“Well, come on, get on with it. Tell me how I’ll avoid Purgatory. Don’t want to simmer for a billion years. I don’t even know how to turn off a gas stove, for God’s sake.”
“There’s venial sins and mortal sins,” he says. “Point is to avoid the mortal ones.” Neglecting the no smoking sign she lights another cigarette. “Three elements constitute a mortal sin: grave matter, full awareness, deliberate consent.” He still knows them by heart. Once, taking part in the Grand Conspiracy, against Betty whose parents ran the village pharmacy, he had skipped Wednesday afternoon’s catechism hour. Sister Alicia had made a lot of fuss about it. But how could he have behaved in any other way? The four of them had voted democratically, and, as the vote turned out to be three against one, the expedition simply had to be carried out on a Wednesday afternoon. There was no other way! He had tried to explain this to her, that he’d had no choice; even the fact he was the one voting in favour of a Thursday didn't change a thing to the overall result. We lived in a democracy, goddammed! Certain moral prerogatives had to be respected, otherwise we’d be bombed back into Iron Age!
But after this indictment Sister Alicia had simply asked for more details about this Grand Conspiracy. Which was a very lousy, typically female way to argue, for it had nothing, nothing, to do with the theme they were discussing: the importance of democratic decision making. But she insisted and he had to admit they planned to throw a stone through Betty’s bedroom window because she had refused to kiss Chris, and later Carl too. Now everybody could accept – yes, even understand – why she refused to kiss Carl, but Chris? There was nothing wrong with Chris. It was preposterous. He pleaded and pleaded, tried to get the message into her head. “Sister Alicia, this girl is establishing a dangerous precedent!” And all the while Sister Alicia sat and listened, and he thought he was finally getting somewhere. If all girls, he argued, raising both his arms to heaven, would refuse to kiss Chris, what would happen to the boy? And, to analogize, all other boys? How would they be able to cope? What world would this lead to? And were we ready to take these kinds of sacrifices in order to... Sister Alicia…
But all she said was: “By next Wednesday you will write us a nice dissertation about the three elements constituting a mortal sin, young man, and do not, I repeat do not, forget to demonstrate why your nice ‘Grand Conspiracy’ is no less than a mortal sin." She always used 'us' when she meant 'me'. And when Sister Alicia addressed you as ‘young man’, things looked bad, very bad.
"And mind very well: we’re doing you a favour, for, without penalty, this incident would have easily cost you five-hundred extra years burning in Purgatory, if not more. Double if you scum had actually executed your disgusting expedition. Thinking is bad, but acting... even worse, young man.”
That was true: without leaving much room for interpretation, catechism stated that killing, and adultery, and not honouring your father and mother was a mortal sin – which he could, more or less, understand -, but even thinking about them... this was preposterous.
“On second thought let’s just skip this part of the conversation,” Rebecca sighs. “I’ve heard enough, I’m done. I’m ready for Purgatory. Let’s be realistic, for God’s sake. Want another glass?” She pours herself one. Her pinky - standing out like this while she’s pouring. Many years ago Marjorie used to do exactly the same. Marjorie, who’s with the kids. Watching a movie, on Netflix. Thursday night is Netflix night.
“Hell, one doesn’t widen their loophole into heaven by gathering in a church, that’s what i think. God isn’t like that,” she says. "If he would have wanted blind slavishness to be a primal quality, He would have built it in. But it’s not there. I don’t feel it, anyway, - I even hate it. So He doesn’t want me to be that way. Actually, chances are considerable He would give me a one-way ticket to hell if I started worshipping him. He doesn’t want to be worshipped. I’m sure he hates it too.” She leans back, looking satisfied, like she just made a very essential commentary on the Bible.
Summer nights. Afternoons slipping into darkness, a seagull screeching, waves rolling. Side windows open, her hair fluttering, flaunting almost into his face, he chose the coastal highway. The sea dark, the waves glistening at their right side. Small ships, fishermen aboard, bringing in their fine woven nets. He can’t see them, he imagines them.
“Is Marjorie at home?” she asks. Streetlights flashing by, her face illuminated, then plunged into darkness. Producing a cigar out of her purse, she’s searching for her lighter but doesn’t find it. “Damn,” she says, “I had it in the restaurant. Damn, damn, damn. It was a present from my fiancé.”
“Years ago. Don’t worry, he’s dead.”
“62. It’s a true pity though because it had my initials engraved in it. We found it in a small brocanterie near the Château de Chantilly. Not with my initials on it of course.”
“I hope not.” The opposite could have meant she’d shagged half of bloody France.
“Do you have a lighter somewhere?”
“I told you, don’t smoke in here. My wife will know somebody other than me has been in the car.”
“Spare me your petty bourgeois comments, honey, and light my fire.” She’s turning her face towards him, holding a huge, thick cigar between her lips. “It’s a Hoyo de Monterrey. When I’ve had clams I need a Hoyo. Come on, baby, do it.” Her teeth clasping the leaves. He reaches into his pocket, finds matches, holding the steering wheel with his knees, lights the cigar.
“Good boy. This means at least half a million years in Purgatory, don’t you think? Now tell me, is your little wife at home? Your Marjorie? Ah, what a fine cigar this is. I left it in my night closet for more than a month, but it hasn’t dried out a bit.” She leans back, blowing clouds against the ceiling. The scent is sharp. “The ladies at the cigar club would envy me now, oh yes they would. You haven’t answered my question, sweety. Marjorie.”
He’d like to lie and tell her she’s at home and watching telly with the kids, but he can’t. “She’s at her parents, with the kids.”
“Great, then you’re allowed to pour me a fine glass of single malt, aren’t you darling? Find me something that has been resting in a barrel for at least double the difference in our age.”
“That’s a very long time,” he says.
He turns onto the drive. The house is dark. Amber has left her bedroom window open. She always leaves it open, even when this morning he told her for the one-thousandth time she had to shut it. One never knows when burglars could be roaming the neighbourhood. “Never take things for granted,” he said, “there are lots of people who envy you. Don’t invite them in. Protect your stuff.” But a thunderstorm suddenly passing, from the North-West, would be more probable: they live by the sea. On August nights, when he couldn’t catch sleep, turning back and forth, from one side then the other, taking care not to touch Marjorie – never touch Marjorie -, he sometimes slipped out of bed, grabbing his bathrobe, ‘HOME’ written on the back, diving into his slippers, sneaking through the garden into the dunes, then the sea. Oh yes - first he combed his hair. Why he did this he didn’t know, the wind would mess it up anyway – but, he did it. Things happen, beyond control. He walked into the waves, sometimes knee deep. Cold. Then he used to turn, looking at the house. The moon shining on the chimney. Everybody sleeping in the house he’d built. Breathing pride. A stable life.
The engine stops roaring, everything is quiet. The sea, murmuring in the distance. She walks in front of him, towards the door. She throws away the stub, he registers where it hits the driveway, he’ll clean it away afterwards.
(to be continued in couple of days)
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