The letter (Part I)
She’d burnt the roast. And now the kitchen smelled all smoky.
Fishing a fork out of the top drawer, Dianne poked at the black bird: completely impenetrable and useless. She threw the fork into the nearby sink and went to the wine cabinet in the next room. She crouched down to peer inside it, straining to see if that bottle of … yes, it was still there, right at the back where she had hidden it behind the metal ice bucket.
Having fished out the bottle, she fetched a sizeable wineglass, sat herself down at the counter, and engaged with the task at hand. The fact that it was only 4pm and she hadn’t had anything to eat for hours – she embraced the small rebellion. She took a couple of sips and then eyed the room, holding the rim of the glass from above and absent-mindedly swilling the contents around, wondering what Samuel would say when he saw the singed roast. She already knew she would not be in the mood for even jokey criticism. She glanced at the door of the fridge, where she knew the takeout menu was pinned under a magnet of the Sistine Chapel. Yup, they would be having pizza tonight. Pizza cooked by someone else.
Dianne heard the intercom buzz, followed almost immediately by the faint footsteps of Ellie, scuffling along from the far end of the long, tiled corridor. Dianne knew Ellie’s desire for social interaction with the outside world was a greater motivator than any work ethic could ever be. Ellie was, however, not the first to respond. Desmond, the long-time gardener, had been told to trim the hedge that hides the property’s fence and he must have spotted the visitor, because even from inside the house Dianne could hear him talking to whomever it was.
Taking a look out the window, Dianne saw Desmond standing by the large Edwardian gates talking with a Direct Services deliveryman. Those ridiculous gates, she thought. The pretension of their home started before one even reached the house itself. She missed the smart little semi where they’d first lived.
Desmond always spoke loudly. He was somewhat deaf, so it was understandable and, she felt, somewhat endearing that he always shouted what he said. Much of the time Desmond and her just worked with their own made-up sign language when they needed to communicate because neither spoke the other’s language beyond the very basics, and certainly not enough to talk about things like getting the leaves out of the pool. Dianne would do exaggerated pantomimes for what she wanted and when the light of recognition would come over his face they’d exchange the self-mocking smile of people who know they have engaged in a rather ridiculous bit of communication. He would then amble off and nine times out of ten do the right thing.
The delivery man was speaking almost as loudly though. She’d been told that traditionally African people speak loudly to show they have nothing to hide. (In which case her sister-in-law, whom you had to ask to repeat everything three times before you just guessed at what she had whispered, was a small vault of untold secrets.) The two men sounded upbeat and they started laughing, so Dianne guessed they were chatting about something other than just a letter or parcel.
Ellie stepped into the kitchen and pressed the intercom button so that the two men’s voices flooded the kitchen. She shouted something into the speaker and received a shouted response in reply.
“He says he has a letter, Madam. Do I let him in?”
She considered telling Ellie once again to call her Dianne, but Ellie was sixty-something and Dianne suspected that calling her employer by her first name was an uncomfortable thought for her. Ellie was looking at her expectantly. Dianne wondered if she wanted this delivery man peering in at her front door. No. He could be anyone and you had to be careful in this country. She looked down at her slippered feet and decided she didn’t want to ruin the soles by walking down the driveway in them. Slipping her feet out she walked barefoot to the kitchen’s side door, saying to Ellie, “Tell whoever it is I’m coming down to meet him.”
As she walked down the driveway towards the pedestrian gate alongside the main gate, Desmond looked up and nodded deferentially to her and then the visitor, before moving back to where he had let up with the hedge. He positioned himself with the cutters and continued what looked more like a thorough and purgative hack than a modest clipping.
The delivery turned out to be a thick envelope with stamps the like of which Dianne had never seen. It was addressed to Mrs D. Comrey. Her face unknowingly took on an enquiring expression; she wasn’t expecting anything.
Not wanting to delay the delivery man, especially as the sky was busily gathering together some dark clouds, she scrawled her signature on the piece of paper clipped to his clipboard, rather unwillingly using the BIC pen that was attached by a grubby piece of string and that looked like it had been chewed by a pack of wolves. She handed the clipboard back to the man through a hole in the gate, thanking him in what she knew was terrible Xhosa. She watched him get onto his outdated bicycle and peddle away, his pack of deliverables looking rather heavy on his shoulder.
She tapped the mysterious envelope against the hedge, imagining tomorrow’s headline: “Suburb disturbed by exploded letter bomb. 38-year-old woman killed.” She supposed the quality of one’s underwear didn’t matter in such a situation because everything would be charred.
Checking the back, she saw a return address but didn’t recognise anything. The person’s name was weird. Her husband’s work meant that he dealt with people from the world over, but she was certain she herself had no reason to be receiving exotic post. The best she ever did were the seasonal letters from relatives in Holland and the odd birthday gift from friends in Canada and the US. Intrigued, she trotted back inside and went to sit in her favourite armchair, in the corner of their bedroom by the window.
She ripped the envelope open and pulled out the contents – one sheet of off-white writing paper with handwriting on it, and a typed, legal-looking document of a few stapled pages – careful as always to check she had left nothing inside.
She began with the letter first, which began “Dear Mrs Comrey”. Her eyes quickly lighted on the name Carol-Anne in the first paragraph. The author – the name at the end was too exotic to even allow her to know if the writer was a man or woman – said he or she knew Dianne had been a good friend of Carol-Anne Depardieu. The first name was enough to tell her that this document was about her childhood friend, Carol-Anne Colbert, who had always just been CiCi to her.
Dianne glanced up to look at the cupboard where she knew the decorated shoebox filled with letters scribbled in class, ticket stubs, one half of a friendship locket and other mementos of her and CiCi sat on the upper shelf, pushed right to the back. Finally, she thought, after all these years, some news of CiCi. CiCi, who had gone all strange and broken off their friendship. CiCi, who was either more technologically challenged than her (not being on Facebook or any other social media Dianne had tried) or who did not wish to be found.
Dianne scanned the rest of the letter. “Mrs Depardieu died on the 12th of February,” it said. It felt like the entire world started to droop. Sweet, blonde-haired CiCi, with her pointy nose and naughty little conspiratorial laugh, who had been her undisputed best friend all through school and the first two years of varsity, was dead. CiCi? Dianne thought confusedly. You’re gone?