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a narrow band

Chapter Text

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 “…beauty, she had discovered, occupied a narrow band. Ugliness, on the other hand, had infinite variation.”  

Atonement, Ian McEwan

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 “I served you for ten years [...] and your yoke was hard, but mine will be harder and you shall serve me now for ever and ever." 

“The Life to Come”, E.M. Forster

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“For I am born to tame you, Kate.”

The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare

 

 

i.

For a long time, Briony did not go to see the “pictures”.

She childishly clung to the notion that cinema was not only an inferior art, but an art to be avoided. Strange things happened to those who surrendered to the wide screen in the dark. She had heard stories from the other nurses about being groped by invisible hands, feeling cold draughts under your skirt, and ghosts lurking in the folds of your pantyhose, waiting to make a meal out of you.

Briony generally preferred the light, luminous pages of a book.

But three days after her sister drowned in a bomb shelter, Briony went to the movies for the first time in her life.

The film playing was a dour, humourless propaganda piece about a young soldier who returned to his hometown from the War on the back of a mule, like a proverbial Christ. His rifle was still slung over his back like a violin string. The town welcomed him with cries and ovations but the man refused to get down from his mule, even when his old mother wanted to embrace him. Briony did not know if it was a sign of protest, or if it had a deeper meaning. The soldier smiled blandly at the cheering crowd and rode on. Briony started crying.

She did not sob. Her tears made fine webs around her eyes until she couldn’t see the screen anymore, but she did not sob. The film had nothing to do with her sister, nothing to do with her. It was soulless. But she cried nonetheless.

Because her sister was also riding through town on a mule and she would never get down.

It was the only time she really cried for Cecilia, or at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Wild with grief.

He’d never quite understood the meaning of it until he woke up in the middle of the night, clutching at air like a feral cat. He wanted to rip her figure out of darkness. In the first moments of wakefulness he did not even realize she was gone, but his fingers remembered.

Not only was she gone, but her body had been torn apart by water and mortar. He had thought she would be preserved in that underground pool, that subaqueous grave, but when they had recovered the corpses and he was called in to recognize the body, he could not make out his Cecilia.

He had knelt and hit his head against the ground.

Robbie got out of bed and knelt down on the floor. He did not hit his head. He seemed to be sitting in prayer, but his mind was a blank. He wrung his warm hands. If he got up now, he would shrug on his clothes and head straight for the off-licence. He would get a bottle, two or three, of the cheapest gin and simply bathe in it. Cecilia would be disappointed.

His face was a cracked mask, dried up, depleted. The ground had eaten all his tears.

 

 

 

 

When he was offered a chance to return to France, he took it with his teeth. By then he was almost glad for it and saw it as the only outcome deserving mention. What else was he to do in London?

 Since Cecilia had died, he would follow her. But it so happens that when you wish to die very much, God does not always oblige. The war raged on, but his body suffered no outward trauma. He was beset by the usual sickness and infection that every soldier carries with him like a water canister and a good chunk of his right ear was speared by a bullet, so that the outer shell now resembled a seahorse, but nothing worse and nothing fatal. He always volunteered to scout the perimeter ahead, hoping to meet the enemy head-on, to be cut down and harvest the earth beneath him. But this was not a war of meetings. It was spent underground, in laborious tunnels of mud, or inside the stinking confines of submarines and tanks. He wished for a flood. He wished for water to clean them all, inside out.

In 1945, he was sent home. There was no need for him anymore.

 

 

 

 

Briony halted halfway down the corridor. She had read somewhere that our senses precede us, that our eyes see before seeing.

She saw him before she saw him.  His shadow fell sideways against the bleached square floor. She recognized it.

Briony walked backwards. She almost dropped the bedpan.

She ducked quickly behind the bed curtains, standing very still.

The young man lying on the bed blinked up at her. Half his mouth had been carved up like a pumpkin by shrapnel, but he still forced himself to speak.

“M-Miss, are you a-a-a-ll-righ-t-t-t?”

Briony smiled down at him emptily and nodded. She would’ve pressed a finger to her lips but her hands were still clutching the bedpan. The smell of urine stung her nostrils. It was invigorating.

Any moment now, Robbie Turner would find her and perhaps throw the offal in her face.

She felt certain he had come here to say words to her.

But why now? Cecilia had been dead for nearly four years. He’d had plenty of time to exact his revenge. Was it now because the war had ended?

She had followed the lists, had kept watch over his fate. Robbie had never turned up among the dead or seriously injured and she had been relieved – but that relief had not been entirely selfless. If he’d arrived on a stretcher in her ward she did not know what she would have done. She was glad he had never been her responsibility.

She waited with eyes half-closed.

Would he yank her by the shoulders? Would he ask her why she was not dead? Would he demand some kind of retribution? Would he shame her in front of the whole ward? The other nurses – would they be shocked to hear what she had done?

Briony imagined the whispers.

Sent an innocent man to jail. Always knew she was a bit barmy, that one. Too tight-lipped. Full of airs.

The general opinion among her girlfriends was that people like her and her family who had for so long slumbered like fairy-tale bears in the countryside without giving anything to the world at large deserved all they got.

In a way, she might relish the scandal.

Oh, let him scream it, she wished recklessly, as she imagined the scene on the written page.

But there was no melodrama.

She waited in vain.

After a few minutes, she darted her head around the curtain and saw that the corridor was empty. He had gone.

When she asked the head-nurse about the young man who had come in earlier, the old woman said that he had been looking for a friend of his, one of the invalids. He hadn’t found him, because the man in question had been released early.

“Oh.” Briony’s heart returned to its normal staccato. She let out a disappointed breath.

He had not come looking for her. It was not time for retribution yet.

 

 

 

 

Robbie paused midway down the corridor.

He was about to leave the ward when he saw a spectre. There was a shadowy figure, right there, behind that screen. What drew his attention was her immobility. She stood stock-still like a church spire. Nothing about her stirred. She was wearing a nurse’s cap, but it looked like a part of her body, a part of the inanimate sculpture.

Robbie shrugged. There had been all kinds of sights in the war. Despair took many forms.

It was only when he reached the street once more and he filled his lungs with clean air that he realized – only he did not know exactly what he realized.

Impossible as it may seem, he had forgotten.

Cecilia’s death had stamped out the memory of her sister. He had not had enough room in his mind for another enemy. He’d given himself to war and hoped to die.

He was almost angry at himself. How could he forget about that vile bitch? How could he let that wound close up so quickly?

Were it not for her, he would have had more time with Cecilia before the world went to hell.

He was alive and condemned to roam the earth alone, while his beloved was dead and Briony played the dim-witted nurse.

There was something grotesque about this reality. He had to clutch his mouth not to howl with bitter, savage laughter.

He looked back towards the hospital. She must have seen him, the stupid cow. She had been trying to hide. She must still be scared of him, then.

Good.

Maybe he’d wait until she came out.

 

 

 

 

 

Briony lifted the collar of her coat. “Brrr. The fog is quite thick.” 

Greta threw her roommate a look. Briony had a stupid talent for stating the obvious sometimes. But she seemed particularly daft this evening.

She kept looking about, eyes gliding backwards every time they stepped out of a cone of street light.

“What’s the matter with you?” Greta demanded, for she feared the girl was in one of her gloomy moods. Matthew was supposed to call on her later this evening, and he’d think she was living with a barn owl.

“Nothing,” Briony said with the wrong inflection.

She looked behind her again. “Don’t you feel –”

“What?”

“Don’t you feel we’re being followed? Like there’s another, distinct pair of footsteps?”

Greta rolled her eyes. Briony was spinning a yarn again. She was always conjuring up dark motives and then writing them up in her notebooks. Greta had liked reading some of them, but she privately thought that her fantasies were a little droll. Poor old maid in the making, thinking men wanted to follow her home. Greta was trying to make her give up this sort of daydreaming. Men ran from this sort of female despair.

“Don’t be silly, Bri. It’s only the fog making you imagine things.”

In the fog, every figure was an enemy, and every enemy was a lover.

 

 

 

 

 

Robbie stopped by the wayside. He crouched behind a motorcar parked across the street. He saw the two girls climbing the winding flight of stairs to the second landing of a handsome terraced house. If they could afford a separate entrance that meant Briony Tallis was in possession of some money - perhaps her inheritance. She was still in her family’s graces, which meant she had not told them the truth about him, about what she had done. She had dithered and promised Cecilia that she would put things right, but she had evidently buried her head in the sand. She was good at that.

Robbie struck a match and lit his cigarette. Suppose with Cecilia dead, the truth did not matter anymore.

Still, why was she living here and not with her family in their spacious townhouse in Chelsea? Was this her sorry attempt at independence? It was true that women were getting more “emancipated” these days, if that was the term. The other night he had seen one relieve herself in the street. He had seen it with his eyes. She hadn’t been a whore or some bawdy washerwoman in a Henry Fielding novel. Her silk pantyhose had looked expensive as she rolled it down to her ankles to piss in the alley he was passing by. She hadn’t looked like the sort of girl who needed to make such rude detours. But she had smiled up at him with a girlish taunt, her lips a very dark shade of red. The smile had told him plainly: I’m well off, I don’t need to do this here, but I choose to anyway.

Briony was not this sort of modern girl. She could never countenance dark lipstick. But she probably had other ideas.

He realized he was dwelling on nothing in particular. He would come back again some other day. Now that he knew where she lived, he had time to decide what to do with the knowledge. 

 

 

 

 

 

Briony lived with a strange kernel of insanity inside her. She couldn’t tell Greta about it, because she would’ve dismissed her. She couldn’t write her mother, because she would’ve never believed it. She had tried, several times, to tell Emily about the awful thing she had done, but it had always sputtered into an admission of being “a bad child”, which her mother said was just Briony looking for attention.

Briony did not know how to prove that she was wicked, because wickedness did not manifest plainly in her face, in her eyes, in the movement of her body. She had never been a talented nurse, but she was good at comforting the soldiers and putting them at ease, and sometimes, that was half the job. Those young men trusted her because they saw kindness in her face.

Only Robbie knew her, really knew her.

After a few days, she finally spotted him on her way to work.

He was standing in the doorway of a local brewery, hands in his pockets, not even pretending to hide, really.  He was watching her. His eyes surveyed the boulevard without stopping on her, but she had no doubt that she was his target.

Briony’s heart beat very fast, but she forced herself to walk at the same pace.

He must have seen her that day, recognized her.

But Robbie did not jump down from the steps to confront her. He let her walk past him.

In fact, this is what he did almost every morning: watched her bicycle or walk to work, watched her trot and falter in her thick shoes, watched and sneered and judged in silence.

As the days became weeks, Briony wondered if she was only imagining him. Maybe she was seeing a ghost. Maybe he had died in the war.

She wished he’d intercept her, if only to insult her. She was going mad not knowing, but she supposed that was his intent all along.  

She was not brave enough to call out to him, or even lift her hand in greeting. It did not work that way, it could never work that way. He followed her because he wanted her to know he was watching, watching and doing nothing, watching and letting her go quietly insane.

When their eyes met, he seemed to look right through her. She could not stand it.

At night, Briony took out her notebook from the drawer and wrote down what she felt. It was the only thing she knew would relieve her. In her notebook, she put down imaginary meetings, altercations, confrontations. Even - whimsically - reconciliations.

In her notebook she resurrected Cecilia and begged her forgiveness and brought her and Robbie together as a way to make up for the past. In the notebook, they moved past the heartbreak. In fact, they all moved to the seaside and swam a lot and ate fried mackerel on a stick and sat around the camp fire on the beach and told stories. Robbie forgave her. He said Briony was a good friend, after all.

In her notebook, such solutions were possible.

If only writing could be made real.

She had done it once; her words had built the world they lived in. 

Could she not rebuild it, brick by brick?

 

 

 

 

She walked to work with the story in her head, trying to impose it on reality. Why shouldn't things turn all right in the end?

She looked up and saw him standing by his usual spot, watching her, cigarette in his mouth.

Briony stepped into the street, unaware.

She was surprised to see his mouth moving. He was shouting at her.

“Look out!”

Briony stepped back.

The lorry rushed past her, honking angrily, a hair’s breadth away.

Her nurse’s cap fell on the ground. Briony did not bend to pick it up.

She stood stock-still, staring straight ahead. The breath on her lips tasted like metal.

Robbie was glaring at her, his lips parted. The cigarette smoked between his fingers.

What the hell were you doing?

She turned and ran all the way back home. She stayed inside all day. She lay shivering on the floor, knees to her chest.

She felt awful not because she could have died, but because he had been forced to save her again.  

How unfair, to do that to him. Why couldn’t she stop hurting the people around her?

She did not see him anymore after that. She knew – felt – that he was still watching her, but he was not going to make himself visible.

He was not going to provide her with a distraction, a way out. 

 

 

 

 

After many sleepless nights of revising and correcting, she had turned the story into a novella. Briony took out her beloved typewriter and removed the covering. She had not used it in such a long time. She typed out the story neatly, the black type crisp on white. She thought about giving it to Robbie first, but she would not be able to find him unless he wanted to be found. Besides, he’d never take it from her. Any exchange between them had already been tainted by the past.

She thought about sending it to her brother to read. But he would not agree with the resolution. He preferred tragedy. 

She submitted the story to several magazines.

Was she hoping to expiate her sins? Perhaps.

Did she still want to become a writer, after everything? Very possibly.

Most of all, she wanted Robbie to come talk to her.

 

 

 

 

 

Briony had the apartment to herself when it happened. Greta had gone off with Matthew. There was a knock on the front door. She told herself it was probably Matthew, who had just missed Greta and was looking for her.

Our senses precede us. She knew who it was.

Still, when she opened the door and saw her childhood sin standing there, she almost gasped. Even as a girl, even when they had been thick as thieves, she had never known what to do with those blue eyes, so much bluer than hers, so much more open to the elements.

So, she looked down.

Her eyes landed on the magazine he was clutching in one hand, like a dirty rag.

Her stomach dropped, but she forced herself to speak.

“Robbie. How nice to see you.”

No, that was wrong. She shouldn’t have begun that way.

She tried again.

“How nice to…”

But that was all she could muster, a foolish repetition.

She couldn’t help it. She had been taught to greet people this way. These stock phrases fell from her lips like mouldering mints.

His blue eyes widened with shock and revulsion. Briony realized, belatedly, that she was smiling.

He pushed past her. Or rather, pushed into her until he was inside.

He crowded her against the wall.

When he grabbed her jaw and slammed her head against the wall, it felt red and yellow, like the fleshy core of a seedy apple. She felt a ticklish spring inside her skull, like a nut being cracked open. Robbie’s fingers were also red on her cheek. His other hand turned to fist and sank into the pannelling next to her head, rattling it slightly. She did not know wood could rattle.

She yelped - a mousy sound, slightly affected.  

Panting, Robbie grabbed her elbow and pushed her away from the wall into the small living room.

Briony stumbled against a chair. She tried to find a fixture to hold onto, but the whole room seemed to be in flux. Every surface was sliding away from her.

Robbie looked possessed. His eyes sparked with hatred. She had made him to this. She had made him hit a woman. He had never done such a thing. He hated himself because of her. His hands shook with this awful feeling.

“Why,” he asked, not like a question.

“How did you come across it?” she asked, still affecting stupidity.

Why.”

 “I – I wrote the story for you and my sister,” Briony croaked apologetically. The magazine was still somewhere in the hallway, trampled on, made useless.

“You wrote it for yourself. Your personal smut,” he said, walking towards her with clenched fists. “She’s not even cold in her grave and you fucking smeared your dirty hands all over her.” 

Briony held onto the back of the chair. She was too scared to move. She was thinking that Cecilia had already been cold from the water.

“I swear – I only wanted to fix things. To do right by you, by her…I thought it would help…”

Help?”

And he almost rushed at her again, but Briony darted comically towards the kitchen. Robbie followed her with a grim expression on his face.

“I want to kill you right now, but then I’d really go to jail wouldn’t I? And I wouldn’t come out again.”

Briony spied the cutting knife resting lazily on the chopping board. Greta must have left it there. She was rarely careful with the knives.  She wondered if she should make a grab for it.

Robbie followed her line of sight.

She flinched when he barked out a laugh. It sounded like the hacking of an axe. Her skull still pulsed from the impact.

“Put that fucking knife away,” he instructed, face flush with anger. “Take out the tea things. I’m your guest, after all.”

 

 

 

 

She had seen men blackened and bruised by all kinds of blows. When she had tended their mortified skin, they’d said it didn’t hurt so much because she was so pretty and gentle. 

But now, touching the back of her head, she could tell they had lied, just to please her.  It hurt to touch herself. Her fingernails felt like little hammers.

That those dying men had lied to flatter her felt horrible now.

She struggled to carry the tea tray into the living room.

Robbie was building a fire in the grate. He was ripping pages off her story and throwing them over the kindling.  He watched the paper burn with relish. Briony did not mind. It was a symbolic gesture. He could not hunt down all the magazines to burn her writing. She would triumph, in the end.

When he was done with her story, he picked up one of the newspapers her roommate had left on the mantle.

“I’m sorry, they are old editions. Greta gets mad if I throw them away.”

She wondered if she should explain why Greta got mad. Even now, she hated not being precise. She absurdly expected that he would care, that he might want to know, that all people were as fascinated with motive as she was.

She deposited the tray on the table.

Robbie rubbed his chin with his thumb. His knuckles were still red from grabbing her face. “Will she be back soon?”

 “I think she’ll return tomorrow morning. She went out with Matthew. And that means – well, it usually means – she will be spending the night with him.”

Robbie sneered. “Still making assumptions about people, are you?”

“N-No,” Briony began uncertainly, “I just wanted to let you know she won’t be returning soon.”

“You must be jealous of this Greta and her ways with men,” he continued, ignoring her excuses. “You must be the mousy little virgin no one ever bothers to look up.”

Briony coloured with shame. Not because he was right, but because she did not feel like a virgin. She would have preferred it. One night during patrol hours, she’d let one of the dying patients insert his fingers in her vagina, but Robbie would never find out about that. She would rather die.

 “Shall we sit?” she asked, drawing up her chair and his. Of course, there was something of her old nursery in this three-act play. How she loathed and missed that room. 

Robbie was not ready to drop the subject of her frigidity. “You were always jealous of Cecilia because she was warm and full of passion. You’re a cold lizard.”

Briony poured tea in his cup, but a few drops fell on the saucer. She grabbed the table napkin. Mice and lizards were distinct animals; one might even say that mice were the food of lizards, but Robbie said she was a mouse and a lizard, so it must be true. To be the hunter and the game… her fingers itched for a pen.

“Your skin was clammy when I got you out of that lake. Like you had scales instead of skin. It was abhorrent,” he continued, dropping into the chair opposite her.

Briony stared at the table napkin. She did not particularly want to confront the memory of him saving her. It had been such a silly, awful joke. She’d wanted the proof of his love, but she hadn’t wanted to be rescued. Not exactly. She had wanted to see his face contorted in pain and despair. She’d wished for an intermediary state; to be dead and yet alive to witness his dismay.

Instead, he had dragged her dutifully out of the water and patronized her for her babyish fantasies. She had never recovered from the embarrassment - the utter disillusionment. She should have been grateful to him, but she almost hated him afterwards.

Briony tilted her head. “Yes, you’re right. I was a very cold creature. Back then, I was only…”

“If you say you were only a child, I’ll slam your face against this table,” he cut her off sharply. Judging by the rise and fall of his chest, he almost wished she would say it, just to give him cause to beat her again. 

Did he need cause anymore?

Briony smiled a nervous smile. “I was going to say I was only unhappy. Unhappiness makes one stupid.”

Robbie drained his cup of tea. He wiped his mouth on the table cloth. She mentally discarded the napkin and the table cloth to the laundry basket. She made them white in her head.

 “It made you stupid. Misery has made me who I am,” Robbie punctuated.

Briony closed her eyes briefly. She opened them. She fingered the china cup. “I wish…” Her eyes glazed over sadly.

Robbie clenched his hand on the cup. Even here, now, she was affecting the same superiority, she was just as irremediably selfish. She was only thinking about her wishes.

 “You wish what?” he demanded.

“I wish I’d died instead of Cecilia,” she said, eyes downcast like a sad little martyr who truly thought that her noble sacrifice would put everything in order.  “I wish you’d let that lorry run me down.”

Robbie’s nostrils flared. “That would be easier for you, wouldn’t it?”

Briony blinked and in her eyes shone not tears but that childish stubbornness she’d been born with, that nagging need to contradict the adults and superimpose her own vision of the world. “But surely you’d prefer Cecilia were here instead of me.”

Robbie curled his lip in disgust. She was a hopelessly vain creature. She did not understand; she never would.

It made him laugh too. She, the professed writer, the quiet observer of humanity, was hopelessly illiterate when it came to the human soul.

“Isn’t that why you really hit me?” she asked suddenly, hands trembling around her tea cup.

“I hit you because you wrote that story.”

“No…surely it was more than that. You must want me dead, but you’re not strong enough to do it, or to let me die.”

Robbie smiled and his mouth broadened into an ugly country boy leer. He had always been a little ashamed of it, but not anymore.

“You stupid fucking cunt,” he said, chuckling to himself. “Death would be too kind for you.”

Briony flinched. It was not the insult.

No, no. It was the word – the word written on a piece of paper – the memory flashing before her eyes, each letter emboldened by the typewriter (C-U-N-T) delivered into her prim hands by a different Robbie, a Robbie who had wanted to shield her from the world.

Yes, she could spin it a thousand ways. She could even blame him. Sometimes, when the burden was too great and her lungs felt crushed with it, she did blame him too.

And she imagined scolding him like a fretful mother. Would it have killed you to check the letters?

It wouldn’t have. 

Robbie had ceased smiling. He was watching her.

“You’re right,” she muttered into her lap. “Death would be too kind.”

“Don’t agree with me in that preening way. Don’t be pitiful,” he snapped.

“What do you want me to do?” Briony asked, still examining her lap.

Robbie considered her question for a few moments. He wanted nothing from her. He wanted to want nothing. He wanted to lock her up in a box, throw away the key and never have to think about her. He wanted to return to the time before he remembered she was the enemy – that moment in front of the hospital. 

She was like an inflamed scab. He had to keep scratching, until he gave himself gangrene. Cecilia was dead. The only thing left was to torment her sister.

“What do I want you to do? Why don’t you beg? Get down on your hands and knees and beg,” he said, leaning back in the chair.

Briony pulled at a thread on her skirt. “Um.” 

“Down on your knees, crawl and beg. It’d suit you.”

Briony alternated between pallor and redness. It was comical to see her debate with herself. He crossed his legs. He had all day.

 “Are you sure that’s what -?” she asked, haltingly.

“Yes, I am.”

Briony waited for him to say something else, but he didn’t. A clock chimed somewhere in the distance. She thought about her dog-eared edition of The Taming of the Shrew, an elegant quarto Leon had commissioned for her with stage directions. He had told her it would be a lark to play it for the whole family one day, but they had never got to it. Briony was writing her own plays by that point and there just never seemed to be enough time, even in those timeless days. When, as a woman, she reread the play, she was rather puzzled by Leon’s suggestion. Why would he want to see a little girl punished? 

Now, she sank down before Petruchio.

It was clumsy: slow, yet all of a sudden. She slid off her chair. She fell on her knees with a soft, almost rehearsed thud. She stood still for a moment, looking into nothingness.

And then she plunged ahead. She crawled under the table.

Robbie pushed back his chair, watching her intently.

Briony’s cow-licked hair parted the tablecloth. Her small hands touched the tip of his shoes. She knelt at his feet.

Robbie felt a heady sense of power. He wanted to kick her face with his shoe, but that would have been only a brief satisfaction.

“Lick my shoes clean,” he said instead.

Briony faltered, fingers convulsing. She looked at him through strands of limp hair.

“Lick – with – my tongue?”

Robbie laughed coldly. “Can’t imagine you’d lick them with anything else.”

She nodded, wincing. She ran her tongue over her teeth. She opened her mouth.

Robbie watched with a sick fascination as her pink tongue darted out and shyly licked the tip of his left shoe.

Her face crumbled for a moment, as if in denial of fact, but she knew that she couldn’t get up without finishing the job.

She opened her mouth and resumed her licking. She dragged her tongue gingerly over the leather, lapping the dirt and dross of the streets. A film of grey, like fur, settled on her lips. She fought a wave of nausea rising in her throat.

Robbie contemplated the saliva on his shoe. His stomach churned. He switched feet. “Now the other one.”

Briony stared at the second shoe.  It looked a smidgen cleaner, but she found she could not do it.  She could not bring herself to do it twice. This was her limit.

Robbie’s eyes glinted dangerously. “What are you waiting for?”

 I am a cold lizard, she thought, leaning against his corduroy leg. She pictured the reptile’s curled tongue.

“Get to it,” he commanded.

“I am not worthy of your shoe,” she said for an excuse.

 “That’s rich.”

“It’s true.”

Robbie wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Get up.”

Briony rose slowly, using his knee for support. She touched him briefly, only as a resting stop in her ascent. He shuddered. She was still so proud, so territorial. 

Robbie stood up before her.  “Open your mouth.”

Briony parted her lips, curious and unsuspecting.

He spat into her mouth with precision.

Briony stood with her mouth open and with his saliva inside her mouth. She tried not to gag. She was too shocked.

It tasted better than the dirt on his shoes.

“Swallow it.”

She did as she was told. She swallowed.  She licked her lips and imagined her skin sprouting scales, imagined her tongue becoming long and black and foul-smelling. The lizard, finally. 

Robbie was disgusted with her and himself. He moved away from her, pushing her aside.

The funny thing was, he understood what she’d said about being unhappy.  For all her assumed privileges, she had been a lonely child. She was still so needy, so desperate for approval. So wretched.

He drew himself up to his full height.

“Get rid of the story. Buy all the copies, burn them, I don’t care. If you don’t, I’ll come back.”

She counted his steps to the door.

When he was gone, she started clearing the table with shaking hands.

She cleaned the table and the kitchen and the hallway and the house. She scrubbed the wooden pannelling for hours. She tried to remove the shame, but it wasn’t all bad.

She danced around the furniture in a state of grief and euphoria. She touched the back of her head from time to time. It still hurt, and the hurt was good, and she grinned around it.

He had read her story and it had made him terribly upset, but he had read it.