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"astrian Tales# b$ Elephant %ress& Australia '(() S*ash+ rds editi n published b$ Kate Walker ,-'' IS.N/ ()01'123401(03-1(
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The Man Wh L !ed His Wi7e b$ Kate Walker
William and Zara took a room on the top floor of The Carlton in 1910 to become the hotel’s first permanent residents. They came straight from their wedding breakfast in her parents’ home, to that room overlooking the town and the sea. He carried her, not only over the hotel’s threshold, but up three flights of stairs to the wonder of the housemaids who peered over the railings to watch him approach, bearing his bride in his arms. William was of straight up-and-down build, with a plain and serious face but wore a striking moustache curled at the ends, his one and only vanity. Because this was his wedding day, he wore a look of plain working-man’s happiness – a look he wore most days, along with the same brown suit and celluloid collar. There was also a worried crease above his eyebrows and this the hotel maids attributed, mistakenly, to the effort of the climb.
Despite his lack of romantic bearing, he scaled the stairs with ease. William Scott possessed an inner reserve that few suspected. And his wife, whom he carried high against his chest, was hardly bigger than a child and weighed less than her petticoats. She carried her bonnet in her hands and her face was lost against his shoulder, a gesture the maids put down to love, when in truth was she exhausted, almost faint. Zara had been married in a dress of neat poplin, lent to her by a cousin, who whispered at the wedding, “You look so beautiful in that dress, Zara, I want you to keep it.” It was blue with pink roses, their petals having the same sharp color as her cheeks. She was married reclining on a chaise lounge in the front parlor of her parents’ home, the priest agreeing under the circumstances to perform the wedding outside of church. “Though it in no way de-sanctifies the ceremony,” he said, “or makes the vows less binding.” Stern in his black cassock, he impressed this upon all parties, especially the taciturn young groom. William Scott was twenty-six, Zara O’Mear nineteen, and why a robust young man was marrying a dying girl was beyond anyone’s ken. In both the kind and unkind corners of his heart the priest sought for reasons. Perhaps the fellow was incomplete for marriage. Or hoped for an inheritance or reward. The O’Mear’s indulgences – a pianoforte and a gramophone in the same room – could have been interpreted as portents of wealth. Or was the young man marrying for respectability, to hide a twisted way of life? The priest discerned there was more to this plain, meek fellow than met the eye, but he had to be content with God and William alone knowing William’s motives. Unable to find due cause against the union, the priest agreed to sanctify it with as much orthodoxy as could be observed in a stifling parlor, crammed with cousins, aunts and various friends. The wedding, removed from the staid male edifice of a church, took on a troublesome female air. Women’s hats and dresses took up an inordinate amount of room, leaving the men to squeeze themselves into undignified nooks between antimacassars and plant stands. The priest stayed only for the whiskey and declined the supper, giving no more than the church’s cursory blessing to this union which he feared had something unnatural about it. Zara O’Mear spent her entire days languishing on a sofa, which at night became her bed. She had not the stamina to climb the stairs. Getting dressed for her wedding had worn her out completely. As much as she wanted to stand to be wed, she was obliged to witness the ceremony from her low perch on the chaise. The groom tugged his cuffs as he stood, nervous as any young man would be on his
wedding day. Being an immigrant, he had no family in this country to put even greater strain on the O’Mear’s front parlor. As his groomsman, he invited his only acquaintance, Mr. Drake, departmental manager at the City Emporium where he worked in the gentleman’s apparel section. William boarded with the O’Mear’s, sharing a room with their youngest son, which is how he’d met Zara. He hailed from Birmingham, England, where his father owned a drapers store; there he’d he learnt his trade. But being the youngest of too many sons, William had left England to seek his fortune elsewhere, and found employment in the retail trade in Sydney, Australia. When the firm bought a second premises in another town, William’s head of department, Mr. Drake, suggested that his junior also be made an offer of re-location. Drake recommended William as a diligent worker; of impeccable character and courteous manners, if a fraction obsequious to the customers at times; meticulous in his handling of merchandise and cash, treating new socks and boxed ties as precious objects. This irked Drake somewhat but did not blind him to the fact that such fastidiousness in the trade was a virtue. What Mr. Drake liked best in the young man, however, was his subservience. William would always be a junior no matter how long he worked for the firm. He had limited ambition. He’d learnt to be content with second place and hand-me-down arrangements. In agreeing to be William Scott’s best man, Drake lost a one pound wager. He’d had a bet with another head of department that, should William ever marry, it would be to a hand-medown wife, a widow. So Drake was astounded, as well as out of pocket, when William chose a bedridden creature whose nondescript Irish parents had attempted to exalt her by naming her after Russian royalty – Zarina. William was of solid build. His appetite was good. His wavy black hair lashed his forehead with curls which needed constant trimming to keep them from becoming raffish. His one spark of determination was his refusal to wear a hat, which meant his face tanned in summer. But the rest of his skin beneath his vest and drawers remained as white as linen. He had fine skin, and even finer eyes. As black as jet, they might have come into the family via Java or Hong Kong. India even. His eyes were not native to Birmingham, and they gave his otherwise unremarkable face a spark of brightness and intrigue, which certain lady customers of the middle or lower classes found alluring. William Scott looked plain to the men, but to certain women he had a small, indefinable charm. Right up until the day of the wedding, everyone advised him against it: Drake, the priest, Zara’s doctor, even her parents.
“Don’t saddle yourself with our girl,” Mrs. O’Mear said in all kindness. “As much as I yearn to see her happy, our Zara’s not made for marriage. You know what I mean.” Her doctor, at the insistence of two blushing aunts, informed him plainly, “Zara must not, by any means, fall pregnant. It would kill her.” Many supposed the act of consummation itself would blast the life from her body. She had a debilitating illness of unknown origin that caused her to languish perpetually. She ate little, slept a lot and from the age of sixteen could not walk more than a dozen steps without aid. But William, with his unfathomable eyes and oblique determination stated quietly, he wished to marry her in full cognizance of the situation. Zara likewise, when asked, answered with the same uncharacteristic surety. Zara, whose strained senses could hardly tell day from night in her darkened room, was quite sure she wanted to marry this robust young man. They didn’t appear to have a doubt between them, and no one could deny that his presence soothed the hectic spots from her cheeks, and the same strange glint that lighted his eyes began to appear in her own. Her father put it to him bluntly: “It must be a celibate marriage.” To which William answered, “I want to care for her. I can’t do that if we’re not wed. It wouldn’t be proper.” Those who loved Zara the most concluded: let her be wed and know a few hours of happiness, even if it kills her. To speak the last binding vow of eternal attachment Zara insisted on standing and took the support of William’s arm, weighing little more than a cuff link on his wrist. He put his other arm about her waist so naturally it appeared, to the gathering behind them, to be an action he’d performed many times before. And she leaned against him with an equal lack of hesitation or reserve, causing a sharp exchange of glances between older aunts. The union was proclaimed before God and the company, and William kissed his bride with a persistence overlong even for a groom. That further alarmed the matrons, making a number of handkerchiefs flutter, and caused all the younger cousins to believe they would soon see a miracle. That love would conquer all and dear dying Zara would be a rose in full healthy boom in three months time, revived by love and this man’s ardor. They even mocked the good doctor with it – he who had ministered to her all through her illness, which was all her life. Over the previous months, with the lamp glowing softly in the parlor, William and Zara had discussed, planned and agreed on everything: how and where they would live, and how their lives would be.
The Carlton Hotel had been operating for a year then, accommodating holiday makers from the country, offering them the vitality of the seaside, bracing airs, views of the ocean, respectable lodgings, three meals a day, serviced rooms and linen supplied. William had made enquiries about the possibility of a permanent residency, explaining that his wife-to-be was perfectly lucid and capable, and simply required inordinate amounts of rest. That for her, he wanted a room with a view, meals and laundry done. He would take care of all her other needs himself. He’d clean their room, making it available for weekly inspection if required. The hotel proprietress, Mrs. Warburton, had never allowed permanent tenancy before, on principal. The in-and-out variety of guest was the most desirable, and she especially did not want bedridden clients. Frankly, they made the rooms smell, and compromised an establishment irreparably if they died on site. William Scott cut a swath through all her rules. He did not beg, nor appeal to her mercy, nor present himself as needful. He simply made his assurances and requests, as a prospective customer, again and again. His wife was not dying, she did not need constant care, everything of a personal nature she needed, he could do for her, and at the very worst the hospital was one block to the south-east of them. He could carry her there in less time than it would take to hail a carriage. Mrs. Warburton finally consented and a reduced rate for permanent residency was agreed upon. With her vast experience of couples coming and going up her grand staircase, Mrs. Warburton did not make the assumption that many others did, that this young man was martyring himself by marrying a sickly wife. Nor for a minute did she see him as passionless. Mrs. Warburton knew a virile young fellow when she saw one, she had an instinct for them, and a bosom that heaved whenever one crossed her sphere. Had this one not been so plain and fussy about detail, she might have been interested herself. Her summing of the marriage also was the opposite over everyone else’s. The first time she saw them together she knew what they were – lovers. Having agreed upon a price, Mrs. Warburton offered to show him various rooms, but William had already reconnoitered the hotel’s geography from the outside and declared himself interested in one room only, the room on the top eastern corner, whose windows overlooked the beach, the hospital and the town. He did not care how it was furnished, he said, until Mrs. Warburton opened the door and for the first time in all his careful planning William felt unsure. The room to which he would bring his wife was intimate. It was
decorated in hues of ginger and maroon. It contained a mirrored wardrobe, a washstand and basin, and a bed of solid oak. At the sight of it he felt his collar constrict his breathing and his blood leave his legs, making it necessary for him to grip the handle of the door. He was not inexperienced with women. There had been a widow in Sydney whose company he’d enjoyed very much. She’d made his acquaintance in a tea room and after a respectable lapse of time, allowed him full vent of his passions, terrifying him with the ability she had to render him uncontrollable. She unleashed, what seemed to be, another man inside him, one who tore collars from their studs and lost his socks in something like a bestial frenzy. Standing now on the threshold of marriage, with the buxom proprietress of the hotel beside him, his nostrils full of her perfume, and in full view of his marriage bed, the heat of his male desires overtook him. He walked directly to the window and flung it open, banging it against the top sill, desperate to have the fresh and cool air off the ocean calm him. Mrs. Warburton laughed, “My, my, Mr. Scott, you don’t know your own strength.” Twice his age, married, respectable, distracted from morning to night by clients and ledgers, she had nevertheless hit upon his problem as precisely as she guessed his intention in marrying his bride. This man was in love, body and soul, to the point where it could transform him. All women were transformed by love, but few men. Of course she would let him the room, to see what he might become. When Mr. Warburton was informed of the arrangement to let a room permanently to a young man with a sickly wife, he said, “Good-looker, is he?” Mrs. Warburton replied, “Do you know what their names are? Zara O’Mear and William Scott. It seemed providential.” The hotel stood on the corner of Zara and Scott Streets. “What the devil’s that got to do with anything?” Mr. Warburton exploded from behind his great proprietor’s moustache. His wife had not felt a loving kiss or tickle from that moustache in more than fifteen years, therefore she did not wonder that he failed to understand her heaving bosom. She was a woman destined to watch over loves come and go and never find her own. Thus the accuracy of her observations had never been clouded. There were flowers in the room, courtesy of Mrs. Warburton, when William carried his bride across the threshold in her blue poplin dress. To keep her here would take almost all his wages, but her meals would be delivered to her, the housemaids would be within call should
she need them, and she had a view of the weather, the ocean and the town. Everything else she needed, he would do for her. Exhausted by the wedding she fell asleep propped against the pillows on the bed, and she looked dead when he came back from the bathroom. His heart leapt into his throat. He sprang onto the bed – that action that had worried him for nights without sleep he now performed with the speed of a cat. He leaned his face close to her chest to be sure her heat beat still, that life fluttered yet in her narrow lungs. Assured that it did, he sat back in nervous wonder of her lying there for him alone. This fragile, other half of his soul he had recognized in dim outline when he had been let into the dark parlor for the first time to view the whole of his new lodgings. She had glowed in the dark for him then as she did now. Sleep had taken away the sharp color that usually spread across her cheeks and stilled the thin hair that often wisped about her face. He knew why he loved her. He knew and marveled at the mystery of it, that without her he was just a man who filled a corner of a store, shifting ties and handkerchiefs, but with her he filled the whole world. With her, keeping a shelf tidy become a sacred duty. It made everything he did right or wrong, good or bad for his soul, damning or glorifying to his spirit. There were no meaningless actions any more. Everything was significant and either exalted or bestialized him. With her, he also knew that the bliss of heaven was attainable in this world, so long as he had the strength to maintain his imperceptible hold on its fragility. He prayed to God to maintain that strength in him, and touched her fingers as she lay. And in deep exhausted slumber she stirred. They were married on a Saturday. Sunday morning he went to Mass. His new mother-inlaw approached him and kissed him on the cheek as a son, whispering, “I’ll come back with you.” “There’s no need,” William said. “Zara will need things done for her,” said Mrs. O’Mear. “I’ve done them,” he said. “Oh? The maids help, I suppose?” she asked. “Not much,” he said. She was revolted. “I would like to see her!” “Then you and Mr. O’Mear, I mean Da,” he smiled, “are invited for tea on Thursday evening. I have to get back to Zara now. She’s waiting for me.” Mrs. O’Mear was no match for his courteous ways, honed on customers.
William worked long hours each day and arrived back at the hotel in time for dinner, which he ate with his wife at a small card table Mrs. Warburton had added to the furnishings of their room. With the arrival of the collapsible table, Zara sat up for dinner, which she’d never accomplished at home, not since her period began at age sixteen. The onset of menstruation had weakened her completely. The widow had been quite shameless about her female functions, so William knew about menstruation and ministered to his wife in that also. After three months of marriage there was nothing he did not do for her. There was no part of her body he didn’t know or sponge with a flannel. He loved her every night with tender force and concentration, choosing one part of her each time to caress and taste and know, better than he knew his own heart. This is why one loved, he suspected; one could never know oneself completely or honestly, but one could know another. She was the only wife in the world whose sole function was to be rested by day that she could be charmed at night by the delighted closeness of her husband. He could distinguish the texture of her earlobe from the smoothness of her throat, and he only ever kissed her on the lips once a day. This was his rationing, his way of loving that became a sacred art, necessary that he might love and she might live. It was full of passion but no blindness and no loss of control. He never teased. He erupted like a volcano beside her sometimes and so loved her with all the selfless restraint and immaculate distance and reserve he could bear, and even loved the pain of it. It was more exquisite to him than joy, and any mere satisfaction of the body alone that he had known with the widow. He loved his wife with his soul and body in unison, with perfect care and refinement, and thus she could love him also, with the joy they said she would never know. When he was sure of his courage, he began to wash himself in front of her, revealing more and more of himself each time until he would sit naked on a towel on the bed, holding the basin, while she sponged his back, his arms and thighs. He shaved twice a day, once in the morning for work and once in the evening for love. In Vienna, Freud had declared to the world: What else is there but work and love! William Scott discovered this for himself. By day he worked at haberdashery, slightly irritating the manager with his unctuous courtesy, dusting dustless shelves as if order were a vocation. But he refused to work late and he refused promotion. He hadn’t wanted it before and he didn’t want it now. William would give only a certain proportion of his life to earning a living and no more.
With the few shillings left over from his pay he bought small treats for Zara: ginger beer which he would shake before releasing the cap so that it popped like champagne. He never saved money, there was no need. In 1921 he contracted influenza, either at Mass or from one of the customers at the store, they being the only two places he went. He infected his wife unwittingly and they died in hospital in separate wards. William, having learnt to follow his higher instincts in all matters and on all occasions, died first and Zara, having learnt to trust him in all things, followed. THE END = but please read n8
ABOUT THE AUTHOR & THIS STORY I’m an Australian writer and over the years I’ve written mainly for children and young adults. But in between time I produced a small number of stories for adults. ‘The Man Who Loved His Wife’ is one of those early adult tales. If often takes me dozens of drafts to complete even a very short story. This one I wrote it in just three hours, early one Sunday morning. To see more of my Adult & Young Adult Fiction please goto: http://www.katewalkeraustralia.com
NEW WAYS TO TEACH & LEARN CREATIVE WRITING For 20 plus years I taught creative writing to school students and adults and over that time I developed some unique and successful approaches. TEACHERS, HOME SCHOOLERS & ASPIRING YOUNG WRITERS please check out my Creative Writing Manuals: Step By Step Stories A unique approach to teaching & learning story craft & writing. https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/317586 Writing Enrichment How to actually WRITE! The basic & very do-able techniques all good writers use. https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/308829 For more about Kate Walker & her books please visit: http://www.katewalkeraustralia.com http://www.katewalkerwriter4children.com http://www.creativewritingclassroom.com
COVER I found the cover photograph on the web and sent numerous emails to the person who’d posted it, asking if I might use it as part of my cover design. None of my emails were answered. As a rule, photographs taken prior to 1922 are no longer copyright, and clearly
this photo predates that time. So I went ahead and used it because it was the perfect image for the story. I’d be very pleased to hear from the owner.
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