WOMEN OF THE WORLD VIGNETTES
Jen went to the altar seeing the world through an untroubled haze of valium, delivered an hour before she left for the Mass by the local doctor’s syringe. The doctor was a friend of her mother. It would have sedated an elephant, never mind tranquillising a bride, Jen often thought, remembering how little she recalled of feelings about the day. She could remember the events, the hours, retained strong, even vivid impressions of the passage of the noonday wedding, of photographs taken outside the cathedral by a nervous photographer, and the ensuing celebration in a big country house hotel. She could remember how her Italian college friend Maria-Theresa had worn beige-coloured wedge shoes, and a fluttery, yellow dress, with no bra beneath. And how some of the men had chatted happily and with some amusement about this latter detail. She remembered her sister-in-law’s eyes boring enviously and critically into every aspect of the day, and she remembered her father’s side of the family – aunt Emer’s mink stole, and the bright smile and curious but kind eyes of her other aunt Sister Ignatius, who was home from her convent in Los Angeles. There was also the spectacle of her mother’s sister, Louisa, who wore a hat piled high with fruits and flowers, so that she looked like the Mexican singer Carmen Miranda from an old 40s movie, even though she herself considered that hat to be the height of class. Aunt Louisa had taken it on herself to switch the guest place-names, so that the lady doctor who had sedated Jen that morning, and her dolt of a doctor husband, could be seated at one of the top tables also, thus sending Jen’s favourite cousin Alicia to a table further down the banqueting room.
But she recalled no particular feeling about the day, a fact which was to pursue her down the years, and no matter how many times she tried to tell herself that the past was the past, and that the whole day was a past event, she still felt nothing but bitter regret and a vicious rage that her mother could have allowed such a thing to happen.
She had been twenty-three, and barely finished university. Looking back, the fiction she sometimes told herself was that her mother was used to getting her way. And Jen, moving from being student to wife had not yet learned to bypass her mother’s opinions and was still young enough to do as she was told. But was it a fiction? After all, she had felt powerless, she had felt attacked by nerves in the days approaching the wedding, she had felt she would not be able to make it up the aisle and down again without collapsing, or fainting, or being overcome by some massive and unspecific panic-attack. All she wanted was to feel calm and not as if she was about to die from fear.
Her fiancé Harry, had suggested they call the whole thing off just two weeks beforehand, and she agreed that it would be a good thing. They were not sure enough, they both felt, and it was all too soon and too hurried.
But of course it had not stayed that way. Within two days of the break-up, he phoned her. She heard his breathing from the wind-up public telephone in his own town, traffic rumbling along the concreted urban road on which he lived, but also his hesitation and his longing. And suddenly she felt her own longing surge again, and the incontestable good things, despite her fears.
At intervals during the years that followed, her mother, whenever the subject of the wedding was broached, usually when she herself was bemoaning the small number of guests Jen had invited, remained oblivious to the fact that the sedation of the bride had been a strange act of collusion. On her mother’s part. On the doctor’s. And on her own part. Jen included herself in this roll-call of culpability, because she had permitted it to happen, she blamed herself for not having been stronger and more resistant to such smoothing over of her anxiety.
Jen’s mother, thirty-five years on, still believed that Jen was highly-strung and nervy, that she got herself all worked up over nothing. Sometimes Jen regarded her in the wedding photo, in the carefully selected outfit cut on the bias to flatter still-slim hips, and subtle, biscuit colours, all crowned by an elegant hat that did not announce Mother of the Bride, so much as Woman of the World.
Years later, she recalled the last time she saw Lavinia. It was on one of her weeks off work after the first cut-backs began. She was at home, trying to make tomato bread the way Nigella did. She glanced out the window and watched her neighbour pass, a leather satchel slung over one shoulder and bouncing off her hip with every step. Lavinia had glanced in the direction of her window, and Jen waved, just in case Lavinia had spotted her. But there was no response so Jen assumed the big cherry-tree with its waving branches were creating criss-crossing reflections, and that although she looked out and could see, she was invisible to all.
Lavinia never returned. She had walked with her best, bright face on, lipsticked and brown-eyed, towards the bus-stop. Afterwards, as the gardai tried to piece things together, it seemed unlikely that she actually reached the bus-stop, that within her home and the five hundred yards to her destination, someone had snatched her.
Jen shivered. There was a someone in the area – in the county or in the town – who was taking women. A hawk of a man. A raptor. And he was getting away with it, swooping down with his talons to lift them like lambs only to whisk them away and rip them asunder..
How easy it must have been for him, when most women seemed to live in a state of blind trust. She did, although every time someone else disappeared she chided herself for such foolishness. But why should it be foolish to live as if one were not in danger? Surely that was the natural response to being alive – not to be afraid, not to be as guarded about one’s safety as if one were crossing a minefield in latter-day Vietnam? Apparently not. The message was: watch yourselves girlies, from eight to eighty you are not safe.
The killer was at large. As she walked around the town that week, and the first reports of Lavinia’s disappearance were causing a lot of talk, she knew instinctively that her neighbour had not simply gone away or run away or whatever it was that unhappy people did to exact their revenge on a boring marriage or a bullying boss or horrible children. Firstly, Lavinia was not unhappy. Jen knew that, and that was what she told the Gardai when they called. The two uniformed women had carefully written down everything she said. More precisely, one of them wrote while the other one looked. The one who did the looking kept her eyes on Jen’s face, scrutinising, watching. Occasionally, without moving her head, she would take her eyes off Jen and scan the room. Up and down and around and into every corner those grey eyes probed, as if she might uncover some mote of telling information. Or perhaps she was just nosey, Jen thought later, curious at the state of the place, with its large-leaved plants and dried-out sticks from which hung various charms and small pottery creations from her husband’s workshop. There was also the possibility that her scrutiny of the green-leaved, sharply pointed plants consisted of a cursory check that they were not growing cannabis. That made Jen smile. And sometimes, what the Gardai didn’t know wouldn’t harm them. What they didn’t know was that herself and Lavinia next door frequently shared a little stash of harmlessly purchased weed, for weekend consumption.
But where was Lavinia? At night, she clung to Harry, comforted by the clay smell of the pottery workshop that wafted gently from his pores. He was one of the good guys. How glad she was that she lived with him, that she had stuck with him despite the Valium of her wedding day, safe with his bulky body beside her. When she was feeling fragile, she would ask him to lie on her, to let his weight rest on her much slighter frame in the bed, so that she was squashed and comforted at the same time.
She thought of Lavinia all the time. Of how her friend was probably buried in some undiscoverable spot in the Wicklow mountains, or in the Slieve Blooms. The remains, damaged no doubt. Skull shattered.
She could name them, a litany of girls and women from the county and from the province, long gone and never recovered. Men did this because men could. Because they were stronger. Because they hated something about women. What exactly it was they hated was unclear to Jen, but only an angry, raging bull of a person would set out to exact his revenge on someone physically weaker. No female was truly safe, ever, from infancy to eighty plus. That was the truth, according to Jen.