Punishment: it isn’t all bad. We look at countries where those who steal have their hands cut off, where those who betray are thrown out of the community, where those who murder are murdered themselves, and certainly, those of us living in a civilised world would never approve of such measures. However, while our punishments may be different, they serve the same purpose: a wrongdoer must get her comeuppance. Our society would fail to function if we could not be assured of this belief.
I first witnessed this precept beautifully illustrated many years ago. I will never forget the date: it was sometime in April when I was anywhere between seven and fourteen years old. My mother and two of her bridge-playing girlfriends had insisted that I come with them to see a young artist who was giving a talk at the State Museum. My mother had won the tickets through a radio contest (I believe she had correctly guessed the weight of the DJ’s recently shaved beard clippings). I was dragged along to make up the foursome (my father had refused to go as he believed it was bad luck to be the only man walking with a trio of women).
I have always loved the State Museum; even as a child, I could see myself in so many of the breath-taking exhibits that have been on display there. However, I had not been keen to attend this afternoon, only because it meant spending an afternoon with Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters. On the way into the building, I caught my reflection in the window glass—I was wearing a particularly nice hat —and decided to just keep as much distance between them and myself once we got around other people.
The gallery was quite packed (luckily, there were only eight other radio prize winners there and, believe you me, they were easily recognisable). My mother and her friends sat in the front row (so obvious), but I chose a seat closer to the back, where the lighting more subtly accented my striking features. The artist—she went only by the name Melinda—was beautiful. I can see her now in my mind’s eye as clear as if I had seen her yesterday. She had long blonde hair, gorgeously tanned shoulders, penetrating eyes, and shades of midnight blue paint staining her fingertips. I was transfixed by her and hung on every word of her speech on whatever it was she was talking about. When she finished, I gave her a standing ovation. As people began milling out, I was horrified to see that my mother and her cronies had cornered Melinda. Although I had hoped to speak to her myself, I could not think of anything worse than being identified with those three so I did my best to sneak out of the room unnoticed. I escaped to the bathroom, where I splashed some water to cool my reddened cheeks.
However, the humiliation was far from over. I was galled to hear that my mother had arranged for Melinda to come over to our house later that evening. This meant that the next few hours were spent in a rushed panic, my mother desperate to stage a scene which implied she was a more interesting woman than she was. She stopped at the most expensive florist and bakery in town. Once we got home, I hoped my father would put his foot down, but, as usual, she disregarded him completely. In fact, she forced my father to shave (despite the fact that it was a Saturday) before Melinda’s arrival, as she had the nerve to claim “we artists find stubble repellent.” She put me in charge of hoovering (her not giving me the responsibility of arranging the flowers indicates her level of ignorance). By eight o’clock, we were ready to greet Melinda.
My, how the time flew by! Melinda entertained us with incredible stories of her adventures across the country, doing everything a bohemian artist should be doing. I was enthralled and felt I was getting a glimpse into my own future. Luckily, Melinda’s fascinating chestnuts—peppered with details of colours, sounds, and smells—kept my mother silent for the majority of the night. This fact alone, I think, helped charm my father, who was quickly as seduced as I.
Around midnight, Melinda was clearly tiring. She had explained when she first arrived that she was flying out the following morning to show some work in an offbeat gallery in Trois-Rivières. However, my mother, it seemed, was not ready to bid the artist farewell. She dragged out some of her own paintings and asked Melinda for some constructive criticism. It was torturous.
In an effort to wrap things up, my father began tidying up the dishes. My mother admonished him for “rushing our guest” when there was still a piece of cake left. The room went silent. I wondered whether my father would take his usual, easy route of surrendering to my mother’s vicious tongue or if Melinda’s presence had changed his life in the way I already knew she had changed mine.
However, before he had a chance to decide what to do, Melinda stood up. “It’s a wonderful thing to have such a conscientious husband,” she said to my mother. “He’s right, though, it is time for me to go.” She stepped over my mother’s canvases to make her way to collect her coat.
“But Melinda,” my mother cried, “Please eat the last piece of cake.”
My father sat back down. I was frozen in the tension of the moment.
“No, Mrs Whitt-Wellington, I will not eat the last piece of cake.”
Melinda came over and gave me a peck on the cheek. She walked over to my father and extended her hand. I silently prayed that he would grab her, wrap his arms around her slender figure and the three of us would walk out of my mother’s house forever. But he didn’t. He shook her hand. Melinda passed my mother on her way to the door, gently touching her shoulder. And then she was gone.
Seeing my mother receive her just desserts for once in her bloody life has stayed with me all these years. I shall never forget that moment (probably because I replay it in my mind at least twice a day). She did wrong, and wrongdoers must eventually reap what they sow. I am so grateful that I was there to witness it.
Punishment where punishment was due.