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Ophelia

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Away it Goes

1919

 

The light from the window was warm and sweet, soft with the glow of late afternoon. Dust motes floated into and out of sight—suspended in existence before flickering out, cast unseen into the shadows. She too, must be cast into shadow, for her existence in Birmingham had reached its natural conclusion. This she understood, but as she sat before her closed valise, observing the dust come into being and fade out of it, feeling that warm sunlight seep into her bones, she knew she would not leave.

She’d come to England seeking some sort of retribution, but instead she’d stumbled upon a feeling that filled her to the brim. It began that night, when they were alone at The Garrison, she perched on high upon a wooden chair, he staring up at her, those frostlike eyes licking fire across her skin.

“Happy or sad?”

“Sad.”

“Ok. But I warn you, I'll break your heart.”

"Already broken.”

Outside, the sound of the rain pattered against the damp ground, its roaring rush remained distant and muted. Inside, the warm light of The Garrison wrapped around them and her voice rose over the rainy silence.

A sad misfortune came over me
Which caused me to stray from the land
Far away from me friends and relations
Betrayed by the black velvet band

She glimpsed his soul that night and her own unfurled within her. Her rage for the IRA, already a pallid, lukewarm feeling, made room for this new thing that took root and flowered.

Her eyes they shown like diamonds
I thought her the queen of the land
And her hair, it hung over her shoulder
Tied up with a black velvet band

When the last notes of the song faded away, they were left empty and uncertain. As if they had poured out too much of themselves and now had no way of taking it back.

 

These thoughts kept her company while she waited in her Birmingham flat. When the knock came, the sun through the window was thin and weak, it’s blue-grey tendrils cast cold shadows over her skin. She stood slowly, shaking the wrinkles from her skirt and turned to face the door. Her handbag she took from the coatrack, draping it across her shoulder, reaching into it to feel the gunstock of her “comforter,” a Webley Bulldog revolver. Her heartbeat sounded as loud and forceful in her ears as the knocking at the door.

“Grace, open the door. Open the door.”

Her hand uncoiled from the revolver, but she left her handbag hanging from her shoulder as she undid the lock. Blood stained his shirtfront; beneath his open collar she could see bandages, already soaked through. He had one shoulder resting against the doorframe, with his head turned down towards the floor. As soon as she stepped back, he brushed by her. Grace closed the door behind him, leaning into it for a moment—the grain of the wood rough beneath her fingertips. He was watching her, she could feel his gaze upon her back. She inhaled slowly, and turned.

He had already managed to light a cigarette, and was pulling the first drag into his lungs while he stared at her.

“Billy Kimber nearly killed me today.”

“Why are you here, Tommy?”

“Nearly killed my family.”

“Then you can only have one reason for being here.”

 Thomas took another deep drag of his cigarette, shaking his head just the slightest bit, his eyes boring into her unblinkingly. He had the uncanny ability of looking straight into you, as if his eyes could peel your skin away, layer by layer, and leave your soul bare upon the ground.

“No.” He shook his head again and pointed at her with the hand holding his cigarette. “No. I can have two reasons for being here Grace. But one of them would leave you dead.”

She said nothing to that.

Thomas turned away from her, to look out the window. He took slow, measured breaths while he smoked. His gaze cast itself from the approaching night to the luggage gathered tidily over the threadbare rug.

“No goodbye, then?”

Grace went to the shelves of her kitchenette, pulling down two crystal glasses. “I had time to leave, Tommy,” she said quietly, uncorking a bottle of rum and pouring a thimble each. The smell of alcohol wafted up to her. With one hand gently outstretched, she turned her head over her shoulder. He took a step nearer, then another. The glass hung suspended between them. When he took it from her, his fingers brushed over her skin in the lightest of touches—a soft whisper of a feeling—like those caresses he gave her the night before, in this very flat, hands skimming over her ribs. They stood like that, unable to escape each other’s gravity.

Clearing her throat, Grace untucked the bench from beneath the vanity, set it next to the window, and sat on it, smoothing her skirts as she motioned to the armchair opposite her. Thomas took a long sip of his rum, looking at her over the rim of the glass, then he swept out his coattail and sat, elbows resting on his knees, drink hanging from one hand.

“You know, Campbell told me that before this day was through, my heart would break. How could he know that, I wonder?”

She wrapped both hands around her drink, looking down into the amber color of the rum as it shook and trembled in her lap. “What exactly could I say, Tommy?”

“I don’t know, Grace.”

“I could tell you who I really am.”

“I think I know who you really are. You know who I am.”

“I do, sometimes. But when I think about us, Tommy, I think of the secrets. I think, ‘How can we see each other; how can we feel this between us and yet know so little of one another?’ I don’t just mean the terrible things—the war, my occupation, your business—I mean other things, too. I don’t know how you take your tea, you know, or whether you still prefer a straight razor when you shave. I couldn’t tell anyone whether or not you drink coffee in the mornings.”

He leaned back a little in his seat and said, “So it was an occupation? What got between us?”

“Just a uniform.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter now. I know that even if you won’t kill me tonight, you won’t stay with me either. You can’t. It’s not in your nature.”

“Then you do know me.” Tommy knocked back the last of his drink and rose. He paced to the window, then to the kitchen, where he took up the bottle of rum and set it between them. He refilled his glass and drank it down in one. “Tell me, Grace. I want you to tell me.”

It hurt her to imagine the end of this conversation, to imagine him putting on his hat and walking out the door. She felt the cold night press down on her. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she rested her lips there a moment, holding onto her words and her hopelessness. “Do you remember, where I’m from?”

“Galway. If it can be believed.”

“It can.”

“You never said much about yourself, one way or the other.”

She hummed in agreement, “Yes, that’s the key in this line of work.” She couldn’t look at him as she spoke, so she looked out the window, through the lace curtains into the nearly black, miserable city of Birmingham, its hard, terraced houses packed beside each other with not a single green, living thing between them. “I was born there. Have you been?”

“No.”

“It’s beautiful; a coastal town. The River Corrib comes winding down from the north, through the docks and the Claddagh. It splits into tributaries—lined with enormous trees—that spill into the sea. There’s a cathedral, the Galway Cathedral, which sits just a ways up from the shore—growing from the riverbank. I used to go there, when there was no mass, to hear the silence curl inside the soaring ceilings.”

Tommy leaned back into his seat, his body unfurled into the cushions and his head he rested upon the seatback. He stared up into the dark ceiling, then closed his eyes, letting her voice wrap itself around him. Her words spilled into his ears like honey, sweet and slow.

“We lived in a house on the outskirts of town…”

 

The house belonged to the Royal Irish Constabulary. It was made of grey stone, in the Georgian style, with quoins and a gabled slate roof.  Matching two-story bay windows pushed forward on either side of the recessed door. In the winter, smoke would rise in a steady plume of white ribbons from the chimney stacks, which bookended the tidy, little building. In summertime, the house grew a green coat of ivy. It was summer when Grace and her brother, William, loved their house best.

From an early age, the siblings roamed over the six acres of their father’s borrowed land. They climbed sturdy ash trees or quivering alders, Grace in her pinafore with the branches catching her petticoats and William in his breeches, his milky legs red with scratches. When their father allowed it, they swam in the River Corrib, stripped nearly naked, laughing madly as they threw themselves from the overhanging limbs of sturdy oaks. On occasion—usually after relatives filled the sitting room with war stories from China—they drew lines in the dirt, claiming territories and casting pebbles at each other, to pretend they were soldiers in the Boxer Rebellion, like their uncles or grownup cousins.

“You can’t be a soldier, Grace! You’re just a girl!” her brother William would yell, never really meaning it.

“Colonel Ear Lingus!” she’d holler, “Prepare for enemy fire!” whereupon she’d release the rubber band of her slingshot with a crack.

Grace was, as her brother mocked her, just a girl. But she was William’s only sibling, and therefore the only live-in playmate at Kinnaird House. She was also the eldest. This unique happenstance of geography and primogeniture granted her liberties many other young ladies lacked in 1899. Her father believed she should spend less time running through fields and more time in the sitting room, learning to manage the domestic affairs of their house. As Assistant Inspector General to the RIC, her father spent most of his time in the heart of Galway, leaving his children alone. Excepting the housekeeper, theirs was a household of three, with the lady’s bedroom sitting empty since William’s birth. Mr. Burgess allowed her these freedoms for the sake of companionship. But all things come to an end, and so, too, did her boyish adventures. As she grew, her pinafores were set aside and she was given long dresses whose close hems made it nearly impossible to take long leaps over muddy puddles. William, too, felt the constraint of suits with starched collars that closed about his neck like a noose.

Even when they managed to escape and climb up high into trees as if they were still children, they never again played at war. They had no desire to. Ireland’s troubles poured over like too much water in a boiling kettle. It seemed the world had gone mad. On Easter week of 1916, her brother, fresh from the front, agreed to meet a relative set to arrive by rail from Clifden. He waited for the train outside Galway city. It was a cloudless night with stars like dewdrops. When the locomotive thundered slowly into the station, hissing and spitting, handmade grenades were tossed into the buffers, clinking melodiously as they danced against the iron. Two miserably unfortunate souls were blown to pieces by the resulting blast: her brother and a porter. Three years later her father was escorting a shipment of gelignite when he was ambushed. The men who shot him would soon adopt the name of the Irish Republican Army. 

His body was still fresh in its cold grave when she joined the force.

 

“Birmingham was my first assignment,” Grace told Tommy.

His elbows had been resting over the arms of the chair, his hands clasped over his torso, feet crossed out in front of him, and his were eyes closed. He opened them, blinking up at the ceiling before sitting up. He favored his right arm.

“I was naïve, I thought I could make a difference. But you see, it was never about you or me or the Peaky Blinders, or even the IRA. We’re pawns in the game. As to Campbell, it became personal. He wanted to hurt you.”

That lingering softness about his face abruptly fell away and he fixed her with an unwavering stare. “He had everything he needed to do so,” Thomas said, pulling up a freshly lit cigarette. The smoke from that first breath unfurled from his lips like a slow-moving snake.

“If he had been any other man his only interest would have been the guns. I asked him, when I delivered them, to leave you be. Instead, he turned you over to Kimber. We both trusted the wrong people.”

Tommy shook his head, the faintest motion, just once. “No, Grace. I was the only one giving my trust away. More fool me.”

“You’re not a fool, Thomas. You never will be.”

“That song,” he said, staring at his cigarette, “that song you sang me in The Garrison. You warned me. I should have listened.”

They both fell silent. He turned a little to look out the window, his gaze lost in the middle distance. She took the opportunity to drink him in. His eyes she loved best of all, even though they could cut as surely as the razor blade in his cap. In the whisper-soft glow of the oil lamps, she couldn’t see the striations that shot through them. But when they had been in bed that night, she looking down on him, they were as beautiful and changing as cloud wisps in a bright, blue summer sky. He turned those eyes on her, then.

“Where will Agent Grace Burgess go next?”

“I’ve retired.”

“Oh? My black velvet band didn’t like her taste of espionage?”

“No, she did not.”

He made a little hum of agreement, deep in his throat, then stared at her. “Why not before, Grace?”

She couldn’t hold his gaze. “I was afraid that the guns would fall into the hands of the IRA. And I was afraid of abandoning everything my father believed in for a man I’d known less than a year.”

“How prudent.”

“And, before my father’s pension came through, I had no means of supporting myself. As it was, my uncle’s charity was the only thing that kept a roof over my head. My father truly believed I would never need to work. It did me a great disservice.”

“You could have been a barmaid.”

Grace laughed, despite herself, and looked up at him through the curtain of her hair. He wore the thinnest of smiles. “I wish that’s all I was when I met you.”

“If wishes came true, Grace.”

She waited a moment—her fingers curling around each other, her breath held still within her chest—before daring to ask him. “Could I still be your barmaid, Thomas?”

He had been looking down at the floor, when she gave birth to the words. As soon as they fell between them, Tommy looked at her. He stared up at the ceiling for a moment, then rested his forearms on his knees and leaned forward, eating up the space between them. His hands took hers from her lap, holding them loosely. With each thumb, he stroked her skin, whisper-soft, before rising to pull her up and out of her seat. Still holding onto her, he placed her hands over his heart, pressing them there as his palm moved to cradle her jaw. She felt him lean into her, felt his lips whisper over her cheek, her eyelids, her brow. He ran his nose along her neck, breathing her in. In the mornings, Grace used Jasmine water to perfume her skin. In the evenings, she rubbed almond oil along her hands and shoulders. Thomas had watched her perform both these rituals from his place in her bed. First the oil, that night they made love, and then the perfume, the next morning.

Thomas pushed up her hair and curled his hand lightly around the nape of her neck, letting his head rest in the cradle of her collarbone. For a time, he only held her—both of them standing still in the quiet of her flat, penned in by the muted, yellow glow of her bedside lamp. He stroked her neck in slow, featherlike touches.

Why did he have to be so tender?

The past bore down on them with unforgiving force, but worse yet was the future, drawing nearer like black, cumulous clouds, enormous and unavoidable. This still moment was only a breath away from breaking. And when it did, it would pull them each in separate directions. Grace began to cry, tears spilling over the rim of her eyelashes without a single sound.

“Come away with me. Or let me stay. Please, let me stay,” she whispered. 

Thomas rested his brow against hers and they both closed their eyes. She felt him shake his head softly. “You said you knew me, Grace.”

She wrapped her arms around him, digging her fingers into his back to bring him closer, to hold him to her. She kept her eyes firmly closed as the words spilled out of her chest and gathered on her tongue. “Here it comes, Tommy.” She tilted her head to the side a little, brushing his cheek with her own, her lips dropping the words straight into his ear. “I love you.”

She trembled with the strength of her grip and he returned it despite the pain in his shoulder, crushing the linen fabric of her blouse in his fist, his face buried against her neck as they embraced. He exhaled once, a dry rasp.

“And there it goes, Grace. Away it goes.”

He pried himself free from her hold, letting go of her. “We can say it as much as we’d like. But it’s gone now.”

Grace turned her back. She scrubbed the tears from her cheeks and walked up to the window, where she wrapped her arms about herself and stood still, waiting. The sound of the doorknob cut through the silence of the room. Her breath hitched in her throat. She heard him pause there.

“Wait.” She hurried to the bedside table. There, upon it sat a letter, sealed into an envelope worn with folds and creases. He was watching her from the threshold. “Take this, please. Read it when you can.”

“What difference will it make, now, Grace? It’s gone.”

She pressed the letter into his hand, closing her fingers around his own. “It’s not. You know it’s not. I’ll be in London one week. Finish your business here and join me. I have an idea.”

Thomas stared at her, unspeaking. He touched her cheek, his eyes flickering over the features of her face, and then he was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

NOTES

 

No copyright infringement is intended with this work and no profit will be gained from it. Peaky Blinders belongs to its creators, producers, and writers (as does the image used for the story’s cover).

 

Author’s Notes:

Peaky Blinders is a phenomenal show. It has its inconsistencies and its moments of melodrama, but, overall, it’s riveting and addictive. I greatly respect what the writers, directors, actors, and production staff have accomplished. That said, I feel that after Season 1, Grace’s character was discarded.

When we first meet Grace, she is a capable woman, if a little too soft for the world she's in. Despite this, she's an agent willing to murder, deceive, betray, and seduce, presumably in the name of vengeance. She gets just enough screen time to justify herself to the audience and to allow us to believe in the romance developing between her and Tommy. Yet, in Seasons 2-3 we see her a total of 15 minutes (if at that) and it seems this Grace has undergone a lobotomy. She's turned into an accessory to Tommy's new role as millionaire tycoon and a vehicle to engineer his grief.

This colorless, society wife is a cardboard cutout. She’s not the same character, nor is she the Grace we are led to expect through the line Tommy delivers in s1e5: "Will you help me? With everything…the whole fucking thing. Fucking life...business. I've found you. And you found me. We'll help each other." 

This failure in Grace's character extends as well to her relationship with Tommy and the credibility of their romance. Who can believe in their love story anymore when she's hardly present and does nothing to help her partner? It's almost a relief when they kill her off at the start of Season 3, if only to spare her character further butchery. Why the writers turned her into a useless prop is beyond me.

This story is my poor attempt at righting the wrong done to her. I will mostly follow the show’s principle events, except here, Grace will act and speak. Our leading lady will get back her voice.

Which brings us to the title. Why Ophelia? After Hamlet’s Ophelia, who, like Grace, is a female character stripped of all agency and killed purely for the shock.

 

P.S. I always found it so strange that her last line in season 1 is “I have an idea.” The writers introduce a loaded statement and then take it nowhere (beyond her plot to sail away to New York), but, I did leave it in for the sake of accuracy.

 

P.P.S. Most sources point to 1919 as the year when the IRA was formed. If Grace is seeking revenge for their involvement in her father’s death, then that means one of two things: Either the show uses the name of the Irish Volunteers (or other predecessors) and the IRA interchangeably, or Grace was an agent for, at most, a few short months before arriving in Birmingham. I like to think it’s the second, as it fits with her inexperience.

 

Historical Notes:

Any historical notes below are cobbled together using copy and paste, with editing for brevity and clarity.

 

-In the show, Grace’s apartment does not have an armchair. Given the size of the apartment and the socioeconomic sphere it represented, the exclusion of an armchair is likely much more accurate than the inclusion of one. But, I wrote myself into a corner and refused to revise (again).

 

- I’m not sure what the perks of being Assistant Inspector General in the RIC (see below) were, but have chosen to make it a sort of “lighthouse keeper” deal that involves a house to live in. Completely made up.

 

- Metropolitan Police constables carried a revolver during uniformed night time patrols. These were colloquially called ‘Comforters.’ This remained the case until 1936.

 

- The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was the police force in Ireland from the early nineteenth century until 1922. A separate civic police force, the unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police, patrolled the capital, and the cities of Derry and Belfast.

The RIC's successful system of policing influenced the armed Canadian North-West Mounted Police (predecessor of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), the armed Victoria Police force in Australia, and the armed Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in Newfoundland.

 

-I’m uncertain what kind of guns an agent like Grace would be given access to, but Webley Bulldog Revolvers were popular, light, & compact. Introduced in 1872, its shorter barrel made it ideal for concealment in a coat pocket. Additionally, the history of the Webley Bulldog is closely linked to the Royal Irish Constabulary (and was therefore too tempting to pass up). In the 1860’s the RIC commissioned Webley to design a revolver for them. It was stamped with their initials and came to be known as the RIC Model. Webley produced several versions (marks) of the RIC Model including the British Bulldog. Among others, it was used by “disposable men” or plain clothed detectives in the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the RIC.

They stopped production in 1917, so it might be inaccurate to portray it as her gun of choice. But everything else is spot on!

 

-There really is a Kinnaird Country House, but it’s in Scotland.

 

-The IRA was created in 1919 as a successor to the Irish Volunteers, a militant nationalist organization founded in 1913. 

 

-During the Easter Rising of 1916 (aka the Easter Rebellion), Galway saw 600-700 Volunteers engage in guerilla warfare. Most of the action took place in a rural area to the east of Galway city. They made unsuccessful attacks on RIC barracks, captured several officers, and bombed a bridge and railway line. There was also a skirmish between rebels and an RIC mobile patrol at Carnmore crossroads. A constable, Patrick Whelan, was shot dead after he had called to the rebels: "Surrender, boys, I know ye all".

 

-There really was a train that moved between Galway and Clifden. Though I’m not sure what hours it kept (did trains run at night in rural areas?).

 

- The Soloheadbeg ambush took place on 21 January 1919, when members of the Irish Volunteers (or Irish Republican Army, IRA) ambushed Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers who were escorting a consignment of gelignite explosives at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. Two RIC officers were killed and their weapons and the explosives were seized. The Volunteers acted on their own initiative and had not sought authorization for their action. As it happened on the same day that the revolutionary Irish parliament first met and declared Ireland's independence, it is often seen as the first engagement of the Irish War of Independence.

 

-I’ve no clue how long pensions took to kick in. I’ve no clue if children could receive them. Therefore, that whole thing might be B.S.

 

- Quoins are decorative rectangles or squares of stone, brick, wood or concrete, placed at the corners of buildings to add architectural interest.

 

- Ear Lingus: someone with big ears.