Friday, February 22

A Wonderful Quote Triggered By A Beetle Brooch, or Vice Versa

MADELINE STOOD IN front of her large bedroom mirror, the edges of which she blurred out of focus as she attached a brooch to her dress. She was dressed in a dress of deep green silk. The lights were turned down low and she was preparing for a dinner party. She already had her heels on, almost six feet tall, her long neck catching the majority of light and a hue from the silk underneath her jaw. Around her was a fragrance that had recently become her favourite; at first she was concerned that it was too strong but her husband assured her it was not, so she applied more, desperate to intoxicate others with it as she had been. The brooch was a beetle and it was complex with all the colours of a beetle’s shell, the colours of spilled petrol dizzy on a puddle.
Her glass of prosecco was half-empty, erect and elegant on her makeup table. She smoothed out her dress and stood up. She checked her teeth for lipstick and left the room.
Warm music played downstairs. There was the smell of cooking, the food almost done. Her husband, David, could be heard in the kitchen.
‘The avocadoes are ready. All you have to do is spoon in the prawns.’
‘Okay. Are the avocadoes all right?’
‘Yeah, fine,’ he said.
Madeline and David had known Elaine and Robert for many years. Elaine and David had lost their virginity to each other in the soft skin of seventeen year-olds, and, though it no longer mattered, Madeline still thought about it every time they met.
‘Is Elaine okay with prawns?’
‘Yes, I think so.’ David was shutting the oven door. She wished he would look up but he was occupied with checking on the dinner. He had zipped her up – had even commented on the muscles of her back – but she was fully made-up now. She stood there, looking around for something to do. Seeing the bowls of pistachios and cashews, she made for them and took them into the living room.
‘You smell good!’
‘Thank-you!’ she said from halfway into her task – ‘They’re here!’ A pair of headlights straightened then extinguished next to the pavement outside, highlighting a small tree with red leaves. A flush of nervousness overtook her; so many hours of preparation and now to receive her guests!
The four of them hadn’t met since they visited a jazz club in London early last October. Close to the acts, the drink flowed, the laughter before, the taxi ride after, much merriment and reminiscing. It did not seem like almost five months ago. Neither she nor Elaine had had children, for different reasons, and both – as the other made her way out of the car – looked resplendent in evening gowns. Robert held open the front gate for his wife.
Madeline waved through the window, felt slightly foolish, and hurried to answer the door.
‘They’re here.’
‘Okay, okay… You look good!’ Madeline, it was agreed, looked better in motion.
When the door opened there was a flutter of greetings and arms outstretched to receive one another. Each took a turn to give the other a kiss, nimble clouds of aftershave & perfume meeting in between. Robert closed the door. Madeline took them through the house to the living room, where the warm music played and tealights burned. Drinks were poured, shared around, drained quickly. After the first glass, familiarity returned and they were all young friends again.
Madeline went to spoon out the prawns into the avocado. Leaving the living room felt like climbing out of a cold pool; she immediately took a deep breath of air. As if it may have fallen off, she put her fingers on to her beetle brooch to check that it was still there. Could it ever have been a real beetle? It was very realistic. In the muddy music she could hear Elaine, Robert and David talking and laughing – mostly Elaine laughed. Though time may have faded her beauty, her laugh was still when she looked best. Her lips went right back, exposing a sliver of gums, big white teeth, a laugh that came from far inside her.
Madeline was jealous of Elaine’s laugh. Whenever she heard it, it made her smile or laugh, too. Some laughs are like that.
Dinner was eaten slowly, with much talk between – and through – mouthfuls. The music was turned down a little. Candles were lit; when they died, other candles replaced them. After dinner they continued to sit at the table. Slowly the conversation divided – Robert and David on one side, Elaine and Madeline on the other.
While Elaine talked, Madeline caught herself playing with the placemat. When she did, she stopped and nervously sipped her wine. It was a good bottle of red; Elaine had brought it along, as well as some expensive truffle chocolates.
The chocolates were long gone; two dozen empty graves in pressed black plastic at the centre of the table.
Elaine was recalling an awkward train journey home from work during the week. Her laughter had inconspicuously abandoned her chatter.
‘I mean, it’d been a long day. The client came out of nowhere and put the deadline forward from the next Tuesday. I was exhausted. My usual train was cancelled – for whatever reason – so I had to catch this other one. It’s half-term, you know, and it’s inevitable that you’re gonna get a few kids on there, I get that, but these kids would NOT shut up.’
‘How old were they?’
The age of such young children was all very indeterminable to her – ‘Four? Five?’
‘Okay.’ Madeline sipped her wine. It didn’t really seem to go down her throat but was heated up and pushed to her brain.
‘And after about a half hour of them constantly talking this weird childish babble, I’d had enough and said, quite loudly, mind – “Can you keep it down, please? Some of us are trying to rest.” ’
Madeline nodded.
‘And this guy – who’d been asleep pretty much the WHOLE journey and was somehow SUDDENLY awake – piped up and goes – “Are you serious?” ’
David was listening to Robert talk. It seemed to be the lot of the host to listen to their guests talk. Madeline noticed that Elaine and Robert talked at the same volume, louder than the volume spoken by both her and David. She found that strange and interesting.
‘He then says – “They’re kids. Give ‘em a break! You don’t like it? Move to another carriage.” Can you believe it? And NO-ONE stood up for me, which really pissed me off, because I could tell that they were as fed up with the kids as I was. And this guy just went back to sleep!’ Elaine paused a little, maybe for her words to sink in, maybe to wet her tongue with more wine. ‘Madeline, I was SO angry that I couldn’t respond! I just sat there and I haven’t felt so angry in ages, in YEARS! The kids looked at me all guilty for a bit, then went right on talking and playing around.’
‘Ridiculous. How rude.’
Madeline didn’t know what she was saying.
‘Right! And the parents didn’t say anything to them, no-one else spoke up. Everyone just sat there! The carriage was silent but for these kids nattering! I really wanted to just relax and zone out on the train but I couldn’t because of those kids.’
Elaine appeared to be waiting for Madeline to say something, but Madeline could think of nothing to say. Instead she imagined what this guy looked like and what the children looked like. In the end, she just said – ‘Some people are so RUDE.’ She sipped her wine and checked her brooch was there.
A lull in the conversation – as Robert and David drew theirs to a close – settled awkwardness into the room that only Madeline was aware of.
Finally, after a moment, Robert spoke up – ‘That’s a lovely – oh, what’s it called? – brooch, Madeline.’
She fluttered her lashes and smiled genuinely, then reined it in. All eyes were on her, coursing the line of her green silk, from the ledge of her collarbone, her breasts, to the beetle brooch.
‘Madeline just loves beetles,’ said David, nodding at her over his wine.
Why was she flustered so?
‘You do?’ asked Elaine. ‘Yuck.’
Although she had not wanted to, Madeline thought again of David and Elaine losing things to each other, small things, irreplaceable things, things that pinched in pain, things that joined two people for life, whether they realised it at the time or not.
Robert laughed – ‘So strange for a woman to love creepy crawlies!’
Everyone agreed that it was strange.
‘I found a beetle or something on my duvet the other day.’ Elaine reached for another chocolate truffle but saw they were gone – ‘I had to get Robert to throw it out the window.’
‘Oh, well, I’ve always loved beetles,’ said Madeline, her hand gripping the stem of her glass.
‘She has,’ affirmed Robert.
‘Even as a kid. I used to collect them and put them in old jars.’ One song stopped and another started to play. The dining room’s silence seemed delayed. She continued – ‘There is this quote I will never forget by the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane—’
‘Who?’
‘J.B.S. Haldane. John Burdon Sanderson Haldane. He was a geneticist.’
‘Oh…’
‘J.B.S. Haldane said – “If one could … If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.” ’
Silence.
David was smiling at her.
She fingered the brooch, grinned and asked anyone if they would like coffee. Madeline reasoned that it was time to stop drinking. Coffee would be good, anyway; good, hot, strong coffee; a smell to fill the house.
Yes, everyone would like a cup.
As she got to the kitchen, the beetle rustling in the periphery of her vision, she heard Elaine ask – ‘What does that mean, exactly?’
And David began to explain.

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