In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Nat Newman’s ‘The Death of Margaret Roe’ is the winning entry from the Pacific.
Havilah Brown lived on the outskirts of town, blessed with an abundance of land and a paucity of dependents. 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. A big man always was Havilah Brown.
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.
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. But Havilah always sat at the bar, drinking his tea and making nothing in the way of small talk. He lurked there in that in-between place, and I felt every centimetre of his quiet bulk. He scared me a little, as I think he scared everyone a little. Everyone except for Margaret Roe.
He came in the day that Margaret Roe died, the day she finally succumbed to a life of a bad heart and worse lungs.
‘Margaret Roe is gone,’ I said to him, as I passed him his tea.
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.
‘When?’ he said.
‘Just this morning. Just found out myself. 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 know a thing or two about the people of this town. I know a lot of people’s secrets. Every person has their own secrets, but Margaret Roe had Havilah Brown’s.
Greendot was ahum by the afternoon with the news of Margaret Roe’s death. 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. And occasions, being occasional, are a reason to hum.
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. 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. 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.
Havilah Brown didn’t come to the funeral, nor did he come into town afterwards. 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.
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. 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 had been going on so long and so quiet that we didn’t even have conspiracies about it. It was just part of the fabric of Greendot, part of the landscape. Why brood? Bad blood there was and that was the end of it. It bothered no one at all.
And no one was bothered when Havilah Brown once more came into town. 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.
‘Been a while, Havilah,’ I said, as he sat at my bar. ‘Tea?’
He ran his hand over his face, rubbed his chin real close. 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. ‘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.
And I was right, of course. 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. And when he came into my place he didn’t always just sit and scowl at the bar with a tea, not always. Sometimes, he’d sit with some of the other men, listen as they swapped stories about their farms, their families, their fears. 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.
Once he sat at my bar and had two beers without saying a word. Not a word passed the lips of Havilah Brown that day, but to order his pints. 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.
‘Nothing in particular,’ and like that the transaction was done.
You can tell a lot about a man by what he does upstairs. After he left, later that night, I went up to ask Dawn what had happened.
‘Nothing much,’ she said, fanning herself on her dishevelled bed, her breasts splayed across her chest and touching the round folds of her belly. She hadn’t yet bathed and the room still smelled strongly of her, very strongly. ‘He just wanted to cuddle. And kiss.’
She had a grin that I could read as easy as anything. As easy as I could smell the room. ‘What kind of kissing?’
‘The long kind,’ she said. ‘The deep kind.’ She poked her tongue out at me. ‘He is going to make his wife very happy.’
‘Get yourself cleaned up,’ I said. ‘The night has only started.’
Havilah Brown had always had a reputation as a good farmer, a smart businessman. But now that they were getting to know him, the town started to think of him as a great man, a man worth knowing. 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. Men took care to introduce their daughters when Havilah passed by. Ellie Owens, a forward young lass of 19, was always on hand at the grocery store to serve him herself. 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. I mostly found out my gossip from Dubois. She had been one of my girls before going off to get married to the brewer. She nudged me and asked if I was going to take a leaf out of her book and become an honest woman.
‘Have you set your sights on Havilah?’ she asked me. ‘Like all these other silly biddies?’
I told her I wasn’t in the marrying game, and never had been.
‘Just haven’t met the right man yet,’ she said, and I told her she was probably right.
What Havilah Brown thought of these attentions only he knew, if he knew at all. Although he continued to visit my girls upstairs, he didn’t seem to be interested in the single women of Greendot.
Talk naturally came around to the two Roe daughters, both solid young Greendot girls who were identical in every way. They had decent inheritances, were bright, though not smart. Realistically, a man couldn’t choose between them, Dubois used to say.
‘It would do the town a world of good to see one of the Roe girls married off to Havilah Brown,’ she said. ‘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. As was our custom in those parts, the Will of Margaret Roe was opened and read on the year anniversary of her death. 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’. This inheritance effectively doubled Havilah Brown’s farm, as well as his desirability as a husband. 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.
Greendot is a particularly staid town and not much flutters its feathers. 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. 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.
We were sitting out in the Ladies’ Tea Room holding the church committee meeting. I was secretary, which mainly involved providing my garden and tea once a month. Yes, in a small town even I can be on the church committee. The Reverend’s wife had barely walked into the yard but could hardly contain herself. ‘Shall I tell you all now?’ she said. ‘Or after the meeting?’
‘For God’s sake,’ said Evie, the draper and funeral parlour director. ‘Just say what you’ve got to damn well say whenever you want to say it. This isn’t Parliament.’
‘Pause the Hansard!’ yelled out Dubois.
‘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. ‘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. That’s my role, and it’s very important. So as I say, I was going through the parish register and what did I find?’
‘Registers,’ said Evie. She was never ruffled.
‘Only Margaret Roe’s marriage entry,’ said the Reverend’s wife, holding her biscuit aloft. ‘Before she was Mrs Roe, she was one Miss Margaret Brown.’ She paused for effect.
‘Not such an uncommon name,’ said Evie.
‘All right then,’ said the Reverend’s wife. ‘How about this. Margaret’s father’s name was . . . Havilah Brown.’
This time we did all pause.
‘Not such a common name. A pretty uncommon name, I think you’ll agree.’
‘Havilah Brown is Margaret’s father?’ said Dubois.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Dubois,’ said the Reverend’s wife. ‘Margaret had at least 15 years on Havilah.’
‘Of what parish?’ I said. ‘Where were the Browns from?’
‘Burwave,’ said the Reverend’s wife.
‘The Browns of Burwave,’ said Evie. ‘Must be a family name. Carried through generations. Margaret was Havilah’s . . . cousin?’
‘Sister,’ I said, before I could stop myself. ‘
I suddenly knew what Margaret Roe’s secret was, and the knowledge filled me with dread and excitement. If anyone else found out it would destroy him. I had to warn him before any more questions were asked.
I also knew who was going to be Havilah’s wife.
Havilah knew something was amiss the moment he came in to town. The air was sticky with apprehension. The Reverend’s wife’s snooping and my remark had combined like molasses. 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? The questions stuck in the air.
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. 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.
‘You seem wary enough today, Havilah,’ I said.
‘Aye. And I feel it,’ he said.
And I wasn’t surprised when he shook his head and asked for tea.
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. ‘Is that it, is it?’ he said. ‘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.
I rode into Greendot about 20 years ago with nothing but a few dollars and my wits. They had served me well, and Greendot had served me well, so I haven’t had much cause to go abroad. It was something in the way of an occasion, then, when I ponied up and made my way to the outskirts of town.
I arrived at Havilah’s well after sunset, even the purple tinge gone from the edges. As I pulled into his drive I saw him smoking in the darkness. I’d never known him to smoke before.
All gentleman-like he took my horse and led me down and into his house. A nice home it was, I was surprised, with all the sparsity of a bachelor’s but none of its coldness. I pulled my shawl around me out of habit, but I wasn’t cold.
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? Whoever got to see Havilah Brown and his nice clean room? A man without a wife or a daughter gets very few visitors. 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.
‘I believe you had some news for me,’ he said.
‘I do. It’s only this. I don’t know if you know, but I’m not from Greendot.’
‘Hardly anyone is.’
‘True enough. Well, I’m from Burwave. That’s right. Original, I’m from Burwave. 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. And it jogged some memories. I remember there used to be a family in Burwave. The Browns.’
‘I was only young, but I remember that Mr Brown was a big man, right huge he was. 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. They were the light of Mr Brown’s eyes, and after he died they disappeared. 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. 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. But I think you might know it. 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? You seem to think you know something, so I assume you want something in return. Is it money?’
‘I won’t take offence at that, Mr Brown. I assure you that I am here as a friend. I have a great deal of respect for you, Havilah, more than you maybe realise. I think you’re the finest gentleman in all of Greendot, I do. But I’ve been adding twos and twos and I’m just telling you what it’s all adding up to. And if I can add it all up, how long do you think it’ll be before other folks do too? I am here to help you, Havilah Brown.’
He paused for a long time, carefully thinking about my words. I was in earnest and I guess he knew that, because he finally answered me.
‘Aye, the Mr Brown you knew in Burwave, his name was Havilah.’
I breathed out.
‘I thought it might be. I thought so. I know now what was between you and Margaret Brown, Havilah. And I tell you again, I am your friend. Shall I tell you what I know?’
‘Now when Mrs Reverend was talking about Margaret Roe being a Brown, that’s when I remembered those Browns from Burwave. 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. I had said my bit and more.
‘I feel like she’s back again,’ he said.
‘Who?’ I said.
‘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. He turned to me again and leaned against the wall, turning his back on the darkness.
‘My sister always said that I could never be a man while we shared the earth. And I felt it, every day, that I wasn’t a man while she was nearby. And I felt it again today, in town, that Margaret and her curse were back.’
‘That’s what I called it. That’s what it felt like. As long as her gaze was upon me, I could never be a man. Oh, but I loved my sister, I did. That’s why I couldn’t leave Greendot, not entirely. And she did come, you know, sometimes to see me here. But never when I was a man.’
‘And so you stayed, but hidden?’
‘To be nothing! To be nothing. 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. It had been a curious night. I had remembered something forgotten, and now I was feeling something very, very old. ‘Oh Havilah. I didn’t mean to cause you any distress, truly. There’s no such thing as a curse. There’s only superstition and doubt. Margaret is well and truly gone, and even when she was here she couldn’t stop you being you. Why, you’re the most manly man I know!’
‘Thank you, Jenny. That means a great deal to me. But others won’t be so generous.’
‘Havilah, you are greatly admired in this town. You are a steadfast, hardworking, taciturn man. No one would ever think of you as anything but a complete man. I think you’re a perfect gentleman.’
I saw the beginnings of a blush on Havilah’s broad brown clean face.
‘But as you said, Jenny. Twos and twos. People will ask questions.’
‘Then you need a wife.’
‘Aye. A solid woman by your side to shut down any questions. 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. I looked up at him earnestly.
Havilah looked down at me nervously. ‘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 . . . 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 didn’t know anything until Havilah kissed me.
‘I wonder if I might go upstairs,’ I said.
‘Did you have anything particular in mind, Jenny?’
‘Nothing in particular,’ I said, and the transaction was done.
I had never been in the marrying game before; I just wasn’t that way inclined, not until after Margaret Roe died. I went up to her grave and I promised to keep her secrets, especially the ones which weren’t hers. And later that summer, Havilah Brown moved into town, and he made his wife very happy indeed.