The 26 Letters
Fergus McCarlane had always drunk. In fact, that’s how she had met him. He’d been slumped over the bar in a linen suit, whisky in hand, his tongue dripping with Chaucer and a smug middle class assurance she’d come to loathe. A college genius at twenty two, and he knew it. By fifty one, he’d become insufferable.
He’d drank more since he met her, of course. There had always been other women throughout their marriage, various red headed students to whom he would write fawning declarations of courtly love, that milk-faced girl with the short cropped hair who reminded him of a boy, all dismissed when he had sapped them dry of some pedestalled purity. He’d left love letters to them stained with circles of brandy and liquor on the dressers, and she’d neatly fold them away in his drawer. At first, their names had stung in her flesh like parasites, humiliating and crisp with jealousy. Then numbness. Now it didn’t matter at all. There was only a cool relief that he was raging and sour to someone else that evening, leaving her alone to knit as the roses bloomed in the living room wallpaper and the clock strummed eleven.
But this woman was different. Older, at least. Her photograph in his breast pocket, creased with kisses and drunken fists, suggested late twenties. Thirty, even. An intelligent face, an educated face. There was a sharpness to her grin as she lit a cigarette in a blue gown, her hair thick with hairspray. She was plump, too, a roundness to her jaw that Fergus disliked in women. But for whatever reason, this woman had snared him. He spent every evening with her after lectures, slurring drunkenly down the phone to her in impassioned half whispers. He never said her name. She was dearest, darling, angel, sweetheart, love, honey, kitten. The initials on the back of the photograph were W.M. She had silently slipped the photograph back into his washed suit and never said a word. A good wife, her mother had once said, knows what not to see.
Fergus was drunk when it had happened. The woman had called, just after ten, and he had stumbled to the phone with a pace that confirmed his adultery. “Darling,” he had said, pouring himself a glass. “Oh darling girl, how I’ve missed you.” She had sat and listened, hoping to hear her rival’s name. Wilhelmina? Wendy? Wilma-
He’d choked, then, and there was the sound of the phone hitting the floor. Then his body. Perhaps she should have gone to help him. Perhaps she could have made his last seconds a little more comfortable. But she just sat there, and listened. He gasped, his lungs tightening to a death rattle. He was thrashing about, his feet hitting the dresser, every muscle contracting. Then a slow grating exhalation. Then silence. After ten minutes, she put down her knitting and took the receiver from his hand, and called the police.
Professor Fergus McCarlane (Cantab,), Early Modern English Literature, was dead. A stroke, 51. He hadn’t left her anything. A Ms W.M. had taken possession of his papers following his untimely demise, it was understood, while his brother would inherit the rectory and the savings. Mrs McCarlane had nodded primly at the solicitor on hearing this, and folded the document into her purse. Very well, she thought, quietly. So be it.
The number 26 bus back from Oxford to Summertown tasted of tobacco and liquorice. She had got on and watched the late April rain blur into a dreary sunshine from the top deck, and opened her notebook. Smiling, she smoothed the crease and began to write.
My husband, the late Professor Fergus McCarlane, to whom some of you will no doubt know as the author of the Lord Mandeville series-
…was not, perhaps, the charming, affable man you knew on the wireless. I should not wish to speak ill of the dead, but I feel I now must come forward if not for my own sanity, but for the many women he preyed on throughout his tenure at Balliol College.
Indeed, my late husband was a sexual sadist and a wicked man who enjoyed the company of-
What was the most awful thing she could think of? Her mind raced. What would people believe, or if not believe, talk so scandalously of that it passed into history as fact?
…Of very young women, who he would procure from a Mrs W.M., photograph enclosed. He would often stay late into the night to, as he would say, ‘take visits from nymphs’ and this madam would supply these children of twelve or thirteen to him-
The conductor took her ticket, and Mrs McCarlane smiled. She folded the paper into a brown envelope and sent it to The Times with the evening post. It would be there in London, she reckoned, by tomorrow lunchtime. So it would be in the paper, no doubt, by Wednesday. If she couldn’t have him in life, she would destroy him in death.
The story came out on the front page, as it happened, that Thursday. Fergus had been altered to have great, nosferatuesque shadows under his eyes, the photograph unflatteringly featuring him glaring down his nose pompously to a young reporter. She had just smiled, folding the paper under her arm and leaving the newsagents with her collar up against the early rain. A woman in a burgundy coat stopped her, her plump face heavily powdered to reveal tired, frightened eyes.
“Mrs McCarlane?” the woman said, gripping her shoulder tightly. “I’m W.M.”
She stared at her, unable to find the words in her mouth after so long.
“I think there’s been a terrible misunderstanding. I’m not having an affair with your husband. Whatever you think I did to deserve this dreadful lie, please listen-”
Mrs McCarlane pulled away, her mouth dry with shock.
“I’m not Fergus’s lover. I’m his daughter. Winifred McCarlane.”