A COZY CORNISH COTTAGE AND A TOUCH OF HEMLOCK…. All Part of the Plan

| July 10, 2012 | Comments (0)

I met Wanda, in the early 1980s when she was at the top of her game. In her early fifties then and attractive in a girlish way, Wanda could be described as  still being in her prime.

We met through that global network of people who travel and live abroad. A friend of a friend had mentioned to Wanda before she set out from New York for her travel writing assignment to Indonesia that I lived in Jakarta, had a nice garden and a good cook and liked to meet new people. Quick to pick up on a connection – writers are always aggressive and often pushy about making contacts in strange, new countries – Wanda got herself invited  to my place for dinner one evening.

Since I had not been able to conjure up  any other guests that night, I expected Wanda to be a bit disappointed at not meeting “le tout Jakarta” at my table. It would be just her and me. As the hour neared for her arrival, I dreaded having invited her. What if she was boring or found me to be so ? After the cursory  “do you knows” and” how was the flight ?” and “did you find a decent hotel ?”, awkward silence might descend on us and I would be reduced to  rather frantic questions to myself (“Hmmm…why is the cook taking so long to put dinner together?”) before I  took refuge in a series of rapidly consumed gin and tonics, lapsing into drunken silence.

My fears were unwarranted. Wanda had come to  “The Emerald Girdle” – I loved that old Dutch colonial name for the Indonesian archipelago – to write a piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. One of  those “all of the above” articles that included travel, shopping, dining, socio-political gossip (were more Indonesian women covering their heads, wearing the hijab these days ?); what I termed an “everything and nothing” story, and she was a torrent of verbiage.

Settling in opposite her, I poured myself a stiff drink expecting to have my brain picked and be questioned on all manner of things about which I was inexpert and uninterested. I was relieved seconds  after her arrival to perceive that Wanda was a chatterbox who loved answering her own questions.  It seemed that Wanda’s views on Indonesia had already been carved in stone after reading an 800-word article in her in-flight magazine  – something about batik-making in Central Java – and she needed to know nothing more. So much the better. We could move on to other topics of interest like what was happening back in New York City. Were the sidewalks on Amsterdam Avenue still as full of dog turds as they had been  when I was there five years before? Were all the taxi-drivers still Russian refugee brain surgeons and ballet dancers?  Had Liza Minelli’s nostrils collapsed from too much coke? Those kinds of questions; issues that a serious United Nations career officer like me would  naturally be concerned about. Nothing is more boring than two foreigners sitting alone on a tropical Asian night, tearing into what’s wrong with the “natives”, complaining about the society that surrounds them while being silently served by smiling locals.

As a lazy conversationsalist, I found myself enjoying the soiree with Wanda, letting her do all the work. I was amused when she took on my houseboy, Triyono, another chatterbox, engaging him in conversation about everything under the sun. The chemistry was good. She talked and talked and he smiled and said, “Yes Ma’am” at appropriate intervals. Wanda was particularly taken with Triyono’s dress which was indeed  A DRESS. A tricky little black affair that had been discarded by a French lady house guest some months before. Triyono, not remotely gay or effeminate, but eccentrically Javanese,  had fished the crumpled garment from the trash bin, washed and ironed it, choosing to wear the dress every evening when he served dinner. His wardrobe was complemented by generous splashes of cheap cologne, Midnight in Shanghai, I believe.  As his employer, I had discretely advised Triyono that he had rather pronounced  body odor and that he should bathe before serving dinner. Choosing to ignore my advice, he substituted strong perfume for washing. The combination of the little black dress and the eau de cologne was devastating and drew many comments from diners from around the world.

Before dessert, the conversation veered sharply when Wanda informed me that she planned to kill her mother, a “rich bitch”, living on Park Avenue who would not share her wealth with Wanda. She admitted that Mama provided her with a paltry allowance, but  she DID keep Wanda on a tight leash. For years Wanda had begged her mother for enough money to buy a little cottage in Cornwall, England – She loved England, she avowed – but do you think the “bitch” would help make her dream come true ?No way! Murder was the only answer !

Over coffee after dinner Wanda also informed me that she was a dues-paying member of the Hemlock Society, an organization that encouraged suicide by various means – plastic bags over the head, car engines running in shuttered garages. I listened with interest and wondered why Wanda was wasting her time writing fluff for the New York Times Magazine when she could be penning grisly who-dunnits set in sinister cottages in Cornwall.

Our evening ended with long hugs in the garden,  punctuated by thick-tongued, tipsy promises to stay in touch.

Over the next couple of years Wanda and I exchanged notes and news, then fell out of touch as usually happens with fleeting global acquaintanceships. I returned on holiday to New York City some time later and found myself walking in Manhattan in the East 70s. Wanda’s neighborhood, I recalled. I consulted my address book and steered myself to East 77th Street. The building’s doorman said he remembered “Miss Wanda” but that she had moved away  the year before. There was no forwarding address, but he speculated that she might have moved “overseas” since she was always talking about England.

I thought no more of  Wanda, dismissing her and wishing her luck wherever she might have landed.

Many years later, after  moving back to New York City, I found myself at the computer one winter night. Almost compulsively and without any particular rhyme or reason, I went to the Google website and typed in Wanda’s name. Perhaps, if nothing else, one of her quirky articles about shopping in the crowded markets of Southeast Asia would pop up. Even treating the most mundane topic, Wanda had a way of writing that was funny and a bit mad. Reading what she wrote decades ago would surely make me laugh, recalling that eccentric evening we spent together in my house in Jakarta as monsoon rains pounded the tile roof. I had gotten into the habit of amusing myself “googling”, finding it an interesting and informative passtime. Just the night before by googling,  I had found out the difference between the Nazi and the Buddhist form of the Swastika; one is left-oriented, the other right-facing. There was a world of knowledge at my fingertips waiting to be discovered !

Not expecting any reponse to my Wanda search on Google, I was surprised to see her namepop up  on the screen followed by the words London Gazette Obituary. Opening the site, I read from the columns of a small English newpaper in Cornwall. Wanda had been found dead, apparently from suicide, alone in a  cottage in an isolated spot on the Cornish Coast.

I guess Wanda’s mother had finally found the largesse to buy her daughter the Cornish cottage of her dreams.  But why the suicide ? Some questions will never be answered.

 

 

 

 

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