Shells by Lorna Peplow

I married Gerry in April 1947. His mother wore diamonds that pricked through the gloom of the nave. My mother and my sister Irene shared a lipstick, pinched each other’s cheeks, watched me at the altar with their trembling eyes. I laughed beneath my veil. Later, we had sandwiches at The White Lion, and a real cake that smeared icing and fruit on the knife, and I kissed the kitchen boy under the back stairs while everyone else was dancing, my hand on his hip, breathing in the scent of sherry. I was eighteen.

Gerry had a face like a sloths: trusting smile, mild eyes. We honeymooned in St Ives, where I made love to a fisherman behind the harbour wall. His skin tasted salty, and he tugged at my chignon until my hair hung round my neck. Afterwards, I picked up a little pink shell on the beach, and when I got back to the hotel I gave it to Gerry.

“Found this on my walk, darling. I brought it back for you.”

We lived in a house by the coast, with gleaming mahogany banisters and a library full of leather-bound books. Gerry would fall asleep each night holding my hand, and I would lie awake plotting to get the milkman alone again, or wondering if the chap over the road with the smart suits would take kindly to a visitor. I liked men with jaws that clicked beneath their cheeks, men with slow walks, with hands in pockets, with sideways glances. After each new conquest, I brought home a shell for Gerry. He would kiss me, tell me “You’re so sweet and funny,” and put it on the mantelpiece in his study. Soon, they spilled over onto the bookshelf, so that he worked encircled by rows of calcium carbonate in white and pink and peach. The shells’ backs were spiky, but inside they were smooth and dark like flesh.

Irene scolded me.

“It’s disgusting,” she said. “What would Dad say?”

Dad had been dead three years. There was no question of what he’d say. Like Gerry, he’d never know.

“The dead see everything,” said Irene, fingering her silver cross. “You know everything, once you’re dead. It all gets revealed.”

I laughed. I pasted some of the shells onto a picture frame and used it for a photograph of Gerry in his study: sitting behind his desk, sloth-smiling at the camera, the frames of his glasses making big Os around his eyes. “You’re so creative,” he said when he saw it. “How did someone like me end up with such a wonderful wife?”

I gave birth to twins: a boy and a girl, both blond and pale with eyes the colour of algae.

“Must come from your side of the family,” Gerry said, letting his daughter tug at his own black hair. “None of us Drewes have such good looks, that’s for sure.”

I passed the boy to him and closed my eyes. Benny from the Post Office had blond hair.

The years fell like a line of dominoes, one tipping into the next. The shells came thick and fast, and then they waned. I broke my leg, slipping on Rupert’s tin soldiers, and spent a month on the chaise-longue, my waist thickening and the magazines piling up on the floor. Gerry sat for hours each day, reading to me. He brought me flowers and chocolates and stroked my greasy hair, and I fell asleep holding his hand, breathing in his peppermint smell.

I learnt that his favourite cake was lemon drizzle, and I baked it for him at the weekends. Watching him eat it, his grateful eyes upon me, gave me the feeling of sliding into a hot bath: my muscles relaxed, my breathing slowed. I stopped going out for walks. I came to know his body, the way his pulse tapped in his neck while he slept, the shape his head left on the pillow. Our children grew up, and I was glad when Rupert lost his blond hair, and when Rowena started using tanning lotion.

I changed the subject when any of our guests commented on the shells. I neglected to dust them. Once, I tried to throw them away, but Gerry stopped me.

“What are you doing, poppet?” he asked. “I love these shells. You used to give me them all the time, don’t you remember? In our early years. They make me feel safe.”

I hadn’t given him a shell for decades. His smile was wrinkled now, his skin soft like the rubber of a deflated balloon, but he still kissed me every morning when I woke, and went to sleep holding my hand. He loved stained glass, and we had the window in our bedroom done up in reds and blues and yellows. When I woke on sunny mornings, the room would be running with colour, the quilt and dressing-table and wardrobe turned to jewels, the man beside me smudged with gold.

Gerry’s body shrank like an old mushroom. He was moved, on our GP’s advice, to a nursing home, and I visited him every day and read to him, and he smiled and patted my hand and told me I was wonderful, his wonderful wife, though he couldn’t remember which year it was or what he’d had for lunch. I put all the shells in a rubbish bag and stuffed them in the loft. I took down the framed picture of young Gerry in his study and put it face-down in a desk drawer; in its place, I hung a photograph of the two of us, taken in a National Trust garden on our golden wedding anniversary.

My sister Irene died. I was given her silver cross, and I kept it on my bedside table. For many years now, I had sent her increasingly extravagant gifts for birthdays and Christmases, but had also kept her away, declined her invitations, not wanting to look her in the eyes, not wanting her to talk to Gerry. One night, I dreamt of her wearing the cross, and I woke with a kick, my little toe colliding with the bedpost. It was five in the morning. The streetlamp outside shone through the stained glass window, but there were no blues or reds or golds. The glass was black, and it stained the bedroom walls as dark as rust. The pillow beside mine smelled of peppermint.

A serpentine thing uncoiled in my stomach. I got out of bed and padded out onto the landing, my hands following the wall. Something sharp stuck in my foot. Flicking on the light, I saw that it was a fragment of shell, and that it had drawn blood. A fragment of shell: white, chalky, cold beneath my fingers. I knew then. I called a taxi, and they had already discovered his body by the time I reached the nursing home – “It would have been very peaceful,” the matron told me. “In his sleep, not a care in the world. He loved you so much, you know.”

I was sick in the taxi home. The driver told me not to worry, squeezed my shoulder sympathetically. He was a young man, with a jaw that clicked beneath his cheeks. I wanted to shake him, to tell him “Don’t ever—”, but he wouldn’t have understood. He asked if I wanted him to call my children; I said no.

The peppermint smell had permeated the whole house. I stood in the hallway, turning the keys in my hand. It was dim – a grey morning – and the hallway had turned sepia. On the desk, a shell stamped jagged shadows across the telephone and the notepad. It hadn’t been there yesterday. I opened the top drawer: the shell picture-frame lay inside, face down. I put my hands on it, but I couldn’t turn it over. The dream that I’d woken from came back to me: Irene’s eyes on mine, the cross between her fingers, and her words – the words she’d said to me, all those years ago.

Tears burnt my eyes like acid. I couldn’t turn over the photo, would never turn it over again, because I knew that if I did, my Gerry would stare up at me, his smile gone, his eyes wide with horror, seeing the kitchen boy and the fisherman and our blond children, and the shells behind him on the study mantelpiece would be gleaming white, crowding in on him.

“The dead see everything,” I said aloud to the silenced house. “You know everything, once you’re dead. It all gets revealed.”

Lorna Peplow is a writer whose work has been published in The Literateur, The Elizabeth Bowen Review, and Exclamat!on – all under her maiden name of Wilkinson. She has a Master’s degree (Distinction) in Creative Writing and a PhD in English, both from the University of Exeter, and lives and works in Oxfordshire.

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