In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni – we turn in a circle in the night and are consumed by the fire.
On the day of the funeral, a chill morning in early February, the widower watched from the front room window as the hearse drew up to the house, accompanied by a single black limousine. Yellow and mauve crocus showed through a thin layer of snow. He had ordered white lilies for the coffin. Seen through the window of the hearse, the effect was of a boxed flower arrangement. When the coffin was brought into the hall, he moved aside the large crystal vase that stood on the polished side-table, and had his flowers set upon it. The warmth of the house brought out the heavy scent of the lilies, and the widower admired their graceful, feminine trumpets and the innocent cream-tipped style within.
He appraised the cherry veneer he had chosen for the coffin, and saw his face reflected in the dark surface beneath the film of condensation. His wife lay amongst pink silk, dressed in a simple white evening gown that he had particularly liked. She looked beautiful, he thought – her face, discreetly made up, delicately flushed as in life, her mouth poised as if to laugh. Her long blonde hair flowed over her shoulders. The widower bent over her, feeling the cold of her body drag at his face as he kissed her lips. He put a lily bud from his arrangement under her right hand.
After a simple ceremony at the crematorium, the widower ate at a local hotel, enjoying a lunch of smoked salmon paté, trout amandière and strawberry Pavlova. With his meal, he drank a bottle of expensive Chablis that he found very pleasant and obtained the name of the supplier from the waiter.
He spent the rest of the week decorating the spare room in pale grey and duck-egg blue, going out to buy a new single bed and good quality linens in matching colours. He telephoned the wine merchant and ordered a case of the Chablis. On the Sunday evening, he moved his things out of the main bedroom and into the spare room.
Two months after the funeral, the widower took a fortnight’s holiday in the Dordogne, staying at the small auberge where he had spent his honeymoon. When he returned, he inspected the garden. It had been tidied, and the borders carefully planted with summer bedding – quite as his wife would have done. In the crystal vase on the hall table, was a large bunch of scented white lilies arranged skilfully. Their petals flared elegantly as a woman’s outstretched hands. The widower traced the curves with his index finger. When the flowers died, he put them on the compost heap.
That summer, he maintained the garden assiduously, dead-heading and pinching out, keeping the flowers coming. His wife had always liked flowers for the house, and often, the widower would find a bunch of pansies or a sprig of scented pinks in the various jugs and pottery containers that she had collected.
He invited a lady called Amelia to dinner one Saturday night in early June. The widower cooked smoked salmon paté and trout amandière, managing a creditable Pavlova made from bought meringue. He served chilled Chablis in crystal flutes. Amelia seemed pleased with his culinary achievements and they had sex on his small bed before he took her home.
On the Sunday, he returned from golf and there were white lilies in the hall vase again, the scent filling the hallway. In ten days or so, he put the dead flowers on the compost heap, noting that it seemed to be breaking down well in the warm summer.
Two weeks after Amelia’s visit, the widower shared his paté and trout with an attractive lady called Cheryl, who drank more Chablis than he considered quite proper and refused the meringue on the grounds that it was fattening. However, when naked upon his single bed, Cheryl redeemed herself by calling out his name at her climax, and forgave the widower his absent-mindedness in calling her Rosalie, his late wife’s name, at his own release.
There were lilies in the vase the next day, flushed at the centre with deep pink, and they lasted quite well, but joined the others on the compost heap when he considered that they had gone over the top.
The widower’s culinary skills improved considerably that summer, to the point where he could safely make the meringue himself. The ladies complimented him upon his skills as a chef, and did not object to the cramped single bed. No others called out his name as Cheryl had done, but he always apologised for using Rosalie’s name in his turn. Always, there were scented lilies in the hall vase afterwards, usually white, but sometimes delicately blushed pink.
By the end of September, the widower had sufficient compost for the garden, and gently forked it into the flower beds. He carefully cut back the spent perennials and planted spring bulbs. The roses were still in bloom and he had large star-flowered asters and chrysanthemums in abundance and received many compliments from his lady visitors. Small surprises of autumn flowers appeared in jars and earthenware pots in various places around the house.
After the flowers had all gone, the widower made the garden neat and tidy for the winter, mulching the penstemons and cutting back the straggling lavender.
One November Saturday evening, he returned from shopping to find white lilies in the hall vase, and in several other locations. The dining table was set with a starched white damask cloth and silver cutlery. A pink napkin in the shape of a fleur-de-lis furled elegantly at his place setting. White candles burned in the twin-branched silver candelabra Rosalie had bought when they were first married. A bottle of his Chablis stood in an ice bucket on the table, already opened. The widower admired the beautifully presented paté, nested in a salad of courgette flowers and frisée upon a white porcelain plate. He pressed the soft-textured mixture against the roof of his mouth, assessing, with approval, the blend of seasoning and chives. The trout that followed was delicately browned in butter, accompanied by golden slivered almonds, a fan of mange tout peas and noisettes of Pommes Dauphinoise.
The widower realised that this was his last bottle of the Chablis, and relished the indulgence of drinking the entire bottle himself. He raised the glass to the candlelight, watching the flames through the pale gold wine. The Chablis had maintained its floral note, he thought, enjoying the acid contrast of the wine through the sharp-sweet strawberry Pavlova, which had the most exquisite, crisp-shelled meringue and yellow clotted cream. The strawberries were the dainty wild variety that grows in woodlands, having an intense, aromatic flavour quite superior to the supermarket kind.
After the meal, he cleared away, pleasantly full and intoxicated. The scent of the flowers made him think of warm summer days, despite the already frosty November night. Through the landing window, the garden looked eerie under the white rime.
As he turned to go to his room, the widower noticed a soft, wavering light coming from the main bedroom. He looked in at the door and saw that the room was lit with many candles, and the bed turned down. Rosalie’s pink silk dressing gown was strewn like a skein of rose petals across the pale coverlet. Everywhere, lilies filled the room with scent.
He removed his clothes and slid into the shocking coolness of Egyptian cotton sheets. The silk gown whispered softly against his flushed skin. He saw candle flame all around him, reflected in mirrors and in the polished wood of the furniture. The scent of lilies threaded into his nostrils and filled his throat with musky clove scent. The widower felt the covers drawn back and the light touch of a woman’s hand upon his body. She leaned over him and kissed him, taking the breath from his lungs. Gasping, he pushed her away, and he heard her laugh softly as she drew her head back. She rose up from the bed like white smoke, swinging her long blonde hair over her shoulder. The woman stood over him, naked, her hands on her hips, elbows pointed outwards. She reminded him of a lily flower, fully open.
Beads of sweat formed upon his skin as the room grew hotter. The woman seemed to fall upon him in a shower of withering petals. The widower felt searing heat and his pulse quickened into her. He heard her whisper his name again and again, until it seemed a brilliant hurricane. He called out Rosalie’s name as darkness closed around him.
Previously published in Leviathan Quarterly, December 2001 and in my volume of short stories Familiar Possessions Northern LightsOctober 2002 ISBN 0905404882.