The Mutinous Contemplations of Gemma Groot
An Unlikely Romance
Copyright © 2017 by Jayne Fresina
One of the things I remember most about her, is that her nails were always well-tended, the fingertips blushing pink as the spring buds on her quince trees. Only later did I conclude that this effect was the natural result of meticulous scrubbing, necessary in the disposal of evidence.
Venetia Warboys, by most accounts, a mild-mannered, generous, church-going woman, attractive but of modest deportment, had reached her thirty-fifth year with little out of the ordinary happening in her life. Until she decided, one mellow, autumn evening, to rise from her neatly-laid dinner table, fetch an axe from the woodshed, chop her husband into pieces, and bake his gristle into some pies.
"That's the last time he'll criticize my pastry," she said calmly when they arrested her at the county fair on the common, where she was apprehended in the act of selling her grisly wares.
Although her husband, Delaford Warboys, had been an infamous philanderer— or as much of one as an oily, simpering blob of a man could be in a small, rural market town—nobody knew what had really happened on that last day to cause a deadly fissure in his wife's sanity. I was the only soul to whom she gave any clue, but the six words she once whispered into my ear left me, a girl of twelve at the time, with more questions than answers. Perhaps that was her plan.
Suffice it to say, after Venetia's axe swinging rampage in the autumn of 1882, the men of Withering Gibbet took greater care of what they said and did to their wives. We had all learned some important lessons: everybody harbors dark truths; there is no such thing as "ordinary", and never buy a savory pie at the county fair, especially when the contents are described only as "revelation meat".
All this must have made my father nervous. It was never easy to tell what went on in his mind, but my mother had always been louder and more demonstrative than her younger sister Venetia— certainly less tidy— and I often thought my parents' marriage might, one day, end in bloodshed too. The mounting frustrations were palpable at our table, and my father was, perhaps, wise to keep his wood-axe locked away. But women are resourceful and intuitive. When in need, we can always find a weapon to get our point across.
Casper Groot, my father, a man who makes an art out of ignoring the dangerous women who live in his house, could have no idea when, or from where, the blow would come. But surely he remembered his sister-in-law.
For many years Venetia was our town's sole claim to infamy.
And then there was me.
* * * *
The memory is a peculiar animal. At the age of twelve I lost a lot of mine without knowing it. Well, of course, if it's not in your memory, or it huddles there in a dark corner refusing to come out, you wouldn't know it existed. You wouldn't know it was missing unless somebody said to you, "Don't you remember that day...?" and nobody was ever likely to say that to me. As my mother often remarked, "Some things are better off left dead" and that could be just as pertinent to memories.
But as time passed, little shards of that shattered mirror in my mind began to come together and repair themselves. After fourteen years of rarely having her mentioned in my presence, my Aunt Venetia, bee-keeper, jam-maker, and axe-murderess, decided it was time for me to remember. Like rain water dripping through a sagging old thatched roof and into an assortment of old pots and pans gathered to catch it, memories came back to me. Pling. Pling. Splat.
My aunt had a barrow with a rusted wheel that squeaked.
"There she goes again, making that damnable racket," my mother would mutter.
Their long garden was separated from ours only by a shrubbery, albeit a thick, unusually high and tangled one, taken over by thorny brambles and discouraging all but the bravest to venture through it.
So whenever I heard that rusty chirp I knew Venetia was out in her garden and all was well with the world. It was a noise as familiar in good weather as birdsong, but less tuneful, of course. She did not think to oil the wheel. Perhaps she no longer noticed it, or else she found it comforting in some way, as I did. Or else she knew it annoyed a few people. I can suppose, with newly acquired hindsight, that is a possibility.
Yes, in her story, which is just as much mine, noise plays an important role. Noise and the lack of it.
My father, you see, has a small, well-exercised mouth, that oozes silence.
You may wonder where I go with this. Bear with me, for I write —as I always have, which is part of the trouble— as thoughts come spilling out. And when I look back, it seems to me as if this is where it all began, not with Aunt Venetia's "revelation meat" pies, but before that, with my father's mouth and some unborn words.
With silence waiting to be shattered by a squeaking wheel.
Watching my father's lips work madly in silence, I had often felt the frustration gouged into me like cat scratches in a painted, splintered doorframe. Say it. Let it out, damn you!
But in his world people keep their emotions well hidden. Expression of any extreme feeling is a weakness, a vulnerability, even a vanity, for one should never assume that other people care, or want to know about one's problems. It might embarrass them. Far better to keep everything as muted, steady, and unchanging as the tick-tock of a carefully and routinely wound clock. Even if the monotony of that sound slowly drives you to madness, don't let the neighbors know.
Thus, my father's lips continually flex, although it is rare for any sound distinguishable as language to emerge. If one is not familiar with this practice it is, I understand, most off-putting. I have watched guests at our table interrupt their own sentence and lean forward expectantly, thinking he means to speak, when, in actual fact, he is not listening to the conversation at all and intends to have no part of it. The talking and sociable interaction is left to my mother, as if it is part of the contract they made at the altar thirty years ago.
With whom my father communicates in this curious manner remains, to this day, unknown. As a child I decided— and I fancy still— that he converses with the dead. They are, after all, his stock in trade.
He seldom looks up from his plate or his newspaper, and when he does it is only to stare into the distance, over my mother's head. He fixes his pale eyes in a squint, as if to read a sign dangling there. What does it say, I wonder?
Do not feed the wife. Do not approach the wife. Do not taunt the wife.
Or simply, Beware the wife.
Perhaps there is a similar sign above my head. There ought to be. I'm sure there was one above Aunt Venetia's too, which her husband, to his detriment, ignored.
Occasionally Venetia and Delaford had been guests at our dinner table. Since they were neighbors and relatives it would have looked strange indeed if they were never invited, but as a child I got the sense that they didn't really want to come, any more than my parents wanted them there. My father did not enjoy living guests—even family—and my mother, although she generally liked new company, apparently found little to talk about with her own sister. There was always an unspoken conversation hovering in the air between them, and it got in the way of any other they might have had. For a long time, I put it down to sibling resentment.
Pling. Pling. Splat.
Venetia's jam and marmalade had won trophies at the county fair, her house was spotless, and all the roses in her garden not only bloomed generously and early, but also kept full, bright, regal heads long past the summer, seemingly impervious to both greenfly and frost. Although my aunt never appeared smug about all this, I suppose she secretly was or she would never have entered so many competitions.
"Tastes shop-bought to me," my mother once remarked saltily when she heard of her sister's jam winning yet another first prize. "I daresay, if I looked through that rockery in their back garden, I'd find the remains of more than a few stone jars from Chivers."
Considering the things that are said of Venetia these days, it's likely we could have found any manner of things in her rockery.
Now that she and her husband are extinct, of course— and partly because of the circumstances leading up to their absence— the company of guests at our table is rare. Slightly less probable than the sly appearance of anything shop-bought, for my mother is not above a little subterfuge and hypocrisy herself when necessary.
The jam at our breakfast table is served in a small crystal dish with a lid and a tiny silver spoon. In this way its provenance is carefully disguised in hopes that nobody will ask. And who is there left to care but she? Sometimes I sense the competition with her sister is still not yet over.
My father consumes his breakfast rapidly and precisely, as he does most things. I do not know that he tastes the food at all. Every so often he dabs a napkin to the moustache that reposes, like a reddish blond, particularly disinterested sloth, over the glum curve of his upper lip. Fastidious about the sculpture and maintenance of this hair growth, he frequently tests the curled ends, squeezing them tightly and with quiet, trembling urgency between the flat, oval pads of his fingers. As one might test the stability of a swaying rope ladder when about to cross a treacherous ravine. The time and consideration he lavishes upon this facial accessory clearly annoys my mother, who, unlike him, is incapable of hiding her thoughts. But since most things he does annoy her, it is hardly worth mentioning. He is certainly never chastened by her complaints.
My mother— elder sister of the notorious Venetia, let us not forget— is a restless, handsome, ardent woman who temporarily quenches her frustration by cutting the heads off his roses in full bloom. Her husband is careful not to notice this either. Like the ends of his moustache, Casper's stoic demeanor stretches onward, carrying him across the echoing chasm. And he does not look down.
Above that beloved, cosseted, lushly-furred lip-creature, a long, thin nose— apparently a Groot family trait — leads to heavy brows. Some way above all this, after a vast expanse of forehead, more hair begins its sorrowful, apologetic creep down the back of my father's skull. It has always been sandy in color, although what little remains now is mostly white and always slick with Makassar oil that gleams in the lamplight. The effect is that of a head that shines like the moon. A curious child once asked me whether my father polished his head. I wouldn't be surprised if he did.
"Appearances are very important in this business," I heard him say once, on a rare occasion when actual words slipped out through that busy, but generally uncommunicative hole. He referred not only to his well-groomed exterior, of course, but to the care he takes over his still, silent customers.
Say what you will about my father— and when folk in our town discovered what I had done, they all had a great deal to say about the laxity of the man who was supposed to be in charge of me— but he is devoted to his work as an undertaker, and never anything but considerate, respectful, and diligent in providing peace and dignity to the departed residents of Withering Gibbet. It is, perhaps, his dedication to the deceased that caused him to pay so little attention to what the living were up to in his own family.
But I will not have it said that any of this was his fault. He is a man disconnected with the feverish emotions of living reality. If I rose up out of my chair and performed a Parisian cancan on the table, rattling the lids of those willow-pattern tureens, he would pay no heed. Other folk do the living around him and if he feels a tremor of anything out of the ordinary he keeps it to himself.
Pling. Pling. Splat.
Once, as he read the newspaper at breakfast, his face hidden behind the great scavenger's wings, I saw a small headline with a story about my aunt. It was down at the bottom of the back page.
Vengeful Venetia: Evil Disguised in a Bucolic English Country Village.
It must have been a few years after the event, and I wondered why they were still picking over that carcass, but I had no opportunity to read the small print for when my mother noticed it, she cried out in her sharp voice, "Vengeful Venetia, indeed!" As soon as the words were extinguished, she clamped her lips shut and dropped the butter dish with a clatter. My father hastily closed the paper, folded it and, with the offending story tucked away under his arm, went about his daily business.
"This is not a village," my mother muttered at his disappearing back. "This is a market town, thank you very much. We're every bit as grand as Witheringtoft. Even if they do put their noses up at us. At least we're not as small as King's Withering."
Nothing said about her own sister being described as "evil".
Well, I could not think of Aunt Venetia in those terms. Not that any reporter would ever ask me, of course, because I am labeled simple-minded, deficient in understanding, "off with the fairies". I am a child, they say, stuck in a woman's body.
What could I have told them, except that Aunt Venetia had smelled of fruit and Cold Cream of Roses? She swooped gracefully around her garden, pushing that old wheelbarrow up and down, humming to herself above the steady squeak. She sang in the church choir and kept a bible on the kitchen mantle next to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management— both worthy tomes opened and referred to in equal measures. Her laughter came in puffs like steam from a train engine. Occasionally she tried to halt that sound, as if the train went under a bridge or into a tunnel, which made the sound muffled for a while, but it always came out again the other side, chugging away with renewed fervor. I'd seen her lift her skirt and step carefully over a worm if there was one making its way across the path before her and she wore a black arm-band when it was time to slaughter the family pig.
Despite all this, my mother's outrage was reserved, apparently, for the newspaper's slighting of her town's status, not her sister's character.
I never knew if my father read the story on the back page. When I went looking for the paper later it was nowhere in the house. There were, however, warm ashes in the library fireplace, despite the fact that it was July and we had no need of a fire.
Seemingly inattentive to the curiosities and tempers seething— not to mention several small mutinies taking place under his own roof every day— my father went on with his life, quietly making coffins and wreaths in his workshop, polishing his hearses, combing out the ostrich plumes for his horses, and, when required, photographing the dead for their bereaved families.
But my scandal, when it happened, was not something that could be reduced to grey ashes like an unsavory story in the newspaper. My poor father had no idea what was coming. He most certainly could never have suspected that his spinster daughter would decide to write a book about the superiority of the female gender— a book that brazenly suggested women might do very well indeed without men. That if we needed babies, we could hire a man by the hour and have no use for him again. That we women had been held back and down, throughout the ages, while we should have had our equal chance to sit in parliament, manage the country's finances, and make judgments in court. And that we would all, in fact, be far better off if we did not live with the opposite gender in such close and permanent proximity, trying desperately every day not to kill each other.
It was my opinion, gathered from a quarter century of observations, that when a man and a woman join their lives inexorably together, sex and money are immediately entwined likewise. And it seems to me as if more murders are caused by these two factors than anything else. Marriage is, therefore, a recipe for disaster.
Ask Venetia Warboys about that. I believe she made her feelings clear.
She had put off marriage as long as she could and accepted Delaford Warboys when she was thirty-one. Up until then there seemed to have been a general assumption that she would never marry. Not that it was ever said, but then again, many things aren't.
Venetia had a habit of doing the unexpected. Or so I once overheard my mother comment with a sharp note of disapproval. Venetia, she said, was "flighty and light in the head".
And "Del", as he liked to be known, supposedly knew how to get around people. In his line of work, as a travelling tradesman, this quality should have made him successful. Unfortunately he was also supremely lazy, greedy, and thought the world owed him something.
You know how there are some people in life that you hate the very sight of as soon as you meet them? It could be just one little thing they say or do that tips the scales and sometimes it's impossible to put a finger on the cause?
Well, that was me and "Del". I sincerely doubt any child of eight has ever despised or been despised so heartily at first sight.
My mother used to think it was jealousy on my part, because Delaford Warboys, in effect, took Venetia away from us. Not physically at first, of course, but in a figurative sense. In the end he took her away from us completely by getting in the way of her axe.
Why had she married him? Or anybody for that matter? It was a puzzle that deepened as I grew older and looked back on the memories. She didn't seem to be the sort of woman who needed a man for the sake of having one about.
Although my portrait of her was painted and shaped by the broken memories of a child, I felt as if I knew my aunt very well. After all, they say that children draw what they know, not merely what they see or what is presented to the world. In fact some of those tremors, ignored so skillfully by my father, had made their way through my skin and left cracks in my bones, so that I knew things I should not.
Thus Venetia's narrative was marked inside me to make certain I would remember. One day I would force others to remember it too. To acknowledge all the parts of her story that they didn't want to admit they had known; the things to which they had carefully turned a blind eye.
But first I had to start at the beginning. I dipped a toe in the water by writing a protest against the treatment of women in general, and I called it Contemplations on the Male Myth.
It was not even my father's fault that I conceived this project. Well, yes, there is the matter of his mouth and its strange behavior which, I suppose, inspired me to speak out and be heard because he does not, but the man doesn't do it deliberately.
Perhaps I should have known what the consequences would be, but when I first put ink to paper, my intention was merely to free some of my own long-building frustrations. I exercised my pen as my father does his lips and, like him, I had no thought of letting my rebellious contemplations out into the world at large. Certainly never to let anybody know that I was the author.
But I reckoned without pride and vanity— the instruments of my downfall.
* * * *
Now I shall leave you to read my story and make your own judgment as to the guilt and innocence of all characters involved. Good and evil may be strange bedfellows, but the former cannot exist without the latter, and no soul among us can make absolute claim to one or the other.
Coincidentally— or not, if you believe in fate—it was fourteen years to the day since Vengeful Venetia swung her axe at her husband's head, when Jolly Jack Stupid landed in our apple tree. And what has he to do with anything, you might well ask?
It's not a long story really, although if I were my mother I could make it one.