That first night, on the day that Paul, my husband, died, I did not sleep. The ambulance did not arrive for an hour after we found him on the porch; it did not leave for a further hour as the paramedics talked with Chris and my brother completed the death certificate for his longest surviving rival.
There were papers for me too, and phone calls to Paul’s lawyer and the hospital to tell his primary physician. And the stilted call to Amanda.
And then there was the worst task of all – to tell my two small sons that the man they called their father had died.
Somewhere between midnight and dawn I realised that I would not be reaching my bed that night. If Chris noticed that I was up even earlier than he the next day he didn’t say anything. The second night I spent with my sons, stroking their hair and telling them over and over that Daddy Paul was in heaven now, with Aunt Carrie and the small uncle neither of them had ever known.
Paul’s funeral, 48 short hours after his death, was a quiet affair. Perhaps some instinct warned me not to publicise my widowhood. Perhaps it was Chris’ doing. I can barely remember now, through the haze of lost sleep, who decided what during those particular days.
On the fourth night, I at least got as far as my bedroom door. I stood for long minutes, my eyes fixed on the bed that I had shared with Paul, unable to step closer and sleep in that bed alone, but unable to look away from the spot where I had learned so much about love and sex in my teenaged years. Eventually I returned downstairs, and curled up on the couch with a large glass of Paul’s best whiskey, feeling numb and lost. Later, Chris came back from his shift at the hospital and found me still there.
“Not going to bed yet?” he asked.
I shrugged and shook my head, still nursing my liquor.
He said nothing further, but went through to the stairs. However, ten minutes later, he emerged in pyjamas with his arms full of bedding. “What are you doing?” I asked.
He smiled. “You’ll see.”
I watched as he dropped the pile onto the carpet and used the armchair cushions to create two thin ‘beds’ on the floor, to which he added a quilt and pillow each. He turned back the corner of one quilt and then climbed under the other one himself. He beckoned me over.
“Come on. If you’re going to keep sleeping down here, you may as well have some company.”
Tears filled my eyes but nonetheless, I placed my drink on a coffee table, and slid down to crawl over and climb into my little bed. As I pulled the quilt around me I looked across, and for the first time in 15 years, I saw Chris’ face resting on his pillow, just three feet away. He reached over and smoothed my hair. “Go to sleep, my lady Cath-er-ine. I’ll be here.”
Exhausted, I slept.
My eyes slowly drifted open as light was filtered through the curtains to bathe us in a red-tinted glow. My body felt heavy, as if this taste of real sleep had only whetted its appetite for more, but I was able to think better than I had since those awful moments on the porch. Chris and I were still facing each other and some time in the night he must have taken my hand which now rested, curled, in his. I lay unmoving, studying the texture of his skin which was no longer as smooth as it had been when we were teenagers, and the precise pattern of his blond eyelashes fanning against his cheekbones. Almost against my will, I suddenly remembered our first Christmas in this house and the night we lay under the tree together, the way we had blindly, naively assumed Paul did not see or hear or know how we had compulsively been drawn to each other’s rooms in those early days.
Oh God! That first time I had suspected Paul knew; the way I had tried so hard to seduce him to force what I felt for Chris to fade and leave me in peace. And yet I had truly loved Paul. Hadn't I? I squeezed my eyes tightly against the memories, as they rose to torture me.
“Cathy?” Chris’s sleepy voice came, and I felt his hand move against mine, but did not open my eyes as tears began to force their way under my lashes. I started to shake.
“Darling, I know you miss him. But smile for him; don’t cry.”
But as I sobbed silently, I heard Chris sigh and then he was pulling me into his arms and holding me tightly as I soaked his pyjama shirt with my tears. It was several minutes before I was able to raise my head and open my eyes.
Chris tenderly tucked my hair behind my ears, and wiped my tears, pressing a kiss to my forehead and my cheek. Our eyes met for a long moment which made my pulse quicken, before he kissed my nose more deliberately and I slowly tipped my head up, my breath catching in my throat as my lips met my brother’s for the first time since before Julian died.
And yet it felt like yesterday; we could still have been lying in my bed in New York, the very taste of him so familiar. I felt his hands shaking as they shifted over my spine, my own hands moving to slide into his hair, which was shorter and a little thicker than I remembered.
After endlessly long moments, I heard a small noise.
Chris and I froze and slowly broke apart.
Little Bart stood at the end of my make-shift bed. “You camping Mommy?”
Jory stood in the doorway, a strange, slightly confused look on his face. A hand rested on his shoulder, and my eyes flicked up to take in Emma standing behind him.
I sat up, wiping my damp face and opened my arms to Bart who scrambled onto the cushions with me for a hug. “Yes, darling. We were camping down here because I was too tired to go upstairs.”
I threw Jory an encouraging smile and he seemed to lose his uncertainty and came to join us. Emma melted away.
“Couldn’t Daddy carry you?” Bart asked.
My heart briefly contracted. Until only four days ago, there had been two father figures in my boys’ world. But then Chris was saying-
“Your Mommy’s too heavy for me after a long day in the hospital.” And somehow a new day of raising my children had begun and there was no more time to think. It was only hours later, when Emma and I found ourselves alone in the kitchen that silence descended. Eventually she remarked in an offhand manner, “People make odd comments about themselves all the time, you know. I’ve been living here long enough to know more than you might think about why you came to Virginia.”
I gazed at her, feeling cold. “Emma – about this morning –”
But she shook her head. “Not my business, Cathy. Like I said, I know enough to know there are probably reasons, and it’s not my place to judge.” After a pause she added. “He’s a good man, the young doctor. Been a good father to those boys all these years.”
Our eyes met across the half peeled potatoes and I swallowed and nodded.
Several minutes later, I found myself saying quite suddenly: “I’m thinking of letting Amanda have the house after all.”
Emma shot me a wry glance. “Moving could be interesting. Nice to see other parts of the country.”
Our eyes met again and I remained silent for the next hour, in thought.
That night, the fifth night since Paul had died, I lingered long over the dinner table, before wandering out to stand in the garden, savouring the scent of summer flowers and the feel of the cool night breeze on my skin. Behind me I heard a car pull up and a door open and close. Shortly afterwards an arm slid round my waist and I leaned my head against his shoulder.
“How were they today?”
“Better than yesterday. Bart took Paul’s graduation photograph from the mantle; he says he has to keep it now.”
Chris’ arms tightened convulsively. After a long pause he said, “That will be a difficult conversation one day.”
“One day. Not now.”
We stood in silence a while longer, leaning together, our bodies naturally moulding to each other. And yet I could feel a tension in him, that was matched by the deep, aching longing that threatened to cripple me. That same longing I had spent most of my adult life desperately ignoring, but now… Oh that decision had been made, and yet still somehow I lingered on the edge of final acceptance.
I turned slightly towards him, even as his hand reached for my face and he leaned to kiss me. And how could I not return those kisses, falling into a state of drugged intensity. It was only when a car passed in the distance that we jumped and pulled away. He started to clear his throat, but I spoke first.
“Chris, I think …” I paused and then spoke again. “If I don’t sleep in my own bed tonight, I never will.”
His voice was rough as he asked, “Why do you need to?”
“To- to prove I can. To prove I’m not …” I didn’t say it. Like her, who could never survive alone, who sacrificed her four children in the pursuit of security.
“Cathy-“ But he broke off. “Do you want me to sit with you?”
“I – no. Not tonight.”
After a final long pause, he pulled away and walked into the house.
It was hard, forcing myself onto the mattress, beneath the covers. The empty space beside me seemed to grow until I was drowning in loneliness, remembering all those I had loved and lost. And all the while, my body still tingled with the memory of my brother’s kisses, still ached for more. I had lain unsleeping for what felt like hours, when I reached out to take the picture on my bedside table: Daddy, standing in tennis whites, his tanned skin dark in the black-and-white. “What would you think of us?” I whispered. Yet as tears slid down my cheeks, I heard Paul’s voice, floating up from the recesses of my memory: “Cathy, I have always known … and I do understand.”
As if a spring had suddenly been released, I threw back my bedsheet and walked silently out of the room, along the corridor and into Chris’ room, where he too lay awake, staring at the ceiling.
He looked up as I crossed the room and climbed onto the bed to look down at him. “Cathy.” His hand drifted up to wipe my cheeks.
I stopped his lips with my finger and then my mouth as I leaned to kiss him. He drew a sharp breath and caught me in his arms, rolling me onto my back. As the minutes slipped mindlessly by in a silence punctuated by only our rapid and ragged breathing I felt myself becoming more alive, more myself than I could ever remember. Every shift of his hand, every kiss – planted on my lips, my jaw, trailed between my breasts, every contact of skin on skin, seemed a little more to release that part of me long dormant.
It was only in the last moment that I broke my lips away from his and burst out – “Wait! Never leave me, Chris. Promise you’ll never leave me!”
He pressed his lips hard against mine. “You and me always, Cathy. Always, I swear.”
And then there was only movement and breathing and his eyes locked with mine as first I, then he, gasped out the other’s name.
“I dreamt about Florida last night.”
I rolled onto my side to face him. “We couldn’t go to Florida. Not-“
“- without Carrie.” We said it together.
I smiled wistfully, my hand reaching out to trace patterns on his chest. “I’d been thinking about California.”
He nodded. “California. I could be a Hollywood plastic surgeon,” he added with a laugh, before sobering suddenly. “Or maybe something less high profile.”
“And … Emma would come with us.”
“Ah yes,” he said, “Emma.”
“We can trust her.”
He looked at me. “I know. She’s a good woman. We’ll have to be careful though.”
I simply nodded and gazed at him in silence. He pulled me close and kissed me. “I love you, Catherine Doll.”
“I love you too, Christopher Doll.”
“I know,” he said with a sad smile. “You’ve had your heart in your eyes every time you looked at me for fifteen years. It was so hard – to listen to your words and ignore your hot eyes.”
My gaze fled his. “I had to try. But none of that matters anymore.”
He turned my chin back to face him and kissed me again, before sitting up. “I have to be in for morning rounds. But I’ll put in some calls to hospitals in California this afternoon. You get more sleep while you can; Emma and I can get the boys up.”
I smiled gratefully, although eagerly I returned kiss for kiss before he left the room, as if any persuasion could come between my brother and his patients. And then I drifted into a light doze, where I heard the Grandmother’s voice hissing inarticulately into my ears. I jumped awake some time later, a terrible fear gripping my heart. God couldn’t punish us still more could he? Oh but if he did, what a perfect revenge it would be.
I grabbed a robe and ran down the stairs and out to the front door just as he was walking towards the drive. “Chris!”
He stopped and looked back. “Yes?”
I swallowed. “Drive carefully.”