Gehenna, for those who don’t know and at least as far as I understand, is an English translation of a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic word somewhat similar to a Hebrew word meaning “The Valley of Hinnom.” Apparently, some dead king sacrificed his children there in a religious ceremony in which children would be either walked through two lanes of fire or simply thrown into a burning pit. There are other beliefs that paint Gehenna in the same light as Purgatory; that is, wicked people go there to suffer for eleven months, twelve if they’re really bad.
It’s kind of like my life with Portia, in that regard. Although, admittedly, I’ve been tortured for far longer than eleven or twelve months. Seventeen years, four months, thirteen days, and seven hours, to be exact. Give or take a few minutes. But who was counting?
It pays to have a library of old texts which once belonged to my father. You learn things. It was the one useful thing I got from his estate. The man could translate fifteen different dead languages into seven archaic languages and again into something similar to English, although I really understood none of it. The translation of ancient languages was his thing. Mine was bathtubs, business, and badminton. But in his will, he left me a sizable library of old texts that were really useful as conversation starters. I suppose if the heat failed on a bitter winter day, they would be useful as kindling as well.
Portia was in the garden next to its focal point, a bamboo gazebo surrounded by delphinium, hollyhocks, lavender, wisteria, and hydrangeas. It really was a beautiful place, made more wonderful by the careful placement of statuettes, benches and other hardscape items along with the delicate curating of plants by the gardener, Alphonse. What wonders he couldn’t do with a pair of garden shears and a trowel. At thirty-three, he was the fittest man I ever knew, with long brown locks that had a place in a steamy romance novel where the gardener took the lonely housewife. No wonder Portia slept with him so often—even I found him attractive.
I weaved around a few of the old ladies enjoying glasses of wine, cucumber sandwiches, and petit fours, yammering on about their social lives to no end. If there was ever a trope used in literature to paint a picture of a socialite hell, I was living in it. It was what Portia paid for, after all. Her decision to move to the Plymouth Commonwealth and buy the Manor outright with cash, hire the staff needed to keep it running and get involved with the old money neighbors was nothing more than the preface to an old English novel, the kind you read in high school or, if you were like me, the kind you skimmed through to find reference points mentioned in a study guide you bought off a kid one grade above you who said if you just listened really well to the lecture, you would pass the test.
Portia’s smile—something I actually found alluring—dropped the second she saw me. That was typical: a greeting, really. A way of saying, “Hello, Geoffrey. You’re not dead, yet?”
“I’m busy,” was what she said instead.
“Yes, I’m aware.” I decided right then to dispense of any social graces that required me to recognize the three other ladies standing with her. Rather than even make eye contact, I handed her the envelope.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Airship came with a message.”
Immediately, her pugnacious affect shifted to one of both worry and concern. I wasn’t the only one who knew that messengers rarely came with good news. The other women shifted uncomfortably in their three-thousand-pound flats, flowy skirts and woven straw hats. Portia placed her glass of wine down on the granite bench beside her and opened the envelope. Her hands shook perceptibly. With a slight gasp and a hand to her chest, she mouthed the words written on the small card.
Memory is a funny thing, really. Recall the smell of petrol, the cold of the scotch in my hand, the picture of a fish stick descending into the sky. Here, in this moment, in this garden populated by narcissism and snobbery mingling with the reds and blues and yellows and greens of flowers and vines and trees, I remember the silence the most. It was as if my ears were suddenly, inexplicably, stuffed with tiny balls of cotton, a grand, cacophonous symphony had played its last note, and only the vibrations of sound remained. A dream fading at the moment of waking. The squawk alarm of a quail silenced at the pull of a trigger.
It took a moment, but Portia’s concern turned to determination. Her lips pursed. Her hands stopped trembling. That was one thing I could say about her: she was quick to act. Occasionally, that was a good thing.
She turned to the three women standing with her. “I’m sorry, but I have some urgent business to attend.”
“What is it?” one woman asked, her eyes open slightly larger than what I remember from before.
Portia did not answer. I believe she knew as well as I that these women would soon get their own messages delivered to them, their own fish sticks descending from the sky. She picked up her glass of wine, downed it all in one big gulp, then pulled me out of the garden, her bony hand squeezing my arm. If this were any other day, at any other party, and the message had been anything else, I suppose I would have been embarrassed. Rather, I was delighted and somewhat proud of my wife for immediately reacting to the message, to the three words that meant life had just changed and all the preparation we had made over the past five years was finally paying off. She did not argue about the veracity of the message, of the words written on the card. She simply, thankfully, acted.
As we passed through the crowd of women who followed us with their confused looks and mouths slightly agape, I realized that this might be the last time I would see any of them again. That moment may also have been the last time any of them would see each other. Life was no longer a given, and only the prepared would survive.
It was comforting, in a way. I never was good around old money, and although Portia tried her best to fit in, she wasn’t good at it, either. She tried too hard. I just never tried.
At that moment, it didn’t matter.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish