Long Time Dead – a short story

Iris opened her front door to a crack and peeped outside. A bright sun shone through the trees, throwing dappled shadows on the ground. She shielded her aching eyes accustomed as they were to the closed-in-gloom of her copious home. She wished that she hadn’t accepted the Shaw’s invitation for this meant that tonight she would have to make herself presentable and emerge from the safety of familiar furniture and food. She shut her eyes, and continued her attempt to come up with a plausible excuse which would allow her to cancel. As she stood there, riveted in thought, a shaft of sunlight fell upon her upturned face. It felt warm, possibly even reassuring. It softened her mood. In the far distance, she could hear the Cathedral bells announcing evensong. Brief moments like this afforded her some satisfaction for her choice to live in Durham so far north from her son’s residence in Cambridge. Her wildest dream was that her husband would return to her and take up his position at Durham University.

At 6:45 pm Iris emerged to take the short walk up the road to the Shaw’ home. Their invitation was for 6:30 pm, but although Iris had spent the best part of the last three days preparing for this outing, she was incapable of being on time. Even as she shuffled along the street, she continued to go through the litany of excuses that she had reviewed to enable her to skip the dinner. When she arrived at the house she stopped and let the aroma of stocks planted in the front garden wash over her. She turned, although the stocks smelt pungently sweet, she thought that she could hurry home and call Mrs. Shaw to claim an acute allergic reaction. She stood and rummaged in her purse in search of a handkerchief with which to authenticate her excuse; a tall thin sickly-looking woman, casting a long shadow across the blue and white flowers. Before she found a suitable handkerchief, the front door opened and Mrs. Shaw, an apron around her waist came out. She grabbed Iris’ hand and offered warm words of welcome. Iris followed her inside.

Inside, Dr. Shaw greeted her with a “gin-and-It.” She accepted the drink and exchanged small talk with him and the Evans, who were neighbors from further up the road. At 7:00 pm a bell rang, and they adjourned to the dining room where they were joined by the Shaw’s two teenage children. The dining table, with a highly polished mahogany finish was elaborately set with silver, crystal, and china. It glowed invitingly. Someone had prepared name tags in rich black calligraphy. Iris wondered whether these were the same ones that had been used the last time that she had had dinner with them.

Iris groaned inwardly when she saw the dinner service, how she hated those plates! She assumed that they were used to stimulate conversation. After all who could resist a dinner plate carrying a pungent Scottish proverb such as:

“There is no greater fraud than a promise not kept.”

Wasn’t this a proverb that could steer conversation into a lengthy analysis of the current political debacle?

As she walked around the table, Iris quickly read each plate’s message. She wondered whether the placement was random, or whether some were placed to aptly describe the person who was to use it. For example, could;

“It’s a sad house where the hen crows louder than the cock.”

refer to the Shaw’s marriage in which Mrs. Shaw was clearly the dominating spouse?

Or could,

Bees that have honey in their mouths have stings in their tails.”

refer to Mr. Evans, who spoke so kindly, yet in Iris’ experience, had never performed a single neighborly act?

Or could,

“Alcohol does not solve any problem, but then neither does milk.”

define why Mrs. Evans, married to that bastard, drank so heavily?   if so, then the explanation and confirmation came with her possible retort?

“You speak of my drinking, yet you don’t know my thirst.”

Maybe, Iris thought,

“Many people are alive only because it is illegal to shoot them.”

aptly described the Shaw’s delinquent teenage son who was excessively rude to his parents? Then again, perhaps he was better than he seemed. Certainly, his mother doted on him. So, could,

“Do not judge by appearances; a rich heart may be under a poor coat.”

describe him better?

All these questions mellowed iris’ mood, but when the saw her place setting, she hesitated with an inner anguished palpitation. This did not alter her Parkinsonism frozen face. “Why, oh why” she thought, am I given the same plate every time, clearly it isn’t random. Why do they always give me the one engraved?

“Be happy while you are living, you’re a long time dead.”