she has no doubt. He seems to like to observe the world all around him, and he takes great pleasure in strolling through the town centre, swinging their carrier bags like bolas on the ends of his great meaty arms. Her pleasure lies in watching Ralph, his scarlet cheeks a pure contrast to the tepid grey streets, and thinking,

This is mine, above all of this.

But the fact remains that she hasn’t seen a table, or even a bookshelf, emerge from the workshop, and, as she points out one evening, a little handcrafted furniture would be more pleasant to use than the heavy, built-to-order stuff he got when he bought the place.

        “I’m working on a project,” he explains. “You don’t want to see it before it’s completed, do you? You wouldn’t want to see your baby before it’d grown its arms and legs and things.”

        It’s the first time he’s mentioned children to her, and she wishes immediately that he’d spoken with more elegance.

       

        “They’d been missing for a week before a hiker found them,” Mimi says, adding with a touch of reproval, “But you’d have known that already if we saw each other more often.”

        Fiona orders the salmon.

        “I could always tell that gang were up to no good. And now this proves it! Stabbed to death, all four of them! Placed in a bath of quicklime! Oh…just salad, thank you, I have a date later.”

        The youths’ skeletal remains, Mimi explains, were found dumped by the embankment; the place with all the graffiti.

        “A rival gang,” she says triumphantly. “That’s what the police are thinking. A territorial dispute - like animals, you see. Every street, every borough that we see, they all have secret lines drawn from each to each. They say, ‘this is mine: trespass at your peril.’”

        Fiona wonders aloud how a gang of teenagers would know how to dispose of the bodies in a bath of quicklime. Mimi raises her eyebrows.

        “These aren’t children,” she says. “That’s what you have to remember, Fiona. They’re clued-in. I worry about you at night, because you stroll about without knowing about all the terrible things out there. Or even wanting to know. There’s something funny about that.”

        She hesitates before asking Ralph if he considers her naïve. He gazes up at her (and tonight his beard makes her think of a Victorian detective) for a few moments in silence.

        “You’re different,” he says at last. “You’re not like the others. And remember, that’s what first attracted me to you.”

        He must have sensed her immediate dissatisfaction with this, because he adds,

        “I mean, these days society centres around the opposite of innocence, whatever that is. You’re on the outskirts of that, you’re to some extent disengaged. But that makes you disillusioned in a way that none of them are. Like…you know…these kids, hanging around on street corners, girls throwing up in gutters…it’s not nice.”

        She asks him if he knew about the youths’ murders.

        “Yeah,” he replies, uncomfortably. “I read it in the papers. But the point, darling, is that everybody wishes they were more like you. I know I do. But I have to protect you from all this, so I have to know about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t wish I was more…”

        Innocent, she thinks.

        She wakes before dawn and is disturbed by a vision of Ralph, moving silently through the dark.

        In the morning, over their egg and toast, he asks her, like someone trying to figure out a complicated problem,

        “What is the opposite of innocence?”

        She suggests guilt.

        “Three hen nighters,” Mimi says. “Just…you know…white trash sorts, unpleasant women, probably too drunk to stand. The last the bouncers saw of them was at three a.m. They think it was a gang of youths.”

        Fiona points out that the gang of youths have already been stabbed to death and bathed in quicklime.

        “This is a different gang of youths,” Mimi snaps. “They’re like wasps; there are always more to fill the place of others in the hive. You understand?”

        Fiona falls silent.

        She walks home through Chiswick Lane. A group of hooded children stand lurking on the kerbside corner; their eyes drift up to meet her. She thinks of Ralph, the elixir, the opposing force to all of this decay, and strides forward.

        She finds him washing his hands in the kitchen sink. He jolts up like a schoolboy caught with a dirty magazine.

        “What’s that on your hands?” she asks.

        He glances down and seems to flinch at the sight of the seeping liquid.

        “Blood,” he says. “I cut myself on my lathe.” She does not move. He adds,

        “Please...go into the living room. I don’t like you to see me injured. It makes me feel…well…less heroic somehow.” His face, half-concealed, she realises now, beneath his beard, is twitching.

        “Where’s the cut?” she asks.

        “Palm,” he says, and wraps his hand in the nearby dishcloth. “It’s not as deep as it looks. It’ll heal.”

        She sits, quietly, at the kitchen table.

        “Are you all right?” he asks her, all concern.

        “Some women were killed in the town centre,” she says. “It just…oh, God…I don’t know how these things can happen.”

        “Mimi again?”

        She nods. His great body seems to tense. He shakes his head.

        “You shouldn’t see her. She panics you- it’s not healthy. Just because she likes to take an interest in all the horrible things that go on…well, it doesn’t mean she should.”

        “You’d better go,” she says, “and clean the blood off the saw as well.”

        “Lathe,” he replies, standing still by the sink. “It was the lathe I cut myself on.”

He goes. She counts the five, six, seven thumps down the stairs and into the craft workshop.  

        He wears the rag across his hand at breakfast, and the day after. He grimaces whenever he takes something up in it.

        Mimi does not come to lunch the following Wednesday. Her mobile refuses to pick up.

        She walks home from the restaurant. Ralph’s van is absent from the driveway. She unlocks the front door and stands, still, for a moment in the kitchen.

        Then she goes into the hallway and treads the seven steps down to the craft workshop. The door hangs ajar, as if inviting her to enter.

        And in front of the door, a tiny wrapped package. The card, addressed to her, reads,

        That together two broken halves may be a whole. That you will allow me to continue protecting you from all of this.

        He knew I’d come down this far, she thinks.

        Inside, a shining ring.

        She shuts the workshop door and treads gently back up the seven steps.

        Their lawn is a shining mass of green. She only notices now how dull and brown their neighbours’ gardens are, as if theirs is blessed with some special fertility.

        So much greater, she thinks, and falls to her knees. If it’s a choice between the world and him

       

        Swelling tears tremble and streak across her cheeks. Mimi was a fool, she thinks, not to understand the real virtue of her innocence.

        “Young lady!” She looks up. An elderly woman, buried in a scarf and raincoat, is watching her from the pavement.

        “Are you quite all right?” she asks, with suspicion rather than concern.

        “Yes,” Fiona replies, sobbing and laughing at the same time, “I’m all right. Thank God, I’m quite all right.”


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  • This is really good Jon. Nice understatement that subtly builds to an excellent final sentence. by on this entry
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