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Parting Gifts

a new novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen



The concierge called to say two police officers wanted to speak to her. Was it okay to send them up? Kyra said yes. Was there a choice? Were there people who actually said no, the police couldn't come to their doors? Maybe, but she wasn't one of those people.

Between the time he rang from the front desk and the arrival of the two men at the door–five minutes at most–she rapidly skimmed a mental Rolodex, reviewing the mishaps that might have befallen each member of the family, knowing nothing less than catastrophic news would bring two New York City policemen to call on her. By the time the doorbell sounded, her mouth had gone dry and she had a bad case of the shakes. She knew in her bones that these men were bringing the worst possible news.

And of course, she was right. So, even while they were apologetically giving her the details, eyeing her furtively for signs of impending hysteria (which she would never have allowed herself to display), she was thinking she'd have to get away–she couldn't possibly live here anymore–and trying frantically to decide where she might go.

Her husband was dead, and it was no one's fault, really. Even if there had been someone to blame, it wouldn't have done any good because Gary was gone, and only that fact mattered. Taken in the abstract, it was a given aspect of big city life: random acts of violence and mayhem that were shocking when read about in the newspaper or seen on the evening news; sad and terrible, yet essentially peripheral, distant. Taken personally, it was immediate and shattering because there was no warning, no possible way to prepare. Who you were, who you loved and who loved you, what you'd accomplished–none of it had consequence. The wrong place at the wrong time, and life as you'd known it ended.

Gary was dead, and all Kyra could think about was running away. This is bad, so bad. I've got to get out of here. Her muscles actually twitched with a sudden desperate need to take flight. Instead she listened distractedly to what was said, then (everything inside her quivering; spastic) she went for her coat, and accompanied the two deferential men downtown to the morgue to make a formal identification of her husband.

By the next evening her Aunt Catharine had taken charge, for which Kyra was deeply grateful, because it wasn't completely real to her. She couldn't seem to get her mind to mesh with the facts of the matter, and had spent the twenty or so hours since Gary had been killed attempting to force herself to believe that her husband was dead. This is so bad. I have got to get away.

So while, with rare and impressive efficiency, Catharine got on the telephone and made one call after another, Kyra kept looking at her watch, thinking Gary should have called from Paris by now. Then Catharine's low, hesitant voice drifted in to her and, with a jolt, Kyra remembered why she was there in her aunt's apartment. Then she had to begin working all over again to absorb the present reality, her appalling new status as a widow. The effort to fuse this knowledge to some receptive region of her brain reminded her, crazily, of the way, as a child, she'd had to work a new strip of Plasticine, kneading and rolling it around in her hands until it had become malleable. She could, with remarkable clarity, remember the warm rubbery odor of the stuff, could even remember the way bits of it got under her fingernails and over the course of days would gradually get dislodged–tiny crumbling pebbles of multi-colored grit.

While she lay rigid atop the bedclothes on the too-hard bed and gazed at the blue-white ceiling, she wondered how it could have come to this. Perhaps if Gary had been a nine-to-five type, home each evening, she might more readily have accepted what had happened. But he was an airline pilot, regularly gone for five or ten days at a stretch on the European or Asian runs, and his returns were often delayed by weather, by air traffic, by mechanical problems. So, despite the fact that she'd identified the body, that she had seen what remained of the charming, dapper man she'd loved in a kind of controlled ten-year-long frenzy, her brain had segmented itself–part of it steaming like a kettle boiling, and part of it complacently cool in its absolute denial.

Neither segment had priority; each had seemingly equal claim on her consciousness. The overheated area seemed to favor the late-night hours, with the result that she'd scarcely slept the night before; and the cooler portion had taken over with daylight, keeping her befuddled and clumsy. She felt as if she'd split in two, and much preferred the long daytime hours that were relatively free of the irrational but profound fear that had kept her pacing on tip-toe through Catharine's immense apartment most of the previous night. Arms wrapped tightly around herself, she'd tried not to look at the image of Gary that was seared into her memory: his face serene, intact; his body destroyed from shoulders to knees. Odd bulges where organs had ruptured; fractured ribs and a broken hipbone poking through savage rents in his flesh. She'd had to look, to see all of him, to touch the odd lumps in his midriff, the side of his throat where she'd loved to sniff at him like a puppy. She couldn't not have looked; couldn't not have brought her tremoring hands into contact with his surfaces. It was the only way she could even begin to convince herself he was no longer inside himself. The absence was astonishingly total. And all the while, trying to control her palsy, the voice track kept repeating, God, this is bad. I need to go away.

She thought now that she had gained some small comprehension of those regions in outer space the scientists called black holes; she seemed to have taken up residence in one. Her only company in the desolation was the relentless voice: This is bad. Where should I go?

Her head was aching, and she debated getting up to investigate the contents of her aunt's medicine cabinet. It was bound to contain some very interesting drugs–given Catharine's plethora of primarily undiagnosable ailments–one of which would offer relief. But Kyra couldn't move. So she lay on the bed in one of her aunt's three guest rooms and slowly looked around, aware of Catharine's meticulous feel for detail in every aspect of the decor: a quartet of small, exquisitely framed, antique needlework samplers hung in a precise row at eye level just inside the door; the glossy Prussian blue enamel trim on the woodwork with not a single brushmark or stray bristle captured like a fly in amber.

Catharine had spent years on end decorating this apartment, finding exactly the right painting for the wall over the buffet in the dining room (a quite splendid still life of blue-black plums in a deep white bowl), the right brass fender for the living room fireplace (simple curving lines enclosing the three panels of mesh), the right basket (a perfect handmade oval of woven rushes) that, when painted white and lined with fine Egyptian cotton, was the ideal repository in the master bathroom for her soiled undergarments.

Kyra had often wondered what Uncle Henry had to think when he sat down on the throne and found, directly in his line of vision, a basketful of his wife's worn knickers. Or did Luz, the housekeeper, rush in to empty the basket before Henry returned home each evening and again before he rose from bed in the morning? A basket, in full view, of worn lingerie. It was decadent, tasteless, crazy. But then Catherine was, on a certain level, utterly mad. The thing of it was, you had to know her to appreciate the totality, the integrity, of it. It was, for the most part, a quiet and fairly contained thing, like a kidney- or gallstone. And perhaps, in the arcane lexicology of such things, not truly madness but something else, something less readily definable. Kyra loved her aunt, but disliked herself for caring for a woman whose existence was at best ninety percent form and ten percent substance.

Catharine was capable of affectionate displays, but usually only when she'd managed, through alcohol or some new marvelous prescription drug, to find an interior route to emotions that were primarily untapped–a child's untrammeled purity of feeling unexpectedly revealed by a woman in her mid-fifties. It was always shocking and deeply embarrassing when Catharine, in her cups, suddenly and tearfully, would begin proclaiming her depthless love for all those present. The tightly constrained, cold-sober woman was preferable, safer. Catharine, on substances, was an ambulatory land-mine.

But then, who was to say she was any better? Kyra wondered. Certainly she felt immense and stupid, the brand-new widow, collapsed upon the bed and temporarily unable to move, bludgeoned by loss, able only to hear the same words repeating endlessly: This is bad. I must get away.

Her husband, that lovely, slightly daft man, on his way to the bank to cash a check when a cab, traveling at a rate of speed rarely achieved on the city's choked avenues, spun out of control, mounted the curb and came to a stop only because a fifty-one-year-old man and a granite-faced building prohibited its traveling further.

A freak accident, the media called it. Kyra had unearthed the previous evening's tabloids and that morning's New York Times, which Catharine had hidden in the broom closet–thinking perhaps, in her addled fashion, to spare her niece further distress–and read, fascinated, the eyewitness descriptions of passersby, and the garbled statement of the cab driver (who suffered a crushed pelvis). "I'm going twenty-five miles per, max, and the brakes fail! Then the steering locked up!" He felt terrible about that poor fellow he hit, and said he'd never drive a cab again; when he was back on his feet he'd take the wife and kids home to Mason City. He insisted that the cab company was at fault for failing to maintain the fleet properly, keeping cars on the road until they just fell apart. He planned to "sue their brains out," and hoped the family of the deceased did the same. "I tried not to hit him but I had no control of that lousy cab," he said. "The poor guy never had a chance, God rest his soul."

Kyra had felt an odd ache reading that last sentence, and stared at the newsprint photograph of the crumpled vehicle until the countless black and white dots deconstructed and became like TV snow. She stared at those dots, trying to remember the last words she and Gary had spoken to each other. Mundanities: Have a good trip. I'll phone you when I get in. I love you. I love you, too. Good-bye, good-bye.

If they had succeeded in adopting a child she might have felt somewhat less devastated. But more than eight years of applying had brought them only an infinite variety of rejections, from the genuinely apologetic to the outrightly dismissive. Financial solvency and an abiding love of children meant nothing. So, despite their advanced ages (she at thirty-eight and he at fifty-one were considered very old as potential adoptive parents) they were still on all sorts of waiting lists. There were hundreds, probably thousands, of couples ahead of them. They had never stopped hoping, never stopped trying. Now, that was over, too. Gary was dead, and with him had died the possibility of her ever being a parent.

After a time she had helped herself to some of the coffee Luz had made at lunch-time, and was sitting at the table, gazing at the deconstructed newspaper photograph, yet again reviewing their parting dialogue, when Catharine came hurrying in to say, "Darling, I've finally managed to reach Mummy for you. She's on the line now." Lifting the receiver from the kitchen extension, a wide-eyed Catharine carried it over to Kyra and held it out importantly.

Kyra stared at her once-beautiful aunt, wondering why Catharine consistently referred to her older sister as Kyra's Mummy (yet another of her demented affectations), and why she kept having cosmetic procedures that had left her looking like something of durable rubber cast from a mold: seamless, lineless, lacking the flaws and folds that defined character, and with the exaggerated width of mouth that seemed to be an accepted part of plastic surgery. Up close, poor Catharine was well on her way to being grotesque; a life-sized Muppet who often sounded alarmingly, hilariously like the Swedish chef.

Her aunt made an urgent gesture with the receiver and, at last, Kyra focused and accepted the instrument, held it to her ear.

"Kyra, I'm so profoundly sorry. Such an unbelievable thing to happen! How are you holding up, darling?"

Like anyone who'd ever heard that voice on stage or in a film, Kyra was enveloped in its husky, honeyed depths, and briefly comforted. "I'm not doing very well," she answered truthfully, her throat burning from the sudden effort to hold back tears.

"Of course not. How could you be? I want desperately to come to you, darling, but they can't stop production. I simply don't know what to do!"

"It's all right. I understand."

"Kyra, I want to be with you now," her mother said more emphatically. "But there's no sort of insurance to cover this situation. I've got another ten days on location, and they can't shoot around me, even for two or three days, so I just cannot get away. It's a nightmare. I've never felt quite so frustrated. I am truly, deeply sorry."

"So am I," Kyra said, as if to herself. There has to be somewhere to go.

"I've spoken to Kyle. He and Beth will be there by tomorrow afternoon. They're catching the next available flight from Heathrow."

"That's good."

"You're angry with me," her mother said sadly.

"I'm angry, but not with you." She glanced across at Catharine, who hovered by the stove, looking apprehensive and edgy, as if anxious to have some invisible crew re-take the scene, shoot it more effectively. She was plainly unhappy with the part of the conversation she could hear.

"You wouldn't be human if you weren't angry," her mother said.

"Then I suppose I must be human."

"It's a terrible loss, terrible. I adored Gary. He was so …"

"I know." Kyra's voice sounded flat, lifeless to her own ears. Death can kill you.

"When it's over, come home and let me look after you for a bit. Will you do that?"

"Yes, all right. I have to go now, Mother."

"I love you, Kyra. I would be there if I possibly could."

"I love you, too." Choking, Kyra got up abruptly, pushed the receiver at Catharine, and fled back to the refuge of the early American guest room. She carefully closed the door before dropping face-down on the patchwork quilt, clutching handfuls of it while she wept and raged, scarcely making a sound.

At some point later, Catharine came to the door, in her soft, tentative voice asking was there anything she could do.

Kyra managed to say an audible "No, thank you," and Catharine had gone away.

Weary, Kyra turned over now and again stared at the ceiling. It felt as if there was a gaping wound in her chest, and each beat of her heart sent spurts of blood arcing into the air. An incredible pain. Yet when she took the flat of her hand over her chest, all she felt was the warm wrinkled cotton of the dress she'd been wearing for the past two days. No blood, no wound. Only the pain and the sensation of blood loss. And that incessant voice murmuring inside her skull.

She was awakened by a quiet knock at the door. Her cousin Glenna slipped into the room and came to sit on the side of the bed. Taking hold of Kyra's hand, she whispered, "I don't know what to say. I feel so sad–for you, for all of us. Gary was the only sane person in the whole bloody family."

Kyra had to laugh (a husky half-strangled sound), and sat up to put an arm around her cousin, letting her head rest on Glenna's narrow shoulder. "He was as nutty as the rest of us," she murmured, "just less visibly so."

"Why are you here?" Glenna asked, still whispering. "Wouldn't you rather be at home?"

"Your mother insisted," Kyra answered, sitting back. "My brain's shut down, and it was easier to do what she wanted."

"As is so often the case. I've got the car downstairs, if you want to go home."

"Yes," Kyra said gratefully. "I do."

"I thought you would, so I told Mummy you'd called and asked me to come pick you up."

"You're brilliant, Glen. Let me collect my things and we'll go."

Catharine looked more distraught than ever, wringing her hands as Kyra said good-bye in the foyer. "Are you sure you'll be all right?" she asked, a taut worried little furrow between her brows.

"I'll manage." Kyra hugged her and said, "Thank you for everything. You've been so kind, such a help."

"I'll ring you tomorrow," Catharine said anxiously, "see how you're getting on. Such a lot to do, so many calls …"

Glenna embraced her mother, said, "Talk to you later, dear," grabbed Kyra's arm, and hustled her out. Catharine stood in the doorway, waiting and watching, her mouth working, until the elevator came.

She was so child-like, Kyra thought, as the doors closed on the image of her fashionable mannequin-aunt poised on the threshold.

As the elevator began its descent, Glenna said, "Henry was sitting in the kitchen, eating a sandwich and reading the paper while Mummy performed an entire Greek tragedy, complete with chorus. I'm sorry if I seem pushy, Keer, but I really thought it would be best to get you out of there."

"Don't be sorry." Kyra took hold of her cousin's small warm hand. "I didn't want to stay, but I couldn't think how to extricate myself."

"My mother's famous octopus syndrome. Tentacles disguised with rings and gold bracelets, but tentacles nevertheless."

Kyra emitted another brief, strangled laugh. "You're very hard on her."

Glenna shrugged, her eyes on the floor indicator.

"This is very bad." The sentence slipped out and, abashed, Kyra turned to look at her cousin.

"Very," Glenna said somberly.

Relieved by this confirmation, Kyra fell silent.

In the car, somewhat awkwardly, Glenna said, "I can't begin to imagine how you must feel. The suddenness … the shock … I called Cliff and told him I wouldn't be home tonight. You can't stay by yourself. Is Aunt Octavia coming?"

"She's on location. Spain, I think. I forgot to ask where. It doesn't matter."

Glenna chewed on her lower lip and didn't comment.

"Kyle and Beth are coming tomorrow."

"Well, that's good." Glenna took a quick look at her cousin.

Kyra stared unblinking out the window.


Kyra turned.

"I know it's not quite the same thing, but when Daddy died I was completely unhinged for the better part of a year."

"I remember." Kyra's mouth was dry. She stared at Glenna, a living reminder of just how lovely Catharine once had been. "I do remember. It was a–difficult time." Bad. How it was then, how it is now. Is there a place where people like me should go?

"What I'm saying is, it'll help if you let go. It's no good trying to hold it in."

Kyra nodded, said, "No, I know," and went back to staring out the window. It wasn't as if she was trying to hold anything in. It was just that she had generations of British stoicism in her genes. She'd have loved to tear at her hair and her clothes, to scream until her throat bled; she wanted to, but she just couldn't. Still, she'd have a long, long time to come to grips with it–a future of demi-life, of amputation, of waiting for a man she'd adored who would never return.

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