Stone Mattress

By Margaret Atwood
  • 03 Sep - 09 Sep, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

It was only by great good luck that she stumbled upon an older married man who took an interest in her. She traded three years of noontime emotional bonding with him for the price of her education. A fair exchange, to her mind – she bore him no ill will. She learned a lot from him, how to walk in high heels being the least of it – and pulled herself up and out. Little by little she jettisoned the crushed image of Bob that she still carried like a dried flower – incredibly! – next to her heart.

“I know you probably hear this all the time, but I’ve got a great idea for a balloon animal.”

She pats her face back into place and repairs her mascara, which has bled down her cheeks despite its waterproof claims. Courage, she tells herself. She will not be chased away, not this time. She’ll tough it out; she’s more than a match for five Bobs now. And she has the advantage, because Bob doesn’t have a clue who she is. Does she really look that different? Yes, she does. She looks better. There’s her silver-blond hair, and the various alterations, of course. But the real difference is in the attitude – the confident way she carries herself. It would be hard for Bob to see through that façade to the shy, mousy-haired, snivelling idiot she’d been at fourteen.

After adding a last film of powder, she rejoins the group and lines up at the buffet for roast beef and salmon. She won’t eat much of it, but then she never does, not in public: a piggy, gobbling woman is not a creature of mysterious allure. She refrains from scanning the crowd to pinpoint Bob’s position – he might wave to her, and she needs time to think – and selects a table at the far end of the room. But presto, Bob is sliding in beside her without so much as a May-I-join-you. He assumes he’s already pissed on this fire hydrant, she thinks. Spray-painted this wall. Cut the head off this trophy and got his picture taken with his foot on the body. As he did once before, not that he realizes it. She smiles.

He’s solicitous. Is Verna all right? Oh, yes, she replies. It’s just that something went down the wrong way. Bob launches straight into the preliminaries. What does Verna do? Retired, she says, though she had a rewarding career as a physiotherapist, specializing in the rehabilitation of heart and stroke victims. “That must have been interesting,” Bob says. Oh, yes, Verna says. So fulfilling to help people.

It had been more than interesting. Wealthy men recovering from life-threatening episodes had recognized the worth of an attractive younger woman with deft hands, an encouraging manner, and an intuitive knowledge of when to say nothing. Or, as her third husband put it in his Keatsian mode, heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. There was something about the intimacy of the relationship – so emotional – that led to other intimacies, though Verna had always stopped short of any emotional bonding: it was a religious thing, she’d said. If no marriage proposal was forthcoming, she would pull herself away, citing her duty to patients who needed her more. That had forced the issue twice.

She’d chosen her acceptances with an eye to the medical condition involved, and once married she’d done her best to provide value for money. Each husband had departed not only happy but grateful, if a little sooner than might have been expected. But each had died of natural causes – a lethal recurrence of the heart attack or stroke that had hit him in the first place. All she’d done was give them tacit permission to satisfy every forbidden desire: to eat artery-clogging foods, to drink as much as they liked, to return to their golf games too soon. She’d refrained from commenting on the fact that, strictly speaking, they were being too zealously medicated. She’d wondered about the dosages, she’d say later, but who was she to set her own opinion up against a doctor’s?

And if a man happened to forget that he’d already taken his pills for that evening and found them neatly laid out in their usual place and took them again, wasn’t that to be expected? Blood thinners could be so hazardous, in excess. You could bleed into your own brain.

Then there was emotional bonding: the terminator, the coup de grace. Verna herself had no interest in emotional bonding as such, but she knew what was likely to work.

“You only live once,” she’d been in the habit of saying, lifting a champagne glass during a candlelit supper and then setting out the Viagra, a revolutionary breakthrough but so troubling to the blood pressure. It was essential to call the paramedics in promptly, though not too promptly. “He was like this when I woke up” was an acceptable thing to say. So was “I heard a strange sound in the bathroom, and then when I went to look . . .”

She has no regrets. She did those people a favour: surely better a swift exit than a lingering decline.

With two of the husbands, there’d been difficulties with the grownup children over the will. Verna had graciously said that she understood how they must feel, then she’d paid them off, more than was strictly fair considering the effort she’d put in. Her sense of justice has remained Presbyterian: she doesn’t want much more than her due, but she doesn’t want much less, either. She likes balanced accounts.

Bob leans in toward her, sliding his arm along the back of her chair. Is her husband along for the cruise? he asks, closer to her ear than he should be, breathing in. No, she says, she is recently widowed – here she looks down at the table, hoping to convey muted grief – and this is a sort of healing voyage. Bob says he’s very sorry to hear it, but what a coincidence, for his own wife passed away just six months ago. It had been a blow – they’d been really looking forward to the golden years together. She’d been his college sweetheart – it was love at first sight. Does Verna believe in love at first sight? Yes, Verna says, she does.

Bob confides further: they’d waited until after his law degree to get married and then they’d had three kids, and now there are five grandkids – he’s so proud of them all. If he shows me any baby pictures, Verna thinks, I’ll hit him.

“It does leave an empty space, doesn’t it?” Bob says. “A sort of blank.” Verna admits that it does. Would Verna care to join Bob in a bottle of wine?

You crap artist, Verna thinks. So you went on to get married and have children and a normal life, just as if nothing ever happened. Whereas for me . . . She feels queasy.

“I’d love to,” she says. “But let’s wait until we’re on the ship. That would be more leisurely.” She gives him the eyelids again. “Now I’m off to my beauty sleep.” She smiles, wafts upward.

“Oh, surely you don’t need that,” Bob says gallantly. The idiot actually pulls out her chair for her. He hadn’t shown such fine manners back then. Nasty, brutish, and short, as her third husband had said, quoting Hobbes on the subject of natural man. Nowadays a girl would know to call the police. Nowadays Bob would go to jail no matter what lies he might tell, because Verna was underage. But there had been no true words for the act then: rape was what occurred when some maniac jumped on you out of a bush, not when your formal-dance date drove you to a side road in the mangy twice-cut forest surrounding a tin-pot mining town and told you to drink up like a good girl and then took you apart, layer by torn layer. To make it worse, Bob’s best friend, Ken, had turned up in his own car to help out. The two of them had been laughing. They’d kept her panty girdle as a souvenir.

Afterward, Bob had pushed her out of the car halfway back, surly because she was crying.

“Shut up or walk home,” he’d said. She has a picture of herself limping along the icy roadside with her bare feet stuck in her dyed-to-match ice-blue heels, dizzy and raw and shivering and – a further ridiculous humiliation – hiccupping. What had concerned her most at that moment was her nylons – where were her nylons? She’d bought them with her own money. She must have been in shock.

Did she remember correctly? Had Bob stuck her panty girdle upside down on his head and danced about in the snow with the garter tabs flopping around like jesters’ bells?

Panty girdle, she thinks. How prehistoric. It, and all the long-gone archeology that went with it. Now a girl would be on the pill or have an abortion without a backward glance. How Paleolithic to still feel wounded by any of it.

It was Ken – not Bob – who’d come back for her, told her brusquely to get in, driven her home. He, at least, had had the grace to be shamefaced. “Don’t say anything,” he’d muttered. And she hadn’t, but her silence had done her no good.

Why should she be the only one to have suffered for that night? She’d been stupid, granted, but Bob had been vicious. And he’d gone scot-free, without consequences or remorse, whereas her entire life had been distorted. The Verna of the day before had died, and a different Verna had solidified in her place: stunted, twisted, mangled. It was Bob who’d taught her that only the strong can win, that weakness should be mercilessly exploited. It was Bob who’d turned her into – why not say the word? – a murderer.

The next morning, during the chartered flight north to where the ship is floating on the Beaufort Sea, she considers her choices. She could play Bob like a fish right up to the final moment, then leave him cold with his pants around his ankles: a satisfaction, but a minor one. She could avoid him throughout the trip and leave the equation where it’s been for the past fifty-some years: unresolved.

Or she could kill him.

She contemplates this third option with theoretical calm. Just say, for instance, if she were to murder Bob, how might she do it during the cruise without getting caught? Her meds-and-emotional bonding formula would be far too slow and might not work anyway, since Bob did not appear to suffer from any ailments. Pushing him off the ship is not a viable option. Bob is too big, the railings are too high, and she knows from her previous trip that there will always be people on deck, enjoying the breathtaking views and taking pictures. A corpse in a cabin would attract police and set off a search for DNA and fabric hairs and so forth, as on television.

No, she would have to arrange the death during one of the onshore visits. But how? Where? She consults the itinerary and the map of the proposed route. An Inuit settlement will not do: dogs will bark, children will follow. As for the other stops, the land they’ll be visiting is bare of concealing features. Staff with guns will accompany them to protect against polar bears. Maybe an accident with one of the guns? For that she’d need split-second timing.

Whatever the method, she’d have to do it early in the voyage, before he had time to make any new friends – people who might notice he was missing. Also, the possibility that Bob will suddenly recognize her is ever present. And if that happens it will be game over. Meanwhile, it would be best not to be seen with him too much. Enough to keep his interest up, but not enough to start rumors of, for instance, a budding romance. On a cruise, word of mouth spreads like the flu.

Once on board the ship – it’s the Resolute II, familiar to Verna from her last voyage – the passengers line up to deposit their passports at Reception. Then they assemble in the forward lounge for a talk on procedure given by three of the discouragingly capable staff members. Every time they go ashore, the first one says with a severe Viking frown, they must turn their tags on the tag board from green to red. When they come back to the ship, they must turn their tags back to green. They must always wear life jackets for the Zodiac trips to shore; the life jackets are the new, thin kind that inflate once in water.

They must deposit their life jackets on the shore when landing, in the white canvas bags provided, and put them back on when departing.

to be continued...