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Strangers Making the Most of the Dark

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In France, Jim remembers, the colour of mourning is white. France itself would forever be shit-brown and hazy-grey in his memory, from mud and smoke, but the limits of his personal palette could not detract from the justice of their choice. White for the blank that enveloped him when he'd lost Mike, unable to comprehend how Death had found his little brother but passed him by when they were pressed so closely against each other, the crush of bodies surging up from the trenches slipping into the intimacy they'd known since they were small. White for the virgin pages, somehow unsullied by muck and blood, on which he'd written of his losses, reporting like an insensate cog in a machine that tended inexorably on to what end he knew not. White like the uncaring sky over the trenches, watching as they transformed with remarkable efficiency into mass graves.

White like Larita's dress as she came down the stairs and stepped into the ballroom, ready to stake her claim to some part of his son's heart. He had offered his hand when John had stalked off in high dudgeon, giving himself over to her, this Angel of Death wanting to dance in her white gown. She had put on the black before, he remembered her confessing, but the role of merry widow had not suited her.

Neither does the gay divorcée, of course, but then she had stopped being his daughter only in her heart and not on paper. Coming up behind her as she discards the silly little jacket that belongs in a racing car and not over a ball gown, he watches her scarf slither down her spine and over her rump in a liquid fall. He smooths his hand over the brazen architecture of her bared shoulder blades and slips it under the patterned silk and around the tender curve of her fluttering rib cage to touch, with fingertips relearning how to be gentle, the soft swell of a breast. There is no sidelong glance from her long, narrow eyes to his – it feels like he's been subsisting on a surfeit of them, and he is starving in their sudden absence – and her ravishingly artificial curls keep her face hidden, but she turns a little on the pivot of her high heel to open her frame to him. It's a move that's far less effective without tango music clouding the air around them.

She meets his eyes, forthright, and he is abruptly aware how little he knows what he's doing. Sex has not been one of his crutches; the last breast he'd caressed had been Veronica's, the night before he left for the War. Four pregnancies and three children had left their marks on her body, but he was the only one who saw them, the soft candlelight making a sanctuary of their room; under the corsets and silk of her daily armour she was as elegant as ever, the bones of her face competing with her hat brims to mark the sharpest lines about her. Veronica had held Mike's heart in her slim hands, and for that alone Jim would have loved her, but there had been more: more kindnesses, more whispered intimacies, more companionship that made ungrudging room for his brother. And his brother had willingly ceded his place to the bride – good breeding, good brains, no money – smiling on them both when they had been manoeuvred together for the good of the county. Mike had even pretended to a sweet tooth just so Veronica's starveling heart could swell with pride at being able to provide her newfound brother with the treats he craved, and that he refused to enjoy unless she joined him in partaking.

Larita looks like she has never known privation; her curves are firm and insistent, and her skin shines like there is a chandelier beneath it. He cannot have been wrong about her – all her damage must be turned inward, that's all; Jim needs not to have been wrong about her, for their running off to be a great escape of equals rather than an admission of defeat on her part or his. He could not bear it if, in hitching himself to her shooting star, he dragged her down, beat her victory into dust.

Larita's gaze is as inscrutable as the Sphinx's, her taut smile giving away nothing. "Jim," she says. He tries to focus on her face, blinking away the dampness inexplicably welling in his eyes. "Where would you like to begin?"

Oh, how he wants to begin again, to bring Mike back home, the happy third in the marriage he'd made, the children's favourite. Failing that - it cannot be - he wants to have gone home, bereft, half his heart empty, and let Veronica soothe him with the slender hands that had cosseted Mike as much as they'd caressed him. He wants to have been a father to his children and not just the eccentric tinkering away in the workshop on the grounds – then Panda might be his sweet boy still and not the monster of selfishness he'd become, and Marion and Hilda might have found themselves instead of succumbing to spurious piety and ignorant spite. They'd all been so small, so new when he'd left.

He wants to have done Mike proud. It is far too late for that.

"Here?" Larita asks, pushing down one frill masquerading as a sleeve. Jim knows his son was not the benefactor who'd put the sparkling fall of diamonds around her neck, but the sight of them jars something loose inside him, and he shakes his head. "Really?" she asks, voice hardening, as she slips free of the other frill, so that her gown is one heaving breath away from leaving her bare-breasted. "I don't know how much kindness is left in me just now, Jim. Tell me what you want."

"It's not kindness I'm looking for," he finally says, looking at this skyscraper of a woman, so alien and yet so familiar. He does not regret all of the times he took John aside and advised him to be kinder to his wife – staggered now, as then, that he'd had to – but considers that she had been less than kind to yoke John to herself; Panda could never have kept up with her. "And I don't need the show your Spanish painter did."

She rears back as if he's slapped her, then grins, sharp and feral. "I'm glad to hear it. Being naked on a pedestal is less fun than it sounds."

"But the result is so magnificent." He's always been good with words, but Mike had been better; half the little remarks he makes he hears first in Mike's voice. Larita laughs at that, genuinely amused, and her gown gives up the struggle of staying upright without any support. Bare to the waist but for her jewels, and all Jim can see is the way Veronica's head had tipped back, the first time she'd laughed at one of Mike's sallies, the sound round and rich and enchanting. Jim had loved them both so fiercely in that moment, counted himself so lucky; now, remembering, he cannot fathom how he had thrown one away because he'd lost the other.

It makes no sense, that he is here rather than with Veronica, making up for the time he's wasted, telling her all of the things he wants to say and what Mike would have chipped in besides. But that is his hand, rising, ready to touch again, and Larita waits for him to make contact, so still that the light shining off her diamonds doesn't even dance.

Larita's flesh feels expensive, scented and polished and firm. He turns his hand – he will not grasp, will not assess – and runs the backs of his fingers over the fresh peach of her breast. It must be the coolness of his fingernails against her nipple that makes her shiver. Her voice comes out unflappably assured, even amused, but her eyes are down as if in retreat. "That soap ad didn't lie, then." He only hums, but she goes on as if he's asked a proper question. "Woodbury's Facial Soap. 'A skin you love to touch.'"

He steps closer, banishing the thought of the lavender water Veronica washed in, and gets both his hands on her bare waist to push at her falling gown. "I'd thought Lava." He had a beige bar of it in his workshop, had thought it would be a spot of comfort to the steel-worker's daughter who raced cars for her daily caviar.

Larita is bare beneath her gown, unencumbered by corsetry or cloth, adorned only by the heavy gems of her necklace and the improbable platinum of her hair. He cannot do this in the light. The electric lights overhead extinguish cleanly, no smoke or perfume lingering in the air, and he breathes more easily in the dark. "Jim," he hears, and feels her hands reaching out for him, stripping him out of his fussy white-tie kit, pulling out his prick and stroking him to hardness.

"Yes," he says, and puts his hands on her as if he loves her. She lies down for him willingly, spreads her legs, fists his hair, claws at his back. He can feel the undulations of her perfumed flesh, relishes the way she sinks her strong white teeth into his shoulder rather than cry out. This must be better than the cheap and squalid encounters she feared would be her lot without the sacrament of marriage, the judgements she must have suffered in her days without a husband's protection.

The spikes of her necklace bite into his chest, a dozen needles slipping out of his flesh when he rises up on his hands to thrust more deeply into her heat. And she is pushing him, wanting him out, and so he spends, unsatisfied, on her rather than in her. She slips out from under him and he's slitting his eyes against the sudden light to see her, his white striped across her belly. Only once his gaze drops from her to his own pinpricked torso does she speak.

"Having a baby is not part of the plan," she says firmly. He wonders if John had obliged her, if he'd even understood.

"I wasn't aware there was a plan," he says, eyes on the flannel she's using to wipe his seed away. When he raises his gaze, he sees that her lipstick is still pristine, her hair still caught in its diamante clip.

"You weren't part of it," she says with a sigh. "You . . . were a surprise."

He pictures a future, the two of them together, a pair of poisoners, though hers was an act of love and mercy, and his does not bear looking at in the light of day; he'd torn his family apart, ruining each of them individually, as if that was what Mike's last look at him had importuned.

Mike had just wanted to live, had looked to his elder brother to save him. Jim, in his rage, had not let himself do what his brother could not, and had inflicted the same on everyone else Mike had loved.

He knows, now, what he has done; he has finally acknowledged it and put a name to it. He still does not know what comes next, if he has more life to live or if he can join the brother for whom he spurned the rest. He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes, wishing for a cigarette.

The smell of scented smoke makes him lift his hands. Larita is standing by the bed, having found a dressing-gown of flowered silk and draped it over her shoulders like a cape, and smoking thoughtfully. "I'm pressing on. I've always wanted to race on sand; it sounds so exotic, doesn't it?" Her voice is determinedly bright, as if she is deriving strength from the slim stick between her fingers.

"Brittany, then?" he asks, and out of the corner of his eye sees her startled smile, as if she hadn't expected him to know about the Grand Prix de la Baule.

"Yes. You can stay here and send for the painting, my gift to you, or you can come with me and be my mechanic." He's jolted into looking at her. "That's the first time I've seen you truly surprised." She's close enough for him to touch again, near enough that he can see her abdominal muscles shifting when she lifts the cigarette for another luxurious drag.

"Or I could go home," he says, more to himself than to her; it would be a proper penance.

"Yes," she says again and grinds her cigarette into the ashtray. "You could return to that pit of vipers." She ties the belt of the dressing-gown so that it accentuates her hourglass shape; it must be instinct, to make the most of her beauty. "What'll it be, Jim?"

He looks at Larita, smells her perfume muddled by sex, and then closes his eyes and waits to hear Mike's voice, telling him what he's not sure he wants to hear.