Read by Lisa Rose
As everyone knows, the French - God save them - have a tag for any “fascinatingly ugly” woman, and though no similar designation exists in our quainter English tongue, some comparable label might almost have been coined for the lady you are about to meet.
Angela Martyn is a chinless woman with grotesquely sunken, lemon-sucking cheeks, raw complexion – contrast her anaemically thin mousey hair - one brown and one hazel eye (the two ever so slightly crossed) beneath no eyebrows to speak of, piggy nose, and the ears of a goblin. People stare, of course they do. Angela Martyn is fascinatingly ugly woman: une belle laide. This said, she is slender as a point of principle and faultlessly groomed. With what she has she does as she feels she must. And she snared herself a man.
So, from the moment her husband leaves their irreproachably pristine and dustless home - a charming, three-bedroomed, thatched detached, as well-kept as she but more comely - Angela awaits his return. Afternoons, Angela wipes and scours, launders and vacuums, mops and polishes, and all the rest of it, the image of an efficient and painstaking housewife.
For all that, or perhaps exactly because of it, there is something sumptuous about the morning hours Angela spends directly she is alone, drinking camomile tea, watching television, eating a Pippin, listening to the radio, indulging her yen for aromatherapy, or simply reading a book she is as sure as anyone could be that Melvin, her husband, wouldn’t disapprove of – at this moment it is Maeve Binchy’s Light A Penny Candle. “Thank heavens,” exclaims The Times, “ – a thoroughly enjoyable and readable book!”
On the particular day we should have in mind, Mrs Martyn is slow-cooking some prime cuts of young lamb. Given that Mr Martyn normally gets home at approximately thirteen minutes past six on a weekday, depending on the traffic, his dinner is almost invariably on the table for him at twenty-five to seven, giving him time to freshen up and change upon his return.
Melvin Martyn is the affable, popular and well thought of golf professional at the local country club a couple of miles away from his home. Angela can see the club from both unused bedroom windows, though she rarely goes in either redundant space, except of course to dust and clean and what have you. In point of punctilious fact, in all the years the Martyns have lived in their beautiful home, in getting on for three decades now, no one has ever been to stay with them. Not one character else has ever spent a night in their house. But thoughts of this kind only seldom occur to Angela, and not at all perhaps to Melvin. So it goes.
With only an hour until he’s home, the smell of unhurriedly stewing lamb suffuses the whole house, pleasantly as it seems to Angela, although she hopes Melvin will not mind, as he did about the protracted all-around whiff of the sausages a while back there. If Angela reflects on this as she hangs the now sparkling net curtains in the master bedroom, it is because she knew that Melvin was right, and that even they - the curtains - had seemed to sweat the fine Cumberlands’ eventually cloying odour.
Looking out the window, all hers in the daytime, a trifle romantically Angela sees the declining sun glitter off the combine cutting the corn in the distant pieced-out land, as the larks trill, horses shift, and breeze stirs. She notices, less absently, a rook swagger across the lawn, then skip and soar blackly towards the silver poplars next door. Mahler’s Symphony Number 4 plays on Radio 3. The time is quarter-to-five. Not an hour and half and he’ll be home, Angela realizes.
She has long since mastered the urge to bite her nails or scratch her itching scalp. Angela no longer quails, nor even perspires, at the prospect of her husband’s coming back. Yet still we have the unmistakeably primal look in her piteous eyes, particularly as the day wears on, and nor can her movements belie her to anyone skilled in the art of noticing at least something of how it goes with others.
Nevertheless, the truth is that Melvin has not hit Angela for weeks now. Three weeks and five days, if we are to be precise.
But Melvin Martyn is unpredictable. He may not touch his wife at all for months, but then again he may lash out, sometimes once, sometimes repeatedly, sometimes - though admittedly not so frequently - every day for a fortnight, depending on how his moods move him. He may feel sorry, or not, afterwards, and then force himself on his wife, in inarticulate recompense, as he sees it, as she gives way without hindrance. Or Melvin might only call Angela names until his fit has passed, his frustration subsided. Most often now, he does not deign to address her except in de facto command. It is more straightforward for both of them that way.
For her part, Angela forgives Melvin, but she does not forget. She wants desperately to understand, even to help him, for his own sake as much as hers, for sometimes at night, whatever he is, he weeps. True, Angela cannot bring herself to weep for or with him. She has been punched, kicked, spat on, had her hair pulled, and so on, after all. Funny thing, a propos of nothing perhaps, but on one occasion Angela mused, peculiarly, that she had never yet been nipped or bitten by Melvin, before supposing with an unaccountable little smile that anything was possible.
Would it be different for Angela if she had somebody other than Melvin (or even just Melvin) to confide in? At all events, Angela is friendless, save for the ladies she reluctantly plays foursomes with on a Wednesday morning at Melvin’s behest. She thinks, not irrationally, that these ladies despise her too for her ugliness and shyness, having once overheard the ladies’ vice-captain wonder not quite under her breath in the locker room whatever their dapper pro-golfer saw in his unsightly wife. A second lady then followed this admirable rhetoric with a lewd comment concerning Angela’s husband’s physical charms, for Melvin was nothing if not athletically made, and judged passably handsome by some. Maybe it would be different for Melvin then, too, if he were not stuck with Angela. Probably he hated himself, Angela had reflected on leaving that day’s locker room, for sticking with her, for not finding somebody more attractive, or someone at least more spirited.
“My God but you’re a disgusting sight to look at,” he had said, more than once, most memorably shortly after those comments Angela had unfortunately been privy to in the ladies’ locker room.
It came after the President’s Dance, which marks the beginning of the season. The President’s third wife had remarked on Angela’s dress. The new Mrs Stanley Arthurs must have been in her mid-thirties, and thus a good twenty years younger than good ole Stan. An attractive type, blonde-haired and plump-chested, Mrs President - as one wag had dubbed her - had called Angela, Ange, which had been unusual, but nice, in a way.
“That’s a lovely dress, Ange,” she had said, pointedly.
“Thank-you, Linda,” Angela had replied, for once a centre of attention, however momentarily.
Melvin grimaced, but said nothing until he and Angela got home. She had no idea what had put him in such a temper. She only wished she had, but it was too late for that.
As Melvin beat Angela (in the morning he confessed, as though in apology, that he had been drunk), she became conscious that she had smelled the uniquely scented perfume Linda Arthurs had been wearing before somewhere. She recollected that it was on Melvin’s trousers and polo-shirt. Angela knew that among the club’s members it was probably common knowledge that Melvin gave the President’s new wife lessons, so she tried her best to think no more of it, and to cover up as best she could without riling her husband even more.
Fewer than twenty minutes and he’d be home. Angela checked on his lamb. The water in the pan with the new potatoes was bubbling over, so she turned down the heat. She had almost forgotten the carrots (what was wrong with her lately?), which she now peeled and diced and dropped in another pan. Melvin didn’t like his broccoli too soft, so that could wait, and the rest of the gravy, to go with that of the lamb’s juices, would take no time at all.
Angela felt sure Melvin would like what she had prepared, although she knew you could never be completely certain with him. Angela hoped anyway, especially as she’d not done lamb in this way before. If she were honest, Angela would have admitted that she did not enjoy eating, whatever the dish, with Melvin - but she knew equally well that one of the few things he liked at home was sitting down to eat with her. And he loved lamb. The only other thing was that they had had lamb-cutlets just last week, and Melvin never liked to have the same thing twice in what he judged to be quick succession. But one cannot have everything in this life, Angela thought, as she awaited her husband’s return, contemplating the challenge it had always been to predict what he might want for his tea, and concluding that it was one she had surely risen to over the years. So, que sera sera …
Lest entirely the wrong idea about Melvin Martyn is conveyed, it should be said that he has always been more than generous with the housekeeping, which includes Angela’s allowance. Scrupulously the amount tracks the rate of inflation, sometimes even exceeding it when Melvin feels that the Bank of England’s measure is inaccurate or doesn’t take account of his circumstances. In addition, there is always more money, in the shape of hard currency, when it is felt, by Melvin, that his wife could do with new clothes, underwear, or whatever. Yes, Melvin Martyn is a man who likes his wife, as ugly as she is, to be able to keep up.
If Angela had someone to tell this to?
Her parents had only ever had and borne her, then moved to their reclusive little cottage in the country some twenty-odd years ago, barely ever keeping in touch. Nor would Angela have had any distinct wish to see them, even if Melvin had not discouraged it. Mercifully Angela and Melvin were blessed with no children, although in the early years, when the odd tenderness was not yet unknown between them, she had suffered three ectopic miscarriages and had had to have both of her adhesion-filled fallopian tubes taken away. Melvin never mentioned anything to do with all that, but Angela knew it was likely to be something else he secretly scorned her for.
As she heard her husband’s sponsored saloon pull into the drive, Angela straightened her dress. There was the tired sound of his key in the door. She patted her hair. The lamb was definitely ready, table set, everything prepared. Melvin went upstairs to shower and change as Angela took a couple of deep breaths and two dinner-plates from the oven. She gave the gravy a last little stir, transferred it to the boat, and dinner was served.
When Melvin happened to mention that the carrots were underdone, which was incidentally the first thing he had said to his wife since returning home, Angela dropped her knife. It rattled tinnily against her plate as she tried to catch it, then fell from the polished walnut surface of the dinner-table, smudging the cream Axminster with tasty lamb gravy.
Melvin shook his head disapprovingly, forking into it another mouthful of the succulent lamb, which really did seem to him to have been cooked to perfection, and to more than make up for the carrots.
Mr. and Mrs. Melvin Martyn by David Rees was read by Lisa Rose at the Liars’ League Fear & Loathing event on Tuesday 11th October 2011, at the Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
David Rees – witty, thoughtful, handsome – can't believe that he gets to write this. From the very summit of his capacious intellect to the subtle and tender depths of his lyrical heart, he hopes that you are all able to learn something from him. Or something.