Henrietta by David John Griffin

Slow boil, it’s called. Victoria, the elegant and refined older lady who has never shown an ounce of anger, finally is to reveal her true feelings while nibbling a cottage cheese and cucumber sandwich. 

The sun hides behind a cotton-spun cloud, shadows fade; the sun’s reflections in the teacups’ contents vanish. Victoria’s husband, Bertrand, leans back in his metal chair on the garden patio. He casts an eye over his vegetable patch. And on further, over to a side of the shed lined with pots of shrubs. 

‘Time,’ he says, grinning like a fool. Victoria’s cheeks are reddening as she gulps a morsel of her sandwich, and locks her sight onto her husband who is on the opposite side of the wrought iron table. She says nothing in return. Bertrand adds, ‘What time, you’re meant to say. Come on ol’ gal, play the game.’ 

Tears are misting Victoria’s eyes now. She throws the sandwich onto a patterned plate sitting on the table. 

‘What time is it, Bertrand? I’ll tell you what time,’ she replies, her high voice loud and strained. ‘Time for you to choose.’ 

‘Now then, steady on, don’t know what you’re saying.’ 

‘I’m saying,’ Victoria continues, choking back the tears, ‘It’s either me or Henrietta.’ The sun appears again from behind its cloud. Bertrand shields his animated eyes, looking his quivering wife up and down as if studying a museum artefact. ‘You’re being silly,’ Bertrand says. How many times do I visit? Four times a day, that’s all. Feed her sometimes, if she’s having trouble. Where’s the harm in that? I’ve even started singing her songs now and then.’ 

Victoria stands abruptly, wagging a finger. 

‘Do you see? You’re going round the bend and taking me with you. I’ve had enough, Bertrand. Choose – now.’ 

‘Easy one, ol’ gal. Both. You, with your beautiful summer dress on and wonderful sunhat, getting uppity over nothing, and Henrietta, nicely safe in the shed.’ 

‘In that case, I’m leaving.’ 

‘Don’t be silly. Sit down and have another cup of tea.’ 

‘I mean it, Bertrand. I’ll be staying at my sister Eileen’s house. Leaving tomorrow and won’t be back until you see sense.’ 

Bertrand realises she is serious. Slightly flustered, he speaks rapidly, occasionally glancing back over to the shed. 

‘No need to go. I’ll see less of her, that’s a promise. How’s that?’ 

Still standing, and swaying now, Victoria replies, ‘You’ll not see her at all. What am I saying: see how you’ve twisted my mind? You’ve even got me saying “her”. It, Bertrand, a revolting IT!’ She slaps a refined palm onto the table and the crockery rattles, before sitting again, tears now readily springing from her distraught eyes. 

‘Now look here, ol’ gal, you can’t make me choose. Henrietta needs me.’ 

‘Needs you, Bertrand?’ Victoria says, dabbing her cheeks with a handkerchief taken from one of her dress sleeves. ‘You’re in need of a psychiatrist. And I need you – to pull yourself together, to leave this madness behind.’ 

Bertrand takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. 

‘Not madness – fascination. You can become fascinated too. Come along, let’s visit her together. All you need to do is become fond of the incredible creature. Discover what a marvel of nature she is. How could such a small thing come between us? Let me explain again—’ ‘No more explanations, please…’ 

‘Any spider can produce up to seven different types of silk. The protein fibre spun by the spiders is to make their beautiful, intricate webs. These are their nets to catch other insects, or 

to protect their offspring. They can produce up to five hundred in one season. The web threads are, weight for weight, stronger than steel…’ 

Victoria interrupts. 

‘This has become intolerable beyond comprehension, Bertrand.’ 

She stands hurriedly again, walks across the sun-baked patio and through the open French windows, shutting them behind her. 

As if nothing untoward had happened, Bertrand shrugs his shoulders, his silly grin returning. He sips his tea, also stands, and with determination makes his way along the path by the lawn to his shed which is tucked into the garden’s end next to the greenhouse. 

The shed door creaks when opening, as it always does. Bertrand enters with ceremonial deference, walks past the lawnmower and bags of fertiliser and compost, to the dusty left-hand corner. 

‘Still happy, my Henrietta?’ he says quietly, putting his grey-haired head close to the orb-weaver spider’s web. ‘I have more flies for you when you’re ready.’ 

As if the brown arachnid understands, it scampers over to the centre of the cobweb from its edge. Its body is the size of an English penny. It has black and white markings. Bertrand mumbles and exhorts, speaks loudly then softly again, explaining carefully the volatile situation arisen. 

Late afternoon Victoria is quiet, and more so in the early evening – refusing to speak with her husband, other than to say, ‘If you haven’t changed your mind by tomorrow, I’m moving out. I’ll be sleeping in the spare room tonight.’ 

Bertrand knows she won’t be leaving; knows she won’t be able to leave. 

He spends a restful night alone and, at the insistent ringing of the bedside clock, leaps out of bed with a youthful energy despite his elderly years. He slips downstairs to make breakfast for his wife. She would surely still want her orange juice, and toast and marmalade. 

He carefully carries the loaded breakfast tray back up the stairs and gently pushes on the spare bedroom door – already ajar – with his foot. 

Bertrand gives his lunatic, lopsided grin upon seeing Victoria laying on top of the bed eiderdown. 

She is wrapped tightly in the spun threads from countless spiders. Only her nose is exposed for breathing, and mouth uncovered in a wide open, soundless scream, ready to be fed her breakfast. 

Published in Issue #20

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