After Gregory’s funeral, George returned to London to complete his final term at university, leaving Lady and me alone with Bertie often dropping in to see how we were doing. With Gregory gone, the workload stayed the same which made me see that Gregory hadn’t been the slightest trouble, but rather it was Lady who created all the work. She glided through the rooms, leaving dirty dishes, changes of clothes, unfolded newspapers, half-written letters, unread books and teacups smudged with lipstick in her wake. And as she did, she’d toss ‘do-this’s’ and ‘do-that’s’ over her shoulder, never saying please or thank you.
Truth be told, Lady didn’t seem distraught over Greg’s passing, perhaps because she’d written him off as dead already long before he’d died. But, perpetually anxious, she still requested laudanum at bedtime to help her fall asleep. It coloured in her dreams she’d say.
As soon as she was deep in slumber, I’d leave her be. I’d often start to climb the stairs toward the study, remembering halfway up that Gregory wasn’t there. My body, always aching, forever weeping white, still hadn’t adjusted to his absence. It craved him like an addict craves a drug, like Lady craved her laudanum each night, and yet, frantic, starved, it couldn’t have him.
At first, I couldn’t summon his ghost or slip the memory of his beautiful it deep into the void he’d left. Nor could I use my hand as his or conjure the erotic scenes he’d used to make me spasm without him. My mind, that part of me he’d loved the most, was numb. My imagination, the very thing I needed use the mental skills he’d given me, had turned into a wasteland.
“You didn’t think of that, Greg, did you?” I railed at his grave one night. “You trained the very part of me your death would take away. So, here I am with a crippled mind incapable of soothing the physical pain. My imagination needed you to work its magic. It needed you—you—you—you—you—you— Now you’re gone, it’s broken. Everything we practised is useless. Nothing! Useless!”
But of course, there was no response.
No echo of a thing he’d said – no idea of what he would have said.
Because I needed my imagination for that.
Night after night, I waited for Lady to sleep and wandered through the garden to the grave. Buffeted by the winter wind, I’d cling to the bark of the linden and stare at the snow-lined mound underfoot and I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember the branches above us, nor how I parted his cape, brought down his suspenders, unbuttoned his shirt and handled his chest.
Try as I might, I couldn’t remember the way in which his beard clasped his jawline, then the length of his neck as it flowed to his shoulder. I couldn’t recall how his chest softly sloped to the drop to his abdomen, nor could I see the sublime line of hair to that place I’d once been. Even when I crossed my arms and clutched my own shoulders, I couldn’t remember him doing the same. When I lifted my skirt and dropped to the ground, I couldn’t recall the earth on my knees as I clung to his hipbones and gave it breath—after—breath—after—breath—after—breath, until he moaned with hard pleasure. As I knelt in that place, memory-numb, hollow-mouthed, empty handed –
I’d forgotten him releasing the branches, pulling me up and turning me around. I’d forgotten him pressing my palms on the trunk, the force of him over-and-overing into my body. I’d forgotten how we collapsed to the earth, again-and-againing or who’d held whose skull up when we eventually shattered.
Night after night, I stood in that place, whispering, “I’m sorry, Greg. I’ve broken my promise. I don’t remember. I have forgotten.”
And he didn’t say a single word in defense of his own absence.
One night, however, the grief-induced amnesia began to lift.
As on the other nights since Gregory’s death, physically distraught whilst mentally frozen, I wandered to his grave, trying yet again to draw our memory from thin air. Again, my efforts were in vain. But unlike the other nights, I didn’t stay there at the grave. I turned and went to Sorrel Lane and out into the Heath.
It was mid-January by then.
The wind was bitter, rushing through the gorse, howling in the distance, reminding me of ocean waves beginning soft then roaring on the brink of breaking. The moon was full and high, casting everything in silver. Every brittle blade of grass, every withered leaf that hadn’t decomposed, every twig on every skeletal bush, every shallow slope and gully shimmered in the semi-precious pallor of the moonglow. And, as I had before Greg’s death, I heard it once again – an underlying hum as if the cellist had arrived and started playing in the molten caverns of the earth. And yet, I’d never heard a cello ever, but I understood already that it would sound the same.
I thought about the cello as Gregory had described it.
And yet, I thought about it in my own way.
The earth which fed the trees which sacrificed their wood was in the body of the instrument; the sound, resonant and deep, harnessed the hum inherited from its earthen place of origin. The sheep were in its strings. The horse was in the bow, its mane flung out beside the sheep which ambled through the willows, poplar, spruce and maples which would give form to its gleaming woodscape. All of them had given to the instrument. And so, the instrument, albeit crafted, would hold the howl of nature in its hollow, waiting for the cellist to extract it. And the audience would wonder why it felt like a religion, why it felt so close to birth and death and heaven. The audience would wonder, however, forgetting that the earth, in little bits of flock and grove, had died to build the instrument. And the audience members wouldn’t realise that they too were instruments of nature longing to be played. And when the cello played them, when it struck a chord and tugged their heartstrings, they’d wonder why they shivered, unaware the cello was reconnecting them to their own nature.
As I stood there in the heath, my cloak amok around me, I understood the earth.
My mind, just like the cello, was made of matter. And it was hollow, bereft, un-played. But that didn’t mean the music wasn’t there. I just had to open myself up to it and let it fill me like the earthsound filled me now. I had no cello – no bow. But I had a notebook and a pen, the instruments given me by the lover I’d accused of taking my imagination with him to the grave. Gregory had given me what I needed, just not in the manner I’d been thinking.
“Jus—jus—jus—jus—jus—jus—,” the wind said though the platinum grasses of mid-winter.
Was it the wind? Or the grasses? Or Gregory? Or the first word of my imagination as it began to stir? Or were they all one and the same?
“Jus—jus—jus—jus—jus—jus—,” they swished in unison. “Jus—jus—jus—jus—jus—jus—”
I didn’t return to the house straight away.
Half-frozen, tattered, I stumbled over the terrain to the ground behind Foxglove. I stood on the very patch of earth where Gregory and I had made love in the day’s-end glow of Autumn. Closing my eyes, I felt the stiff grass underfoot, its cold, flat lines scribbled beneath my soles, the odd tuft straggling up to grip my ankles. I felt the snow begin to kiss my lips. I felt the wind’s wings wrap around me and the parting of my cloak as it exposed my nightdress and the outline of my body underneath. I felt the moonlight trickle down the V between my thighs. The earth was standing in for Greg.
That night, the heath gave me her hands.
I lay down in her arms and felt her spirit, dark and ancient, stroke my aching body. Her breath – the wind – was in my throat, feeding me its old resuscitative force. Her voice – the whispering of the snow-swept grass, the ghosts of leaves – murmured in my bloodstream. As she swelled around me, I felt her fierce protection, her guardianship of me when I was shattered.
A vision came.
I thought at first it was a memory.
I was drifting toward the back of a woman in a crimson dress, the dress I’d worn with Gregory on that late November afternoon. The woman was sitting down. I saw her shoulder blades through the velvet. I thought as I got closer, I’d come around and see her tearing the bodice asunder and then the corset to offer Greg her breast, to feed him the delirium of her own feminine pleasure. I thought he’d be there hidden in the grass, lying down, turning over in hot anticipation of her rapture. I thought it was a memory.
But then the heath surprised me.
For when I came around and faced the woman, I saw that she was me. My breast was out but I was suckling my infant – Greg’s infant – our infant. It was a boy with hazel eyes and dark brown hair. His name was Sidney. There was no question. The name was in the vision as if the heath herself had named the child. In hindsight, I believe she had named him for, years later, I discovered the name Sidney meant wide meadow, the very place in which he’d been conceived.
“Wat in God’s name are yer doin’ out here? My wurd, Justine. Wake up, lass. Pleese. Wake up! Yer look haf ded. Fer God’s sake, lass. Yer blue arownd the edges.”
“What?” A face was coming in and out of focus. “Where am I? Where’s the baby?”
“Oooooo, my wurd—my wurd. Yer’ve alredee lost yer mind, lass. And no wunder, lyin’ in the snow lik this! Fer God’s sake, lass, it’s me, Bertie. Bertie, lass. Oooooo. Fer the luv of God, wake up.”
Rubbing my eyes, I saw her face sharpen overhead, her curls gone wild, her headstones chattering in her mouth – and then her chubby hands reaching down for mine.
I took her hands and struggled up, disoriented.
I was dishevelled, full of snow and flecks of grass.
“Where’s the baby?” I asked again. “Where’s Sidney?”
“Oooooooo,” she cried, shaking her head and wringing her hands. “Yer trulee haf gon mad, lass. I dunno who yer talkin’ ‘bout. Wat baby? Wat Sidnee?”
“My and Greg’s baby, Bertie,” I replied, distraught. “Where is he?”
“Lass?” She sloped forward and took my hands in hers, walking backward, tugging me gently toward Foxglove. “Lass? Yer dreamin’, yer are. Yer dont haf a babee. Yer and Sir dont haf a child.”
“I saw him, Bertie! I saw him in my arms! He was at my breast! I had him!”
“Yer had a dreem, lass, one of thowse wakin’ dreems lik loonatiks haf. An’ no wonder, lass, aftur wat yer’ve bin thru, losin’ Sir. I’m so broken-harted, it’s a wunder I havnt had a wakin’ dreem meself. Oooooo I miss Sir terriblee, lass. I do—I do—I do. But yer dont haf a babee, at leest not yet.”
“But I saw the child. His name was Sidney. He was taking my milk.”
“Wich is wat yer need to be takin’ right ‘bout now. A gud cup o’ warm milk! And so, yer goin’ come inside and sit down at me tabul an’ let yer Bertie nurse yer thru the night.”
“What about Lady, Bertie? I can’t stay here. When she wakes up in the morning, she’ll go mad if I’m not there. I must leave. Please. I must get back to Rosegate.”
“O’er me ded bodee!” she declared, letting go of one of my hands, reaching behind her to open Foxglove’s little back door, but keeping me tight in the grip of her other hand so I wouldn’t bolt. “An’ weeve had enuf ded bodees fer one munth, we have. One ded bodee’s enuf!” With that she tugged me over the threshold and into her kitchen.
Once in, of course, there was nowhere else I’d rather be.
It was eleven o’clock at night, but she threw a log into the embers of the old day’s fire and stoked it up into a crackle, moving to the hob to do the same.
“Oh no, Bertie. You don’t have to do that for me.”
“Oooooo, I’m not doin’ it fer yer, lass,” she clucked, clamping her chubby hands on her waist and sniffing with indignation. “I’m doin’ it fer meself. So, I can keep cawm and caree on aftur awl the great shock I’ve had. Imagine how it was fer me to think I saw a bodee lyin’ in the gorse out there then relisin’ tha’ it was the person I luv most in this world, now with Sir gone. An’ then to find yer lyin’ there haf ded like tha’. Aftur awl the adventures we had on Holywell.” She swung a saucepan on the stove and filled it up with milk, turning back to face me. “Did I tell yer I went back yer know – jus’ befer Crismas. I went back to take sum things fer that por Daisee in the alee. Oh, she was as pleesd as punch, she was, to git me basket with the cake and wine and bergamo oyl. Oooooo, an’ did she luv tha’ dressing gown I made.”
“Truly, Bertie? You never said.”
“No – well – wat with wat was goin’ on, I didnt dar. But I’m glad I did. She smild, you know. I didnt think her capabul o’ smilin’. But she did. Jus’ fer an instant, mind.”
There aren’t many times in my life when I’ve felt like I’ve been saved.
In retrospect, I see that the epiphany I’d had whilst walking through the heath and lying in the snow-swept grass that night was necessary for my healing. And yet, perhaps the necessary epiphanies of life can almost kill us, for if Bertie hadn’t come outside to fetch me in, I probably would’ve frozen. I would’ve died the minute I was coming back to life.
But there you go.
Bertie came out in the nick of time so I could reap the best of both: the epiphany which could only hit in danger but too, the warmth of being plucked from my potential death and set down by a roaring fire.
Once I’d finished my drink, Bertie led me to the small spare bedroom with the mirror on the wall and tucked me into bed. “Dont yer woree yer hed ‘bout laydee,” she said, planting a trio of kisses on my cheek. “Yer leeve laydee to me. I’ll take care of her. Yer need yer rest.”
“I love you, Bertie.”
“The feelin’s mutual, lass.”
And then, it happened.
It was brief, but it was there.
For the first time since Greg had died, I heard his voice. Deep and lustful, he murmured from the mirror within me, ‘Watch her, Jus. She’s so beautiful. Don’t you dare stop watching her. She’s so beautiful when she spasms. Please keep watching her until the end. Keep watching. Don’t let her go.’
The following morning, I woke up to whistling and it wasn’t just the kettle.
It was Bertie whistling what she would later tell me was one of her very own compositions. Having never had the luxury of music lessons, she’d taken it upon herself to make use of her “god-givn instrument” – “the mowth”. But as I listened to the horrendous ‘I-don’t-know-what’ screeching from her graveyard, I began to second guess my spending the night at Foxglove.
“Well, look at hoos slept in at Foxgove this mornin’,” she clucked as I emerged from the bedroom and sat down at the table. “An’ here I am, alredee back from Rosegate. And – wait fer the gud news I have fer yer. Yer n’er gointa beleev it. I can hardlee beleev it meself.”
“What is it, Bertie?” I said.
She sloped forward, clamping the edge of the table and lowering her head a little too close to mine for that hour of the morning. Eyes aglow, she flashed her headstones and declared, “Three – days – off,” lifting her right hand and giving the table a whack with each word.
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Yer gointa be here at Foxglove fer three days. Ladee’s givin’ yer a holiday.”
“And how did you manage that?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yer not gointa lik it veree much,” she said with a sigh. “But ‘tis the onlee way.”
“And what way is that?”
“I’ll be takin’ yer place.”
“No, Bertie. No. That’s ridiculous. You’re the one who needs to be resting at your age. Look at me. I’m young, able to cope –”
“Right, lass.” Now it was her eyebrow that shot up. “Lasses who wander the heath in the ungodlee howers, lyin’ in the snow in ther nitedreses, picturin’ babees tha’ dont exist, talkin’ nonsence are not copin’ veree well. An’ I tak great ofence tha’ yer think I’m not capabul. Aftur gaddin’ ‘bout London twice!”
There would be no talking Bertie out of it. Her mind was made up.
“I did tell laydee tha’ Id be leeven at five o’clock sharp to come back here.”
“And she agreed?”
“Tha’ she did, lass. Tha’ she did.”
I didn’t press Bertie further. Truth be told, I was exhausted and welcomed the time off. And, I’d heard Greg’s voice – for the first time since his death – and in Foxglove. If I stayed longer, perhaps I’d hear it again – and again – and again.
“Would you do me a favour, Bertie?”
“Of course, lass.”
And I asked her if she’d bring my notebook, ink and pen back with her at five o’clock. Once I told her where they were hidden, she agreed.
As she wobbled to the front door to don her bonnet and cape, she turned to me and said, “Yer make yerself at home, lass. Fer me home is yer home. It truly is yer home. Yer the dawter tha’ I n’er had.”
“Thank you, Bertie.”
But she had gone.
It wasn’t the heath that wrapped its arms around me then; it was Foxglove. It hugged me with its walls, kissed me with its glimmer and soothed me with its morning lullaby of bubbling pots and crackling wood. It coddled me with fragrances of bergamot and fire, the spicy-sweet aroma of Bertie’s apple cake and coffee, the scent of sage and lemon emanating from the candles Bertie made herself. If Rosegate was a house, Foxglove was a home. On looking back, perhaps that’s why that cottage was the place where I felt Gregory first, because it wasn’t ostentatious; it wasn’t a building where my imagination would have to dodge the string of orders coming from his widow.
That first day whilst Bertie was at Rosegate, I did what I had done upon arriving for my treecalmoon with Greg: I cared for my own body. It ached for him, of course, but in the mellow glow of Foxgove that January morning, the ache was quickly losing its rough edges, if only for a time.
A mammoth pot of water was already boiling on the hob and Bertie, bless her, had left the bathtub partially filled with water in preparation for my bath. To-and-froing from the kitchen to the bathroom, I heated up the bathwater and added Bertie’s oil, disrobing and entering the sheen. Winging my elbows over the edges of the tub and bringing my knees up to my chest, I turned my face toward the ceiling, closed my eyes and inhaled the perfume of the steam. I sat like that for quite some time, floating in the dark behind my eyelids, focussing on the ebb and flow of my own breath. I was at peace, connecting with that moment.
And sure enough, it came: his voice.
And he said, ‘The most erotic organ you have is your brain, and with it, you’ve got my hands, my body, my kiss, my rhythm. You have my every breath, my every moan. Your mind is so erotic, it will give me to you every time. Every time, Justine.’
“Gregory?” I murmured. “Is that you?”
‘Close your eyes. Find your darkness. Imagine me. See me in your darkness for I’m there with you. Not set apart. But in your mind with you.’
I didn’t question that for which I’d longed those past few weeks. I allowed the episode to come just as it wanted to. I gladly let it swallow me alive.
To this day, I still don’t know if I opened my eyes or kept them closed, but I was in the self-infinity with Greg regardless. We were there together, almost as we had been on the night I’d climaxed without his touch, except for now, he truly was a spirit without a frame to clutch.
As I brought the sponge into the water and ran it down my body, it was Greg who did it. I sensed him clearly kneeling naked in between my parted knees, sloping over me, sliding the wet sponge over each breast, over—and—againing, again—and—overing, giving me the memory of him sucking—kissing—sucking—kissing until I sat there furrowed and erect, in sexual agony as he dragged the sponge across my collarbone and through the gully of my cleavage down onto my stomach and deep between my thighs.
I couldn’t touch him then.
But his phantom could touch me with my own hands.
I intuited him as he brought the sponge between my legs and washed the lips that parted of their own accord for him to drink the memory of his breath, his tears, his thrust, his lustful whisperings, the precious things he’d graced them with in life. I felt the sponge caress them but then the sponge was gone; his hands were pushing outward on my knees but he was saying, ‘Don’t spasm here – not yet – step from the water, Jus, so I can see you fully, standing dripping wet with water and yourself. Please, Jus –’
Doing as he bid, I stepped out of the water on the mat beside the tub.
‘You’re so beautiful like that,’ he murmured. ‘God, I love you.’
I stood there for a while, allowing Greg to visualise the water branching off in glimmering pathways down my body before I let him take my hands and dry the soft transparent veins of water from me. I felt his movements so acutely, the rising and the falling of the towel as it made its pressing journey down my skin, its fibres mouthing every incline, curve and shadow as it moved. I loved him as he brought the towel up between my legs, catching the first traces of my ecstasy for him.
‘I want to take you on the floor,’ he echoed all around me. ‘Lay a towel down on the mat and lie the way you did that night I made you climax by the fire.’
As I turned to pull another towel from the little bath-side table, he gusted, ‘I want to anoint your body with the oil, Justine. Please, God, I need to touch you in that way.’
Encompassed by his presence, I lay the towel on the floor and took the crystal vial of oil down with me, placing it beside the towel. And then, doing as he’d requested, I lay on my shoulder blades, folding my knees to one side and ever-so-slightly arching my back as I crossed my wrists behind my head. From where I lay, I saw the steam rising from the water, drifting through the soft bronze lightwaves of the room. The ambience was deep and hazy. The vaporous glow was paradisal.
‘I could look at you forever,’ he whispered in my ribcage.
“Yes,” I murmured back. “I—want—you—to.”
And then, the ghost-talk drifted through the room just like the fragrant vapour.
‘Bring your knees up, Jus. Let me kneel between them. Can you feel me?’
“Yes.” I brought my knees up, parting them, sensing him.
‘Do you feel me, leaning over you and reaching for the crystal vial?’
Un-x-ing my wrists and lowering my arm, I felt him take up the vial with my hand.
‘Do you feel me opening the lid? Letting the first drops of oil fall onto your skin?’
“Yes, I feel you doing all those things.”
And I felt the warm oil carve its pathway between my breasts and down onto my stomach, dividing into brooks which led to all my secret places. And Greg was there in thought-form, possessing my hands, massaging the elixir into me; I could feel him glowing in my lifeline. His palms slid over-and-around my breasts for infinite half-moments. His fingertips, glistening, tripped over every rib toward my navel before they moved onto my hipbones and pressed their fervent way up along the edges of my torso, back onto my breasts, sloping down onto my stomach. Forever-fornow-and-again the sensual circle moved, connecting. Greg was sacred see-through, and I loved the way he slid onto my thighs, hot and luminous like the oil, seeping into every widening pore, awakening each dark corner of my feminine libido with his virility possessing my behaviour.
I could’ve stopped there.
But moments like these, if they’re pure and if they’re honest, decide for themselves when to stop; without a say in the matter, you follow them to the very last spark of their self-governing story.
So, I did.
I let myself drop through the darkness of my mind to his body want-waiting for me. He was kneeling before me alive and erect and craving an outcome. I shifted from the floor and knelt in his aura, pouring the oil on my hands and pressing my palms to his chest, remembering for the first time how exquisite his hair felt under my touch, how it gleamed when I dragged my fingers away to make room for my kisses, to taste him like that, the soul of his body, the spirit of his bones. As he had, I slipped my hands over his skin, always-and-nevering them up to his shoulders, watching him throw back his head, close his eyes, draw the memory of breath back up through his image.
It was his turn to lie down in my mind which he did.
And I felt him.
He lay back on the mat, in the clear haze of being and, shining, I knelt between his knees parted, running the oil onto his stomach, pushing it up with the base of my palms, around-and-againing like he had, back-and-forthing the breasts he’d anointed, slide-crushing their rhythm against him. Massaging his body, I watched him hold firm in the thick of desire, starving but waiting. And I loved him so deeply, I bore the ache with him. Bringing down my hands, I held his erection which studied my lifeline as not to forget it whilst my lifeline, up-and-downing, remembered each ridge roping up to his summit. That was until, raising his hips from the floor, he started God-Jussing me softly, hanging onto a life which had ended.
And the vision was real; it was all that I needed.
I mounted his notion. Leant forward. Clamped his shoulders.
His hands, smooth from the oil, gripped my waist as I started to pulse him into that state where he tried to slow pleasure, to make it last longer, but as I counteracted, rocking him into me deeper and deeper to make him fight harder.
I leant back – held his knees – to witness our union.
I was starting to break. I could feel it. Then, I tried to stop breaking because I didn’t want to lose him. I didn’t want to climax tumbling back into grief. But, if it’s honest and pure, the moment knows best.
So, we turned. That was always Greg’s way, to risk a last move for the ending.
‘Open wider, darling – Justine – you’re divine –’
And I felt him penetrate as deep as he could go, knifing me with his unforgettable religion, I could barely breathe. He thrust so hard that I held my knees and arched my back to take the rough push into heaven. The pang was beginning to break; I could feel it dividing the way it was meant to and –
‘I’m going to – spasm – Jus – God –’ he trembled inside me.
“Wait, Greg – please,” I moaned, not wanting to lose his phantom yet.
It was so real: his sensation, the thought of his face over mine, the idea of his eyes, the dream of his lips. It was so real: the echo of his breathing and moaning as he started to break.
When it happened, I saw us straining, shimmering in the sunlight filtered amber through the heavy curtains. I saw us in that moment in which all gods exist no matter the religion.
Then, because even the divine must run its course, we glittered, but just for an instant.
The glitter dulled and went nowhere.
I found myself again alone and bereaved.
And Gregory, my lover of all layers, had vanished.