AWAKENING MACBETH, Part 11: The coward’s cushion of long distance

The story so far: Her father’s suicide leaves University of Virginia professor Brodie Macbeth with a strange legacy — including her father’s license plates — and terrible nightmares. En route to Edinburgh to deliver a painting to her aunt, she meets Joe Birnam, owner of a carpentry company called Birnam Wood. Their date did not end well, mostly because Brodie has not made a clean break with fellow professor Stanton Sloane. Part 11 opens as Brodie, now back in Charlottesville, prepares to move into her childhood home.

I do not think that is a good plan,” Stanton said. His voice in her cell phone was loud and testy all the way from Los Angeles. “The house is too far from The Lawn. And it’s old. There’s a lot to maintain. Is this some idea that your aunt put into your head when you were in Edinburgh?”

“Big dogs need a big yard,” Brodie said, tucking the cell phone between her shoulder and ear as she tied the belt of the cherry red raincoat against the cool morning spring air. “Mouse loves playing here.”

“You can’t make decisions based on that animal.”

Brodie bit back a retort and sat down on a green wire settee. She was on the wide wooden porch of the Granite Castle Road farmhouse. The dogwood and crabapple trees would soon be covered in buds, softening the red brick exterior and green metal roof of the old two storey house. Her brown Volvo wagon, sporting her father’s OFK 362 plates, was parked at the top of the gravel drive that snaked through the opening in the split rail fence. Mouse was sniffing ardently at something under a tree. The big German Shepherd had a creamy white belly and legs, and a black saddle. Brodie had dubbed the dog Mouse for her big pink-lined ears.

“I’m not going to help you move,” Stanton said stiffly.

“Okay,” Brodie said, making a face he couldn’t see. Dr. Stanton Cabot Sloane II, PhD., Stafford Whitcomb Memorial Professor of American Foreign Policy, scion of the University of Virginia’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations and noted political commentator, did not do manual labor.

“The house is too big for one person,” Stanton persisted. “Too isolated.”

“I grew up here, Stanton,” Brodie said. “I can’t sell the house.”

“I’m not saying you should sell it, Dr. Macbeth,” Stanton said smoothly. He often used her professional title as a term of endearment and it never failed to irritate her. “You could make a bequest.”

“What?” Brodie asked, glancing at her watch. It was almost ten o’clock. Mouse started rolling joyously on the grass, her white legs bicycling the crisp clear air.

“A bequest to the university,” Stanton said, sounding impatient.

“Dad left money to the library fund.”

“You could donate the house,” Stanton pressed.

“Donate the house?” Brodie echoed.

“Dean Slocum was telling me last semester that they’re looking for a property to make into a writer’s retreat. They want someplace a little out of the way and quiet. The farmhouse would be perfect.” Stanton paused, as if trying to gauge Brodie’s mood. “I’m sure he’d be sufficiently grateful.”

Mouse got to her feet and trotted toward the house, fluffy tail waving. Brodie restlessly walked down the porch steps, the cell phone still pressed to her ear. “What do you mean, sufficiently grateful?”

“Well,” Stanton said carefully. “I expect he’d want to do something in your father’s honor in return. For the College of Arts and Sciences, I mean.” He coughed discreetly. “Maybe a television studio. The Wallace Macbeth Memorial Studio.”

“A television studio?” Brodie stopped walking and stood stock-still in the middle of the driveway. Mouse crunched over the gravel and pressed her head against Brodie’s leg in a dog version of a hug.

“The International Relations and History Departments could share it. My department could train students to report on international events from the political perspective and your department’s media studies program could use it, too.”

“You’re kidding, right?” The breeze played around the base of Brodie’s neck. “You really think I’d trade Dad’s house for a television studio?”

“You need to think rationally about your decisions and not be so impulsive,” Stanton said. “Making a bequest could have some very long term career implications for both of us.”

For a moment Brodie considered breaking up with him right there and then, with the coward’s cushion of long distance between them. But Stanton had been by her side at the funeral and had handled the press and planned the memorial service. As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t dump him over the phone. “We need to talk,” she countered. “About where we’re going.”

“I’ll be back in Charlottesville in two weeks,” Stanton said, not sounding surprised. “We’re taping the segment on Clinton. I’ll come for the weekend before I start doing the voiceovers. We’ll talk.”

“Okay,” Brodie said and relaxed a little. The bad news might be that she had to wait another two weeks but the good news was that any emotional confrontation was safely put off for now. The breeze gusted and she put a hand to her head as her short hair rippled. “Uh, I forgot to tell you. I cut my hair.”

“Cut your hair?” Stanton said, clearly taken aback. “Am I going to like it?”

Brodie smiled grimly to herself. “No,” she said. “It’s pretty short.”

“How short,” Stanton said suspiciously.

“Very,” Brodie said.

“I’m not happy,” Stanton warned. “First the house, now this. What’s happened to you?”

A blue van turned into the driveway, bouncing between the posts of the split rail fence. Mouse’s ears pricked up like radar. “Stanton, I’ve got to go,” Brodie said. “The interior designer is here.”

“You hired a designer?” Stanton shrilled.

“Bye, Stanton,” Brodie said. “See you in two weeks.” She broke the connection and switched off the phone as a chic woman in black jeans and a mink jacket bustled out of the van. The woman had a blonde bouffant hairdo, red lipstick, and a cardboard tray of takeout coffee.

Lydia Sue Crosby had decorated the living room in Brodie’s townhouse. She was one of the pillars of Charlottesville society and her husband was on the university board. The Crosbys had attended both the funeral and the memorial service.

“Brodie!” Lydia Sue gave her a two-cheeked air kiss. “Your hair is fabulous! You should have been a model. And Mouse.” She handed the coffee tray to Brodie and made cooing noises at Mouse who pressed close. Lydia Sue rubbed the dog’s ears then hauled sample books and fabric swatches out of the rear of the van. “I’ve got loads of ideas. This house is fabulous! Let’s start with the grand tour.”

Brodie knew she’d done the right thing by calling Lydia Sue as soon as the double latte hit bottom. As the two women walked through the house, Lydia Sue kept everything on a very professional level, tactfully taking the emotional sting out of all the decisions Brodie had to make. The interior designer quizzed Brodie about how she would use each room, what furniture did she want to keep, and what did she want to bring over from the townhouse. When Brodie hesitated or floundered, Lydia Sue smoothly offered suggestions and solutions. Mouse followed them from room to room, the dog’s nails clicking on the hardwood floors.

The living and dining rooms were relatively easy to deal with. Most of the living room furniture was old and unattractive and could be given to charity. The dining room set was dark and formal but it had come from the Macbeth family in Edinburgh so it would stay. Lydia Sue suggested a new chandelier and a new coat of paint. Brodie agreed as they passed through the swinging door to the kitchen.

“Well, well,” Lydia Sue said, turning around slowly to take it all in. “Very vintage.”

The kitchen still sported the glass-fronted white cabinets, slate countertops, and old oak furniture from Brodie’s childhood. It had always been the domain of their housekeeper, Mrs. Weir, who’d retired to Scotland a few years ago. Mrs. Weir was from Inverness and had moved to Charlottesville from Scotland with Wallace Macbeth and his infant daughter. Brodie could still hear the woman’s thick Scottish brogue snapping out instructions to finish oatmeal and do chores.

“I’m thinking bleached maple in here,” Lydia Sue said. “Maybe a Shaker style — .” She made a strangled sound. “Brodie! There’s no dishwasher!”

I know a great contractor who could fix that. Brodie shrugged and pushed Joe Birnam out of her mind. “It doesn’t really matter. I don’t cook much.”

Lydia Sue pointed to the refrigerator. “What’s on the other side of that wall?”

“Dad used to have a housekeeper,” Brodie said. They walked out of the kitchen and into a plain bedroom. “This was Mrs. Weir’s room. The only bathroom downstairs is in here.”

Lydia Sue made a note of the bathroom’s location. “If we redo the kitchen we can break through the wall and hook up a dishwasher.” She looked around the bedroom then went to the window and parted the curtains. “Fabulous view of the dogwoods. This can be a very nice guest room. Maybe red toile?”

They went from Mrs. Weir’s room to the den.

“This is about the only furniture I want to keep,” Brodie said softly.

Lydia Sue turned on the overhead light and the dark green walls glowed. The spines of the books made for a muted and comforting collage.

Brodie drifted into the room, not sure if it would ever feel like hers. “Dad always napped on this sofa,” she said. “First rule when I was little was never wake him up.”

“Light sleeper?” Lydia Sue said, counting outlets.

“I guess.” Brodie nodded. “He’d wake up so angry. He hardly ever got mad but waking him up made him furious.” She pointed to the tartan-covered window. “He even nailed the curtains to the window frame so no light came through.”

“Should we replace them?” Lydia Sue said, moving to the window. She slid a finger between the tautly nailed wool and the window frame. “Goodness, Brodie! These curtains haven’t been cleaned in years. Moths have been feasting on them!”

“We can get them cleaned, can’t we?” Brodie went over to Lydia Sue. The decorator was easing the nails out of the window frame. As more light came into the room Brodie saw how dirty and tattered the curtains were. “I really want to keep them,” she said. “It’s the Macbeth clan tartan. Dad brought the fabric from Edinburgh.”

“We’ll find a fabric re-weaver.” Lydia Sue stuck her pencil in her hair, grabbed her clipboard, and steered Brodie upstairs.

An hour later they were back in the living room. Lydia Sue got out her tape measure. “All right. The television should fit against this wall.” The decorator finished her measuring and pressed a load of sample books into Brodie’s hands. “Let’s take these into the kitchen.”

They sat at the kitchen table and started talking about colors and patterns and the way the afternoon sun hit the various rooms. Lydia Sue showed Brodie a soft green velvet. “Maybe we can do a sofa in this for the living room and use your floral loveseats from the townhouse on either side. Form a U-shaped seating area around a larger coffee table. It would be fabulous.”

Brodie fingered the velvet. “Can we do all this and get me moved in two weeks?”

Lydia Sue looked like she was going to have a stroke. “In two weeks?”

“Yes.” Brodie nodded as Lydia Sue goggled at her. “Can you do it?”

“Omigod,” Lydia Sue said. She took some short, jerky breaths and pulled out her cell phone. “We won’t be able to do anything custom. Or the kitchen. Why two weeks?”

“It would just be good.” Brodie flipped the pages of a sample book and studied a square of damask.

Lydia Sue stopped punching buttons and covered Brodie’s hand with her own. “Are you sure you’re all right? Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Brodie said brightly. “I’m fine. Really.”

Two episodes of AWAKENING MACBETH are released every weekend. If you enjoyed reading this episode, please consider scrolling down and Recommending it. You can also sign up for my author newsletter here.
I’m the author of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY and the Detective Emilia Cruz mysteries set in Acapulco including CLIFF DIVER, HAT DANCE, and DIABLO NIGHTS, all available on Amazon and recently optioned for film.
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