Marion Smithson loved her husband dearly. She was a sprightly woman. A local, like Fred, and they had known each other from childhood. She had always been in the centre of things, while he joined in only much more cautiously. She would be one of the organisers of a school tennis day, while he would have to be encouraged and persuaded onto one of the teams. Not that he was a bad player. For all his shyness, size and strength he was smart, alert, quick moving, and accurate. Not just at tennis. At everything he did. He was good with animals. Gentle. And always seemed to know just what was the best thing for them. He seemed to have that feel towards all living things. Plants. Insects, even.
As a child she had been a real chatterbox, but you couldn't get words out of him with a can opener. Nobody understood at all why they had taken up together. But she felt infinitely safe with him. Though he spoke little, when he did it was always the right thing. As she was growing up, and started thinking about marriage, and children, she couldn't imagine anyone better to look after them. And when the boys who came in to the settlement started courting her, and she felt the warmth of it, she found herself getting impatient for Fred to make a move, too. One day she found herself imagining how it might be with his big body beside her in a bed, protective and comforting in the nights. The feeling it gave her made her all the more determined, and from the way he looked at her, and into her eyes, she knew she was right. After that he had very little competition from the others. But she had still to be the one to organise him. Some time later, she finally made up her mind.
The very next time she saw him after that, was when he made the weekly grocery trip from his parents' farm on The Island, coming to her father's general store. While she helped him load the van, she told him that they were going to get married, and how, and when, and where they would live to start with, and how many children they would have, and where they would live then, and how they would make their living. She said it would all work out if they did it together and it was up to him to make it happen, but she would always work hard beside him and make a good home and show him such love as would take his breath away. "Now you go and make up your mind, then come and ask me to marry you." she had said.
Now his parents were dead, and her father. They had no children and never would. She ran the store and looked after her mother, bed-ridden and rapidly fading. She had no regrets. Children would have put the icing on the cake, but her early hunch had been right, and throughout all those busy years, though the days were hard and long, they still had glorious nights.
This evening she was by the fire, in the big sitting room behind the shop, thinking about him, over on The Island. He would be stretched out in front of the old wood stove with the dog's head on his ankles, if the storm had come up when he had expected. It was certainly here now. The rain, pounding on the iron roof, was almost deafening, and the wind was shaking the old wooden building, trying to tear it right out of the ground. She glanced at the clock. If he'd finished in time to beat the storm he might still have made it back, and if he had, she could expect him any time now. She felt herself warm a little with the thought of him, and went through to peer out the kitchen window for the Landrover lights, wiping the glass with her apron, not that it helped. Nothing but sheets of water, glimpsed as they came close to the light, and beyond that, nothing at all, where on a clear night you could see the stars, and the fairy lights of the few houses. Nothing. As if you were are alone in your own little world. She knew he would be safe. No question. But she hoped too that he would be here to share this little world with her, before the evening was out.
She turned away and went to look in at what used to be her own bedroom, leaning down close to try and hear the breathing. It was far too noisy for that, tonight. She stroked the sunken cheek and let her hand linger briefly over her mother's mouth and nose. Reassured when she felt the warm breath against her fingers, she pulled the blankets higher around the thin shoulders, and went back in to the fireside.
Fred Smithson did not like being married, not at all, and certainly not to Marion. Stretched out in front of the old wood stove, the dog's head on his ankles, he savored the sounds of the storm that had brought the respite of a night alone on The Island. Ever since he had first met her at the settlement school she had pushed him around, despite his size, and he had never liked that. He had always been big for his age, strong and fast. Before they moved to The Island he used to pluck flies out of the air, between finger and thumb, as a trick. His father had drummed it into him, painfully, that quick hands were fine for flies and such but when you were near people you had to slow down and let your thoughts catch up or you would hurt somebody and get locked away, with no pleasures, forever. After that he never caught flies any more.
He had never understood why Marion pushed him into things, often that he had quite liked, but sometimes that he hadn't, though he had more sense than to let on about that. Tennis was one that he had liked. You were allowed to be quick. It was like working sheep. He understood sheep and dogs. You could see which ways they might run and when to whistle the dog to go just the right way so the sheep would quieten down and just walk into the pen for you. Tennis was like that, but you used the racket and ball instead of the whistle and dog, and when people were on the court he could understand them the same way, and herd them where they could not get to his next ball. He was always top of the ladder in his age group, and Marion always chose him as her doubles partner. He guessed she wanted him to play tennis so she could win at that too. He thought that was why she made him learn how to dance. She had to be the best and had said that if he could dance as well as he could volley, then he just had to be her partner. Of course, she was right. As soon as he saw how the dancers swirled around, trying not to crash together, he realized this was another way people were like sheep, and it would be easy to guide a partner through the pack, judging as you went, just where the gaps would open up for you, and how to move to make other gaps appear.
In their last year of school she had organized the dances, and him too, and in the following years she ran all the settlement socials. She would tell everyone what to do, and they would all let her, just like he did. He still couldn't understand why they did. People were beyond him, mostly. He was most comfortable with animals.
Animals never gave him any nonsense. He could stare down any animal on a farm, or guess how it would break and run, and hint his body one way or the other, just enough to stymie it into stillness. It wasn't true, what he had heard people say, that he and the animals talked to each other. It was just that he watched them properly. People couldn't see what they were looking at, mostly.
He liked working with machinery, too. It was honest. Plain. If you listened to it, a machine would tell you what was wrong with it, and then you could work out how to put it right. Machinery instruction books always became clear if you took enough time over them and matched the pictures with the words. He remembered how they were taught reading in school, with picture cards, to match with word cards. School. It was at the next school, after they moved, that he had met Marion. She had been a pushy chatterbox even then. Witless it is, his father said to him, to prattle on all the time. Empty vessels make the most sound. Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed. Let them suspect you're stupid, by all means, just don't open your mouth and make them certain.
Marion was not witless, though. Everyone, including his father, knew that very well. For she organized everybody, wanting everything her own way, and usually getting it, but everybody seemed to like her. Especially the boys, though she would get impatient with them. As the years went by, one after another would take her out, and eventually be rebuffed, complaining to the others that she wasn't like the other girls. Hot, yes, then didn't seem to want it. He would smile to himself at that, every time Marion packed another boy off, thinking how his father would approve of her over Jessie, if he knew. Father could have her, though. She was too pushy by far.
Once, when Marion had dashed yet another boy's hopes, and he was again enjoying his private joke, he caught her watching him, and she smiled. He had glanced away, not knowing what to think, then glanced back, trying to work out what was going on. She turned away to her friends, but then looked back at him for a time, and smiled once more. That was before she had bullied him onto the tennis court, and later, the dance floor. He had complained to his father, but somehow father must have known, after all, and he was told to do as she said, provided they kept their clothes on, and be grateful. He still didn't know for what.
After he left school, life settled down into a simple routine, and for a several seasons he and his father worked the farm together. His father did all the management, but he did steadily more of the heavy work as the years took their progressive toll of the old man. One day there would be a time when he would have to cope on his own, and he didn't like to think about that. He could handle without any problem the actual farming, but he realized that the planning and accounts would always be beyond him. So did Marion, as it turned out, for one day she cornered him and raised it, when he had rowed across to the store for provisions and before he could escape back down to the jetty and into the dinghy. She said other things too, that he didn't want to think about, but he didn't mention that to her. He didn't say anything at all, in fact, but that had never stopped her before and it didn't now. He thought briefly about how nice it would be if he could swat her down like a fly, but then the fear came back, of what would happen to him if he hurt her - or anybody, actually - so he just kept that thought to himself, too.
After they moved to the island he had always kept his thoughts and wishes to himself. His father had said he would kill him if it ever got out, why they had to move, and he had hurt so badly from that belting, across his bare backside, that he believed him. It had quite put him off wanting girls, too, that cutting pain while it was lovely and getting lovelier, when his father had crept up on them, that afternoon in the barn. He had been twelve, though as tall as Jessie from the next farm, who was sixteen. She had said he was still too young to make a baby but he might be big enough for her, anyhow. It was she who had undone his pants, and she who had stroked him and pulled him on top of her, but it had been he who got that thrashing.
He was always the one who got the punishments, whoever started it, unless he had asked father first. Father had always known about people and had never punished him for doing what his parents said, even if it went wrong. Marion's latest suggestion was another one he would have to ask about, just like the tennis and the dancing. With her help he had finished loading the van, then left her at the store and then drove out to the point and rowed the provisions across to the farm.
That evening, as they sat round the table after dinner, he had told his parents of Marion's proposition. His father had taken a deep breath and looked at his mother. She had nodded slowly, and five weeks later he was married.
The week before the wedding, during a break in the crutching, his father had looked up and asked him if he remembered Jessie in the barn, and being told never to do that again. Suddenly he had felt cold and his father had said that it was all right this time, he wasn't in any trouble. In fact, he would be allowed to do that thing again, but now only with Marion, any time after he was married to her but only when she wanted to. He was to do it as Marion wanted, except he had to be very gentle and careful even if she said otherwise.
After the wedding they had gone away for a week, and it never let up then and hadn't since. For a long time it was because "we're just newly married" then trying for a family, and when that didn't happen it was because we felt so close together, or that life is so hard but at least we have each other. When her father died it was to comfort her, and when each of his parents died it was to comfort him. If it was cold, then to warm them up, and when it was hot, so that they could sleep. Whatever the reason, it went on and on and on. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always. She said he was marvelous, her perfect lover, how lucky they were. He still didn't know for what.
The fire died down and he finished cleaning up, listening to the wind. The storm was starting to ease. He would be able to row back over in the morning and he could think of no good excuse to stay away longer. Back to Marion. Pushy Marion. He wished he could enjoy sex the way she did. He wished he could enjoy it at all. That feeling he had got, that one time with Jessie, he wished he could feel that again - he thought it could be the beginning of whatever it was Marion got, most days. But when Marion made him get hard, and pulled him down on her, all he could think of was how it had ended up in the barn, so all that happened was that he stayed hard within her until she had squirmed herself into happy sleepiness, then just - nothing. And then he would hold her gently, as she had told him to, and wonder if this was what father had meant about being locked away with no pleasures, forever. The tennis and dancing had long since stopped for they had got too busy as the parents aged and could no longer help with the farm and store. The animals came and went. He understood them, but apart from the dog they were no company.
He wished his father was there, then, to ask what he had done for this punishment. He had tried to be good, really. He went into his parents' bedroom, sobbing. The smell of them still lingered down the years. He climbed fully dressed onto the bed. The dog came to the bedside, sat for a moment, whimpering, then leapt onto the bed with him and licked his face. He hugged the dog to him, tears streaming down his cheeks, curled up on his side, put his thumb in his mouth, and finally cried himself to sleep.
Copyright © 1998 Peter Leon Collins