The Wrong Door,
About The Wrong Door
It was the talk of the wake. The woman in the red dress. Everyone at the service wondered. Who was that woman?
Pete’s dead and Gwennie’s life will never be the same. How could Pete, a young, fit man, leave her now? Their lives together were only just beginning. And pneumonia? It was insane, unthinkable, unbearable.
Somehow she struggles through the funeral in a daze, and the mysterious mourner in the tight-fitting red dress barely registers in her consciousness.
It’s only later, when spotting a discrepancy in Pete’s tax records, that she begins to wonder. Who was that woman?
About The Wrong Door
About Bunty Avieson
Also by Bunty Avieson
For my late father, John Avieson
Helpless tears slid noiselessly down Gwennie’s cheeks. She let her arms fall by her sides. It was no use. She couldn’t navigate the zip of her dress through her shoulder blades and up her spine on her own. She let it fall to the ground, a puddle of navy silk at her feet. So this was how it was going to be, she thought.
Living alone, she couldn’t even manage to dress herself. She was still standing there in her bra and knickers when the car arrived, pulling into the neat suburban driveway. The driver turned off the engine but stayed inside, waiting discreetly. Gwennie could see him through the bedroom window. Dark glasses. Solemn face. The car was a long, shiny LTD, polished to a deep rich blue-black. It seemed to say it all. Death had come calling.
Clare smoothed the knitted red wool dress over her hips. It hugged every curve and she had many, in all the right places. It wasn’t the sort of dress she would usually wear. She had borrowed it for the occasion. She studied her reflection for a moment. She didn’t see the voluptuous figure sheathed in figure-hugging wool. She saw colour – an unmistakable burst of passion and energy – and she smiled. Wherever he was she knew he would love it. She would call it red, he would roll his eyes, and ask what she meant. What was red? Explain please. Was it angry like a raging brush fire or lusty like a fresh tart ripe pepper? Sometimes she would find the perfect word or phrase to express herself and he would allow himself to be impressed. At other times they would become distracted by the words themselves, spinning them around in an endless exchange of ideas, trying to tease out each other’s preconceptions and nail them. Gotcha. You assume I share your view of a colour as solid and finite and uni versal … No, I didn’t say that, I was merely asserting … and they would be off.
Clare felt the sadness seep through her body. He was the only man she had ever met who challenged her. Most members of the opposite sex were more interested in hitting on her than talking to her.
Hell, she was going to miss him. Death was something they had often theorised about. She would have liked to have heard his thoughts on the topic now.
Clare heard the bathroom door close down the hallway and quickly gathered from the bed her car keys and handbag. She didn’t want to have to explain to Marla or Peg where she was going.
As the LTD purred down her street Gwennie noticed the man in the garden a few doors from her own home. He was in his seventies, wearing knee pads, holding clippers in his hand and staring intently at an impressively large bush of pink roses. He was so absorbed by his flowers that he didn’t look up at the slow-moving car.
Gwennie wanted to wind down her window and scream at him. Who cares about your sodding roses? You’ll be dead, dead, dead. The thought was so loud inside her head that she was amazed when nothing came out of her mouth. The driver slowed to a halt at the school crossing as a young woman walked across in front of them, holding a child by each hand. The children were skipping and the woman laughed at something one of them said.
How could she laugh, wondered Gwennie. Had she not noticed that the world had changed irrevocably? Was death so insignificant? How could people go about their daily business as if … as if … as if anything still mattered? How dare they?
It was quiet inside the car, all the traffic sounds muffled by the heavy doors. The driver left her to her thoughts, checking in his rear-vision mirror whenever he stopped at traffic lights. She appreciated his sensitivity but shifted her body slightly to remove herself from his line of sight. She felt exposed enough.
Seeing the big black limousine in the driveway had reminded her of her wedding day. It was the only other time she had ridden in such a luxurious car.
How she hated all this fuss. Couldn’t she just slip in quietly and say goodbye her way instead of all this fanfare? She wasn’t a showy kind of gal. It offended her to show grief in such a public display. She was grateful she wasn’t Greek or Turkish, expected to moan and wail in the city square for months and throw a massive grief party where everybody could join her for a good sobfest. And thank God she wasn’t Irish. She knew about their legendary wakes. One rip-roaring piss-up that could go on for days. Just not her style. In some things she was thoroughly English. She would do her grieving in private thank you. This part of it was just something to endure.
Gwennie pressed the button on the armrest in the door and the electric window slid silently down. Cool air rushed in, rustling her hair. The driver’s mood was sombre and slow, steady as she goes. Time didn’t matter. They weren’t in a hurry. Not today. They wouldn’t exactly start without the star of the show now would they, thought Gwennie. And she was the star. God what an ordeal. She should have asked someone to sit in the car with her. But who? There wasn’t anyone. She wasn’t very good at making friends. In the past four years she had made only one. Pete. She hadn’t really felt the need for anyone else. From the moment they had met it had been Gwennie and Pete. Pete and Gwennie. Gwennie ’n’ Pete. His parents were dead and he had no siblings. Her own family lived in England and couldn’t get to Sydney in time for the funeral today. It didn’t matter. She didn’t want anyone staying in the house with her, fussing over her, invading their private space.
She hoped there wouldn’t be a whole battalion of people at the crematorium, Pete’s workmates and the like, ready to cry all over her. It seemed to Gwennie that some people loved to grieve, throwing themselves into it with gusto. Any excuse for a good cry. Sad movie. Death of a princess. Such emotional excesses embarrassed her. But there were a lot of things about life that weren’t perfect right now and she was in no state to challenge them. She didn’t have the emotional energy. It was a matter of going along with whatever was expected of her then going home, having a hot bath and maybe slitting her wrists. She just had to concentrate on getting through the day with dignity, for Pete.
Clare worried she would be late. It was nearly 10 am and she was still five minutes from the crematorium, stuck behind a long black LTD. The car was large and ponderous. It looked like something a retired US president might ride in, she thought. A car for an ego.
Clare waited impatiently for a place where she could safely overtake. As she passed she looked into the back seat, expecting to see a dignified, greying man in a business suit. Instead a woman arou
A pile of grit hit the windscreen of the LTD as the Honda pulled in front. One wheel hit the gravel shoulder, kicking up a spray of dirt. Gwennie watched the driver react, sending a squirt of liquid onto the glass that obscured the road ahead. The droplets looked like tears. Crying for her. Gwennie was glad because she didn’t seem to have any of her own and that made her feel vaguely guilty, as if they might be expected of her and she wouldn’t be able to provide them on cue.
The LTD turned right through the ornate sandstone entry gates. Northern Suburbs Memorial Garden Crematorium, said the sign. Gwennie felt herself start to tremble. It was March and the road was lined with flowering shrubs. More sodding roses, she noticed.
The crematorium, built in the 1930s, serviced the whole city. You didn’t have to live nearby to score a plot alongside the famous and infamous of Sydney.
The car made various turns and pulled up at the main building, a Tuscan-style peach-coloured villa with a huge tower. It looked more like a fancy reception centre than a place to farewell your soul mate. Gwennie could see people scurrying from the carpark. Hurry up, the guest of honour has arrived, she thought bitterly. She recognised a couple of workmates from Pete’s office. She would never remember their names. Sod that. She shouldn’t have to. Not today. They would understand. She noticed out of the corner of her eye a burst of red. A tall shapely woman emerged from a little yellow Honda and strode confidently across the carpark. Gwennie couldn’t help but stare. She had long, long legs and moved with the lithe grace of a dancer, placing each foot directly in front of the other, causing her hips to sway in a sensuous rolling motion. Strong and athletic in the way she moved her body, it was obvious that she was relaxed with her own physicality. But in these sombre surroundings her presence jarred. She looked out of place.
The driver slowed to a halt in front of the main doors. He told Gwennie to take as much time as she needed. When she was sure she was ready he would come around and open the door for her. Gwennie took a few slow deep breaths. She withdrew a fresh tissue from the packet in her handbag and tucked it up her sleeve. She bit the inside of her lip, hard, and kept biting. There was no way around this. She just had to do it. ‘Okay,’ she said in a little voice.
Smoke billowed from one of the chimney stacks in the tower as Clare hurried to the front entrance. She averted her eyes, feeling suddenly squeamish. A man in a black suit closed one of the double wooden doors indicating the service was about to start. Posted in a glass cabinet on the wall was a paper listing ‘Funeral Services for Today’. Clare rushed by, noting how long the list was. Must be their busy season, she thought. A couple in front of her whispered together. It was clear from their stiff, overly solemn demeanour that they were attending a funeral. Their heads were half bowed as if already in prayer. They signed the condolence book, passed the pen to Clare with a grim nod and quickly moved inside. There was a sense of quiet urgency about them and Clare scribbled her name, then followed them into the East Chapel.
She was conscious of the click, tap, click, tap her heels made on the cement floors and she trod carefully till she reached the carpet. She had hoped to slide quietly into the back pew but it was full. A heavy expectant hush pervaded the room. She spotted a spare seat deep in a middle row and headed to it. Around her she felt the stares of disapproval as she sidled her way along. The faces were closed and hostile and she had the uncomfortable feeling the hostility was directed at her. The outsider. No-one made any attempt to make room for her to pass so she was forced to push her way past the tightly pressed knees to the vacant seat. ‘I’m sorry … excuse me,’ she whispered as she moved along.
The chapel was large and full. Clare hadn’t known what to expect today but wouldn’t have been shocked if she had been the only mourner who wasn’t family. It was part of the reason she had wanted to come, despite what she thought Marla and Peg would say if they knew. There must have been sixty people in the room. Almost all were white and under fifty, she noticed with surprise. Clare settled into her seat. The woman next to her pulled her jacket tightly around her body, pointedly moving as far away from Clare as she could. The movement seemed exaggerated and unnecessarily aggressive.
Two women a few rows in front muttered together, then both turned to look at Clare, their unfriendliness obvious, even at a distance. Clare felt oddly as if she had been caught out. She had a creeping feeling that she was being told, in the most certain but subtle way, that she was not welcome. She assumed it was because she wasn’t part of his expected circle of intellectuals. But then she hadn’t realised he had a circle. He had seemed a self-contained kind of man, a loner. She felt strangely pleased for him. As much as he professed to hate a fuss she suspected he had a streak of vanity and would be touched that so many people turned out to honour him. Though God only knew how they fitted into his life and who they were. They didn’t look like the sort of people she imagined he would even know.
Well, too bad. She had just as much right as any of them to be here and certainly hadn’t intended to offend anyone by being late. Anyway, she wasn’t the last. People were still trying to squeeze through the back door. Clare decided to ignore them all. She took a deep breath, fluffed out her hair and occupied herself with thoughts of him, fussing about in his little shed at the back of his garden, making space for her among the mayhem that was his private world. Piles of books he would quote to her from. Papers. His correspondence with all sorts of amazing people. She was here to pay tribute to that special man. To publicly acknowledge the debt she owed him for his kindness and compassion, and his extraordinary intellect, which he so generously shared with her. If not for him Clare doubted she would have survived Marla or Peg. But what he gave her was more than that. So much more. He was her mentor, challenging her every perception.
The atmosphere in the chapel changed as a woman walked with great dignity through the main front doors, down the centre aisle and to the front of the room. She was petite and coolly blonde, a young Grace Kelly. She took a seat alone in the front pew, holding herself very erect. Clare was surprised to discover it was the woman she had passed in the LTD. She wondered who she was. Her pain was palpable. She wore it like a cloak around her shoulders. Clare wished someone would sit with her but could understand why they didn’t. Her pain both attracted and repelled.
The minister walked to the front of the room and started to speak. ‘Peter Darvill was a much-loved man …’
Clare breathed in sharply. Peter Darvill? Who the hell was Peter Darvill?
The minister continued. ‘It would gladden his heart to see so many of his friends and family gathered here today to pay tribute …’
This wasn’t Mr Sanjay’s funeral, Clare realised. She must have come through the wrong door, into the wrong chapel. In her haste she hadn’t checked the board at the front, just assumed there was only one service at a time. She could almost hear Mr Sanjay tut tutting at such an excuse, clicking his tongue in that very particular way. You assumed? Assumed what and what else … ? How ironic. A major ‘gotcha’.
The service for Mr Sanjay must be somewhere else. Oh damn. She didn’t fancy her chances of getting out of here without upsetting people further. Getting in had been bad enough. What an unfriendly bunch of people Mr Darvill had for friends. She was relieved they weren’t anything to do with Mr Sanjay. She hesitated. What should she do? She didn’t want to miss Mr Sanjay’s service. Apart from his son she might be his only mourner. But she could hardly stand up now that this one had started. It felt like walking o
Clare listened to the minister’s remembrances. She assumed an air of polite attention, but inside her anxiety was rising.
‘Peter Darvill was a creative man with a strong sense of community that was publicly acknowledged by the many awards he received. I am told he is the only Australian architect to twice win the Arthur Boyd award. A great tribute to a great man. But it is not his work that has brought you here today to honour him. It was his role in your life as husband, colleague and friend.’ The minister read from the sheet in front of him. His voice was a monotone. Clare wondered if he had ever met the man he was talking about. ‘In preparing for today I have spent time with Mr Darvill’s wife and friends. The words that kept cropping up time and time again about this much-loved man were “compassionate” and “a great listener”. Peter Darvill was always interested in what other people had to say. And when someone had a problem, he was always there for them. He “understood”. That is a rare commodity in today’s fast-paced world where so many are concerned with themselves and their own problems.’
People around the room were murmuring in agreement. Obviously the minister was getting this Mr Darvill down pat, Clare thought. But she wondered about calling compassion a ‘commodity’. She hoped Mr Sanjay’s minister was doing better. He would not be happy with such intellectual sloppiness. She expected his son would speak on his behalf. She would like to hear that.
The minister mouthed a few more clichés and pleasantries, blessed them all then requested they stand and join the widow in singing ‘Morning Has Broken’. As she got to her feet, the woman beside Clare sniffed pointedly and angled her body further away from her. That did it. Clare took a deep breath, smiled through gritted teeth and sidled her way back along the row.