‘What sights?’ she scoffed. ‘The curling rink? That wasteland of a shopping centre? The one-room library? That barn of a school out in the tundra all the kids go to? It’s not as if the people I’ve met here have anything to say. They’ve never been anywhere outside this ice-field of a country. Voltaire was right to dismiss it as quelques arpents de neige !’
Her husband hastily withdrew his objection, and in due course the visiting couple was invited to dinner.
The evening was not a success. The professor drank too much, dropped cigar ash on the carpet, and was loud in his dismissiveness of much that Miranda’s husband ventured an opinion on, while his wife, cowed and submissive, looked fearfully around the room. The host, relieved at their guests’ early departure, was disconcerted to hear his wife declare she would invite the wife, Constanza, over for morning coffee later that same week.
‘They’re only here till the spring,’ she said, ‘if there is such a season here.’
At coffee on Wednesday, with intermittent heavy flurries threatening to blanket the city, Constanza arrived by taxi. She surveyed the sloping driveway deep in snow helplessly, and then cautiously advanced, testing each uncertain step she took for purchase. When she got to the door, Miranda noticed her hair was awry, and she was not wearing winter boots. Stonily her hostess watched her remove her soaked shoes and pad apologetically into the living-room, leaving a trail of wet marks in her wake. A silver coffee pot awaited them on a circular table.
‘I’m in such a tizzy,’ said Constanza unnecessarily. ’I don’t know how you manage…’ She left the sentence unfinished.
‘Black or white?’ asked her hostess, poised with the coffee pot.
‘Oh, um, miscegenated, please,’ and sensing Miranda’s bafflement, added, giggling nervously, ‘That’s one of Sven’s sociology jokes, I think. Coffee and a little milk– or cream, if you have it.’
Cradling her cup in both hands as if to warm them, Constanza leaned forward confidentially. Away from her overbearing husband, she was apparently eager to unburden herself.
‘How do you get into society here?’ she asked abruptly. Taken aback by such directness, Miranda merely stared at her in incomprehension. Her guest’s dark eyes pleaded. Her lips, to Miranda’s consternation, quavered.
‘I mean, how do you make contact with others…like yourselves- people who are well-connected and have good taste? Sophisticated, better people, those in high society.’
‘I don’t know,’ she answered, sensing the disappointment her reply would bring. ‘I… we… haven’t been here long ourselves.’
‘Oh, I thought you had. Perhaps I misunderstood.’ Gamely, Constanza switched to safer topics– to children, holidays, the cost of living, and the weather. Miranda was surprised to hear no reference to the place they both called home. Just before she left, Constanza grasped her hand fiercely, looked her directly in the eye, and said,
‘I hope I shall be happy here. Sven doesn’t take me anywhere. It’s not that he’s ashamed of me, but he says I would be bored by intellectual conversation, you see. I just went to secretarial college. Sven is… always out. And I miss the children dreadfully. One is so cut off from people, don’t you think? By the cold, I mean. Do you find it cold?’
‘Do you mean the climate or the people?’
Constanza tittered nervously, sensing a leading question. ‘Oh, I suppose I meant the climate’…
There was no reply.
She buttoned her coat.
‘Oh, there’s the taxi. I’ll be in touch.’
Constanza never was in touch. She faded from Miranda’s memory until the day, several months later, when her husband, shaking freezing rain from his overcoat, told her in lowered tones he’d heard she had died by her own hand in their downtown apartment after she had discovered further evidence of Sven’s infidelity.
‘Poor soul,’ said her husband. ‘But I never liked him. He was a philanderer.’
Miranda blinked. ‘She seemed to have everything she needed. And at least she got out of this place…’