When do you realize that your life is going to be altered forever? Had there been a moment – a gesture, a touch, a sound, a glance – where her mind had suddenly cried this is our end?
She doesn’t remember when she had begun to see that this was no fling – that what she was witnessing grow between the walls of her own house was an affection so pure it was bound to end in misery.
Before her exile, she hadn’t been the cynic Thomas had made her out to be – but, of course, compared to him, she had been the most cynic of them all. After all, it was in her nature to be wary. You don’t live with Thomas Hamilton the kind of life she had lived for nine years without learning to check the colour of the carriage following you down the street in order to compare it with the one you find parked in front of your lover’s house once you exit, a dull throb between your thighs. You don’t live without checking the credentials of any personnel you hire, as far back as four employers ago; as far back as it takes to help you sleep more soundly at night.
And most of all, you don’t survive without learning that there is nothing in human nature that will not recoil its head in interest when it smells happiness – eager as it is to see it destroyed.
She is a woman and she knows what Thomas doesn’t; words are never just words, hatred and jealousy are never just pettiness. And the knowledge eats her away from the inside out.
For the better part of a year, she has knots in her belly. They feel heavy and dry, and they twist themselves in bigger knots when she’s tired, or when she’s around company. Sometimes she watches Thomas’ bedroom door close behind both her loves, and the knots make their way up her throat – she finds herself choking on them, full of fears she can’t seem to find answers to.
When she tries to talk to them, they don’t listen. Not when they’re together, not with each one separately. Thomas looks how he should have looked like when he had courted her – eager and young and loving. It’s not that he won’t listen – it’s that he can’t.
It’s worse with James, because he doesn’t know her the way Thomas does – he can’t recite the partition of her character, the notes of her life, the way Thomas can; and so she finds herself realizing he mistakes her concern for jealousy. He’ll grow out of this kind of thinking, she knows, but for now he is as deaf to her pleas of discretion, of less going in and out of the house, as Thomas can be.
So she takes it upon herself to watch out – she secures the loyalty of the night personnel with bigger and bigger end of the month bonuses. Her maid has always been faithful and discreet – she could have been no less than that, given Miranda’s life this far – and she shoulders her in her efforts. Miranda can’t say she had been careless before; but now she can identify even the daytime personnel of the house by the rhythm of their footsteps.
All the sounds of the house come to haunt her when she tries to fall asleep in an empty bed. The rain. The stove. The steps. The clocks. She can’t sleep until she hears James’ footsteps leaving the house, passing in front of her room. And then the sound of her fears, of her anxious waiting, lull her to sleep. The rain. The stove. The steps. The clocks.
She can’t do more than what she’s always done for Thomas’ previous affairs, but she tries anyway. Double checks who stations their carriage in front of their house. Keeps an ear on all the gossip that goes on between the personnel. She never fires anyone, but those she sees fit to go away she finds better positions for in houses of women she already has dirt on. She becomes more invested in politics than she would like to, eager to be able to pinpoint all of the enmities Thomas and James’ plan is making along the way – though politics can only be pretext, never motive.
If only she had thought of looking inward instead of looking outward.
James must have told Thomas he thinks her jealous of their newfound love – and so Thomas invites her in their bed. She has a mind to decline, before remembering she has no reason to but self-flagellation, and she has never been keen on feeling guilty for the desires of her body.
She’s spoilt rotten that night, touched and touched and touched until all the knots in her stomach turn to silk, coiling inside her with each stroke of Thomas’ tongue between her thighs, each brush of James’ fingers on her breasts.
She lets them bring her senses back to life, lulling her quietly to pleasure, keen on overwhelming her with their attention, with their bodies. They both take her at the same time, as Thomas knows she loves, and they’re reverent – as wave after wave of sweetly pained pleasure draw heady moans out of her body, she begins to understand a part of their recklessness – fear has never existed as Thomas holds her hip tight enough to bruise, kissing James above her shoulder before coming undone inside of her.
She pushes James away before he is done, as it is the time of the month where she could get pregnant. Thomas chuckles in her ear when he understands her gesture:
“Wouldn’t you want our child?” He murmurs, pecking a kiss on the back of her neck, right beneath her airline. By the crease of James’ eyebrows, she can guess he and Thomas are exchanging a look, and her heart swells – already they know each other so well, and she is left behind.
But a world with their child running around in the house seems like a beautiful dream at that moment, and she can’t help but close her eyes and imagine it – he’s neither a toddler nor a kid when she pictures him, beautiful and energetic. Or maybe they’d have a girl. Maybe she’d like that more, she thinks.
James is still panting, close to release as he had been when she had pushed him away, and Thomas crawls above her to get to him. She watches her husband silently convince James to take him there and then, and she marvels at how easily James lets himself be swayed, even despite his furtive and anxious looks at her as he seats himself between Thomas parted legs, breaching him easily, given she had joined them in the middle of their afternoon together.
She watches them, fear and worry as far as they can possibly be. She wants a world where what she sees, and the family she imagines, could be true, and real, and beautiful – she imagines such happiness, and for a while it’s almost true, bubbling inside her chest.
They’re not reckless. They’re not forgetful. They’re simply in a bubble of happiness so beautifully enticing, so full of itself, they just won’t accept life sowing fear in it. They know the risks – but if they get to have this, a part of themselves has surely decided all the fear in the world is nothing to stand in their way.
And maybe it’s worth it, she thinks.
They curl around her, Thomas holding her to his chest as James almost boyishly entwines their fingers together.
“Don’t be afraid.” Thomas says, as she’s beginning to fall asleep. He kisses her again, and she feels loved – and maybe the knots are back, a dead weight in her stomach – but she doesn’t care. Not now.
Had there been a moment – a gesture, a touch, a sound, a glance – when her mind had suddenly cried this is my end?
The footsteps of the night time personnel. The sound of the stove. The crackling of the rain on the window of the study. The sound of their clock. The steps of Peter Ashe, circling his way from their doorway to their salon. The sound of their clock.
She knows those sounds – she has lived by them. They have been the faithful companions of her demise, though she didn’t know it was one back then, only feared so. She has danced to Thomas’ words on their beats – she has lived her life to their partition. She could recite them in her sleep. Ten years don’t change that.
Ten years only turn fear into rage.