CHAPTER FORTY-THREE: PORTSMOUTH

 

The following night, I sat with Lady as she drifted off to sleep.  Before my trip to Holywell with Bertie, I’d always thought Lady beautiful when she slept, but after seeing Seymour’s portraits of her, I realised that the beauty I was seeing was the youthful beauty Seymour had depicted in his paintings.  Slumber rewound the hands of time and took Lady back into her purest state. And that was sad, I thought, that people should be more alive asleep than when they were awake.

Leaving Lady’s bedside, I wandered to the window overlooking Harlow.  It was mid-December by then.  Snow was falling through the lamplight, dying as it touched the cobbled street.  The little flakes were luckier in the park, twinkling along the empty branches of the trees.  It would be Christmas soon.  I’d long since made the puddings and cakes for the occasion, wrapping them in parchment and binding them with string, tucking them in their tins and leaving them to mature in the furthest reaches of the pantry.  And, with the holly boughs which Lady had collected the previous day, I’d decked the halls that very morning.

And yet, despite my thoughts of Christmas, I was on edge.

In all my time at Rosegate, Lady had never woken up at night.  Greg and I had reveled in the privilege of her slumber and had taken it for granted.  So, the previous night’s exception was unnerving.  If she’d woken up then, she could wake up at any time.  We were no longer safe.

Lust has a way of overriding safety, however, so we didn’t stop.

That night when I went down to the kitchen to prepare Greg’s coffee, I noticed something was awry.  There were two saucepans on the hob, each one half-filled, one with boiled water, the other with warm milk.  When I went into the pantry to fetch the cups, I spied a little note wedged under a saucer.  ‘I tried,’ it read. ‘Your condition is little weak however.’

Well then, I thought, tingling like mad.  The gentleman doth surprise the maiden.  Although with the vision of myself in the previous night’s get-up, padlock, metal teeth and all, I hardly felt like a maiden. In fact, I was sure that even the female sexual labourers of London didn’t go to such dastardly lengths to entertain the men in their clutches.  They were probably too weary and impoverished to come up with such ridiculous ideas.  And then I thought of Daisy on the fire escape in the alley leading to the Red Glass Lantern and I wished she wasn’t there, but rather in a firelit parlour somewhere, humming Christmas carols and drinking cocoa.  And then, I did something I’d never done before:  I prayed.

I prayed for Daisy.

Clamping the counter before me, tilting my head back and closing my eyes, I began.

“Dear God,” I murmured.  “I’m not sure if I believe in you but if you exist, if you’re out there, somewhere in the vicinity of Holywell Street in London.”  I stopped, debating on whether I should be more specific, deciding I should be just to be absolutely clear.  “If you happen to be in the vicinity of Holywell Street in London, in the alleyway between the Grafter Bookshop and the Brute & Magpie Pub.”  I paused again.  That wasn’t accurate enough.  “If you happen to be in the vicinity of Holywell Street in London in the alleyway between the Grafter Bookshop and the Brute & Magpie Pub, the third fire escape down, but rather, up it, on the little platform outside the door.”  Yes, that was much more accurate.  “There’s a woman called Daisy who lives in the room behind that door.  And I was wondering if perhaps, if you had the time, you could surprise her for Christmas.  Not with anything much.  But with something small.  Just some small thing to bring a smile to her face.  That’s all.  Much obliged.”  Not knowing how to end my prayer, I blew a small kiss out toward the kitchen in the hope that God would catch it –

Which as it turned out, God did.

To my surprise, there was a God after all, just not in the form I’d expected.

It was a bit of a shock because it just so happened that God was four feet tall, thirteen stone, with an atrocious set of teeth and a tweed cloak nabbed from “his” dead husband.  You see, I’d discover later that Burt had taken it upon “himself” to make good on “his” promise to take “his” homemade bergamot oil and a new silk dressing gown to Daisy in the alleyway, along with a Christmas cake and a flask of elderberry wine.  And it also just so happened that Daisy, receiving the gifts graciously, had smiled, just for a moment mind, just long enough for me to believe that God existed and was actually a very good friend of mine.

 

 

It was strange to enter Greg’s study without a tray in hand.  Having carried that tray up the stairs for so long, save the night before, I felt like I was missing a body part, or perhaps a tumor would be more accurate.  The god almighty tray had become an extension of myself.  To celebrate my tray-less moment, I entered the study, arms swinging.

“You look like you’re becoming unhinged,” Greg said, giving the trolley a proud little nudge in my direction to show off the two cups of milky coffee he’d prepared.  “But here you go, Justine.  My condition, most pathetically prepared and served with two biscuits which you yourself must’ve made this morning.”

“Well now,” I said, trying to hide my smile.  “Isn’t that a lovely surprise.”

“Come and sit down,” he beckoned, flopping a serviette over his arm and lifting one of the cups from the trolley, lowering it into my hand the instant I sat down.  “Proceed with caution.”

As I brought the rim of the cup to my lips, I remembered the afternoon long before when I’d challenged him to describe “tea”.

“Well?”  he asked nervously.  “What do you think?”

“It unfreezes me,” I echoed his words from that time.  “It replaces the reality of a winter with the forethought of next summer.  I feel my lips over the rim, the first sip of heat, the drops I remember.  And yes, of course, there it is:  Summertime – filling these bones, reminding me I’m still here, still alive.”

“You remembered,” he said, sitting down with his own cup.

“That was for poetic purposes,” I finished off with a wink.  “But really?  It will do.”

“That’s what I thought,” he agreed, his chest sinking a little.  “It will do.”

“So, what about Portsmouth?”

“Shall we make love first?” he asked.  “Before my account?”

“Why?  I wouldn’t want to risk another debacle getting in the way like the one did last night.”

“Because I fear once I’ve given you my account, you’ll not want to make love.”

“Oh?  And why’s that?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Then let’s hear it.”  And I pulled my legs up onto the chair, tucking them sideways beneath me, seconding my answer with my body language.

“The ships that travel from England to Mexico leave from Portsmouth and set sail for Veracruz,” Greg began.  “Here.  Let me show you.”  He cleared the tray from the trolley and retrieved his globe from the corner bureau, setting it down between us and running his index finger between the two ports.  “So when – and you’ll have to forgive me for mentioning his name – Thomas Bevin and I set out for the continent, we left from Portsmouth.  And of course, when I came back alone, without Bevin, I re-landed in Portsmouth.”

Staring at the distance on the globe, I felt strange.  I’d only ever seen Gregory in Rosegate and in Foxglove, so it was hard to imaging him travelling by ship to a distant land, disembarking in a port where everyone was speaking in a different language.  I didn’t want to think too hard about it, however, for if I did, I’d start thinking of Consuelo, the lover who’d given him the scorpion in the amber.

“When I disembarked from the return journey, I was quite ill,” he continued, “certainly not well enough to travel to the heath.  The ship’s doctor had demanded that I stay in Portsmouth for a fortnight at least.  And so, I did.  And I stayed with Bertie’s sister and her husband, a wonderful couple called John and Sarah Winterbourne.  The instant Bertie heard that I was there, she found a woman to take care of Rosegate and got herself to Portsmouth to take care of me.”

My eyes widened.

“I came back from Mexico shattered, absolutely shattered.  My health was abysmal.  Bertie simply took me under her wing and treated me like the son she never had.”

“And Bertie went to visit her sister in Portsmouth when we were at Foxglove.”

“That’s right.  But she also went to visit her nephew Anthony.  Anthony is John and Sarah’s only son.  He was about ten years old when I stayed with them.”

“Ah – Anthony – yes.  So, his surname is Winterbourne?”

Gregory fell quiet.

“Greg?  What’s the matter?  You’re in the middle of a story, remember?”

“This is killing me, Justine,” he resumed.  “Seeing you here in this house, serving us every day, serving me and my wife when you’re the woman I truly love.  It’s eating me from the inside out and yet, I can’t leave Emeline and I can’t leave Rosegate.  I don’t see a way out – well, for me, at least.”

“Forgive me, Greg, but I’m not following.  What does this have to do with your visit to Portsmouth and not telling me about it?  Because you’re starting to worry me, you are.  Look at you.  You’re shaking.  Greg.  What’s going on?  What on earth is the matter?”

“You need to find a husband, Justine, but a good one, a kind one, a man who’ll treat you well and look after you.  You need to get married.  And I thought –”

You thought –” I was up and out of the chair, clenching my fists.  “You thought you’d play God and start moving people around as if they were chess pieces?  You thought that you’d bribe a man I don’t know, a man I’ve never met for my hand in marriage?  You thought that you could solve the world’s problems and move me out of Rosegate, sweep me under the rug?”

“No—Justine—it’s—nothing of the sort.”

“You know, that’s the problem with men like you, Greg.  You’re born into privilege.  You’re used to things falling into place for you.  My God, you probably believe the stars would align at the snap of your fingers.  And when things don’t fall into place, you simply pay for them to fall into place.  And this situation here?  Us?  A most inconvenient pair of people in love?  With you married and me your maid, young enough to be your daughter?  It’s a bloody mess; everything around it is out of place.  The stars have gone mad and there are far too many of them to count.  But you’re so arrogant, so blindly manipulative, you think you can come along and with a wave of a banknote, start counting the stars and telling love what to do.  Well, aren’t you the fool?  Because there are certain things in life even privilege can’t put to rights.  Let me tell you something, Greg.  It’d be a thousand times easier to organise the stars in the heavens than pay for a love like ours to sort itself out.”

“Justine – please –”

“Don’t you dare ‘Justine – please’ me,” I said vehemently.  “You’re right. We should’ve made love first because now I don’t want you to touch me.  I don’t even want to look at you right now.”

“Please, don’t say that.  This is the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do.”

The most painful thing you’ve had to do?” I echoed.  “First of all, you don’t have to do it.  Nobody has a pistol to your head over this.  And secondly, I’m not a thing to be done.  I’m a soul, Greg, trapped in flesh and blood.  And thirdly, don’t talk to me about pain.  Because what you’re attempting to orchestrate would cause me immeasurable pain for the rest of my life.  How on earth could I be with a man knowing full well I loved someone else, that someone being you, Greg.  You.  I love you.  Not Anthony Winterbourne.  Not anyone else.  I only love you and I will only ever love you.”

“That’s not true.  You’ll learn to love another.”

“I’m not like you, Greg!  I don’t believe in different layers of love like you do.  And even if there are different layers for different lovers, you take up every single one of my layers.”

“You say that now.”

“I’ll say that until the day I die.”

“You can’t possibly know that.”

“I know what my heart knows, and my heart knows it, and it knows it now.”

“I said that once –” he began.

“Yes.  In Mexico.  And then I came along and proved you wrong.  But then that’s to say that what we share here is the same as what you had with Consuelo there, something to be outgrown.  And you have no right to presume what sort of love I feel for you.  I know my own heart, Greg, and I know it more intimately than you do.  And don’t tell me that’s not true because if you knew my heart as well as you believe, you wouldn’t be breaking it now.”

He reached out and grabbed my wrist.  “Please, Justine.  Please stay.  Stay with me here.  Let’s just make love and forget that I said anything about it.”

“No, Greg,” I said coldly even though my love for him was running amok in my body.  “You need to spend a night bearing the pain you intend to inflict on me.  And, if it gets too excruciating, you can always pretend your hand is mine or make love with my memory.”

“Jus – plea –”

And I left him hanging in a middle of a sentence.

Even though it killed me as I walked away.