As you’ll know from the previous chapters, George and Justine, both grieving, have become sexually involved with one another. While at first, they were reacting to the physical traits they’d lost in their dead lovers (without the other knowing that was what was happening), George, mesmerized by Justine, has been able to let go of Sidney (for the most part) and lose himself in this new relationship while Justine is still using George for an alternative means through sexual gratification. While I haven’t fully developed what will be George and Justine’s ‘private courtship in mourning’, I will be elaborating on that courtship, their engagement and their wedding when I do the re-write and edits. In this chapter, which is in George’s voice, George and Justine have just become engaged, although Justine has something (or someone) very much on her mind which (or who) is distracting her to no end.
The day after our engagement, Justine didn’t come to Rosegate. As unconventional as we were, that was strange for her. Justine had always been punctual and, since we’d found ourselves entwined with one another, she’d barely left my side. I’d grown accustomed to meeting her in that location where one only meets one’s lover: at the junction of two bodies, beneath the archway made of bone. All her idiosyncrasies, invisible to me before, had sparkled into view and rooted in my consciousness until I couldn’t see beyond. A day without Justine was empty.
The day she didn’t come, therefore, was such a day.
And what a day for her to miss. The day after becoming betrothed.
That wound me up. Perhaps, she’d woken up in Foxglove, regretting our engagement. Perhaps she thought she’d made a terrible mistake. With every passing hour, my worry grew until I paced throughout the house.
At seven o’clock that night, she came.
As soon as I heard the latch of the side door, I hurried to the kitchen to meet her. “God, Justine,” I murmured, relieved. “Where on earth have you been? I’ve been waiting all day.”
“I know, George. I’m sorry. I should’ve sent word.”
Watching her remove her cloak and bonnet, I saw she didn’t look well. She was paler than she usually was, her eyes couched in dark circles. And speaking of eyes, her eyes were red, so clearly, she’d been crying. And yet, as shattered as she was, she still looked beautiful to me.
“What’s wrong, Justine?” I asked as gently as I could, smoothing back a lock of hair which had tumbled from her bun. “You’re obviously upset. Because, you know, I’d never force a marriage on you. Never—never—never. If you’ve changed your mind – if you’re getting cold feet – we can stay as friends – beloved friends because, God knows, I’d never want to lose you.”
“You won’t lose me, George.”
And she wound her arms around my waist and pressed her cheek against my chest. As I brushed my lips over her crown, I felt her breath warming my shirt as if to ready it for the tears about to come. And come they did, seeping through the cloth and through my undervest, dampening my skin.
“Is this about Sidney?” I ventured in a whisper.
“No,” she sobbed. “Not this time.”
“You don’t have to tell me thing.” I held her tightly, feeling her tremors, burying my face into her heap of auburn hair. “I’m here. That’s all.”
“That’s everything,” she said. “That’s absolutely everything.”
I don’t know how long we embraced like that. But still, I see our silhouettes joined, swaying slightly in the darkened kitchen. Whatever was upsetting her, it was shaking her to the core. As sinful as it was, I wanted her like that because a broken bird would never leave. If she were shattered, she’d stay. But who was I attempting to fool? After everything we’d been through, neither one of us could fly.
The thoughts I’d had whilst holding her that evening hadn’t been off course. Later when we sat beside the fire, she tipped the dominoes onto the table between us and began to stand them upright, gingerly building a labyrinth which filled the tabletop.
“I never wanted to be damaged, George,” she said, leaning forward over her growing creation. “When I was a little girl, I longed to grow up healthy, to become a writer. I saw myself in a lamplit corner of a mirthful home, giving myself to the paper without a care in the world. I used to dream about that, George. The delusion kept me going.”
I hesitated to respond. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and push her back down when she’d just started coming up. But –
“Talk to me, George,” she begged. “Please talk to me.”
“Damage is where the stories come from.”
She stared at me. I saw the miniature firelight twisting in her pupils.
“But damage is too harsh a word,” I ventured.
“Can you think of a better one?”
“Well then,” she said sadly, placing the last domino at the end of her masterpiece and sitting back in the chair, tucking her legs beneath her. “We’re more human than most and too human for our own good.”
“How can I possibly contradict a woman like you?” I asked. “That night is a hole in my chest and I’m always operating around it, knowing that no one, but you, can understand it. And I, like you, never wanted to grow up with such adversity. But everything came tumbling down around us.”
“But did everything come tumbling down around us?” she questioned. “Did we not bring it down ourselves with our own choices?”
As soon as she said that, I was confused.
Did she intuit that I’d played a role in Sidney’s death? And how could she have possibly done anything to contribute to her own misfortune? She hadn’t chosen to be born in poverty. She hadn’t chosen to be orphaned. There hadn’t been any options for her other than to come and work at Rosegate. It wasn’t her fault that her husbands had died, nor that Sidney had killed Ada before committing suicide.
“Perhaps,” she continued, “somewhere along the line, we acted in ways which instigated the whole downfall. Perhaps we can only hold ourselves accountable for the positions in which we end up. Perhaps we have no one to blame but ourselves.” And with that, she sloped forward and tapped the first domino, watching the snake of a wall fold before us until it lay flattened.
“But here we are,” I said, sweeping the dominoes into a heap. “Here we are, anyway, no matter what happened. All we can do is work with the rubble.” And then it was my turn to work with the tiles, building them into a tower in the firelight. “We have to keep going.”
“Yet, only with each other.”
There was a resignation in her voice which surprised me.
“Is there someone else out there who speaks to your heart?”
How I wished to hear the word “no” in that moment.
But it didn’t come.
“It doesn’t matter what we call it,” she eventually said. “We can replace the word ‘damaged’ for ‘human’ if you like. But we’re so human now, no one deserves to be with us. People with the usual wear and tear of life? They’d never understand us. They might think they could support us. That’s the thing with intellect. The brain? It thinks it can do anything, including rule the heart. Rule the heart!” She threw her head back, scoffing. “How presumptuous of the brain. But then again, George, maybe if we’d gone with intellect over instinct, we wouldn’t be here now.”
I honestly didn’t know where all of this was coming from and it was putting me on edge. I tried my best to focus on my domino tower.
“Do you not want to be here?” I raised my eyes and looked at her over the turrets of my castle. “Because from the way in which you’re talking, it sounds like there’s somewhere else you’d rather be, perhaps with someone else.”
“Don’t be daft,” she chided with a flash in her eye. “I haven’t seen a soul for months. No one in his right mind would want to be with a woman like me.”
“I must not be in my right mind then,” I said sharply. “In fact, I must be raving mad.”
“You are,” she snapped. “I’m poisonous for any man.”
This was a discussion which could’ve gone any way. It could’ve turned flirtatious and ended in a naked tangle on the floor. It could’ve turned into a game in which one player self-depreciates to glean a string of compliments from the other. It could’ve died completely as I put the finishing touches on the tower. But no. It didn’t go any of those ways.
“I’ll drink your poison then,” I whispered darkly.
“But why?” Untucking her legs, she pushed herself up from the chair and went to fetch the matches, the tobacco tin and my father’s pipe. Spreading her legs to form a plateau with the cloth of her skirt, she used her lap to pack the pipe then stared smoking, leaving the tin and the extinguished match on the fabric.
“I taint everything I touch, George. My parents are dead. My husbands are dead. My son is dead.”
“But you didn’t kill them, Justine. You’re not responsible for their deaths.”
“I feel responsible when I’m the last one standing,” she said, taking a drag on the pipe and sending out a line of smoke. “Why should I be the one to live?”
“To tell the tale.”
And there. My castle was done. Tall and gleaming in the firelight.
“I haven’t written since he died,” she murmured.
“Neither have I,” I said. “Not since either of them died.”
“I’ve tried,” she said, taking another drag on the pipe. “God. How I’ve tried. But nothing of any consequence comes out. I get pathetic little phrases – half-sentences that cannot hold the weight of my emotion. I’ve burned work in the fire. Because it’s rubbish. Useless, useless rubbish.”
“As have I,” I said. “I’ve done the same. Whittled away at passages only to destroy them.”
“You see, George,” she said emphatically. “That’s exactly what I mean. You’re the only one who understands the scope of it. The only one.”
“But I may not be the only one who loves you in the end.”
“Maybe not,” she said, looking away. “But if there’s anything I’ve learned in my marriages, it’s that men fall in love with bits and pieces of me. They don’t know what to do with the nasty little shards they cannot understand. Anthony ignored them altogether. And Everett downed a bottle of whisky so he could take my dark head on. But you? You know. I don’t even have to tell you. You just know.”
“I think I do.”
But truth be told, I was uncertain of so much. Watching her smoke, I sensed a wall inside of her. She was concealing something. Something other than our mutual pain. There was more to her than our bereavement over Sidney. But what? I’d known her since she was eighteen. Her life had been an open book. So, what could she possibly be hiding? And who was I to judge when I had secrets of my own? For as deeply as I felt for her, I still had memories of her son. I still recalled the way he looked when he was on the cusp of spasming in my arms. From time to time, I still sought out his image in my dreams.
“There’s no one else, George. Only ghosts. And ghosts can’t touch us.”
“Are you sure you want to marry me? Absolutely sure?”
Locking her gaze with mine, she said, “I’m sure.”
“Because if you’re not su –”
Suddenly, the tower of dominoes toppled, making a racket on the top of the table, parts of it flying onto the floor. Laughing sadly, she turned to examine the damage. “You see,” she said. “With people like us, nothing can stand tall.”
Eventually, Justine rose from her chair and tidied up the fallen dominoes, setting them in their oblong tin and setting it down at the edge of the hearth. Sinking back into her chair, she looked and me and sighed. “Of all the things this life has robbed me of,” she murmured darkly. “At least it’s left me with
my basest drive – to copulate myself into sedation – but I’m too old and tired for that tonight.”
“We’re forty-two,” I returned. “We’re not that old.”
“At the rate we’re living, George, I shouldn’t think we have long left.” “At the rate we’re living, I shouldn’t think I’d want to live much longer.”
“Who’s the dark one now?” I asked. “Are you certain you don’t want to stay the night?”
“I’m certain, George.” And she was up, gliding to the foyer, taking down her cloak. “If it’s all the same with you, George, I should like to spend the day alone at Foxglove tomorrow – to rest, to think. Give me a day and I’ll be back to keep you company. And,” she added, leaning forward and kissing my forehead, “please don’t worry yourself anymore. We’re as good as married, George. You’ve got me for life.”
Following her to the kitchen, I saw her out, then wandered to the Parisian doors to watch her swaying down the garden path to Cemetery Grove. But it was strange because, that night, unlike every other, she didn’t stop at the stone bench to acknowledge Sidney’s grave. She slipped straight past without a single glance. That small gesture – or lack thereof – spoke volumes about her state of mind. For the first time in months, Sidney wasn’t first and foremost in her thoughts.
And was that good? Or bad? I supposed it was good because it indicated she was progressing through her grief. But it was bad because, judging from her behaviour, someone else had taken up the vacant headspace. In the whirlwind of weeks to follow, with Justine’s devotion to our marriage, I’d forget about that night. Only once I’d died, acquiring my omniscience, would I learn of just how do-or-die that night had truly been.