The cold dish
[ fiction - june 07 ]
Kate waited exactly where she had told him she would be. Round the corner from the Finchley tube station, down the quiet, residential street with free parking. She came prepared to wait all day. She had the radio, a book, a thermos of coffee and cheese sandwiches, knowing he would come. Would she recognise him? He would have changed his appearance as his heavy beard blurred his features in the newspapers. But he would not be able to disguise those heavy-lidded, piercing eyes. It had been many years since she'd seen him in the flesh.
She knew him instantly in the rear view mirror, standing at the corner, looking down towards the car, then away to scan the street. It was mid-afternoon, and the street deserted. The city, and this street, would be familiar to him. The homes were uniform on either side, lawns trimmed to the uniform height and uniform size. In his well-cut suit and tie-less shirt he didn't look out of place but a good citizen. He was clean shaven too, reminding her of the past. Of course, he would know she was watching him. As she adjusted the mirror, she saw him step back just as the passenger door opened suddenly and her husband jumped in. His wispy blonde hair looked electrified and his mouth was tight as a trap.
He slapped her hard and then poured out his contempt and jealousy, screaming within the closed-in car. "You're waiting for him, you bitch, I know you're waiting for him so you can fuck with that bastard." Even through watering eyes and the pain, she looked into the mirror for him and, not seeing him, was furious that her husband should upset their carefully laid plans. His fist closed to strike her again and, without any hesitation, she pressed the gun against his heart and pulled trigger. The explosion startled her, not knowing how loud it could be and looked around the quiet street expecting it to erupt with people. Her husband was slumped back in his seat and when she glanced into the mirror saw him approaching. If anyone had heard the shot, it would have been him, his ears were attuned to violent acts. He stood beside the car and guessed it was a shot to the heart, quick and clean, before he opened the door and helped her heave the body into the back.
He climbed into the passenger seat as she started the car. The imprint of the man's palm was fading from her cheek as she drove. "You don't say much," she said as she steered quickly through traffic, "but then you never did." He nodded and, knowing he was safe, fell asleep. When he woke, it was dusk and they were deep in the country, passing through a small village. The houses glowing softly. "We're in Cottingley, in the Costwolds. I'm taking you home. Is that okay?" He merely closed his eyes in agreement. "How have you been?" she asked. She turned into the drive, a long one, to a house set well back. It showed no lights, and she didn't seem bothered he hadn't answered. "We'll bury him in the rose garden. He loved roses and he'd like that. There's a pick and shovel in the tool shed at the back". Obediently, he went and found them and they took turns digging up the rose bed, the soil was soft and loamy. She took the dead man's feet, he took the shoulders. They dropped him in the grave and shovelled the earth back in. When it was done, he meticulously patted the earth flat and then helped her re-plant the roses. He couldn't tell the colour in the darkness but their smell reminded him of his homeland where roses blossomed to the size of a fist, and caressed the air with their perfume.
"Why did you marry him?" he asked when they were sitting in her gourmet kitchen, gleaming with gadgetry, all wasteful in his eyes. His taste in food was austere and simple - leavened bread, a spiced vegetable, pungent onions, enough to sustain him in the mountains. He noted, but said nothing, that she had used a key to open the front door when the kitchen one was unlocked. She poured herself a chilled Chablis but didn't offer him, as she knew he didn't touch alcohol. "I fell in love, I suppose, why else does one marry?" She had a worn beauty, like a well-rubbed coin, still revealing the profile of a queen or a princess. "He was gentle in the beginning, then he became the beast, like all men do with the passing of time. He knew you were coming and he knew I'd be waiting for you. I never stopped waiting for you, and he knew that too. He knew my password, it's her name. When I typed it in I thought of her and now when I do I am reminded of her."
"How did they kill my daughter?" He waited until she refilled her glass, the wine sending a faint blush through her cheeks.
"She was found hanging from the clothes hook on the back of the door in her room," she said in a whisper. "They said it was a suicide, young people do that in their depressions, they said, then they said it was a drugs trip. My heart broke into small pieces when I saw my dead daughter and it will remain in lost pieces until the day I die. I didn't know until then how frail is the heart, it broke like dropped china." He waited, letting her weep, without consoling her. Always patient.
He knew what she would say before she said it. "You're to blame because of who you are," she screamed at him, "they killed her knowing it was only way to hurt you but they don't know you as well as I do that you can't be hurt by your daughter's death. You feel nothing, nothing, you never did."
He waited until she stopped weeping, pouring himself a glass of water from the tap, savouring its cool sweetness, envying her only for that convenience. He had forgotten the ease of such a life, a tap, clean water, the very simplicity unavailable in his land. He drank slowly, remembering the times he had thirsted for water. Remembering too, despite his reluctance to recall the past, that she was wrong in her screamed accusation. He had felt, he had experienced, love. She had forgotten that in her anguished rage. There had been the long winter of tenderness in their lives, the winter in which she conceived the daughter who was now dead. He had felt love for her though he had not articulated his emotions. And that was his fault, love needed to be spoken out aloud, and not confined to the heart. He had not spoken it so long ago, when they were young, because he had known he would not remain in her country long. She would not survive long in his, the harshness would have killed her. When they assassinated his father he had left her, without saying goodbye, never expecting to return. Knowing he had left a part of him in her body. He had under estimated her determination to make him remember, and had sent him photographs of the daughter, wrote about her too, and sent those messages to an email address that was not in his name or even remotely connected to him, except through layers of intermediaries. From that distance, he had watched his child grow into a beautiful young woman who also wrote to him. She wanted to know her father, meet and embrace him, though she knew too, from reading the newspapers, that he was considered a dangerous man, incapable of human warmth. His replies to her long, longing letters, had been curt, dismissive of her suggestions, not knowing that rejection to a woman's heart only increased her longing. The daughter knew, despite his curtness, that she had touched him and he had read her letters, otherwise he would never have even replied. By doing so, he realised now, that even his curt replies had endangered his daughter's life. He had revealed, to those who watched for such signs, his vulnerability. If only he had kept silent.
He rose and washed the glass, letting the water run, listening to its music, and then wiped the glass clean before placing it in the rack. She was reminded that he had always been meticulous in his movement, keeping them minimalistic, never wasting energy. He had the slight stoop of a man who crouched close to the earth in his movements, which brought him down to her height, almost. He'd lost some weight but wasn't skinny, just lean and muscled and tried to imagine what kind of a haunted life he led. When he washed his hands under the running tap, she thought he was trying to wash the blood off his hands as he used the soap to scrub his hands clean, like a surgeon before an operation. The State has shaped him on the murder of his father, a man of wisdom and steadfastness of purpose against the injustices of the State, when he had been around the same age as his daughter. Of course, his hands would never be cleansed. When she had known him long ago, he had not killed anyone, and was just an innocent boy she had fallen in love with. A solemn young man, yet with a wry sense of humour, and honeyed skin she loved to caress. That skin looked coarser, tiny scars criss-crossing the backs of those cleansed hands, and his eyes no longer held any humour. She could not see any laugh lines.
She broke the silence to distract him from listening to distant sounds. "Isobel insisted on using your name, you know, insisted, even though she had never set eyes on you and knew you only through my bitterness. I wanted her to keep my husband's surname. He had adopted her, but when she reached eighteen, she dropped his name and changed to yours. And then she converted, without even telling me. You had no right to her life, and she lived only another 18 months with your name."
He nodded, "Yes she told me that she had and I advised her, strongly, not to. It would mark her out even more. She was reckless?"
She heard beyond the question he had asked, for the first time showing some curiosity. "Isobel was brave and she was beautiful and clever; she danced and sang and laughed with abandon. She was so alive, unlike other girls her age who walk and talk as if they're dead, and she had a halo of friends who surrounded her wherever she went. She couldn't, wouldn't, commit suicide, not hanging herself from a hook on the back of her bedroom door. The coroner said she had, no matter how much I insisted the authorities murdered her because of her father. The coroner was one of those kindly looking men with metal hearts. He said I was mad with grief, as she was my old child, and I was fantasising such conspiracies. The authorities were kindly people too, he had said, they lived by the law and would not, could not, murder an innocent child for sake of punishing her father. It wasn't done by the State which upheld high moral codes, respected human rights and practised democracy. It was men like her father who murdered the innocent, that's what he told me in front of everyone. I begged him to order an autopsy but he said it was unnecessary, she had committed suicide. The Investigator,' and here she used two fingers of both hands to place that word in quotation marks, "sat in the front row, and he too looked at me with kindness and sympathy, as if understanding my unremitting pain. The Investigator was the one who broke the news of my daughter's death to me. He came to the house early Sunday morning with his mourning face to tell me that there had been an accident, that my daughter had hung herself from the hook on the back of her bedroom door. I didn't believe him, she had called me the evening before. She called every evening, and told me she was going to a party with her friends as she had finished her assignments. In that way she was disciplined too, she wouldn't party until her work was completed."
He listened without any movement, wishing he had met his daughter. She had wanted to meet him when she changed her name and religion but he had coldly discouraged her. Another curt: No.
"You married when you went home, didn't you? Did you fall in love?" And when he shook his head, just once, she continued: "How many children?"
"Three, two boys and a girl." He paused, not wanting to continue but he did in spite of his reticence. "They were killed by a missile at home, even though I was very distant from them. It was the rumour I was there that killed them."
In the silence she wondered whether he had mourned that loss, and poured herself the third glass of wine, giving herself the false courage to continue with the evening.
"You've come to revenge my daughter's death, haven't you? That's what you promised. Who else can do what you do so well?"
"No," he said, "revenge against the State is futile. As she has my name and belongs to my religion she must lie in the graveyard in my home. She will lie beside my family, my father and my mother. My brothers too lie there. You had written you would allow me to move her. Where is she now?"
"In return I wanted revenge. So we both lied." Then Kate had to laugh out aloud at his audacity, though she knew the dangers of her contempt. "She's buried in the land of her birth, in the village graveyard. She was my altar when she was alive, now her grave's my daily pilgrimage. She will remain here. Who would she know in the graveyard of your ancestors? She didn't even know your language and I will not allow her to lie among such strangers. Please, I beg you, allow me that."
He heard no pleading note in her voice. It was more mocking. He felt no remorse when he knew that, because of her defiance, he would have to kill this woman he had loved. His daughter had to lie in the family graveyard, even as one day he too would be buried there.
Despite their years apart, she still knew how he thought and waited for them to come for him. They were near, just beyond the door. They both waited as he had been listening to the silence and knew it had been disturbed and seeing her look knew they were here. He had risked his life for the body of his daughter even though he knew it was a trap.
"You told them?" he said.
"Yes, I told the Investigator you would come for her."
"What did he promise you for me?"
"Nothing. I wanted you take your revenge but you won't will you?"
"No, I told you that." He still had the gun in his waistband; it felt so heavy, dragging him down. The men who helped him enter the country on his new passport, with a false name and in the photograph clean-shaven and so youthful, had given him the gun. They were from his land, but exiles who claimed to support the cause, and were overly deferential to him. You are our hero, they said in unison, and bowed in unison, expecting him to be swayed by such flattery. They promised to take him and his daughter's body to the homeland.
The Investigator came through the back door, not quickly, cautiously, and two armed men, who remained in the shadows, followed him. Though he was of medium height with that bland, non-committal face, he stood facing them both with all the authority of his State. "Give me your weapon," he said quietly, and accepted the gun slid across the polished table. He picked it up, hefted it, and then sat down. He had a gentle voice, listening calmed the spirit of the listener. "I've waited many years for us to meet. Patience pays off."
"You killed my daughter?"
"It was unfortunate but how else could I reach you so well hidden away in your land. Like a serpent in its hole, I had to tempt you out, somehow. You are too famous and protected in your land. I know your culture and your traditions, you couldn't allow her to remain here. It was my persistence. I did not know you had a daughter here until she changed her name and it came up on our computers. I traced you back to the days when she was conceived, and read your communications with her. Even though your responses were brief, I knew she had touched you. Otherwise you would never have exposed yourself."
He sat very still facing the Investigator, and Kate knew the men would kill him as soon as they could. He knew that too. She saw, for the first time, that he was tired, not so much physically but his interior was worn away. He glanced at her, and she caught the tiny glint of admiration in his eyes.
The Investigator turned to Kate and said: "Give me the gun with which you killed your husband. There'll be no charges as this man committed that murder."
"I tossed it in the river when I crossed the bridge on the drive back here," she said. "Isn't that what they do in the movies, get rid of the of the murder weapon? And there are only the three of you? He's a dangerous man, as you yourself said."
"Three are more than enough."
When he turned to one of his men, she opened her purse which lay on the table. She took out the gun with which she had killed her husband, and killed the Investigator and then his two companions.
"I believe in revenge," she said in the silence that followed the explosions. "I wanted him here alone, I wanted to hear him boast about my daughter's murder. I knew he would come himself so he could boast about catching and killing you."
He reached over and took the gun. Carefully, he wiped it clean of her finger prints and then gripped the weapon in his hand, pressing down firmly on both the butt and the barrel, then placed it back on the table between them. He smiled, reminding her of that youth, and she felt it gentle as a goodbye kiss. He rose, picked up his own weapon, tucked it into his waist band and walked through the door. She thought of offering him a lift but knew he would find the way back to his own land.