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Perfect: Fiction by Elizabeth Zelvin
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Elizabeth Zelvin: Perfect

96_ym_perfect_kcwalker.jpg
Art by Keith Coates Walker © 2023

PERFECT

Elizabeth Zelvin

 

Judy now

Judy looked down at Gary for the last time. He looked unfamiliar, as if they hadn’t been growing into their lived-in faces day by day for forty years. The best embalmer money could buy couldn’t limn that quirky character on a corpse. She was glad he’d never dreamed he wasn’t the love of her life. She was glad now that she’d come back after that perfect weekend in the English countryside with Charles, glad she hadn’t taken the unthinkable step of leaving not only Gary but her precious little Danny, who was now a man of thirty-five with children of his own. In those days, mothers almost always got the children in a divorce, but Gary would never have let her take Danny out of the country. She’d have lost him, and the whole world would have condemned her. Even for a perfect love, it wasn’t quite enough.

 

When she realized she couldn’t bear to let Gary touch her, she thought briefly of killing herself. But then Danny would lose his mother. She considered killing Gary. But you couldn’t look up poisons or buy a gun on the Internet in those days. So she endured. And in the end, she got over it. In real life, a passion that never dies doesn’t last forever, not unless it’s nourished. Charles never answered her letters. He never called. No email, no texting, no Skype or FaceTime back then. No social media. She couldn’t even stalk him. In the end, she stopped pursuing him. In time, the pain faded, and she got on with her life. She got used to Gary again, almost forgot that she’d stopped loving him. But that weekend still glowed in her memory as perfect.

 

****

 

Judy then

 

The Cavendishes lived in a country house, like the ones in all those English novels. They were friends of Charles’s parents. He’d known Phoebe since they were both in nappies. Diapers to Judy, who was endlessly delighted by the British words she’d only encountered in books until that weekend. Judy had flown to London as a courier for Gary’s firm. She had begged for the job as a breath of air, a brief respite from her mommy role. Charles, whom she and Gary had met in the South of France on vacation, holiday to Charles, when they were trying to get pregnant, invited her down for the weekend.

 

What do you do during an English country house weekend when there is no murder? Judy asked herself. The answer was obvious. You fall in love. Of course Judy fell in love with Charles. He had just finished art college and was already an immensely gifted painter. He’d started late, because he had a child, a little boy one year older than Danny. There was something wrong with the mother. Judy guessed it must be drugs or mental illness. With authentic British reserve, they never quite came out with it. But Charles fought for custody of George when he could have walked away. His sense of responsibility was part of his perfection, along with his intelligence, his talent, his breathtaking good looks, and the way he tucked his prepositions neatly in at the end of the sentence.

 

George was living at the Cavendishes’ as well as Charles. He was a lovely child with perfect manners for his age and that enchanting British accent. In a way, George was one of the biggest reasons Judy didn’t stay. How could she abandon her own son to bring up someone else’s? Not that Charles asked her. But surely he would have if she’d given him enough encouragement rather than pouring out everything she felt, including her ambivalence, because such a consuming love must include perfect trust.

 

All the Cavendishes were there, because the grandfather, Sir Henry Cavendish, was dying. He was a knight, not a baronet, they explained to Judy, which was why Phoebe’s father, Mr Cavendish, was not Sir Julian. I’m in a fairytale, Judy thought. Then she scolded herself for thoughts that were inappropriate at a time when the whole family had gathered to attend Grandfather on his deathbed—Cavendish aunts and uncles and Phoebe’s older sisters, who were all married with husbands and children in tow.  It was moving to see the loving family rally around the patriarch, the wellbred English behaving just as they were supposed to. It filled her heart to bursting with love for them all.

 

****

 

Charles

 

The weekend was a disaster from start to finish. He should never have invited Judy down.

 

But she’d made it so evident she was longing to be asked. He’d never been any good at saying no. There was too much going on to play the good host properly, with George to mind, Sir Henry dying, and Charles himself under pressure to make decisions that would affect his whole life. Now he’d finished art college, won all the prizes, done all he could to please them, he was ready to stop faffing about and be a painter. Instead, thanks to one of his own family’s ghastly financial messes, they wanted him to be a teacher. Once in, he knew he’d never break away. He’d become one of those Sunday painters his most idolized mentor despised.

 

He was expected to comfort Phoebe, who was in a twit about how poor Sir Henry was lingering. Charles kept reassuring her that he felt no pain, his best guess at what she wanted to hear. He always tried not to disappoint people, though his good intentions often fell short. Phoebe wanted to go up to London, get a flat, and write. Unlike him, she wisely had told no one else of her ambition. All the world knew he had to paint or die, and they all had an opinion.

 

He couldn’t sponge off the Cavendishes forever. Phoebe, as a girl, could live at home until she married. He suspected that was why both families were so keen to prod him into supporting himself. They’d made that match when he and Phoebe were in their cradles. They had always been like brother and sister, but everyone would be so pleased.

 

George missed his mother. He expressed it in night terrors and anal retention. This made it awkward to be attentive to Judy during the night. The moon was full, the curtains were blowing, the soft night breezes carried the scent of roses in from the garden. And he couldn’t tell her that the tender scenario she imagined turned to farce when he heard George’s cries from the other end of the house and found his son red-faced and howling, stuck firmly on the potty. Judy must have thought the cries were an owl or a fox. George took a long time to soothe. Judy was asleep when Charles returned. He didn’t tell her what had happened. He barely thought of her at all. She was going back to America and not important in the overwhelming scheme of things.

 

On Sunday afternoon, after seeing an effervescent Judy off on the train, he sent off the teacher certification papers. He submitted to the unendurable congratulations, rigid with misery. Old Sir Henry finally expired, and the rattling of documents, the will being the most crucial, succeeded the death rattle. Even Phoebe started joking about their children, his and hers. To escape from the hubbub, he went up to the attic, which had a high sloped ceiling and good north light. Here, he felt at peace. His latest painting, finished shortly before the American arrived, stood on the easel. It was dry now. He took a long, critical look. Did it need a touch of white here? A couple of shorter brushstrokes there? No. It was perfect.

****

 

Phoebe

 

It wasn’t done to say that Grandfather was an unconscionable time a-dying, but everybody thought it. The weekend was the last straw, with everybody scheming and bullying poor Charles and making plans for his future. She felt sorry for the American girl. She heard Papa say crossly, “Charles, why couldn’t you take her to a hotel?” more loudly than his deafness would excuse. The poor thing was obviously besotted with Charles. It would do her no good. Phoebe would get him in the end. But first, she would do exactly as she wished. Gramps had promised. He had shown her his will a week before he had his last stroke. So during the morning, while everyone was fussing over breakfast or taking the dogs out or being polite as the American said her goodbyes, because whatever one thought, one never forgot one’s manners, Phoebe went upstairs and put a pillow over Sir Henry’s patrician nose. The girl who sat with him was in the loo, so no one saw her. It was the perfect murder.

 

####



Elizabeth Zelvin writes the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga. Her stories appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Black Cat Mystery Magazine. Liz also has a story in the anthology Jewish Noir II.

Keith C. Walker was born in Leeds in 1939. He studied Ceramics at Leeds College of Art and the Royal College of Art. In the late 1960s to early 1970s, he was Personal Assistant to Eduardo Paolozzi. Keith taught at Hull College of Art and Leicester Polytechnic, which is now De Montfort University. In 1994 he retired from Academia.

Keith says, “Digital technology has made and continues to make big changes to all of our lives: the way we communicate, the way we are monitored, the way we entertain ourselves, and much, much more. 

 

We now leave a digital footprint wherever we go, and with whatever we do. 

Do we already have one foot in an Orwellian world?

 

 My collages are an investigation, with a small “I,” on the impact of digital technology and its possibilities.”




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