All the clocks in the house had been draped in black cloth, so one didn’t know the time for certain, but, judging by the darkening sky, it was four o’clock, the hour of nightfall in December. I’d already lit the candles and the oil lamps. Bertie was in the kitchen, seeing to the food, whilst I was readying myself to carry out the last offices on Gregory’s body.
“I know it was Dr. Grayson’s orders, lass,” Bertie whispered, giving my arm a squeeze. “But yer and I both know that yer the onlee one to do it. Sir wudnt haf wonted anybodee else, jus’ yer, luv.”
“I know.” I could barely hear myself speak.
“Look, lass,” Bertie said in a low voice. “I’ve lade everything out fer yer gud and propur, me bergamo oil included. It were me who put the pennies on his eyes. Tha’ were me.”
Without a word, I turned and took the hallway to the foyer, checking in on Lady in the parlour who was in her mourning garb already, wringing her hands and looking out the window, turning nervously the instant that she saw me.
“George will be here in the morning,” she said, looking weary rather than sad. “So, once you’re finished with Sir, please make sure George’s room is ready for him. Rosegate is a house in mourning and mourning means more work. And, also, do my husband justice. His body will be on display. In fact, I’m waiting for Hargreaves and Carruthers to arrive with Sir’s coffin.”
She spoke so coldly, I wondered if she was indifferent to Greg’s death.
“Yes, M’am,” I said, closing the parlour door and moving to the staircase.
As I took that journey to Greg’s body, I was aware the ghosts we’d strewn throughout the house had gone for the time being. There’d be decade upon decade for our other forms: our leftover projections, phantoms, memories. But this would be the last time Greg and I would be together in the flesh, the last time I would physically touch him, the last time I would wash the parts of him I worshipped.
Entering the room, I closed the door behind me.
And there he was stretched out on the bed, his naked body covered from the shoulders down in a sheet I’d washed the day before. His suit was hanging from the handle of the wardrobe, his underclothes were on a nearby stool and his shoes were on the hearth before the fire. The basin from the study, filled with lukewarm water, waited with a second basin and a jug on the table at the foot of the bed. Stacks of flannels, rolls of gauze, a bowl of pins, sashays of dried flowers and several vials of Bertie’s bergamot oil waited with them.
It was dead quiet.
No talk. No groan. No laughter. No moan.
He was dead still.
No breath. No flinch. No arousal. No shudder.
I didn’t have a single memory in that moment, nor did I hear his voice inside my head. In retrospect, I realise that the moment was to stand alone for what it was: a living lover readying the body of the lover lost for its eternity beneath the earth.
I folded down the sheet and looked at him.
Just as she’d said, Bertie had already placed the coins on his eyelids to keep them closed. But even without his eyes shining in my direction, Greg was beautiful.
Moving to the table at the foot of the bed, I brought several flannels and the basin from the study to the bedside chair and set them down beside me. Taking one of the flannels, I sank it into the water, wringing it before I brought it to Greg’s face, bringing it down over his half-born beard, onto his jawline, following the contour of his neck as it flowed into his shoulder. Sinking the flannel into the water again, I brought it back, running it down the ever-so-slight slope of his chest, into the drop of his abdomen, along the sublime line of hair which led to the place of bygone kisses, former pleasure. Even in its tearless state, it too was beautiful, and I took a clean flannel and sponged up the nothingness, the place that would no longer weep white for me.
Over—and—over—again—and—again—I brought the cloth down on his body. Collar bone, ribcage and hipbones, kneecaps and ankles, the insides of his thighs, the outsides of his arms. And I loved every inch of his body with the cloth and the water, the soft, gentle strokes on his skin. The hair on his chest shone in the light from the candles.
He was still beautiful to me.
I couldn’t make love to him then, not how I had.
But I handled his body with love and with reverence, anointing his feet with the bergamot oil, studying his soles with my fingers, tracing the rise of each ankle, massaging each leg, working my way up his body again because I didn’t want to leave it, couldn’t bear to abandon his physical appearance whilst the stillness, the absence of movement was killing me as was his silence. His silence was deafening, muting all sound. I loved him in stillness and silence and wanted to be there. I’d be there again if I could, with his beautiful body, his corporeal presence.
Then came a time when I realised that I’d stopped with the water and ceased with the oil, but his body was wet. I was dragging the cloth through my tears which had fallen onto his flesh and into his pores. My salt would go with him into the ground; my grief would be there.
Once I’d washed him, I unwound the gauze and brought it under his chin, bringing it up over his ears and tying it behind his head to keep his jaw in place. I bound his elbows and knees to keep them straight before I bound his feet, tucking the tiny sashays of dried petals into the layers.
Though it pained me to do so, I dressed him. Before I closed his jacket, I tucked in his inside pocket a tiny key from a moment gone wrong and a blue velvet ribbon from so many moments gone right. Closing the jacket, I folded his hands on his chest and leaned over. Holding his face in my hands, I kissed his cold lips. It was the first kiss I’d given him which went unreturned.
When I left the room that evening, I knew I wouldn’t be able to cry in front of anyone, especially not in front of Lady and George. No one save Bertie could know how deep my sorrow ran. But that night, as I lay in my bed, I felt an unbearable ache between my legs. Reaching down, I realised I was weeping in the only place it was safe to weep. My body was crying white tears for the other body it needed but could no longer have. But I did nothing to quell the corporeal grief. I lay there in utter agony.
And I allowed the place Greg had adored mourn that he was never coming back.