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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume One Nov-Dec 2023
A man of substance, story by Kate Mahony.
At first, Molly wasn’t sure what the woman on the phone – Dan’s former office administrator – was saying to her. She sat down in a deckchair in the garden of their holiday home and tried to concentrate. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘Can you repeat that?’ At the other end of the phone the woman took a breath.
Ever since buying the holiday home in Waikanae, Molly had been encouraging Dan to retire from his accountancy practice in Wellington city. ‘We could move here permanently.’
Dan hadn’t been keen. ‘I’ve got a lot of work on right now. I can’t just leave. And I’ve got my staff to think about. After all, it’s their livelihoods at stake, too.’
Dan had recently lost two good clients – Rodney and Anita, a couple whom Molly considered were her friends. She had introduced them to him long ago when she and Dan first met. When she bumped into them in the city they told her Dan’s charges had got too expensive.
Dan was annoyed when she told him this. She felt he was blaming her. It wasn’t like him to be angry. Most people commented on what an easy-going personality he had. It had won him clients.
‘It’s not easy at the moment the way things are.’ He meant all the new competitors starting up in their fancy modern offices with their huge floor to ceiling windows and flashy coffee machines. People were taken in by things like that. That was why, Dan told her, he had been heading to the golf course on Fridays to network among the business owners. Some might be looking to switch accountants. It wasn’t easy getting old, Molly thought. And especially so for men. There was that expression: stale, pale and male.
Molly suspected he also didn’t want to be at home all the time with just her for company. Friends from tennis often complained how annoying it was to have their now retired husbands always asking, ‘when’s lunch?’ and flipping between TV channels with the remote. It was not as if she and Dan had adult children and grandchildren to spend time with. Both had been childless when they met and by then it was too late for Molly to have children.
Dan had just opened a bottle of Sauvignon in the garden at Waikanae on the first weekend of spring when he suddenly looked terrified, staggered, hand on chest and slumped to the ground. A massive heart attack. When the ambulance arrived, the ambulance officer and the driver struggled for ages conducting CPR. It was horrendous to watch, but there was little Molly could do.
Dan had been slowly putting on weight – comfort eating, she thought. Molly had been aware of it, but when she saw the two ambulance officers doing all they could, she realised how truly heavy he was. Obese really.
The ambulance officers phoned the funeral director for her. After he and his assistant took Dan’s body away in their van, Molly sat on her own in the garden she had planned to redesign. She had hoped Dan would help her with the new plantings once he retired. Tears flooded down her cheeks as she thought about this. Somehow she had never imagined Dan leaving her alone like this. And to cope with everything.
It was dusk before she stirred herself and messaged some of their friends to tell them. She called Dan’s office assistant. He said he’d let the staff know. A huge bouquet of flowers and an offer of help with anything that was needed arrived the next morning.
Dan had been dead three days when his former office administrator phoned Molly. Hilary had left the previous year. Molly waited for the other woman to offer her sympathy. She was surprised when Hilary took a deep breath and said there was something she had wanted to tell her ages ago. She was sorry she hadn’t. She asked her if she knew Dan had been “seeing other women.”
Dan? When? Who? Molly wasn’t sure which question to ask. They all seemed to tumble into her mind at once. Instead, she asked the other woman to repeat what she had said.
Hilary did so, only this time she clarified her statement. ‘He’s been seeing young women,’ Hilary said, more clearly this time.
Molly remembered Dan saying Hilary had left because she was offered a better salary, one he couldn’t or didn’t want to match. She was silent, processing this.
‘But it’s worse than that. He was paying for them through the company,’ Hilary said. ‘Cash, apartment accommodation, restaurant meals. And not just through the company, I suspect. Maybe go through what accounts you can find.’
Hilary began apologising again. Molly hung up. She went inside to the small room Dan had taken over as his office. One time she had seen him fiddling under the too-big oak desk. She knelt down to find a key attached to the underside by a wad of sticky tack. Dan had never been that imaginative, he was more of a paperwork man.
She held the key in her hand and thought of the dark old-fashioned office near Parliament buildings in the city. Could Hilary mean the one or two intelligent-looking girls with heavy, black-framed glasses who she had seen working industriously at their computers when she visited Dan’s workplace? Part timers doing university degrees. These girls, they came and went, on to other jobs in other companies once they had their qualifications. Hilary couldn’t have meant them.
She remembered then the Christmas function. She had turned to catch a young member of staff, a girl really, who was reaching up to touch his tie, admiring it. She was from Manila, she told Molly when she saw her standing there. In Manila, business people thought it important to dress smartly. In New Zealand men dressed rather too casually. No ties. Open shirts. Molly, busy looking around for somewhere to off load her empty wine glass, hadn’t paid her much attention.
She unlocked the old filing cabinet in the corner of the room. As she pulled a drawer out, a stack of bank statements fell through the broken hanging files onto the carpet all around her.
She ran her gaze down pages she had never seen before. A list of payments: restaurants she had never been to, with unusual and exotic names, businesses that meant nothing to her, and here and there, boutique hotel accommodation. Her heart sped up. She thought she might be sick as she read everything through again, hoping to make sense of it.
Finally, she pulled herself together and made a call to her nephew who worked in the head office of one of the major banks. Something to do with forensic accounting. He listened as she read out an account of what she had seen on the paperwork. ‘Call your bank manager,’ he said. ‘Though it doesn’t sound good. I fear you may have…’
‘What? Lost everything?’ Molly could hear her voice rise, almost to a squeak.
The nephew sighed. ‘I’m afraid so.’
The bank manager was equally sombre. Dan had re-mortgaged their house in Wellington. It had always been in his name. But there was something else. He had also cleared out some of their investments.
‘Dan looked after all the financial stuff,’ Molly said. ‘Being an accountant.’ She could hear herself sounding so plaintive. She cursed under her breath. How could she have been so gullible? She wasn’t sure if she had said this aloud.
If the bank manager heard her, he didn’t comment.
The funeral director had begun calling her with possible service times. He needed to know what she wanted. ‘A cremation,’ she said. ‘No wreath.’ Type of casket? The cheapest, she said. She no longer cared.
There were people who thought the service rushed although no one said anything in Molly’s vicinity. The lack of eulogies was strange, they murmured quietly among themselves afterwards. Of course, that was Molly, a no fuss kind of woman. Now Dan, on the other hand, was a man of substance. People would have had stories, surely. He was known to have a circle of friends at the golf club, wasn’t he? He had put at least one young girl from the office through university on a scholarship. And there had been other generous donations.
But if Molly wanted the service to be as short and unsentimental as it was, that was how she was. They had always seemed an odd match, hadn’t they?
As for Dan’s photo on the Order of Service. By gosh, some of the men said, the angle of the photo showed him with such a big gut. Had he been that overweight? His sharp business suits and big smile had overshadowed the stomach. But now that was all there was to look at.
© Kate Mahony
Kate Mahony is a long-time writer of short stories and flash fiction with an MA in Creative writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has been published in anthologies and literary journals inter-nationally and in New Zealand. Her short fiction has been short-listed and long listed in international and national competitions. She has previously worked as a journalist in both London and New Zealand, and in communications roles. Her debut novel, Secrets of the Land, published by Cloud Ink Press in September 2023, came in at number two on the Aotearoa New Zealand weekly best sellers list shortly after publication.