THE OLD MAID

by Irena Ioannidou-Adamidou

As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 4, December 2013

Something was wrong with Penelope that day. I realised it as soon as she opened the door and I saw her long face instead of the broad smile with which she always greeted me.

“Good morning, Penelope!”

“Good morning. Come in.”

“Is your mistress at home?”

“She’s having a bath. Sit down. She won’t be long.”

She spoke sharply, “staccato”. I looked at her in surprise.

“What’s the matter, Penelope?”

“Nothing.”

“Are you angry with me?”

“Oh! Leave me alone! You and your questions!…”

She turned her back and vanished into the kitchen, limping. She had been born with a defect in her right leg and, as the years went by, it gradually got shorter, making it more difficult for her to walk.

She was almost the same age as my friend, whose mother had brought her as a girl of twelve from her island and brought her up with her own children. At that time it was the custom that good families have live-in servants from islands and villages, poor children. They would employ them until they were about twenty five and then find husbands for them. At least that’s what most did…

Penelope, however, had remained a spinster. And when her mistress died, my friend inherited her and brought her to her house. It was there that I met her one morning, when I went for coffee. She opened the door and my first impression was that her broad, bright smile filled the whole doorway. I returned it.

“Good morning!”

“Good morning to you! Come in! My mistress is expecting you…” she welcomed me in her lilting, sibilant island pronunciation.

She stepped back for me to pass.

“I’m Penelope!”

I shook her hand.

“How do you do, Penelope? I’m very pleased to meet you.”

“Me, too. Sit down. I’ll go and call the mistress…”

She disappeared limping through a door. Later I discovered that when the two of them were alone she never called my friend “mistress” and in general the atmosphere between them was such that it often encouraged Penelope to go even beyond the limits of normal familiarity. And yet not once, in the twenty years that I knew her, did she ever call or refer to my friend by name in front of other people, whether friend or relation. Her politeness and her impeccable behaviour impressed everyone.

“Here you are, Madam!…”

“Of course, Madam!…”

“Madam, you’re wanted on the telephone!…”

“I’m sorry, but the mistress is out at the moment…”

“Please wait and I’ll ask the mistress…”

Until one day, as I was about to ring the bell, I stopped astounded, with my finger on the button. And I would certainly have thought that I had come to the wrong house if the voices coming from inside had not been so familiar:

“Penelope, when did you last clean in here? The furniture is covered with dust!”

“Just you listen to me! I’m not God to cope with everything! When I can, I’ll clean it. I’m fed up with your complaints!”

So great was my surprise that I pressed the bell without realizing it. I regretted it immediately. I felt terrible. I ought to have waited little. Now it might embarrass them both to see me all of a sudden…

However, Penelope’s face, when she opened the door, betrayed nothing of the squabble which had been interrupted. On the contrary, she was so calm and cheerful, with her broad smile and sparkling eyes, that I almost began to doubt my ears.

“Oh! Good morning! Come in! The mistress is here.”

She stepped back to let me pass. Then she turned and said sweetly to my friend :

“It would be better if you sat in the sitting room, Madam. I haven’t cleaned in here yet…”

She left us and went out limping, as if nothing had happened. As soon as she had closed the door behind her, my friend burst out laughing.

“You heard her, didn’t you?”

For a second I thought of denying it. I felt terrible.

“Well…”

“Don’t deny it. I wouldn’t believe you. It was written all over your face when you came in.”

I surrendered. I laughed as well.

“Do you think Penelope realised it, too?”

“Probably. But she’s too intelligent to admit it. You saw how naturally she behaved! That’s what she always does. To create doubts.”

I was amazed for the second time in a few minutes.

“Always? You mean… she’s often cought in the act?”

“Well… not so often. But it happens.”

I was upset, more by her calmness than by Penelope’s behaviour.

“But how do you put up with her speaking to you like that?”

“We grew up together, don’t forget!”

“And that gives her the right to be so impertinent?”

“She thinks so.”

“What do you think?”

She laughed again.

“I think so, too. She’s loyal and genuinely cares for us. For  me, she would even die!”

“Are you so sure?”

She suddenly pulled a face.

“Why are you so provocative? Do you have any reason to doubt her?”

“Let’s say to suspect her…”

“Of what?”

“Of being jealous of you. That could be quite natural. You are married, she’s an old maid. And the fact that you are almost the same age and grew up together doesn’t help the situation at all. On the contrary, I think it makes things worse.”

Her anger vanished at once. She smiled slyly.

“You are-making a big mistake! Who told you that she’s an old maid?”

“Is she married?”

“She will be.”

“When?”

“I don’t know. But she’s sure of it.”

“You mean… she’s engaged?”

“Something of the sort. ‘Spoken for’, to use her own expression.”

“What does that mean?”

“Quite simply that she’s having an affair with someone and they plan to get married.”

I burst out laughing.

“What? Penelope? I would have sworn that she was a virgin!”

“She is!”

I was dumbstruck for the third time.

“But you said she’s having an affair!”

“She is. But it’s platonic. “We love each other only with our hearts. He takes my hand and sometimes gives me a kiss on the cheek”… That’s what she told me.”

“You must be joking!”

“Why? On her island they may keep to the old ways until marriage.”

“Does the… fiance live there?”

“No, here. He works on building sites.”

“And how long has this… romance been going on?”

“Oooh! A long time! But I only heard about it last year and only because I forced her to explain why she rejected suitors one after another. Otherwise she would never have told me.”

The fourth surprise!

“Rejected… suitors? Penelope?”

“Yes, strange though it may seem to you!”

“Come on! You’re teasing me!”

“Not at all! Five men proposed to her, all good looking and with decent jobs.”

“But didn’t they notice…”

“Her leg? Did you think that was the reason she hadn’t married?”

“Wouldn’t that be natural…? That’s the first thing someone would suppose.”

“Perhaps, if you don’t know her. But if you sit and talk to her, you’ll discover she’s good company. She’s intelligent, lively, and with a genuine sense of humour. She even reads mythology! She knows the story of Odysseus and Penelope inside out. She thinks she should, because, they have the same name… And her face, to tell the truth, isn’t at all bad.”

“No, it isn’t. But her leg…”

“It seems that the rest of her is so attractive, that the men don’t notice it… or they have got used to it and it doesn’t bother them. Anyway, until now, her defect hasn’t caused her any problems with men, The only reason she hasn’t married is because she loves that builder from her island.”

“They should get married, then! Why have they waited so long?”

“To save money, to make their home and live comfortably. That’s what she said when I asked her.”

“Or rather that’s what  he  tells her… It’s nearly always the man who postpones the wedding.”

“Yes, you’re right…”

“Is she sure that he’s not deceiving her?”

“It has never crossed her mind! I also find it rather hard to believe. If they were lovers, I could understand. But… walks on Sundays and ice cream… Why should he deceive her?”

“Perhaps he feels sorry for her.”

“Impossible! Pity is the last thing Penelope would inspire! I tell you, she has no problems, no complexes. It seems that the reason for delaying the wedding is truly money. It’s very important for people like them.”

I nodded my head smiling.

“For whom isn’t it important? Anyway, I hope they soon get married.”

From that day I began to see Penelope in a different light. Every time she opened the door, I found her more attractive… I found her brighter, her smile more expressive. And often I didn’t even notice that she limped. Her romantic story, with the boyfriend from home and the five suitors that she had sent packing, had affected me more than could have imagined…

So, the sudden change in her behaviour one morning, really took me by surprise.

“What’s the matter with Penelope?” I asked my friend as soon as she came into the sitting room.

She lifted her hands in despair.

“Don’t ask…”

“What happened?”

“The builder got married.”

“What?”

“You heard…”

“But… just like that?”

“Yes. Two weeks ago…”

I looked at her with a feeling of triumph and at the same time with great indignation.

“Didn’t I tell you?”

“What did you tell me? Not even the most dramatic playwright could have imagined this! He rang her up to go out on Sunday, as usual, and he introduced his wife to her. The rotten devil!…”

I was thunderstruck.

“Unbelievable! Absolutely unimaginable! And what explanation did he give her?”

My friend shrugged in contempt.

“He didn’t bother. ‘Love at first sight…’ So he said. He couldn’t help it.”

“Poor Penelope!…”

“Yes, indeed! She finally is to be pitied…”

I signalled to her to stop talking, as I saw Penelope coming towards us. She stood at the door and looked at me apologetically.

“I’m sorry… I didn’t behave properly when you came in. The mistress must have told you what happened. Please forgive me…”

I smiled.

“Never mind, Penelope. We are all upset at times.”

Her expression changed at once. Her face went red, her eyes flashed, her lips narrowed into a straight line and then, all of a sudden, they pursed, full of hatred.

“I’m not just upset!” she shouted hoarsely. “I’m furious with that wretch who deceived me all these years! And I, like an idiot, waited for him and missed so many other chances! It serves me right! Ithought of myself as another Penelope. How stupid I was? What a fool! She waited for Odysseus but she didn’t waste her time. All right… He may have played around, but in the end he came back to her. He didn’t abandon her and marry someone else. Why do you think he didn’t? Because he was a king? No! Because he had a heart and he loved her! That creature never loved me! He promised to marry me just to have company on Sundays! And so it was walks in the park and ice cream, until the years slipped by and I became an old maid without realising it… At least if we had made love I would have, gained something. Never mind if I’m old… but not a maid as well!”

She lifted her head, fixed her eyes on the ceiling and raised her arms, like the heroine in an ancient tragedy.

“Damn him! May he have no joy from his marriage and may he die in terrible agony!”

We froze. The scene was in some way metaphysical… frightening. And the deathly silence which followed the terrible curse of Penelope, filled us with awe and left us speechless.

I felt my hair stand on end and waves of shock ran through me. It was a really terrible feeling.

“Penelope!” my friend managed to murmur at last. “It’s a sin to curse someone. You must go to confession…”

The old maid suddenly came back to reality. Her eyes flashed even more as they left the ceiling and fixed penetratingly on her mistress.

“Oh! Do leave me alone with your advice! It’s easy to talk about things that don’t concern you!”

She turned her back on us and left, slamming the door with all her might. Her fury was so great, that she didn’t realise, even afterwards that she had spoken disrespectfully to my friend in front of someone else.

“Penelope!” my friend was angry with her for the first time, too.

She started to get up to run after her, but I instinctively put out my hand and stopped her.

“Leave her alone. It’s better to pretend that you didn’t hear. You grew up together, don’t forget! And she’s loyal and loves you. Never mind if she misbehaves occasionally…”

She looked at me in amazement.

“But… that wasn’t your view before!”

“It is now. Keep on putting up with Penelope, if you want my advice. Don’t ever test her love… I, at least, in your place, wouldn’t risk it at all!”

Translated by Christine Georghiades

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