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30 Pearls by Rohan Clifford


“It looks like a giraffe.” Rod’s arm snaked across her shoulders, guiding her to the topiary shrub signifying the end of the path. “What standard poodle has a neck that long?”

The question hung there. Matisse shifted her weight to her left foot. On cue, Dolly wandered along, setting herself in perfect comparison nearby and Matisse imagined the comparably manicured poodle cocking a leg on the shrub. Dolly tended to follow Rod’s lead.

“He’s not a professional topiarist, if that’s even a thing,” she replied doubtfully. Matisse regarded the shrub, then Dolly. She tried again to remember the thing her subconscious mind whispered. The forgotten thing. Really, she hoped Rod would tire of the conversation. She could feel the heat of him, the heaviness.

“You got that right.” He kissed her temple, pinched the back of her neck in parting. His footsteps plodded away down the compressed gravel path to the deck and the bifold doors. Dolly remained. The two locked eyes until Dolly lowered her head and trotted over. Matisse dragged her nails through the newly sheared fur under Dolly’s chin and Dolly leaned into her. A topiary poodle. “If it looked like you it would look like a lion, wouldn’t it?”

Dolly grunted.

From upstairs, the hedge took on an Andean theme. “Mrs. Conquest, I like your llama.”

Matisse had been separating a series of receipts soaked in thawing seafood juice. “What?” She looked up, irritated. The head caterer pointed through the kitchen window with the handle of a cleaver that had been engaged in splitting crab shells moments before.

Her eyes followed the design of the path as the automated garden lighting kicked in, the lines perfectly drawing the eye to topiary Dolly, from this angle, clearly a llama. Matisse put a hand to her mouth and tasted crab. “It’s meant to be a poodle.” She grimaced. The caterer frowned. “For the poodle business.” She tried to think of a better way to say it, rubbing the back of her forearm across her chin, adding “We’re poodle breeders.” The caterer nodded. Matisse’s phone rang. She wiped her hands on a towel, relieved to escape the conversation.

“Yes? Right. Well, it needs to be up by seven for the party. Yes. No, wait, I missed that.” Matisse shielded the phone against her ear and ducked away from the hectic food preparation area. The adjacent dining room was quiet. She walked around the mahogany table. “Yes, sorry. Out by the path, it needs to form an arch for the guests.”

“Is that the party place?”

Matisse held the phone to her chest. “Rod—please, I’m dealing with it. Hello? Yes. What’s your E.T.A.? You have the address? Fine, thanks.”

“Well?”

“Be here by six. Set up is only half an hour, so crisis averted.”

“But you’ll show them where to set up?” Rod stroked her left arm.

“Of course.” She noticed the tiny tension line in his forehead relax, leaving a shadow.

“Good girl.” He kissed her like an uncle, quick and obligatory.

“I’ll take a bath and freshen up. If you need me.”

He smiled. “OK. If there’s time. I’ll be down at the kennels.” Something unreadable played across his face. “Don’t be long,” he added, pointing to the kitchen behind her. “That lot need direction.”

She found herself alone under the new painting that had replaced their wedding photo. A giant bowl of fruit threatened to spill out of the frame. Part of the renovations, the windfall of a successful stud program. Matisse retrieved the freshly ringing phone from her jeans.

“No, I can’t, I explained to your assistant. M-Hm. Yes. Yes, that’s fine. Thanks.” She turned the lighting dimmer control on the wall. “Can you hold?” Matisse muted the phone and stared at the painting. Something prickled in her.

A dish clattered to the tiles behind her. She glanced around and remembered the call. “No. It’s our anniversary. We’re throwing a party and … Anyway, I need to get ready. Can’t you call him? He’s heading to the kennels. Thanks.”

Matisse eased herself into the hot water, arranged the suds. She pointed her toes, felt her muscles arcing along her thighs. One leg emerged for inspection. Not bad for an old duck. Well, a 52-year-old duck. Nothing headed south … yet. She absently pressed a hand against her pelvis while the thing she couldn’t remember circled.

Thirty years? That long since she met Rod shooting for the magazines. “The Poodle Stud.” The journo’s feature title had her feeling sorry for him. Rod was good-natured about it all, at least back then. Handsome, in a certain light.

Certainly loaded. The stud books and breeding lines were world class. The poodle sperm guy. They had gone for drinks. Dated. Married, in six months. From their villa in Capri, they’d wandered the quiet roads, fell together from the church of Saint Andrea down to the sirens’ rock. She photographed the fishing boats, the sun-hardened faces of old men, the bolt-blue sea with renewed desire that the salt air seemed to favour until they tumbled together, exhausted, and alive in their creaky bed. The seduction of Ulysses. She returned glorious with a hobby that amused his friends, and a new career in the poodle breeding business. He'd been gregarious. His friends were her friends and her friends had kids and she and Rod couldn’t relate. Matisse pressed her taught stomach. Those kids would be grown by now. A toast to that. She raised an imaginary glass of champagne.

She would wear the red dress. She would give them something to look at, all right. What were they were up to, the old crew? The kids would have gone. Wouldn’t they? What was that like? Still, she had enough to think about here. Enough to keep you busy. A shiver, and she dashed warm water over her shoulders.

When she closed her eyes, the pile of fruit appeared, like a burn in the retina. She tried to picture the plaque below the new painting. What was it? Mignon. Easy to remember. Filet Mignon. Still Life with Fruit. Points for the imaginative title. She had hated the choice; the room was too dark, and that painting didn’t help. She opened her eyes, reached behind and grabbed her phone to google it. Abraham. As in Lincoln. But Mignon.

The familiar bowl of fruit appeared. Matisse peered closer, wet fingers enlarging the image. The screen revealed the fruit to be spoiling and covered in insects. She put the phone back behind her. Why hadn’t she seen that before?

Something nagged at her, buzzing as she closed her eyes and collapsed under the suds. The water crashed into her ears until she could hear her body floating, her heart beating. The water wobbled, carrying her along like the Tyrrhenian. No insects under water.

Emerging, Matisse wrapped the towel around just as his name appeared on the phone. Before she could move, the device vibrated sideways and tilted, dunking into the cooling froth. “Shit …” she dropped the towel, scrabbling naked for the phone, breasts slapping cold against the claw-footed enamel. She wiped the screen. Nothing.

In the comfort of the red dress, she tweaked the dimmer near the painting until the full image revealed itself. Peaches, apricots, grapes, vine leaves tumbled together across the frame. She noted the tonal subtlety, composition. In this light, the insects were plainly visible, the fruit spoiled. Matisse rubbed her bare shoulders, shivering, despite the room’s climate control. The idea circled. She dimmed the light.

“Hello, gorgeous.”

“Steve,” she said, turning.

The thick-set man expertly slid one hand around her waist and handed her a glass. “Happy anniversary, darling.” He stepped back in a display of sizing her up. “You look more amazing every year.” She smiled.

“Hands off my wife,” Rod appeared from the kitchen. Matisse stepped back and put the champagne to use, eyeing the painting as the two hugged. “Where’s Alicia?”

“On her way up. She wouldn’t have missed it.”

“So good to see you.”

“This is new?” Steve tilted his glass at the painting, his best impression of an art critic.

“What do you think?”

“Too classy for you.”

Matisse turned, and Rod touched her arm. “Where have you been? I’ve been calling you.”

“Oh, I dropped my phone. In the bath. Completely dead. Sorry.”

“Make sure the caterers are handing out champagne to the guests.”

“That’s where I got mine,” called Steve, raising his glass.

“You can always find booze,” Rod laughed. “What do you think?” Rod gestured at the work. Steve’s eyes lingered on Matisse until they fell into shadow.

From the kitchen, Matisse’s gaze followed the fairy lights where they spilled like gooey beads across the path onto the lawn. The bunting above the topiary read Joyeux Anniversaire! Dolly darted between evening shadows as couples arrived. At least the caterers were there. Matisse glimpsed her reflection in the window. She stared through herself. Her face seemed altogether too dark.

After the main course Matisse made an excuse and kicked off her stilettos on the deck to walk the lawn, the cooling grass so welcome she didn’t mind her red dress dragging the ground. Clouds covered the moon. Dolly breathed somewhere nearby. Matisse looked back at the house. Someone called her name. She turned to her left, circling the garden shed. She needed a cigarette, to have a smoking habit again. When it was quiet enough, Matisse walked back past the discarded heels, her dress tugging at her.

“A toast! To the happy couple!”

“Here-here!” The boozy dinner had gone well. The caterers waited for the speeches, balancing silver trays of profiteroles. Matisse stared around the table and couldn’t make out anyone’s faces in the shadows. The noisy chatter of the table rushed at her.

Opposite, one of the shadow-heads stood. “To my wonderful wife. The years have been kind to her, but not easy. Nothing worthwhile comes easily.” Her hands began to twist the napkin in her lap. A low frequency droning began somewhere.

The shadow-head stood, walked around the table until Matisse felt it burning behind her. Hands descended and fastened something around her throat. Her hands darted there, finding beads.

Rod’s shadow-face breathed into her neck. “Triple-A pearls.” An announcement for the table. “Thirty of them. One for every year, my love.” He twisted her neck and kissed her lips.

The shadow-head returned to its seat. The droning became more insistent. Matisse felt a rush of blood to her face as her fingertips grazed the pearls. She counted: one, two, three … where were we? She heard her voice. Just moving into the house at Beaumaris. The droning abated.

Four, five, six … overseas? Moved to Mount Martha to be near the kennels. A fresh start. One of the shadow-heads coughed. A glass clinked.

Seven, eight, nine. I had a miscarriage. The napkin slipped from her lap brushing her foot.

Ten, eleven, twelve. I found out about you and left you and then I came back. Because … because … An intake of breath.

Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen … I’m half-way. I’m half-way.

Matisse stopped counting. She saw the forgotten thing circling like a stinging insect on a piece of rotting fruit. She remembered.

She had no gift to give.

With forced poise, Matisse pushed the chair back, straightened her dress, and walked away. The droning resumed and the damp hem clutched at her heels. Out of the room, down the stairs. Somewhere behind, her name. Chattering. Buzzing.

Her feet on the cold grass again. She turned and she could see them, crowded above in the kitchen window. Insects. All the shadow-heads, fluttering around the light to watch her. All stinging.

Matisse wandered across the path until she found what she came for. The electric trimmer pulsed into life and with a choking swipe, Matisse hacked the head off the topiary hedge. The buzzing noise deepened until the window above vibrated.

“Dolly!” she called.

Something stirred in the darkness.

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