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An elderly nursing home patient tells stories of her past that seem to mirror her caregiver’s life to a disturbing degree—and that’s before the stories take a deadly turn
Stuck in a loveless marriage and mired in a troubled affair, Genevieve Warner doesn’t have a friend in the world—until she meets Stella, a patient at the nursing home where she works as a caregiver. Whip smart and deeply familiar, Stella confides in Genevieve the story of her life, a story that builds toward a ...
An elderly nursing home patient tells stories of her past that seem to mirror her caregiver’s life to a disturbing degree—and that’s before the stories take a deadly turn
Stuck in a loveless marriage and mired in a troubled affair, Genevieve Warner doesn’t have a friend in the world—until she meets Stella, a patient at the nursing home where she works as a caregiver. Whip smart and deeply familiar, Stella confides in Genevieve the story of her life, a story that builds toward a horrifying confession. As Genevieve’s own life slips helplessly down the same path, she desperately tries to turn away from a fate that seems inevitable. Sensitive and heartbreaking, The Brimstone Wedding is a mysterious tale of mistakes repeated.
THE CLOTHES OF THE dead won't wear long. They fret for the person who owned them. Stella laughed when I said that. She threw back her head and laughed in the surprisingly girlish way she has. I was telling her Edith Webster had died in the night and left cupboards full of clothes behind her, and she laughed and said she'd never known anyone as superstitious as me.
"Her granddaughter's here now," I said, "handing her things out to everyone who'll take them. You know what they say, as the body rots the clothes rot."
"Is that what they say, Genevieve? Who are they?"
I didn't reply. She was teasing me and didn't expect an answer. But I like it when Stella calls me Genevieve, because though I'm Jenny to everyone else, always have been since I was born, I was christened Genevieve. My dad called me after a vintage car in a film, if you can credit it, and to most people it's a bit embarrassing, but the way Stella says it it's got a pretty sound. Of course Stella has got a nice voice, what you'd call a beautiful voice, even though she's old and past having a nice anything, really.
I told her a bit more about Edith, how Sharon found her at seven when she went in with her tea and how the granddaughter was there within the hour, though she hadn't been so conscientious about coming when her nan was alive. I'm not a specially tactless person or insensitive and I'd have stopped if I thought it upset Stella hearing about another old lady dying. But I could tell she was interested. The truth, I suspect, is that Stella thinks of herself as quite young compared with Edith, who was ninety-four, she thinks she's got a long time left yet, and that she's one of those cancer patients who live for years.
She's been at Middleton Hall for six months. We all look after all the residents but we each have three in our special care and Stella is mine along with Edith and Arthur Harrison. Now Edith's gone I suppose I shall get someone new, but not someone who needs a lot of care, I hope. That's not because I'm not a hard worker, I'm on my feet most of my eight-hour shift—at three pounds fifty an hour, which is hardly brilliant—and Arthur's always ringing his bell for me, but the fact is I don't want to have to give less time to Stella. I like her, you see. I actually like her, and that's not something I could say about Arthur or Maud Vernon or any of the rest of them. I'm sorry for them, I want to help make their lives as pleasant as can be, but as for liking, they're past all that. It's as if they've gone into a twilight world where they've forgotten everything, don't really know where they are half the time and call you by the names of all their relations until you remind them you're Jenny. But Stella is different. Stella is still a person in the land of the living. The other day she said to me, "I don't think of you as a nurse, Genevieve. I think of you as my friend."
I was pleased. I suppose that was because she's what my nan would call a lady, anyway in a different class from me, but all I said was she was right not to think of me as a nurse, I'm a care assistant, I've the experience but no qualifications. She smiled. She's got a nice smile, her teeth are all her own and quite white still.
"I came here because of you, you know."
She always says that. It's silly of course, it isn't true, but it amuses her to say it. Her son took her around to a good many residential homes in Suffolk and Norfolk for her to choose the one she liked best. I was in the lounge with Edith when they came in and Stella's regular joke is to say she took a fancy to me and decided on Middleton Hall because I worked there. It wasn't the house or the grounds or the food or the private bathroom that decided her, but me.
"And I was right," she said. "It's made all the difference to me to have you here."
She likes me to talk about the village and my family, and God knows there are enough of them, and I told her about my mum and Len the lover and his mother who inherited a fur coat from her sister which fell into rags the first time she had it on. I was telling her about holes appearing in a dead woman's clothes as if the moths had been at them when, to my surprise, she reached out and took my hand. First she squeezed my hand and then she held it quite lightly. She must have held it for about five minutes before giving it another squeeze and releasing it. Then Lena put her head around the door and made faces at me the way she does, so I got up—I didn't leap up, I wouldn't give her the satisfaction—and when I looked at Stella I saw her wink at me.
She winked at me and she smiled and for a moment you could see what she'd looked like when she was my age. I hope she'll show me some photos of herself when she was young, I'm quite curious to see them. I said she hadn't got anything nice left anymore except her teeth, but that was a bit sweeping, that wasn't exactly true. Actually, she's wonderful for seventy-one. Her skin isn't all that wrinkled except around the eyes and her eyes are still a strong bright blue. Of course her hair is white, but it's thick and wavy and she'll never wear a wig like some of them do. Sadly, she won't live long enough to have to. She always dresses nicely, in a dress and stockings and proper shoes, and I don't know why it should, but that irritates Lena. Behind her back, and not always behind her back, she'll refer to her as "Lady" Newland or "the duchess" and grin to take the sting out of it. I suppose she'd rather Stella got herself into a tracksuit and cardigan like most of them do. I can't explain why, but I think people ought to take more care of themselves when they get older, do the best they can. Stella likes me to manicure her nails and set her hair and I'm happy to do it.
So you can see she's rather special. If I'm her friend, she's mine, though so far I don't know much about her, while she knows plenty about me: how long I've been married, for instance, that I've lived at Stoke Tharby all my life, that my husband's called Mike and he's a builder, my mum keeps the pub and my dad lives in Diss, and a whole lot of other things. And if there's one thing she doesn't know, the biggest thing in my life, really, though it shouldn't be, I may even tell her that someday. But all I know about Stella is that she had to sell the house she had in Bury St. Edmunds to afford the fees here, and of course I know about her children because they come and visit. Well, children—one's my age and the daughter has teenage kids of her own.
Bury is about twenty miles south of here, beyond the Breckland and the country we call the plow. She sold up when she got too tired and too ill to be on her own anymore and having someone to look after her had its attractions. It's what I've read somewhere is called a social phenomenon, the number of residential homes there are these days and the hundreds of old people who fill them. And nearly all of them have had to sell their houses to find the fees, thus robbing their descendants—if you like to look at it that way— of what they might have inherited.
It goes into the pockets of people like Lena. Still, Middleton Hall is one of the best of them, a manor house once with beautiful grounds, gardens with flower beds shaped like hearts and diamonds cut out of the lawn, cypress hedges and yew hedges, a lily pond and great stands of old chestnut trees. I will say for Lena, she loves animals and we've got two Labradors here and three cats that are supposed to be so good around geriatrics. Mind you, for what they pay a week they ought to have all mod cons and pets and gourmet food, to say the least. It was quite a surprise to me to see Sharon serving drinks to the residents before dinner the first day I came, dry martinis no less, that you read about in American books, with Japanese rice crackers and macadamia nuts in little dishes. But why not? I hate to see old folks treated like kids.
Stella has one of the nicer rooms here and with a view all the way across the meadows to the river and the woods beyond. Her room has French windows and she can step out directly onto the terrace and the lawns if she likes, though she seldom does. Of course she goes into the lounge with the others and she's always there for her predinner drink, it's always gin and something that was so fashionable when she was young. She usually has her dinner in the dining room, though at her own table, she won't share, she's rather reserved, but she spends a lot of time in her room, reading books, watching television, and every day she does a crossword puzzle, one of those hard tricky ones that I can't even get started on.
All the rooms have a single bed and a clothes cupboard, a coffee table and a couple of armchairs, and some of the residents bring in pieces of their own furniture. Stella has brought a desk. It's walnut with a complicated grain and very highly polished. She must polish it herself because I'm sure Mary doesn't. She has her photographs and her books and she's hung some pictures on the walls. There's nothing mysterious about the photos, the one of Marianne that looks as if it were done for her agent to send to TV producers or whatever they do, and one of Richard in a black cloak thing and those hats they wear at universities, and there's another of Marianne's children when they were little and before they went in for black leather and more rings in their ears than on a curtain pole. Any picture of Stella's late husband is what you might call conspicuous by its absence.
I don't know what his name was or what he did or when he died or anything about him and that's what I mean by mysterious. Stella is a mystery. She never talks about her husband, never even mentions that she had one. I could add that she never talks about the past at all and that's quite amazing in a place like this because the past is the only thing most of them talk about. It's their sole topic of conversation. And for some of them, Maud Vernon for instance, it's the distant past, it's as if the world stood still after 1955. The other day she asked me if chocolate was still rationed.
But Stella lives in the present and that's what we talk about. We talk about what's been on the news and what's on telly, new films that have come out, though neither of us is likely to see them till they're on video, whether skirts are going to be six inches above the knee or a foot below it, what's happening in the village and what's happening at Middleton Hall, and we talk about what I've been doing—or as much as I let her know I've been doing. She says she misses me on my days off and I have to admit that I miss her. The truth is she talks about herself very little, so why is it I'm beginning to get this feeling she wants to talk about herself a lot? Because of the way she sometimes looks at me, summing me up? Because of her abrupt changes of subject, as if she meant to make a sudden confession? Perhaps it's more on account of the sentences she starts to speak and then breaks off, smiling or shaking her head.
I get to work at eight, which is fine with me as I'm an early riser and when Mike's away, as he mostly is during the week on this new job, there's not much to do at home. It's only a couple of miles from the village to the nursing home. The first thing I do when I get there is pick up the post. The papers and the post are left in a metal box with a lid that's fastened onto the back of the sign at the gates that says MIDDLETON HALL: RESIDENCE FOR THE ELDERLY, with, for some unknown reason, a picture of a badger at one end and a bluebell at the other. In the postbox are always a whole bundle of newspapers but not many letters and postcards. Some of them never get a letter and to get more than one a week is rare.
On the morning of Edith Webster's funeral, which incidentally was the thirteenth of the month, there were just three envelopes in the box, two for Mrs. Eileen Keepe, which is Lena's real name, and one for Mrs. S. M. Newland. Of course there was the usual stack of papers as well as Arthur's Economist and Lois Freeman's Woman's Own. The letter for Stella was in an envelope made of thick brown paper, about five inches wide and maybe a foot long. It was thick as if something stiff was folded up inside it. I thought I knew what that something was and I didn't much like it.
The dogs came leaping out to meet me the way they always do, jumping up, and Ben, who's a bit forward, tried to lick my face. The care assistants don't wear a uniform the way proper nurses do, just a white nylon smock over our ordinary clothes, but I was dressed for Edith's funeral, so I pushed the dogs down and got quite severe with them. When I'd put my smock on and trainers on my feet and laid out everyone's newspaper marked with their names on the table in the lounge, I went along to Stella's room with her letter.
She was up but not dressed. Sharon or maybe Carolyn had brought her breakfast and she was sitting at the table in her dressing gown. Stella has a black quilted satin dressing gown with red satin binding around the collar and the cuffs. It's really what my mum calls a housecoat. She'd obviously had her bath and her hair was combed but she looked a bit washed out, the way you do in the mornings when you're her age. If she hadn't done her makeup yet she'd painted her nails and they were dark crimson. I wish she wouldn't and I wish she wouldn't ask me to do it as she sometimes does. It looks ugly on old hands with purple veins, but I can't tell her. It's not something even a friend can tell you.
There's no roughness in Stella's voice and it doesn't sound old but like the voice of a clever girl at one of those fancy private schools who's had no experience of life and no hardship. It sounds untouched, if that's possible. She said, "Good morning, Genevieve," the way she always does, and smiles at me and asks me how I am, and I said what I always say, asked her if she'd had a good night and how she was feeling. Although I'm supposed to leave it in the lounge along with the other papers, I'd brought up her Times and I handed it to her with the thick brown envelope.
It's funny how when people are really anxious to look at something, their faces don't light up or their eyes get narrow the way they do on telly. What they do is go blank. Stella's face went absolutely expressionless when I put that envelope into her hands. I had the feeling she wanted to tear it open, but because I was there was forcing herself to go about the business of ungluing the flap very slowly and methodically. Indifferently, really. Stella often makes her own bed but she hadn't that morning, so I busied myself with doing it. I turned my back on her to pull up the fitted sheet, but when I went around the other side I saw that she'd taken whatever it was out of the envelope and it was lying in her lap.
I say "whatever it was," but of course I thought I knew what it was. I'd known from the moment I picked it out of the post-box. The only thing that comes in an envelope like that and is on stiff paper like parchment is a will.
Stella had apparently satisfied herself that all was well, that it was what she thought it was, and now she felt able to postpone taking a further look at it. She laid one hand over the top of it and asked me if I was going to Edith's funeral. I said I always did if it was one of my own, but I didn't want to dwell on that, I wished there'd been some more tactful way of saying it. Still, Stella only nodded.
"Why aren't you wearing black, Genevieve? You're quite conservative in some ways, you know, and I was sure you'd be wearing black."
I could have told her the truth, that I hadn't got any black, but that would only have made her embarrassed, so I took off my smock to show her my denim jacket and skirt and said what was also the truth. "Blue protects. It's a lucky color."
"I might have known there was bound to be a superstition there somewhere. So you need protection at a funeral?"
You need protection everywhere all the time, in my opinion, but I didn't say that. I told her about my nan wearing a necklace of blue beads to keep away arthritis.
"And does it keep it away?"
"She's never had an ache or a pain in her life," I said, knowing that would make her laugh, because maybe my nan wouldn't have even if she'd never worn the beads.
Stella did laugh but not unkindly. In my family we all respect the powers that guard us, my nan and Mum and my sister, Janis, and my brother, Nick, and even my dad, though he denies it. But if refusing to change your sock if you put it on inside out and blaming your troubles on a green car aren't superstitions, I don't know what is. Still, it's not a word we like. We prefer to talk of supernatural powers or the weird. Stella hadn't noticed the date, I suppose, or wouldn't have thought much about it if she had. It made me feel I needed special protection, I needed luck that day, for I needed the good thing to happen in the evening. And unless I took steps, what chance did I have on the thirteenth?
Excerpted from The Brimstone Wedding by Ruth Rendell. Copyright © 1995 Kingsmarkham Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 4, 2012
Posted June 3, 2011
The BRIMSTONE WEDDING grabs your attention from the very first paragraph and keeps your curiosity aroused page after page. Stella and Genevieve have an immediate bond that transcends the mere status of patient and caregiver. Whether by design or happenstance Stella takes Genevieve on a life altering journey. Readers will want to immerse themselves and be part of the story as it unfolds. An exciting and mysterious tale to the very last page. Kudos to the author!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.