It’s nine-thirty in the evening. Clara is cleaning the table. She piles dirty plates on top of each other, until they make a small castle of china, which she takes to the kitchen. Her sister, Laura, follows Clara with the rest of the dishes. ‘I can wash, and you dry up?’ Clara’s voice sounds softer than usual. She doesn’t know how to bring up the topic. Maybe I should wait until we’ve had our tea, she thinks.
‘Yeah, sure,’ Laura replies. ‘I’ll take the bin out as well.’ She starts putting the leftovers in a black binbag, carefully, as their mother used to. In fact, everything their mother did in her life was a lesson in tact and patience, something Clara always found terribly dull. But not Laura. She is still fond of that kind of neatness.
Everything is going smoothly. Clara drowns the dishes under a big cloud of detergent, filling the room with the smell of fake lemon. She rubs her hands together now and then, uncomfortable with how wrinkled her skin turns under hot water. Laura dries up each plate, glass, and piece of cutlery, and puts them back in the cupboards and drawers, arranging them by size and colour. Even if this is not her house, she knows her way around. So well she can easily tell that someone else has been spending time over.
‘Are you going to tell me more about him?’ Laura asks.
Clara stares at her. ‘Who?’ She tries to fake surprise. If Laura knows anything about him, the information certainly came from the wrong people. It’s best to wait, Clara thinks.
Laura’s sigh sweeps through the kitchen. She doesn’t have the energy to get into an argument with her sister. If she wants to keep secrets from her, then so be it. People are talking. How old is he, anyway? Late fifties? Never been married. No children. Some sort of painter, but no one has seen any of his work. He lives all by himself in that old, huge house by the river. If he ever has guests, it’s hard to tell. There’s only ever one room lit in his place. Why would he need a Victorian mansion if he’s not going to use all of it? There are large trees in the main garden, and it’s hard to check on his place without being intrusive. He rarely goes out during the day, except when he shops twice a week at the grocer’s, to get sourdough bread, fresh pasta, smoked bacon, eggs, milk, and sometimes dried prunes or apricots. A few of the neighbours are worried. Some have daughters. No one is implying anything, and they won’t know for sure what he’s capable of until… And no one wants to live with that kind of fear.
‘I hope you don’t think I’m being rude,’ Laura says, placing her hand on her sister’s shoulder, ‘but you mustn’t see this man anymore. You’re going to upset everyone! We think he’s daring and vulgar. We’ve heard about his affairs, and that’s not how we do things here.’
Clara’s eyes flicker with rage. She goes to the fridge and takes out an opened bottle of red. She pours herself a glass and takes a long draught. ‘Thank you for coming over tonight, it was great to see you. I’m feeling rather tired, so I’d like to call it a night. See you again next week? Your place?’
This wasn’t the reaction Laura expected. Pride doesn’t let her stay quiet. ‘Look, you can either tell me more about him, and I’ll talk to the other townspeople to soften their hearts, or we’ll have to do something about this unfortunate situation.’
‘Do something about what?’ Clara says, wryly and laughs. She gulps down the wine in her glass. ‘Privacy is a blessing in this shithole, isn’t it?’
‘If you would just listen—’
‘I can’t, this is all so silly!’
Again, there is that quiet, tense moment in the kitchen—Clara sits on a chair, looking down at her feet. She arranges her black dress and tries to remember how long she has had it hanging in her closet. The more she thinks about it, the more she realises she’s no memory of purchasing it. Laura looks at her, and then away, and then makes herself comfortable on the floor, at her sister’s feet.
‘It’s not like I want to interfere in your life,’ Laura says. ‘But I think it’s time someone talks sensibly to you. Come on, you must know by now what truly concerns us. Mrs Nadia knows a girl who had a friend that dated him. They were engaged and everything. She was five years younger even than you!’ Laura moves closer, touching Clara’s knees, as their mother used to when she wanted to share one of her many dark secrets. ‘No one is accusing him of anything, but the girl disappeared one day, and never returned…’
‘What are you trying to say?’
‘Well, I’m just thinking here. A young, smart girl like that? Wouldn’t it have been more logical for her to go back to her parents if they’d separated? Why leave and never return?’
‘Don’t talk like that!’ Clara gets up and starts pacing, measuring the room with her feet. ‘I can see that there’s a lot of unusual interest in him. I’m sure he won’t mind responding to all of these…concerns. Why not ask him next time he’s in town?’
How awful of Clara to be so defensive, Laura thinks. It’s her duty as an older sister to look out for her. Laura hesitates a couple of minutes over what she should say next, but can’t think of anything. So she decides to show how offended she is by rushing towards the door. ‘I thought you’d appreciate my kindness. I guess I was wrong.’ She gets dressed, buttoning her coat angrily. As she leaves the house, she turns quickly and says, ‘Darling, I didn’t mean for us to fall out this way. I have to protect my dignity more than anything, and I’ve really tried to open your eyes, haven’t I? I’m sorry. I’ll keep my distance from now on.’ She turns and walks away slowly, expecting Clara to come out and apologise, but all she can hear is the door slamming behind her.
Clara goes upstairs to the bathroom and analyses in the mirror the black dress she’s wearing. It’s delicate and sleek and fits her body perfectly. It’s shorter than she would usually wear and more revealing—it shows her entire freckled cleavage. How could I have not noticed that this wasn’t mine when I put it on earlier? she wonders. I would never buy a dress like it.
The phone rings and rouses her. She rushes downstairs and answers.
‘Hello,’ a deep voice replies.
‘Hey,’ Clara says, recognising the voice. ‘How have you been?’
‘Fine, thanks. We need to talk.’ He coughs and pauses. ‘How do you like the dress?’
‘I like it alright.’ The lie leaves her shaking, but she keeps herself calm by tapping on her leg, as her mother used to. Funny how we all turn into our mothers eventually, Clara thinks. ‘Would be great to see you. I’m free tomorrow,’ she continues, making an effort to sound cheerful. ‘Come over for dinner?’
‘I’m afraid it can’t wait. I’ll call a cab, be there in no time.’
‘Sure. See you soon.’
Clara’s heartbeat synchronises with the ticking of the wall-clock. ‘Where is he?’ she asks herself out loud. Why is it taking him so long? She sits on the couch, with her back straight and her hands on her legs, tapping. Tap. Tap. Then her fingers are chasing the lace flowers on the dress. She recalls everything Laura said earlier. Nonsense! Those jealous people with their filthy mouths and ridiculous ideas, thinking they can get away with saying such horrible things about someone they barely know. In the back of her mind, she is aware she doesn’t know much about him either. She tries to create a timeline of their moments together, how they met, their first kiss, the passionate nights. Everything is rather vague. Shouldn’t she remember those moments in greater detail? But there’s no time to think of this right now, as she can hear heavy footsteps approaching the door. She opens it before he can knock and invites him in.