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A Cream of Almonds and Honey

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With a smile Christine closed the gate to the Rue-Scribe and then pressed the leaver to enter the secret passage that would lead to a short-cut to the house beyond the lake.

She had been so happy when Erik revealed it existed. Sometimes rehearsals ran late and she hated the thought of Erik having to wait for her in the cold by the lake for hours on end.
Despite his strength and bravado his health could be fragile and last week he had ended up with a chest infection caused by exposure.

He had, as always, pretended he was fine. Not letting a simple cough get in the way of how he wanted Christine to see him. He kept up his immaculate dressing, continued his lessons and gave of that air of strength and authority she had come to love. Still, Christine wasn’t fooled by it completely: she was aware of Erik slipping from the room several times a day to remove his mask to catch his breath and he often excused himself early in the evening, saying he had to compose for a while. But Christine heard no music coming from his room at all.

When she approached him about it, he insisted all was well, she should not worry about Erik.

But she did. It worried her that she had never seen him other than dressed to the nines, his posture rigid and perfect. He wore his mask at all times and often seemed slightly on edge. It seemed to her as if Erik was scared to disappoint her, were he less than perfect for even the slightest moment.

But at other times nothing seemed wrong and he would be entertaining her with music and magic for hours on end. Other times he'd delight her with exciting stories and Fairytales. Yes most days were wonderful, with Erik bringing her so much joy she would forgot all about her questions and worries.

Today rehearsals had been cut short by one of Carlotta’s famous tantrums. A mouse had been spotted on-stage and the diva refused to ever enter the stage again unless the Opera theatre was completely free of rodents. Christine had not cared about the small visitor in the slightest. She knew that mouse, she had often seen him in the corridors when she and Erik went home. In fact his name was Bertrand and Christine had quickly pocketed him before she left the stage and released it in her dressing room so he could find his home again.

With an entire day of freedom at her disposal, Christine decided to do some shopping, as supplies had rather dwindled in the house beyond the lake. Tonight she would make a famous Swedish tomato soup as a treat for her and ….

With a start Christine stopped as she suddenly realised that she had never seen Erik eat!! She had known him for months, was married to him, but she had never seen him eat! But he had to eat didn’t he? Despite outward appearances he was human, after all. It was as if the mask on his face wasn’t enough for him and he was always performing for her.

Deep in thought about her husband and his strange habits Christine arrived home, where all was quiet.

Was Erik away, she wondered. She did not hear or see him anywhere.

The shopping bags placed in the kitchen Christine decided she would have a sit-down before unpacking and went to the drawing-room.

Opening the door Christine stopped in surprise on a sight she had never expected to see: It was Erik!! A sleeping, mask-less Erik, in his pyjamas and robe. Snoring peacefully he lay sprawled out on the sofa, a book he’d been reading resting on his chest and a cup of tea and a sandwich by his side.

Having never seen her husband in this state before in all the time she knew him Christine couldn’t help but stare at him for a while. He seemed so tranquil, he had never been like that around her and the realisation sent an ache through her heart.

After a moment the ache sharpened and turned into a sad anger. So it was true! Erik did hold back in her presence and clearly hated having to wear the damn mask, as she feared. He loved her but never allowed himself to be himself with her. He didn’t even dare to eat in front of her!! What did this mean? Was he truly performing for her every day? Did she actually know him? What he liked, what he felt? What sort of a marriage was this?

The dejected sigh that she uttered alerted Erik to her presence.

Immediately Erik shot up like a startled cat, his golden eyes alight with terror, and promptly reached out for his mask.

“Oh, oh my dear … please forgive me,” Erik gasped, his voice filled with fear “I must have lost track of time.” At once the rigid “perfect posture” returned as his, now shaking, hands fumbled with the mask. Then his body succumbed to the fact he’d gotten up far too fast from his deep sleep. Dizziness overtook him and Erik slumped forwards, putting his head in his hands.

“I’m so sorry Christine,” Erik gasped, “you should not have seen me like this. I did not mean to fall asleep … Please I need a moment. I will get dressed as soon as possible ...”

For a second all Christine could do was take in the scene in front of her in dull horror. Why was Erik doing this? Why did he seem to think he needed to apologise for wearing or not wearing whatever he wanted in his own home? The poor man seemed to be in a state of utter panic simply because she’d caught him asleep on the sofa in his night attire. In his own home!

“No, no Erik, please don't!” Christine blurted out. “This is ridicules, this is your home and you have the right to be comfortable. You don't have to keep on pretending to be the perfect host for me. I am your wife and if I am to live here it is with my husband, not my butler.”

Silence, as Erik still sat hunched forward, shaking hands covering his poor face. The shuddering of his shoulders suggested that he was crying.

“Erik, look at me when I am talking to you.” Christine said, her voice trembling with emotion.

“I can’t … please Christine. Not … Not without my mask…” He curled up deeper as if he were trying to disappear.

Watching her Erik curled up in shame Christine’s heart shattered. How had she not realised how ashamed and uncertain he still was? Somehow he must have gotten the impression that on some level she still feared him. There was no fear, not any more!! She loved Erik and he had to understand that before he’d end up hurting himself. Careful not to frighten him, Christine moved forward and knelt next to her terrified husband.

“No, please, please Christine.” Erik sobbed, trying to move away. “Leave now. I know you cannot look at me like this!”

“Then I guess it's high time I did.” Christine said calmly as she gently took Erik’s wrists to remove his shaking hands from his poor face. For a moment Erik tried to fight her touch, but after a second he relented, lifting up his tearful face to look at her.

Finally Christine could gaze on the unhappy man’s countenance and what she saw hurt: Erik looked gaunt, more gaunt than she remembered and there were dark circles under his deep set eyes. She also noticed that his thin skin was red, raw and swollen from wearing the mask for days on end. Looking at him brought tears to Christine’s eyes: Erik had clearly been in pain for days and had never said a word.

“Oh … oh my love ...” she stuttered.

Fearful eyes met hers. “I knew it … you are afraid.” Erik muttered darkly as he quickly tried to reach for the mask again.

“No.” Christine sobbed, stopping his hand’s reach. “No, I am shocked, but not because I fear you. I am shocked to see that you were in pain for my sake.”

Not understanding her pleading Erik looked at her in sad confusion. Christine could see it all: his suffering, his fear, his desperation to keep her happy. How could she show him that there was no need to punish himself to win her love. How could she assure Erik that she wanted the real him, not the image he thought she loved.

Dolefully Christine looked at the raw skin of Erik’s face, wondering how much it had to be hurting him. All these days his mask had chafed and bruised that poor skin, why had she not thought about asking him to remove it? He probably needed something to sooth the soreness and heal his skin. Suddenly an idea hit her, she would show Erik she did not fear him and relieve some of his pain at the same time.

“Wait here Erik.” Christine said she stood up and turned to walk to her bathroom. “Don't you dare put that mask on while I'm gone.” she called over her shoulder as she left.

With a sigh Erik leaned back on the sofa and closed his eyes. “Idiot!” he hissed to himself angrily. Three months, three months he had worked himself beyond exhaustion to try and earn her love and trust. He wanted to keep Christine enthralled in the illusion of the perfect husband. This meant he wore his mask at all times, he was dressed impeccably at every moment of the day, he kept his posture straight and never allowed himself to eat in her presence.

He had not minded being in pain most of the day or going hungry as it meant he could keep Christine by his side. Christine was worth every sacrifice.

No matter what happened he’d been nothing short of perfection: he performed magic, sang, entertained he served and did all he could to keep Christine happy. But today he had ruined it all. He had shattered all these months of work because of one silly little slip up: he had been so tired. He had been unwell for the last few days but forced himself not to succumb to it.Thinking Christine would be away for the day he had allowed himself a little respite from it all: no mask, no starched tight shirts and rigid suits and … some real food.

It had been so good to sit down without having to think of his posture that he had allowed himself a lay down, just for a while. Clearly he had to have been more exhausted than he thought as he’d fallen asleep while reading. He could kick himself for that.

To have her find him like this, unmasked, unkempt and undressed. It was humiliating.

Oh, she’d surely leave him after being reminded of the horror that was his face.

Then the door opened again and Christine floated into view. His angel was holding a jar in her hand for some reason. Silently he watched as she gently knelt before him and opened the jar from which a pleasant sweet smell emerged.

“What is that?” Erik asked in confusion. Why was she coming closer to him when he had expected her to pack her cases and run from this place?

Showing no revulsion at all Christine simply smiled at him, adding to his confusion.

“A cream of almonds and honey I made for skin complaints.” she beamed at him. Oh, his angel, his sweet angel. Did she really think that would help him?

“My dear,” Erik said in a gentle scoff, “I dare-say we can both agree that a few almonds will not solve this.”

The flash of indignation and hurt that shot through Christine’s eyes at his words confused him.

“Erik, stop that. Stop putting yourself down like that. I mean, this is to sooth your skin, you could get an infection if you go on like this.”

Erik sighed, he would have liked to be sarcastic and protest, but for the last few days his face had hurt so much it felt as if it were on fire. If she had something that could sooth the pain he would not refuse. But he would prefer if she just gave him the jar so he could do it himself and she wouldn't be forced to touch the horror that was his face. But her soft hands on his face felt so good, so gentle.

“Oh … Christine ...” he sighed. He did not deserve this kindness, he did not deserve her.

Getting closer to Erik’s face Christine noticed several deep chafing wounds, from where the mask had rubbed his face for too long. “Poor Erik, you must be in a lot of pain.” she whispered sadly.

“I can manage ...” Erik muttered tiredly.

“You sound so tired.” Christine said lovingly. “Be honest with me Erik. How are you feeling, truly?”

A deep sigh escaped Erik, before he relented and opened up. He had to, had he not sworn to do as she said?

Soon Christine knew all, Erik was in pain, he was hungry and exhausted. The last few weeks he had been performing for her for twenty hours each day every day. This meant that he only got to eat a quick snack after midnight, too tired to eat much after overworking himself day after day.

“I don’t deserve you Christine ...” Erik finished his story in a broken whisper.

Once Erik finished his story he immediately wished he had kept his mouth shut. The eyes of his angel had been darkened by sadness and filled with tears.

“You don’t deserve me, you say?” Christine said between sobs. “Who says I deserve you? What have I done to find a man who’d rather starve than lose me? Who hides all he feels to spare his wife. You think I want perfection. Erik, I don’t. I want to dine with you, sleep with you. I want a human, a husband, not a performer, no matter how wonderful you are.” She lay her head on his lap. “Erik, things will be different starting today. No more mask, no more lies and hiding. You will eat with me, sleep with me and dress and behave as a normal person, well as normal as possible for you. We will be like a regular husband and wife.”

She could feel Erik’s legs shudder beneath her as she spoke.

“Christine, I swear, you do not want to see me when I eat. I take of my mask, I chew … You'd leave me … it … it's horrible, disgusting.”

Those words made Christine sit up again to look at Erik again, she shook her head sadly.

“So you think I’d enjoy seeing you waste away instead? Erik … what are you afraid of?”

“That … that if I don't wear the mask, if I don’t try my hardest … you'll leave me ...” Erik was almost sobbing again now, twisting his fingers in Christine's curls. “Please. I'd rather suffer every day than live without you.”

Christine sighed as she took Erik in her arms. The world had messed him up to the point that he was terrified of doing something as simple as dine with his wife. He felt shockingly thin in her arms. How could this have happened right in front of her? How could Erik have been suffering all this time without her seeing as much as a sign. It was that mask, wasn’t it? It made her miss the little things in a person’s face that could tell you how they felt. Well, she would not let that happen again.

“I won’t be disgusted Erik, I know your face, I know your heart. Stop worrying. You deserve some happiness too my dear. Listen, I'm your wife, I love you and I am not going anywhere. Now, let me tend to your face and then I’ll make dinner.”

“You … you don’t have to touch my face Christine ...” Erik said softly , his voice thick with emotion.

“But I want to.” Christine insisted and before she knew what she was doing her body lunged forwards and she kissed his cheeks, his forehead, his chin and then his lips. Every kiss was met by a soft sigh or sob. After that she held him till he was calm, then she made him lay down on the sofa and took the jar of soothing cream.

“What …?” Erik tried, but she shushed him.

“Just stay still my love.” Christine smiled as she begun to gently rub the potion into his skin.

“Does that feel good?” A soft smile from Erik melted her.

“It feels heavenly.” He sighed.

“Good ...” Christine nodded. For a few moments more she rubbed in the cream, until every part of his face was fully covered. Looking at him she could see the calming smell had made him sleepy. Pressing a quick kiss on his hand she stood up.

“You just rest Erik, I will call you when dinner is ready.”

No reply came, as he was already far away. A sigh of relief escaped Christine as she looked at Erik laying there calmly, almost smiling. What luck that Carlotta had her tantrum today. Had she not come home far too early she would never have known about Erik’s actions. Maybe she’d have only realised when it was too late.

Her eye fell on the mask that had fallen to the floor. Glaring at it ruefully she picked it up and took it with her to the kitchen. As she lit the stove, she threw the mask on the flaming coals.

That damn contraption would not shield Erik from her any more.