Tuesday, 30 September 2014

A Story from Three Viewpoints

I discover Emily in the garden, looking mournfully down at a silky floral brooch. A single tear traces its sad way along her plump, peach cheek, glistening in the early morning radiance. “What’s up, Sweetie?” I ask, and my heart gives a perfect flutter of despair at the sight of such innocent misery. Of course, I recognize the brooch.
Tentatively, she offers it to me.
“It’s broken.” She says. And all the horrors of the universe are contained in that one statement. The wolf in the shadows. The secret decay of a wood passing from Summer to Autumn. The sound of glass breaking. A stopped clock, a dying star, a last breath. The merciless dark matter of life that a child shouldn’t know.
But Emily did. The rich damask silk lay gently in my hand, its hardened centre prickly to my touch. Her mother had given it to her, just before she left.
There was nothing I could have done to stop it. I was just the nanny. I remember the doorbell’s portentous chime, the thud of the front door slamming its devastating passion as she left forever. The sight of her lover, William Morris, enfolding her in his waiting embrace to give her a final, ruthless courage in her most terrible choice. Then the backdrop of suspicious whispers all over the house - which I realized then I’d been hearing for days. And the dinner gong, an hour later, as if everything was normal. Emily, who hadn’t been told, cluttering down the stairs, her excited, hungry chatter immediately hushed. And Emily’s father George, standing bewildered in the doorway, shadowy with sudden loss.
I look again at the brooch, stroking its sensual softness, before offering it back. Emily had admired the brooch just a few days before her mother left.
“It’s my favourite colour, Mummy.” she told her, with great dignity. “It’s elegant.”
Her mother had laughed. “It’s only from a craft fair. You can keep it, if you like.”
And Emily had. That small, careless goodbye. The now broken memory of her mother.
I put my arms around her, cooing softly. Her tears are warm against my neck. “It’s alright, Sweetie.” I whisper, knowing it isn’t.
* * * *
Rebecca stared at herself in the dressing table mirror, trying to trace signs of a hardening in her eyes, a new line of determination in her jaw, a courage that was enough to do what she
must do. Emily had gone to bed, ushered swiftly away by the nanny, with her usual ruthless efficiency. Rebecca had wanted to hold onto her tightly, imprinting the smell and touch of her into her flesh, to carry her baby with her. Her throat tightened painfully at the memory of her daughter’s careful, dignified pronunciation of her current favourite grown-up word: elegant. She had thought she could stick it out, for Emily’s sake, for however many years was required of her to be the dutiful wife of nobility. But just lately she had seen the end of her tether and it wasn’t pretty. Neither was it very far away.
She shifted her gaze to the photograph on her dressing table, the wild-eyed, beautiful young woman smiling into the camera. The woman that used to be her. She was Becca, socialite and party girl, never far from the pages of ‘Tatler’. Ten years later she found herself married to George, to an unknowable stranger who professed to love her, but who clearly didn’t even like her. He didn’t hit her or tell her she was worthless; to all onlookers he was an attentive, considerate husband. But his gigantic will, his vast, implacable pride bore down on her, until she no longer knew what she thought or wanted, or had ever hoped for. She learned to have no opinion.
Not that it would have made any difference if she had. It meant nothing to anyone. Almost as soon as Emily was born (and the name wasn’t even her choice - George had insisted), in moved Nanny Sophie. She ruled the roost. Even George did as he was told. Emily adored her, rushing from her mother’s presence, in which she sat shyly, into Nanny Sophie’s arms the second she entered the room.
Then Rebecca met him. At one of George’s dull parties, billionaires and smug Hedge Fund bankers, fat-cat, bad-breathed old-school-tie boys and their jewel-dripping wives. She was surprised they’d let him in. People stared as he walked past and no wonder, as she regarded his disheveled state, his scruffy cords and rugby shirt, the long raven dark hair messily tied back, the careless stubble of a few days. He saw her looking and crossed the room, while she stiffened with embarrassment.
“You must be Lady Penhalighan.” He said. She took the hand he held out, a warm, intimate grip. She found herself looking into his bright, odd eyes, of a colour she couldn’t quite determine. “And you are -?” “William Morris.”
“Oh - like the painter. The designer.”
He raised his eyebrows with amused surprize, as if he had never heard this before. “I am, in fact, his great, great grandson.”
“Oh, really?” She said, with genuine interest.
“No.” He smiled, a gentle uplift of his generous mouth that worked its way up, opening his whole face to her gaze. “I just wanted to see you looking a little less bored.” He stepped closer. She thought she could smell him, his warm skin under his clothes. She traced the line of his strong jaw, to his neck and the gentle pulse that quivered the flesh of his throat.
He leaned closer and whispered: “If I were a painter, I’d paint you.”
She dismissed this as pure arrogance, of course, excusing herself politely. But as she walked away, she realized that she was trembling all over with desire.
George told her things about William Morris, after the party.
“He’s an architect. The flavour of the month, apparently. I was obliged to invite him.” “Well, he could have made a bit of an effort.” She said.
“Quite.” George looked her up and down, his eyes cold. “I hope you’re not thinking of wearing that outfit again. It does nothing for you.”
She couldn’t help looking out for William Morris at the next gathering. Something about the young architect with the romantic name and the scruffy ponytail had caught her imagination. This time, she approached him.
“Hello, again.” She said, shyly.
“Lady Penhalighan.” He gave a low, solemn bow, with a mocking smile. “Nice dress. I prefer the one you were wearing last time we met, though. You looked stunning in red.”
She didn’t know what to say. A deep flush, rising upwards, burned through her. She looked up into those strange eyes and saw the light of tenderness.
“You’re rather unhappy, Rebecca, aren’t you.” He said.
And that was it. She was lost. Free-falling in love’s mad, deep gravity, every hand-hold gone, she forgot everything but him. William pursued her with a tenacity that shocked her. To be so adored was intoxicating, enthralling, terrifying; she knew she should put a stop to it, but it all felt too late. The touch of his hand had unlocked something deep in her, that couldn’t now be contained.
He only had to say her name: Rebecca, to look at her with those eyes - were they brown? No… more green… but with amber glints… Big, round eyes, fringed with dark, precise lashes, in which she lost herself again.
Keeping this secret life from George and anyone who might inform on her was, of course, exhausting. Her lips stung with each fresh lie, the accumulation of every day’s deception weighing heavy on her heart. She especially hated lying to Emily.
“Where have you been today, Mummy?”
“Oh - just shopping, darling.”
“Why didn’t you buy anything, then?”
Nanny Sophie stepped in. “Leave Mummy alone, now. It’s time for your tea.”
Rebecca met Nanny Sophie’s cool gaze and felt herself blush. Perhaps it was true that a woman can always detect another woman’s lies.
It didn’t matter if she did know. Rebecca couldn’t stop. Adrenalin pumped around her body like some relentless Class A drug. She lurched from risk to risk, high as a kite, surviving each day by the skin of her teeth. Just to see William - even for a few moments.
Once a week, they got a whole afternoon together. The curtains fluttered at the window, the shadows fell dreamily across the bed. The sounds of life outside in all it normality did nothing to disturb their rare, secret world, as the hours ticked past.
She began to think the unthinkable.
“Leave him.” Said William. “Come with me.”
“I don’t know -”
“Why not?”
And Emily was the reason why not. Beyond fear, loss of reputation, the end of her comfortable life, there was Emily.
She would take Emily with her - she would stand up against George’s wrath and fight him in the courts, if she had to.
Then one afternoon she was in the drawing room, flicking through a magazine, her restless body pulsing with frustration that today was one of those terrible days when she couldn’t see
William. She looked up and out of the window. Emily and Nanny Sophie were chasing around the garden laughing, tumbling in a heap on the grass. As she watched, Nanny Sophie got to her feet, holding out her arms. Emily jumped up into them, wrapping her arms and legs tightly around Nanny Sophie’s deceptively fragile frame, covering her in kisses.
She couldn’t take Emily from Nanny Sophie. If she loved her child - and she did - she would leave her undisturbed. Leave her with her father, her beautiful house, her assured future. And the mother she really loved.
But she herself had to go. This was her last, her only chance to save herself. She was dying; perhaps she was dead already - dead and buried, with the tombstone of respectable nobility rolled in front of her grave. But then, like Lazurus, a voice had roused her back to life. And so it was arranged. In two days time he would come for her and she would leave this vile place forever.
She lifted her trembling fingers to her face, drawing in the faint scent left from the brooch she had given Emily. A mother’s perfume would linger beyond the memory of her face. One day, Emily might breath in the ancient scent of that brooch and remember her.
* * * *
I don’t want Nanny Sophie to see. I don’t want anybody to see. I broke Mummy’s brooch and no-one can fix it. Nanny Sophie will be cross with me. Perhaps she’ll tell Mummy and then she’ll never come back because she gave it to me to look after.
It’s broken. Everything’s broken.
I know she left because of me, because I wasn’t a good girl when she was tired and had a headache. I know sometimes she was sad. I saw her crying in her bedroom when she didn’t know I was there. She had to leave, to get away from me.
Not even Nanny Sophie can fix the brooch.
I know I shouldn’t cry but I can’t help it. Nanny Sophie is hugging me and I like it, but the brooch is still broken and I don’t know what to do. Nanny Sophie’s hugs aren’t as good as Mummy’s. I remember Mummy’s smell, like flowers, like sunshine. The brooch smells of her, but now they will make me throw it away. Mummy’s smell.
Mummy. Mummy.

The copyright of this post belongs to Alison Stickings