We are back in Justine’s voice now as she reveals a secret she’s been keeping in her and George’s marriage. This is one of the ‘plot pillars’ I wrote about in the last project update. There are some gaps needing to be filled around it.
The instant I saw that wallpaper with its dark velvet vines intertwining on the Paris green backdrop, I knew I’d found my alibi and oh, how beautiful it was. When Mr. Tate stood in the foyer that Tuesday morning, with the bill in his grip and the last of the rolls tucked under his arm, he told me that I’d be in awe of his work – which – as it turned out, I would be.
Harland was dozing in the nursery and George was reading on the swing in the back garden. So, in the wake of Mr. Tate’s departure, I climbed the stairs to admire the wallpaper in solitude.
It was a golden day, just gone eleven o’clock and the light descended through the window, illumining the dust which lingered from the laying of the paper. Watching how it hovered in the soft green glow, I understood that it was poison, but also saw that it mesmerised like magic.
I knew George well.
The instant he beheld the dust, he’d see it as the residue from our dead loved ones. An incurable romantic, he’d revere the particles, claiming our biology, in and of itself, was proof we were immortal. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he believed the glimmering debris to contain the spirits of our dead. For he was always telling me that the physical was the spiritual, that matter was the mind. And I have to admit, as I studied it glittering adrift, I couldn’t help but to believe for a split second that Gregory and Sid were in there somewhere alongside the phantoms of George and me when we were younger.
My blood went back to cold when I thought that.
It hadn’t been that long since I’d stumbled on the horror.
I’d been entering my final trimester with Harland and had started to decorate the nursery, looking for little items from the study to decorate its shelves. Alighting on the kaleidoscope, I thought it’d be a meaningful toy for Harland’s future and planned to move it to the nursery. My thinking was that I’d keep it on a higher shelf until he was old enough not to break it. But the minute I had the instrument in my hands, stepping back, I lost my balance and it fell to the floor. Whilst the tiny glass tiles didn’t disperse, the main pieces of the toy split apart. So, bending down over my burgeoning belly, I managed to scoop the pieces up and carry them to the desk. As I raised the body to examine it, I noticed there was a gap between the inner and outer cylinders and, to my surprise that gap was filled with paper. The pages, waver thin, were curled around the wood. Intrigued, I tipped them out, unfurling them and reading.
At first, I was perplexed.
There were two one-way tickets for a voyage from London to Boston. Squinting and examining the dates, I saw the journey was to have taken place the day after Sid had died. I was still confused and yet, goosebumps were already clothing my arms, the hairs in my nape were already standing on end. Aware of the paper between my fingers, I winced in pain.
Why such pain?
Because Sid was looking at me with Greg’s eyes and saying, ‘Look at all the boats, Mummy. Some sailors told us they were going to America. So far away. Another world. When I grow up, I want to cross the ocean. Just imagine that, Mummy. One life but so many places.’
And, with Sid’s voice in my head, I realised that I was holding his tickets. These beautiful pieces of paper had been his dream. And yet, there they were in my grip unstamped, never used.
Setting them aside, I saw three more pieces of paper.
And they were letters – in handwriting I’d recognise anywhere – in Sid’s.
My whole body ached before I read them.
When the words began to blur, I realised my hands had become so palsied, the paper was shaking. But – how could this be – no – I was dreaming – I had to be dreaming – it couldn’t be possible – but the written word spoke on behalf my son –
‘I’m begging you, George, one last time. Follow your instinct, your heart. If you stay in England with Ada, you’ll never be as happy as you’ve been with me. The heights we’ve had – the pleasures we’ve relished – the ecstasy you give me when you’re in my body – the way your shadows taste – nothing will ever compare to it. To stay in England is to die, George. To stay in the heath is to die!’
I could hear the vehemence and the tremor in Sid’s voice.
I could hear the urgency, the desperation.
The more I read, the more I saw that he was pleading George with every bit of titillating rapture George had given him; he was writing down to the very last drop. As I struggled through the blurred erotica, I had no doubt that Sid had been in love with George, at least by that point. But, blood curdling, bile rising, I pulled the harrowing turning point into question.
At what point – at what godforsaken point – did George begin to stiffen for my little boy? At what point did George begin to lust for Sidney in his mind? When did he indulge in the salacious imagery to spew into the very handkerchiefs I’d washed? Had Sid been a child? Or a coming-of-age lad, navigating the terrain of budding feelings, newborn sexuality? Or an adolescent who hadn’t known himself quite long enough to choose a mate for life? A mate? But George? A man? An older man? Greg’s firstborn son?
And then – it hit me.
The two of them together were Greg’s offspring.
And this? I looked down at the quivering paper.
‘Please, George, please – I want to take you in my mouth a thousand times and then some. I need to hear you moan whilst trying not to buckle at the knees. I can’t live without you. You’re the only to fill me, sexually and otherwise, I need you, God, how much I need you. After all the things you promised me when we were in the throes of passion, you can’t just turn your back on me. I don’t believe you meant what you said when you told me you chose Ada. Not after what we shared. Please, I beg you to reconsider –’
Sick, fraternal intercourse.
But – then – even in his ignorance, how dare George use my child for his disgusting pleasure then toss him aside, breaking his impressionable heart in the process. How dare he! He could’ve fornicated with a hundred men and headed home to Ada. But no. Not George. He had to groom the only person on the planet who I loved without condition. My son – my son – my little boy – my pride and joy – my absolutely everything – the living gift which Greg had left me. Forever and a day, I’d planned to be his doting mother. All those days I’d watched him tumble through the heath. Or slurp milk at our table. Or talk about his one-day journey to America, or maybe even Mexico. All those nights I’d storied him to sleep and watched his little arm dangle over the edge of the bed. And when I’d held his dormant hand, I’d dreamt him as a grown-up following his heart to anywhere –
‘I feel so alive when we’re together. Skin to skin. Breath to breath. Bone to bone. How could you possibly want to give that up, George? You don’t have that with Ada. You always said she left you cold. But I know how you sound when you are spasming. I know how true sex sounds.’
And then, the new epiphany came:
What about us?
What about all the times George and I had been together like that? It couldn’t have been making love. I saw that now in a harrowing light. But George had been anything but cold with me. He’d been completely ardent. Was that because he’d found Sid in my body? Or because he’d truly fallen in love? So white with fury I was in that moment, I forgot that I’d been guilty of finding Greg in George. All I could see was George’s lie, his sexual secret. So, when we’d been outside the mortuary – getting Sid’s body from Grim on Sloe Road – digging his grave in Cemetery Grove – all that time, he’d known my Sidney inside and out? All the evenings we’d consoled one another – with sex or conversation – all that time, he’d guarded his rank truth?
With trembling fingers, I curled the papers back between the cylinders of the kaleidoscope and did the toy back up, returning it to the study shelf. As I turned back around, I remembered the day Sid was born. I remembered the last push, the divine slide, the sacred wail of a new life. I remembered his eyes opening into dappled slivers taking me in. I remembered that he was everything. And with my ferocious, maternal instinct, I knew that I could kill anyone who should put him in harm’s way.
Before I went downstairs, I sat in one of the chairs by the hearth with my hand on my stomach. If I hadn’t been pregnant with Harland, I would’ve slit George’s throat that very night and gladly hung for it in Gallows. But as I felt Harland’s small body wriggle inside me, I knew I couldn’t do that. Never in a million years would I leave a child of mine in George’s care. Never. Never. Never.
George would have to pay for his sin slowly.
I could never be found guilty.
Not if I wanted to protect Harland.
The answer came to me swiftly; it was right there in the study.
The solution was in the peeling wallpaper that needed replacing, but also in the ink which glimmered in the inkwell by an empty piece of paper.
Sitting there, trying to regain my breathing, I remembered Everett telling me that a cousin of his had died whilst working at the wallpaper factory; after months of exposure to copper arsenate in the green pigment of the paint, he’d died from the arsenic he’d inhaled through the dust. It was one of Europe’s best-known secrets, Everett had said: that green dye was a killer.
Very well then. So be it.
As I surveyed the study walls with my steely eye, I decided the green wallpaper wouldn’t be the killer, but rather my alibi. But no. Not my alibi. The ink’s alibi. When all was said and done, George’s ink would be the killer. But with the wallpaper having such an infamous reputation, no doctor, no policeman, no detective would ever suspect the ink.
The ink, laced with white arsenic, would get away with murder.
With my encouragement, George would write, day after day, night after night, with his nose to the paper, inhaling his chapters, unaware that the English alphabet was to be his murderer.
What a beautiful death, his would be. Could there be any better?
To die by one’s own hand without knife, rope, or pistol? To die doing what one loves best whilst completing a legacy? And in a beautiful space filled with poetry and memories, roses, and history? To author oneself straight into the grave. To blindly take on the role of avenger. Pure ingenuity on my part, that was. But then again, is ingenuity not required of a mother with a son in an unmarked grave and his killer’s wedding ring on her finger?