The Right Thing

By Malin Elfgren 

The youngest of six children, Miss Baxter had seen all her siblings married by the time she was twenty-five, and all but one buried by the time she turned seventy-five. One week after her seventy-fifth birthday, on a Tuesday, the news reached her that her only remaining sister had died. Miss Baxter was sitting in the arm-chair next to the telephone table, not because she expected anyone to call – it was Tuesday, after all – but because it was the most comfortable chair in the cottage, facing the southwest window, which overlooked the only part of her garden still in bloom this late in September. Her niece had gotten her a massage cushion for her birthday and installed it in this particular chair, so now Miss Baxter was watching the rain drops fall on her Westerland roses, their apricot petals glowing like sunset in the drizzle, as the vibrations from the chair hummed soothingly against her back, climbing from the small of it to the nape of her neck and then back again. She had drifted into a soft sleep when the shrill sound of the telephone pulled her awake. For a few seconds she didn't know where she was or if she was twenty or seventy or a hundred years old. Then she recognized the faint floral pattern on the wallpaper and identified the sound that had awoken her. She picked up the phone. “Hello, this is Miss Baxter.” 

On the other end of the line was Eli. ”Did I wake you?” he inquired. 

“No,” she said, clearing her voice. “No, I was just resting.” When he didn't immediately say anything to this she continued: ”I walked into the village this morning. Before the rain came. Now I'm trying that massage thing Claire gave me.” 

He didn't comment on this as he usually would have, asking perhaps what mischief she'd been up to in the village, or if she'd met any interesting people, or how the massage was making her feel. He just breathed into the receiver – slow, heavy breathing. Miss Baxter let her eyelids fall and listened for a while. 

Eventually he spoke. “Martha passed away this morning.” 

Miss Baxter knew there were certain feelings that were supposed to overwhelm her upon hearing those words: paralyzing grief, stubborn disbelief, nostalgia, perhaps. But instead, it was another feeling, a feeling she couldn't identify, that began to flutter inside her chest. She stood up from the chair and started twirling the curly phone cord around her left index finger, staring intently at a yellow spot on the wall which she had never noticed before. Why had she never noticed it before? It was beautiful, almost in the shape of a butterfly. She could hear Eli saying her name on the other end of the line. 

“I'm here,” she said. 

“Are you all right?” His voice was low. 

“Yes. Well, I'm shocked, obviously. What happened?”

“They think it was a stroke. She just fell in the middle of a step and then she was gone.” 

Miss Baxter sat down again. “And how do you feel?” she asked, and remembered another time – an ancient time – when she had asked the same question, and how she had dreaded the answer. 

He hesitated. “It's a shock, like you said. I always thought I would be the first one to go, you know?” 

Miss Baxter did not know. She had never married. When someone asked her why, which people had a habit of doing, she would give one of several explanations. If the person who asked did so with the smugness of one who thinks they have been luckier than you in life, or smarter than you in their choices, Miss Baxter would usually point out the correlation she had found between marriage and death. While this was true – she did see a much higher death rate among her married acquaintances, and she studied the obituaries in the paper religiously – it would never have stopped her from marrying, had she been asked by the right person. This fact, however, she kept to herself. 

If the person inquiring about the reasons for her marital status seemed to do so out of curiosity rather than a sense of superiority, she might tell them about the man who had once courted her in her late twenties, but who had unfortunately died from a serious case of pneumonia in the early stages of their acquaintance. While this story, too, was unfortunately true, Miss Baxter had never felt any deeper attachment to him and would not have married him had he lived long enough to ask. 

Sometimes, when she had a bit too much to drink and someone happened to be around to ask, she would admit to one of her life's smaller regrets – her first name. She had always resented it, and the thought of hearing it spoken out loud in church on her wedding day, in front of everyone she knew, was enough to keep her from fantasizing about getting married. “Why didn't you ever just change your name?” her nephew's daughter had once asked in astonishment, such an act being nothing of consequence to her generation. But much as Miss Baxter disliked her name, it was the name her parents had chosen for her, and to change it out of vanity would have felt like disrespecting their memory. Besides, had the love of her life stood opposite her in front of the priest, she didn't think she would have cared had her name been Lucifer. 

As such an occasion had never come to pass, she had remained Miss Baxter. And as an unmarried middle school teacher, she had quite naturally come to be called just that. Even though a few people knew her first name – her family, the mail man, her doctor – it was rare that anyone ever used it in speech or thought of her as anything other than Miss Baxter, or – in the case of her family – simply “B,” “little sis,” or “Auntie B.”

 

When Miss Baxter hung up the phone after receiving the news from Eli, she went into the kitchen. There she stood by the counter for several minutes, uncertain what to do next. Eventually she took out the eighteen year-old Glenlivet that Eli and Martha had given her for her birthday and poured the golden liquid into one of her two remaining crystal glasses. She raised the glass and frowned as she took the first deep gulp. She usually drank carefully, but this was not a day for sipping. The whiskey burnt her throat and then trickled warmly through her chest into her abdomen, making her limbs soften and her heart slowly start to thaw. She looked out the small kitchen window, half expecting the sun to break through the clouds – maybe even a rainbow – but it was still raining steadily. 

She went into the living room again and started pacing the small space, whiskey glass still in hand. She picked a book from the shelf, then instantly put it back again. She turned on the radio, but couldn't focus long enough to make any sense of the program that was on, so she turned it off. Eventually she stopped in front of the dressing-table mirror in the corner. She slumped down on the chair and looked at her own reflection. It had been many years since she’d lingered in front of the mirror to pay any close attention to her appearance beyond the daily hair-combing and the occasional hair-pinning. Now she felt a sudden urge to put on make-up. Her cheeks were already flushed and her eyes shiny, as if she had just returned from a brisk walk. She dug out her old make-up box from the inner regions of the drawer and dusted off its lid with the back of her hand. The contents still looked intact. She applied a little bit of eye-shadow, the shimmery green that Martha had passed down to her when she thought it had gone out of fashion and with which Miss Baxter had gotten many a surprised compliment for her big eyes. Then she put on mascara. The substance had dried out almost completely, but she managed to get what little goo was left onto her eyelashes. Finally, she applied the coral lipstick she had bought at Fortnum & Mason that time she had accompanied Eli and the children to London after Martha had fallen ill. She studied the result with some satisfaction then sighed and asked her dolled-up reflection, “What do I do now?” 

After retirement, Miss Baxter had lived a quiet life on the outskirts of the little village where she was born. Not much had changed in the village since she was a child. People had come and gone, streets and buildings and communications had been modernized, of course, but the peaceful atmosphere had remained, and she still felt at home. She usually had plenty of things to occupy herself with: she took walks into the village, where there were always at least five people who stopped to talk to her; she had tea or lunch with friends, although they had grown scarcer over the last couple of years; she did crossword puzzles and regular puzzles; and she read. There were times, however, when she wasn't in the mood for reading, when the weather was too dreary for walking, and when none of her friends were available. Then she would sit in her favorite chair, let her eyes wander with the raindrops making their way down the glass, or the snowflakes settling onto her windowsill, and surrender herself to memories. They came to her effortlessly, and she would let them wash over and through her, filling her with warmth, and sometimes stinging her with grief. She had plenty of memories that were pleasant to linger over, but there was one of which she was especially fond, and which she would always save for last. 

When she arrived there, on her twenty-fifth birthday – the memory she still held closest to her heart – she would close her eyes to the world, and she was lying on the bed in her first apartment once again. It was a narrow bed in a small studio on top of the school, where she had just started her first job. He was lying next to her, facing her, heat radiating through his thin shirt onto her chest, making her heart beat faster. She felt his hands tentatively touching her back over the blouse she had worn that evening just because she knew he liked it. She met his eyes searching hers, maybe for an answer to what on earth they were doing; then his mouth was dangerously close to hers – but oh, they couldn't! She felt his stubble grazing her cheek, moving slowly over her face, his full lips brushing against the corner of her mouth, his breath in her mouth if she just opened it a little. She could feel his scent, his scent which made the hairs on her whole body stand on end, which could paralyze her in the middle of a step or a sentence. She had never before – and never again – wanted anything so much as she wanted to feel the weight of his body upon hers that night, and his lips on her lips. But it was not the right thing to do, and Miss Baxter had been raised to do the right thing. 

When she had sucked all the sweetness out of this memory and only the bitter aftertaste remained, she usually sat still in her chair until it turned so dark outside that she had to get up to turn on some lights. She found herself incapable of moving, incapable – fifty years later – of shaking the feeling of belonging and wanting. 

The day of Martha's funeral the sky was leaden, and rain was pouring down, making the gravel of the churchyard look almost black. It was similar to the weather on that same day fifty years ago, Miss Baxter thought, that day three weeks after her birthday, when she had been planning to meet Martha and Eli for a drink at the local pub. Martha had decided last minute to stay at home. She thought it was too cold and wet to go outdoors. So Miss Baxter found herself alone with Eli. The evening had gotten late, but they lingered at their table, fingers wrapped around warm mugs, the rain hitting the windows like bullets. They were chatting and laughing as usual, but the silences that sometimes fell weren't comfortable like they usually were; they were nervously vibrating with that one thing they should talk about but didn't. When the rain finally ceased, they had ventured outside under the dark sky and then he very slowly walked her home. He had been more quiet than usual and they walked in silence, when he suddenly said, “I always feel like I can tell you anything.” Her heartbeat quickened at the words. This was the confession she had been waiting for. 

“Of course you can.” 

He looked at her for a few seconds, and there was a miserable, desperate look in his eyes – like he was drowning and she was a lifeboat, being pulled further and further away by the waves. Then he blurted out against the wind, “Martha is ten weeks pregnant.” 

It had been like throwing ice water over glowing coals. The fluttering in her heart stopped abruptly and several seconds went by before she could say anything. 

“And how do you feel?” 

Precisely fifty years had passed and here she was at Martha's funeral, standing under an umbrella at the edge of the small crowd. She could see Eli standing close to the church entrance, half-covered by the little roof protruding from the wall, greeting neighbors and friends and accepting condolences. His stature put him  above the others despite his eighty years, and she watched him as he turned his head and searched the crowd. He squinted against the rain, and when he spotted her he bowed his head to the people next to him and was in front of her in five long strides. She let her umbrella slip backwards, the metal cold against her neck in the gap between coat and scarf. He took both her hands in his, his eyes even bluer than usual in the cold October light. 

“Bertha,” he said, and smiled sadly, “dearest Bertha.” 

She couldn't help herself. She beamed up at him. It was surely not the right thing to do at her sister's funeral, but he’d always had that effect on her. Whenever he fixed those lively eyes on her, she had to grin. Neither of them moved for a long while. They were ancient statues being slowly washed clean by the rain. What finally broke the spell was the priest's hand on Eli's shoulder. 

“We should start,” he said gently, and gestured towards the entrance, where the crowd was collectively folding umbrellas and ducking into the shelter of the porch. Eli nodded, took Bertha's arm, and together they walked into the church.