It was only a week after her husband had left her that Catherine Sergeant went to a wedding.
It was a cold and bright spring day, a blue sky, frost on the deep grain of the church door. She purposely arrived late, to avoid the conversations; but she couldn’t avoid them afterward, when the congregation emerged.
The photographer took the bridal couple close to the trees, to be photographed in the sunlight under a thin veil of blackthorn blossom.
“Catherine,” a voice said.
She turned. It was Amanda and Mark Pearson.
“Why didn’t you tell us that you were invited?” they demanded. “Why didn’t you mention it? We could have come together.”
“I didn’t decide until the last minute,” she said.
Amanda had looked around her. “Where is Robert?” she asked.
“He’s gone away.”
There was a moment. “Yes,” she said.
She moved from person to person, friends of friends. Fortunately, this was not a family wedding; Catherine was a peripheral guest. There were some people whom she didn’t know, and who asked her nothing.
She moved to the very edge of the crowd and leaned for a moment on the wall. She was wearing red, and she thought suddenly how very inappropriate it was, this celebratory color, this color of triumph. She felt anything but triumphant. She felt disoriented. It seemed incredible to her now that she had come at all; got dressed this morning—got in the car. Driven here, in a new red suit, wearing new shoes. Incredible that she had even gone out this week and bought the shoes. Sat in a shop, wrote a check. Incredible that she had gone through the motions.
The routine things. Working, driving, buying, eating, sleeping.
Had she slept? Four hours, perhaps. Never more each night in the last seven days.
Looking out over the valley, this country valley folded in with pasture, dissected only by one road, and that road passing through what seemed now to be a gray cloud of leafless beech on the hill, she felt excruciatingly tired.
She looked down at the wall.
The corrugated color, pale green and acid yellow and gray, of the lichen on the limestone; that was animation of sorts. She focused on the colors. Beyond the wall, the graves. The angle of the April light against the graves.
“Alexander Seeley, born 18 November 1804, his Wife Claudia Anne.”
The snowdrops forming a white square. The blackbird eyeing her from the neighboring plot, perched on a stone angel with great folded wings, feather upon feather.
A couple nearby had brought a hamper. They were coming through the crowd laughing, holding up the wicker basket. Setting it down again on the path. Unbuckling the straps, they brought out champagne and glasses.
Beyond them, Amanda was beckoning her, holding up a glass.
It’s not difficult at all, Catherine told herself.
Your husband is away, working. It’s a very simple explanation. Simple. Plausible. You’ve come on your own out of necessity. But tomorrow, or the next day, he’ll come home.
This is just a piece of time with a wrinkle in it, like a sheet wrinkled from sleep. Time had wrinkled away from habit, from predictability, and had become—only for a while—unfathomable, like the experience of a dream, where days and weeks become mixed. Living through this was just a matter of coming to terms with the change. Hours that buck and race or slow to a crawl.
Tomorrow or the next day, he’ll come home.
Repeat it, repeat it.
Saying it makes it so.
It was 8 a.m. when she got to the auction rooms on Monday morning.
Pearsons occupied a huge barn of a building in a country town that had once been known for its silk weaving two centuries before. Now all that was left of the silk was the single row of cottages on the main street, lavishly embellished above the doors with a scroll bearing the initials of the old company, and the Pearsons hall behind them, with its pink-yellow brick.
Behind the town were the chalk hills; open downland with shadows of old hedges, even of medieval fields. Sometimes in the last light of a winter day, as she drove over the tops toward the town, she could see the ghosts of those old furrows.
Catherine passed now under the archway of the front door: Georgian columns, a tiled floor of white acanthus on blue. She took off her coat as she went, glad to be inside. It was still bitterly cold. Just as she draped it over her arm, she felt for the cell phone in the pocket. Took it out for a moment to check that it was turned on. No messages. No text. She put it back.
Beyond the acanthus floor, Pearsons was far more prosaic: two small offices to either side, and past them a vast ceilingless room, the timber joists of the roof revealed. The hall was packed this morning, with barely an inch of floor space showing. “Victorian and General” was the sale title, and it encompassed a vast variety of objects, the remains of scores of lives. Dealers were already in, eyeing the goods: she recognized the usual faces, the diehards already scribbling in their catalogues.
She paused here, looking around herself at the variety. Nearest the door was a metamorphic library chair of modest beauty, decorated with floral inlay, its steps stored beneath the seat; past it, by way of contrast, was a peeling chest of drawers that had never been beautiful even on the day it was made. She edged down the narrow aisle, past desks and porcelain, empty frames, Lloyd Loom, ivory and silver locked in the one glass-fronted cabinet; the skeletons of clocks, the gray-on-sepia of faded watercolors. As she passed a cardboard box full of vinyl records, she glanced down at the cover of the first one. Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto. The illustration on the sleeve was a damask rose. She looked at the rose for a moment, then turned her head.
And it was then that she saw the painting.
The face of the girl was looking down at her. It was a familiar portrait of a young woman seated on a chair; a woman in a white dress, her left hand holding the edge of the seat of the chair, her right hand curled in her lap. Behind her, the draped curtains were yellow, and there was a suggestion of a street. Muted blues.
Catherine’s eye ranged over it again. If you regarded it critically, not a great deal was anatomically correct. The right arm was foreshortened, the fingers only outlined. The left hand was almost bulky. Neither was the frame of the chair absolutely right; the back curved awkwardly, as if added by chance. And yet, when she stepped back, the picture was perfect. Something in the failings made it wonderful.
Mark Pearson was at the desk at the farthest end of the hall.
“Catherine,” he called.
“It’s here,” she called, pointing at the painting. “Why is it here?”
He got up and walked toward her. “He brought it in himself.”
“Mr.Williams?” she asked, astonished.
“Yes. On Saturday. I couldn’t turn it down.”
No one would. The portrait was by a Scottish colorist.
“It doesn’t belong here,” she said. “It belongs in the arts sale next month.”
Mark waved his hand. “I told him, I told him,” he said. “You know the obstreperous old coot.”
“But he didn’t want to sell. He told me so.”
“I knew he would, though,” Mark told her. “Calling you back to the house—what is it? Four or five times?”
She frowned. “I can’t believe it,” she murmured. “I don’t understand. He loved this painting.”
Mark smiled. “Maybe he fell out of love with it,” he replied. “It happens.”
She shook her head.
As she walked back to the office, a dealer saw her coming and gave her his leering smile. She good-humoredly raised her eyebrows at him. He was sixty. She guessed twenty stone. Gray hair combed over a bald spot.
“Hey, Catherine,” he said, looking her up and down.
“Hello, Stuart. How are you?”
“Fine display you’ve got.” And he started laughing.
She went into the office, threw her coat on a table. “Brad Pitt, eat your heart out,” she murmured.
She sat down and stared at the door she had closed behind her. She pressed her hands to her face, and the roses bloomed suddenly back at her, roses from the record cover, with their velvet petals, so sensuous to the touch. A bank of red roses in a garden, long ago. A bouquet of red roses in a cellophane wrapper, not so very long ago. Forty-two red roses of overpowering scent, of asphyxiating luxury.
Why did you send these?
Because I’ve known you forty-two days.
The door opened.
She took down her hands.
“What’s the matter?” Mark Pearson asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
“What did Stuart say?”
“It wasn’t Stuart. It wasn’t anything,” she said.
He came round the side of the desk. “Remind me what you look like when it is something.”
She smiled, and opened her calendar.
He put down a cup of coffee in front of her. “Take note of the cup,” he said. “Minton.”
“Thanks. I’m touched. What’s this?” she asked, pointing at a calendar entry for the next morning.
He perched himself on the edge of the desk. “A man who rang up yesterday.”
“Somewhere near West Stratford.” He peeled a yellow Post-it from the edge of the page. “I wrote the directions down.”
“Don’t you want me here?”
He drained his own coffee and looked her in the eye. “Not with a face like a wet weekend, thank you.”
She looked back at him. Mark, fifteen years her senior, was one of the kindliest men she had ever met. Kindly, and not simply kind, in an old-fashioned way, with courtesy and sweetness.
“What is it, really?” he asked.
She ought to have been able to tell him, of all people.
But she couldn’t.
That night, she phoned Robert’s mother.
She hadn’t seen her in over a year. She sat in the kitchen, the phone in her hand for some minutes.
All around there was still the evidence of him. His magazines piled in the basket on the edge of the counter; his notes on the memo board: the chiropractor’s appointment, the dry cleaning receipt. The coffee cup that he had used last Saturday night stood by itself on the board by the sink, where he had left it. She was too superstitious to move it.
When she eventually summoned the courage to dial, it rang for ages. She was about to hang up when Eva at last answered.
“It’s Catherine,” she said.
There was a pause. “Hello, Catherine,” said Robert’s mother.
“How are you?”
“I’m well, I suppose.”
Another pause. “I know that this seems like a strange question,” Catherine said. “But is Robert with you?”
“Robert? I haven’t seen Robert for months.”
“He didn’t ring you?” Catherine asked. “Any time in the last week?”
“Robert doesn’t ring me,” his mother said. “For that matter, neither do you.”
Catherine pressed the fingertips of her left hand hard into her palm. “There’s been no letter?” she persevered.
“Catherine,” Eva Sergeant replied, “what exactly is going on?”
“I don’t know,” Catherine said. “He left home.”
“Left home?” Eva echoed. She sounded amused. “Have you had an argument?”
“No,” she told her. “Nothing.”
“There must have been an argument.”
“There was nothing at all,” Catherine responded. “I woke up on Sunday morning and he had gone. His clothes were gone. His money, cards, checkbook. His phone. Everything.”
“You’ve tried his number?”
“Of course,” she said. “I’ve tried it fifty times a day for the last five days. I’ve left messages.”
“There’s no need to raise your voice to me.”
Catherine took a breath. “I’m sorry,” she said.
There was a long silence.
Catherine imagined her in the five-story house. She could see Eva now, sitting at the basement kitchen table, the cigarettes next to her, the lighter in her hand. The house was always shuttered and closed. The upper rooms were faded, as if the house itself had drained the color out of the furnishings. Robert’s mother kept the blinds drawn to preserve the carpets and furniture that she and Robert’s father had brought back from the Far East, but, despite that, they still had a bleached look.
The kitchen was a relic of the 1950s, yet she gravitated there, to the warmth. What time was it? Catherine glanced up at her own clock. Six fifty.
“What is he doing?” Eva asked.
“Robert. What is he doing?”
“He’s not at work . . .”
“But it’s still the same job?”
“Yes.” How could it be otherwise? Robert was wedded to his work. He was an accountant for a national company, based in a regional office in Salisbury. He drove for an hour each way, every day. He would set off at seven in the morning, always wanting to be the first there. Regularly, she suspected, he was the last to leave. She scoured her memory for some fragment from the last few weeks. Some mention of a client. But there was nothing.
But perhaps it was otherwise. Perhaps he had left his job. This spectacular possibility had never even occurred to her until this moment. The firm had told her that he was on vacation, but they could be covering for him, she guessed.
“Well, at least he hasn’t been spirited away,” Eva commented.
“What do you mean?”
She heard the sound of Eva lighting the cigarette, the intake of breath. “If he took everything, he intended to leave,” Eva replied.
Replacing the phone in its cradle, Catherine stood up and went upstairs.
Only when she got to the bedroom did the full weight of Eva’s insouciance hit her. She took off her clothes with a kind of savagery, got into the shower and let the water pour over her, turning up the temperature. She scrubbed at her skin furiously, washed her hair. How could a mother not care where her son had gone? Eva had treated it as if it were a joke. And then the final insult, the hint that Robert’s leaving must be no accident, but, rather, planned. Not a word of comfort for her, no trace of sympathy.
Soap got into Catherine’s eyes, and she rubbed at them, knuckling her fist against her face. Eva’s tone had suggested that such behavior was inconsequential, almost to be expected. But Robert did not do such things. Robert was ruled by time. He was utterly dependable. It was one of the things that had first attracted her to him, this air of complete security and reliability. Eva was wrong. But then Eva did not care. Eva and Edward—Robert’s father, who had died some years ago of a stroke—had sent their son to boarding school when he was tiny. Eva had showed not a particle of emotion on Catherine and Robert’s wedding day. Robert had considered it a minor miracle that she had even showed up at all.
Catherine got out of the shower and caught sight of herself in the mirror, flushed, hollow-eyed. Drying herself off, she walked into the bedroom, laid down on the bed, and pulled the covers over herself.
She did not cry. She was too angry to cry.
With her eyes closed, the truth rushed up at her.
This was how she had felt about Robert for at least a year.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror by Elizabeth McGregor. Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth McGregor. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.