CHAPTER EIGHTY-THREE: SPENDING THE NIGHT

 

Author’s Note:

 

This chapter, in Justine’s voice, is her account of the events which preceded the previous chapter and the events following it. As I haven’t yet written George and Justine’s courtship, I still haven’t figured out how long that courtship will be.  That said, I think we can take it that’s it’s been quite some time since Justine was convalescing at St. Anne’s in Portsmouth, so, by osmosis, it’s been some time since she engaged with solicitor Harold Clarke.

 

 

As I left Rosegate the evening of the dominoes, I felt more rested than when I’d arrived.  That didn’t mean that I was happy.  But, then again, since Sidney’s death, happiness had never been expected; a high for me would be a good night’s sleep, and even slumber was hard-come-by.   So, as I walked back to Foxglove late that evening, whilst I may’ve been more rested, I was anything but happy.

Earlier that day, I’d been in my kitchen, baking a lemon cake to take to George to mark our pledge to marry.  I’d been standing in the pantry on a little stood, reaching for an upper shelf, trying to grab a fresh new swatch of cheesecloth with which to wrap the cake when suddenly, there’d been a knock on the door.  The knock had startled me.  Thanks to Harold’s efforts, the vandalism had stopped, but still my reputation was so severely damaged, no one ever came to call.

Stepping down from the stool, I removed my apron, smoothed my hair, and went to the door, concluding it were George outside.  But it wasn’t George, but rather Harold.  The last time I’d seen him was months earlier when I’d been in Portsmouth, so I was pleasantly surprised.

“Before I come in,” he immediately said, without giving me a chance to greet him, “I truly do have a room in the Mistwell Inn this time.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Harold,” I said with a smile, swinging the door open wide and welcoming him in, “at this point, after all you’ve done for me, you could stay here for a month for all I care.  Get in here this instant – for God’s sake – come in.”

Ducking the doorframe, he stepped in, removing his hat, and looking me up and down.

“Well, well, well,” he said, pleased.  “While you always looked lovely in my eyes, Justine, may I say you look – well – a little more – hmmm – rested this time.  You look very well indeed.  Very well.”

“I’ll take ‘very well’ any day, Harold, though I’m hardly as vivacious as I used to be.  Life has certainly given me a few rough edges.”

“Hasn’t it done the same for us all?” he said, rocking back and forth on his heels.

“Here –” I took his hat and slung it on the rack, then helped him off with his cloak.  “Your case, Harold?  Where’s your case?”  I added, realising I’d never seen him in Foxglove without it.  “You’re missing a body part without it.”

“Ah yes, my case,” he said with a sigh.  “Well, let’s just say, I’ve called as a friend today, so my case is safely beside the dressing table at the Mistwell Inn beside my valise because, and I do mean it, Justine, I will not be staying here.”

“Well, isn’t that a pity,” I returned with a wink.

With no paperwork to discuss this time, I didn’t lead him to the kitchen table, but rather to the chairs before the fire, the chairs where he’d divulged his dream to build a snowman.   He sat, waiting for me to take the seat beside him which I did.   The minute that I saw him interlock his fingers on his lap and throw his hazel gaze my way, I realised that I’d missed him.  And that was strange: to realise that I’d missed a man the moment he showed up.  And being me, I said so.

“Do you know, Harold,” I said, “that now you’re sitting here before me, I realise just how much I’ve missed you these past months?”

“As I have you.”

“Have you really?”  I joked, raising one eyebrow.  “A wretch of a widow like me?”

“A widow you may be,” he returned.  “But a wretch?  I shouldn’t think so.”

“You must be blind then.”  I gave my long black skirt a little shake.  “For I’m still dragging myself about in mourning for two dead husbands and a son, though I suppose I don’t look as bad as I did when you last saw me.  God, Harold, I looked frightful back then.”

“When I last saw you, Justine, you were in the thick of grieving.  And yet, if I recall correctly, even then, you found it in yourself to take me to task on the fact I’d overstepped my boundaries when it came to taking care of you, of trying to win your affection.”

“And weren’t you the loveable cad back then.”  I spoke as gayly as I could, but I already knew where we were headed with this conversation.  I could feel the longing in his words. “For if I recall, you not only won that argument and put me in my place, you won my affection while you were at it.  Not that you even had to, mind, because I liked you the instant in which I laid eyes on you at Rosegate when Sir was still alive, and I was only twenty.  Now then, Harold,” I stood abruptly, trying to throw the talk off course.  “Would you like some tea with some of my lemon cake?”

“I’d love some,” he replied, looking relieved.

The cake, of course, was the cake I’d made for George, but in the moment, it was all I had to offer Harold.  So, leaving Harold by the fire, I set about to make the tea and slice the cake, rattling the little snack back to him on a trolley and sitting down to serve it.

While we ate, our talk was light, but no sooner had we finished than it took a turn into unchartered conversational territory which made me agitated.  Not because I didn’t want to have the conversation, but rather because I knew that Harold was intuitive and intelligent enough to read my mind.  Exposed like that, I’d have no choice but to defend myself.

“When we were at St. Anne’s,” he said, speaking slowly, choosing his words, “before we had our debate, you asked me if I ever felt guilty for my thoughts.  And I told you that until England passed the Anti-Wishful-Thinking Act or any law prohibiting cerebral dalliances, I’d never feel guilty for allowing my mind to wander every so often.”

“I remember, Harold.”

“But I also told you that wistfulness should be indulged in with moderation.  I told you that it doesn’t take long for wistfulness to turn into longing, longing to turn into obsession.”

“I remember that too.”

“Yes,” he said, drawing out the word.  “I imagine you do.”

Saying nothing, but feeling everything, I waited for him to continue.

“I’m afraid I’ve broken my own rule,” he continued in the most serious tone I’d ever heard him use.  “I’ve tried, Justine.  These past months, I’ve tried to blot you from my mind.  I’ve tried to replace my thoughts of you with anything and everything.  And yet, the more I try, the more you haunt me.  I have no choice but to confess the way I feel to you.  If you should turn me away, I’ll accept it, but at least I will have spoken my mind. And if in speaking my mind, I lose you altogether, perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve done what Sir Wells asked of me.  I’ve fulfilled my obligations.”

I don’t know what Harold expected of me in that moment.  In fact, I don’t what I expected of myself.  He’d caught me off guard but maybe that was the most effective way to get at my truth.

“Look at me, Harold.  Just look at my life,” I returned softly but firmly.  “I grew up in poverty.  I had a relationship with my employer and hid that child in a marriage to man I didn’t love.  And when that man died, I married another.  And then my son, the child of the man I loved, committed suicide.  And that tragedy turned my life upside down, Harold.  Upside down.  You saw that for yourself.  You saw what that did to me.  My life, Harold, has been utter chaos.  There are nights when I sit here alone by this fire, going through the past with a fine-toothed comb, searching for all the things I did wrong.  But there’s only one thing I did wrong – but it was also the only thing I did right.  And that was to fall in love with Greg.  My whole life has stemmed from that.  But you?”  I looked at him darkly.  “You worked tooth and nail to get yourself out of your childhood chaos.  You built a profitable, responsible, sturdy life.  The last thing you need is a woman as troubled as I am to come and destroy what you’ve built.”

“Those are excuses,” Harold rebutted.  “They have nothing to do with love.”

“They’re not excuses, Harold,” I said, leaning forward in my chair and looking him in the eye. “They’re reasons.  And you have always been a man of reason.  You’re not like me.  You’re not the sort of person to get tangled up in your own heartstrings.”

“I wasn’t that sort of man, you mean,” he fired back.  “For I’m so tangled up in my heartstrings now, I can’t sleep at night.  And you can sit there and list off your reasons which are truly excuses, but you’re not saying a word about love.  Why’s that?”

I could feel my temper rising.

“You’re a solicitor with a keen sixth sense and an eye like a hawk,” I replied, beginning to raise my voice.  “You know damn well why I’m not saying a word about it!”

“Well perhaps I need to hear you say a word about it.”

Need or want?  Because sometimes, Harold, I think you just relish the debate.  You like to see your opponent take a nosedive into the floor.  But not in court.  Oh, no.  You stayed well clear of that because, to quote, you said you didn’t like the idea of making public arguments on which someone’s life would depend.  How convenient for you, for you have no difficulty whatsoever making private arguments on which my life depends.  Perhaps if you’d lived up to your potential of being a barrister, you’d have got the life-altering arguments out of your bloody system.”

“Don’t you dare deflect my attention to my chosen career,” he returned, raising his voice to match mine.  “Tell me the truth.  Don’t shy away from it.   Tell me to my face.”

“What?  That I love you?  Is that what you want to hear?”

“I need to hear how you feel!”  And he was up, towering over me, looking down.

There was no way I was going to cower in his shadow, so I leapt up as well and faced him by the fire.  “Why?”  I shouted.  “Why do you need to hear it?  No.  Don’t tell me.  You want to hear me say it because you need to know you’re right.  You have to be right. You always have to be right!”

“I need to know I’m not wrong,” he said, softening slightly.  “I need to know this hasn’t been my imagination.  I need to know that you feel something for me.”

“But you want far more than that, Harold.  I know you.”

“Of course, I want more, Justine.  I want it all.”

“Well there isn’t much left.”

Bringing his hands to his hair, he bit his lip, exasperated.  “My God, Justine,” he cried.  “If this is what’s left – you, with your wit and your fire and your passion – I’ll take it.”

“You wouldn’t be able to handle it after a while,” I said sadly.

“Who are you to tell me how much I can handle?”

“A woman who doesn’t want to hurt you.”

“Because why?”

“You already know why.”

I could feel myself falling.  His hands were coming up, clamping my arms.  His head was dropping down, his lips finding mine.  Then his breath.  Then his tongue.  There were a thousand nights in that kiss. A thousand nights we’d never have.  But it was all there.  And it was there in a way it had never been with anyone but Greg.  And that hurt.  I felt the pain flash through my body.  I realised in that moment that for decades, I’d clung onto a ghost, that I didn’t want to leave it.  I knew that to leave the notion of Greg was to shatter a vow I’d made to myself: that Greg would be the only one – ever.

The kiss filled me up with imagery.

I saw myself inside that kiss with Harold, tangled in bedsheets, giving him everything he’d ever wanted.  I saw him above me – below me – around me – heart open – eyes closed – blessing my body with the rhythm of his.  I sensed him inside me, in Gregory’s place.  He was beautiful moaning, arresting when sexing me over the edge and, yes, how I loved him – I bloody well loved him  – and I wanted to know what he looked like whilst sleeping – and I needed to pleasure him – the needing was ripping me open because I wouldn’t inflict my dark nature on him.

“You love me,” he murmured as he pulled away. “I sense it.”

“I can never be with you.  Never.”

“Why?”

I was broken before I was going to break him.

“Because I’ve agreed to marry George Wells.”

If ever a gavel came down, it was that one.

Harold stood there stunned, stricken.

It felt like a hundred years went by in that moment of silence.

“You don’t love him,” Harold eventually said.  “The only reason you’re marrying him is so you can be with his father.  But Justine.  Gregory is nothing but a shadow, a ghost.  You’ll never find enough of him in George to be happy.  Nothing good can ever come of such a decision.”

“Nothing good comes of any of my decisions,” I returned.

“You know, Justine,” Harold murmured darkly.  “You go and do what you think you need to do. You marry George Wells then.  But you won’t find Gregory, no matter how hard you try.”

“And how would you know that?”

“Because Gregory was nowhere to be seen in that kiss.  What just happened here?  That was purely you and me.  I felt it in my bones.  I felt us in my bones.”

Without saying anything more, Harold strode to the door.  Whisking his cloak and his hat from the rack, he threw them on and left Foxglove.  How I longed to run after him and reel him back in.  But I couldn’t.  I loved him that much.  I loved him so much, I had to protect him by denying myself.

 

 

In the wake of his departure, I dropped to the floor and wept buckets.

Deep in my memories, I pictured him when he’d come to my rescue after Sid’s death, how kindly and deftly he’d dealt with my mess.  I recalled his compassion, his provision of space for my grieving in private.  I remembered the way he’d sat at my table, treating me the same as if I’d been lovely.  He’d been doing his job, I told myself over-and-over.  He’d been doing his job.

But the memories kept coming.

He was there at St. Anne’s, handing me the basket filled with delectable morsels.  He was making me glimmer in my darkest of days by testing my mettle with debates, talk and challenges.  He was walking beside me in the thick winter sand to the roar of the ocean or sharing the things he’d escaped from his boyhood.  He was doing his job, I repeated.   He was doing his duty.   But then he was standing at the hall table, writing ‘yes’ in the dust, erasing it quickly, destroying the evidence of his deep-down affection for me, a wretch of a soul in perpetual mourning.

But that was all him.

What about me?  What had I done in this?

And, to answer the question, Harold held his lamp up in my ribcage and saw the lime drifting down through my darkness and onto my bones.  ‘You let me in,’ he was saying.  ‘You let me in.’

“Why?  Why?  Why?”  I sobbed to myself, beating my fist on the floor.  “Why did you reach for him when you were so broken?   Because he was older and wiser?  Meticulous?  Organised?  A bureaucratic saviour?  A beautiful father figure when you had no father?   Why?  Why?  Why?”

As the rug grew damper under my cheek, I loathed my behaviour.  What kind of a person slept with so many?  Searched for a ghost in the body of another?  Half-whore, half-witch.  That was my answer.  Then my moments with George rushed back to haunt me.  I saw myself digging into his body just to get to his father.  How sinful was that?  To love-claw a man, not caring for him, but needing this hand-me-down flesh.  I was sick.  I was wrong.

And now?

In that one kiss with Harold, I realised my vice.

I couldn’t have sex with the men I wanted.  I could only enjoy them through others.

Tormented for hours, I stayed on the floor, praying for something, not knowing what.

Resolution stepped forward.

“Very well, Justine,” I muttered.  “If you love Harold, you cannot be with him.”

Rising from the floor, I dried my tears and combed my hair, taking my cloak from the hook.  Donning my bonnet and bringing my hood up over it, I grabbed my lantern and headed for Rosegate, tumbling into George’s embrace the moment I arrived.

I didn’t love George, but I felt at home in his arms.

I knew he knew the breadth of my grief.  No one in the world would understand us in the way we understood each other.  Together, we’d dug a grave and buried a man who’d brought the colour to our days.  We knew what it was like to hear that sack thud in the hole, to hear the shovelfuls of soil pummel it into invisibility.  We knew what it was like to get down on our hands and knees and cover up the earth with leaves.  We knew what it was like to look into the hollows of each other’s eyes and recognise the void.

When we were joined, we were the same dark soul. Every time I shared my body with him, I gleaned some traces of his father.  And that was something – a physical vestige of a love which had made me feel alive.

The night after Harold’s visit, however, I didn’t have it in me to fornicate with George.  But why?

Sex was the usual drug – the usual cure for all things harrowing in my mind.  Intercourse with Greg through George.  But not that night.  I smoked.  I talked.  I played about with the dominoes.  But I couldn’t bring myself to be with George.

 

 

Late that night, once I was back in Foxglove, renewed in my resolution to marry George, I bathed, donned my nightdress, and crawled into bed. Sinking down into the blankets, I breathed deeply, readying myself for well-needed slumber.  But there’d be no reprieve.  Not in my life.

Just past midnight, there was a knock at the door.

Shivering, I swung my feet to the floor, lighting the little candle on my nightstand before rising, slipping into my bathrobe, and pinning back my hair.  Taking up the candle, went through the kitchen and opened the door to see Harold standing outside with his lantern.

There were no formalities this time.

Distraught, he stepped straight in, set his lantern on the table, and turned toward me.

“I simply can’t,” he began, breathlessly.  “I simply can’t stay tossing and turning in bed at the inn, knowing you’re a quarter of an hour away from my arms.   What you said earlier, Justine, is true.  There’s something deep down inside me that makes me need to be right.  I can’t accept defeat, not on anything.  I can’t walk away from anything at all, leaving loose ends.  Everything must be neatly tied up.  Open-ended unnerves me.  I swore to myself as a child that I’d live my life cleanly.  And when I grew older, I vowed I’d help others sort through their chaos.  And yet, here I am, with twenty years left to my name if I’m lucky and I realise that in living my life by the book, I’ve missed out on a story.  My life has been free of crises and climaxes.  There’ve been no twists and turns.  And, until I met you – no romance – no love – no one in my heart.  I’ve just been circling around on the peripheries of other people’s dramas.”

“Stop it, Harold,” I said, placing my candle beside his lantern and tightening the cord around my bathrobe.  “You had enough chaos for a lifetime in your boyhood.  And you don’t ‘just’ do anything in your life.  You throw yourself into it whole-heartedly, leaving no stone unturned.  And as for circling around on the peripheries of other people’s dramas?  That’s utter nonsense.  Total rubbish.  You most certainly don’t ‘circle around’ the edges of situations.  Summoned or not, handsomely paid for or owed for your work, you plunk yourself down in the heart of the matter and deal with the dirt.  Do you want to know how I saw you that afternoon you showed up to help me deal with the vandalism, Harold?  Like a bloody angel in a business suit, that’s how.  You saw how I was standing half-frozen in the heath out there.  I was ready to give up.   And when your cloak came falling on my shoulders, I felt like you were giving me your wings.  It sounds so silly now, overly sentimental, but at the time, that’s how it felt.  So, don’t you dare tell me that you ‘just circle around’ other people’s very worst moments.”

“And that is why I feel the way I feel, Justine,” he said in earnest.  “Because you see things other people don’t.  You see what even I’ve not seen of late.  But –”

“But what, Harold?”

“But that doesn’t change the fact that I need to be right.”

“About the way you believe I feel?”

He nodded.  And he looked so beautiful.  And I longed to pull him into me.  But I stood apart, the small of my back against the table, my hands turned backwards, clamped on the edge.

“And if I tell you how I feel, how will that help?”  I asked.  “Because I’m going to marry George.”

“If you tell me how you feel, I’ll know,” he murmured.  “I’ll have your voice inside my head.”

“You want my words then?”  I stared into his eyes.  “Only words?”

“I want a memory.”

“But that will hurt.  Tomorrow.  The day after.  Next year.  When you find another person more suited to your life.  That memory will be painful.”

“Yes,” he said.  “It will hurt me.”

“I meant it will hurt me,” I whispered.  “It will hurt me because you’re right.  You’re so right, Harold, if we create a memory like the one you crave, it will haunt us.”

“But I’m already haunted.”

“And I’m already hurt.”

We stood there motionless.  The space between us felt like miles.

“I’ve shared my body with five men in my lifetime, Harold,” I said quietly. “But only one of them has had my mind and that was Gregory.  But you?  You’re in my head now too.  Isn’t that enough?”

“I want to know your body,” he murmured.  “I need to know, even if it hurts.”

“I don’t want to lose you as a confidant and friend.”

“You won’t lose me,” he protested.

“Oh, but I will.”

“It’s your word against mine then,” he declared, but gently.

“Then prove me wrong, Harold.  Prove me wrong.”

Why the hell had I said that?  Who was I trying to fool?  Myself, clearly.  Because I knew that Harold had the upper hand when it came to the art of debate.  He’d talk me to my knees.

The challenge was accepted.

Harold removed his coat and hat, hanging them on the rack, then standing up against me, placing his hands on my hips, looking down into my upturned eyes, studying their ache.

“I might just be the only man in the world who knows your truth,” he said.  “All of it.  And from the very start.  I knew your truth when you were twenty, standing at the foot of Rosegate’s stairs, offering me my cloak.  And even knowing your truth back then, I thought you were the loveliest girl I’d ever seen.  I knew you’d be in for a difficult life and I left wondering how you’d fare in dire circumstance, even with Sir Gregory’s help.  And then, every single time I’ve seen you since, no matter in what state, I’ve been floored by your resilience, your ability to weather life’s storms, to still feel love.  This afternoon, when you kissed me the way you did, I was amazed you still had that – the capacity to give yourself to someone else – to me.  I don’t want you to marry George.  And once you do, I’ll stay away, forever if you ask me to.  But you’re not married yet and I want that memory to hang onto.  I want to be with you.  God, Justine, I love you so much, I’ll give you what you want and if that’s freedom to marry George, so be it.”

“I want to spare you the painful places in my life, Harold.”

“But don’t do that tonight, Justine.  Let me in tonight.”

“It’s not fair to you, Harold.  Not fair.”

“I’m not asking for fair.  I’m asking for youonce.”

“I’m frightened.”

“Of?” he mumbled through the very first kiss he brushed across my scalp.

“Of truly submitting to the experience without being somewhere else.”

“Which has been a habit of yours, I gather?” he asked through another kiss.

“You gather correct.”

“Ah, I see,” he responded.  “I see—I see—I see.”  And each of those was interspersed with kisses, planted on my temple – on my cheek – then on my lips – the talk was over then, for he had won the painful prize of memory beyond the moment we were going to have.

God, Justine, you’re mad, I told myself as I undid the cord around my dressing gown, opening up the velvet so Harold could caress me through the soft, translucent creases of my nightdress, feel my body loose in every ardent move he made with his smooth hands. But I was in the moment, nowhere else, with no one else but Harold.

I brought his waistcoat down, undid his shirt and then his trousers, releasing him from every clasp and every fold, studying his torso with my kisses, learning his erection with my hands.  And I was in the moment with him, loving how he raised my nightdress up over my shoulders and pulled me to the floor beside the embering fire.  The position I’d so loathed with Anthony and Everett – on my back, my knees split open – was paradise with Harold.  To see him arched above me – to feel him bearing down and in – to feel his buttocks flexing up against my palms – to look into his lust-pained eyes – to drink the patter of his breath and feel it pulsing down into my throat – to lift my hips for him – to arch my back with every love-push that he gave me – was pure heaven in the present tense.  There was nowhere else I’d rather be.

The words came next.

Climax words I’d never uttered in my life, not even to Greg.

“I love you—I love you—I love you—I love you—”

“I love you—I love you—I love you—I love you—”

“You—I—love—you—I—”

“Love—you—I—love—”

“You—I—”

“Love—you—I—”

“Love—”

“You—”

“I—”

“Love—”

And there – the rapture flowed both ways, wending through each other’s bodies into an erotic memory we’d take in secret to the future.  I wanted every, single detail of the act: the final gasp, the long sweet groan whilst falling, the warm sweet rush of him erupting – the parting of our flesh – our torsos to the ceiling – the seeping of his liquid from my shadows – his phallus wilting in the semi-dark, taking refuge from its journey into my most poignant recollections.

“You can marry him tomorrow, if you like,” Harold whispered sadly.  “But he’ll never have the presence of mind, body, spirit that you’ve just given me.  Your marriage with him will never carry the weight of what the two of us have had.”