Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, holds a Master’s in Biology and lives in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of three novels and four short-story collections and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Active Muse, Ariel Chart, Better Than Starbucks, Bright Flash Fiction Review, Clover and White, CommuterLit, Corner Bar Magazine, Fleas on the Dog, Ink Pantry, Literally Stories, The Literary Hatchet, Lunate Fiction, The Scarlet Leaf Review and elsewhere.
A Home in the Country
Claire watched the movers wheel her upright piano into the room with the ornate fireplace. She stood by the fireplace and twined her fingers together. Her lips trembled and a muscle twitched on the left side of her neck. One of the movers, the older of the two men, thought she might start crying. He had seen these kinds of moves before and suspected this marriage would not last. Claire looked at Lionel, her husband. “Do you think we did the proper thing?”
“Of course,” said Lionel, rising on his toes and spreading his arms wide. “Look at this house! It is magnificent, and there are no neighbors for miles around. It is a wonderful place to live, and not at all like London. I shall love it here.” He smiled at her from across the room.
“We are so far from everything,” she protested. “I don’t know.” Her voice trailed away.
“That’s the last of it, Mr. Emerson.” The older mover approached Lionel and handed him a sheet of paper and a pen. “On the bottom where it says signature, then we’ll be on our way.” Lionel signed with a flourish and returned the pen and paper.
“Thank you very much,” said Lionel, shaking the mover’s hand. The mover thought they might receive a generous tip for an efficient and careful move, but once he sensed none was forthcoming he moved off.
The older mover turned toward Claire. “If there is nothing more, Mrs. Emerson, we will be out of your way.” He nodded his head and the second mover raised his hand in a goodbye gesture.
“Yes, of course. Thank you ever so much,” said Claire. The despair flickering across her face made the older mover wince.
“Good luck, Mrs. Emerson,” the older man called over his shoulder as they left the house.
Claire listened to the engine start, the sound of the tires crunching over the gravel as the moving van drove away. She turned toward her husband. “What do we do now, Lionel?”
“Why, we have some tea, of course. Be a good girl now and make a pot, won’t you?” He smiled, happy with their circumstances. “And you can start putting your kitchen to rights as well. That will give you something to do.”
Claire stared at him for a moment then went into the kitchen.
Lionel clasped his hands together, looked about the room and said, “Lovely, just lovely.” He walked to the kitchen door and said to Claire’s back, “I’m going to look at my garden. Bring the tea and some biscuits out to the terrace when you have them to hand.”
Lionel opened the French doors and walked onto the flagstone terrace. The early afternoon, warm and sunny, buoyed his spirits even more. He took in the grounds, overgrown with weeds and bushes “Oh, yes,” he gloated, rubbing his hands together.
He stepped off the terrace and walked into the garden. The sun was warm on his back. He felt a surge of excitement pulse through him. He ran his fingers over the leaves of the shrubs as he walked by them. He pulled a leaf off, crumpled it in the palm of his hand and sniffed the sharp fragrance it emitted. He dropped it, brushed his hands free of the small pieces that clung to his skin. The fragrance lingered in his nose and the sun felt warm on his back.
Several apple trees had grown unruly and wild in the back of the garden. He knew he could shape them just as he had shaped Claire. It would take time and be more difficult than it had been bringing Claire to heel, but it could be done.
Lionel found it easy to impose his will on others. That’s what successful bankers did. They imposed their will and were paid handsomely in return. He imagined apple trees to be no different than people, than Claire, when it came to the question of who was in charge.
He was well on his way to success when he first saw Claire, a shy and ordinary-looking clerk toiling away in obscurity in one of his bank’s branch offices. It wasn’t that she was plain looking; she was quite good looking in a peasant sort of way but she made no effort to let her beauty shine through the dowdy exterior she maintained. Lionel knew this plain-looking girl would not have the inner resources to resist him.
Flattered by the attention of a wealthy man obviously bound for the highest levels of the banking world, Claire had been easy pickings, and equally easy to mold into what he wanted her to be, a woman who considered his comforts and interests before taking care of her own.
Lionel wanted Claire to look presentable, of course, as befitting the obedient wife of a successful banker, but he didn’t want her so radiant that she attracted other men, men who were competitive with him and would delight in bedding his wife.
The age difference had been an advantage, too. Claire, a naïve twenty-two-year old virgin, was in awe of a cultured and assertive man twenty years her senior. She could not believe that she had caught the attention of such a handsome man.
Immediately after they were married Claire had to quit her job and concentrate on Lionel and his relentless drive to the top. Her life revolved around him. She folded into a gray that became her life, doing research on this or that banker, ferreting out dirt and information that Lionel used to force his way to the top bracket of power and money in the banking world. The financial reports and proposals that Lionel presented to his Board or to other influential bigwigs were the creations of Claire, but his name, not Claire’s, was on the front cover of every one of them.
As the dutiful wife, Claire accompanied Lionel when he attended banquets, but he never permitted her to voice an opinion. “Wives are to be looked at by the others, not listened to,” he told her on every outing or dinner they attended. “The financial world belongs to men, not women.”
Now, twenty-six years later, she still bent to Lionel’s will and put his wishes before her own. Such was life, she supposed, but at 48 she wanted more than isolation in a 16-room country mansion with an aging, self-centered husband as her only company.
Lionel paused on his tour of the garden when he heard Claire call. He rounded the corner of the house and stepped onto the terrace. “Isn’t this wonderful, Claire? What a sterling day to complete the move into our new home. What a magnificent home it is going to be. I shall be so happy here,” he said, sitting down at the table Claire had put in the middle of the terrace.
“Yes, Lionel, you shall be so happy here,” murmured Claire, putting a tray on the table. She poured his tea, placed sandwiches and three butter biscuits on a plate, and dropped two sugar cubes into his cup. She poured a cup for herself and nibbled on a butter biscuit.
“Just look at this garden, Claire. Just look at it, will you? Why, it will take me months, perhaps years, to bring it round to a proper showing. I have my work cut out for me, you can be sure of that. No more London brick for me.”
He took a bite of sandwich, washed it down with a swallow of tea and smacked his lips. “It will be very dear, oh, yes, but I have all the money in the world. Expense is unimportant, a trivial matter, really.”
“Yes, Lionel, I know we have money, but do you think...” her voice trailed away and she fell silent. Lionel watched her, slightly amused by her fumbling attempt to ask a question.
“Do I think what?” He slurped more tea.
Claire kept her eyes on the table, refusing to look at him. “Do you think we might do something we have never done before? Perhaps take a trip?” She looked up and smiled shyly at him.
“We have done something we have never done before. I bought this wonderful manor house. For us, Claire,” he added quickly.
“I mean a trip, Lionel. I should like to take a trip somewhere exotic, someplace tropical where the sun is hot.”
“And where would that be?” he asked, peering at her over the rim of his teacup.
“Oh, I should like a trip to the Caribbean, to Aruba, perhaps, where the sun is hot and we can lie on the warm sand and swim in the ocean and see what a coral reef might look like.”
“Oh, pshaw, Claire. Why would we do that when we can go to Brighton anytime we wish?” He waved his hand in the air as if to brush aside her suggestion. “Right here in this manor house you have everything you need, your piano and your books, your needlework. Besides, you never displayed a passion for anything, as far as I can remember.”
“Oh, Lionel, that’s not…”
He interrupted her and said, “You never expressed any interest in travel. Brighton seems to have been your limit. You were always the stay-at-home type with very little interest in anything.” He snatched a butter biscuit from the plate.
Claire felt her stomach flutter. “Lionel, you know that is not true. Every time I got interested in something, in an activity or in a social group, or even a position in a shop, something about your career always needed my attention. It is rather strange, now that I think about it. Every time I found something I enjoyed and wanted to pursue, a crisis with your career always came up. I had to give you all my attention and efforts. Your career demanded as much of my time as it did your time.”
Lionel put down his cup and looked at her. “Now see here, Claire, that can’t possibly be true. Even if it were true, just look where all that effort has brought me.” His tone was brisk, commanding, a tone he used frequently with Claire when she tried to assert herself.
“I never had a career, Lionel. Her voice, soft and gentle, wafted across the gap between them. “I only had yours.”
“Come now, Claire, don’t be a wet weekend. You will find plenty to do. Just you wait.” He pushed his chair away from the table and stood. “Let’s look in on our neighbors,” he said, nodding his head toward the cemetery in the churchyard adjacent to their property. “We’ll take a tour, introduce ourselves to the neighbors, get to know who they are.”
They climbed over the low dry-stone wall separating the two properties and entered the cemetery. “The Second Earl of Rochester is buried someplace in this cemetery,” said Lionel. “Died in 1680, from venereal disease. A thoroughly nasty chap.”
They wandered among the gravestones, stopping briefly now and then to read an inscription or study engravings of angels and winged cherubim. Large oak trees shaded the cemetery. The newly mown grass was thick and green. Shafts of sun sliced between the leaves and dappled the gravestones with bright circles of light.
“It is so peaceful here,” said Claire. “So quiet and calm. Like a garden, really.”
“Well, you wouldn’t expect a lot of conversation in a place like this, now would you?” Lionel chuckled at his witticism.
“Now look at this damned rogue,” Lionel cried with delight. He stood by a gravestone some distance away. “Claire, you must have a look at this. Come, come,” he ordered when Claire did not move. He waited for her to come to him. “It’s a poem, and quite a clever one at that. I shall read it out loud.”
Here Lies John Nately Spakes
1620 – 1644
A damned highwayman was he
Hanged by the neck
From a stout oak tree
Never again to rob
Either thee or me.
“Don’t you think that’s quaint, Claire?” A grin spread across his face.
“No, I think it is rather sad.”
“Sad? Not at all. He got what was coming to him, robbing people of their wealth, ruining their lives. Good God, Claire, he may even have committed murder. Damned scoundrel,” Lionel muttered, passing final judgment.
Claire reached out and touched the curved top of the stone. Quickly she pulled her hand away. The stone was hot. She expected it to be cool, even cold.
Lionel noticed the startled expression on her face. “What is it? What is the matter?”
“The stone,” Claire whispered. “It’s hot.”
“Nonsense.” Lionel put his hand on the stone. “As cold as the grave.” He laughed, pleased with his little joke.
“Lionel, the stone is hot. I felt it.”
“Now don’t be stupid, Claire. Perhaps you put your hand on a spot warmed by the sun.”
Claire shook her head in denial but said nothing more.
“Damned rogue,” he said again, kicking the stone.
“Lionel, those were dreadful times. Poor people were nothing to the rich and powerful. Maybe he did what he had to do to survive.”
They climbed back over the dry-stone wall to their property. “Well, that was interesting. I must get back to my garden. I’m going to see to the tool shed. Be a good girl and fetch us some dinner. Call me when it’s ready.” He turned away.
“You should not have mocked him, Lionel,” Claire said as he walked away.
Nonsense, thought Lionel, stunned by her rebuke. People did what they wanted to do. After all, that is exactly what he did, and he fancied himself no different than anyone else. Of course, he did have a knack for making money, for getting the upper hand in his banking transactions. To Lionel, it was how a successful, hard-driving banker performed. Many of his competitors complained his banking practices were little better than banditry. He scoffed at them, derided their financial abilities. Lionel never had trouble sleeping at night even if some of his decisions ruined lives.
Claire collected the dishes and went into the kitchen, washed them and put them away. She stood at the kitchen sink looking out the window at farmland stretching into the distance. The land was empty. The emptiness frightened her. The silent emptiness of the house frightened her. She felt the emptiness move into her, settle into her bones.
They ate dinner quietly, neither sharing their thoughts. Only the clink of silverware against porcelain made any noise in the still air.
“And I should like my own car,” said Claire, breaking the brittle silence.
“Your own car?” Whatever for? You scarcely know how to drive and you have no license. You can’t possibly have your own car.” Lionel gazed at her, clearly astonished by her request.
“I will take lessons. I will learn.”
“Claire, what has got into you? You want to take an exotic trip and now you demand a car.” Lionel peered at her as if he might be studying some grotesque insect gnawing the life out of one of his apple trees. “I say, are you ill?”
“Nothing has got into me, Lionel. I should like to have a life of my own and I do not think that is too much to ask.”
“Of course, it is not too much to ask, and you will certainly have your own life, right here,” he said soothingly. “This is where we belong, Claire. Both of us. Right here.” Lionel gulped the last of his wine, burped slightly and pushed back from the table.
“I will be on the terrace,” he said, dismissing Claire and their conversation.
Claire cleared the table while Lionel poured himself a generous portion of single malt and carried it to the table on the terrace. He sipped the amber liquid, savoring the warm smoky taste of it as it rolled over his tongue. He felt pleased. Yes, pleased was the precise word to describe how he felt.
He swallowed the last of the scotch and left the glass on the table. Claire would see to it in the morning.
He turned off the lights and stood at the bottom of the stairs. Surrounded by darkness and silence, he felt a moment of unease. In the dark it did seem a very large and empty house.
The stairs complained under his considerable weight as he climbed them. Claire, sitting at her dressing table, ignored Lionel. He went into the bathroom and Claire heard the shower. A few minutes later Lionel, wearing silk pajamas, came out of the bathroom and got into bed. Lying on his back he said, “What a marvelous day,” then rolled onto his side, switched off the bedside lamp and went to sleep.
Claire finished brushing her hair and got into bed. She switched off her light and for the first time in their marriage made no effort to kiss Lionel and wish him good night.
Lionel drank the last of his orange juice and got up from the table. “Today I become master of my garden,” he announced. “I suppose you have your work cut out for you as well.”
“What work would that be?” Claire said, looking up at him.
“Why, cleaning this house for starters and putting everything to rights.” He slapped both hands against his belly. “I’m off,” he stated, and walked away, not waiting to hear Claire’s reply.
Claire cleared the dishes, washed them and put them away. From the terrace she could look across the garden to the church and its cemetery. Morning sunlight shafted through the oak trees and dappled the gravestones. She left the house and climbed over the dry-stone wall and walked to John Nately Spakes’s grave.
She placed both hands on the stone. Immediately heat began to flow. She felt faint, pulled her hands away and sank to the grass. Again, she placed a hand on the flat surface of the stone and felt the heat flowing into her. Her eyes closed and she sat perfectly still, encased in a peace she had not felt in many years.
Claire’s eyes snapped open and she looked at her watch. “Lionel will be wanting his lunch. I must go.” She rose and hurried home.
“Well, I see lunch is late,” said Lionel. He sat on the terraced and looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes late, in fact. You know I always eat precisely at twelve o’clock. I have my day programed, you know. Rigid routine leads to success. You should learn that, Claire.”
Claire served up his lunch and poured his tea, adding the two cubes of sugar to the cup. Then she served herself.
“I see you were in the cemetery. What were you doing?” He bit into his sandwich.
“Just sitting. It is so peaceful there.”
“I should think so. There is nothing to make a disturbance, unless it is the National Heritage man mowing the grass.” Lionel turned to his lunch and ignored Claire.
After lunch Claire climbed over the stone wall and walked to John Nately Spakes’ grave. She sat on the grass and leaned against the stone. The familiar warmth flooded over her and she closed her eyes, unaware of the passing time.
With a start she jerked her head upright and struggled to her feet. “Oh, dear, I’m late for tea. Lionel will be furious.” She placed a hand on the gravestone, turned to go but stopped. “You are quite right, John. I really don’t care.”
Lionel waited for her, sitting at the terrace table and drumming his fingers. “Now see here, Claire. You are late again. This has got to stop, I tell you. I want my afternoon tea at three, not before, not after. You will not be late again. Do I make myself clear?”
She looked him in the eyes. “Yes, Lionel, you have made yourself quite clear. And you can be sure I will not be late with your tea ever again.”
A few minutes later Claire placed a tray laden with tea, sandwiches, butter biscuits and mints on the table. As usual she served Lionel before serving herself.
“What progress have you made putting the house to rights?” He bit into a sandwich.
“I haven’t done anything in the house. The boxes are still where the movers put them.”
“What do you mean, you haven’t done anything? What have you been doing?’ he demanded. “I’ve been working. Why haven’t you?”
“I do not feel like it, Lionel.”
Lionel finished his lunch in silence, got up and resumed working in the garden. Anger flooded his mind. Whatever has come over this woman, he asked himself? He fumed as he worked, slashing viciously at the weeds with the hoe. Claire had never acted this way before! Was she becoming unstable? Would he be forced to take her to a doctor? He pushed Claire out of his mind and concentrated on getting rid of a tangle of tenacious weeds.
Claire busied herself in the kitchen preparing Lionel’s dinner. She put a beef roast in the oven, set the timer and wrapped two potatoes in foil for baking. Frozen green beans would have to do as a vegetable, along with Yorkshire pudding and gravy.
Satisfied with her efforts she wiped her hands on a dishtowel, threw it on the counter and left the house.
Wrestling with the mower, Lionel never saw her climb over the dry-stone wall. She walked to John Nately Spakes’s grave. She put her hands on his stone. Heat surged through her. She waited a few minutes then said “What do you think I should do, John?” Claire nodded her head several times, as if she were listening to someone. “Yes, of course you are quite right. I cannot see any other solution.”
Claire gave care to making the dinner as perfect as possible, knowing this would be the last dinner she would ever prepare for Lionel. She split the baked potatoes, smothered them with butter and chopped green onions and put them on a platter along with thick slabs of roast beef. A bowl of green beans, a plate of Yorkshire pudding and a boat of gravy completed the dinner preparations. Perfect, she thought as she poured two glasses of red wine.
She called Lionel to dinner.
“Well, this is the Claire I know,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “This is a fine meal, and on time, too,” he added as a compliment. Lionel helped himself and began to eat.
“The garden will be a wonder by the time I am finished. What do you think of that?” He sliced off another chunk of beef and popped it into his mouth.
“I don’t think anything of it.”
“I see you haven’t made much progress in putting the house to rights,” he said, gesturing to several unopened boxes stacked in a corner. “How much longer is this going to take you?”
“Not so much longer. I am delighted you find comfort in your garden. I’m sure it will keep you busy for a long time.” She began to clear the table. Lionel poured another glass of wine and took it to the terrace.
Through the open French doors Lionel could hear Claire singing as she cleaned up.
He smiled. Life is wonderful, he decided.
Lionel came out of the bathroom and got into bed. Claire, sitting at her dressing table, put her hairbrush down and turned to him.
“Don’t turn out your lamp,” she said as Lionel reached for the switch. “I have something to tell you.”
“And what is that?” Lionel sat up in bed.
“I am leaving you tomorrow.”
Lionel stared at her, his mouth gaping open. “You what?”
“I said I am leaving you tomorrow.”
Lionel sprang out of bed. “Bloody hell you are leaving me. I will not permit it. What nonsense is this?” he shouted.
“This is not nonsense, Lionel.”
Lionel loomed over her. “What the hell do you think you are doing? You are my wife and you are not leaving. Is that clear?”
Claire returned his stare with a calmness that rattled him. He had never seen Claire in such a state.
“You cannot stop me, Lionel. I have discussed it with John.”
“You have discussed it with John,” he repeated. Who the hell is John?”
“You read his inscriptions yesterday and you mocked him cruelly.”
“That criminal buried in the cemetery? You believe you had a conversation with him? Are you mad?”
“No, I am not mad.”
“By God, I believe you are. You must be mad if you think you had conversation with somebody dead for nearly 400 years.”
“What you think changes nothing. I am still leaving.”
“Bloody hell! I will not permit it. I tell you what I am going to do. In the morning I am calling Social Services and I am having you committed to an asylum. You are quite mad, Claire.”
“No, Lionel, I am not mad. Perhaps a damn fool, but not mad, I assure you. And you will not call Social Services, Lionel.” She continued to gaze at him. Her placid air infuriated him.
“And who is going to stop me?” he demanded. “You? Not bloody likely.”
“John will not permit it.”
“John will not permit it, John will not permit it,” he said in a falsetto voice. “By God, I will show your John a thing or two.” Lionel strode to the door. “You are not to leave this house. In fact, you are not to leave this room until I give you permission to leave. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Lionel, you make yourself perfectly clear.”
Lionel slammed the door and Claire jerked slightly at the harsh sound then she got into bed and went to sleep.
In the morning Claire called the police and reported her husband missing. Constable Rosewine arrived at her door within half an hour and Claire explained how Lionel had left the house in the night but had not returned.
“You have searched the house, Mrs. Emerson?”
“Yes. Lionel is not in the house.” Claire thought Rosewine rather young to be a policeman.
“Is there any place your husband may have gone?”
“No. We just moved in a few days ago.”
“Very well, Mrs. Emerson. I shall have a look in the garden and out-buildings.”
“My husband was in his pajamas and slippers. He can’t have gone far,” she said to Rosewine as he went out the door.
Claire sat on a chair in the sitting room facing the empty fireplace, her hands folded in her lap. The minutes ticked by and she waited.
Claire looked expectantly at Rosewine when he came back to the sitting room.
“I found your husband.”
“Yes? Where is he?”
Rosewine pulled a chair in front of Claire and sat down. “I found him in the cemetery, Mrs. Emerson. He is dead.”
“Yes. I am sorry, Mrs. Emerson.”
Claire closed her eyes and sat as immobile as a gravestone.
“Mrs. Emerson, what was your husband doing in the cemetery? He had a spade and the earth of the grave where I found him was disturbed, almost as if it were being dug up. Was your husband trying to defile a grave?”
Claire opened her eyes. “I don’t think so. I can’t imagine Lionel doing anything like that.”
Constable Rosewine opened a small notebook and read from it. “A corner was knocked off the stone of a John Nately Spakes. The break is fresh and the broken piece is some distance away. It looks like your husband struck the gravestone with his spade. Now why would he do that, Mrs. Emerson?”
“I don’t know, Constable. I have no explanation.”
“Mrs. Emerson, your husband was covered with dirt, as if he had been rolling on the ground. Did your husband have seizures?”
“No, Lionel never had seizures.”
“I can’t explain him being covered with earth. His eyes and mouth were wide open and there was a smear of dirt around his throat.” Rosewine paused then asked, “Do you have an explanation, Mrs. Emerson?”
“I am sorry, Constable, but I cannot help you because I do not know what happened.”
Rosewine sighed, put his notebook away and stood.
“Am I a suspect?”
“No, I don’t think so, Mrs. Emerson. An inquest will be held and if there is anything amiss you may become a suspect.”
“Of course. What should I do?” she asked, getting to her feet.
“I have already called the medical team. They will have removed your husband by now. Of course, you will have to identify him.”
“I will send a car round to fetch you this afternoon so please let me know if you are going to leave the grounds.” Rosewine scrawled his phone number on a slip of paper and handed it to Claire. “You can spend the time making the necessary arrangements.”
“Funeral arrangements, Mrs. Emerson.”
“Oh, how silly of me.” Claire clutched at her throat with one hand.
“I’ll see my way out. Good day, Mrs. Emerson.”
“How are you getting by, Mrs. Emerson?” asked Constable Rosewine. He stood next to the empty fireplace.
“I am doing well. I have made all the arrangements you suggested I should make. Thank you, Constable. It is very kind of you to make the trip and tell me these things.”
“It is my pleasure, Mrs. Emerson.”
“The medical examiner listed heart failure as the cause of death,” said Constable Rosewine.
“Yes, heart failure. I’m sure of it,” replied Claire.
Claire watched the constable drive away then she climbed over the dry-stone wall and walked
to John Nately Spakes’s grave. The broken piece of stone still lay on the grass where it had landed after Lionel had smashed the spade against the gravestone.
Claire put her hand on the gravestone and the heat surged again up her arm and into her body.
“You know I must leave, John. I cannot stay here.”
The heat continued to surge through her. Claire closed her eyes and whispered, “Yes, someplace where the sun is hot.”
She kept her hand on the stone, felt the heat surge once more then begin to subside. When the stone had grown cold she removed her hand and walked away.