Phoenix writers met for a critique session last week, before the summer break. I wrote this in my sunny yard, trying to make a conversation between two people carry an undercurrent of menace. Nora may be rather more than a biographer and the apparent villain, Dominica, may have her own justification for her ‘collection.’
‘Even a cuckoo needs friends’ said Dominica. ‘And I was the perfect cuckoo at home with my father and his second wife’. Dominica lit another small cigar.
‘Second wife; you mean your step-mother? Did she own a name?’ said Nora.
‘She owned lots of things: occasionally my father but never, ever me. I called her stepmother. I was being honest. I never gave her another name. Why would I?’
‘Did you care?’ said Nora.
‘Care! Certainly not. She figured little in my world’.
‘I see’ said Nora and wrote down something else.
Dominica tilted her head and blew smoke upwards, towards heaven. ‘Do you? ‘she whispered. After a minute, she narrowed her eyes, then examined her polished nails.
She glared at two laughing workmen carrying furniture across the courtyard.
‘School passed slowly for me Nora, until I made a friend. I had been banished. Can you imagine that? Banished from my old home. Perhaps you can imagine. We are new to one another. Perhaps you can. My rage festered. I used to eat all my food so slowly, always thinking. Thinking. You know Nora even my bones felt full of rage. Molten. ‘
Nora stared at Dominica and then nodded. She could imagine.
‘Yet sad to say, I was a mere child. Revenge appeared out of my reach’.
Through the smoke, Dominica watched her new biographer. She liked to observe people, to test them. ‘I was young Nora. Imagination was all I had left to me. School dragged on. Dismal days. Lonely weeks. I fed on the life inside my head. No one approached me. Perhaps they didn’t dare. After all, I smelt of rejection and disdain. Now I smell of Jicky.’ Dominica reapplied her amber lipstick and smiled at Nora. ‘Even now friendship eludes me’.
Nora paused, holding her breath for a beat. ‘Does that bother you Dominica?’
‘Bother me? No. Not at all. I have my collection now. Exceptional people do exceptional things. We have to fly close to the sun. The cosiness of ordinary life bores me anyway’.
‘I have never found life particularly cosy’ said Nora looking at Dominica’s painted nails. She leant forward and adjusted her chair.
Dominica took a long sip of Lapsang. This biographer had backbone.
‘Who was your school friend then Dominica?’
Dominica smiled and looked at Nora carefully measuring her. ‘When I met Alice, she was rather small, like a stray field mouse. But Alice exuded loyalty. She needed my care. Craved it. We both gained from the arrangement. I might have a picture somewhere’. Dominica opened her monogrammed bag and appeared to search inside.
‘I thought Alice became an exceptional chemist Dominica. World class.’
Dominica smiled showing immaculate teeth. ‘My, you are well informed, Nora’.
‘I thought that’s why you gave me the assignment’.
‘Perhaps. Maybe. Yes, Alice had a brilliant mind. She had a rare talent for improvisation. There were times I felt awe. But she finally faltered Nora’. Dominica shrugged. ‘She finally lacked the courage that would — ‘
‘Take her to those places close to the sun?’ said Nora, looking about the courtyard at the preparations for the Burgos Grand Gala.
‘Touché’ said Dominica denying herself another cigar.’ That’s enough for this morning’s sketch of my past. I need to chastise some creatures, but first let me introduce you to a very special member of my collection. A personal favourite. Magdalena sleeps a good deal but her beauty is palpable. My refined Amber is exquisitely effective. Suspend your preconceptions, please. Follow me. I think we’ll take the second stair case’.
The Woman in Black
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