Tom Dowding’s New Short Story – Send Her Away

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Send Her Away

The Doctor poured the drinks.  His right eye glinted beneath a raised eyebrow; locked on his subject: the well-attired gentleman sat straining forward as though anticipant of discomfiting news; the right sleeve of his shirt – overlong – shrouded up to his fingertips.  A solitary light – dimmed – illuminated a table upon which was a chess board set in preparation of imminent battle.  The gentleman made his first move, opening a path for his queen.

‘Tell me, Mr Vandenberg,’ said the Doctor settling into his seat, do you always play your first move whilst your opponent is still pouring the drinks?’

‘It’s the first move,’ replied Vandenberg defensively.  ‘I don’t see how I’ve gained an unfair advantage.’

The Doctor pushed a glass of malt in Vandenberg’s direction.  Nodding his appreciation, Vandenberg – with his left hand – raised the glass to his lips before noticing that he was drinking alone.

‘Not joining me, Doctor?’

‘Ah no; I prefer to keep a clear head when working.’

Vandenberg gulped at the peaty firewater, his ears ringing with suspicion on hearing the Doctor’s words.

‘Think you can get me drunk then beat me, is that it?’

‘Not at all, good sir,’ replied the Doctor laughing.  ‘I am, however, interested to know why you didn’t wait for me in opening the game.  I wonder: is that consistent behaviour for you?’

‘I think you’re reading too much into it.’

‘On the contrary, it’s my job to read into it.  It does not matter.  I am unbeaten.’

An uncomfortable silence ensued as the two men settled into the game.  They traded pawns.  In between his moves, the Doctor kept his gaze on Vandenberg, whose own eyes never once strayed from the board.  He was anxious to avoid his opponent’s glare.

‘Please, Doctor, let us talk about my wife.’

‘Yes.’

‘What do you make of her?’

‘Well, she is not mad,’ said the Doctor casually sweeping aside a rook with his bishop.

Vandenberg stared at him incredulously.

‘I must protest, sir.  I have come a long way to treat with you and in good faith; I thought you would have taken me seriously.’

‘If I had not taken you seriously, Mr Vandenberg, we would not be here now.’

Vandenberg attacked the board aggressively, making his moves with less deliberation than that of his opponent.  His concealed hand moved tremulously over the board, gorging on plays designed for a quick kill.

‘I can pay well, Doctor.  Name your price.  She must be put away; it’s for her own good.’

The Doctor rocked back in his seat.  His wrinkled face cracked as though smiling at a familiar joke.

‘She tells me you fought in the Battle of the Somme?’

‘She’s correct.  Before the war, my father had purchased me a minor commission, but…’ Vandenberg paused.  ‘…but I was never supposed to be there.’

‘You were reassigned?’

Vandenberg gasped for air.

‘She seemed docile,’ said Vandenberg distantly.

The Doctor noted that whenever Vandenberg spoke, he would massage his right wrist with a nervous semi-circular motion.  Vandenberg drained his glass; the Doctor brought the decanter to the table and replenished it.  Three fingers full.

‘Many men bring their wives to me: vanguards of woman’s suffrage; free thinking artists; not to mention those redundant of domestic conscience.  All of them mad, supposedly.  Why did you bring her?’

‘She went on those marches with all those women, with those liberals and those confounded Bolsheviks.  That’s not what I fought for, Doctor.  A woman’s place is at her man’s side.  I know her best.  I know what’s best for her.’

The Doctor laughed softly.

‘Have you ever considered that you might be on the wrong side of history, sir?  It’s not a crime to be in the wrong.  It is, however, a crime to stay there willingly; holding your mind in such esteem as to never entertain reproach.  Indeed, it is more than a crime: it is madness.’

‘Anyway,’ resumed Vandenberg, seeming to ignore the Doctor.  ‘She is insatiable, unquenchable: hysterical!’

‘Ah, yes!  Hysteria: the golden word.  Not so long ago, experts deduced that the cause of this malady in many women was spinsterhood.  Marriage was the accepted cure.  If your wife displays such symptoms, perhaps divorce would be an appropriate remedy.’

Vandenberg said nothing.  Instead, he mounted a concerted campaign against his opponent’s queen.  His face poured with sweat.  The Doctor continued.

‘Those men I mentioned, they all had something in common: a sense of loss.  They lived in a fantasy, trapped in times past.  They could not exercise their authority: their perceived right.  For some, committing their wives served as pretext for divorce.’

‘Savages!’ barked Vandenberg.

‘We live in savage times,’ the Doctor nodded in agreement.  ‘Talk to me, Mr Vandenberg.  What have you lost?’

‘She would sing to me,’ Vandenberg said shaking.  ‘She would sing; her voice tender and mellifluous.  Her voice…it guided me, kept me close to her in dark times, but no longer.’

The Doctor drew himself closer to Vandenberg.

‘She sings to you no more?’

‘I have your Queen!’ exclaimed Vandenberg.  ‘She sings no more.’

‘You have only seemed intent on trapping her.  Why?  That’s not the object of the game?’

Vandenberg smiled rocking back and forth with a childlike excitement.

‘Is it not?’

‘I could now trap your King in any of five moves.  You’re playing a different game, sir.’

Vandenberg drained his glass once more.

‘Take her away.’

‘Why?’

Vandenberg set the glass down heavily on the table, and with greater vigour, took again to massaging his wrist.  He spoke frantically.

‘She is not herself.  She is disobedient and cruel and…’

‘…and she sings to you no more?’

‘I cannot hear her now; only the guns.  Keep her away from me!’

With haste, the Doctor made for a darkened corner of the room where there stood a large phonograph.  He wound the machine into life.  From it, Schubert’s Ave Maria coursed throughout the room.  The Doctor resumed his place at the table.  He saw that Vandenberg had raised his right sleeve exposing a badly charred hand and his wrist that was marked with a large, pale welt of skin: a suicide attempt.  Tears soaked his face.

‘Talk to me, Mr Vandenberg,’ the Doctor said, taking his King.  ‘Tell me what you hear.’

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