Cheese and Wine
It was the first of June and it had been raining all night. Eleanor Brady was wakened by the sound of thunder crashing over her roof and she was alarmed by the lightening that flashed repeatedly through her bedroom window, like God’s anger. Her husband, Donal, slept through it all.
Next morning, the rain stopped but it remained hot and misty with heavy hot clouds hanging from a still threatening sky. Eleanor slipped on her raincoat and green Wellington boots and walked up her garden. The ground was soaking and the roses had taken a terrible beating - there were petals scattered on the grass and some of the flowers looked bloated and sick. When Eleanor tied back the few branches that had come loose from their stakes thorns cut her fingers and her blood mingled with the white and yellow of her roses. But she didn’t notice. She fetched a rake from the garden shed and cleared away any fallen leaves and twigs. Then she stood and looked and when she’d assured herself that the garden was tidy again Eleanor returned indoors.
After breakfast of toast and tea and marmalade she put on a pair of yellow rubber gloves and cleaned the kitchen and she then did the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms. After that she vacuumed and dusted and made the beds and by early afternoon her house was gleaming. Eleanor rested for a while and drank a cup of camomile tea.
The sun burned its way through the clouds and the afternoon turned bright and warm. Eleanor worked in her garden again and when she returned indoors she found her husband in the kitchen, home from the office, smoking a cigarette and reading the evening paper. Donal was an opera buff and he loved reading the reviews of new productions. Eleanor opened a cupboard and took out a glass ashtray and slid it onto the gleaming, wooden kitchen table.
‘Are you hungry?’ she asked Donal. She ran a cloth around the rim of the cooker’s electric rings and made a loud, clicking sound with her tongue when she spotted a tiny, hard pea tucked in between the elements.
‘We’re dining with Helena McDermott tonight,’ Donal reminded her, without lifting his eyes from the paper. ‘Had you forgotten?’
‘I had,’ Eleanor lied. ‘Do we really have to?’
Donal folded back the middle section of his paper and as he did so a millimetre of cigarette ash dropped silently and treacherously onto Eleanor’s gleaming kitchen table. She hurried forward and scooped the ash into her hand and then dropped it into the pedal bin that was lined with a thick, plastic garden sack.
‘Try to be more careful,’ she said, washing her hands at the sink.
‘How do you mean?’ Donal asked, only half listening. ‘I had to accept the invitation. After all, Helena’s an old friend. There’s nothing to worry about.’
‘I’m not worried,’ Eleanor said. The tiny, ornamental kitchen clock on her Welsh dresser said seven minutes past seven.
‘I’ll get changed,’ she said.
‘You’ll never change,’ Donal said but he turned to his wife and smiled, making sure she realised it was just a joke. ‘You look fine as you are, Nell. Why bother with all that malarkey? We’re only going next door.’
‘You wouldn’t understand,’ Eleanor said.
She brushed past Donal and went upstairs and dressed. She was in no mood to visit Helena McDermott for a meal. Eleanor was never in the mood for Helena and her stupid, bottle blonde pretentiousness. Eleanor had no time for women at all. Or men. She had no interest in flirtations or passions or all those silly, romantic notions they wrote about in books and magazine. Love didn’t last long and sex was terribly untidy. Apart from Donal and God, her garden and her tidy home Eleanor didn’t care for much else in this world. Except herself, of course.
At eight o’clock sharp they rang the bell on Helena’s front door. It was opened immediately and Helena was standing there in the hallway smiling sweetly.
‘There you are,’ she said, reaching for Donal and planting a kiss on the side of his freshly shaved face and then she embraced Eleanor. ‘Come in and make yourselves at home.’
Helena lived alone. Her forty two year old husband, Barty, who wrote jingles for TV advertisements, had deserted her the previous Christmas and run off to live in Tunisia with a twenty two year old. The Bradys hadn’t been to Helena’s house for ages. Helena McDermott had been very quiet and kept to herself after Barty ran away. Then she started having guests.
Helena took the Bradys into the living room and asked them to sit.
‘What’s your poison?’ she asked brightly as she stood poised by the drinks cabinet. Helena wore a ridiculously thin, off-white evening dress that plunged from her shoulders and revealed a cavernous cleft between her ample, sun-tanned breasts.
The Bradys named their poison and Donal asked if it was all right if he smoked a cigar.
‘You can do anything you like in this house,’ Helena said. ‘I like a man with a big, confident cigar.’
Eleanor didn’t like the sound of that at all. Helena McDermott could be very crude at times.
‘I’m afraid we’re going to be alone tonight,’ Helena said. ‘The Brophys can’t make it - apparently they got flooded last night with all the rain and Jack Temple phoned about an hour ago to say that his partner has food poisoning. Thank God he didn’t go down with that dose after dining here!’
Great, Eleanor thought. She couldn’t abide the Brophys with a new garage that was bigger than their bloody house and the way they bragged incessantly about their eejity buck-toothed daughter who talked about wildlife on RTE every Friday. Nor could she abide any of Helena’s gay friends who publicly boasted about their UnCatholic lifestyles without so much a by your leave.
When they all had drinks and were seated comfortably Donal asked ‘So how was your trip to Italy, Helena?’
‘Just brilliant!’ Helena said enthusiastically. As she lifted her legs onto the settee she revealed an acre of thigh and Eleanor felt like plunging her cocktail stick into Helena’s eyes. Eleanor could be quite jealous at times.
‘I was in Florence,’ Helena said. ‘I saw the statue of Michael Angelo’s David on a hill above the city and I got a friend to lift me up so I could rub him for luck.’
‘I didn’t know David was exhibited on a hill,’ Eleanor said. ‘Are you sure it wasn’t a reproduction?’
‘It felt real and hard enough,’ Helena said, laughing. ‘Then we went to San Marino where I had my passport stamped and bought this dress. It’s the tiniest Republic in the world, you know and clothes are cheap.’
‘We know,’ Eleanor said. ‘We were there a few years back.’
‘And of course I went to Venice,’ Eleanor said, with a deep sigh. ‘What can one say about Venice that is not idle hyperbole? I walked across the Bridge of Sighs and I thought of Romeo and Juliet.’
‘Romeo and Juliet were Verona,’ Eleanor corrected.
‘Were they really?’ Helena said. ‘No wonder people laughed. Who was Venice then?’
‘Shylock,’ Eleanor said, knowing her Shakespeare.
‘What was that miserable old bollix doing on the Bridge of Sighs?’ Helena asked. After a sip of gin Helena’s tongue always became ripe. Eleanor didn’t like it at all. Was there anything worse than a woman who used foul language so freely? It was hard to believe that Helena had gone to a top notch convent school.
A timer sounded in the kitchen.
‘I hope you like Lasagne Alla Verdi,’ Helena said, rising to her feet. ‘I thought it might appeal to such a pair of old opera buffs like yourselves.’
‘It sounds marvellous,’ Donal said, plunging his near finished cigar into an ashtray. ‘Can we help? I hope you haven’t gone to an awful lot of trouble?’
‘Not at all,’ Helena said dramatically. ‘I’m used to entertaining on the hoof. I adore cooking. My mother used to say that I must have been born in a kitchen.’
Donal laughed loudly and Helena drifted kitchenwards.
‘Will you stop picking on her,’ Donal whispered towards his wife when they heard pots clattering in the kitchen. ‘It’s her first time to do this all alone with us. Frankly, I think it makes a pleasant change to not have Barty McDermott commandeering the entire evening’s conversation.’
‘Silly cow - she can’t keep her mouth shut or her legs covered,’ his wife snapped. ‘We should make our excuses and leave. Thank God the Brophys aren’t coming or that odd pair we met at Dymphna’s wedding.’
Helena’s only daughter Dymphna had been married in the Spring and there had been a marquee in the back garden. It had been bitterly cold and rainy and Eleanor hadn’t enjoyed herself at all.
‘Leave her alone,’ Donal said as he stood and called towards the kitchen ‘I’m going to have a look at your lovely garden, Helena.’
‘Take it home with you if you like,’ Helena called back. ‘Would you like to eat outside? We could have candles and enjoy the fresh air. It’s still warm.’
‘Eleanor worries about the bugs,’ Donal said, glancing towards his wife who signalled her unwillingness to dine in the garden.
‘Fair enough,’ Helena called.
Donal opened the French windows and before he stepped outside he said to his wife ‘You should give her a hand, Nell.’
‘It’s not a hand she’s wanting,’ Eleanor said sourly but she rose to her feet and made her smiling way to Helena’s kitchen and offered to help. It was the only way of being really sure that Helena could prepare a meal with care and cleanliness and without poisoning herself or her guests.
The Lasagne Alla Verdi was not so bad after all. Especially when they washed it down with liberal helpings of a modest Chianti.
‘You must have some Gilato alla vanilla to finish off,’ Helena said and Eleanor thought for a moment that the woman was talking about razor blades.
‘Will you sit down and stop fussing, Helena?’ Donal said, puffing on a cigar. ‘You’re like a whirling dervish. Will you relax like a good girl?’
Girl my bum!’ Eleanor thought. She’s fifty if she’s a day. Thank God I’m still only forty five-ish.
When the meal was finished they returned to the living room. As Helena passed an ashtray to Donal she tripped slightly and landed on his knees and he slipped his arms around her waist and gave her a squeeze. Eleanor half expected Helena’s breasts to fly out of her dress like a pair of giant, roasted popcorns.
‘God - you’re a terrible man, Donal Brady,’ Helena joked thought she didn’t budge, ‘You have hands like an agitated octopus.’
‘All the better to hold you, my dear,’ Donal joked.
Eleanor smiled rigidly. Silly old shite, she thought. Why does he insist on making a fool of himself with that middle aged Mimi?
‘Would you like some music?’ Helena asked, rising to her feet and patting Donal’s knees as though she was scolding a naughty child.
‘I don’t mind,’ Donal said. ‘So long as it’s not too loud. I became terrible sensitive to loud music as soon as I passed fifty. It must be an age thing.’
‘You’re not fifty - are you?’ Helena said, her jaw dropping in genuine astonishment.
‘I’m fifty six,’ Donal said. ‘Eleanor is fifty two.’
‘Amazing!’ Helena. She turned away, failing to see the fury on Eleanor’s face. Eleanor decided to kill Donal as soon as she got him home and had him all to herself again.
‘I used to sing myself,’ Helena revealed as she opened a CD case. ‘I was in the local operetta society when I was younger. They used to call me the Tosca from Terenure.’
‘You sang opera?’ Donal asked.
‘I was in the chorus,’ Helena said. ‘I never made it to the top no matter how hard I tried.’
Helena had been an actress and a model too before she got married and she also did parts in films at Ardmore Studios. That was where she’d met her future husband, Barty McDermott. The last time the Bradys had dined with the McDermott’s Barty had told them that Helena had no talent whatsoever and was only an extra in a few bad films many years before. ‘My wife is singularly without talent,’ Barty had revealed. ‘Especially upstairs where it matters. She hopeless at playing bedroom scenes. She can’t even fake it convincingly.’ Barty had been drunk so people forgave his cruelty thought they continued to talk about Helena Brady’s sex life behind her back.
‘How about La Traviata?’ Helena suggested, sliding in a CD and waiting for the melancholy overture to begin. ‘That was my favourite film ever,’ she said. ‘I wept for weeks when Garbo expired all over Robert Taylor with his lovely clematis clutched to her heaving bosom.’
‘It was a camellia,’ Eleanor corrected.
‘Oh who gives a toss?’ Helena said brightly. ‘Garbo was dying so I don’t suppose she cared if it was a daisy. I’d love to see that film again. They don’t make romantic stories any more. It’s all blood and thunder now. There’s not much love these days. ’
‘You’re dead right,’ Donal said, glancing angrily towards his wife and he added ‘And speaking of flowers - your garden is looking quite lovely, Helena.’
‘Aw get on with you - who do you think you’re kidding? It’s going wild. I wish I had your horticultural talents, Eleanor. I really do. It’s just too much for me. Once you let it go it gets totally out of hand. A bit like life, I suppose.’
‘You should get a professional in to help,’ Eleanor suggested.
‘I can’t afford it to be honest,’ Helena confessed. ‘Barty fecked off with the credit cards and closed all my accounts. I’ll have to sell the family silver any day now. There’s no way I can get help with the garden. You’d think Dymphna’s husband would come around occasionally and give a hand but they never bother. And he should know all about the garden since he’s a florist. I’ve only seen the baby a couple of times too. The first time I clapped eyes on it was at their wedding. Can you imagine that?’
The Bradys said nothing.
Helena sat again and in the background Armand and Viola met for the first time - again.
The night wore on and Eleanor began to plan how best to make their excuses and get away.
Near ten o’clock Helena made coffee and she brought it in on a tray and offered her guests some Belgian chocolates but they refused. Donal slipped upstairs to the bathroom and Helena sat on the settee beside Eleanor.
‘You think I’m a terrible flirt,’ she said. ‘But I’m not like that at all. I’ve no time for men.’
‘The notion never crossed my mind,’ Eleanor protested. ‘You like a bit of fun, Helena dear, and where’s the harm in that?’
Helena reached over and touched Eleanor’s cheek with the back of her hand. ‘I really like and admire you, Eleanor,’ she said quietly.
My God - she’s a dyke, Eleanor thought, horrified but she didn’t have the courage to move away.
‘You’re so clever and accomplished,’ Helena said, taking Eleanor’s hand in her own. ‘We’re as different as cheese and wine.’
‘You mean chalk and cheese?’
‘Do I? I’m not sure what the feck I mean any more.’
‘Why do you sound so angry?’ Eleanor asked. ‘You laugh and joke so much but I think you’re quite cross under it all.’
‘Angry. Furious. Fit to kill.’
Helena sighed. ‘I’m fifty two and I’ve lost everything,’ she said, quietly. ‘Is it any wonder I’m cross?’
‘Something will turn up,’ Eleanor said, patting Helena’s small, cold hand. ‘It always does.’
‘I wish,’ Helena said in a soft, broken whisper.
The Bradys prepared to leave soon after that. The thunder came again and the rain fell in torrents.
‘Won’t you not wait until it clears a little?’ Helena asked in the hall. ‘We could have another night-cap and chat for a while longer.’
‘The rain might go on all night,’ Eleanor said. ‘Besides, I think I left some windows open. I won’t be happy until I get indoors and check on the house.’
‘Fair enough,’ Helena said. She gave Donal a kiss goodbye and then she hugged Eleanor. ‘Don’t be strangers,’ she said. ‘Any time you’re passing just pop in. I’m always here.’
‘We’re going away soon,’ Eleanor said. ‘We go down to Wexford every year for a fortnight in June.’
‘Would you like me to keep an eye on your garden while you’re away?’ Helena offered.
‘There’s someone coming in,’ Donal said. ‘Don’t worry about us. We’ll drop you a postcard.’
Helena loaned them an umbrella and they waved goodbye and hurried down the path outside and turned and ran towards their own house. Helena went to the kitchen and had a final glass of wine. She was too tired to bother tidying up. She’d do it in the morning. Lightening flashed and she jumped. She was terrified of thunder storms. She went back to the living room and put a
CD of Phantom of the Opera on. She wasn’t all that keen on real Opera. She’d only bought La Traviata to keep the Bradys amused when and if they visited.
Helena stood at the French windows looking out on her untidy garden. The thunder and lightening faded but the rain came heavier than ever. It was very hot and muggy. She slid the doors back and stepped forward on to the patio to get some fresh air. The rain fell on her dyed blonde head and onto her ridiculously thin dress and fell cruelly like cold tears all over the ageing face of the once lovely and always innocent Helena McDermott.