Please do visit Breadcrumb Reads for more short stories this Wednesday.
The Merry Widow, eleventh story.
18 pages long.
First published in Woman's Journal, September 1989.
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
Complete Short Stories published 2011.
The words 'merry' and 'widow' seem mismatched and shocking to us. Can a widow be happy? Isn't she bereft, lonesome, lost without her life's partner? It would seem not necessarily. There are all sorts of marriages that we, as outsiders to the relationships, know nothing about. Once in a while we'll be with a couple and see the little jabs and criticisms between them, or given by one to the other, but mostly people hide the bad and offer only the good sides of their lives, their marriages.
Before Philip died, he and Elsa had booked a two-week vacation cottage in Dorset. The expectation is that she will now cancel, but the truth is that she cannot wait to go on this solo adventure.
If she were honest with herself, which she tried to be, she had not been looking forward to the holiday while Philip was alive: it would have been yet another dutifully endured, frustrating, saddening attempt at reviving past pleasures, overshadowed by Philip's increasingly ill-health and ill-temper. But without Philip, the prospect brightened.Well, that certainly tells us what Elsa is feeling, doesn't it? Most people thought that Philip's sickness was the reason he was grouchy, but Elsa knows that it only 'accentuated' his natural state of mean-spiritedness. As the story goes on, we begin to see the small, and not-so-small, indignities and verbal abuses Elsa has endured all these years. He would make fun of her choices in television shows and books and recreational pursuits. Oh, how it must have worn her down over the years, and how light she now feels without this oppressive negativity. This feeling even extends to Elsa's children and grandchildren.
... the emotion she expected to experience in Dorset was not grief, but joy. She needed to be alone, to conceal from prying eyes her relief, her delight in her new freedom and yes, her joy.
She had found herself bored by them, irritated with them. After years and years of cravenly soliciting their favours, of begging them to telephone more often, of blackmailing them into coming for Christmas (or, lately, into inviting herself and Philip for Christmas), she now, suddenly, had found herself bored, had admitted to herself to be bored.Whew, that isn't something you read all the time, is it? Parents aren't supposed to think like this, are they? But when you read something like Rosamunde Pilcher's The Shell Seekers, and see those selfish, money-grubbing children you may understand the relief Elsa feels in admitting that hers aren't perfect beings.
So, we follow our heroine to her cottage, and see her wonderment at all the so-called 'little' things that she may now do, without criticism or opposition. There is a bit of a thorn amongst the roses in the shape of a gardener intruding on her peaceful solitude. She fears she is going mad with her response to his just being there, but she comes to understand her feelings in a metaphorical sense.
I can't believe how great this story was. The descriptions of Elsa's state of mind, and the cottage and its environs were superb. Margaret Drabble's genius lies in making the reader understand exactly how Elsa feels and why.