The Death of Margaret Roe

He turned to me again and leaned against the wall, turning his back on the darkness. Twos and twos. I assure you that I am here as a friend. And I was right, of course. He’d left them money enough, and they took what they had and moved out of town, right out to where they had some land here in Greendot. To be nothing. ‘Shall I tell you all now?’ she said. It was just part of the fabric of Greendot, part of the landscape. ‘It would do the town a world of good to see one of the Roe girls married off to Havilah Brown,’ she said. They had served me well, and Greendot had served me well, so I haven’t had much cause to go abroad. Nat Newman’s ‘The Death of Margaret Roe’   is the winning entry from the Pacific. I went up to her grave and I promised to keep her secrets, especially the ones which weren’t hers. ‘Been a while, Havilah,’ I said, as he sat at my bar. ‘But as you said, Jenny. And if I can add it all up, how long do you think it’ll be before other folks do too? ‘Just say what you’ve got to damn well say whenever you want to say it. And then to be reminded once again that you are not a man, nor ever will be, because the Reverend’s wife has dug her up.’
I stood then and took his hands. This inheritance effectively doubled Havilah Brown’s farm, as well as his desirability as a husband. As was our custom in those parts, the Will of Margaret Roe was opened and read on the year anniversary of her death. A woman to keep your house, and keep your bed warm, and give you hugs and kisses to your heart’s content.’
We were still holding hands in that nice bare room, and I wasn’t sure how much I was going to have to spell myself out. Why, you’re the most manly man I know!’
‘Thank you, Jenny. ‘He just wanted to cuddle. And later that summer, Havilah Brown moved into town, and he made his wife very happy indeed. I know a thing or two about the people of this town. Whoever got to see Havilah Brown and his nice clean room? Margaret was Havilah’s… ‘I knew she’d be back somehow or other.’
‘Maybe I’ll drop by and call on you at home this evening?’
‘That’ll be fine,’ he said, and left. And I felt it again today, in town, that Margaret and her curse were back.’
‘Curse?’
‘That’s what I called it. ‘Before she was Mrs Roe, she was one Miss Margaret Brown.’ She paused for effect. As I pulled into his drive I saw him smoking in the darkness. ‘When?’ he said. Now ever since news got out about Margaret Roe’s Will, there’s been a lot of talk about the Roes and the Browns and how you two might be related. If anyone else found out it would destroy him.  
*
 
I rode into Greendot about 20 years ago with nothing but a few dollars and my wits. A solid woman by your side to shut down any questions. What Havilah Brown thought of these attentions only he knew, if he knew at all.  
*
 
Havilah knew something was amiss the moment he came in to town. I know now what was between you and Margaret Brown, Havilah. People will ask questions.’
‘Then you need a wife.’
‘A wife?’
‘Aye. ‘I went through the parish register – it’s a thing I do occasionally, you know, to make sure everything is up to date, keep everything in order. Original, I’m from Burwave. ‘The Browns of Burwave,’ said Evie.  
*
 
I had never been in the marrying game before; I just wasn’t that way inclined, not until after Margaret Roe died. There’s no such thing as a curse. I waited until he had finished and paid and I said, all casual, ‘Havilah, I got some news concerning your sister that I think you want to know.’
He nodded. If I were to ask the right questions, would I find that my Mr Brown that I remember from Burwave, would I find that his given name was Havilah?’
‘What is it that you want from me, Miss Jenny? But the revelation that the Roes and the Browns were natural relations ruled out the possibility of either of the Roe girls becoming Mrs Brown, a fact which I don’t think bothered them in the slightest. We had the wake at my place, of course, and I was busy getting my girls respectable so we could all, for one day at least, be anything but a blemish on the town of Greendot. ‘Nothing in particular,’ and like that the transaction was done. ‘Margaret.’ He got up and walked to the window, looked out into that dark nothing of a night, full of nothing, and crawling with secrets and hidden places. I don’t know if you know, but I’m not from Greendot.’
‘Hardly anyone is.’
‘True enough. As long as her gaze was upon me, I could never be a man. But this small piece of news quietly wended its way from the probate’s office down all the streets and into all the homes until, by dint of circulation, like a whirlpool, it became very big news indeed. ‘Where were the Browns from?’
‘Burwave,’ said the Reverend’s wife. ‘Aye. ‘The deep kind.’ She poked her tongue out at me. He scared me a little, as I think he scared everyone a little. And no one was bothered when Havilah Brown once more came into town. They were the light of Mr Brown’s eyes, and after he died they disappeared. All gentleman-like he took my horse and led me down and into his house. You are a steadfast, hardworking, taciturn man. All anyone ever knew was that bad blood had always existed between Margaret Roe and Havilah Brown, from way back before Greendot even was a dot. The air was sticky with apprehension. And what I remember is this: Old Mr Brown, he had two daughters, one named Margaret and the other named Laverne, but he never, no never, he never had no sons.’
We sat in silence, we two. Although he continued to visit my girls upstairs, he didn’t seem to be interested in the single women of Greendot. Men took care to introduce their daughters when Havilah passed by. And it jogged some memories. After he first came in after Margaret Roe’s death, after that first beer, Havilah started to come into Greendot more often, more like once or twice a week. Every person has their own secrets, but Margaret Roe had Havilah Brown’s. But I’ve been adding twos and twos and I’m just telling you what it’s all adding up to. He lurked there in that in-between place, and I felt every centimetre of his quiet bulk. The Reverend, whose holy house Havilah had never entered, not even once, went to visit Brown Farm along with his wife and daughter – though which he wanted to marry off was unclear. They had decent inheritances, were bright, though not smart. It’s not across town yet.’
He didn’t say anything to that either, just finished his tea and left, but I knew I’d be seeing him again pretty soon. I’d never known him to smoke before. I didn’t know anything until Havilah kissed me. Most of the men in town sat at the tables, with their beers and brews, cloudy drinks in glasses as clean and cold as I could make them out in this dusty place, while their wives, when they had them, sat out back in the Ladies’ Tea Room in the shady yard. ‘Margaret Roe is gone,’ I said to him, as I passed him his tea. Dubois snorted. Margaret’s father’s name was… ‘Just this morning. But Havilah always sat at the bar, drinking his tea and making nothing in the way of small talk. ‘Or after the meeting?’
‘For God’s sake,’ said Evie, the draper and funeral parlour director. Realistically, a man couldn’t choose between them, Dubois used to say. He would sit at the bar and drink his tea, never anything stronger , and not say much; not much of anything passed those lips, liquid or words, those lips of Havilah Brown. Havilah Brown.’
This time we did all pause. Strong as an ox was Havilah, and broad as three men, but he was the only man I knew in Greendot who always went about clean shaven. ‘Actually,’ he said, after rubbing his chin for a while. Talk naturally came around to the two Roe daughters, both solid young Greendot girls who were identical in every way. ‘Then we might finally be able to tell the difference between them.’
This last idea was starting to take hold when it was suddenly arrested. ‘
I suddenly knew what Margaret Roe’s secret was, and the knowledge filled me with dread and excitement. He ran his hand over his naked chin, nodded to the men at the tables and came and sat in front of me at the bar. ‘I thought it might be. But now that they were getting to know him, the town started to think of him as a great man, a man worth knowing. I had said my bit and more. Is it money?’
‘I won’t take offence at that, Mr Brown. A man without a wife or a daughter gets very few visitors. ‘Tea?’
He ran his hand over his face, rubbed his chin real close. cousin?’
‘Sister,’ I said, before I could stop myself. It bothered no one at all. After he left, later that night, I went up to ask Dawn what had happened. I looked up at him earnestly. And kiss.’
She had a grin that I could read as easy as anything. Yes, in a small town even I can be on the church committee. ‘Is that it, is it?’ he said. I also knew who was going to be Havilah’s wife. ‘Not such a common name. He came in only now and then, only to get his regular supplies from Evan Owens’ grocery store, and on each occasion he would cross my threshold, maybe once, maybe twice, cross my door with his thick-soled boots and darken my floor with his shadow that stretched across the whole room. ‘How about this. I arrived at Havilah’s well after sunset, even the purple tinge gone from the edges. ‘Now when Mrs Reverend was talking about Margaret Roe being a Brown, that’s when I remembered those Browns from Burwave. I had expected to see him more often now that Margaret Roe was gone, but weeks passed and still I didn’t see him, no not even once, not until the dust had well and truly settled on Margaret Roe and whatever secrets she held. Havilah Brown lived on the outskirts of town, blessed with an abundance of land and a paucity of dependents. ‘Oh Havilah. Havilah looked down at me nervously. That’s what it felt like. It had been going on so long and so quiet that we didn’t even have conspiracies about it. Ellie Owens, a forward young lass of 19, was always on hand at the grocery store to serve him herself. But others won’t be so generous.’
‘Havilah, you are greatly admired in this town. And I tell you again, I am your friend. I pulled my shawl around me out of habit, but I wasn’t cold. ‘Is it that you’re in the market for a husband, Jenny?’
‘I never was before, but then I never met the right man before.’
‘And… What could come between a brother and a sister to make them hate each other so much, and to go to such lengths to hide their relationship, and yet continue on in the same town together? Not a word passed the lips of Havilah Brown that day, but to order his pints. I had to warn him before any more questions were asked. ‘Actually, I think I’ll have a beer.’
I have been doing this too long to be surprised by anything, so I got Havilah his beer and thought to myself, ah-ha, yes, here it comes, finally Havilah Brown is coming to town. ‘Aye, the Mr Brown you knew in Burwave, his name was Havilah.’
I breathed out. ‘Beer?’
And I wasn’t surprised when he shook his head and asked for tea. I have a great deal of respect for you, Havilah, more than you maybe realise. Greendot is a particularly staid town and not much flutters its feathers. ‘Not such an uncommon name,’ said Evie. It was then that the Reverend’s wife went snooping – as who couldn’t – and discovered something so astonishing that it almost counted as an occasion. This isn’t Parliament.’
‘Pause the Hansard!’ yelled out Dubois. Oh, but I loved my sister, I did. ‘Only Margaret Roe’s marriage entry,’ said the Reverend’s wife, holding her biscuit aloft. Shall I tell you what I know?’
Havilah nodded. Why brood? In partnership with the   Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I thought so. She was never ruffled. ‘Who?’ I said. The Reverend’s wife had barely walked into the yard but could hardly contain herself. I think you’re the finest gentleman in all of Greendot, I do. ‘The night has only started.’
Havilah Brown had always had a reputation as a good farmer, a smart businessman. I didn’t mean to cause you any distress, truly. And I feel it,’ he said.  
*
 
Greendot was ahum by the afternoon with the news of Margaret Roe’s death. I am here to help you, Havilah Brown.’
He paused for a long time, carefully thinking about my words. ‘Must be a family name. No one would ever think of you as anything but a complete man. That’s why I couldn’t leave Greendot, not entirely. And I felt it, every day, that I wasn’t a man while she was nearby. As easy as I could smell the room. ‘I feel like she’s back again,’ he said. I remember there used to be a family in Burwave. ‘It’s only this,’ said the Reverend’s wife, taking a biscuit and dribbling crumbs all over her frock while she talked and ate and spat. He was always just Mr Brown as far as I knew, never heard of no Mrs Brown, although she must have existed at some time because there were two children. She left the greater part of her land and fortune to her six children, naturally, but she had also owned a large piece of uncultivated land, known locally as Brown’s Beard, and this she left to her ‘natural relation, Havilah Brown’. It had been a curious night. Bad blood there was and that was the end of it. ‘I believe you had some news for me,’ he said. ‘Just haven’t met the right man yet,’ she said, and I told her she was probably right. We sat down to tea, Havilah and me; we sat down to tea in his very nice front room and I wondered, who ever came out here and had tea? That’s my role, and it’s very important. Just found out myself. The Reverend’s wife’s snooping and my remark had combined like molasses. ‘He is going to make his wife very happy.’
‘Get yourself cleaned up,’ I said. We were sitting out in the Ladies’ Tea Room holding the church committee meeting. That’s right. ‘My sister always said that I could never be a man while we shared the earth. The Browns.’
‘Go on.’
‘I was only young, but I remember that Mr Brown was a big man, right huge he was. I think you’re a perfect gentleman.’
I saw the beginnings of a blush on Havilah’s broad brown clean face. Once he sat at my bar and had two beers without saying a word. ‘I do. But never when I was a man.’
‘And so you stayed, but hidden?’
‘To be nothing! A big man always was Havilah Brown. It’s not that Margaret was well-liked or especially well-known, but we don’t have so many funerals in this town and a funeral might be a sad occasion for some, but it’s just an occasion for most. Everyone except for Margaret Roe. ‘All right then,’ said the Reverend’s wife. ‘Did you have anything particular in mind, Jenny?’
‘Nothing in particular,’ I said, and the transaction was done. He darkened my doorway same as he ever did, looming there on the cusp like he didn’t know if he was coming or going. And she did come, you know, sometimes to see me here. Margaret never spoke about it, only scowled when Havilah’s name came up, and Havilah never spoke at all, so all we ever knew was he didn’t come into town much and she never saw him if she could help it. It was something in the way of an occasion, then, when I ponied up and made my way to the outskirts of town. She nudged me and asked if I was going to take a leaf out of her book and become an honest woman. ‘You seem wary enough today, Havilah,’ I said. He came in the day that Margaret Roe died, the day she finally succumbed to a life of a bad heart and worse lungs. There’s only superstition and doubt. A pretty uncommon name, I think you’ll agree.’
‘Havilah Brown is Margaret’s father?’ said Dubois. I know a lot of people’s secrets. ‘What kind of kissing?’
‘The long kind,’ she said. And the town of Greendot was soon of the opinion that what they needed was another occasion, and that what Havilah Brown needed was a wife. I mostly found out my gossip from Dubois. Havilah Brown didn’t come to the funeral, nor did he come into town afterwards. And when he came into my place he didn’t always just sit and scowl at the bar with a tea, not always. ‘Margaret had at least 15 years on Havilah.’
‘Of what parish?’ I said. Does any of this sound familiar to you?’
Havilah Brown never took no sip of his tea, just said ‘it’s not an unfamiliar story.’
‘Now then, I can’t remember Mr Brown’s given name right now. When he finished the second, he quietly said, ‘I wonder if I might go upstairs.’
‘Did you have anything particular in mind?’ I said, with all the calm and professionalism of my profession. Carried through generations. She hadn’t yet bathed and the room still smelled strongly of her, very strongly. You seem to think you know something, so I assume you want something in return. He said nothing for a minute, just stirred his tea, which wasn’t out of the ordinary for him; stirring his tea quietly, his tea with no sugar in it, nor milk neither. ‘Like all these other silly biddies?’
I told her I wasn’t in the marrying game, and never had been. You can tell a lot about a man by what he does upstairs. It’s only this. Havilah only ever spoke about his livestock, not being furnished with the latter two, but he listened well and laughed at the right moments, and slowly Havilah Brown moved into the mind of the town, as though he’d always been there. I was secretary, which mainly involved providing my garden and tea once a month. Well, I’m from Burwave. ‘Have you set your sights on Havilah?’ she asked me. A nice home it was, I was surprised, with all the sparsity of a bachelor’s but none of its coldness. Sometimes, he’d sit with some of the other men, listen as they swapped stories about their farms, their families, their fears. I had remembered something forgotten, and now I was feeling something very, very old. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Dubois,’ said the Reverend’s wife. So as I say, I was going through the parish register and what did I find?’
‘Registers,’ said Evie. Even though he handled the china nice and offered me lumps, the answer was that hardly anyone at all visited Havilah Brown on the outskirts of town. They must have had a hell of task getting her up there, and I heard they were all asweat by the time they reached the top. Margaret’s four sons and two daughters took the box holding her earthly remains and carried her to the lawn up on Dawson’s Hill. That means a great deal to me. Margaret is well and truly gone, and even when she was here she couldn’t stop you being you. ‘Nothing much,’ she said, fanning herself on her dishevelled bed, her breasts splayed across her chest and touching the round folds of her belly. But I think you might know it. I saw him there again on my doorstep, hesitating on the threshold and crossing slowly like he didn’t belong anywhere, neither in nor out. And occasions, being occasional, are a reason to hum. I was in earnest and I guess he knew that, because he finally answered me. She had been one of my girls before going off to get married to the brewer. and am I the right man?’
‘I think you are.’
I still didn’t know if I was coming or going, if he would kill me in a rage or if I would leave his house in shame. ‘I wonder if I might go upstairs,’ I said. The questions stuck in the air.