It was a raw, hard land they had come to, now in the grip of a bitter winter, at the height of the Cold War, not long after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Lured by the promise of a better life, they had set aside a vagabond existence, and settled into an uneasy domesticity in a rambling suburban villa designed by an eccentric former owner for a much warmer climate. Its open-plan interior contained an enclosed ‘atrium,’ punctuated by skylights that let in a flood of light on sunny days. It reminded the wife of her sun-drenched patio in the tropics where she had met and married her husband, then posted overseas to a land whose humid and languorous sensuality beckoned her, even here, even now.
There had been trouble with the neighbours from the start. They had had to assert their right to privacy when the neighbourhood children used their backyard as a shortcut to friends’ houses below the hill their villa sprawled upon, ‘lording it over lesser breeds,’ as a caustic onlooker had once noted. Their children, polite but reserved, bookish rather than athletic, had declined invitations to play sports in the street. Neighbourly waves had been met with curt nods. Stories of perceived slights had become, in the re-telling, magnified into insults, and the neighbourhood’s initial curiosity about the exotic newcomers had turned to cold indifference. The husband, anxious to make a good impression on his new employer, saw little of this, but noticed his wife’s unhappiness, and felt powerless to change it.
The wife, left alone with her thoughts in the house during the day, brooded upon her lot.
She pined for heat and colour, for swaying palms, keening cicadas, and deferential servants. She reflected bitterly on the loss of her vivid social life: the thrill of dancing in the open air in the warm evening breeze under a soft black sky studded with stars, to the rhythm of samba and mariachi; the smell of Aqua Velva and perspiration on men’s damp collars; the titillating whispers of casual affairs discreetly managed; the heady perfume of tropical blooms unobtrusively watered by uniformed dark-skinned staff. She missed, above all, the cheerful vitality of an unregulated life, one unrestrained by puritanical inhibition, by a fear of what the neighbours thought. Below her Maresol mansion, she recalled, there had been a makeshift market of crowded but colourful inefficiency, complete with blind beggars, ragged thieving urchins, and sharp-eyed obsequious merchants, emblematic of a life in which she felt she had fully participated. Even the syphilitic newsvendor on the corner with the cavernous holes in his nose was good for an agreeable frisson of horror, and the maids’ dismal stories of spousal abuse and abandonment was grist for cocktail gossip at the country club. How different this was, she mused, from this life of bland conformist respectability in an icy Calvinist outpost among God’s frozen people.
One day, to cheer his wife Miranda up, the husband told her a former colleague he had distantly known in their former life had accepted a six-month overseas sabbatical appointment at the local university. He had brought his wife, but the children, her mother, and the housekeeper remained at home.
‘We must have them over,’ said Miranda, seizing the opportunity with an enthusiasm that made her husband flinch.
‘I’m not so sure. I don’t like him much,’ her husband objected weakly. ‘Not that I know him well,’ he conceded. ‘I thought you might…invite her to coffee, or…’ seeing the severity of Miranda’s disapproval, ‘…or go shopping. I don’t know her, and neither do you, but she’s from home—your home—and you would be company for each other. You could show her,’ he hesitated, ’the sights… such as they are…’