His head is in his hands.
Frances pauses inside the door, half tempted to steal away again and leave him to his troubles. But she has sworn to love him for better or for worse, and this is not the first time she will have done what she can to help him through the darkness.
“George,” she says, keeping her voice soft but not pitying. He hates pity; she thinks of his youth, imagining the bystanders to his humiliations, with mingled pity and laughter in their eyes, and cannot blame him.
His shoulders stiffen, then relax. His head comes halfway up, and then he is reaching a blind hand out to her, long fingers turned not up in supplication but down in appeal.
She crosses to him, sinks down on a knee, gathers the hand in to her breast.
In the silence, she looks out of the window to the grey sky, to the trees waving gently in the wind. There is no sun to warm the December air, nor snow to lend an aura of cheerful unreality to the scene – just the unrelieved grey of the sky.
“I’m sorry,” George says, somewhat muffled. “I’m ruining your Christmas.”
“Never,” she says, and runs her thumb over the inside of his wrist. “Besides, it’s only the 23rd. You have time yet to regain your Christmas cheer.”
He laughs, short caught sound. “I should go into Downing Street, let you and the children enjoy the day without having to worry about me.”
“You should not,” Frances says, mock-sternly. “Christmas is a time for being at home with the people you love.”
“Which trite Christmas song spawned that?” he asks, but there are no teeth in his bite.
She ignores him. “The children have gone with Mum for the day, so that I can finish my shopping.”
“What?” She can see the legendary pout forming as he lifts his head at last. “You’re leaving me alone in the house? During Christmas?”
She squeezes the hand she still holds. “Technically, it’s not Christmas until Sunday, goose. But if you’d let me finish, I would have said that you won’t be alone. Peter’s here.”
She can feel the exhale. “Is he?”
“Yes, dear,” she says, and presses a quick kiss to the top of his knuckles. “And he was very circumspect and wasn’t followed.”
“You laugh,” George says, but he is already pulling his hand away from her, shuffling papers into some semblance of order, tidying them back into one of the red boxes that litter his desk and stack neatly on the floor. “Can he stay long?”
Frances watches him, thinking of the locked drawer in their bedroom, of the bag Peter carries, of the relief in George’s eyes as he lets control slip away, of the gentleness in Peter’s hand as he raises it to touch George’s cheek. She has never watched them together, not in that way; but she has seen the lightening of George’s eyes after a day with Peter, and felt the lessened tension in his limbs. They are good together, as she and George are good together – and oh, does George need what Peter can give him, in this winter of discontent and mounting despair.
“I believe he intends to stay all day,” she says, and hands him a wayward paper which has fluttered down to land beside her. “Can you spare the time?”
He pauses, looking down at her, where she still balances on one knee. “Not really,” he admits. The paper goes into a box, and he shuts the lid. “But I must.”
Economies in crisis, Europe in flames, the Exchequer standing empty. All about them, families are having a cold Christmas. Unemployment and penury will never touch them, the millionaire son of a baronet and the proud daughter of a peer; and yet Frances has watched the lines of care begin to etch themselves in her husband’s face, as he takes the difficult decisions that he believes will see them through the crises, as he shoulders the burden of the hopes and dreams and fears of a nation.
George's comfort, then, truly is a must.
He reaches out a hand to help her up, and she goes into his arms, nuzzling his collarbone.
“Thank you,” he says into her hair.
Downstairs, Peter is reading the Financial Times over a cup of tea, his bag sitting innocently on the floor next to him. She tries not to think of what is in that bag; George’s kink is not her kink, and her mind begins to fail her after “flogger”, or after the collar she once caught him wearing. The world George and Peter share is not hers, and never will be.
And yet that is not all Peter offers, pain and pleasure and control. She has seen the way they laugh together, the fondness in Peter’s eyes, the affection in George’s. She has seen the way they step together, partners in an age-old balletic dance.
Amid the darkness of the world – amid the figures and the realities – amid the frantic efforts of George and his fellows to keep the country from sliding into a yet deeper recession – amid the late nights and the earlier mornings, the abstracted breakfasts, the piles of red boxes, the flood of criticism, the acculumation of vitriol, the screams of fury – amid it all, Frances is fiercely glad that George has all the love that she and Peter can give, to buoy him against the storm.
“Always,” she says, and pulls him closer.