The following is from D. Wystan Owen’s collection, Other People’s Love Affairs. The collection follows the lives of the people of an English village called Glass, and delves into their longings, heartbreaks, and capacity for grace. D. Wystan Owen has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His writing has appeared in A Public Space, The American Scholar, and Literary Hub. He lives in California.
For twenty years, Erma and Violet lived together in Glass, neither simply as friends nor precisely as lovers. If ever a question on the matter was raised, or if (more often) assumptions were made, they would share a glance, blushing, without a reply, not having a name for what they were to each other. Corpulence distinguished them both, indeed was something that had drawn them together, though Violet carried hers with superior ease. They shared a room in a half-timber cottage, two twin beds with a table between. They liked books, jigsaw puzzles and games, videos saved of Not Only . . . But Also. Each night, turning out the lamp before bed, Erma would say, not shyly, “I love you, Violet,” and then listen for a time to her friend’s moving lips as she proceeded through a whispered nightly devotion. Had she ever managed the words, what Erma might have said of their union was that neither of them had ever truly been cared for, except in these last years by the other. There was nothing in them really worthy of love, the world had for so long seemed to say; it had stopped saying that on the day when they met. Now, listening in the darkness, Erma was often moved, overcome, knowing it was she who rated highest among Violet’s prayers.
Sex had never come into things, at least not in a conventional sense. It wouldn’t have, in Erma’s case, being something she had long ago ceased to consider. (Aged eleven, she’d pined briefly after Phineas Cork, the only boy in school who hadn’t thought it was funny when she sat in the butter cruelly spread on her chair; later, she’d watched others court and be married, feeling only the mildest envy.) That she had wound up with another woman for a companion seemed perfectly natural and predictable to her, but she never considered it the like of other people’s love affairs.
Mostly, they displayed only passing affection, notwithstanding Erma’s avowals. Only once had they breached that convention in earnest, when news had come that Violet’s mother was dead.
A telegram had arrived at the house: an odd, archaic thing, even then. In the kitchen, Violet slowly sat down. She handed the paper to Erma.
It was strange: they’d lived together for years, and she hadn’t known Violet’s mother was living.
That night, for the first time, they shared a bed.
“My poor mum.” Violet trembled with grief. She lay on her side with her face to the wall.
“Oh, dear one,” Erma said. “You dear thing.” The curtains, gossamer, blue, did not move. With her own body, she traced the curve of her friend’s.
No prayers were said in their house on that night. Together, they breathed; one’s hand clasped the other’s. The sea could be heard where it battered the cliffs.
About the small coastal village of Glass they were known, traveling together in their pale yellow Beetle. Violet drove; people waved as they passed; smiling back, she tooted the horn. The car had been hers originally, as the house they lived in had been as well, possessed jointly since shortly after they met at the library, where Violet was in charge of collections and where Erma had a habit of running up fines. You got to know people in that line of work, as you did in Erma’s, too, selling paper and cards. They were friendly with local shopkeepers and clubs: with Herville, the butcher; with the Women’s Institute ladies; with Trilby, the florist, until she shut down.
“What Erma might have said of their union was that neither of them had ever truly been cared for, except in these last years by the other. There was nothing in them really worthy of love, the world had for so long seemed to say; it had stopped saying that on the day when they met.”
Meals were their own form of intimacy, a shared time calling them back to the body. Together, they cooked elaborate dishes: meat pies and hearty soups every winter; grilled fish, potato salads in summer. They had large appetites and did not pretend otherwise, as Erma felt they both must have done in the past. In the kitchen, as elsewhere, Violet directed, and though Erma was the more experienced cook, she didn’t mind being told what to do or even a harsh word now and then. Sometimes when it grew hot in the kitchen Violet would strip right down to her bra. “Don’t mind, do you, love?” she’d casually say, and then ask for a spoon or a bowl that she needed. “Don’t find it’s too much distraction?” She might sing a song, do a shimmy. “Your Feet’s Too Big” or “Roll Out the Barrel.” When Erma laughed, she covered her mouth; when Violet did, she threw back her head and her whole body tumbled in a beautiful manner, like water suspended for an instant in space.
And then, on the cusp of their twenty-first year, Violet’s heart failed her as she’d been warned it would do. Through the years, Erma had tried sometimes to institute diets, not wanting one herself, nor to spoil their pleasure, but frightened of being left alone in the end. Being younger by several years, she’d been burdened by the possibility of that.
They’d gone for lunch to a café they liked by the sea. In the sun, overlooking the long, rugged coast, the vendors and Ferris wheel on the strand, they had eaten crab legs with buttered rolls and white wine while gulls circled and landed nearby.
“I’d like anything you ate with a hammer,” Violet said. She laughed and pounded the table. “All I need is a robe and a wig.”
Afterward, they walked a trail near the shore, and it was there, in the dappled shade of an oak, that Violet collapsed, slowly, first to one knee and then further, with a plaintive glance over her shoulder, until she was laid out, quietly prone.
Erma rushed to her, nearly crippled with panic. The space around them was terribly still. She removed the cellular phone from her pocket, shaking as she pulled it open and dialed. Later, she would not recall what was said or how long she’d waited that way on the line. She would remember only how she held Violet’s hand, which was moist and scarcely able to grasp.
“You dear thing,” she said. “Oh, heavens. Oh, lord.” Soon, people came and shouted for help. A small crowd gathered; she wished they would go. One man placed his hands between Violet’s ribs and pressed while his wife held Erma away. From their place on the ground they could see nothing of the ocean and only the barest patch of the sky. Paramedics arrived with a board and a gurney; they placed a mask over Violet’s face. At some point, the top of her blouse was pulled open, and Erma wailed, wanting to cover her friend, shy for her in this state of undress, which only she herself had been allowed before to see.
When, passing through the Mercy Hospital doors, she was informed that Violet had died, Erma’s first thought was that the end of her own life might as well come, and that, when it finally did, she would never—not even once—have been kissed.
Violet had made a formal accounting, though she didn’t own much beyond the house they had shared. The will was in a safe deposit box in the city, which had to be opened by a long-estranged cousin, a woman who did not resemble Violet at all and who grumbled about the task, perhaps guessing that she would be unmentioned in the document. Catharine her name was. She came to the house, meeting Erma with a curious eye.
“I suppose I knew her quite well as a kid,” she said as they drove to the bank.
They had turned up Douglass, heading out of the village. A thick fog was rolling in off the sea. Outside the butcher’s shop, Herville was sweeping; Erma wondered if he had been told.
“Haven’t seen her for ages, though, really. I understand she let things go in the end.”
Erma didn’t say anything. She hadn’t any idea what Catharine could mean, unless she was referring to weight. The thought that there might have been talk about Violet, even gossip, among the unknown figures of her past was upsetting. Erma had not concealed a world of family, old friends; she’d had none of those things when they met. That had been at a very low time, when she’d moved to Glass with what money was left from her parents, two people who had tried to be kind but who’d never managed to disguise their disappointment with life. They had died some two weeks apart, not because the one remaining (her father) could not bear to go on without the other but because, in widowerhood, he had been relieved of a burden and had no obligations left to the living. She felt her parents would have left their house and their money to somebody else if they could have but had settled for her as they’d settled for other things, too: because it had been their duty to do so.
At the bank, Catharine entered the vault while Erma was left to wait in the lobby. The floors were polished to a high, mirrored gloss; she squinted, avoiding the glare from the lights. She ate a mint from her purse, blew her nose. She would have liked very much to be named next of kin. It had seemed only natural to her that she should be, but it turned out there were rules about that.
In the days since it happened she had not managed sleep. It was terrible to be in the bedroom, the empty twin bed beside her, sloppily made, as she’d so often reproached Violet for doing. In the darkness there was only her own breathing, sometimes the sea, and she longed for the sound of her friend’s muted prayers. She could not even recreate them in her mind, unable somehow to recall ever having made out a word of invocation. What she did recall was the quietness of it and the stillness she had felt while she listened: Violet, the buoyant and riotous one, transformed in the final moments of day.
The will, it turned out, contained a small curiosity. Everything had been left to Erma, without specification, excepting one item she’d all but forgotten. This was a damaged rolltop desk, a large and cumbersome walnut antique, that had been covered over with a dust cloth in the garage for as long as Erma had lived in the house. It was to be given to a man named John Killian, owner of the Green Man in Hart Street. Erma knew at once who he was, having been sometimes for a drink at the pub: a tall fellow, balding and painfully thin; he was friendly, an easy and good-natured man, but hardly someone they’d ever remarked on.
He turned up at the funeral but drew no attention. He wore black, placed a small bouquet of narcissus on the card table that had been arranged for the purpose. She had settled on a casual service, not lengthy or strictly religious, recalling that Violet had been brought up Catholic, but never having known her to confess. (Her prayers, she reasoned, had been of a general sort.) Cremation had been Violet’s wish, a release from the body for which she’d been known. Afterward, people milled about for a while. They took Erma’s hand, expressed their condolence, but stopped short, it seemed, of treating her as a widow.
She wrote to him one week after the service: a brief note detailing the gift, no query as to what its meaning could be.
Days passed. Life was dreamlike and strange. Evenings, she felt odd attempting to cook; her hand gripped the knife where Violet’s had, too. In the wash, some of her things were still there, the last time that would ever be so. In town, Mr. Herville sliced too much bacon; Ault reached, by habit, for a bottle of Port, forgetting that only Violet had drunk it. She didn’t linger in those shops anymore. It had been Violet, she saw now, who’d established their friendships, Violet who’d been fun, flirtatious even, who’d pulled faces, winked, said clever things.
After dinner, she often went out to the garage and stood awhile in the dim, fusty light. She regarded the desk, still covered at first, then with the dust cloth thrown to the floor. The finish was scarred, the wood chipped away; there wasn’t anything left in the drawers. Returning to the house through the backdoor one night, she heard the phone in the living room ring.
She recognized Killian’s voice: high-pitched and roughened by smoke in the bar.
“Thank you,” he said. “For letting me know.”
A foghorn sounded away in the harbor.
“Well, I only wanted to check. Ask you when the best time would be,” he said.
“The best time?”
“To haul it away.”
She was silent. He might have acted surprised. That would have been the kind thing to do. It was all so strange; beyond fathom, really. She said, “Oh, I’m sure I don’t mind.”
A puzzle, unfinished, lay spread on the table. Bruegel, a white and wintry scene. Violet had laughed as she scoured the pieces, hunting for bare buttocks, revelry, mischief.
“Come whenever you like,” Erma said. “It won’t make the least bit of difference to me.”
And so he arrived in a tweed suit, a tie, a rumpled walking hat held in his hand. In the doorway he stood, nervous, irresolute; with a briefcase and a stack of brochures he might have been a beleaguered salesman, a proselytizer. He had backed a small van against the door to the garage, the way she had instructed him to. It was borrowed, he said, from a friend in the hills, his own car not large enough for the job.
“You were the only other person named in the will,” she said as she followed him down the front steps.
It was midday; the sun was high and benignant. She bent down slowly to lift the garage door.
“Strange, that, wouldn’t you say? Of course, there were good times had in the pub, but I wonder why this desk of all things.”
He looked down. “I admired it once.”
He’d brought a dolly for lifting the desk, and she helped him tip the front end up off the ground. The old wood was heavy; she was obliged to press her whole weight against it, to strain further as she helped him guide it into the van along a short metal ramp he had borrowed as well.
“I should have brought somebody with me to help,” he said.
She was breathing hard with exertion. They both were. Wisps of hair clung to her face.
“It was wrong of me, making you do it,” he said. He slapped a fly at the back of his neck. In the wake of their effort, his shyness had grown.
“Oh, no, no,” was all Erma managed. She did not want him knowing how she minded it all: his coming, his driving away with the desk, or the damage wrought by her realization—firm and inescapable now—that Violet had been in love with him first.
Summer lingered and then finally broke; the trees throughout Glass surrendered their leaves. Through all the autumn months, she was visited by the humiliating thought that the night spent sharing one bed with Violet had for her friend been eclipsed by the love of a man. That she knew this man, had spoken to him in Violet’s presence, made it all the worse. She wondered if they had laughed about her in secret, for it was possible the affair had carried on to the end; she thought of Killian on the front step, hat in hand: Had he looked like a man whose lover had died?
The first time she parked outside the Green Man was on a gray evening in early November. The cobbles of Hart Street were slick, iridescent; lamplight caught wide swaths of delicate rain. That week, she’d seen a whale breach off the coast—a wild, heart-rending, beautiful thing, rare because it was late in the season—but no one had been there to witness it with her. On the radio, now, a program was on about a man serving a life term in prison whose paintings sold for fabulous sums. A critic said they could move you to tears. She lifted her fingers to warm at the fan.
Idling, she regarded the pub: the Dutch door, the yellow fruit machine light. She thought of Violet drinking there, years ago, before they had met one another: laughing, leaning over the bar to whisper something in Killian’s ear.
For her there had been the kind boy at school, as well as film actors: Paul Newman and such. But those sorts of things were undeniably different. She had never cooked dinner with anyone else, never fallen asleep beside anyone else. It would not even have been worse to find that Violet had loved another woman in her life, because at least then she would know it hadn’t repulsed her to be touched by one.
A couple came walking out of the pub and turned up Hart Street in Erma’s direction. They didn’t have an umbrella. The man wore an overcoat, holding it open; the woman stood near while he wrapped it around her. Erma turned the radio down. In silence, she watched them move, hunched in the rain. It was nothing for them, plainly, to stand close in this way, nothing to kiss, as they paused once to do. She could hear, as they passed, the sound of their steps and of their voices: whispering, laughter. She could see the woman’s small wrists, her pale calves, and her face lifted to the man’s—a bare offering—and all of it seemed ostentatiously to proclaim, “We are lovers! We are lovers!”
She slouched down in the driver’s seat (a seat that still did not feel rightfully hers) and listened until their footsteps had gone. She did not look again at the pub before pulling onto the wet, cobbled road, but she glanced up, just once more, as she passed it, heading in the direction of home.
“Through all the autumn months, she was visited by the humiliating thought that the night spent sharing one bed with Violet had for her friend been eclipsed by the love of a man. That she knew this man, had spoken to him in Violet’s presence, made it all the worse.”
There would be other visits to the tavern that winter, glimpses stolen through windows and doors of John Killian: serving drinks, changing a cask. If she stayed until close she could see him lock up, wave goodnight to any bar staff who might have been on. He would pause then and turn up his collar, use it to shield a cigarette from the wind. Sometimes, when he had got in his car, she would turn the key softly to ignite her own engine and follow the glow of his lights at a distance.
Why she watched, what it was she was hoping to see, she did not know. He never strayed from routine: never drove off in the company of a woman, never turned left where he should have turned right. Often she phoned the pub from inside the car, but when he answered she found herself with nothing to say.
December. Streetlamps were furnished with garlands, the Green Man with strings of bright colored lights. She and Violet had never really made much of Christmas, but they’d enjoyed their simple routine: a bottle of champagne, Richter’s good panettone, and, if Violet was feeling nostalgic, a walk past the church to listen at mass. What pained Erma now, as the holiday neared, was not simply the end of these things; it was the belief that, in her own absence, Violet would have managed to carry them on. For it was clear now that to Violet they had merely been roommates, bound first of all by convenience and thrift. How foolish Erma had been. That most everything had been left to her was hardly any consolation at all; she’d got that because it was only fair that she should, the same as when her parents had died. The greater gift, it seemed to her now, had been Killian’s, precisely because it was worthless, because it was no more than a symbol. In this short, meager life, it is a thousand times rarer to be given what isn’t owed.
When she telephoned Catharine it was midday, though Erma had not yet been out of the house. Outside, the landscape was fogged in and dreary. The sea and the sky were a similar gray. There was a pot of leftover soup on the stove, bread to warm in the oven for lunch. It took a moment to explain who she was; they’d not spoken since the will was retrieved.
“I thought I’d tell you how I was getting on,” Erma said. “And how the town remembers her. They still wave at the car when I pass. They forget, you see. Friends everywhere she went, Violet.”
“Was she always that way? When you knew her, I mean?”
“I suppose she was,” Catharine said. “She was a prettier girl than you’d think.”
“So she wasn’t always plain?” Erma said. She pictured Violet, laughing and near. She’d been the taller between them, the fairer. “I was, always.”
Catharine made no reply.
“And she had a good sense of humor?”
“Yes, of course,” Catharine said. “But you know that, Erma. You knew her a longer time than I ever did.”
Erma smiled hearing that and let the silence stretch a moment over the line. She was in the sitting room of their house, curtains drawn to the fog, the fire unlit. It had been she who’d split wood for them winters, having learned the proper way from her father, a job that more often a man would have done.
“Erma,” Catharine said. “Why have you called?”
“She must have been popular,” Erma went on. “With boys, I mean.”
“That was part of the trouble.”
There had been girls she’d admired, too, Erma thought now. From the far past there emerged an image of one, books clutched tight to a pretty white cardigan, skirt ballooning away from her waist. The sort of girl who might smile at you from a distance or offer to show you how makeup was worn, who might suggest asking a boy to spring ball, never thinking those things could be hurtful to say.
“She left home after school?”
“She never finished,” Catharine said. “I’m surprised you didn’t know that.” There was, for the first time, some cruelty in her voice. “Once she left, she never came back.”
Erma was reminded of all the many occasions she’d been surprised by some item from Violet’s past, as though assuming she’d not have had one at all, or that, as a matter of course, it would have matched exactly her own. That belief had been another part of the foolishness, for what in life had ever suggested that she might so possess her beloved? She should have recognized Violet, having seen her before: no different from the girl in the skirt, the kind boy; she’d been generous, loving after a fashion, but finally remote, beyond grasp.
“I held her all night when her mother died,” Erma said. She had never told anybody before. “I held her and kissed her neck while she wept.”
Catharine sighed. She was silent a moment, and then she said, in a voice no longer cruel but exhausted, “I nursed Violet’s mother through the whole of her suffering.”
By the time they had each said good-bye and rung off, the fog had given way to a rain. It fell steadily, softly, without any purpose, a sound like handfuls of dry, scattered seed. Erma stood, relit the stove for her soup, feeling she might stay in after all.
In the next days she didn’t return to the pub. It was not that she wished to let go of Violet or surrender the memory of her to Killian. Only she felt that the point had been reached where there wasn’t anything left to be learned. There was solace to be taken in one thing, at least: that the biggest changes of her life had already occurred.
And yet, as happens, despite her resolve, she did see John Killian again: a mere ten days later when, in the evening, she answered the door and was met with his figure. He was dressed in the same ill-fitting suit, the same tie, the overcoat she’d seen on so many nights. This time he was still wearing his hat, and it cast his face into deadening shadow.
“Now look here, Erma,” he said.
She stepped back, aware of her own beating heart, her own ribs.
“What are you after, ringing the pub? Slinking about, following me? I don’t like it. I’ve a mind to see the police.”
Momentarily, she tried to muster some anger: he’d come to her home, unannounced. What she found, though, instead, was embarrassment, shame. Her shoulders fell; she lowered her head. It did not cross her mind to tell him a lie, as it never had, really, in all of her life. Seeing her face now, one might have wondered if its lack of beauty had forever been a consequence of inability to deceive.
“Come inside, Mr. Killian,” she said. “Come inside, John.”
In the sitting room, he seemed slowly to alter. She watched him with his hands in his pockets, blinking as he regarded it all: the unfinished puzzle, the jars of glass beads, the doilies and anti- macassars on chairs.
“I’m having potato dumplings for supper.”
He frowned, puzzled, seeming not to have heard.
“I haven’t shared a meal these six months.”
She took his coat and his hat, led him into the kitchen. At the far end of the corridor was the bedroom, but she didn’t say that, knowing he knew.
On a pan, she arrayed the small yellow pies. She motioned for him to have a seat at the table, and when she’d put the dumplings in the oven, she joined him.
“How long has it been since last you were here?”
“Decades,” he said. “Twenty years, Erma.”
From the sadness in his voice, she believed him.
“The desk was in the bedroom, those days.”
They were quiet. He put his hands on the table. One wrist was broader than the other one was, irregular in shape, as though from arthritis. It would have bothered him lifting the desk. She wondered how he’d managed once he’d gotten it home.
“I’m sorry I lurked at the pub.”
“I thought you’d gone mad.”
“I didn’t mean trouble.” She shifted her gaze, not allowing it to rest on his face. “How did you find me out?”
“The car, Erma.” It almost seemed as if he would laugh. “Everybody recognizes that car.”
She smiled and glanced at the clock. “Not exactly double oh seven, I guess.”
At length, she rose to take the food from the oven, returning with two plates of dumplings, two forks. She offered a beer, and he accepted.
“It was hard when I found you were named in the will.”
She sipped her own beer, wiped the foam from her lip.
“It was something she’d kept a secret from me, which I never liked thinking she did.”
Killian nodded. Steam rose from his plate where he’d opened a dumpling with the side of his fork.
“She loved you, I suppose,” Erma said.
His chewing slowed, and she recognized in him the feeling she’d come to know in these months: the almost overwhelming weight of the heart, the way food became like a stone in the mouth.
“I drove her home in the evening sometimes,” he said. “She drank too much in those days. She was mistreated.”
It no longer shocked Erma hearing that said, only saddened her. “She was prettier then?”
“Maybe she was, but it was never just that. You know what she was like. Sometimes, when I put her to bed she would say something sweet to me,” he said. “But she was as likely to say something cold.”
“It’s terrible finding you were wrong about someone.” She did not want to eat. She was thinking of Killian sitting alone at the desk beside Violet’s bed. Listening, waiting for her breath to find a rhythm.
“I’m glad she never told you about me,” he said. “It wasn’t easy pouring drinks for the two of you, seeing you in the passenger’s seat of that car. I’m glad Violet and I had one thing to ourselves. It’s only fair, Erma, since you got all the rest.”
“Oh, no, no,” she said, as she had also on the day when he’d come for the desk.
She cleared their plates. He thanked her and stood, though it seemed he might like to stay a while longer.
As she showed him out, as they exchanged apologies and condolences, as they even embraced in the doorway, Erma knew that in John Killian’s eyes it was she who’d had the better end of things, who’d won Violet’s heart and what time there had been. He did not know, as all the other people of Glass did not either, that her endearments had gone for twenty years unanswered, that the desk in the bedroom had been replaced not by one large bed but by the addition of a second twin. When they’d waved at the car as it passed on the road, they had all thought or spoken aloud, “There is Violet with her Erma.” And when Violet had sounded the horn they had taken it for a proclamation of love. They need never find now how mistaken they’d been; what they believed had in time become its own truth. This was the gift that Violet had given in death, having been unable to offer what was asked for in life. It was quite a lot. Nearly everything, really. For Killian, there was only the desk and the memory of things whispered in the darkness of a room: thanks offered vaguely as breath through the lips; prayers from the world between waking and dreams.
From Other People’s Love Affairs. Used with permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2018 by D. Wystan Owen.