La Belle Dame sans Merci
Living at number 16 Evelyn Mews, Matilda often thought, was like living in a poem. Number 16 was a townhouse of bright whitewashed brick with black shutters and a glossy black roof. The slender chimneys were black too, as was the lamppost that watched over Matilda at night, bending its glowing head through the trees. In the morning the sparrows twittered in the leaves and the sun shone in pools in the shallow gutters.
Matilda had moved into Evelyn Mews when her sublet began three months ago. Since then she had adopted certain habits. She took to wearing gloves to work, taper-fingered black kidskin. At breakfast she poured her milk from a curved china jug instead of the bare carton. At bedtime, she read the poetry of John Keats, occasionally glancing at the sliver of moon through her curtain. She loved these Romantic whisperings from a bygone time--the zephyrs and nightingales and Grecian urns. She delighted in the smell of the splendid leather-bound volume with its slender red ribbon to mark her favorite passages. Matilda copied out each with the utmost care, guiding her marbled fountain pen across a creamy new sheet of stationery. She enjoyed rereading Keats’s words in her lovely calligraphic script, and she found it exciting, even uncanny, how well the poet understood her.
Matilda had altered certain mannerisms, too. No longer did she show her teeth when she smiled, bold white teeth that used to gleam atop a flame red underlip. She had mastered a closemouthed smile, which involved pursing her lips, coaxing forth dimples; the smile was accompanied with a light lift of the eyebrows and a mirthful narrowing of the eyes. As for the lipstick she’d worn in Chelsea, she’d done away with it the day she’d moved. Razzle-Dazzle, it was called.
“All the lovely people / who live in Evelyn Mews,” she thought to herself as she slid back the lacy grid of the elevator with a black-gloved hand. Slowly she began to descend, as if down a great iron vine. A verse would describe each tenant. On the top two floors, the Lester sisters, tending their greenhouse with the passion of spinsters. Mr. and Mrs. McCauley on the first floor, aging and pensive with their books and clocks. Herself, dark and lively, on the third. On the second, Mr. Barrett with his frank, gentle face, boyish despite the thinning hair.
She often met Mr. Barrett in the elevator on her way to work. He carried an alligator-skin briefcase with a dull brass buckle; he was probably a lawyer or a financier. Matilda looked forward to the meetings. There were women who wouldn’t notice how attractive he was, for Mr. Barrett wore no pomade or cologne, no broad, flashy ties. But Matilda was more perceptive, her tastes more refined. She admired Mr.
Barrett’s suits with their well-cut shoulders and sleeves; he wore them so casually, a mark of good breeding. He had a cleft in his chin and clean, hairless hands, the kind that would caress a woman gently, as if she were made of glass. Matilda loved his mellow voice--it reminded her of syrup--and the soft, light way he pronounced his consonants. They gave her goose bumps sometimes, especially the Ss and Ts.
And Mr. Barrett was so courteous to her. He would be hurrying out too, but he always had a friendly word, asking how she was getting along in her new apartment or commenting on the smell of rain in the air. Matilda would give a soft, rapturous reply and smile her new smile. When Mr. Barrett smiled back, his eyes were very blue, but Matilda noticed the fine lines that gathered beneath them, etched there by some unspoken melancholy. Melancholy about his wife, perhaps--Mrs.
Barrett, who would have to be included in the poem.
Mrs. Barrett was what Adelaide, Matilda’s Chelsea flatmate, would have called a well-kept woman. She did not work, so Matilda saw her only rarely, stepping swiftly into the elevator before striding off for an appointment with a friend, hairdresser, florist; Matilda could only guess. But these brief brushes of contact always chilled Matilda somehow, made her breasts feel floppy, her hair unkempt.
Mrs. Barrett was tall and very thin and she favored a dark angular coat tied at the waist. Her faced was high-boned with consumptive cheeks, apple-red spots on papery white. Lavender veins crept around her eyes. Her long, lean hands were unadorned except for a wedding band and a diamond solitaire together on her fourth finger. Once Matilda saw her at the market, graceful in wool, a string bag hanging from her shoulder. There was a nervous fragility about her ass she selected tomatoes and feathery lettuces, scrutinizing the leaves for bruises or browning. She fingered persimmons, saucer-shaped cheeses, a blue and white package of flour. Her wide gray eyes were oddly static amidst the flurry of movvvvvement, her expression rigid. Fear--at that moment Matilda recognized it. Fear gnawing at Mrs. Barrett, gently but steadily, from within.
The Fox-in-the-Hole Opera Company, with its contemporary adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, was quite the rage. Their Mikado was presented entirely in blue and gold--both the costumes and the minimal geometric sets--with choreography suggestive of No drama. Iolanthe was staged in the seventies, a satire on feminism with the chorus of liberated fairies challenging the chorus of sexist lords. Deirdre Barrett was well aware that her husband had pulled more than a few strings to obtain tickets to tonight’s opening of Patience, advertised to “bring Gilbert and Sullivan out of the closet.” She had her suit dry-cleaned for the occasion, a long skirt of olive silk with a cropped jacket, worn with pearls. She sprayed her short hair into a stiff roll at the back of her head and touched her lips with gloss. She looked in the mirror and felt elated, romantic.
The night was clear, with a full moon and even a few stars visible, unusual for the city. Deirdre missed the stars she used to see back in Staffordshire.
She wanted to walk to the theater, despite the cold weather. Maybe Roland would be game to bundle up and breathe out streams of frost along the way.
But when Deirdre saw him pacing in the vestibule, she was struck silent. For a moment she hadn’t quite recognized him, as if he’d changed during some absence. His build, maybe--had he grown slighter? And when had his skin acquired the sheen of a middle-aged man--over the nostrils, the bumps of the forehead? It wasn’t until Deirdre had fastened her seat belt that she remembered about the walking. Not that she would bring it up now.
Throughout Patience, she watched his feet. They too seemed different. Each time a song was performed they started a light tapping.
They appeared detached from his body, foolish and mechanical. Tap tap tap as Bunthorne gallivanted about the stage with a lily. Tap tap tap as Patience and Grovesnor moaned “willow waly, O!” into each other’s eyes.
“Quite daring, I thought,” Roland commented as he drove home. “Bunthorne openly gay, yet with his harem of girls. Quite an acrobat, too. Not much of a singing voice, but it hardly mattered.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Weren’t you in some G and S company in college?” he asked when his wife remained silent.
Deirdre was listening to the cars on the road. There was something calming about the eddies of traffic, all spilling in the same direction. She and Roland were safe for now, surrounded on all sides by cars that flowed together at the same pace.
Back at home, things would be less settled. Their return would occur as an abrupt series of halts. The chill of inevitability as Roland’s key probed the lock, jagge...