Image Courtesy: Renoir
It would be wrong to say that the very first thing one noticed about Marsha Johnston was her height. Although she was an extraordinarily tall woman, which one took notice of in person, her voice usually preceded her; it was arrogant and slightly raised, with more than a hint of impatience and irritation underlining it. It usually filled the people who knew her, and who knew of her, with ominous dread.
Marsha Johnston had married well as a young woman. The flush of success that had followed her into her first youth had given her everything that a person could have ever wanted. Striking good looks, a towering personality, and a wonderful husband to dote on her; besides all this, she had also tasted success in a professional capacity. She had quickly risen from being a personal assistant to managerial positions, and had then gone on to take over entire departments of the company that had hired her. She had, as they say, arrived.
Then Marsha’s good luck seemed to evaporate as quickly as it had arrived. Overnight she lost her husband; some said that he’d been nagged into an early grave. His death, however, seemed to affect her little. She continued with her life as before, although her husband’s death had left her considerably wealthier than she had previously been. Her once famed good looks had deserted her; many women age naturally and gracefully, and over time. With Marsha it was as though, overnight, she had undergone a great transformation. Her grey hair thinned and she tied it tightly back at the nape of her neck. Her health deteriorated and she lost a good amount of weight so that she was left rail thin, and her poor posture gave her a gaunt stooping appearance, as though she were a bird of prey about to pounce. Her mouth was discontented and twisted as it got ready to rage at the world, and her voice, as we already know, preceded her. Marsha threw herself into her work with renewed ferocity and got tired of her personal assistants faster than other women got tired of their wardrobes.
It was at around this time that she heard from her older sister.
Abigail Bruce (née Johnston) had also married, but unlike Martha, she hadn’t married very well. Unlike Martha, who detested children, Abigail had three. Abigail’s husband had recently died and had left his family badly off. He’d been a happy-go-lucky man who hadn’t saved for tomorrow when there was living to be done today. Abigail’s two older daughters were well settled. One was happily married and the second was in nursing school. It was her youngest, Ben, who was a source of worry to her. He was ambitious and dreamed big, but with hardly any money to her name it was difficult to help him with his dream of going to business school, like he wanted.
He’d saved his money from his jobs, but was nowhere close to what he needed to get started. His oldest sister had given him some money as a gift, but Katie was just starting off her married life with her young husband, and they were trying to get on the property ladder. They had very little to spare. He refused to take presents from Penny, who was already putting herself through nursing school. He decided to put his dreams of going to school on hold, and continue with his bar tending job by night, and his machinist job by day.
Abigail, guilt-ridden at being unable to help her son (they’d been able to do something for the girls, but of course, her husband had been alive then) had thought of Marsha. Over the years she’d often thought of Marsha, but they’d fallen out over thirty years ago, and hadn’t spoken a word to each other since. Abigail was the exact opposite of Marsha; where Marsha was loud, Abigail was soft-spoken. Where Marsha was confident, Abigail was not. Where Marsha detested people, Abigail liked people and took a genuine interest in them. Abigail had also been the favourite of both their parents; that was something Marsha had never been able to forgive her for.
So Abigail swallowed her pride – where her children were concerned, she would have swallowed anything – and sent Marsha a tentative letter of reconciliation. In it she explained all about her children, but especially Ben. Ben was very ambitious and wanted to study business, something she said was close to Marsha’s heart. Perhaps Marsha would want to meet them? She was confident that when Marsha met Ben she would want to help him. After all, she reasoned to herself, who better to help Ben than his own auntie? Who couldn’t help liking straight-backed broad-shouldered twinkly-eyed well-spoken Ben?
Marsha, upon receiving the letter, had read it with a sneer, and had tossed it aside with a laugh. She took great pleasure in the fact that Abigail needed her help. Who was the best now? Who was on top now? It wasn’t perfect pretty Abigail! No, it was her, Marsha, who was on top. The letter put her in a great mood, and she cuddled the thought of her desperate sister to her for a week before she made plans. So Abigail and one of her nasty children needed her help, eh? Well, she’d give it alright. That is, she thought spitefully to herself, she’d pretend to give it. This was a great game, she thought gleefully. It was a wonderful game which she intended to extract the maximum enjoyment from. The power over another intoxicated and thrilled; here was something that she could amuse herself with for a long time.
Abigail was delighted when she received a short and terse response from Marsha. It requested a meeting with Ben and herself at Marsha’s residence. A posh address followed and a time was given. Ben, upon hearing about this, protested, as it meant that it would interfere with one of his jobs, but his mother begged him to call in sick. It was vital he meet his auntie. What if she agreed to fund him? It was an opportunity of a lifetime. At his mother’s many entreaties, Ben gave in and called in sick on the day of the proposed meeting.
About an hour before they were due to set off (they were taking a bus) Marsha’s personal assistant called Abigail on the telephone. Unfortunately, Marsha was going to be busy, and couldn’t see them at the proposed time. Would they mind terribly coming in an hour later? She was sorry, something had come up etc. Abigail and Ben decided to set off as they’d planned and spent an hour walking around some of the shops in the area where Marsha lived. It was a well-to-do locality, and the shops were accordingly chic and expensive, and oh, so exclusive. They didn’t bother going inside any of the shops but contented themselves with window shopping. Then they presented themselves at Marsha’s home, and Abigail rang the bell, her hands shaking with nervousness. She wondered if Marsha had changed at all over the years, and if she had, had she changed for the better?
A very correct female butler showed them into a large and immaculately furnished room and left them there. Marsha, who was at that moment deliberately stepping into a bath, thought with glee of the envy that her sister must be feeling. She sipped a pink gin delicately as she struggled to stop grinning to herself. Meanwhile, back in the opulent room, Abigail was feeling a little overwhelmed. She had a nervous habit of fidgeting in her lap, which she was doing now. Ben sat stoically beside her, his eyes unseeing of all the grandeur around him. He and his sisters had grown up having heard the whole story about the estrangement between his mother and his aunt. He wondered very much if Marsha had forgiven his mother, and what that would mean for him. He put a hand out to stop his mother’s fidgeting and she stopped automatically, only to begin again twenty seconds later.
After about forty five minutes, just when Abigail began to wonder if Marsha would be seeing them or not, Marsha walked into the room clad in a very expensive silk dress that didn’t really suit her. She greeted Abigail and let herself be introduced to her nephew, her shrewd eyes appraising him. Overall, she grudgingly admitted that she couldn’t really fault the young man. His appearance was pleasing, his manners were good, and his mind was quick. Besides all this she recognised his hunger for success, something she felt was always lacking in her insipid sister. Well, well, well. Who would have thought Abigail and that worthless husband of hers could have such children? She was forced to look at photographs of Katie and Penny. She thought her nieces were good-looking young women, clearly confident of their places in the world. Oh well. It didn’t matter. It didn’t change anything. Her plans were set in stone.
After only half an hour she said she had a dinner engagement and smiled dismissively at them. As they rose to go, Abigail looking doubtful, she threw them a bone by saying she had some ideas for Ben which she would love for him to hear at their next meeting. Then she’d see about what she could do for him. She had smiled fondly. She had to leave her money to someone, after all, she said. Who better than her nephew and nieces? She named a day and a time, and asked them to meet her at her office this time. Ben, who was working again on that day, felt uncomfortable, and asked if he could meet her over the weekend instead, when he didn’t have his day job to contend with. At this Marsha had stiffened and had said that if he had more important things to do, naturally, she would understand. Abigail had intervened and had said that of course she and Ben would meet Marsha as planned. Ben had said nothing; not wishing to contradict his mother or argue with her in the presence of Marsha, he stayed silent and listened to the plans being made. They were to meet in exactly a week’s time.
After they had gone Marsha drifted from room to room. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt so excited, so alive. She had no dinner engagement; one of her famous quirks was that she couldn’t bear to break bread with anyone, and it was rumoured that when her husband was alive, they had eaten at separate tables. Marsha ate her dinner with a far better appetite than she usually had, and had trouble falling asleep as she was far too excited.
Meanwhile, Ben and Abigail were travelling back home on the bus. He was telling his mother that he couldn’t bear his aunt Marsha, and that he didn’t trust her as far as he could throw her. He stubbornly insisted that she was up to something. Abigail, who really believed that Marsha had changed for the better said that this wasn’t true, and that Ben was just being contrary because he didn’t want to miss work. Ben, while agreeing that he didn’t want to miss work, nevertheless insisted that he didn’t trust Marsha. Abigail pooh-poohed his fears and told him that people changed, yes, even his aunt Marsha. How generous of her to offer to help not only him but also Katie and Penny! Ben shook his head and took his leave of his mother at his stop. He was late for his bar tending job and was in a rotten mood besides, something his workmates and flatmates noticed. It was so unlike Ben.
Abigail, in the meantime, curled up in her flannel dressing gown with a glass of cheap wine (she’d bought six bottles for only £6 in the local cost saving supermarket). She was hopeful that Marsha would see her way to helping Ben. She had a telephone call from her oldest, Katie, to whom she told everything. It was Katie’s opinion that she shouldn’t trust Marsha. Abigail, wondering what on earth had got into all of her children, told her sharply that Marsha had changed. Katie, shaking her head on the other end had said that people don’t really change. Then she’d rung off after telling her mother to be careful. Abigail went to bed with a headache and didn’t sleep well. She blamed the wine.
In exactly a week’s time Abigail met Ben outside the train station near Marsha’s office and they walked up together for their 10 am meeting. The large office was filled with people rushing around, and it took a while for them to locate the reception. One of the receptionists got through to Marsha’s personal assistant and asked them to wait. They sat down in the reception area and waited while people swarmed around them, each one with a task or a duty. After about thirty minutes Ben was irritated and he marched back to the receptionist to ask her what was going on before Abigail could stop him. The receptionist, a superior young woman with an incredibly cool manner, indicated the chair. She said she’d contacted Marsha’s personal assistant and informed her they were waiting. She hinted that it was now out of her hands. Ben resumed his seat with a bad grace. He’d intended to go to work late, but it didn’t look like it was going to be a possibility.
Three hours later Marsha’s personal assistant showed up. She explained that it was crazy, absolutely crazy. She apologised profusely for the fact that they’d waited so long. She asked them to go to the cafeteria to have lunch and said Marsha would meet them at 2 pm. She had then walked away, before they could ask her any questions. She had been given instructions, and she was following them. She didn’t question, even to herself, why Marsha behaved the way she did. That would jeopardise her job, and nothing was worth that.
Abigail and Ben found the cafeteria and ordered some lunch. Ben’s sandwich was dry and Abigail’s salad was wilted. The coffee was too strong and thick and Abigail couldn’t finish hers. The cost of the lunch was shocking, in Abigail’s opinion. It was far too expensive for things that were barely worth eating. Ben, who felt that Marsha should have paid for their lunch, said nothing as he fished out his wallet. Abigail, for the first time, was starting to feel doubt and fear. She and Ben resumed their places in the reception area.
People looked curiously at them as they began to drift back from lunch. The pace of the office resumed, but it was less hectic than it had been before. Telephones rang in the background, people chattered, printers whirred, copiers clicked, and now and then a raised voice passed a message or shouted a greeting. Three young men, all around Ben’s age, walked into a presentation room which had glass windows and doors and started setting up some equipment. The receptionist called Marsha’s personal assistant again to remind her about Ben and Abigail. The time was now 3 pm.
After forty five minutes Marsha appeared, followed by a group of people who were hanging on to her every word. She ignored Ben and Abigail as she walked into the presentation room. People took their seats around the table. She sat at the head of the table, with her back to them. Ben, whose face was now burning, got up to leave. Abigail stood up to follow him out and tried to persuade him to come back inside. She begged him to reconsider; it was his future she was thinking of. Ben, tired and furious, shot back that he didn’t need anyone to help him. He ordered his mother to accompany him. Then, irritated with her as she dithered on the spot, he turned his back on her and stepped into the elevator. The doors closed. Abigail frantically pressed the button, but the elevator was on its way down. She wrung her hands as her eyes filled with tears. She had no idea what to do next. Never the decisive one, she had been happy to be led by first her parents, then her husband, and now her children. She stood on the spot as she tried to make up her mind. She wondered what her husband would say. She didn’t want Ben to waste his entire twenties saving money for college, or struggling to repay a student loan. It was for Ben’s sake. She knew she was weak and useless, but where her children were concerned she was a different person. She could be strong for them. Her feet felt like lead as she forced herself back into the office. The receptionist, surprised to see her timidly resume her seat, betrayed no sign of it on her face.
Meanwhile, Marsha finished her meeting and exited the presentation room. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that only one person was now waiting for her. She felt annoyed. Oh well, it didn’t matter. It would still be a lot of fun to play with Abigail. She went back to her office and made a few calls, barked out a few letters and e-mails to her secretary, and sent her personal assistant on an errand. When she came back Marsha looked at the clock. It was 6 pm. She asked her assistant to show Abigail to her office. When she arrived, Marsha, who never apologised, merely asked where Ben was. Abigail flushed as she responded that Ben had to keep another engagement. Marsha’s eyes had narrowed and she’d enquired coldly if Ben really was serious about his studies. Abigail eagerly explained that he was very dedicated to improving himself. Marsha asked why Ben didn’t want to put himself through college like his older sister. Abigail explained that Ben did want to do that, and was working on it, although a bit of help would be – well, there would be nothing like it. She’d trailed off, as Marsha pretended to consider thoughtfully. At the end of the meeting (which lasted fifteen minutes) she sent Abigail away with vague promises and assurances. She told her that she would get back to her ‘shortly’. Abigail, who didn’t feel reassured, was forced to be content.
She didn’t hear back from Marsha for a month and assumed that she had forgotten about her troubles. Ben, who swore to his mother that he would touch nothing that Marsha gave him, wasn’t surprised. He carried on with his life as though Marsha didn’t exist. To Abigail’s annoyance, both Katie and Penny were firmly on his side. They told her to forget about Marsha. Abigail, who was feeling stubborn, said nothing to them, although privately she thought a great deal about it all. She was just starting to admit that her children had been right when she received an invitation from Marsha to a party. A note, scrawled on the back of the invitation by hand, told her she’d made arrangements and would have it all ready for Ben by the evening of the party. Abigail, who didn’t have a thing to wear to a grand party, was all of a dither. Fortunately, as she was a skilled seamstress, she was able to copy the pattern of a dress from one of the magazines she borrowed from her friend. She was pleased with the effect of the simple dress as she teamed it with her ‘good’ shoes. On the day of the party she had her hair done by a good friend, and set off in high spirits. She even splurged on a taxi, as it looked like rain, and she didn’t want to get her feet wet.
Abigail arrived at Marsha’s home not much later. The house was well lit, although it wasn’t quite dark yet. A bevy of cars were parked up the street, and Abigail assumed that there would be a lot of people at the party. Ten minutes later, when she was shown into the grand drawing room, she felt very small indeed. A large group of people were swarming around, and they all seemed to know each other. Soft-footed waiters in snow-white coats padded around with trays that had glasses full of champagne or plates of petit-fours. Glasses clinked and people chattered; now and then a raised voice made a point, or a group of people giggled. Abigail accepted a flute glass of champagne from a revolving waiter and tried to look for Marsha. Nobody took any notice of her. To top it all off, she thought her dress looked shabby in comparison to the other dresses in the room. She sighed to herself inwardly.
Suddenly there was the sound of Marsha’s voice; people parted like the red sea to allow her access to the front of the room (where there was an orchestra on a raised platform). The orchestra stopped playing as Marsha stood up on the platform to look around the room, her arms thrown wide open, and a welcoming smile on her mouth. She started to say how pleased she was to see everybody, before she spotted Abigail in the back, who had a smile on her own face to see her sister. The smile faded from Marsha’s face as she saw Abigail and her voice died away. People looked at Marsha and looked around the room. Everybody wondered what had happened. Abigail, who didn’t realise that Marsha was looking at her, was looking puzzled like the rest.
“Oh dear”, sighed Marsha exaggeratedly. “What are you doing here, Abigail?”
Abigail, who had just leaped out of her skin and sloshed her front with her champagne, was dazed. Her mouth was dry and her throat had closed up. She tried to reply to Marsha, but found that she’d lost her voice.
“Have you no pride?” went on Marsha, sadly.
Abigail found her voice. When she spoke, it sounded a bit like a high-pitched squeak. “B-b-but you invited me, M-m-marsha”, she stammered. Around her people whispered to one another. She heard someone say, “I saw her waiting for Marsha in the office some time ago, for simply hours before Marsha was forced to see her, I expect.” She felt foolish with her mouth gaping open at Marsha; she knew she was blinking far too much, but she couldn’t seem to stop. Her hands felt cold and her face felt hot and flushed. She clutched her empty flute glass and her bag. She heard someone say, “Did you see that homespun dress of hers?” There were a few titters.
“For the last time”, said Marsha patiently and slowly, as though explaining something to a very small child, “I can’t give you any money.” She smiled sadly at Abigail. “Just because you’re my sister, you can’t expect me to just give you money. Why, if I did that every time you wanted money, I’d be broke. I’ve got to look out for me, after all.” She laughed maliciously, and people around her sniggered politely. A few people were looking away, disgusted, clearly uncomfortable at the scene.
Abigail felt the tears come into her eyes. “I – you s-s-sent me an invitation, M-marsha”, she said, trying to open the catch of her bag. She fumbled with it and dropped her glass, which smashed on the floor. “Oh, I-I’m s-s-sorry”, she said, horrified. She tried to wrench the catch of her bag open, but she felt like all her fingers were thumbs. When she looked up she found Marsha standing in front of her. “Do leave, Abigail”, said Marsha, pleasantly. “Please, just go. There is nothing for you here.” She smiled kindly. “Nothing”, she repeated, a little savagely. Her eyes were glittering and triumphant.
Abigail gave a little half-sob, and then, her hand to her mouth, she turned blindly to leave. “No, that’s alright”, she heard Marsha say to the butler who was prepared to accompany her. “I don’t pay you to take out the trash”, was the last thing she heard before she collapsed outside the drawing room in the hall, her heart beating painfully out of her chest, her face burning with the humiliation she had just endured. She tottered weakly to the front door and wrenched it open before remembering her coat. She had handed it over as soon as she’d come in. She couldn’t leave without her coat; it was cold out there, and she had a long walk to a bus stop. Besides, it was her only coat, and she couldn’t afford another for a very long time. She looked around hesitantly. There were no coats on display in the hall. She blanched at the thought of going back into the drawing room. She shut the front door and looked around. Near the front door, cunningly hidden in the panelling, was a door that lead into another room. She opened the door and nearly fell into the room while she searched on the walls for a light switch.
Her exploring fingers located a switch and she turned it on, only to discover that she was in a small office. She guessed that it wasn’t Marsha’s home office, as it was only barely furnished, and was very poky and airless. In fact, she was correct; on the days that Marsha worked at home, her secretary used this office. For now, though, Abigail had struck gold. She discovered piles of coats on the desk and on the chairs. She shut the door and began feverishly hunting through the piles for her coat. After what felt like forever, she finally managed to find her coat. She extricated it from the pile and put it on, remembering to turn the light off as she opened the door back to the hallway. At this point, the drawing room door opened, and the hallway was flooded with the noise and music from the party. Abigail rushed back into the room in a blind panic. Then, as there were unmistakable sounds of someone opening the door, perhaps to fetch a coat for a departing guest, she opened a connecting door and fell into another room.
This room was unmistakably Marsha’s. The walls were panelled with expensive leather, and a large mahogany desk sat squarely in the centre of the room. A small gold lamp on the desk was switched on, bathing the room with tones of warm golden light. A comfortable chair was drawn up to the desk. A magnificent blotter sat on the desk, along with a selection of some very fine pens, and a photograph of Marsha in a showy gold frame. Abigail gazed at the photograph for a while. It had been taken about fifteen years ago, and it showed Marsha clearly at the height of her health and good looks. The location looked foreign. To Abigail, who had never travelled outside of Britain, it looked exotic and beautiful. She collapsed into a chair at the side of the room, her mind going at a million miles a minute. The children, bless them, had been right. Why hadn’t she listened to them? Why had she thought that Marsha had changed? Why, oh why had she come here? She gave herself up to her emotions and put her head in her hands and sobbed.
Fifteen minutes later, after what she called a ‘good cry’, she was feeling a little better. She decided to try to leave the house again and put her ear to the door. Hearing no sound from the room that had the coats in it, she quietly opened the door. To her horror, she saw the back of the butler as she sorted through the coats. The door to the hallway was open, and some people were clearly leaving. Abigail was horrified. She was trapped.
She wanted to throw herself back in the chair for another good cry, but she thought better of it. For now she needed a plan of escape. She decided she couldn’t stay in Marsha’s office. Marsha would surely come in here. She looked around wildly. There seemed to be another door leading to another room. She walked to the door and listened at it for a while. Hearing no sound, she opened it. It was a tiny windowless little room into which someone had stuffed a copier. She shut the door and sank down on a stool. She was not cold, although she was shivering. She knew that it was probably shock. She leaned her head against the wall behind her and shut her eyes weakly. She wished she was home.
Abigail awoke with a start. She had no idea what the time was. There was silence and darkness everywhere. She wondered for a second where she was, before remembering. She groaned as she got to her feet and opened the door to Marsha’s office slowly. The lamp there had been switched off. The moonlight showed eerily through the large mullioned windows and the street looked empty. She felt panicked. She looked at the luminous hands of the clock on the wall. It was past midnight.
She slipped out of that office into the next room and found herself in the hallway. She looked at the front door. It had two large bolts drawn across it at the top and two bolts drawn across it at the bottom. It also had a large key left in the door. She breathed a sigh of relief as she pattered over. As she undid the bolts she caught a flash of green out of the corner of her eye. She cowered down by the door as she looked up at the staircase. She was just in time to see Marsha disappearing into a room at the top of the stairs. Her eyes narrowed as she paused with her hand on the lower bolts. Normally a mild-mannered woman, she had never reacted to any situation in her life out of anger. But her usual calmness had deserted her. She was furious at being humiliated and infuriated that she had been led on. She straightened up and walked calmly up the stairs, following Marsha’s footsteps.
In the meantime, Marsha, who famously got by with two hours of sleep every night, was busy congratulating herself. She didn’t remember when she had last felt such happiness. She hoped she had destroyed Abigail forever. She hoped Ben would never succeed at anything. She hoped Penny failed nursing school. And Katie? Well, she hoped she’d get divorced. That would be a nice lot of trauma for Abigail. She’d be broken. She laughed to herself as she stood on her balcony. It was a beautiful night. She looked at the yellow moon in the silky purple sky. ‘For me’, she thought contentedly. ‘The moon’s out especially for me.’ She sighed happily.
Abigail heard Marsha’s laughter and waited a moment to see if she had anyone with her. She didn’t hear any voices, so she took a deep breath and walked into a large bedroom. She didn’t notice any of the room’s decor or furnishings, because all her attention was on the figure on the balcony. Her eyes, already narrowed, became smaller. Marsha, who had turned around when Abigail shut the door, blinked.
“You!” spat Marsha.
“Me”, said Abigail, trying to keep her voice from shaking as she advanced into the room. She put her bag on the bed. “Why?”
Marsha sneered at her. “Why do you think, Miss Perfect?” It was an old nickname that Marsha had used on Abigail when they were children, especially after she had been in a fight with their parents and Abigail had tried to intervene or to be the diplomat. “Miss Perfect, Miss Perfect”, chanted Marsha in a high voice.
“You must hate me”, said Abigail slowly. “You must really hate me.”
“Well done”, mocked Marsha. “Hate, though, is too good a word. It’s tied too closely with love. No, I don’t hate you. I abhor you. I detest you. I despise you. I loathe you. I am repulsed by you. You are revolting.”
“You’re a good actress”, said Abigail lightly. “You – I believed you. I thought you really wanted to – to…”
“Reconcile?” said Marsha, her mouth smiling, but her eyes hard. “Help you? Help you?”
Abigail said nothing. Marsha folded her arms. “You’re pathetic”, said Marsha, delighted at this opportunity to heap more abuse on Abigail. “You pathetic stupid little little woman”, she spat. “Which gutter did you get that dress from?” She laughed. “Get out of my house or I’ll call the police.”
Abigail looked at Marsha for a minute. “I’m going”, she said. “I don’t understand you. You have everything anyone could possibly need, and a few things most people would probably never need. You have your work, your friends, this house. And yet, you hate me. I, who have nothing, am the object of your dislike.” She smiled. “That makes me feel very good. Thank you, Marsha. Despite everything you have, I know I have something you never will.” She picked up her bag and turned to leave.
Marsha, whose mouth was working in fury, called her a series of horrible names. Abigail merely shook her head and put her hand on the handle of the door. “I’ll destroy you”, hissed Marsha venomously. “I’ll destroy you, and I’ll make sure that no business school in the country will ever touch Ben. Not with a ten-foot pole. You hear me? Oh, do you hear me? You bitch. I’ll destroy you. I’ll destroy your children. I’ll ruin you!”
Abigail froze on the spot. What had she done? She had ruined her son’s life. She had invited Marsha back into their lives, and now Marsha would ruin them all. She turned around, her eyes fixed on Marsha. “Get out”, sang Marsha. “Out, out, out! Out, out, out!” Abigail, who was near tears again, murmured, “Please Marsha”, as Marsha literally danced on the spot. “No”, said Marsha, her breathing coming in ragged gasps because of her exertions and her excitement. “You’re all done for. The Bruce family is done for.” She threw her head back and laughed.
Abigail snapped. She threw her bag down and rushed at Marsha, taking her by surprise. “You – will – not – touch – my – children”, panted Abigail, as she struggled with Marsha. Marsha, despite her frail appearance, was very strong. She pushed back at Abigail and tried to choke her with her hands. Abigail yanked Marsha’s hair back and managed to kick at Marsha, while her own hands entwined around Marsha’s throat. “Aaaaagh”, screeched Marsha, trying to free herself from Abigail. Abigail, who felt Marsha try to twitch out of her grasp, leaned forward and gave her an almighty push. Marsha fell backwards off the balcony. There was a sickening crunch.
Abigail shook like a leaf. She crouched down on the balcony. She couldn’t believe what she’d done. She’d killed her sister. She’d killed Marsha. She stood up and waited for a few minutes. There were no banging doors, no raised voices. Nobody had heard anything. She inched gingerly to the edge of the balcony and peered over it. She saw Marsha’s dark motionless body lying on the ground. She stepped away from the edge and shook some more. She couldn’t believe what she’d done.
Eventually, after what felt to her like an eternity, she managed to collect her bag and her wits. She eased herself out of the bedroom door onto the dimly lit landing. She crept down the stairs and to the front door. Just as she was about to attack the bolts, the doorbell jangled. She jumped out of her skin and rushed into the side room at once. After a few moments she heard footsteps approach the front door and open the bolts. There was a murmur of voices. “Miss Johnston is expecting you”, she heard the butler say politely. “I’ll just show you to the drawing room. Follow me, please.” The footsteps retreated. She slipped outside the side room and was out of the front door in a flash. She felt like laughing and crying as she raced down the street. She’d started to think that she was never going to get away from that house. This way, perhaps Marsha’s death would be ruled an accident. The front door wouldn’t be left unlocked. She knew she couldn’t take a taxi, and she didn’t want to risk a bus. She huddled into her coat as she walked quickly to the nearest train station.
An hour later, she let herself into her house, shaking. She undressed quickly, and threw her clothes into the wash. She had a long hot bath, and fortified her nerves with wine. She was amazed that she didn’t feel any guilt about what she had done, and wondered vaguely if it would come later. ‘I’m going to hell’, she thought sadly, although she wasn’t in the least religious. ‘Although, I did reunite the devil with his daughter, so maybe I’ll get a cookie.’ The thought made her laugh, although in a few moments she was crying deliriously. She went to bed with the beginnings of a high fever, and tossed and turned through the night.
In the morning, just as she’d made herself her first cup of tea, she got a telephone call. She picked up the ‘phone guardedly.
“Mrs. Bruce?” said the voice on the other end.
“Yes”, said Abigail cautiously.
“Mrs. Bruce”, said the voice, as it became fatherly. “I regret to tell you that your sister, Marsha Johnston, is dead.” There was a sympathetic pause.
“How awful”, said Abigail, automatically. “How – how?”
“It was either an accident”, said the voice, “or suicide. I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you”, said Abigail.
She rang off in a bit and sat down in her tiny living room, feeling a little overcome. She supposed she ought to feel something about what she’d done, but to her horror, she didn’t. Whenever she berated herself for this, it always came down to an insistent voice in her head. ‘She shouldn’t have said she’d ruin the children’s lives’, said the voice. ‘Everything else could be handled. But what did they ever do? It was their turn to live.’ They were hers, after all. They were her life’s work. Nobody could stand by and let their life’s work be ruined. ‘I’d die for them’, thought Abigail, dramatically. ‘It stands to reason I’d kill for them.’
About two weeks later the telephone rang again. This time it was Marsha’s lawyer. He informed her that Marsha’s will had left everything she had to her husband. As her husband had died before she had, Marsha had effectively died without a will. “That means”, said the lawyer, “that you will inherit her estate. You are her closest living relative.”
Abigail sat down suddenly on a chair, feeling revolted. “I don’t want it”, she stammered. The lawyer, who was surprised by the sudden emotion in her voice, urged her to reconsider. The estate, he said with the air of someone who was dropping hints like gold dust, was a very large one indeed. “You will be a very wealthy woman”, he said.
“I tell you, I don’t want it”, said Abigail. “I don’t care what happens to it. I won’t touch it. Let the government have it.” She reconsidered. “Or I’ll take it. I’ll take it and make it over to a charity of my choice.” She decided this was what she’d do. She had two pet causes: children and cats. “I’ll have it”, she said, decidedly. “I’ll have it and I’ll do what I want with it. That’s alright, isn’t it?” The lawyer sounded surprised. He had been used to Marsha, with all her sudden changes of moods, her arrogance, and her habit of talking down to people she considered lesser mortals. Abigail on the other hand, he decided, had taken leave of her senses. “Ye-es”, he said doubtfully.
“Alright then”, said Abigail.