As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.
~ Shakespeare, King Lear
It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur
in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their
crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd
want of meaning, their entire lack of style.
~ Oscar Wilde
To appear again after a period of dormancy.
Agonising are the incessant questions of ‘what if’, made more so by the fact that it is impossible to ever know the answers. I have pondered for years on whom I would have become had I been allowed to live out my expected life rather than being unceremoniously torn from it only a decade in and in the process being set on a road towards disaster. I know very well that had certain people left me alone; had certain people before me not made atrocious, untenable mistakes my life would have been vitally different. I would have been vitally different.
The worst of it all is that in my heart I know exactly how my life would have turned out had it gone the way I had always expected it to as a naïve, indoctrinated child. It would have been flawlessly structured according to social mores, including an important and politically fortuitous marriage, many beautiful children and a great deal of envy from others at how ‘perfect’ my life was. Knowledge is such a painful thing, sometimes. Had I not had such a distinct path laid out before me from my earliest years; had I never known every little thing I was supposed to have, I would never have been able to miss it. I might have wondered on hypotheses; debated how I would have liked each theoretical situation, but in the end had nothing solid to mourn. Only vague, incoherent ‘what ifs’. But no, I knew. I had always known. Whether or not it is something that would have actually suited my wild nature is something I have never liked to think on, but even in my darkest moments I never entirely ridiculed the ideal of how my life should have been, even though I mocked most else. Nor did I ever manage to suppress the part of me that wished time could be wound back so I could live out my smug and boring (but exceedingly safe) existence in peace.
Of course, such a thing is impossible, and so the content life that I had always expected became simply the life-that-never-was.
And who exactly did I become?
This question had never been more apparent to me than on an ordinary summer’s night in the year 1949. Having lived for too long in bliss feigning ethical ignorance, the weight of the world, my world, came crashing down on me. I was not who I thought I was, the world was not the way I had believed it. Everything I thought I knew abruptly died.
Let me set the scene for you. Imagine you are there. Imagine you are eighteen years old and female. You have honey blonde curls that are just longer than shoulder-length. Wide, peculiar chartreuse-coloured eyes that you like to line in black or dark brown paint, making them stand out dramatically from your face. It is a young face; a ‘baby-face’, some have called it. Sweet and innocent with nice, proportioned features and generous lips; a small, straight, feminine nose. Despite all this you have been told you look naturally haughty, but such a thing had never upset or surprised you. It is in your nature, as is your vivacity, boldness, inappropriate wit and rather large problems with the difference between right and wrong that have only grown more pronounced over the years.
You are in the centre of London, the historic capital of England. It is a Friday night at the end of June. Despite the very late hour, the streets are not completely deserted yet, though most of the people out and about are not the sort you would associate with anyway. Not you, the young blue-blooded heiress. It is warm with a pleasant breeze, one that lessens the oppressive smoggy feel of the middle of the city.
It is an ordinary night.
But this is the night your world ends.
The weather was so cold for June, I thought. Each soft breath of wind was like daggers against my skin; icy and needling. Or perhaps I was only cold because I was soaking and had been walking for an hour with wet fabric clinging to my skin; wet hair in array around my face. People had been giving me a wide berth, even the felons and the destitute. Some kindlier souls had asked if I needed help. I didn’t, I really didn’t and what could they do for me anyway? I rudely brushed them off, uncaring that it was not the polite thing to do, especially for someone of my background. I didn’t care, and I didn’t blame them for asking either; I knew that I looked a wreck. I felt one too. I was sodden, I was bleeding and dirty. But I did not care for any of that, or what they thought.
I just had to get home, and quickly. I had to stop thinking.
But my thoughts were like thunder, pounding incessantly between my ears, impossible to turn off. Whispering cruel, horrific lies. And they had to be lies. I could not believe they were true. I can’t I can’t I can’t, it’s not true. But then he was not with me. So he had to be with them, and I was trudging home half-dead and he was not there; had not made any efforts to find me or see if I was all right, or even alive. He doesn’t care he doesn’t care he doesn’t care he left me to die.
I kept telling myself to just breathe and get home, just breathe and get home, for all the good it was doing me. Through my bleary eyes I could see ‘Borough of Kensington’ on the old metal street signs, see familiar towering eighteenth-century houses in the Alicean style and knew I had to be close, but every second it grew harder to drag my feet. I was sure that I had never been so tired or in so much pain, and I had certainly experienced both before. The worst thing about it was that the pain was not exclusively physical. I could have coped with that; I could have ignored it. I could not ignore the heartache; the excruciating fear that perhaps he was not with them at all. That he was-
No, no, I couldn’t think it. Even contemplating that possibility made me want to vomit. I squeezed my eyes so tightly shut that they stung, as though somehow a loss of vision would get rid of the images in my head. It did not, of course; it just made me lose my already tentative balance and fall sideways into some iron railings. I landed on my injured arm and nausea knotted my stomach again from the utter agony. The bleeding became more profuse, creating a little dark red puddle on the pavement.
A detached, amused part of me wondered if I would die there and it seemed quite hilarious as I slumped on the cold stone, head spinning. What an utter waste of time my whole life had been if I passed away against some railings in the middle of the night, all alone and looking like I was some sort of vagrant. Identifying me would take forever, if they ever even could, as it was not as though I had my wallet on me. It was not a dignified way to go, and never what I would have expected of myself. I would die old in some elaborate bed, I had always thought, so boring and noble…either that or go out too young in some dramatic way, as had nearly happened so many times.
I was not going to die like this. I was not going to have everything I had gone through be for nothing; for someone to find me in the morning dead and unidentifiable outside their house.
So I somehow dragged myself up and carried on moving forward and, like a miracle, minutes later saw my house swimming into view. I hauled myself up the front steps and pressed my index finger onto the doorbell, keeping the button held in so it rung over and over. I could hear it echoing inside the house, though it was indistinct, too quiet and unclear.
I was not sure how late it was, or how long it had taken me to drag myself out of the Thames and get home, but it had to be the early hours of the morning by then. Everyone would be in bed…no one might come…
Brettelyn suddenly opened the door, hair dishevelled and looking tired. He had to have been sleeping. All the colour drained from his face and he mouthed something, words of shock. Or I thought that he mouthed them rather than spoke them, anyway. Everything was rather hazy, and becoming more so by the moment.
Something broke through my incoherence, though, as clear as anything.
“Who is it?” a tiny voice asked, echoing down the hallway and through the open door.
No, I thought. Oh God, no. He could not see me like this. He couldn’t. The sight of me like this and what it had to mean could not destroy his innocence; it was the sort of thing you would never forget, and I knew that better than anyone. I had such vivid memories of certain things from when I was little that I would much rather lose forever, but they remained ever prominent in my mind even while happier occasions had blurred with time.
But it was too late, and I heard the pitter-patter of little feet on the floorboards and a face was peering around Brettelyn’s legs before either of us could prevent it.
That simple word and the confusion and fright in it drained the last of my strength and I collapsed on the front steps. Everything became dimmer, like I was hearing it through a thick window. I could not even muster the strength to keep my eyes open.
“Go back to bed, Sébastien! Now! What are you doing up!”
I could make out loud, petrified crying and it made tears fall down my own face, squeezed out from under my closed eyelids. And then I felt myself being moved and moaned quietly, not having the energy for yells of pain as I was taken inside the house.
I ended up being laid down on something soft. I was in the parlour, on one of the sofas, in all likelihood.
“Arabella? Arabella!” I knew that Brettelyn was yelling at me, trying to rouse me, even if I could only hear him faintly. He was pressing an icy wet towel to my forehead and my cheeks as though it would make everything better if I was only a bit cleaner, the fool. “Can you hear me? Can you speak?”
I nodded, tiny and indistinct, but it was all I could manage. It vaguely crossed my mind that I was ruining my nice antique furnishings with blood and my damp, dirty clothing and hair, followed by the thought of how funny it was that I was in such a state and thinking things like that. Was that insanity? Was I that far gone now?
I tried to choke out a laugh and suddenly found myself sobbing instead, silently. Or maybe I had never stopped.
“For God’s sake, d’Aurenière, wake up! Stay with me! Where is Michael?”
“Go away,” I managed to grate out after a great deal of effort, wanting him to leave me alone. Had he not been annoying me so much with all his dabbing and questions, I would not have wasted the energy. Only then did I realise how agonisingly sore my throat was from breathing in acrid smoke. It felt like someone had taken sandpaper to my oesophagus.
“Where is he, Arabella? Is he…is he alive?”
I finally gave in and admit the terrifying truth, both to him and myself. “I don’t know.”
And then I passed out, giving into the darkness as I felt it pulling on me, blissful and soothing and safe, and not especially caring if it was death I was fading into or not. I just could not hold on any longer.
I woke up in a hospital some indiscriminate time later. It was not filthy and disease-ridden like most, those places of no hope where the helpless masses are sent to rot; it was a nice, exclusive hospital, the sort I was surprised Brettelyn had taken me to. Had someone asked me in advance, considering our past enmities, I would have guessed that he would have taken me to some hovel in Bethnal Green where the mortality rate was through the ceiling, because that was his idea of a joke; very poor, like his entire sense of humour and personality.
The physical pain was gone when I came around, though, as I later learnt, that was because I was heavily dosed with intravenous analgesics. I also learnt that I had had someone else’s blood pumped into me whilst unconscious, because I had lost so much of my own that I had nearly died. Until I awoke, they had not even been sure whether I was going to.
I had stitches too, and lots of them, making me look like a more attractive version of Frankenstein’s monster, and unsightly bruises in every colour of the rainbow all over my body. I still could not speak much because of my sore throat but the nurses gave me some medicine for it several times a day and assured me that it would get better soon enough. In fact, everything would heal and I would be fine, given time.
I had felt nothing when the doctor had told me that, and tried not to think on the deeper implications of my impassivity, or the fact that I did not care what happened to me. I just wanted to go home; go somewhere familiar, away from people in crisp uniforms and hard mattresses and the smell of cheap soap and being constantly asked how I felt. And I did not want to go to the house in London, either; I wanted to go to the one in Ryingdon that I had once shared with-
So I went home, having got my way after a great deal of arguments with what felt like every single member of the hospital staff – which had really not done my throat any good – and violent threats of execution if they did not stop their mothering and let me leave. I had threatened Brettelyn too, although that was hardly a revelatory occurrence, as he had been adamant that I stayed at what turned out to be St Mary’s Hospital in Chelsea until I was ‘better’.
As far as I was concerned, I was as better as I was ever going to be. My physical injuries had not killed me, and my mental ones…well, they were going to take longer to heal, if they ever even could, and I certainly did not need pandering nurses and optimistic doctors to help me on that front. I just needed to be left alone.
Brettelyn insisted on going with me when I returned to Ryingdon, and in the end I could not be bothered to fight with him about it. He spent most of his time with Sébastien and his nurse, anyway, and I was so vacant that I hardly even spared a thought for the continued presence of the man who had long been my mortal enemy, let alone the fact that he was spending so much time with my child. I knew it was his right as Sébastien’s godfather, but I had never liked them being around each other, knowing first-hand what Brettelyn was capable of and being leery of him passing his corruption on. I knew that I should be looking after Sébastien myself but I could not bring myself to. Just like I did not want him near Brettelyn, I did not want him near me. I did not want to touch him with my sullied hands, scar his ears with the lies that dripped off my wicked tongue. Have him around my false, consuming darkness at all.
Destroy him as I had so many others.
Mostly I just sat on the parlour floor, staring into space. The strong pain medicine I was still taking made me hazy anyway, so it seemed like a perfectly reasonable option. Brettelyn kept trying to rouse me into activity when he came in, but I took no notice. I had a blanket and a pillow and I happily slept there too, on the sofa. I had a good view of the window and I was close to the front door. I would be the first to know if he came back. And he had to come back. If he did it meant that he had not done it. And he hadn’t. He could not have done, because he loved me.
He did, didn’t he?
But no one understood my reasoning for encamping in the parlour, or understood anything at all. They kept trying to make me move, make me take a bath and especially make me eat. All of them! Everyone who came around in ‘concern’, treating me like a delicate child who did not know what was best for themself. I did not want to move, I did not care about having a bath and I found it impossible to eat. Even the thought of food made me feel sick. I just wanted to sit and watch the window and why did no one understand that?
I pulled a few stitches one night moving an armchair to a more appealing position, out of my line of sight to the door. Little sharp explosions of hurt rushed up my arm as they broke and I began to bleed again, dripping splashes of burgundy all over the cream upholstery. Brettelyn must have heard the noises of pain I was making because he came in, tutting and rolling his eyes, and took the chair away from me. I did not ask what he was going to do with it; I really didn’t care. He could burn the damn thing for all it mattered to me.
While he was gone I found a needle and thread and tried to fix my stitches, because the handkerchief he had thrust at me to pressurise my wound with was rapidly becoming saturated with blood. I did not want to risk ruining the carpet as well, no matter how little I cared. He would come back soon and he had always liked that carpet; he was fussy about being careful with the furnishings.
In and out, in and out and I was so intent on my task that I did not even notice the burn of the needle and thread pulling through my skin.
My mother had taught me how to sew, I suddenly recalled. She had sat me down one afternoon when I could not have been more than five and complaining that I was bored, and given me a needle, bright blue thread, and a piece of old cloth. She had told me that it was a useful thing for me to learn to do even if I would always have people around to mend my clothes for me, and I had spent hours fascinated, putting the needle through the cotton over and over again, eventually learning to make little patterns with my stitches, and that if you pulled them hard the material would gather up. The memory made me feel sick and I hurriedly put it from mind. I could not think about her. Not then, not ever. As far as I was concerned, she did not exist.
Brettelyn came back from disposing of the chair, and his eyes blew up as they fell on me. Typically for him, as uncouth as ever, he started yelling. “What the bloody hell are you doing! Is that even sterilised?” I shrugged, uncaring. The thought had not crossed my mind. He clutched at his hair in frustration, looking as though he wanted to put his hands around my neck instead. I half wished that he would, and squeeze and squeeze until I did not have to make the effort to wake up each morning, or sew up my own flesh, or take my prescribed medicine like clockwork to heal myself for a life I was so very tired of. “Don’t you have any semblance of a brain, you idiot! You are going to infect your wound!”
And he took it off me when I had nearly finished and made myself better, and took me straight back to St Mary’s so they could make me better again.
I could not make anything better, it seemed.
Five days passed in the parlour, and according to Brettelyn I was acting like a lunatic. As though I cared, either for his opinion or whether it was true or not.
I could not feel enough to care. I was just numb. Hollow and aching and devoid of anything at all. I did not feel and I did not care and he still had not come back.
He was either dead or he was guilty. Those were the conclusions I had come to whilst staring at the wallpaper. Both of them made me dry heave when I thought on them too often.
Sébastien had started to try and talk to me, which only made me feel worse. He looked as pale and frightened as I suspected that I must do – one of the many reasons I was avoiding all reflective surfaces, and had covered the large mirror above the fireplace with a bed sheet – and no wonder. The woman he thought of as his mother was vacant in the parlour; his father was simply gone.
He was so young, and yet he was trying to take care of me. He brought me cups of coffee and bits of food, begging me to eat something. I accepted them with a weak smile, wanting him to go away but not having the heart or the care to tell him to. I barely even reacted to his presence, until the time he entered with a mug of hot chocolate and began questioning me.
“Where is Papa?”
I tried to brush him off; I could not cope with this conversation. “Not now, Séb,” I muttered, looking away.
He was insistent. “Maman, please. Where is-”
And suddenly my mask of vacancy vanished and I was yelling, the way I swore that I would never yell at any child. The way I swore that I would never be my father. But I was, I was. How could I not be?
“LEAVE ME ALONE!”
And he was me; suddenly blonde-haired and green-eyed and big tears slid down my young face as I stared ahead in innocent shock. Shock that a parent who was meant to love could be so harsh and cruel, and care so little. And then a split second later he was Sébastien again, hair dark and eyes blue, features different and boyish, and he ran from the room. He ran away from me. Nausea swirled inside again.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, but no one remained to hear it. Apologies meant nothing, anyway. If I had learnt one thing over the years, it was that. My father was one of the people I learnt it from.
It was July when he finally returned. It had been week and a day since I had last seen him.
The night was sweltering; uncharacteristically humid for southern England even in the summer, and many of the windows and doors around the large townhouse were thrown open. I was still sitting in the parlour, leafing absent-mindedly through a book and wearing an old, thin shirt and little else.
Our reunion was nothing melodramatic. One minute I was on the floor, trying to focus on the distractions of the volume in my hands and the next I my eyes were glued to the figure standing in the doorway, drawn upwards by the sounds of footsteps and rustling clothes. He looked worse for wear, too. His face was bruised and cut and his usually pristine hair unkempt.
I stood up and the two of us stared at each other, blank-faced. After all my waiting and deranged behaviour, I felt horrendously empty; even emptier than I had been feeling for the past five days as the reality of what had happened had slowly sunk in and I had accepted the truth. His eyes that had once so enthralled me filled up with tears that did not spill over, the dim light of the room glittering off them. But nothing was enthralling about them anymore. Their icy blue colour was just that: icy. Cold, inhuman, loveless.
“I didn’t know if you would be here,” he said at last. I could hear such restrained emotion behind the words.
“Why?” I barely registered speaking the single quiet syllable.
“I didn’t know if you had…” He ducked his head and when he straightened up again, the tears that had been waiting in the wings were rolling down his face. “I didn’t know if you had made it out.”
He looked shocked. “I cared? Arabella, my darling, you have no idea the places my thoughts wen-”
“Where did you go?” I asked, cutting him off.
He began some involved, passionate explanation and I realised that I could not hear it. I did not need to hear it! I already knew exactly what happened; I had had enough time to ponder it through during my solitude in the parlour, after all.
“Just stop,” I mumbled.
“I SAID STOP.” The words were torn from me in as loud a tone as it was humanly possible for me to muster, burning my still-healing throat. “You did it, didn’t you.” I was sobbing now, through sheer, pounding anger; abject betrayal. I was not upset. I would never be upset over him. He meant nothing to me, as I obviously meant nothing to him. “You knew! YOU KNEW!”
“Arabella, please- Arabella, I swear-” He was instantly panicked, terrified, as though he had known this was coming. As though he had thought the variants of this conversation through as many times as I had. But I was beyond caring. He was nothing to me anymore. It had been the world’s biggest mistake that he had ever been anything in the first place.
“I don’t want to hear it! I don’t want to hear your lies! You have had enough time to practice them since you have been gone!”
And so it went on and eventually he stopped pitifully trying to defend himself and started screaming back at me. We had had fights – many, many dreadful fights – but nothing like this. Neither of us was holding anything back and we both had tears streaming down our faces as we yelled ourselves hoarse. Finally, I could not take anymore and I grabbed my sword, which I had kept on the floor of the parlour out of pure paranoia, and held it up in front of me, the tip pointing straight at him.
We were frozen, both of us. His eyes were wide with fear and pain, but I ignored the latter. I did not want to see it. It did not exist.
“Get out! GET OUT, GET OUT! I’ll kill you! I swear I will! I will, you know I will!”
He went. I heard the front door slam, loud and final, and I dropped my sword without really realising or caring.
I sunk to my knees, the fight gone out of me, choking helplessly on sobs.
And it was over.
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