Lydia de Quincey

I was introduced to Lydia de Quincey by George. He took me to her apartment one afternoon for tea. “She’s a bit batty,” he said, “but I’m always interested in these relics of the past – she speaks the kind of English that people spoke before the Second World War, she says ‘looking-glass’ for ‘mirror’.” That made sense to me for I knew he was fascinated by language; in any case we wouldn’t stay for more than an hour and I went along willingly. I was young and had never met any of the old expatriates who had been in this country for donkey’s years, so I was indeed curious about her.
 
Lydia de Quincey’s apartment was small and stuffy, overcrowded with too much furniture. I had the feeling that once she had lived in a larger space and had been unwilling to discard any of her possessions when she moved. It was rather dark too as the roll-down slatted wooden shutters in her drawing room were two-thirds lowered. There was a large mirror in a heavy, ornate gold frame in the narrow entrance hall and two more in the drawing room. All were speckled with age and didn’t seem to add any light. There were two clocks but neither was working. I would have sat down beside George on the sofa, but Lydia indicated an armless, buttoned Victorian chair to me and I was too polite to do anything other than acquiesce. I am fairly tall and this chair was far too low to be comfortable – I had to stretch out my legs rather awkwardly in front of me. I noticed Lydia noticing. She offered us tea in fine china accompanied by cakes, stale and much too sweet for my taste. They were the kind of cakes that guests buy at the last minute as a present for their hostess; it occurred to me that someone might have given them to Lydia a week or more earlier. George had told me that she lived on a very small pension. Be generous, I thought, she’s only trying to make ends meet. Yet somehow there was nothing generous about those old stale cakes. I accepted one for the sake of good manners but found it hard to swallow, it stuck in my throat and for a moment I thought I was going to choke but I managed to wash it down with tea.
 
I didn’t take much part in the conversation and thus had ample opportunity to examine Lydia. She was small and thin, her white hair cropped short. Her face was remarkably unlined, her nose aquiline, her complexion pale with a powdery or chalky look to it. George had calculated that she was in her late eighties, adding, “She must have been a stunner in her day”. But perhaps my examination wasn’t as discreet as I thought, for I caught Lydia looking at me speculatively with her faded blue eyes.
 
I began to feel very ill at ease. At first I thought it was simply the closeness of the room – it was an unusually hot September day. But then I felt a strange creeping within my clothes and understood that all the hairs on my back were standing up. You don’t realise how many fine hairs you have on your body until you feel them rise like a dog’s hackles. I had a powerful instinctive desire to flee. I took a surreptitious look at my watch and concentrated all my energies on trying to transmit to George the message that it was time to go. At last, ten minutes later, he rose and made our excuses; at last, at last we were standing on the pavement outside Lydia’s front door. I took deep, shuddering breaths, clutching George’s arm and breathing in the traffic fumes in the golden afternoon sunlight with huge relief.
 
He couldn’t understand what was the matter with me.
“She’s evil,” I said, suddenly finding words for what had distressed me, “I felt that I was in the presence of unspeakable evil.”
“Oh come on, she’s a perfectly harmless old woman for God’s sake. You’re being hysterical.”
He asked me if I was expecting my period – which he of all people should have known I wasn’t. I found this patronising in the extreme and told him so. He hailed a taxi and our conversation stopped there. We went home, feeling irritated with one another.
 
George and I were planning to get married in six months’ time. We had never quarrelled. I couldn’t bear to quarrel now so I determined to say nothing more about Lydia de Quincey. It’s entirely normal that one may not necessarily like all one’s husband’s friends, I told myself. And I tried desperately to ignore the lack of harmony between us that evening.
 
The following morning we had both recovered our tempers. If our almost-quarrel had been a tiny puckering in the smooth fabric of our lives I paid no attention to it. I knew, after all, that every couple has its ups and downs. With hindsight, I should perhaps have given more thought to what had hitherto seemed our perfect accord. But I didn’t. I was in love and took it for granted that George and I were quite simply attuned to one another. I am older now and know that nothing is so simple.
 
At any rate, things continued pleasantly for the next few weeks. Then one Sunday George told me that he wanted to drop in on Lydia de Quincey for a moment. We’d been having lunch with friends at a restaurant in the street parallel to hers.
“It won’t take a minute,” he said, explaining that he’d agreed to give her cash in exchange for a post-dated cheque. “The poor old thing’s struggling to manage so I said I’d help her out.”
I hadn’t realised that he’d been in touch with her – though of course there was no reason for him to inform me about everything he did.
“I won’t come up with you,” I told him, “I’ll wait in the café on the corner.” No power on earth could have persuaded me to enter that apartment again.
Ten minutes later he laughingly showed me the cheque that Lydia had given him. Having discovered that there were no cheques left in her cheque book, she had unearthed from a bureau drawer a cheque that she had previously written but never sent; she had crossed out and rewritten everything on it: the name to which it was payable, the amount, the date. Each alteration was marked with the large, looping initials L. de Q. George was treating it as a joke.
“The bank will never accept that in a million years,” I said, annoyed on his behalf.
“Doesn’t matter. I can afford to bail her out.”
But to my amazement the bank did accept Lydia’s cheque. Against my better judgment I said, “She’s a witch.”
George was cold. “I must say, I’d always thought you were a sensible and rational woman. Don’t tell me now that you believe in witches, for Christ’s sake. I took you for more intelligent than that. You’ve been prejudiced against Lydia from the beginning, I can’t understand why you have to be so silly about her.” His tone was dismissive.
 
It is quite true that I’m a rational, agnostic person and I’d never believed in witches. Come to that, the idea of evil had never figured in my mental landscape; I’d have agreed to the proposition that Hitler was evil, but without thought, as a received opinion. I’d subscribed to the modern view that all the “witches” tortured and put to a cruel death over the centuries were merely solitary and eccentric old women whom their neighbours feared. “Evil” was a word for theologians, irrelevant to me. And yet, and yet… In spite of this, I couldn’t deny the primitive, visceral feeling which told me that in Lydia de Quincey’s flat I had been in the presence of evil. Don’t ask me how I can reconcile this contradiction: I can’t.
 
Two months before we were due to get married Lydia de Quincey died. George went to her funeral without me. And it was while Lydia was being buried six feet deep that I realised I couldn’t marry him. The gulf that had opened between us was unbridgeable. I felt that he was morally insensitive – forgive the rather pompous expression – while he felt that I was superstitious and silly.
 
I have had a happy enough life. I met someone else, got married, raised a family. I have no regrets. I don’t know what happened to George. I remain convinced that for reasons of her own Lydia de Quincey had determined that he shouldn’t marry me. It may sound quite mad but I have always found excuses for not attending funerals in the cemetery in which she is buried.
 
 
© Petrie Harbouri 2017

I was introduced to Lydia de Quincey by George. He took me to her apartment one afternoon for tea. “She’s a bit batty,” he said, “but I’m always interested in these relics of the past – she speaks the kind of English that people spoke before the Second World War, she says ‘looking-glass’ for ‘mirror’.” That made sense to me for I knew he was fascinated by language; in any case we wouldn’t stay for more than an hour and I went along willingly. I was young and had never met any of the old expatriates who had been in this country for donkey’s years, so I was indeed curious about her.
 
Lydia de Quincey’s apartment was small and stuffy, overcrowded with too much furniture. I had the feeling that once she had lived in a larger space and had been unwilling to discard any of her possessions when she moved. It was rather dark too as the roll-down slatted wooden shutters in her drawing room were two-thirds lowered. There was a large mirror in a heavy, ornate gold frame in the narrow entrance hall and two more in the drawing room. All were speckled with age and didn’t seem to add any light. There were two clocks but neither was working. I would have sat down beside George on the sofa, but Lydia indicated an armless, buttoned Victorian chair to me and I was too polite to do anything other than acquiesce. I am fairly tall and this chair was far too low to be comfortable – I had to stretch out my legs rather awkwardly in front of me. I noticed Lydia noticing. She offered us tea in fine china accompanied by cakes, stale and much too sweet for my taste. They were the kind of cakes that guests buy at the last minute as a present for their hostess; it occurred to me that someone might have given them to Lydia a week or more earlier. George had told me that she lived on a very small pension. Be generous, I thought, she’s only trying to make ends meet. Yet somehow there was nothing generous about those old stale cakes. I accepted one for the sake of good manners but found it hard to swallow, it stuck in my throat and for a moment I thought I was going to choke but I managed to wash it down with tea.
 
I didn’t take much part in the conversation and thus had ample opportunity to examine Lydia. She was small and thin, her white hair cropped short. Her face was remarkably unlined, her nose aquiline, her complexion pale with a powdery or chalky look to it. George had calculated that she was in her late eighties, adding, “She must have been a stunner in her day”. But perhaps my examination wasn’t as discreet as I thought, for I caught Lydia looking at me speculatively with her faded blue eyes.
 
I began to feel very ill at ease. At first I thought it was simply the closeness of the room – it was an unusually hot September day. But then I felt a strange creeping within my clothes and understood that all the hairs on my back were standing up. You don’t realise how many fine hairs you have on your body until you feel them rise like a dog’s hackles. I had a powerful instinctive desire to flee. I took a surreptitious look at my watch and concentrated all my energies on trying to transmit to George the message that it was time to go. At last, ten minutes later, he rose and made our excuses; at last, at last we were standing on the pavement outside Lydia’s front door. I took deep, shuddering breaths, clutching George’s arm and breathing in the traffic fumes in the golden afternoon sunlight with huge relief.
 
He couldn’t understand what was the matter with me.
“She’s evil,” I said, suddenly finding words for what had distressed me, “I felt that I was in the presence of unspeakable evil.”
“Oh come on, she’s a perfectly harmless old woman for God’s sake. You’re being hysterical.”
He asked me if I was expecting my period – which he of all people should have known I wasn’t. I found this patronising in the extreme and told him so. He hailed a taxi and our conversation stopped there. We went home, feeling irritated with one another.
 
George and I were planning to get married in six months’ time. We had never quarrelled. I couldn’t bear to quarrel now so I determined to say nothing more about Lydia de Quincey. It’s entirely normal that one may not necessarily like all one’s husband’s friends, I told myself. And I tried desperately to ignore the lack of harmony between us that evening.
 
The following morning we had both recovered our tempers. If our almost-quarrel had been a tiny puckering in the smooth fabric of our lives I paid no attention to it. I knew, after all, that every couple has its ups and downs. With hindsight, I should perhaps have given more thought to what had hitherto seemed our perfect accord. But I didn’t. I was in love and took it for granted that George and I were quite simply attuned to one another. I am older now and know that nothing is so simple.
 
At any rate, things continued pleasantly for the next few weeks. Then one Sunday George told me that he wanted to drop in on Lydia de Quincey for a moment. We’d been having lunch with friends at a restaurant in the street parallel to hers.
“It won’t take a minute,” he said, explaining that he’d agreed to give her cash in exchange for a post-dated cheque. “The poor old thing’s struggling to manage so I said I’d help her out.”
I hadn’t realised that he’d been in touch with her – though of course there was no reason for him to inform me about everything he did.
“I won’t come up with you,” I told him, “I’ll wait in the café on the corner.” No power on earth could have persuaded me to enter that apartment again.
Ten minutes later he laughingly showed me the cheque that Lydia had given him. Having discovered that there were no cheques left in her cheque book, she had unearthed from a bureau drawer a cheque that she had previously written but never sent; she had crossed out and rewritten everything on it: the name to which it was payable, the amount, the date. Each alteration was marked with the large, looping initials L. de Q. George was treating it as a joke.
“The bank will never accept that in a million years,” I said, annoyed on his behalf.
“Doesn’t matter. I can afford to bail her out.”
But to my amazement the bank did accept Lydia’s cheque. Against my better judgment I said, “She’s a witch.”
George was cold. “I must say, I’d always thought you were a sensible and rational woman. Don’t tell me now that you believe in witches, for Christ’s sake. I took you for more intelligent than that. You’ve been prejudiced against Lydia from the beginning, I can’t understand why you have to be so silly about her.” His tone was dismissive.
 
It is quite true that I’m a rational, agnostic person and I’d never believed in witches. Come to that, the idea of evil had never figured in my mental landscape; I’d have agreed to the proposition that Hitler was evil, but without thought, as a received opinion. I’d subscribed to the modern view that all the “witches” tortured and put to a cruel death over the centuries were merely solitary and eccentric old women whom their neighbours feared. “Evil” was a word for theologians, irrelevant to me. And yet, and yet… In spite of this, I couldn’t deny the primitive, visceral feeling which told me that in Lydia de Quincey’s flat I had been in the presence of evil. Don’t ask me how I can reconcile this contradiction: I can’t.
 
Two months before we were due to get married Lydia de Quincey died. George went to her funeral without me. And it was while Lydia was being buried six feet deep that I realised I couldn’t marry him. The gulf that had opened between us was unbridgeable. I felt that he was morally insensitive – forgive the rather pompous expression – while he felt that I was superstitious and silly.
 
I have had a happy enough life. I met someone else, got married, raised a family. I have no regrets. I don’t know what happened to George. I remain convinced that for reasons of her own Lydia de Quincey had determined that he shouldn’t marry me. It may sound quite mad but I have always found excuses for not attending funerals in the cemetery in which she is buried.
 
 
© Petrie Harbouri 2017

Narrated by Erin Standlee.

Narrated by Erin Standlee.

POST RECITAL

Talk Icon

TALK

BR: Petrie is at home in Athens -- that's Athens, Greece, not Athens, New York -- so rather than interviewing her, Tom and I are just going to talk about her story today.
 
TN: The story is about evil, but not directly. It’s hinted at, and remains ambiguous.
 
BR: Hmm, yes, evil is one of the things the story is about... but I like this story for it's subtle, multi-layered nature. For me it's less about evil than about human perception and intuition, possibly even precognition, and the ways we sometimes use the word "evil" as a label for our otherwise incomprehensible intuitions.
 
TN: It makes me wonder what evil actually is. It’s a question that philosophy has been struggling with for years, without any satisfactory answer as far I can tell.
 
BR: Its most commonly understood definitions come out of religion, unfortunately. An unreliable source.
 
TN: Yes. And morality. But some of these philosophers are, or were, atheists.
 
BR: True. Though it’s next to impossible for anyone to escape their cultural heritage. You have to be a very original and independent thinker to do that. Something worth aspiring to!
 
TN: Most religions and philosophies tend to define evil as a duality, bound up with the concept of 'Good'. It is often described as the absence of good, like coldness is the absence of warmth. But I’m not convinced.
 
BR: In Judaeo-Christian thought evil is seen as separation from God, or perhaps ignorance of God.
 
TN: Or wilful disobedience. Free will comes into it somehow. But all religions seem to take this dualistic approach - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism... I could go on. You’re not a Zoroastrian are you?
 
BR: Not to my knowledge. Unless maybe I was drugged and baptised in the middle of the night.
 
TN: I'm not sure that baptism was part of the Zoroastrian religion. You might be thinking of something else... But I haven’t even mentioned the various opinions psychologists have on the matter...
 
BR: That might take up quite a bit more time than we have.
 
TN: All right, but I suspect that an answer would be more likely if we dispensed with the duality and ceased to consider Evil as one thing - the opposite, or lack of Goodness. It might be a multitude of things. Evils, you could say.
 
BR: Maybe. But we could go on asking these unanswerable questions forever. What interests me now is the story and the way it’s crafted.
 
TN: Yes. Lydia de Quincey is the evil one.
 
BR: Well, we don't actually know that, do we? We know that the narrator feels something she calls evil. In history, plenty of things that are nothing more than foreign have been called evil. We know next to nothing about the old lady and her earlier life. The author has given us a very well-crafted accrual of details about the dark, crowded room, the uncomfortable chair, the unpleasant food, the way Lydia watches the narrator "speculatively" with her faded blue eyes. As a reader, and a listener, I get a creepy feeling. And Lydia has some kind of relationship with the narrator’s fiancé -- perhaps she has a hold on him. It’s enough to break the marriage plans, at least indirectly, which is maybe what Lydia de Quincey has wanted all along. We just don’t know.
 
TN: Ignorance in that case is a positive thing because it inspires curiosity and draws us in. Writing that allows readers to use their imaginations, and maybe even work harder, is a much deeper experience than when everything is spelled out. I was talking to Petrie about this. She mentioned The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I bought the book and started reading it. I got about a third of the way through, when it mysteriously vanished. I don't know... but Henry James was a master at this kind of writing.
 
BR: Yes, and that's what makes this story rich. So what exactly is the narrator sensing about Lydia? Is it possible that this is primarily a case of rivals competing for the same man's attentions, but Lydia's way of fighting is so subtle, nonverbal, and unexpected, that the narrator imagines evil at work? Or is she picking up the vibrations of a truly malign intent, that wants to do her harm? Or... to really dig between the lines -- what if it was neither of those, but instead was a precognition of the conflict that would arise to end the marriage, which was probably in the narrator's best interests, in the long term. Maybe some kind of trigger had to be found to enable the narrator's true subconscious wishes to leave George, and poor old Lydia happened to be it. Anyway... those ideas are all in the story. Or at least that's where my imagination goes with it.
 
TN: You know, I’ve got myself wondering about ignorance. You said that in Christianity evil might be defined as ignorance of the deity, or its will. Does that mean that other kinds of ignorance are not evil? Or is all ignorance evil? “I count religion but a childish toy and hold there is no sin but ignorance.” That was Christopher Marlowe writing four hundred and twenty-nine years ago, through the character Machiavel in his play The Jew of Malta.
 
BR: That's an unfortunate title for modern ears.
 
TN: Yes, though you can't judge history with a modern sensibility. It doesn't lead to understanding. People thought differently than they do now. How will our own era be judged in the future?... But look, we were talking about a positive attribute of ignorance - when it makes you curious. Is that evil? Is literature evil?
 
BR: Slow down, slow down. You’re tying yourself in knots and losing the point.
 
TN: What is the point?
 
BR: What’s the point of “what’s the point”?
 
TN: That’s not the point.
 
BR: Or is it?

BR: Petrie is at home in Athens -- that's Athens, Greece, not Athens, New York -- so rather than interviewing her, Tom and I are just going to talk about her story today.
 
TN: The story is about evil, but not directly. It’s hinted at, and remains ambiguous.
 
BR: Hmm, yes, evil is one of the things the story is about... but I like this story for it's subtle, multi-layered nature. For me it's less about evil than about human perception and intuition, possibly even precognition, and the ways we sometimes use the word "evil" as a label for our otherwise incomprehensible intuitions.
 
TN: It makes me wonder what evil actually is. It’s a question that philosophy has been struggling with for years, without any satisfactory answer as far I can tell.
 
BR: Its most commonly understood definitions come out of religion, unfortunately. An unreliable source.
 
TN: Yes. And morality. But some of these philosophers are, or were, atheists.
 
BR: True. Though it’s next to impossible for anyone to escape their cultural heritage. You have to be a very original and independent thinker to do that. Something worth aspiring to!
 
TN: Most religions and philosophies tend to define evil as a duality, bound up with the concept of 'Good'. It is often described as the absence of good, like coldness is the absence of warmth. But I’m not convinced.
 
BR: In Judaeo-Christian thought evil is seen as separation from God, or perhaps ignorance of God.
 
TN: Or wilful disobedience. Free will comes into it somehow. But all religions seem to take this dualistic approach - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism... I could go on. You’re not a Zoroastrian are you?
 
BR: Not to my knowledge. Unless maybe I was drugged and baptised in the middle of the night.
 
TN: I'm not sure that baptism was part of the Zoroastrian religion. You might be thinking of something else... But I haven’t even mentioned the various opinions psychologists have on the matter...
 
BR: That might take up quite a bit more time than we have.
 
TN: All right, but I suspect that an answer would be more likely if we dispensed with the duality and ceased to consider Evil as one thing - the opposite, or lack of Goodness. It might be a multitude of things. Evils, you could say.
 
BR: Maybe. But we could go on asking these unanswerable questions forever. What interests me now is the story and the way it’s crafted.
 
TN: Yes. Lydia de Quincey is the evil one.
 
BR: Well, we don't actually know that, do we? We know that the narrator feels something she calls evil. In history, plenty of things that are nothing more than foreign have been called evil. We know next to nothing about the old lady and her earlier life. The author has given us a very well-crafted accrual of details about the dark, crowded room, the uncomfortable chair, the unpleasant food, the way Lydia watches the narrator "speculatively" with her faded blue eyes. As a reader, and a listener, I get a creepy feeling. And Lydia has some kind of relationship with the narrator’s fiancé -- perhaps she has a hold on him. It’s enough to break the marriage plans, at least indirectly, which is maybe what Lydia de Quincey has wanted all along. We just don’t know.
 
TN: Ignorance in that case is a positive thing because it inspires curiosity and draws us in. Writing that allows readers to use their imaginations, and maybe even work harder, is a much deeper experience than when everything is spelled out. I was talking to Petrie about this. She mentioned The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I bought the book and started reading it. I got about a third of the way through, when it mysteriously vanished. I don't know... but Henry James was a master at this kind of writing.
 
BR: Yes, and that's what makes this story rich. So what exactly is the narrator sensing about Lydia? Is it possible that this is primarily a case of rivals competing for the same man's attentions, but Lydia's way of fighting is so subtle, nonverbal, and unexpected, that the narrator imagines evil at work? Or is she picking up the vibrations of a truly malign intent, that wants to do her harm? Or... to really dig between the lines -- what if it was neither of those, but instead was a precognition of the conflict that would arise to end the marriage, which was probably in the narrator's best interests, in the long term. Maybe some kind of trigger had to be found to enable the narrator's true subconscious wishes to leave George, and poor old Lydia happened to be it. Anyway... those ideas are all in the story. Or at least that's where my imagination goes with it.
 
TN: You know, I’ve got myself wondering about ignorance. You said that in Christianity evil might be defined as ignorance of the deity, or its will. Does that mean that other kinds of ignorance are not evil? Or is all ignorance evil? “I count religion but a childish toy and hold there is no sin but ignorance.” That was Christopher Marlowe writing four hundred and twenty-nine years ago, through the character Machiavel in his play The Jew of Malta.
 
BR: That's an unfortunate title for modern ears.
 
TN: Yes, though you can't judge history with a modern sensibility. It doesn't lead to understanding. People thought differently than they do now. How will our own era be judged in the future?... But look, we were talking about a positive attribute of ignorance - when it makes you curious. Is that evil? Is literature evil?
 
BR: Slow down, slow down. You’re tying yourself in knots and losing the point.
 
TN: What is the point?
 
BR: What’s the point of “what’s the point”?
 
TN: That’s not the point.
 
BR: Or is it?

Music on this episode:

Tango by Igor Stravinsky.

License CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

 

Sound Effect used under license:

Greek restaurant ambience by Rhizoplane.

License CC Sampling Plus 1.0 

THE STRANGE RECITAL

Episode 18021

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