Fall 2009, Volume 7

Fiction by Peter Basson
This Was Her Life
           The last thing he said was he could feel it, he could feel it wriggling inside him.

From a shallow sleep, Aviva came blinking wide-awake in her bedroom. She pulled the blankets to her chin and listened to the wind hiss through the backyard oaks. Though it had turned grey and cold around Mort’s grave, the rain had blown through and moonlight now fringed the curtains. She could see his framed photograph on her nightstand. He looked like an old bird, she thought, an old bird watching over her.

When she heard the noise, she sat straight up and turned on her bedside light—a strange splashing, a tremulous agitation of water. There was silence for a moment, then it came again, like a fish caught in a net. What could possibly make such a noise? Terrified, she listened wide-eyed, wishing the noise away. She was ready to put the past behind her, but in that moment, she wished Mort were still in bed beside her.


That morning, as bright April sunlight streamed through the cottage windows, Aviva gazed out onto her English garden. Everything looked splendid: the rectangle of baize lawn bordered by perfect pink camellias, purple crocus, and trumpet daffodils. As she slid on her black cashmere dress, she felt a curious energy through that bedroom window, a full charge. And the face she saw in the mirror was a face she barely recognized. Who was that attractive woman with the smart new haircut and a gleam in her eye? Surely, that wasn’t Aviva Shane dressing for her husband’s funeral.

Her best friend, Elise, waited in the parlor. Elise was a friend she could rely upon, a friend who would be ready with open arms should Aviva get upset when Mort’s coffin dropped into the ground. Big bosomed, sturdy, dependable, Elise called to Aviva from behind the door.

"You okay in there, luvvie?”  

"I’m fine. Be with you in a bit."

“You need anything, you call me. Promise?”

“I promise but I’m fine, Elise, really, I am.”

The last few days had been crazy: pent-up, holding herself back, focusing all of her attention on Mort; there’d been no place for her feelings. But now that he was gone, instead of overwhelming her, as she’d suspected it would, all that pent-up emotion had simply lifted away. Strange—but everything, she supposed, would be strange for a while. In many ways her worries were over. She had her friends—the women from the bridge club, and the animal rescue society—and Mort had taken care of her financially. A hard grafter and an earner, he’d had his own firm at twenty, a pest extermination company, which he’d sold as soon as he got his shock diagnosis—asbestos cancer. Once he’d accepted that he wouldn’t survive, he’d set things up so Aviva wouldn’t have to worry. He’d always been the money man, the business man, the shrewd and prudent investor. She’d never been short of money, and that wouldn’t change with his passing.

She bent and slipped on her patent-leather shoes. Not quite funeral attire but she'd wanted something she could wear more than once, and the nice assistant at Clarks assured her no one would think they were too much for a woman burying her husband. She straightened in the mirror, applied pale pink lipstick and patted her pill-box hat with the veil.  She wasn't young but she wasn’t old. At fifty-two, her fine cheek-bones made her look a good decade younger. All her friends said she had the bones. They said she had the hair too, though its luster had dulled, it was thick and curly for not having had kids. She’d kept herself for Mort; he expected that. Not that he'd been one for compliments. Only obliquely—when she couldn't be sure if he meant it, or if he was just using black humor—would he make comments about her appearance.  

She checked her purse and walked out to the parlor, where Elise waited to take her to the funeral. As they hugged, Aviva looked over her friend’s shoulders at the wedding picture on the mantel. Mort, the prosperous businessman about to hand over his daughter is what it looked like. Aviva was just eighteen, while he was a grown man of forty-three. Cradle-snatcher they’d called him, but Aviva was off her feet because he was handsome, he knew things, and he’d promised to look after her for as long as she made him a comfortable home. Cold and abusive though he could be, Mort had given her exactly what he’d promised—a good home with security. Once, she’d tried to get away, spending several nights at a friend’s house after he’d threatened her. But he’d tracked her down and unceremoniously dragged her home. “When you married me, you knew what you were in for,” he’d said when they got back to the cottage. She knew it would be next to impossible to try get away from him, so in the end she’d given up trying.


After several excruciating minutes contemplating the splashing noises, she plucked up her courage, swung her legs off the bed, and stepped into her slippers.  She stood in the doorway listening to the night. The cottage, the house where she’d lived with Mort for thirty years, now rattled and creaked in the wind like an old hovel. A floorboard flexed then quieted. The wind in the trees sounded like rushing water. Perhaps it was that that she’d heard? She stood waiting, her breath suspended, her heartbeat jumping in her throat, her skin bristling, until she was sure there wasn’t somebody inside the house. The noise must have come from outside, she decided. Maybe there was an animal out there, a fox or a badger? She took off her robe and slipped back beneath the covers. She turned off her bed-side light and tried to relax, to breath normally, but as soon as she closed her eyes, the noise came back. Fervid this time. Something horrible was here.


She’d nursed Mort until the bitter end, until he was just withered skin over sharp bones, his hands and feet drawn to claws, his lungs drowning in plural fluid, his blood full of morphine.  It was strange, though, how Mort’s hair, even at the temples, hadn’t a single gray hair. Elise had remarked upon it, as if Aviva should consider it a portent, or a warning. Before the chemo, with his slick black hair and bared teeth, Mort had reminded Aviva of a rat. He looked like one of those big black factory rats he used to tell her about, the ones he said were always so hard to kill. When Mort was starting out, he’d had to take any job he could find. He’d been forced to crawl around in attics, or beneath false floors, to find their nests. Fat black factory rats who gnawed through the asbestos cladding they used in those old buildings, grinding it to dust between their teeth, the particles suspended in the air Mort breathed. The result, years later, had been incurable mesothelioma.

"How you feeling, love?"  Elise asked. “You feel strong enough?”

Aviva's reply was like one of the puffy white clouds skidding across the blue sky outside. "I'm fine," she whispered. "It's a beautiful day."

“It's time we got going. It’s going to rain."

Aviva nodded, held up her black umbrella. “I’m ready,” she said.

Outside, Elise’s small blue car waited. Tires scrunched as she carefully backed out of the driveway. Aviva’s front garden was magnolia, purple daisies, and more daffodils around an oval-shaped lawn. Thirty-four years and the door had closed on this chapter. One way or another, it had been all been a ordeal, a trap she’d walked into as a naïve young girl. Once she’d accepted Mort wouldn’t let her go, she’d worked hard to make the cottage a place she could be proud of. This was her dominion; she kept beautiful house. Now, however, as she stared back from the passenger seat, she felt her old life slipping away before her eyes, as if she were on a boat drawing out to sea, the familiar shoreline receding in the distance. Exhilarating and disturbing, the mix of fear and wonder, of being pulled loose from her moorings yet going gladly. Mort had sworn he’d never let her leave, but now that he was gone, she could do whatever she wanted.

At the service, she sat with Elise. Mort had a sister with whom he hadn't spoken in years, a thin bitter-looking women who shook Elise’s hand before the service, but said little. Both Mort’s parents were dead. An only child, Aviva was estranged from her own parents, who’d disapproved of her marriage. There were a few friends, some business acquaintances of Mort's, and his best man from the wedding, Dave Cagney. The service was held in a tiny chapel but most of the pews were empty anyway. What could anyone say about this unremarkable man? There was an embarrassed silence and averted eyes, when the vicar asked if anyone had anything to add to his eulogy of euphemisms, his talk of minor business triumphs and stoicism in the face of pain—which Aviva knew was a lie.

She sat with her head bowed, hands in her lap, eyes dry. What had happened to her dreams? As the vicar went on, she thought about their recently arrived neighbors, the Bridges. Aviva had invited them over for a glass of sherry shortly after they’d moved in. A nice looking younger couple, Gary Bridge was a history teacher at the comprehensive, Beverly a district nurse at a children’s clinic. Mort had barely stirred from his old armchair in front of the TV when Aviva made the introductions. The TV showed buildings burning in a city in Africa. Video shot from a helicopter showed a man being pulled from a bus and beaten by a crazed mob. Monica Bridge said it was a tragedy, she said there was little justice in the world. Gary said it was a legacy of colonialism. But Mort, in that way of his where you couldn't tell if he was using his dark humour, had said, “It’s just niggers killing niggers.” That was the first and only time the Bridges had come to the cottage. After that, it was just Monica’s occasional wave from a departing car, and neither of them were anywhere near Mort’s funeral.


The splashing was much louder in the hallway, a desperate deathly churning. Could it be the plumbing? What could possibly make such a noise? Moonlight through the window at the end of the hall cast dark shadows off the photographs on the wall, shark shadows, like curved blades pointed toward her. The cottage whined, whinnied in the gale. Her whole body shook. She took a torturous step forward. A floorboard creaked, and the splashing stopped abruptly. Should she scream? Surely, that would be a mistake? Whatever it was, it was in the bathroom, and now there was something else to consider—the sound of tiny nails scratching against a polished surface. She turned suddenly into the bathroom and flicked on the light. Her screams might’ve woken Mort in his grave.


With the finality of death upon him, Mort had relied upon Aviva as a baby relies upon its mother. She’d fed him, bathed him, even changed his soiled underwear. With his constant demands and complaints, with every spoon-fed mouthful of food or medicine, he’d completed this dependent picture. A mean old bag of bones, he reminded her of someone rescued from a Nazi concentration camp—a Belsen horror. Yet even then, he still had his menacing hold over her. “You’ll never leave,” he’d croaked. “I made you, and I’ll never let you go.” Only at the very end, when he’d dropped the fight, let himself soften, had he begun to cry. “I can feel it, Aviva. I can feel it wriggling inside me.”


With everyone stood around the grave, perhaps to try and lighten the mood a bit, Dave Cagney had drawn back his lips and said  ‘Mort, you dirty stinkin’ rat.’  Mort’s business acquaintances coughed into their hands, then looked at Aviva (who smiled sadly). Clouds gathered in large, heavy-bowed clumps at the horizon. “When I die, I want to be thrown in a rubbish skip,” Mort had often said that, but of course Aviva had found him a nice spot—on a hill with views of the rolling fields and hedgerows to the north. As they lowered his coffin, the wind gusted and the bearers, four unsteady older men, had trouble keeping their balance. Somehow, the coffin wedged on its way down, the diagonal corners sticking in the mud. A young man in green galoshes, digging another grave nearby, came to the rescue, hacking at the grey mud with his spade, repeatedly driving his tool into the clay until the coffin began to slide, the corners of the box scoring the mud like fingernails. "Typical Mort," Aviva whispered. "Stubborn to the bitter end."

Back at the cottage, a few friends sat around Aviva’s rosewood dining room table with tea and biscuits, speaking pleasantries, and commenting on her fine garden. She brought out her Italian crystal decanter from the armoire, proposing a simple toast in sweet sherry, “To life!” because she couldn’t think of anything better to say.


The rat was black with yellow teeth and a ropey tail. It scratched at the porcelain in the toilet bowl, writhed in the water like a thick eel, twisting around on itself as it sought an escape. Aviva felt the blood leave her face, felt her strength drop to her feet like boat anchors. She watched this squalid thing, this revolting creature, and she stood transfixed. The noise was unspeakable—livid, a black horror dragged from the bottom of a lake to thrash in the shallows. If I don't act, she thought, I’m going to faint, and then I’ll die. She pumped the flush-handle. Water cascaded down on top of the rat, then rose up around it as it was sucked into the pipe. But the sordid creature wriggled free, shaking its pointy head at her. For a moment she thought it would find the rim, before the gulp and suction of the falling water dragged it back.

She slammed the lid and flushed again. Her mistake was hoping this would be enough. The lid flipped and the rat's snout—a disgusting hairy probe—poked out before it was once again pulled back by falling water. Not gone yet though, not by a long stroke. She opened a bottle of bleach and poured it into the water, causing the rat to roil madly, to seethe in pain. Even as she sat on top of the closed lid and waited for the cistern to fill, she could hear it thrashing below her. Faster, faster, faster, the thump of its body reverberating inside her own. After another flush there was silence, but when she opened the lid the rat’s bleached body still twitched in the bottom of the bowl. She took a plunger from the cabinet and hammered down on top of it, smashing the rubber down repeatedly, over and over, then flushing again.  She sat, and she flushed, and she flushed, and she flushed. She flushed until finally, with the night paled to dawn, and her tears run dry, the dirty stinking rat was gone, and the brand new day arrived to cast its light upon her face.


BIO:  Peter Basson lives in Long Beach with his wife and daughter. He likes composting, gardening, napping, playing soccer, eating cheese, reading, writing, camping, hiking, swimming, drinking beer, watching films and breathing (in no particular order).