This is the first story I ever published in a newspaper or periodical. Set in Britain, it appeared in the London Evening News early in the 1960s, but here I’ve re-set it in suburban New York.
IN THE DARK
Still in her bath robe, and cradling her coffee cup in both hands, Midge watched from the bedroom window as Guy drove out through the big iron gates to catch the 7:47 train. He always left for the station at 7:30 sharp, and he never missed the train. One thing you could say about Guy was that he was predictable. While showering she remembered that today was his 43rd birthday. She’d said nothing about this when they made their routine embrace on the landing. And nor had he.
Downstairs in the kitchen she shivered and turned up the thermostat, and outside in the leafless mid-December garden a rising, blustery wind drove hailstones against the windows. She made herself some toast and another cup of coffee.
Every day began like this now that the twins had left home and gone to college. The house was empty, and so were her days. She hated this house, though her friends and relatives always told her how beautiful it was, and how lucky she was to have it. It was a big isolated, stone place in a rambling garden, built in the 1880s near Bedford Hills by Guy’s family. She and Guy had moved in ten years ago, after her in-laws had retired to Florida. Her own parents and most people she knew said much the same about Guy as they did about the house She was lucky to have him. He was handsome, good-natured and successful, they said. With Guy, the twins and Rock House, what more did she want?
Well, what did she want? She’s often asked herself that lately. They had financial security -- Guy was a senior partner at a well-regarded publishing house on Madison Avenue – they had attractive, mature, civilized children, and they were healthy. The real problem, she told herself, was that she was bored. Bored with her own lonely existence and, yes, she might as well admit it, bored with Guy. Once Fiona and Zoe were both happily settled at Brown, Midge had called her former boss at the law firm where she’d worked in Manhattan, and he’d told her she could have her old job any time she wanted. That had been six weeks ago; she’d rabbited on about it to her family and friends, but she hadn’t followed it up.
She pulled on her raincoat and darted out to retrieve the Times, which today lay on the gravel drive in a blue rainproof bag. By eight o’clock she’d read what little of the paper interested her. So what was she going to do with herself today? There was something demeaning about her present situation, she mused. People made jokes about stay-at-home wives, baking cookies, going to coffee klatches, watching soaps. Guy’s forgotten birthday nagged in back of her mind. She supposed she should have taken the initiative for a change and, after a little subterfuge with his secretary, surprised him by turning up at the office and picking up the check at somewhere pricey and romantic in Manhattan. But it was too late for that. So while she wasn’t the cookie-baking type she could, as a sort of penance, make her husband an apple pie for his birthday dinner here at home.
Every fall, Guy gathered apples from their own orchard and stored them in a dilapidated but dry fallout shelter at the bottom of the garden. The shelter, barely visible from the house, had been built sixty or seventy years ago by Guy’s eccentric grandfather, Edward McKenzie. Neighbors had jokingly called it ‘McKenzie’s Mausoleum.’ It was dark and cold down there, and there were spiders, and so Midge hardly ever went there, preferring to get her husband to bring apples up to the house whenever she needed them.
But today, partly motivated by guilt, she dressed quickly and slipped on her raincoat again, took a basket and a powerful flashlight, and headed down the path to the shelter beyond the wet, wind-torn hemlocks and maples. She realized along the way that she was whistling between her teeth, something she did as a little girl, but now only when she was apprehensive or uneasy. She turned on the flashlight as she descended the five brick steps, and the steel door opened easily on well-oiled hinges. Before her, under a low, vaulted concrete roof, was a narrow walk space with, on either side and at the far end of the little chamber, double-tiered bunks covered with wire mesh, whose mattresses had rotted and been removed decades ago. Now, on their horizontal wire racks, neatly laid out so none of them touched each other, were rows and rows of apples; red and orange and yellow eating apples, and oversized green cookers, perfect for pies.
So intent was Midge on finding the most succulent apples that she barely noticed the wind had become even more violent in the garden outside, and it was only when a gust caught the door and slammed it shut behind her that she let out a little cry. She turned, walking back to the doorway, her hand suddenly trembling, and focused her flashlight on the door. At first she didn’t register that there was no door knob on this side, only a little black hole in the gray steel panel that must moments ago have held some sort of shaft on which a knob would normally fit. Wasn’t that how they worked? On her knees she scrabbled on the concrete floor for the missing knob, but found nothing.
Back in the warm kitchen the answering machine clicked on. “We can’t come to the phone right now . . .” Midge’s voice. Then another. A man this time.
“Midge Honey, it’s me. Guy . . . you there?”
There was a pause while he waited for her to pick up.
“I guess you’re out. Look, Midgie, bad news. I’ve got to go away for a while . . . ten days, or even a bit longer. We’ve decided to bring Charles Hudson’s second book out four months earlier than we planned. We need to hit the stores with it while his first blockbuster’s still in everyone’s minds. Anyway, Charles wants me go to his place in Vancouver and edit the book with him. I’m going late this afternoon. He won’t deal with anyone else. Says he wants the organ-grinder, not the monkey. Cheeky bastard. I’m flattered, but it’s a pain in the butt; there’s too much going on here in New York.”
Guy paused for breath. “Hey, things are really buzzing here. I’ll call later. Love you.”
Back in the apple store, Midge noticed that the flashlight batteries were fading, and in a minute or two the light was no more than a watery yellow glow. Still on her knees, she groped in shallow space between the rough concrete floor and the lower bunk. She simply had to find that doorknob. The light was even weaker now, but she let out a hysterical laugh as her hand closed over something small and round. She had it! Dragging it out from under the bunk she examined the object in the last of the light. A child’s ball, that must have lain there for nine or ten years. With a frustrated whine she hurled the ball back into the shadows.
By now the flashlight was dead, and still on her knees in the blackness Midge began to cry, her body shaking, partly with fear, but also because of the cold in this dark underground place. Where was that doorknob? Almost certainly it was farther into that narrow space under the bunk than she could reach? She rose to her feet and, with the hesitancy of a child waking in a dark, strange room, groped around her until, in a corner, she knocked something over. An old garden hoe. She poked its handle under the bunk, waving it to sweep out any other object that might be lying there, but there was nothing. Midge turned slowly and repeated the sweep under the other bunk, finding only the dried-up fur and little bones of some long-dead animal.
Tears streamed down her face as she crouched on the bottom bunk. Maybe there hadn’t been any doorknob for years. Guy probably knew this, and had learned how to open the door from outside without pulling out the rod that would normally have had a knob at each end of it. He’d never had any reason to open or close the door from the inside, so had never got around to mending it.
Unable to see her watch, she had no idea what the time was, but guessed it was not much later than nine o’clock. The day had hardly started. It would be nine or ten hours before Guy came home. And how much longer would it be before he realized she was down here?
For an hour or two, to keep warm, she paced the little walkway between the bunks. Only a while ago she’d been in her comfortable kitchen. She’d had another day ahead in which to do as she pleased. She could have visited friends. She could have taken the train, lunched with a girlfriend in Manhattan, and spent the afternoon at that new show at the Met.
Later, much later, it seemed, Midge kneeled on the floor and peered through the crack under the closed door. Was this snow blowing under the door? She slipped her fingers into its cold wetness and shivered. Why hadn’t she got around to zipping the winter lining into her raincoat?
And all this was happening on Guy’s birthday. For the first time she wondered how her husband had felt when she hadn’t given him a special hug on his birthday, or even a card. Well, she had bought him a gift, but she hadn’t even wrapped it when they’d got up this morning.
What a pig she could be to Guy sometimes. They always did what she wanted to do. Went where she wanted to go. They drove up to her parents’ place at Martha’s Vineyard for Thanksgiving, or Christmas. They’d only flown to Florida to see Guy’s parents in Florida three times in the past ten years, because Midge always complained that she hated Florida. When Guy found her down here tonight, and they were back together in their comfortable routine, she swore she’d do something about all this. It was the least she owed him. Why hadn’t this occurred to her before? She sat down on the lower bunk, cupping her face in her hands. She was surprised, when she thought about it, that Guy had put up with her indifference, her coolness. Yet he was still around after nineteen years with her. He was special, and deserved better.
With his papers in one briefcase, and his laptop in another, Guy threaded his way across the concourse at Grand Central and just caught the 2:46 train. He didn’t have a lot of time. If the train arrived on schedule at 3:45 he’d have about fifteen minutes at home to pack his bags and make his peace with Midge before the car arrived to take him to the airport.
A light snow fell as he hurried along the station platform to the exit. The car slithered on the bends in the narrow roads outside the town. When he reached home, Midge’s Toyota was in the drive. Good, he hadn’t missed her. Inside the front door he called her name, but there was no answer. The lights were on in the kitchen, and the radio, its volume turned up, played a piano sonata.
In the hallway Guy shouted upstairs. “Midge. You up there?”
There was still no answer. It wasn’t a mystery, he assured himself. She’d probably slipped out with some visiting pal on an errand. Maybe they’d made a quick trip together in the friend’s car to the market. No problem. Upstairs he packed his washing gear and a few changes of casual clothes. Nothing fancy. He and old Charlie Hudson weren’t likely to be dining-out in style. If past experience was anything to go by they’d be working late every night on a diet of take-out Tex-Mex and Chinese. In the bathroom he took a piece of soap and drew a heart on the mirror. Under it he wrote Goodbye, XX.
He was ready to go, but there was still no sign of Midge. The car had arrived, a sleek black Mercedes, driven by a man in a uniform cap, who took Guy’s bags and put them in the trunk.
“Damn!” Guy said under his breath as he climbed into the back seat. He’d forgotten to buy a bottle of Charlie’s favorite single malt Scotch at that liquor store on Lexington Avenue. You couldn’t get the stuff anywhere else. Oh well. He’d probably find something almost as good at the airport.
“Let’s go,” he told the driver.
But then an idea occurred to him just as the car passed through the iron gates.
“Hold on a second.” he said.
OK, he may have forgotten that special bottle of Scotch for his favorite author and client, but suddenly he knew what he could do. Wasn’t Charlie always bragging about the apples in his garden, and how much bigger, juicer and sweeter they were in British Columbia than in New York State?
Well, he’d show the old devil what real apples looked and tasted like. Whistling cheerfully to himself, he pushed open the car door. His feet slithered in the snow as he ran down the side of the house and along the garden path to the derelict bomb shelter behind the hemlocks and maples.