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James Brady


Proud Titania

5

The front door to the apartment flew open, thumping the wall of Iris’s hallway as she slipped in behind her mother. Dionisie barely caught a glimpse of Marguerite Wallis’s face as she marched towards him before a pair of thin arms wrapped themselves around his body. ‘It’s so lovely to properly meet you!’ Her wet lips pressed against his stubble, leaving a red smudge of lipstick, before she released her grip and turned back to Iris. ‘He’s a lot more handsome than he sounded over the phone.’ ‘So, my voice is unattractive, is it?’ Dionisie teased. He had spent most of his life worrying about whether he had an unattractive face, never an unattractive voice. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll smooth out the creases in no time,’ Marguerite said, adjusting his collar maternally. Iris clearly hadn’t heard her mother, whose staring had become uncomfortably prolonged as her deep blue eyes moved slowly from Dionisie’s white collar up to his thin stubble, past his large nose and back to his brown eyes again, forming her painted lips back into a large smile. He paused for a minute, taking his first real look at Marguerite Wallis. She appeared a lot different to the young girl he had first seen in the old Wallis family portrait. She was very tall and extremely slender, yet not exactly in a way a woman would envy. It was like she had just recovered from a bout of salmonella poisoning and was still trying to regain the weight she had lost during the illness. She towered over Iris, looking to Dionisie like a praying mantis must look to an ant, with her lime green dress only accentuating the image. Her eyes were very large, with too much distance between them, and positioned themselves above a pair of high, angular cheekbones. He didn’t quite know what to say to her, unable to mention their wedding – which Iris still hadn’t told her about. ‘I thought now would be the best time for me to stay, what with January out of the way. These winter months can be so depressing.’ Marguerite ran a hand through her bleached auburn hair that didn’t quite meet her scalp as it sat below at least an inch of thick grey wisps. ‘Hopefully it gave you something to look forward to anyway. I need to properly get to know the man my daughter’s so smitten about.’ ‘Well, we can do that now!’ he grinned, while trying to hide his tobacco stained teeth. He slowly moved with her through their hallway to the open living area that was flooded in golden light from the large windows. ‘You know, I’ve had a lot of very wealthy men interested in my daughter over the years, but she’s never reciprocated it. You must be something special.’ She looked at Iris again, who was following behind them into the living area. ‘And sweetheart, you didn’t tell me he had such a pronounced accent.’ Iris stepped beside her husband as they all gathered into the room, and placed a warm hand on his arm. ‘We went through all this on the phone about Dionisie being Romanian. You’ve already spoken to him a few times anyway!’ ‘I know but it hits the ear differently in person!’ She laughed, throwing her head back dramatically as she did so. ‘Of course it doesn’t matter but it does explain why I’ve had so much trouble with his name.’ She was looking directly at Iris, who was standing on the other side of Dionisie, making him feel like the family cat. ‘It’s pronounced DEE-on-NYE-see,’ he interjected, saying it more slowly than he normally would. ‘Once more?’ ‘Dionisie.’ He felt Iris’s hand grasp his arm tightly, unsure as to whether it was to quash his own growing frustration or hers. ‘Dionassie? Is that right?’ She was now staring at him in complete concentration, overloaded by her own set of possible pronunciations. He chuckled to ensure everything remained light-hearted. ‘DEE-on-NYE-see.’ She threw her delicate hands up in defeat, shaking her head. ‘I’m not going to get this, am I?’ ‘It’s fine, just call me Dion.’ ‘No,’ Iris interrupted, loosening her grip. ‘I’m sure my mother can learn to pronounce it. For god’s sake, it’s Dionisie.’ ‘Iris, there’s no need to be rude to me, I’m just having trouble with it!’ She composed herself as if she was about to conduct a sermon. ‘And don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.’ Iris was tapping her heeled shoes against the wooden floor in agitation, perfectly matching the rhythm of the ticking clock on the living room wall. ‘DEE-on-NYE-see.’ Her face glowed. ‘There, you’ve got it!’ ‘Dionisie,’ she repeated, once more for good measure. He nodded forcefully, keeping his face smooth and happy, just thankful she had actually said it. ‘Now that’s over with, I’ll bring your luggage in here, Marguerite.’ Dionisie made a point of pronouncing her own name loud and clear. He still couldn’t fully understand how the name Marguerite was apparently much easier to say than Dionisie. ‘Keeping in line with all this name business you both should know, I’ve actually changed my name!’ Iris sighed just quietly enough for only Dionisie to hear as she went to help him with the luggage still sitting back in their hallway. She had warned him that it was not unlike her mother to have spells of reinvention every now and then. ‘You’ve changed it legally? To what?’ ‘Not yet, but I plan to.’ She cleared her throat loudly, not aiding either of them with her bags. ‘I’ve changed it to MaryMargaret.’ ‘You couldn’t have picked something shorter?’ Dionisie thought it best to remain silent. Mary-Margaret has five syllables. Dionisie has four syllables. Interesting, he thought. ‘Double-barrelled names have so much class to them. They’re associated with aristocracy.’ ‘Yeah for surnames. Not first names, mother!’ Dionisie noticed that Iris sighed a lot when talking to her mother. ‘Dionyassie? Do you like it?’ she inquired, watching them both carry in her bags. He managed to suppress a wince at her address. ‘Yes, it’s very nice.’ ‘You don’t have to call her that, by the way.’ ‘Yes he does, and so does everyone from now on! I won’t respond to anything else,’ Mary-Margaret declared. Iris shrugged her shoulders in surrender, knowing her mother’s stubbornness would always win, no arguments. It didn’t really matter either way to Dionisie. He thought it best to embrace her eccentricities, considering she was staying with them for a while. ‘I did a lot of thinking in France and decided that I needed to come back to England anew!’ Dionisie brought in the last small bag that had been perched beside its larger twin. ‘Marguerite has never really felt right to me, it holds too much of the past now.’ ‘If it makes you happy, mother, it’s fine. You don’t have to justify anything.’ Mary-Margaret nodded meekly, looking down at her fingers, which were carefully entwined with one another. ‘Now, tell me all about how you two met again!’

*

The late afternoon had evolved into dusk and MaryMargaret had finally crammed most of her belongings in the limited storage space there was in the spare room. Dionisie had left Iris to help her, feeling it wasn’t his place to inspect his mother-in-law’s possessions, most of which were clothes. She had a very particular fashion that appeared more suitable for evenings on a cruise ship than a casual stay at her daughter’s flat. It consisted mainly of silk and satin gowns, alongside various furs, but deciding as to whether they were faux or real was not Dionisie’s area of expertise. Either way, he cringed whenever she summoned him back in the room to look at an expensive piece of clothing from her collection. After the endless furs and fabrics had been stored away, they were finally sat around the small dining table before dinner. Iris had entrusted herself to cook Sunday dinner for her mother and Dionisie. She insisted on doing it alone so the two of them could become better acquainted, yet this proved futile. Mary-Margaret hovered around the kitchen, looking into the oven through the steamed glass and examining every movement Iris made on the hob, throwing out commands disguised with just enough inflection to make them suggestive. The scene did not have the warmth of when Dionisie used to watch his mother and sister Alina cook in Bucharest when they were kids, their shadows flickering against the orange glow of the candlelight, with Alina stood on her tiptoes, watching their mother prepare a meal from whatever the food rations allowed her to. They laughed as they diced pigeon-sized chickens, juggled bags of flour that had passed their expiration dates, and hummed songs that Alexandra had taught her children before Ceaus¸escu’s propaganda dominated the radio. Iris’s silent stirring and tense shoulders only confirmed the unpleasantness. He knew she was probably craving a glass of wine but, out of respect for her mother’s teetotalism, was coping with a mug of tea instead. Dionisie was struggling desperately with his own cravings. He needed a cigarette, as nail-biting and foot-tapping were not satisfactory substitutes. ‘Iris, I think you better check the broccoli again.’ MaryMargaret, who was perfectly capable of checking it herself, was staring over the pot as Iris was kneeling down to examine the roast beef in the oven. Iris groaned loudly. It was time to get her mother off her back. ‘Want some more coffee, Mary-Margaret?’ Dionisie asked. ‘No, thank you.’ She drained the contents of the mug that she had been cradling with both hands. ‘You know mother,’ Iris said, pulling herself up after checking the roast potatoes. ‘Dionisie can read coffee grounds.’ Mary-Margaret scoffed as she quickly peeked over the hob again. ‘My father taught me. It’s very popular back in Romania.’ ‘It’s nonsense, all that stuff is. The tarot cards and palm reading,’ she stated, shaking her head. ‘How can any of those things possibly predict the future?’ ‘It’s just a bit of fun, Mary-Margaret. I can read yours one time if you want?’ Dionisie poured boiling water into his mug as Iris fumbled about for a distraction, finding it in the roast potatoes again, and pretended not to listen. ‘No, don’t be silly,’ She wasn’t snickering anymore, now only eyeing him with the same severity as his old high school headmistress. ‘I don’t want to be a part of any witchcraft.’ Mary-Margaret’s thin fingers were twisting the silver crucifix around her neck. One, two, three times clockwise then back around in the other direction. ‘Some people look to God for answers, I look to coffee grounds.’ His mother-in-law glared at him. He had touched some pious nerve which even Iris couldn’t ignore. ‘Mother, I forgot to say!’ Iris dragged herself up again, rising between them, Dionisie wearing a crooked smile, Mary-Margaret in thin-lipped fury. ‘I loved that coat you showed me today, where’d you get it?’ Mary-Margaret immediately broke eye contact with Dionisie and, wearing a large smile, rushed out of the kitchen to get it. The two of them began to set out three plates, starting to arrange the food. ‘Dionisie, please don’t provoke her like that.’ He pulled the potato tray out of the oven, the steel burning his hands through the red tea towel. ‘I wasn’t provoking her, I just didn’t like the way she-’ ‘Here it is!’ Mary-Margaret appeared back in the kitchen again, cutting his words short. ‘I only wear it on special occasions, like to parties or weddings.’ She began to perform a box waltz step with the coat, holding the sleeve high in the air as she danced about. The coat was black and covered in thick fur which looked more coarse than comfortable. ‘Alastair Warren-Haynes gave it to me, he was an old friend of your father’s, remember? It’s genuine monkey fur!’ Dionisie tried to subdue his disgust at Mary-Margaret as she paraded the fur coat around, trying to remember why he vaguely recognised the name. ‘What? When?’ Iris inquired, dishing out the food. ‘Oh, he gave it to me a long time ago. It was his mother’s in the nineteen-forties.’ Mary-Margaret ended her waltz and embraced the coat. ‘I think fur looks better on the animal myself,’ Dionisie said. He sliced the tender pink insides of the beef that was speckled with a myriad of seasonings, and settled it on the different plates. Mary-Margaret swatted the fur, vigorously dusting some unseen fibres off the dead animal’s hair. ‘Well, those monkeys would be dead now regardless. Anyway, at least they’re entrusted to someone who cares for them.’ She violently dusted it one last time. ‘Consider it a form of recycling.’ Dionisie kept silent, ignoring her justifications as he handed the first plate to Iris. ‘I always remember I was teaching my year nine class when that happened with Alastair,’ Iris said, walking with her mother’s plate of food over to the kitchen table as Mary Margaret lay her coat on the arm of the sofa. ‘I only found out because all the kids were talking about it.’ ‘It was international news after all. Poor Alastair was put under so much stress.’ The chair squealed as Mary-Margaret pulled it out, perching on the end of it with flawless posture. Dionisie joined them with his food at the table. ‘What’s this about again?’ Mary-Margaret flattened out a silk napkin over her lap. ‘A tragic, terrible accident.’ ‘Well, an accident that was waiting to happen,’ Iris interrupted, finally sitting down to join them so they could start their meals. ‘Alastair Warren-Haynes owned this pet chimpanzee. It just went crazy one afternoon and killed one of his cleaners.’ ‘That was it! God, that was horrible,’ ‘Please don’t talk with food in your mouth,’ Mary-Margaret grimaced. She was concentrating hard on slicing the beef. He complied, swallowing his mouthful before continuing. ‘I can’t believe you knew the guy,’ Dionisie said, shaking his head. ‘And it didn’t just kill that poor woman though, it ripped her face off!’ Mary-Margaret’s fork screeched across the porcelain painfully. ‘But they didn’t have to shoot him!’ she said. ‘Bernie was always so gentle whenever I saw him. I still think she must have provoked him somehow.’ ‘I don’t think it was anyone’s fault, mother,’ Iris shrugged. ‘He had that chimp for twelve years, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.’ Iris poured herself a glass of water from the jug on the table and Dionisie knew she was praying for it to turn into wine. ‘Chimpanzees are so dangerous, he should never have kept one as a pet.’ ‘Julia, his mother, was always known to keep exotic pets,’ Mary-Margaret said, pouring herself a glass too with a noticeable tremor. ‘Besides, a pet is a pet. Plenty of dogs have killed people!’ ‘Owning a dog is a lot different than owning a chimp. It’s legal to, for starters,’ Dionisie said. ‘Did Alastair even go to prison? Guessing his wealth helped soften the blow.’ ‘Well, he was eighty and almost completely blind. His estate had to pay the woman’s family millions,’ Iris explained. Mary-Margaret slammed her glass down, sending a vibration through the oak table. ‘Alastair was horrified, actually. I still think the stress is what killed him!’ ‘Well if the idiot didn’t trap that animal in the first place then he might still be alive.’ ‘Dionisie,’ Iris glared at him. Mary-Margaret’s scarlet lips were quivering. She picked up her napkin, folding and unfolding it over and over. ‘How dare you! I don’t have to listen to this!’ ‘I didn’t mean that,’ Dionisie paused, reining his anger back in. ‘I’m just saying it could have been avoided.’ She was still gripping the napkin but the folding had now turned into wringing. ‘Chimps are pretty cute when they’re babies, though,’ Iris smiled, in a hasty attempt to lighten the mood. Dionisie kept quiet, irritated by his wife’s disregard. He couldn’t see chimpanzees as cute now. The only thing he could picture was an enraged animal in some huge mansion, mutilating an innocent woman. Just teeth, and blood, and fury. The black fur coat slumped over the sofa didn’t help much to ease his anger either. Mary-Margaret chewed a slice of beef, smiling delicately through her mouthful. ‘They really are! See, we shouldn’t judge all those animals on one terrible incident.’ ‘They’re the closest living relatives to humans,’ Iris said, pouring some more water into her mother’s empty glass. ‘See and people have done far worse, D-Dionassie,’ she said, picking up her glass without thanking Iris. ‘Have you ever seen those old chimpanzee tea parties? That shows you just how gentle they are.’ Dionisie nodded. ‘Yeah, they sit there all civilised and respectful drinking their tea, until one day, one of them snaps.’


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