Stone Mattress

By Margaret Atwood
  • 20 Aug - 26 Aug, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple. Take a breather, do some inner accounting, shed worn skin. The Arctic suits her: there’s something inherently calming in the vast cool sweeps of ice and rock and sea and sky, undisturbed by cities and highways and trees and the other distractions

that clutter up the landscape to the south.

Among the clutter she includes other people, and by other people she means men. She’s had enough of men for a while. She’s made an inner memo to renounce flirtations and any consequences that might result from them. She doesn’t need the cash, not anymore. She’s not extravagant or greedy, she tells herself: all she ever wanted was to be protected by layer upon layer of kind, soft, insulating money, so that nobody and nothing could get close enough to harm her. Surely she has at last achieved this modest goal.

But old habits die hard, and it’s not long before she’s casting an appraising eye over her fleece–clad fellow–travellers dithering with their wheely bags in the lobby of the first–night airport hotel. Passing over the women, she ear–tags the male members of the flock. Some have females attached to them, and she eliminates these on principle: why work harder than you need to? Prying a spouse loose can be arduous, as she discovered via her first husband: discarded wives stick like burrs.

It’s the solitaries who interest her, the lurkers at the fringes. Some of these are too old for her purposes; she avoids eye contact with them. The ones who cherish the belief that there’s life in the old dog yet: these are her game. Not that she’ll do anything about it, she tells herself, but there’s nothing wrong with a little warmup practice, if only to demonstrate to herself that she can still knock one off if she wishes to.

For that evening’s meet–and–greet she chooses her cream–coloured pullover, perching the Magnetic Northward nametag just slightly too low on her chest. Thanks to Aquacize and core strength training, she’s still in excellent shape for her age, or indeed for any age, at least when fully clothed and buttressed with carefully fitted underwiring. She wouldn’t want to chance a deck chair in a sultry dress – superficial puckering has set in, despite her best efforts – which is one reason for selecting the Arctic over, say, the Caribbean. Her face is what it is, and certainly the best that money can buy at this stage: with a little bronzer and pale eyeshadow and mascara and glimmer powder and low lighting, she can finesse ten years.

“Though much is taken, much remains,” she murmurs to her image in the mirror. Her third husband had been a serial quotation freak with a special penchant for Tennyson. “Come into the garden, Maud,” he’d been in the habit of saying just before bedtime. It had driven her mad at the time.

She adds a dab of cologne – an understated scent, floral, nostalgic – then she blots it off, leaving a mere whiff. It’s a mistake to overdo it: though elderly noses aren’t as keen as they may once have been, it’s best to allow for allergies; a sneezing man is not an attentive man.

She makes her entrance slightly late, smiling a detached but cheerful smile – it doesn’t do for an unaccompanied woman to appear too eager – accepts a glass of the passable white drink they’re doling out, and drifts among the assembled nibblers and sippers. The men will be retired professionals: doctors, lawyers, engineers, stockbrokers, interested in Arctic exploration, polar bears, archeology, birds, Inuit crafts, perhaps even Vikings or plant life or geology. Magnetic Northward attracts serious punters, with an earnest bunch of experts laid on to herd them around and lecture to them. She’s investigated the two other outfits that tour the region, but neither appeals. One features excessive hiking and attracts the under–fifties – not her target market – and the other goes in for singsongs and dressing up in silly outfits, so she’s stuck with Magnetic Northward, which offers the comfort of familiarity. She travelled with this company once before, after the death of her third husband, five years ago, so she knows pretty much what to expect.

There’s a lot of sportswear in the room, much beige among the men, many plaid shirts, vests with multiple pockets. She notes the nametags: a Fred, a Dan, a Rick, a Norm, a Bob. Another Bob, then another: there are a lot of Bobs on this trip. Several appear to be flying solo. Bob: a name once of heavy significance to her, though surely she’s rid herself of that load of luggage by now. She selects one of the thinner but still substantial Bobs, glides close to him, raises her eyelids, and lowers them again.

He peers down at her eyes.

“Verna,” he says.

“That’s a lovely name.”

“Old–fashioned,” she says. “From the Latin word for ‘spring.’ When everything springs to life again.” That line, so filled with promises of phallic renewal, had been effective in helping to secure her second husband. To her third husband she’d said that her mother had been influenced by the eighteenth–century Scottish poet James Thomson and his vernal breezes, which was a preposterous but enjoyable lie: she had, in fact, been named after a lumpy, bun–faced dead aunt. As for her mother, she’d been a strict Presbyterian with a mouth like a vise grip, who despised poetry and was unlikely to have been influenced by anything softer than a granite wall.

During the preliminary stages of netting her fourth husband, whom she’d flagged as a kink addict, Verna had gone even further. She’d told him she’d been named for “The Rite of Spring,” a highly sexual ballet that ended with torture and human sacrifice. He’d laughed, but he’d also wriggled: a sure sign of the hook going in.

Now she says, “And you’re . . . Bob.” It’s taken her years to perfect the small breathy intake, a certified knee–melter.

“Yes,” Bob says. “Bob Goreham,” he adds, with a diffidence he surely intends to be charming. Verna smiles widely to disguise her shock. She finds herself flushing with a combination of rage and an almost reckless mirth. She looks him full in the face: yes, underneath the thinning hair and the wrinkles and the obviously whitened and possibly implanted teeth, it’s the same Bob – the Bob of fifty–odd years before. Mr. Heartthrob, Mr. Senior Football Star, Mr. Astounding Catch, from the rich, Cadillac–driving end of town where the mining–company big shots lived. Mr. Shit, with his looming bully’s posture and his lopsided joker’s smile.

How amazing to everyone, back then – not only everyone in school but everyone, for in that armpit of a town they’d known to a millimetre who drank and who didn’t and who was no better than she should be and how much change you kept in your back pocket – how amazing that golden–boy Bob had singled out insignificant Verna for the Snow Queen’s Palace winter formal. Pretty Verna, three years younger; studious, grade–skipping, innocent Verna, tolerated but not included, clawing her way toward a scholarship as her ticket out of town. Gullible Verna, who’d believed she was in love.

Or who was in love. When it came to love, wasn’t believing the same as the real thing? Such beliefs drain your strength and cloud your vision.

She’s never allowed herself to be skewered in that tiger trap again.

What had they danced to that night? “Rock Around the Clock.” “Hearts Made of Stone.”

“The Great Pretender.” Bob had steered Verna around the edges of the gym, holding her squashed up against his carnation buttonhole, for the unskilled, awkward Verna of those days had never been to a dance before and was no match for Bob’s strenuous and flamboyant moves. For meek Verna, life was church and studies and household chores and her weekend job clerking in the drugstore, with her grim–faced mother regulating every move. No dates; those wouldn’t have been allowed, not that she’d been asked on any. But her mother had permitted her to go to the well–supervised high–school dance with Bob Goreham, for wasn’t he a shining light from a respectable family? She’d even allowed herself a touch of smug gloating, silent though it had been. Holding her head up after the decampment of Verna’s father had been a full–time job, and had given her a very stiff neck. From this distance Verna could understand it.

So out the door went Verna, starry–eyed with hero worship, wobbling on her first high heels. She was courteously inserted into Bob’s shiny red convertible with the treacherous Mickey of rye already lurking in the glove compartment, where she sat bolt upright, almost catatonic with shyness, smelling of Prell shampoo and Jergens lotion, wrapped in her mother’s mothbally out–of–date rabbit stole and an ice–blue tulle–skirted dress that looked as cheap as it was.

Cheap. Cheap and disposable. Use and toss. That was what Bob had thought about her, from the very first.

Now Bob grins a little. He looks pleased with himself: maybe he thinks Verna is blushing with desire. But he doesn’t recognize her! He really doesn’t! How many fucking Vernas can he have met in his life?

Get a grip, she tells herself.

She’s not invulnerable after all, it appears. She’s shaking with anger, or is it mortification?

To cover herself she takes a gulp of her wine, and immediately chokes on it. Bob springs into action, giving her a few brisk but caressing thumps on the back.

“Excuse me,” she manages to gasp. The crisp, cold scent of carnations envelops her. She needs to get away from him; all of a sudden she feels quite sick. She hurries to the ladies’ room, which is fortunately empty, and throws up her white wine and her cream–cheese–and–olive canapé into a cubicle toilet. She wonders if it’s too late to cancel the trip. But why should she run from Bob again?

Back then she’d had no choice. By the end of that week, the story was all over town. Bob had spread it himself, in a farcical version that was very different from what Verna herself remembered. Slutty, drunken, willing Verna, what a joke. She’d been followed home from school by groups of leering boys, hooting and calling out to her: Easy out! Can I have a ride? Candy’s dandy but liquor’s quicker! Those were some of the milder slogans. She’d been shunned by girls, fearful that the disgrace—the ludicrous, hilarious smuttiness of it all – would rub off on them.

Then there was her mother. It hadn’t taken long for the scandal to hit church circles. What little her mother had to say through her clamp of a mouth was to the point: Verna had made her own bed, and now she would have to lie in it. No, she could not wallow in self–pity – she would just have to face the music, not that she would ever live it down, because one false step and you fell, that’s how life was. When it was evident that the worst had happened,

she bought Verna a bus ticket and shipped her off to a church–run Home for Unwed Mothers on the outskirts of Toronto.

There Verna spent the days peeling potatoes and scrubbing floors and scouring toilets along with her fellow–delinquents. They wore gray maternity dresses and gray wool stockings and clunky brown shoes, all paid for by generous donations, they were informed. In addition to their scouring and peeling chores, they were treated to bouts of prayer and self–righteous hectoring. What had happened to them was justly deserved, the speeches went, because of their depraved behavior, but it was never too late to redeem themselves through hard work and self–restraint. They were cautioned against alcohol, tobacco, and gum chewing, and were told that they should consider it a miracle of God if any decent man ever wanted to marry them.

Verna’s labour was long and difficult. The baby was taken away from her immediately so that she would not get attached to it. There was an infection, with complications and scarring, but it was all for the best, she overheard one brisk nurse telling another, because those sorts of girls made unfit mothers anyway. Once she could walk, Verna was given five dollars and a bus ticket and instructed to return to the guardianship of her mother, because she was still a minor.

But she could not face that – that or the town in general – so she headed for downtown Toronto. What was she thinking? No actual thoughts, only feelings: mournfulness, woe, and, finally, a spark of defiant anger. If she was as trashy and worthless as everyone seemed to think, she might as well act that way, and, in between rounds of waitressing and hotel–room cleaning, she did.

to be continued...