Poison by Catherine Digman
Melissa and I, bored with studying, went shopping at a ridiculously expensive store in Oxford. We tried on these gaudy 80s-esque pieces: aggressive handbags, cropped jackets, and slinky dresses, draped with chunky gold chains — the sort of thing Versace and Gucci used to sell in their heyday.
She held up a black Balenciaga bodycon dress with big gold buttons, “this would look amazing on me,” she laughed. We had this running joke, a look we called “Italian widow” and the kind of things you could wear to the funeral: padded Chanel bags, big sunglasses, silk scarves with horse-bit designs.
Melissa held up a pair of huge gold-plated earrings.
“You look like your husband just died under very suspicious circumstances,” I said.
The salesgirl was sweet and let us try things on, maybe because we were “rich-passing”. We walked back to college through the Covered Market, picking up Taste of China dumplings, soy sauce and avocado for our lunch.
I was planning on having a baby and naming him Simeon. We went into the crystal shop and I bought a coral necklace for my future child, an old protection spell. Afterwards we went back to my room and looked at books on Manicheism. The Christian cult centres on the divide between black and white. It is based on the idea that dark and light are in some kind of eternal battle, and that is what gives the universe its energy: the eternal fight between the bride and the widow.
I scrolled on my phone, and joked to Melissa that viral ads were appearing for lavish engagement rings, funeral services, and expensive shoes.
We scrolled the dating apps, but we got bored. “People don’t have as much sex as they used to, it’s all Netflix, rollercoasters, alcohol, pottery…” Melissa said.
We ordered some food. The Deliveroo guy had a coke nail. I wondered if they sold coke via Deliveroo, or if people needed stimulants to survive that sort of job. Perhaps it became a cycle, working to afford coke and needing coke to get through the shift.
The next morning, I went to a hospital appointment in Cowley. I was five minutes late due to a problem with the traffic, and the car not turning up. Three surly staff sat behind a desk and said they couldn’t see me. I insisted on staying, can the doctor see me if someone else is a no show? I don’t mind waiting.
The décor was horrible, neon lights and chairs in mismatched colours, like a bad nightclub. The foyer was shades of grey with a blobby metallic cluster of a light feature which looked like polyps.
A larger man spoke with an elegant lady in the waiting room, he had just come out of a scan and looked nervous. She was saying something reassuring to him. “Take my number … it’s nice to make a new friend,” he said to her.
I was unsettled by how close the hospital was to the cemetery.
It was an ancient cemetery, so I guessed the closeness must have happened organically as the cemetery grew over the centuries. The hospital compound grew also and they gradually intertwined and engulfed one another, like lovers.
Eventually the doctor saw me. He probed and scanned me with some alien device.
“It’s nothing serious,” he said, “I’ll email your GP, they’ll refer you on to a specialist.”
I wondered how long the chain of bureaucracy would last, an eternity maybe, perhaps longer than my own lifetime.
I walked back, hoping to clear my head. It was mostly downhill and there was a slight chill in the air.
I bought a coffee at the kiosk outside the hospital, and watched as a robot lawnmower trimmed the lawn of the new hospital building. I pulled my hoodie up around me and set off home down the Cowley Road, passing barbers’ shops, and grocers with giant melons, plantains, and artichokes in crates outside. I crossed Between Towns Road, an oddly prosaic place name which triggered a moment of existential dread. I passed a mosque and a place called Temple Street. The ground felt holy. I knew I was between things, this world and the next.
At the bottom of the hill I found a vintage shop full of fur coats, old pennies, soft second-hand cashmere, and Italian printed silk scarves. A rack of old military dress uniforms, like the ones worn by Sergeant Pepper stood in the back.
I thought about what people said about Karl, my ex-boyfriend, the soldier, is he who he says he is, he’s such a man of mystery. People wondered if he was just a fantasist or a liar. I wondered how easy it would be for a man to buy a dress uniform in a vintage shop and take it to a tailor’s to have it fitted, how easy it would be to order some old medals off eBay, and pass oneself off as a military hero.
There were a few diplomats and military people at college. It was a running joke that certain people didn’t use their real names because they didn’t show up on the directory of the college email. People often asked, half joking, who is Karl really, is he even in the military at all? he may just be a delusional sociopath.
But is anyone who they say they are?
I think everyone here creates a persona.
That’s why we come here, to play in this fantasy world.
I bought a copy of Wyatt’s poems from a shelf of Penguin Classics. It’s funny how in Tudor times many of the poets were also spies, or vice versa. They both were jobs which required literacy and an appreciation of foreign culture, and perhaps the ability to lie for money.
I missed lying in bed with Karl, listening to stories I didn’t quite believe, wondering if his faintly Germanic accent was phoney. Perhaps he was from some suburb outside Halifax. Perhaps his dad was an electrician, and his mum was a dinner-lady.
Maybe he did a gap-year on the continent when he was eighteen and learnt to mimic, to reinvent himself as a glamourous European agent.
I felt better here, there was something down-to-earth about Cowley. I hadn’t realised how stressed I was by the class system. I thought about buying a fur coat, and how nice it would be to have a sugar daddy. I only applied for Oxford because I was at rock-bottom in my life. I needed a denouement, to prove to myself that the world was not meaningless. But I arrived and found that everyone in Oxford is either a grandiose narcissist, or a nervous wreck, or vacillating between both.
I liked Cowley, the energy was different, more relaxed. Even the run-down shops and houses with paint faded to a lighter shade of the same colour, the unkempt gardens, the cracked pavements — things which some would consider shabby or sad, were wholesome and calming to me. It reminded me of a chilled council estate on the side of a hill where you could visit a friend for an afternoon and eat rocket lollies while playing on their swings.
A couple of days later I went on a date with a PhD student who yammered on about his research. I’d seen him a few times and honestly I found him pretentious and dull. He talked about early American Punk, which is frankly overrated, and seemed to think it was somehow avant garde to hate everybody and everything, as though people haven’t been feeling that way for centuries.
He explained how the generational thing had shaped him to be nihilistic, and that I wouldn’t understand because I was a millennial. “Stop using the Cold War to justify your shit personality,” I said.
I lost touch with Melissa after we graduated, she moved to London, and I stayed in Oxfordshire. I think she worked at a media firm and hated it.
Five years had passed. It was a breezy day in late summer. I was now Mrs Bianchi.
My House, My Pleasure, My Rules…
A lot had changed, I had learnt how to cook. The table was laid with cheeses, and olives, and bruschetta when Melissa arrived at my house.
I had dressed Simeon in black, and she commented on how handsome he was. The coral necklace was hidden in his inner pocket, some of the family did not appreciate witchcraft.
My mother-in-law adored me as I had embraced her Catholicism. The family had the house in Oxfordshire, as well as a house in Knightsbridge, and one on Lake Como.
Melissa pulled me to one side. I wondered if she had spoken to the handsome policeman who had called round as a formality after the autopsy.
Melissa remembered our jokes about marrying a rich man and the time we spent cross-referencing the dating-app profiles with LinkedIn and the Companies House website to see who was eligible. “Where did you meet your husband,” she asked.
“We met by chance, at a book-signing in Cowley,” I said.
“Oh,” she sounded surprised.
“He proposed six months after we fell in love, and then we had Simeon,” I said.
Mr Bianchi fell sick a few months later, after endless appointments at a private clinic in Switzerland. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. He gradually faded away…
I mingled with the guests, keeping Simeon away from the room with the open casket. My Catholic mother-in-law had insisted upon it, presumably so she could weep over her son like the Pieta.
Melissa came back from the bathroom clutching a small brown glass bottle, “did you poison him?”
“It’s just some of my Xanax,” I said.
I was trying to wean myself off them, with limited success.
Extra dry martinis were the only real substitute.
Melissa swallowed a couple of pills. “God I hate my job,” she said, “it’s nice to have a day off.”
We reminisced about how much we missed the 80’s and how much we had loved Gianni Versace and his peroxide blond sister.
They had such a romantic story, growing up poor, learning tailoring. He had created endlessly, with her as his muse.
“Come and live with us,” I said to Melissa, “Simeon likes you, and we can travel to the lake for the summer.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said.
I knew she would never take that step.
But she stood with me and Simeon as we lowered Mr Bianchi into the ground. In that moment the three of us felt like a perfect family.
After the funeral we parted ways, she went back to her job in London, and I travelled to Italy with Simeon. I bought a run-down villa in Liguria and converted it into a painting studio.
When Simeon was older, I found a boyfriend. He was younger than me. I think he was a gold-digger. He enjoyed it when we drove to Monaco to shop in the Versace store. But I didn’t mind because he was sweet-natured and made me laugh. I’d rescued him from a waiting job and hired him as an assistant.
We bought an old castle near Portofino, which we converted to a hotel. Most of the clientele were American tourists who didn’t understand the language or the culture, but they paid well.
One day, standing on the terrace overlooking the sea, I heard Melissa’s voice behind me.
“You haven’t aged a day,” she said, “I can’t wear black, it ages me terribly, but it suits you.”
We spent a few days together. She told me she’d just broken up with her boyfriend, some loser musician. The boyfriend before that, had been badly injured in a motorcycle accident, paralysed and brain-injured.
“I hated that bike,” she said. “It wasn’t even that serious with him, we’d been dating about seven months. The last time I saw him before the accident we’d had a fight and I told him I didn’t think it was working, I said I’d call him in the morning. He’d not told his family we were on the verge of splitting up, they called me from the hospital to tell me he was in a coma. His mum wanted me to become his full-time carer, she said that was the right thing to do because I was his partner, I don’t even think we were exclusive so I have no idea where that came from. I helped out for a few months, and eventually plucked up the courage to leave. His family think I’m a cold-hearted bitch for leaving him, but the truth is we were barely together in the first place.”
She started to get her life back after that, but her boss was being a dick and had passed her over for promotion, favouring someone who went to school with his son.
“You’re a good person Melissa,” I said to her, hugging her tightly.
I was jealous of her goodness.
I could feel it radiate from her like a saint. I would never want to be like her.
I asked the staff to waive her bill. She was embarrassed.
As she was checking out I slipped a chunky gold chain into her luggage. It was the sort of thing we used to buy as costume jewellery, to wear with outlet Gucci and blazers from Zara, when our blond hair came from bottles.
However, this time it was heavy and it was real.