The Couple In Economy
The affair had begun in late summer, as most seem to do, the leaves flooding the grasses and the sun dimming in heat and hours. She was young and unextraordinary, he was wealthy and bored of his wife. And so it has been, is, and will be in the lives of thousands of lovers yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
And yet, that morning, something felt strange to Boston’s commuters about this particular extramarital liaison.
June Carmick was curiously plain, in that way which makes one peer closer over the folded pages of a morning newspaper.
She had an unusually prominent jaw, an ugly, bulbous quality to her nose and a hairline that seemed to start too far up on her head. Still, her complexion was good, one supposed, unspoilt by cosmetics or scrubbing, and her eyes had a greenish light to them that could almost be attractive when she spoke with vigour about her latest paperback or purse.
A dull creature, but not quite ugly enough or stupid enough to be worthy of comment. Perhaps that made it worse. In the shudder of carriages, as she locked hands with the doting, handsome man who grinned down on her, you could almost feel the loud, echoing chorus of bemused questions from the travellers.
The man accompanying her was a catch, but a married one. Handsome, late fifties, sprawling in a way which suggested money was not the reason he was travelling with her in economy class. No, he’d just come back from the suburbs with her, some unimpressive tenement block no doubt with peeling wallpaper, hard mattresses and obnoxiously loud cats. But he had stared at her, in the low swinging light of the carriage before the sun rose, like she was more beautiful than anyone in the world.
She worked in the typing pool, he was a partner. Isn’t that the way most of these stories start? They were discreet, her eagerly so in the desire to keep him, and him perhaps more so in the desire to keep the liaisons from his formidable socialite wife. Who knows how it began, this strange joining of an unextraordinary woman with an extraordinary man? Perhaps he grabbed her hand one day in an elevator and asked her to join him for coffee as the September rain wept against the cafeteria windows. Or maybe he wrote three words on the back of a memo with a number and left it on her desk as she chewed on a pencil, tasting the wet graphite and paint in her mouth. It didn’t matter, and it is lost to history. The deed was done, and they were set.
“You need to kill my wife,” he had said to her once, staring up at the bulb that flickered hard against the yellowing paper. She lay flat on her back, silent, wondering if he was joking. “If you kill Susan, we could keep everything. I could marry you.” The thought seemed to form in his mouth before his mind had fully formed the plan. “You have no motive, no connection to her. It would look like an overdose if you did it right.”
She had swallowed hard, turning to watch the slow crease of his eyes that sprang like tree roots from his temples when he was thinking. “Please, Robert, no,” she had said, hoping the words were less weak than she felt. “I’m not a killer.”
But it was useless, and he kissed and pleaded so fiercely that he had barely placed the pills in her hand before she had nodded an unspoken promise. Six small grey pills with a short groove down the middle that, when ground with a pestle, looked white, like sucralose. She didn’t ask what they were, or why. Just whether to ring the front bell of the great whitewashed house at the top of the hill, or ask for the staff to let her in from the kitchens.
“Oh no,” Robert had said, lighting a cigarette with a magnificent flourish of a lighter in one hand. “You must have tea with her. Susan would never accept a gift from a stranger without meeting them. Bad etiquette, June dear.”
“Just put the powder in the sugar bowl when she goes to show you a photo album or something. Say you don’t take it. Say you’re a historian of homes in Massachusetts or something. She’ll like that. Always enjoyed the glamour of academic attention, Susan.”
He said the words like she was already dead.
“How can you be so cold with her? Didn’t you ever love her?”
He laughed, the performative laugh of a man bred for dinner parties and polo. “Darling, in my circles, a marriage is about a merger at best and avoiding a bastard at worst. With Susan, it was about capital and daddy’s money. No one,” he finished, sounding rehearsed, “Ever loved Susan Jones-Vanderst.”
She let silence break a few words more from him.
“She’s cold, my dear June. Very cold.”
And with that, he turned back to her on the bare white sheets, cigarette in mouth, as if they had discussed whether to buy croissants on the way to the station that Thursday.
June stood on the steps of the Vanderst home with the powder and a button that had come off her lapel. Fall had well and truly come, the grey slate roof thick with falling ochre and vermillion. The wait after the doorbell was unbearably long, leaving her aware of her limbs, her feet, the fact she still had the button in her right hand when she should shake a welcoming housekeeper’s in a matter of moments. To her surprise, Susan opened the door herself, smiling unconcernedly down at the plain young woman before her. She was lean, blonde, tall.
“Mrs Vanderst?” June asked, taken aback. This wasn’t what she had practised for. She had imagined some unpleasantly large woman with hair rolled unfashionably in a style from twenty years ago, thin mouthed and choked with pearls.
“Yes, is there something I can help you with? Are you from the college?”
“No,” June started, then stopped to smile. “I’m a historian. Just graduated. In- in architecture from the late deco period.” Susan smiled down at her, confused.
“My dear, that’s absolutely wonderful, but this residence is from the 1830s. Surely you knew that.”
“Of course,” June said. “That’s just my speciality. I just came to say I adore your home and I’d love to talk to you about the heritage behind it if you were aware of it at all?”
Susan’s lips thinned a little. “It belonged to my husband’s side of the family. But-” she smiled again, winningly. “I’d be delighted to show you some old albums, if that would be helpful. Some photographs date back to the 1890s, you know.”
Susan showed her through to a large drawing room in dark cherry wood, covered in an array of white doilies and lace that made it look like a sudden snowstorm had hit through an open window. A faceless woman brought in the tea, the sugar, the milk, and left before Jane could respond with her thanks. Susan chattered on, half enjoying the position of lecturer, her thinning blonde hair falling neatly around what would once have been a beautiful face.
As she turned to place the album back on the cabinet, June leant forward and poured the powder from the paper straight into her tea, falling back into her chair with her hands cast deep into her pockets, crunching the envelope in her fist. The button sprang from her pocket, rolling to the floor conspicuously, and she hurried to get it on her knee. She glanced up at Susan, who was now sitting primly with wide, blue eyes and an expression that implied she was running out of things to say. June picked up her saucer and muttered a quick thank you.
Susan rose her eyebrows at her, drinking deeply from her tea. Soon, June thought. Soon, in a few hours, Robert would be free to marry her. Susan would feel tired, take to her bed. And she wouldn’t wake up. It would be fine. It was as they planned.
“You know, I’m so glad you came,” Susan said warmly. “I get so lonely up here in the house, on my own.” June felt a sudden rush of guilt, hiding her face behind another sip. “My husband can be so-” Susan paused. “Busy, sometimes. But I suppose he works hard so that we can have all this, doesn’t he?”
June set down her cup with a trembling hand. “Susan,” she said, suddenly unable to move. “Susan I’ve done something awful. You need to call the doctor right now.” Susan smiled at her, wiping a fallen drop of tea from the immaculate table.
“What do you mean, darling?”
“I put something in your tea. I’m sorry. Robert told me to, I shouldn’t have. Please forgive me. You need to call a doctor, now.”
Susan laughed. “No you didn’t, my dear.” She leant back, playing with a cuticle. “You put something in your tea. I moved the cups. Silly girl.”
“What?” June blinked, suddenly aware of the white tinge to the edge of her cup.”
“You should know, dear,” Susan said, watching her with hard, cold eyes. “That Robert is screwing some pretty little thing in reception. He sent you to get rid of me so he could be with her. Say you were mad with jealousy when he rejected you. I heard him talking to her about it on the phone.” She rose to her feet, folding her hands neatly in her lap. June felt suddenly tired, her legs weak.
“Oh my dear,” Susan sighed, almost sorrowfully. “I used to think he loved me too, once.”