Sheila Redden, a devoted mother and reserved wife of a busy Belfast surgeon, is awaiting the arrival of her husband at a Paris hotel. In a matter of days, they’ll be celebrating a second honeymoon after sixteen years of marriage. But Sheila never could’ve imagined the chance encounter with Tom, a handsome and attentive American student—or that in one inexplicable moment, she’d abandon everything she knows to disappear into the unknown with an irresistible stranger.
It’s more than a sexual awakening. It’s a chance to see her ordinary life from a distance—her dutiful role as mother and wife, her sacrifices, her lost sense of self, and the realization that she’s already been vanishing little by little for quite some time. All the while, Sheila’s concerned husband and brother are retracing her steps, following her on a cathartic and devastating journey that’s far from over.
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Put your things in the spare room, Peg had written, and make yourself at home, because I won't be back till six. Sheila Redden let down her heavy suitcase and felt under the carpet runner on the top step of the stairs where Peg's letter said it would be. She pulled the key out, put it in the lock, and the door opened inward with a groan of its hinges. As she bent again to pick up the suitcase, a big tabby cat bounded past her, skipping into the flat. Would that be Peg's cat? Mrs. Redden went inside, calling 'Puss, Puss,' although Puss wouldn't mean much to a French cat, she supposed. Weren't French cats called Minou? She went into the front hall, still calling 'Puss, Puss,' damned cat, but then she saw it, very much at home, lapping water from a cat dish in the kitchen. So that was all right. She took off her coat.
It was quiet here: this far up, the street noises blurred to a distant monotone. In the living room, thinking of the great view there must be, she unlocked the middle set of French windows and stepped out onto the narrow balcony. Below her, the Seine wound among streets filled with history no Irish city ever knew and, as she looked down, from the shadowed underside of the Pont Saint-Michel a sightseeing boat slid into sunlight, tourists massed on its broad deck staring up in her direction. If they saw her, she would seem to them to be some rich French woman living here in luxury, right opposite the lie Saint-Louis. The sightseeing boat slid sideways, as though it had lost its rudder, but then, righting itself, went off toward Notre-Dame in a churn of dirty brown water. Mrs. Redden leaned out over the iron railing to look down six floors to the street, where white-aproned waiters, tiny as the bridegroom figurines on a wedding cake, hurried in and out among sidewalk tables. Into her mind came the view from her living room at home. The garden: brick covered with English ivy, Belfast's mountain, Cave Hill, looming over the top of the garden wall, its promontories like the profile of a sleeping giant, face upward to the gray skies. Right opposite her house was the highest point of the mountain, the peak called Napoleon's Nose. She thought of that now, staring out at Napoleon's own city. L'Empereur on his white charger Marengo, riding into the Place des Invalides, triumphant after Austerlitz; clatter of hoofbeats on cobblestones, silken pennants, braided gold lanyards, fur shakos, the Old Guard. Napoleon's Nose. And this. She stepped inside again, closing the big windows, going to the front hall to get her suitcase. But then — it put the heart across her — heard someone moving about inside the flat.
Burglars. Or worse? Ever since the bomb in the Abercorn, anything at all made her jump. She stood mouse quiet, listening, until, oh, God, thank God, she saw who it was. A girl moving about in the spare room.
'Did I scare you?' the girl asked, discovering Mrs. Redden and the look on Mrs. Redden's face.
'No, not at all.'
The girl, a Yank by the sound of her, had on blue jeans and a peasant blouse you could see through. A big backpack sat open in the middle of the spare room. The girl picked up a comb, a hairbrush, and some makeup things. 'I was supposed to be out of here an hour ago, but I got tied up on the phone. You're Peg's friend from Belfast, right?'
'That's right, yes.'
'I'm Debbie Rush.'
'Sheila Redden,' Mrs. Redden said, and there was one of those pauses.
'So,' the girl said. 'How are things in Belfast?'
'Oh, the usual.'
'It must be rough, right? Are they ever going to settle that mess?'
Mrs. Redden smiled what she hoped was a friendly smile. Yanks. Kevin had an American aunt who was over on a visit from Boston last summer: she would wear you, that one. Of course, this girl probably worked with Peg. That would be it.
'I guess you've just got to get the British out of there,' the girl said.
Mrs. Redden did not honor this with an answer. 'Do you work in the office with Peg?' she asked.
'At Radio Free Europe?' The girl began to laugh. 'No way. I'm a friend of Tom Lowry's. He's a friend of Peg's and, when there was a foul-up on my charter flight home, he spoke to her and — she's really nice — she let me crash here until you came.'
At once Mrs. Redden felt guilty. 'I'm putting you out, then?'
'No, no, it's all right. I'm going to a hotel tonight and tomorrow I get a flight, I hope.' The girl hoisted the backpack, wrestling it onto her back. Her breasts stood out under the sheer blouse. Mrs. Redden helped straighten the backpack on the girl's shoulders.
'Oh, thanks,' the girl said. 'I'm glad I'm going downstairs, not up. How about those stairs?'
'Good for the figure,' Mrs. Redden said.
'Yes, right.' The girl, gripping her backpack straps, turned and marched like a soldier into the hall. Mrs. Redden hurried to open the front door. 'Well, it was nice meeting you,' the girl decided.
'I'm sorry to be putting you out like this.'
'No, no, have a nice vacation. See you.'
Mrs. Redden, holding the door open — she didn't want to close it until the girl had gone, it would seem rude — watched the blond head bobbing down and around and down and around, until the staircase was empty.
Four hours later, when Mrs. Redden and Peg Conway, were celebrating their reunion with dinner at La Coupole, two homosexuals, coming through the restaurant, stopped, stared at Mrs. Redden, whispered to each other, then bowed to her in an elaborate manner.
'You don't know them, surely?' Peg asked.
'No, of course not.'
'They must have taken you for someone else.'
'Or maybe they think I'm a man dressed up in a frock.'
Peg laughed. 'You're mad, why would they think that?'
'On account of my height. The way I stick up out of this banquette.'
'When are you going to get over that notion about your height?'
'You never get over it,' Mrs. Redden said.
'Speaking of queers'— Peg Conway began to laugh again —'I wonder what ever happened to Fairy Rice?'
'Wasn't he the end?' They laughed together, remembering: he had been a fellow student at Queen's who wore a sweater as long as a short dress and sat in the front row at lectures, polishing his fingernails with a chamois nail buffer. 'His old mum died,' Mrs. Redden said. 'I saw the death notice in the Belfast Telegraph a couple of years ago.'
'Do you remember her haunting the Students' Union, waiting to give him his lunch in a picnic basket?'
'I heard he went to England,' Mrs. Redden said.
'I think so.'
'Tell me,' Peg said. 'Have you and Kevin ever thought of emigrating?'
'Oh, Kevin would never leave Belfast.'
'It would mean starting all over, working up a new practice. Besides, he never wants to travel. It's taken me two years to get him to join me on this holiday in Villefranche.'
'I remember he used to like a good time, though,' Peg said. 'The races, do you remember?' As she said it, she saw him, Sheila's big lump of a husband, standing in the members' enclosure at the Curragh, a reservedstand tag in his buttonhole, lifting his field glasses to look down the track.
'Gosh, yes, that used to be great fun. Driving to Dublin, spending the night in Buswells Hotel, then all day Saturday at the races, and a grand meal before we drove home. But, he has no time now.'
'A person should make time.'
'It's hard for him, though,' Mrs. Redden said. 'I mean, with this group practice. And now he has an extra job as a surgical consultant to the British Army. They have him down to their H.Q. in Lisburn three or four times a week. It's too much work for one man. And it hasn't improved his disposition, I can tell you.'
Peg Conway was not listening; she was watching the door. All evening she had been hoping Ivo would show up, but now it seemed unlikely. She said, 'Talking of Villefranche, I spent a terrific, dirty weekend in the South of France recently.'
Mrs. Redden was embarrassed. 'Oh?'
'His name is Ivo Radic. He's a Yugoslav.'
'A Yugoslav,' Mrs. Redden said. So there was a new man.
'A refugee. He teaches English and German in a grotty little private school in the sixteenth arrondissement. At any rate, he's an improvement on Carlo.'
'What happened to Carlo?'
'Don't ask. That wife of his can keep him. Ivo is divorced, at least.'
'Ivo Radic,' Mrs. Redden said, as though trying out the name.
'I met him by the merest fluke,' Peg said. 'Hugh Greer — you remember Hugh Greer?'
'Of course,' Mrs. Redden said. Hugh Greer, a Trinity prof. Peg's big early love.
'Well, Hugh had this American student in Dublin, a boy called Tom Lowry. He asked Tom to look me up when he came to Paris this summer. So Tom did, and then he invited me around for a drink at his flat. And his roommate was Ivo. So, in an odd way, I met Ivo because of Hugh Greer.'
'You still keep in touch with Hugh, then?'
'Yes. Poor old Hugh. He has cancer, did you know?' 'Oh, God. What kind?'
'How old is he?'
'About fifty. Listen, would you like to meet Ivo?'
Mrs. Redden thought: What could you say? 'Yes, of course,' she said.
'Good. I'll tell you what. We'll finish here and go to a café called the Atrium for coffee. Ivo and Tom's flat is just around the corner from there. I'll ring now and see if Ivo can join us,' Peg said, getting up at once, very purposefully, to march off to the cabinet de toilette where the telephones were. Mrs. Redden watched her go, then, in her shy, furtive way, glanced at the people in the next booth, an aristocratic-looking old Frenchman and his young son, both eating Bélon oysters and sucking juice from the shells. She thought of the first time she had ever been in La Coupole, that summer she was a student at the Alliance Française. Her Uncle Dan showed up in Paris and took her to lunch here to meet a young man who was the Paris correspondent for the Irish Times. After lunch, they went on, all three of them, to a garden party at Fontainebleau, at the house of some Swedish countess who was a friend of Uncle Dan's. Uncle Dan knew everybody. Cancer, he died of. Hugh Greer has it now. On the day of Uncle Dan's funeral I traveled alone on the train to Dublin. Kevin had to stay behind to operate. Everybody who was anybody was at the funeral, the cardinal in his crimson silks, sitting in the episcopal chair at the side of the altar during the Mass, and at Glasnevin cemetery I saw De Valéra: he took his hat off and stood, holding it over his chest as the priest said the prayers for the dead. Lemass, the Prime Minister, was beside him and every other government minister as well, the whole of the diplomatic corps, everyone. When the Irish Army buglers sounded the Last Post after the prayers, I was sitting in a big rented Daimler with Aunt Meg. I wept, but she didn't, she just sat watching it all, her cane rammed between her knees as though that was what was keeping her up straight, and as soon as the bugles were lowered, she said, 'Fruitcake, I forgot them. I ordered seven from Bewley's. Tell Mrs. O'Keefe to lay out five with the sherry and sandwiches. Sheila, are you listening?'
Mrs. Redden looked again at the old Frenchman and his son, who had now finished their oysters and were drinking Loire wine and mopping up the oyster shells with thin slices of buttered brown bread. She turned and saw Peg coming back through the huge room, giving a thumbs-up sign from afar. The Yugoslav must have said yes and so we'll end up at this Atrium place, the three of us. Mrs. Redden smiled at Peg, but into her mind came Uncle Dan's grave the last time she had visited it, alone, two years after his funeral, a stormy day with lightning and thunder, no cross on the grave, nothing about who he was, just a slab of gray Connemara marble laid flat like a door on the earth. His name: Daniel Deane. 18991966. She bought a few carnations in a shop beside the cemetery. Uncle Dan liked to wear a carnation. The cemetery attendant gave her a little blue glass vase. Red carnations in a blue glass vase, she left on his grave.
At the Atrium Peg chose a table with a good view of the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Mrs. Redden was again reminded of the French way of sitting, not really facing your table companions, but all of you turned around to watch the passersby. The Yugoslav had not yet shown up.
'I love just being here, just watching the people,' Mrs. Redden said, staring at the parade on the pavement outside.
'Most of this lot would be better off at home studying, than lallygagging around in fancy dress,' Peg said. 'Next week is end-of-term exams at the Sorbonne. Thank God, I'm not a French parent.'
But Mrs. Redden wished she were. Here your children could go where they pleased, without your worrying about bombs, or their being stopped by an army patrol, or lifted in error by the police, or hit by a sniper's bullet. If Danny lingered at a school friend's house until after dark, usually he had to spend the night there.
The waiter came.
'Listen,' Peg said. 'If we want a cognac, let's order and pay for it before Ivo comes. Otherwise, poor lamb, he'll insist on standing treat.'
'All right, but only if you'll let me pay,' Mrs. Redden said. 'Deux cognacs et deux cafés, s'il vous plaît.'
'Bien, Madame,' the waiter said.
Maybe it was the cognac, or maybe it was the prospect of Ivo's joining them, but there was now a noticeable heightening of Peg's spirits. 'So, tomorrow night you'll be in Villefranche in the same hotel you were in on your honeymoon. It means one thing. You liked it the first time.'
This annoyed Mrs. Redden, although she did not show it. At nearly forty years of age, you'd think Peg would have grown out of her schoolgirl mania for talking about sex all the time. But no fear.
'You're blushing,' Peg said.
'Oh, stop it.'
'Listen, Sheila, I envy you. I suppose you're one of the few people I know who's still happily married. Certainly you're the only one who's going off on a second honeymoon — how many years later?'
'God, is it that long?'
'Danny's fifteen. We were married in 1958.'
'So, you're what? Thirty-eight. You don't look it.'
'I am thirty-seven until next November,' Mrs. Redden said, laughing.
'Ivo's four years younger than me. I suppose that sounds really decadent.'
'Oh, nonsense,' Mrs. Redden said, but thought, I couldn't do it, but then, I'm not Peg, she's done all the things I never had the guts to try, going on to London for postgraduate work after getting her M.A., then the U.N. in New York with the Irish delegation, and now Paris, and this big money with the Americans. She lives like a man, free, having affairs, traveling, always in big cities, whereas, look at me, stuck all these years at home, my M.A. a waste. I don't think I could even support myself any more. 'You know,' she said to Peg, 'it's working and traveling that keep a person young. It's sitting at home doing nothing that makes you middle-aged in your mind. I was just thinking about it the other day. It's as if the only part of my life I look forward to now is my holidays. There's something terribly wrong about that.'
'I suppose,' Peg said, but Mrs. Redden noticed that she wasn't really listening. Someone had come into the café and now Peg was signaling to him. Mrs. Redden stared at the newcomer: four years younger than her, who does she think she's kidding? Ten years is more like it. The boy was very tall, with long dark hair and a pale, bony face. He wore a brown crewneck sweater, brown corduroy trousers, and scuffed desert boots of the sort Mrs. Redden's own son had bought last year. He smiled as he came up, throwing his head back to toss the long hair out of his eyes in a gesture once used only by girls.
'Hello, Tom,' Peg said.
So he was not the boy friend.
'Sheila, this is Tom Lowry. Sheila Redden.'
'Hi,' he said, then turned to Peg. 'I'm the bringer of bad tidings, I'm afraid. Ivo's put his back out again.'
He sat down, casually, his legs astride the café chair, his arms resting on the chair back. He stared at Mrs. Redden, then said to Peg, 'He was on his way up here to join you, but, a moment after he went out the door, I heard him yell and found him in the court-yard all seized up.'
'He'll blame me,' Peg said. 'You'll see.'
'No, no,' the boy said, but as he spoke he was no longer looking at Peg, he was staring again at Mrs. Redden, making her wonder if there was something wrong with her. She looked down at her skirt, but it was not that. It's my face he's looking at.
'So what should we do?' Peg asked.
'Why not come around to the flat? Ivo would like to see you and I could give you a drink.'
'I don't know,' Peg said. 'Well, maybe if we just pop in for a moment. Would that be all right with you, Sheila?'
Excerpted from "The Doctor's Wife"
Copyright © 1976 Brian Moore.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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