We are still with Justine and Harold at Foxglove, with George none-the-wiser back at Rosegate, as Justine shares her explicit writing for the first time with Harold who’s returned from his early-morning walk.
Harold knocked at the back door just as I was putting my pen away, so I rose to let him in, hanging up his cloak and hat as I had so many times by then. His face was flushed, his hair a little every-which-way from the wind and yet, he still looked dapper, as handsome-as-could-be.
“May I, Justine?” he asked, gesturing to the buttons on his jacket.
“As if you need to ask,” I said, watching as he slipped the jacket off and hung it with his cloak, returning to the chair he’d claimed as his before the fire. “I like to see your waistcoat –” I paused, then added, “open with your sleeves rolled to your elbows. And –” I paused again, deciding whether to ask for more and quickly saying, “and with the top few buttons of your shirt undone.”
“Shall I ask the same of you?” he posed, eyes twinkling. “Nightdress off?”
“I would oblige at any other time, but not this morning I’m afraid. Our arrangement was for me to give myself to you in writing. My body or my words, remember?”
“Oh, I remember.” And he leant back in the chair and sighed a slow, deep sigh.
Bringing my papers with me, I came and stood beside his chair.
“I’ve never read my work aloud before, not like this,” I said.
“Not with Sir Wells?”
“He and I? We wrote together until we’d been together. But after that, I wrote alone. And I was a young, inexperienced girl coming into her own. With you, it’s deeper somehow, and I’m frightened that you won’t approve of me this way – in print. Nor do I know how I will sound reading it to you.”
“I’ve stayed the course with you, Justine. Since you were twenty, I have stayed the course. And I’ve been with you at your lowest so I can have the privilege of being with you at your highest and this” – He cocked his head toward the papers. “Is your highest, I presume. If I loved you in your darkness, how could I not love you in your light?”
I smiled and he asked why.
“Forget your paperwork,” I joked. “You could flirt confessions out of anyone.”
“I do not flirt,” he rebuffed with a haughty chuckle. “Flirting is not in my vocabulary. Flirting is for dizzy girls at pleasant tea parties, not for men like me. No, Justine. I convince, encourage, support.”
“That may be so,” I said. “But I don’t write carefully, and you are careful. I let words flow whilst you take time to choose the right ones.”
“I have to,” Harold replied. “That’s part of my job.”
“Yes, but if I were to be cautious with my pen, I’d never write.”
“But you’ve written for me today and I am dying to hear it.”
I was still in my nightgown, though with my face washed and my hair tied back. I didn’t sit down straight away, but drew a breath, girding up the courage to brace the situation pending, or rather the possible outcome of the pending situation.
“So, Harold,” I said shyly, unbelieving of what I was about to ask, but knowing I had to ask it to avoid the inevitable if I trusted my handwriting. “Would you like me to set out some flannels for you?”
And thank God for Harold. I could have flung my arms around him at that very moment, for he tugged my nightgown, and, with a twinkle in his eye, responded, “Ha-ha! You think you’re that good, do you? My oh my, Justine, I am the master of self-control! I will not be needing flannels!”
“Hmmmm –” I winked, relieved. “Said he who was beating down my door last night, begging me to bed him. Master of self-control? That would be you, would it?”
“Well, let me assure you, Justine. Your writing may be provocative, but I’m absolutely certain it won’t be that provocative. And even if it were, I would never – never – give you the satisfaction of seeing your words at work aided and abetted by my own hand. That would be unimaginable.”
“Not for me it wouldn’t,” I retorted.
“No – from what I’m learning about you – at quite a rate I might add, I’m coming to see that nothing is immune from your overactive imagination. And, let me impress, imagination is the key word here, because in real life, I’ll be doing nothing of the sort.”
“What happened to ‘mights’ becoming ‘dids’, Harold? I thought you were a cautious man. And a cautious man would be making damn sure he had some clean flannels on hand.”
“In my work, naturally, I’m cautious – but for pleasure I can hold on.”
“Well, that is presumptuous of you, for I’m not so certain.”
“Which means you think quite highly of your penmanship.”
I wasn’t about to take any chances and began to go for the flannels. But Harold’s hand was up and around my wrist and he was saying, “If we’re going to play with words, Justine – let’s really play. I happen to have a delightful plan.”
“I’ll bet you do!”
“I have no doubt that you’ll arouse me. I’m mad already by just looking at you, so I can’t imagine the effect your words will have. But if I find myself unable to hold on, I’ll have no choice but to respond before your very eyes. But if I succeed in holding on and not succumbing to your words, then you will pull the final pleasure from me in which case, you will be needing the flannels, not I.”
“So, flannels it is then, love,” I declared. “For you, not me.”
“Game on,” said Harold.
Believing I’d won already, I brought the water pitcher stand and a set of freshly laundered flannels from the bedroom and set them beside Harold’s chair.
“Not yet,” he said, rising and moving the stand in the middle between our two chairs.
“If you have it there, you’re going to have to reach too far when you need them.”
“That’s what you think,” he retorted with a wink.
Once the merriment for the pending challenge had subsided, I curled up in my chair, tucking my legs beneath me and taking up my papers. “Close your eyes, Harold,” I murmured. “I want you to focus on my voice, concentrate on my words so you can feel their energy – their rhythm.” The jesting was over.
Harold leant back in his chair and closed his eyes, breathing deeply, waiting.
The fire was crackling beside us; the wind was wuthering in the heath.
The ambience inside was warm and soft and amber.
“I fascinated you,” I eventually murmured. “Because I approached you in the in-between when things are at their truest, when time is what it wants to be, not what the world has chosen for it. I came to you between the summer and the autumn when the leaves are half-green and half-golden. But the leaves were also in-between, their greenness dimmed, their gold subdued in the demi-darkened light of dawn.”
I paused, watching Harold slacken in his chair, breathing deeply.
“You were beautiful, half-lost, half-found, whilst waking up and sleeping still.”
Harold sighed in front of me.
“And I lay beside you in that no-place with my chin on your shoulder, my lifeline on your stomach. The bed was like a land beneath us and we were going to be explicit for those bold enough to read us. In that ambivalence, adrift, you were so certain, and I, so ready to agree.”
Harold listened intently, temporarily at peace.
“And there I was thinking that I’d be the one to arouse you, but you said my name. With your eyes still closed, you led my hand to your erection to prove that you were waking. Shaping my grip around you, you moved me ever-so-gently up and down your skin. And so, I studied you like that, your palm over my knuckles, my fingertips against the ridges and I loved it as you groaned my name in waking sleep, moaning in the demi-light of in-between.”
I watched as Harold began to stir with the hypnosis of my words.
“Your eyes still closed, you turned toward me, lifting up my nightdress in your sleepful waking. Kissing your eyes open, I witnessed my reflection as you pressed against me – skin-to-skin, I felt you – so I was floating in your presence like the grey mist rising from the heath. We stayed like that entwining, pressing up against the other. Then you urged me onto my back and brought your touch down to the place already bleeding white because I felt so hollow without your flesh within me. It hurt to be un-joined, to long for you, already present on the surface of my body.”
Harold was beginning to shift and grip the armrests of the chair.
“Please, God, Justine, you murmured as your lifeline moved over my shadows, making me desire you, eliciting my moan – to no avail because you kept me there endeavoring to withstand the pleasure you were causing in between my thighs but everywhere within me – I was shining.”
Harold’s lips were slightly parted, his breathing more erratic.
“Your fingers slid and anchored on my hipbones and you dragged your kiss down from my lips into my throat then down onto my breast where you remained to make me see that heaven is a feeling, euphoria a place. You sucked me gently – first and foremost, I could feel your tongue slide and tug me with increasing fervour to the point of no return. And I was gripping your strong shoulders to sustain excessive pleasure. My body wanted to be you so you could become me in the sameness of each other. I will not shy away from the erotic truth, the half-hours of half-minutes, the fractions of our breaths, the division of contractions gleaned in secret, the prayer of our two bodies.”
“Our bed was a landscape; I told you that already,” I continued, aware that Harold was beginning to struggle with himself. “Your palms were on my hips, your leg wound tight around me. My chin was on your crown, my arms over your shoulders.”
“It was becoming too excessive, so I rolled onto my back and you opened me asunder. In the archway of your torso, I held onto your shoulders as your soul became my body. And there we were united in varying degrees and ever-moving angles; it was physics and mathematics in the realm of our biology, poetry as well, but also music played on the geography of blankets.”
“When you looked into my eyes, yours quivered with sharp hits of pleasure. When you pulled away, I thought I’d die with sexual hunger, but I took my time to rise as you then shifted under. And then when you gave me the part that I needed, I sheathed it, reached for the headboard for momentum and leverage. The language then was brutal – beautifully uncensored.”
I was speaking more quickly now to equal Harold’s breathing.
“I paused as you sat with your back to the headboard and I self-adjusted to hold our position in time, as each other. It was only ‘we’ after that. There was no me and no you. No here, no there. No right, no wrong. No night, no day. No dawn, no dusk. Locked together in that euphoric motion, lost in one another whilst being found, we were more real than ever. Purer. Wilder. We – were – so simply – put together on nothing more than this fibrous rectangle which we have called paper.”
“But Harold. The page is not a page for me,” I said, standing quietly, slipping from my nightdress, aware that he had as good as won the challenge. “The page is a world – a shelter – your body – my face – our junction as we shudder together in separate beds in separate rooms in separate houses. The page defies the obstacles of time and distance, age, and space. So, if you want me, Harold, I’m in your arms already in ink which rivals life, and we are eye to eye now, mouth to mouth, breath to breath. Synchronous in sound and motion, swelling for an everlasting second and I know you feel me in your body the way I know you’re in my mind in this, the piece of paper.”
His eyes were closed, his hand on the arm of the chair.
“And I am fascinated by you now,” I continued in a murmur. “I love the way you moan inside my voice as you begin to lose control over the edge. And you are fascinated by me then, the way my hands, smudged blue, are scripting your last sexual sigh and cupping the release which pulses in your hand. I am overcome as you are coming over. I love the way that feels in print. I love to know that you’re inside the ghost I’ve sent you.”
“God, Justine, I don’t know if I can –” Harold began to say.
“You don’t have to,” I responded. “Not until we’ve said goodbye.”
There was no challenge to be had. I let him have the end in me. As clever as we’d thought we’d been before I started reading, we realised in that moment there was nothing else to do other than to be together in the flesh, to make the most of being together before we had to be apart.
“I love the written you, Justine,” he said when we were clothed. “I love the way you come to me in print and I will read you any day, any night. I understand you more than ever now. I’ve known your body and I love that too, but this is different. It is the other half of you, perhaps the more important half.
It is explicit but it’s also prayerful in a way – sexual-spiritual perhaps?”
“Sex is spiritual I believe.”
“With you, it is,” he said. “But not with everyone.”
“It could be – if they let it,” I said.
“They couldn’t let it if they couldn’t read it.”
“And they will never read it, not in this day age,” I returned.
“And if it weren’t this day and age, would you want it to be read?” asked Harold with his eyebrow raised. “Would you want people to know what pleasure could be?”
“But it is this day and age so there’s no use thinking wishfully.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Harold. “I thought wishfully once and look where that has got me.”
“You know what I mean, Harold,” I responded with a wink. “If most were to read this, they’d deem it blasphemous, lewd, pornography. Their slander would be an insult to a thing I consider dear – the sensual part of me. Besides, the sort of people who’d consume this wouldn’t appreciate my poetry.”
“Ahhh,” he said. “You’d be surprised. Am I the sort of person who wouldn’t see its merit?”
“Don’t be daft,” I jested. “You’re bloody well in it!”
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot!” he declared. “On my one-hour jaunt through the heath this morning, I became the muse! I’m in the work, so it must be good.”
“In all seriousness, Harold,” I said. “Do you truly believe it’s good?”
He fell quiet and looked me in the eye.
“I sit here looking at you now, Justine,” he eventually said. “And I know the life you’ve led, the pain you’ve endured – so much loss – so much heartache. And then, you come at me with this. This detailed celebration of a sexual episode with an exceptional muse who, with next to no effort, has done a damn good job of inspiring you so you can give him a little pleasure later and I’m almost at a loss for words. Do I believe it’s good?” He echoed my question. “I think you know the answer to that already. It is a testament to life, to wonderment after hardship, to euphoria after grief.”
“So, you like it?” I kept probing.
“I love you in it,” he replied. “I love you in it.”
“And I love you in it also,” I returned.
Later that morning, Harold and I sat at the kitchen table, picking at our breakfasts, barely touching our tea. The day was as the dawn had promised: bleak and blustery. And yet, that was our weather, the weather in which he’d first arrived at Foxglove three and a half years prior.
“You will write to me at least?” he asked.
“To you? I’ll write for you, Harold. My words mean everything to me.”
“But they’ll never be more to you than everything,” he said. “They’ll never be more to you than Sidney. Oh God, Justine, I know you so well. If there’s any chance of you seeing Sidney’s eyes again in a child with George, you’ll risk it all, yourself included. You’ll give up love with me –”
“Give up love? Love isn’t a thing one has a choice of giving up! It stays inside you whether you
like it or not. Love doesn’t care about the people it inflicts. It doesn’t care how old you are or if there’s bread and butter on the table! It doesn’t bloody budge! Love stands there in your ribcage, holding up its little lamp, grinds its heels into the damage – throws its cloak onto your shoulders in a frozen field – and
Harold – God, Harold – I love you, but I miss him—miss him—miss him.”
Harold was up and pulling me into his arms.
“Why do you always have to be so right?” I said into his chest. “You’re always right. I would give anything at all to see Sid’s eyes again – to run my fingers through his curly hair – to fall asleep beside his bed. And that’s not fair to any child that isn’t him. Not fair at all. But I’m like you. I don’t want fair. I want just once – just once – to have Sid’s flesh and blood with me. And only George can give me that!”
“I know,” Harold whispered into my crown.
“It’s not just that, Harold.”
“I don’t deserve you. You’re too honest – too true.”
“I’m not innocent, Justine. You’ve been with George. I know that. How could you not have been when he looks so like his father? When you’ve got your life with him planned out? When you so dearly want to have his child to bring your dead child back? But let me tell you something. I’d rather have what we’ve had here than a thousand loveless conversations at the breakfast table with you as my wife. For that’s what George is going to get. He’ll get your body. But he’ll never have your heart.”
“You’ll have my words as well though. You’ll always have my words.”
“What if George finds out?”
“One careless error – a fallen page – a misplaced letter – that’s all it takes.”
“Not if it’s written in invisible ink.”
Leaning back, he looked at me puzzled. “Invisible ink? Sounds like child’s play.”
“I suppose it is, but one should never underestimate the cunningness of children.”
Harold fell dead quiet.
“Is something wrong?” I said, taken aback. “Did I say something to disturb you?”
“No – no – on the contrary – I think the idea quite ingenious.”
Leading me to the chairs by the fire, he sat down, and I sat on his lap.
“Child’s play it may be,” I said, my forearms draped over his shoulders. “But I’ll write to you in tallow. All you need to do is stain the page with paint or tea and you’ll receive the message. I did it all the time when I was little in the Borough Flats, with tea of course. We never had paint, and paper was a luxury. I didn’t even know how to write. I was scratching out the misspelt words in mangled sentences. My father used to whittle the ends of a stick to form a makeshift pencil and I’d dip the tip into the tallow and write my secret message. And what a lark it was to see my parents brush the tea across the page and watch my dreadful spelling appear!”
“What sorts of messages?” he asked with a wink.
“The precious sort: ‘I-love-you’s’, ‘can-we-make-a-cake’s’ and ‘do-you-think-I’m-pretty’s’?”
“To which your parents replied?”
“I love you too. We don’t have money for cakes. Handsome is as handsome does.”
“And here you are loved, always making cakes, and radiant in both appearance and behaviour.”
Not in behaviour, I thought – and that thought drove a needle through my heart.
“Better tallow than lead acetate,” I quickly said to quell the sting.
“Yes,” I said. “When I was older, my father taught me another way to send a secret message – an old way which he’d learned from his grandfather.”
“Which is?” Harold raised his eyebrow and tilted his head.
“It’s an old trick,” I replied. “One writes with a water solution of sugar and lead. The words dry invisible on the page. When the recipient receives the page, he slips it between the pages of a book. Then he takes a paper brushed with orpiment and places it at the back of the book. He turns the book over and bangs it with his fist. The arsenic sulfide seeps through the printed pages and turns the invisible sentences black. But it’s poisonous. It must be done outside with a cloth to the face. One cannot inhale the arsenic. Besides, the smell of it is horrendous.”
“Better the tallow then,” Harold said, giving my waist a squeeze.
“I want to be free to write whatever I want. I want to rewrite our memories, reword our bodies. I want to feel you again and the only way I can feel you without you is to do it through words. If we do it this way, no one in between us will ever find out.”
“And once the words are visible?”
“Read them – take them in – and then burn them.”
He was quiet for a while, embracing me in the chair, not wanting to let me go.
“Promise me you’ll never sell Foxglove,” he murmured. “Promise me, Justine. Because one day, I want to come back here and find you standing out there on that heath – where you belong – where Greg knew you belonged. And one day, I want to pick up here where we left off.”
“I will never – ever – sell Foxglove. When Bertie died, I told George that it belonged to John Winterbourne and that John had agreed for me to keep it. I will be living at Rosegate, but I will always come back here to write.”
“For me then. With the invisible words.”
“Always for you and yes, with the invisible words.”
“I will stay away, you know, Justine. I won’t interfere. But I pray that you get what you want out of this – who you want out of this. I hope it’s all worth it in the end.”
“I long for his gaze –” My voice broke off. “I long for –” I couldn’t continue.
“His laugh,” Harold picked up for me. “His do-or-die dreams. His bravado. I saw that when I met him, and I only met him once. So much character on a first impression. That goes to show the sort of lad he wa –” Harold stopped, shying away from the past tense, the tense of ‘over-and-done-with’.
“I need another child,” I resumed. “A Wells’ child with Sid’s brown eyes, a little arm draped over the side of the bed each night. I need another chance at Sid. But you will always have my writing.”
“And I should think that that, your art, is your best part – your flow, unadulterated with the obligations of the daily grind – your soul flown from domesticity and public expectations.”
“When I write,” I continued, laying my head on his shoulder, “I feel so free – and yet, so caught.”
“An oxymoron if ever there was one.”
“Words are these little vessels that carry me away to things I cannot have in person, to people I can’t have again. They take me to this deep, ethereal place – a heaven of sorts where I can sleep with you a thousand times and tumble through the heath with Sid. Where I can be young again. But also wise with years. Through the English alphabet, I can look into my father’s eyes anew or laugh with Greg or chat with my dead mother. And yet, even paradise can suffocate. For soon enough, with each accumulating page, I ache for human touch. I’ll need the physical you. That’s the worst of it. To be so caught. There comes a point when writing Sid is not enough. I need him back. And one day, I’ll need you too and will hope the universe complies with my request. But in the meantime, I’ll give you every word that I can muster. But no. Not muster. For you, the words will flow. I will send you letter after letter.”
“In that case, I’ll stock up on tea.”
“And I on candles.”
“As long as it’s not orpiment,” he said with a dark smile.
“I wouldn’t dare.”
We sat entangled on that chair for many minutes, locked in the farewell which soon became a greeting of two naked bodies about to wrench apart. It was the saddest sex I’d ever had and therefore the most poignant. To spasm together with him and know that we were coming into one another whilst coming to an end? It was the centre-point of ecstasy mixed up with pain: a gouging spike of pleasure riddling our flesh. Salt water lined our cheeks and filled the corner of our mouths so we could taste the sea in one another. And I thought of Portsmouth then, of all our moments at St. Anne’s, his ‘yes’ scribed in the dust on the hall table, the way he looked beside the winter waves. And no. I couldn’t bear it.
“I can’t stay to watch you walk out that door, Harold. I can’t.”
I rose and dressed, laced up my boots and threw my cloak over my shoulders.
“A woman like you, Justine,” he said so sadly, “doesn’t need to see it happen. A woman like you will feel it deeply. You’ll run into that heath and you’ll stand there in the wind. You’ll try to blot me. But you’ll be with me the whole way back to Portsmouth.”
And I bolted, through the kitchen door out into the gale and stood there for an hour at least, freezing slowly. And Harold was right – for he had to be right – and he was always right.
I was with him as he got up from the chair, dressed, but took the dishes from the table to the counter as he would. I was with him as he walked throughout the little house, searching for a dusty surface on which to write ‘It’s just a matter of time, Justine.’ I was with him as he washed his hands in the bedroom wash basin and dried them on a flannel, folding the flannel back up because he liked to keep things neat. And I was with him as he donned his cloak and hat and left the cottage to walk back to the heath. I even saw him enter the Mistwell Inn and bid the deskman a good morning, explain to him that he’d had difficulty sleeping and had got lost when he’d gone out walking.
And then – it happened.
Surfacing from my reverie, I realised.
The whole time, I’d been standing on the patch of land where Gregory and I had made love on our treecalmoon. And yet, not once had I remembered that. Gregory’s ghost had gone. And my heart was now with Harold. But even the deepest of lovers can never replace the love a mother harbours for her only son, especially a dead son she might get back. And so, I closed my eyes and drew a breath called Resignation. Resignation. Capitalized because I knew that for a while, we’d be on a first-name basis.