THERE WAS a great blackened pan being eased out of the greasy oven by a tiny old woman in padded oven gloves. No one in the crowded kitchen—yellow walls, hideous mess, marijuana smoke and incense—came forward to help her. But someone, a joker, called out “What is it this time, Scottie? One of your concoctions?”
What it was even Scottie herself was uncertain. She knew she had opened cans of baked beans and laid them on the bottom, or it might have been slices of stale bread—the bread at 45 Gover Street being invariably stale—in imitation of a bread pudding. She had tipped in a can of whole kernel corn and broken six or more eggs and then her old claw-like fingers had grated cheese for the top, only she had to give up halfway and cut the rest of the block into the thinnest slices she could manage. She told herself it would melt and run. Everything melted and ran eventually, though no one in the room shared this knowledge.
It was only later, when the dish was consumed—“…excelled yourself, Scottie,” “Don’t know what we’d do without you,”—that Rob, one of the young men in the house, came up to her and led her to a chair.
“Do you want to stay a bit longer?” he asked, “or would you like me to see you home?”
“I think home would be a good idea,” Scottie murmured, and he bent his head to catch her words.
“Back in five,” she heard him say to anyone who was listening—there were not likely to be many—and then his arm was under her elbow and she had her stick in her other hand and was being led—the people in the hall seemed to part—along the path with its cracked concrete, then onto the footpath and past Rob’s car, tethered to a lamppost, right to her own front door.
“Sleep well, Scottie,” Rob said, after the key was inserted, then taken out and placed in her palm.
She thought she heard his footsteps on her path, young and vigorous. But not even a snail could have heard hers, so slow and soft were they as she made her way to bed.
When she woke the next morning, Scottie felt the dreaded stiffness. She lay still for several minutes, thinking of her old cat, Huey, who had indulged in prodigious stretches when he awoke. His long golden body—he was huge and always slightly overfed—arched and elongated itself; then it concertinaed up to make a golden bridge. She tried to remember if the washing of his paws came after or before. But now there was no one to help her, so she must help herself.
She stretched her old toes with their thickened nails—why did nails grow thick when everything else grew frail?—as far down in the bed as she could. Then she moved her arms that had lain close to her body all night, as if to keep it warm, so they opened like the wings of a bird. Eventually, when she felt she was able to attempt it, she curled her spine and sat up. She tugged a pillow behind her back to ease the ache that was always there and seemed, indeed, to greet her with this first movement. Then she swiveled her legs over the edge of the bed and let them hang there as if they were reaching down to water, the green water under the slats of a wharf.
The muted sounds of music were still coming from next door, and Scottie imagined bodies curled on sofas or in bedrooms or even someone in the bath, their head pillowed on a towel and their feet splayed beside the taps.
Rob’s car was tethered to the lamppost by a rope attached to the steering column and passing through the partly-open window of the passenger door. Rob always claimed it was a car with possibilities. Whatever possibilities it possessed, movement was not one. The motor had seized and, exposed to the weather, the bodywork was faded and dirty. Even the rope was fraying at the ends like an old lion’s tail.
Last night, when Rob had escorted Scottie to her door, the car had loomed up suddenly and, dazed by a Drambuie pressed on her in a chipped teacup, she had wondered what it was. The light on the lamppost was broken as if it, too, was complicit in disguising it from the authorities.
Rob was Scottie’s favorite. It was not because he was good looking—she considered she was beyond looks, never allowing herself to look in a mirror, running a comb with wide-spaced teeth through her unruly gray curls. It was because Rob’s charm was the long-lasting sort she had encountered in men. Even when Rob was old, Scottie knew he would possess it. His body would thicken and his cheeks have pouches (both were already hinted at), but the soft and confiding light in his dark brown eyes would last until they finally closed.
The tethered car he had gestured to, the way one might acknowledge a casual lover, a ship passing in the night. But Scottie saw the affection in the gesture, an affection so broad she wondered if he parceled it out as a way of keeping it under control. And each of his love affairs began the same way.
“A new one, Scottie,” he might say, as she was assembling one of her layered dishes, wondering if the strata of eggs should go nearer the top or the bottom, above the tinned spaghetti or under it?
“Go slowly, dear boy,” Scottie would say, but of course it was hopeless. And who could blame a girl for being led on by those over-frank eyes, for reading the promise in them?
When one of these romances was over, it was to Scottie that Rob turned. On weeknights, when there was no party or new date, he would walk through the gap in Scottie’s ragged laburnum hedge and invite himself for poached eggs on toast. And Scottie, thinking her cooking was better when it was just for two—what could go wrong with three eggs slid into boiling salted water?—set the table with napkins and took a flower from the vase on the dresser and placed it on the table. It was Scottie who introduced Rob to poached eggs on bread that was buttered and lavishly spread with honey. At first he had mistaken it for one of her concoctions, but she had explained to him gently that it was a combination liked by the Romans.
“In that case,” Rob had replied, “we must open a decent bottle of wine.”
So while Scottie stroked on the honey with an old bone-handled knife, right to the edges of the crusts, Rob slipped through the hedge and returned with a bottle of Montana merlot cabernet sauvignon 2006.
“Hail, Caesar,” he said when two glasses were poured and the eggs, a little frilled around the edges, presented on ancient plates with a floral pattern.
And Scottie was right, he thought, as he slashed into an egg, releasing some of the yolk, and scooped up a wedge of toast over which the honey was now pouring. Wasn’t there a Roman saying about eggs and apples? He wracked his brain and it swam up, as if honey-borne. Ab ovo usque ad mala. Then he thought of all the things in between those two innocents: the oysters, the boar stuffed with live birds, the dormice. The feather tickling the back of the throat, the vomiting. The lack of respect for what had been consumed. The greater respect for the space cleared.
As if she was reading his thoughts, after the plates had been taken to the sink, Scottie pushed forward an old papier-mâché bowl with two Splendour apples. “There’s instant coffee if you want some,” she offered.
“I’ll have an apple,” Rob said, “but no coffee. Big day at the office tomorrow.” A bigger day than he liked to contemplate. He might even lose his job. He was behind with his drafting of a bridge and had already had two extensions. He needed his sleep to have a fighting chance.
He kissed Scottie on her two parched cheeks, told her not to see him out, and pushed his way back through the hedge. The lights were still blazing and someone had overflowed the bath and used all the towels to mop the floor. He set his alarm, pushed a chair under the handle of his door, and fell into bed.
Scottie woke in the early hours and thought she heard movement. Her house was close to the street and often she heard people on the pavement. She lay still, letting the room reassemble. The dust she had given up waging anything but a cursory war against. In the predawn light she could witness its triumph. The dressing table with its glass top was covered by a fine film. If she were to reach her hand down to her pile of library books, the dust would be there too. While her eyes rested on the dust—it was oddly restful, this substance that she herself would become—Scottie’s lungs took shallow, steadying breaths. The voices were in the street outside. Something or someone was being thumped. There were shouts of laughter, followed by more blows.
“Sit on the edge of the bed to get the blood back into your legs,” Scottie’s doctor had warned her. “Never get out of bed suddenly.”
But there was no time for Dr. Hazeldine’s strictures. Her dressing gown, her old hand on her walking-stick, the old worn bed-slippers into which her feet slid gratefully. The half-dozen steps to the front door with its lozenge of three-colored glass. Fumbling with the locks and wedging the door open for a safe return.
It was Rob’s car that was being attacked. Still tethered—they had not managed to sever the rope—its flanks were being beaten with sticks. And someone was spray painting a message.
“Stop that!” Scottie called. “Stop it at once. I’ve called the police.”
She had read that deep inside the rebellious resided the memory of a grandparent. When parents were overthrown this voice remained.
One of the three, the one with the spray can, straightened up.
“Go back to your lair, old witch,” he called.
But the sticks were put down. Not sticks but branches torn from the new Indian lilac trees, barely established in the street. Gratings held their trunks, intended to protect them.
“You’ve torn down our lilac trees,” Scottie wailed. And now she unlatched her gate and was out on the pavement. She raised her walking stick and wildly struck a blow.
Two days later Rob got a warning notice from the council. A police car, cruising past, after Scottie was safely back in bed, had stopped, read the graffiti, and taken the registration number. One of the constables considered the rope a nice touch and was reprimanded.
Rob’s response was to remove the number plate and tighten the rope. He was good at knots. The graffiti was ineffectually dabbed at with detergent and a cloth borrowed from Scottie.
“It’s not going anywhere,” Rob assured Scottie when he returned the bucket. “If all else fails it’ll become a work of art. Besides it’s unconscionable to give way to a first threat.”
“But the police…,” Scottie protested. They were never there when you wanted them. They always came later.
“It’s time they became art lovers too.”
Rob had an ally in the art gallery director who considered even the bent number plate—he persuaded Rob to hide it—an integral part. The immobility of what was supposed to move, the tethering of a free spirit—admittedly expressed in steel and chrome and leather—had all the marks of constructivism. There were elements of objet trouvé. Together they made a comment cloaked in pathos. Who could pass by the lamppost and not be amused or saddened, reminded of endless mechanics’ bills or the price of petrol? Even the tethered rope suggested the way our possessions, even when defunct, cling to us like aging pets.
“Wait until the removal notice comes and I’ll write a letter to the paper,” the gallery director promised.
The town rose splendidly to controversy: weeks of pro- and anti-art letters would follow. At least Rob’s car would be safe. In preparation he began drafting a declaration worthy of refusés from a Paris salon. At present the gallery was showing a collection of eighteenth-century political etchings. It was not difficult to visualize the car on a bed of straw on the ground floor. The graffiti could be augmented by the public. Bills could be pasted to the doors. It would become a loved object in no time.
Scottie (Isabella Scott Rider b. 1927) was a blank canvas to Rob. Her present cooking was a mere shadow of the elaborate dinners she had supervised as a society hostess. The notion that she had once entertained captains of industry and minor politicians would have been inconceivable to him. Sometimes she longed to drop a hint, but the moment always passed. She thought her eyes were rheumy and her cheeks raddled. Once she had stroked highlighter along those high and sculptural bones and Harold, her husband, had squeezed her hand surreptitiously in the throng. Late at night, in various cities, after their soirées, they would lie awake, discussing their guests. Never dissecting, because Harold Bennington-Foukes was a gentleman and a diplomat, but searching for the balances of power and the underpinning characteristics. Harold had loved Scottie’s intuition which he knew went deeper than the gracious gestures that were second nature, inclining her head with its fair swing of hair—she wore it Veronica Lake–style—to catch a confidence. When she offered an opinion—tentative, since she felt justice was required and there were always unknowable factors—Harold always gave the appearance of listening, though Scottie knew his thoughts could be far away.
“Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt,” Harold would say. “Let’s give him another dinner.”
And then Scottie would try seating Timothy Menzies in another place at the table, next to a woman she knew was well-bred and would not snub him.
If Scottie did not confide her life story to anyone it was not because no one thought to ask—that discovery had been a relief—but it would mean explaining a kind of fall from grace. Harold had left considerable debt, but worse, he had invested foolishly and, after his death, Scottie had found most of her friends and prospects flown. A quiet apartment—she would not give herself airs or invoke the past—until finally she had ended up the pet and part-time cook for Rob and his friends. If only her sight was better and she could see what she was putting into those casseroles!
“It could be a regular Saturday engagement,” Rob had suggested, wondering if he asked too much. But Scottie had risen to the occasion. She was glad of the memories that came sometimes when she was chopping onions; she allowed herself to cry not just for the pungent scent but for old losses. She realized that they need releasing, these fraying ghosts, whether they were people or simpler memories of actions performed so often they took on the comfort of living beings. Rob had offered to slice the onions for her after he came on her clutching the edge of the bench and wiping her eyes with a not-very-clean tea towel. But Scottie had demurred. She had not been above using an onion herself—it gave the effect of hours of crying—when she had wanted something from Harold. “Of course,” he would say, looking at her red-rimmed eyes and thinking of the important guests he was bringing.
On Saturday nights, when she toddled back to her bed, Scottie lay in the dark thinking of the memories she had released that day. She hoped they might leave room for new life and free her from the muddle-headedness that seemed to afflict so many old people. Clogged up, she told herself, knowing in a few hours she would need to go to the bathroom.
But, in Scottie’s case, even that was put to good use. She stood by the back door, looking up at the stars, or stepped into her back garden. She felt something urgent was being communicated by the starlight. The topmost delicate leaves of the white camellia tree seemed to dance and gyrate in the energy that fell on them, as if they were being rewarded for their astonishing bravery. For beyond those tiny unfurling leaves what was there but the vast unimaginable reaches of space? Gazing at the ocean from a shore was nothing compared to it. Eternally the stars shone down, applauding with their silvery light.
Rob’s car, after a warning and a removal notice and a visit from the police, was eventually moved in the dead of night. A neighborhood petition to save it, at least until its status as an art work could be determined, was ruled invalid.
A little party in balaclavas and black jerseys ceremoniously untied the rope, a bottle of sparkling grape juice was broken over its bonnet—this honor fell to Scottie, who had spent the evening preparing one of her wilder dishes, with a layer of eggplant and tomato sauce. Then the car was pushed and propelled up the ramp of a friend’s flatbed onto the back of a truck. The truck drove off, with the partygoers aboard. The following morning only the rope remained.
“Escape from the hangman,” Rob told Scottie. He was in a soliloquizing mood. “Which of us gets the seal of approval we deserve before we die?” he demanded. “It’s a travesty that decorations and medals are handed out so late.”
Scottie didn’t like to ask about the car’s resting place. Later she heard it had been pushed over a cliff into a deep green lagoon among fellow car bodies, television sets, and baby carriages.
Winter was coming and Scottie hunted out an ancient recipe for mulled wine. And she changed her casseroles. She might ask Rob if she could cook a leg of lamb. Lamb had been a great favorite with Harold: leg of lamb on a bed of rosemary. Its pale juices running, more poignant than blood, when the tip of the carving knife pierced the skin.
She would point out to Rob that it was worth the expense. But then she reflected it was unlikely there would be leftovers to be eaten cold or turned into a shepherd’s pie with a potato top raked by a fork so it resembled a ploughed field.
Rob’s car had been replaced by one that was both warranted and registered. For a while the rope of its predecessor lay in the gutter until one morning it was picked up and flung into the maw of the rubbish truck.
Rob himself seemed to be seriously dating. The stream of girls had been replaced by one, Smilla.
“I don’t think I’ll need you to cook so much from now on, Scottie,” Rob said one Saturday afternoon when she was picking a few brownish hydrangeas from her garden and he was attempting to run a mower through the long grass. There was something clean and fresh and uncompromised about Smilla which went with trimmed hedges and clean windows.
“But I need to talk to you,” Rob said. “You know more than I do. I’d appreciate some of that knowledge.”
Knowledge of what, Scottie wanted to ask, but he had turned away. For the next two nights she lay in bed, puzzling, after her bed lamp was turned off. Knowledge of anything was so brief. The knowledge that Harold had married her for her gaiety. Though that was a word hardly ever used now. That her quieter qualities did not interest him—and she soon learned to keep them hidden. Soon she was so used to rising to the challenge of gaiety they were almost forgotten. And yet they had returned now, in this last stage of her life, when her cooking had been reduced to layers of pap. Now that she had all the time in the world to reflect, the world had become hazy.
Irony, Scottie thought, as she placed her old hands on the coverlet as if she were already dead and laid out, could be expected. Irony like Rob’s car which couldn’t even perform the purpose for which it existed. Sometimes she wondered if irony was something that human beings loved and even sought?
Now, on winter evenings when Smilla was not visiting, Rob came and sat with her. It was long past her bedtime but she didn’t protest. With the cessation of her cooking, age seemed to have come upon her, like something springing out from behind a curtain. Had bad food really been the preservative of an illusion of youth?
One Wednesday Rob bought a little bottle of late-harvest wine, sweet and redolent of summer scents, and a small heart-shaped box of peppermint creams.
“What is this for?” Scottie asked, screwing up her rheumy eyes.
“Is that something a lady should ask?”
“Why should a lady not?” Scottie replied. Nonetheless her hand fumbled at the ribbon on the box. Wine and chocolates would make for a sleepless night. Or maybe not, since sleep was so uncertain.
She wanted to say something to Rob about the treasures of sleeping less. Watching the dawn filter and fill her room, a change so subtle she felt her breath become shallow lest she should forfeit a new day. And one morning, recently, when she woke after a night of pain and premonition, she found herself smiling broadly at the gift of life.
“How do you please a woman, Scottie? Long term, I mean. Outside the physical.”
“Everything is physical to a woman,” Scottie replied. “A little pleasure every day.”
She wanted to say that a touch on her hand, a squeeze of her waist, someone coming up behind her and wrapping his arms around her like a boa constrictor, could be better than sex.
“You don’t always need to…,” she began.
“Go all the way.”
“See everything leading to something else.” And yet that was how she had felt about the dawn. Perhaps nothing definite could ever be said.
“Enjoy every day,” Scottie said, when her glass was refilled and she had taken a second peppermint cream. “Don’t expect it to add up, like money in the bank. Don’t be an accountant.”
Harold had that tendency. Once when she was restless—for a very short period, but he had sensed it—he had enumerated all he had given her, as if it were a dowry. Holidays, entertainment, not having to work (an envious look had crossed his face), social standing.
“I know, darling,” she had said. “Sometimes we are foolish creatures.”
“Smilla has obliterated the others,” Rob confided. “I tell her she is the panzer of my heart.”
“Then I hope she doesn’t make tracks in it,” Scottie smiled. She thought of the pale Swedish girl with her calm practicality who had lifted the baking dish from the oven with a giant glove on each hand. I must not suspect calmness, she told herself, merely because I possess so little of it myself. Calmness and the appearance of it were two different species of women. She had no doubt that it was this calmness that had tamed Rob.
“She’s so relaxing to be around,” Rob said.
“But mightn’t you one day require something different? To relaxing?”
Rob had looked at her, astonished.
“Of course you could get your excitement elsewhere,” Scottie said. “Your career….”
She felt incredibly tired and ready for bed.
For a few days after this remark, Scottie did not see Rob. She began her preparations—at her age there was no hope of accomplishment, merely the setting in place of certain small steps in case her life, when she most needed company, was to be supportless. After some thought she lifted her walking stick, normally sloped against the side of the bed, and set it alongside her body.
The truth, as Scottie knew, was that men first deflected any remarks made by women and then took them away for consideration. When Scottie had seemed to disparage calmness, Rob had needed to digest it. Any remark that was not fully sweetness and light, as if there were a requirement for women’s speech as well as their figures.
“Let me tell you about my life,” Scottie began boldly when three nights later Rob reappeared carrying another bottle of late harvest Riesling. “I think it is good for a man to understand a woman’s life.”
“But first,” Rob interposed, “Smilla and I want you at our engagement party. As guest of honor. Smilla has explained to me how much I owe to your cooking.”
“I suspect Smilla is a proper cook. As I once was,” Scottie murmured.
The wine was poured into two flutes—a gift from Smilla—and Scottie leaned back in her chair.
“Just a summary,” she said. “But I’d like someone to know I am not just a ferociously bad cook. You can use the information for my eulogy, to which I invite you both.”
Scottie looked at Rob as he settled back in her old cane chair. He gave no sign of weariness, though that could be graciousness or self-control. His failure to sigh or glance at his watch meant, in return, she would give him only the rudiments. She reached out a wrinkled, veined old hand and touched his arm. He was dressing better, she noticed.
“I won’t begin with ‘I was born,’” Scottie smiled. “Or childhood. Childhood, I think, is just for oneself.” To be celebrated or ignored. “I met Harold when I was twenty. At a cocktail party at the British High Commission.” Back into her mind shot a cocktail hat in peacock blue satin, a shape like an acorn or a cardinal’s hat. A veil with dots floated from it, bestowing mystery on her face. Beware of mystery, Scottie wanted to say.
Only once, while the recital lasted, did Rob lean forward to refill her glass. She paused to raise it to her lips, as if words and nectar were connected.
“Where was I?” she asked.
“You were in Singapore,” he replied.
Singapore where she had learnt of Harold’s frailties, so oddly contrasted with such an ordered society. Her own little flirtation, as if the blue hat had been put on again. Was it perfidy she wanted to give Rob a notion of? That Smilla might not always be attentive in that calming way?
Quickly Scottie gathered up London, Paris, Bruges, Hanoi, until she was on a cruise ship. From reward to reward she had gone in search of happiness. And now there was her single hollowed bed near the window and the chance—she would not tell Rob it had been one of the best things in her life—to make casseroles of canned corn and baked beans, a dozen carefully broken eggs and a topping of cheese in an old oven that smoked.
Rob’s hand reached for hers now.
“I had no idea, Scottie,” he said, as he leant forward to kiss her old cheek, softer far than Smilla’s, though that softness was coming, far off, like someone waiting for the dawn.
“You will be matron of honor, Scottie?” he insisted.
“If I’m still standing,” she glanced up at him. “I will.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.