issue 27: November -December   2001 

 spanish translation | Catalan translation | author bio

Death Before...Death Before Dishonour
Patricia Dunkner


My first thought was that my wife must be having an affair. I'm not usually a jealous man but I've read all the books. I know the signs. What I should be looking out for: any change in her usual behaviour, new clothes, doing her hair differently, unexplained silences. Sometimes these things begin long before anything more serious happens; anything irrevocable, if you see what I mean. The first time I noticed anything odd was on the night she turned the lights off.
      We have a small flat in the 18th, rue Ordener. There's a market in the road on Saturdays where she does all the shopping. That day she'd bought flowers, carnations, blood-red, which she put in the bedroom. She buys flowers every Saturday, but she usually puts them on the table. I asked her why she'd put them in the bedroom and she said that you could still see them from the sitting-room if the doors are open, and they always are. We've got fifty-two square metres all in all, counting the lobby, so we leave the bedroom doors open to make it feel a bit wider. It's a big apartment compared with the others in the block and the lavatory is separate from the bathroom; but it's narrow, two long narrow spaces side by side, and the kitchen is a slit along the living-room wall. There's only room for one in the kitchen. But she prefers being in charge. She keeps a firm hand on the fridge. Well, the day she put the carnations in the bedroom was the same day she turned the lights off
      Her mother and aunt had been round to supper. We had entrecôte grillée cooked in that spicy sauce which her aunt loves, plenty of green pepper, nutmeg and crème fraîche. The usual family talk, her mother going on about the grandchildren. We don't have any children; her sister has three. I've got a cold cupboard in the cellar and I'd fetched up a good Côtes de Bourg. They drank it all and I drove them home to Vitry around midnight. When I got back my wife had cleared up the flat, done the pots and was already in bed reading a Japanese thriller to the slow rumble of the dishwasher. The carnations glowed in the light from her bedside lamp. I talked to her a little while I was getting undressed. She didn't really reply, just murmured yes occasionally, but then, she was deep in her thriller. I got into bed and lay there thoughtfully. We've been married ten years, so I don't have to approach these things indirectly. I leaned over under the sheet and pulled her nightgown up over her knees. She didn't move, so I stroked the top of her left thigh. She went on reading for a while and then she did a quite extraordinary thing. Extraordinary for her, that is. She took off her glasses, put them in the book to mark her place and turned off the light.
      Now I prefer to make love with the light on. So that I can see what I'm doing. She's got a good body still for a woman her age. She's never had children so her stomach is firm; round, but firm. She's got large breasts with big, pink nipples. Like I say, I like to see what I've got underneath me. She wasn't saying that she didn't want to, because no sooner had she turned the light off than she turned to face me and pulled her nightgown right up to her chin. I didn't quite know what to say and the light's on her side. So I got on with it in a businesslike way to show that I wasn't put out. The streetlights come into the room anyway, producing an eerie half-light. But you don't notice them when the lamps are lit. I reached out and patted her head when I'd finished. I asked her why she'd turned off the light. She didn't say anything in reply. But I think that she was just going off to sleep.
      Everything was normal the next day. She got up to make
      the coffee at eight-thirty. She went out to the boulangerie in her slippers. She filled in her loto forms. She cleaned the bathroom after I'd had my shower. She was cooking again by eleven-thirty. I didn't exactly forget it, the business with the lights, but I put it away in the back of my mind.
      Weekdays we usually leave the block together. I work in a garage out on the périphérique, near the Porte de Pantin. It's a good job, regular hours and a fair wage. I'm the head mechanic, so I have the responsibility of doing the estimates. I'm a cautious man and I don't take decisions quickly. I like to weigh things up. My wife never asks me about my work, but you don't expect women to be interested in cars, do you? She works with her sister on the Ile St-Louis. Her sister runs a hotel and my wife does the accounts; the reception in the summer and supervises the cleaning. Often as not she does the cleaning herself. Can't bear anyone else to do it halfheartedly so that it has to be done again. She uses savage-smelling products for which you are advised to wear gloves. They don't smell of pine and lavender, just disinfectant. And sometimes she does too. It's a very aggressive smell. I did speak to her about it once. She agreed to wear a stronger perfume if I found the smell unpleasant.
      She eats lunch with her sister and in the winter she's always home before I am. In the summertime she does the hotel reception three evenings a week and gets home at eleven. She never does weekends. I always ask after her sister. She tells me about her sister's children. What they get up to. The oldest boy goes fishing in the river now, but they never eat anything he catches because the water's too polluted. He's made friends with an old chap on a barge and they fish in the afternoons. Daughter is just going into the sixième and the youngest is under their feet at the hotel all day during the summer. Her sister won't leave him in the garderie. She seems to be fond enough of her sister's children. She never forgets their birthdays. But she's not what I would call maternal. In the first years of our marriage I was roaring keen for babies. I wanted a son of my own. Only natural, that. But nothing happened. We went to the clinic and had all the tests and the counselling. They said that we just had to be patient. Nothing was wrong exactly. It just hadn't taken. By the time she'd turned forty we'd already given up thinking about it.
      It was a month after the incident with the light that I got home around seven and she wasn't there. The flat was empty. Her bag wasn't there, her umbrella wasn't in the corner. She was late. I switched on the TV and watched the news. But it was past eight-thirty before I heard her key in the door. Must have been after eight-thirty because Laurent Cabrol was on, apologizing for the weather and showing us a clin d'oeil of hedgehogs doing a mating ritual.
      I was a bit annoyed. So I didn't say anything; I went on with my beer and the beginning of the film. She apologized for being late, but she didn't give a reason. If she didn't want to tell me, that was her affair. But that night she switched off the light again just as I had made it clear that I fancied a bit of love. And she switched it off just a little too briskly.
      I'm not usually a jealous man. But I'm not naive. And I'm not easily taken in. I was now on the watch. Things went on as usual all that spring, but she wouldn't make love with the light on. It became something of a battle of wills. I decided to withdraw a little. I didn't ask her for sex. And she didn't come over for a cuddle like she used to. But nothing was said. If she didn't want to talk about it, then neither did I.
      But she didn't seem to want to talk about anything. One evening I asked her where she'd like the caravan this year. We keep it in the yard at her mother's place in the suburbs. And every year we book a site somewhere on the west coast or in the Midi. I enjoy going through the brochures and working out which campsite is the best bargain. Anyway, she showed no interest in the brochures and said that she hadn't considered going on holiday this year. Wasn't sure she would. I must admit I did get a bit irritated by that. I suppose I shouldn't have shouted at her. She got up quietly and went straight to bed. And the next night she didn't come home until well after nine o'clock. I'd given up hope of supper and been down to the café. I took a piece of fish out of the freezer for her and left it thawing on the draining board. Like I say, I know I shouldn't have shouted at her, but she'd stopped being cooperative. I was all ready to apologize and make things all right again. But when I saw her I couldn't bring out a single word. She was dead white, like someone in shock after an accident and her hands were shaking. She said yes, she didn't feel too well, but would be all right in the morning, and no, she wouldn't eat anything but was going straight to bed. I thought I heard her retching over the basin, but she 'd locked the bathroom door so I couldn't be sure.
      She had great black circles under her eyes next morning, but she got up and went to work as usual. She didn't say much and she didn't put the breakfast plates in the dishwasher like she usually did. It was then that I knew. She was seeing someone else. And he was putting pressure on her.
      I rang her sister next day after my wife would have left work and said I was worried. That she'd looked tired and ill, but that she kept saying that everything was all right. Now I'd thought that her sister would get all evasive, which would prove that she was in the know. But she didn't. Instead she got all het up and genuinely worried. I know the girl well and she wasn't shamming. She must have had a go at my wife because I was told to mind my own business the following evening when she came in. Late. She was still a bit white, but she had her chin in the air like a gladiator. Suit yourself, I thought. And something ended, then and there between us. Can't put my finger on it exactly, but it didn't make me happy. I wasn't in her confidence any more. She was silent.
      And then she stopped coming home. She stopped making supper at least three nights a week. Sometimes she'd be back at nine, sometimes midnight. If I talked to her she answered in monosyllables. I decided to find out who the other man was before I made my final accusations.
      I took a day off work. I followed her.
      It was hard to keep sight of her in the Metro. We all stood cheek by jowl in an appalling intimacy, but she's a small woman. She insinuated herself unobtrusively into gaps, she kept her book level and she went on reading all the way. She didn’t loiter as she paced across the city, but I kept her in sight down the back streets, not twenty metres behind her as she clicked briskly along the quais and over the bridge. She never hesitated and she never looked back. She stepped over the clear water rushing in the gutters with the elegance of a heron, she paused for a moment in the sunlight on the Pont St -Louis and I ducked behind a kiosk shaped like a giant orange. But she didn't turn round, just looked up, into the sun. And her dark hair swung gleaming with some new, strange, sinister, glossy sheen. To me she had become a stranger, all her gestures like secrets revealed. She marched down the rue St-Louis and turned into the hotel with a flick of her skirt, leaving me with the rest of the day to kill, watching the doors.
      It wasn't one of the nights when she was on reception so she should have left at five. And so she did. Her sister came out and they stood chatting in the street for a moment before she turned away. I leant back behind a cinema poster as she would come my way towards the bridge. But she didn't. She walked the other way towards the Pont de Sully. I was waiting for this. But even so I felt sick in my stomach with anger and fright. She really was seeing another man. And I would soon know where he lived.
      I started after her, ready to kill.
      She never looked round. Not once. And she walked fast, with devastating precision. I tried to keep up with her as she forged her way on up the rue Cardinal Lemoine. She chose her route round the scaffolding with habitual certainty; she strode up the road without pausing for breath. She was fitter
      than I was, but I kept her in sight. When she got to the Place de la Contrescarpe I lost her. All of a sudden. There were plenty of people in the cafés, music from an organ-grinder positioned under the trees, the restaurants laying out for the evening: she must have entered one of the buildings. There were several huge siege doors with entry-phones. Not necessary, if she knew the code. I sat in one of the cafés, waiting. I stared at all the windows looking over the square, anxious and enraged. Was it there? Or there? Or behind those locked and dusty shutters? I was unable to touch the beer placed before me.
      By ten o'clock I was desperate. Dusk had quietened the square. I could hear only their groans of satisfied desire and whispered love. People stared at me; a man who had once had a desirable wife. The man she had abandoned. Then I saw her, neat, calm, her shawl carefully arranged over her shoulders, stepping out of the great doors on the other side of the square. Her white face was luminous in the dusk. There was someone behind her. My heart shuddered to a halt as she turned to say goodbye.
      He was tiny, almost a dwarf, bald, turning fifty, in a shabby brown suit. He was moon-faced, graceless, ugly. I did not attempt to hide. I sat there, staring. He took her hand, spoke to her for a moment - but I was too far away to catch their words - then he kissed her fingers reverently as if she was his patron saint. She bowed and turned away. She was gone, along the other side of the empty square, into the greying dusk.
      I sat there alone, for a long, long time, staring at the grey outlines of the buildings, the grey trees drained of colour and the lights coming on in the upper windows. At last I drained the beer in one gulp. But I couldn't bring myself to move. I just sat there; all my jealousy and anger disintegrating into contempt.
      Then, near eleven o'clock I got up and went home.
      She was already in bed, the lamp casting shadows across her face. As usual, she was reading. I stood staring at her incredulously. For now I really was staring at a woman I had neither known nor understood, a monster who took her sexual pleasure in perverted ways, searching for freaks in sleazy back streets. She neither spoke nor looked up.
      I told her that she was a whore. That I knew everything. That I had followed her. That I now understood her extraordinary behaviour. That I had seen her leaving him in the doorway. That it was useless to lie or to pretend any more. I found myself shouting.
      She put down her book, marking her place with her glasses, pushed back the covers and got out of bed. Then she reached past me, so close I could have touched her, and turned on all the lights: the overhead lights, the wall lamps in the lounge, the halogen standing lamp next to the television. Stepping backwards, her face set with defiance, she swooped downwards with a gesture graceful as a ballerina and flung off her long cotton nightgown.
      I reeled against the door.
      Her body was utterly transformed. Striding her nipples was the handle of a dagger, its swirls curling her pink points, the blade severing her stomach in straight, firm, blue lines, riding the curves of her breasts. But from her pubic hair, rising sinister out of the dark, curly mass, coiling about the dagger's blade, was a deep red rose. In the full glare of the lights I saw every detail, her terrible clarity and aggression. On the dagger's hilt, unfurling like a medieval scroll, were the words Death Before Dishonour. Her tattoos shone menacing in the hard, white light.
      Then she spoke.
      "I have planned this for a long, long time. I have done it again and again in my dreams and now it is finished. Yes, sometimes it did make me ill. It was a long piece of work. But for me, the pain, even the infections, were important. It was my way of changing my body, irrevocably and for ever. You may think you changed me. But you didn't. I am like sand under your feet. Each tide washes me clean. But I felt dishonoured every time you touched me. I shall never let you touch me again."

© Patricia Duncker

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author bio

Patricia DunckerPatricia Duncker is the author of three fictions: Hallucinating Foucault (1996), Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees (1997) and James Miranda Barry (1999).Her forthcoming work includes a sinister psychological novel The Deadly Space Between, to be published by Picador in March 2002, and a collection of critical essays on writing and contemporary literature, Writing on the Wall, to be published by Rivers Oram next year. She now teaches writing and nineteenth and twentieth century literature at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and spends part of every year in France. website: www.aber.ac.uk/english/


tbr 27               november/december  2001


Suhayl Saadi - Bandanna
James Carlos Blake - La Vida Loca
Patricia Duncker - Death Before Dishonour
Chris Reid - Scorin' for Ireland
Karen Seashore - Harvest
       picks from back issues:
Dorothy Speak - The View from Here
Javier Marías - Fewer Scruples

-Articles Review of em three
Film Festival of Catalunya:
Japanese anime
-Quiz Joyce Carol Oates
Answers to Virginia Woolf Quiz
-Book Reviews Doris Lessing, Steve Aylett, James Kelman...
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