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Solitary as an Oyster

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“Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in! and know me better, man!”

- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol


If Miss Katherine Climpson had seen the bed-sit, she would have described it as “simply too plain—like a nunnery—but clean, which is always a blessing, and with the most cunning arrangement of flowers, which must have been very dear, and which do stand out remarkably well against the simplicity. But the women in it, if they CAN be called that! They may be very fine sorts of writers, and I would never insult your Harriet, but I think that there is something unnatural in women who persist in their later years to cling only to other women, as though they were school-girls in the throes of a ‘PASH,’ as we called it—I do not suppose that in boys’ schools there were such childish things, but there it is, and you know the world for what it is as well as I do.”

Lord Peter Wimsey, the recipient of this imaginary note, would fortunately have had the good sense to take it with a healthy grain of salt. He had, of course, seen the bed-sit and its inhabitants himself, during the Philip Boyes affair, and at that time he had formed a more charitable view of it. The furniture, though plain, was well-selected and of excellent quality; the air, if a little smoky, was not clouded with the fug of boiling coffee and cocktails and too many unwashed bodies that seems endemic to avant-garde artistic parties; and if the female inhabitants were anti-man, well, Lord Peter had little to say in defense of his sex, beyond their necessary role in propagating the human race. The only aspect of Sylvia Marriott’s Christmas-party that would have given him any pause at all would be the simultaneous presence of Marjorie Phelps and Harriet Vane, representing amours past and (he fondly hoped) future.  

Fortunately, as he knew nothing of the party, Lord Peter’s Christmas continued as it had, most years, at Denver, with mother and brother and nephew and sister-in-law and family friends (perhaps not Peter's friends, per se) and all the rest. He had sent a rather over-elaborate bouquet of orchids, white-on-white with a lily or two for scent, as a Christmas present to Sylvia and Eiluned Price; this was a tradition in its third year, representing (so the message with the flowers read) his everlasting gratitude for their help in the matter of the Philip Boyes affair.

From Harriet’s perspective, the gift (though not given to her) was an embarrassment: after long stretches of no contact, days and weeks and even months, time enough for her to begin to use the word “whimsy” without self-consciousness—there would Peter come again, showing up in her closest friends’ home. His only communication to her in months, a quite unexceptionable Christmas-card, had read “Will you?” She had been forced to respond, as politely and succinctly as she could: “No. Many thanks.”

Of course there was no hiding the purpose of the flowers from Sylvia or Eiluned, or indeed from Marjorie Phelps, who had become rather close to Sylvia in the years since Harriet’s trial. Eiluned and Sylvia enjoyed the blooms; Marjorie was the only one who seemed to understand Harriet’s feelings, remarking, “well, he’s certainly reminding you of his advantages, isn’t he?”

“If you must have a man, you might as well have him,” Eiluned said, “but that’s a boring subject, isn’t it?”

“Extremely boring,” Harriet agreed, and the conversation ran on in other directions. Sylvia was mad for Le Chiendent, a novel which at first it seemed was another Surrealist slog but then turned out to be a rousing argument for mathematics and logic in writing. “Automatic writing would be all very well, if it was automatic,” Sylvia insisted, “but our human minds don’t run that way naturally—“

“Speak for yourself,” Marjorie told her, “Mine’s completely in touch with my inner nature. Tuned to the harmonies of the spheres, don’t you know?”

That set Eiluned off on the issue of Harmony, and then somehow through convoluted paths they reached Lord Edgeware Dies (“The actress element is getting a bit overused,” Harriet ventured) and through that somehow to a treacly Christmas poem Sylvia had been inveigled to write for her agéd grandmama, in order to be forgiven for passing the holiday in London.

“…and so all the sugar-plums fell into the stew, to make a sweet Christmas for me and for you,” she finished, making a horrific face. “And that is the last time I write doggerel!”

“Sugar-plums—plum pudding!” Marjorie exclaimed. “My God, it’s late, and we haven’t had any!”

“You’re not saving it for Christmas dinner?” Harriet asked, diverted.

“Who wants pud after all that food?” Eiluned said, liberally dousing the pudding with brandy. “Better to have it now, isn’t it?”

Since Harriet had no Christmas dinner planned at all, in fact had intended to boil an egg for herself and get some writing done, she could hardly argue with this logic. The pudding looked lovely flaming away, as Marjorie explained that she’d made it special on Stir-up Sunday and aged it for the weeks since. Then Eiluned set it on the table, unwisely beneath Lord Peter’s lovely Christmas bouquet.

“I don’t mind a bit,” Harriet insisted for the fifth time, as Marjorie tried desperately to rearrange the surviving orchids into something presentable. “They weren’t my flowers—“

“But they were so lovely, and they really are for you, we all know that—“ Sylvia said, unwisely.

“And now I’ll have a funny story about them to tell him, won’t I?” Harriet said in a sharpish tone, and regretted it. She knew that she would see Peter, of course. She hadn’t the heart to turn him completely away.

“Oh, let’s sing Silent Night and eat our pudding and forget about men,” Eiluned shouted.

“Let’s!” Harriet agreed, “except the Baby Jesus is a man, isn’t he?" 

“Not till Lent he isn’t. You said it yourself: he’s a baby, inoffensive to all right-thinking persons.”

 “Except when he messes his nappy.” 

"Siiiiiii-ilent night," Sylvia sang, rather more loudly than the song's subject called for, "hoooooooly night—"

The pudding was eventually eaten, and more carols sung, and for awhile Harriet was a happy as she could remember being since before Philip's death; but in the cab on her way home, staring out into the rainy December night, she thought about the burnt-up flowers, and sentimental poetry, and childhood Christmases with neighbors and friends and family all around. In those memories it always seemed to be snowing.

When she got out of the cab, the rain had gotten worse, whipping into her face and drenching her shoes beneath her mac.

She went up to her flat, shaking the water off. The little rooms were undecorated and empty, as always: a cat, she had sometimes thought, would be nice to have, but then one would have to do something with the cat when one was traveling, and she did have to do quite a bit of traveling to gather scenes for her books. Then, too, would a cat truly make the house feel more lived-in? If it was the twining sort of beast, that rubs up to you and begs for kippers, it might; but surely she was more likely to get the standoffish kind, uninterested in humans and human concerns, very excellent at catching mice and rats and very uninterested in tamer meat.

There was not a single growing thing in the flat, Harriet not liking the Victorian way plants in big brass pots seemed to loom.

"Well," she said aloud, "it's nearly time for bed," and put a kettle on the hob for tea. Its whistle, and the drumming of rain on the windows, did something to fill the quiet, but then she thought of a very different Christmas Eve—her father called away to tend Mrs. Meecham as she died, her eleven-year-old self making tea and turning off all the lights in the house one by one and putting herself to bed. 

"And so I am still putting myself to bed," she said to the air, "though over thirty." 

But there was no smell of lilies in the air to make her think of Peter Wimsey, regretfully or otherwise; and so she picked up Carmilla, as the least Christmassy book she could think of, crawled into her bed with a hot water bottle like an oyster with its pearl, and read late into the night.

Sleeping soundly, she didn't notice when the rain turned to snow, and the world was blanketed with the white of an empty page, ready to be written upon.