‘My Wife is a White Russian’ by Rose Tremain

A perfectly plotted short story, which reaches far beyond its seven pages. The narrator is a boorish, elderly, extremely wealthy man, who has made his fortune from mining precious metals: ‘I’m a financier. I have financial assets world-wide. I’m in nickel and pig-iron and gold and diamonds. I like the sound of all these words…The glitter of saying them sometimes gives me an erection’. These little shocks are all the more powerful for being buried within the elegance of Tremain’s prose. The narrator’s gold-digging wife is a former prostitute of White Russian ancestry. The pair are entertaining one of the narrator’s employees and his wife in an expensive restaurant. We gradually realise the narrator has been severely disabled by a stroke and cannot talk or feed himself. The wife doesn’t help him to eat. The contrast between the younger couple, who are deeply in love, and the older couple, whose marriage has always been a coldly transactional arrangement, is stark. Even before the narrator’s stroke, he could not communicate with his wife and, now, he literally can’t speak to her. The story ends ambiguously with a stylish echo of the opening: ‘Why did she never love me? In my dreams, too, the answer comes from deep underground: it’s the hardness of my words’.

(First published in Granta Best of Young British Novelists, 1983, and collected in from The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, ed. Malcolm Bradbury, 1988. Granta subscribers can read it online here)

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