The summer heat shimmers in the light cast from the oil lamp on the bureau. The lace curtains on the windows drift lightly in the breeze that is only just stirring in the last light of day. Insects hum, a whippoorwill mourns from the top of the pine tree near the front gate of her cottage.
Violet drifts between wakefulness and sleep -- the heat wave means no one in Grantham has experienced restorative sleep day or night for the last seventy-two hours -- well-oiled hands slipping, sliding across her shoulders. She feels Isobel settle more firmly astride the backs of Violet’s thighs, pinning her pliant body to the mattress beneath them.
“I can hear you thinking, Lettie.” Isobel is the only one who’s called her that since Nanny Grace left her parents’ employ back in ‘52.
Her husband, the late Lord Grantham, had called her Viola sometimes, when he caressed her, undressed her, dipped his head to place hot kisses across the rising flesh of her breasts, bound tight and uplifted in the fashions of the day.
A voyageur, he teased, shipwrecked in foreign lands. His Scottish thistle blown south in a tempest, run aground on the steps of Downton.
Viola, sister to Sebastian, sometime lover of Lady Olivia who, in the end, marries the passionate Duke Orsino. Orsino, she used to whisper in her husband’s ear as he slid broad hands down her sides, lifted her hips to his, encouraged her to spread wide.
My lord, my love.
She hasn’t found a way, yet, to tell Isobel this is why she sometimes licks the name Olivia behind her ear, talks of being brought here by the ocean, tempest-tossed and forever not-quite-home.
Isobel’s hands are so different from his, she thinks. Strong, and bold, as his had been, yet slim and fine where his had been broad and blunt. Roughened now, with the daily effort of caring for the wounded officers up at the Abbey. Everything displaced, unfamiliar faces a daily reminder of violence and loss, of children dying far from home.
A tide of suffering that would engulf them if they let it. But life has made them stubborn, both, and they choose, instead, to weigh anchor here, in this bed, together, affirming life in full knowledge that, with each touch and taste they share, the younger generations fall, mowed down, laid waste.
They fight to save their children, and when they can fight no longer they find their way here, for a different sort of healing.
“Where are you, my dear?” Isobel presses, “I can feel you drifting so far away.” Instead of answering, Violet gathers herself and pushes up into Isobel’s hands, arching her back and feeling the hands slick with sweat and sweet oil slide down across her ribcage, cupping, holding, the soft flesh of her breasts, nipples pulled tight with desire on a field of stretch marks and wrinkles.
“Just -- loss. And longing. I never thought to feel this way again. It brings back all the other nights. And days. The other lifetimes.”
Looking back, Violet realizes she should have recognized the signs: The irritation, the inability to let things go, the hours -- accumulated in handfuls of sleepless minutes lying awake in her bed, alone -- spent composing the perfect sniping remark. Something, anything, to shake Isobel’s composure, to reinforce -- viciously -- the social distance between them.
She knows from decades of experience that only cruelty will keep the force of her own want, the need for touch, contained. Keep her bound in her own clothing, in her own skin, protect her family from the destruction of her desires.
Desire. The color of Isobel’s soft hair, pinned back so modestly from her face. Need. The need to trace her fingers along the worry lines of Isobel’s brow, to press her thumb across the corner of Isobel’s mouth where it turns up in an anxious, ingratiating smile.
They are interlopers here, the mother and son. Violet feels the hate, the anger, the -- fear -- burning in her chest.
Fear because from the moment Isobel walks in the room something about the tilt of her head, the line of her spine, the curve of her wrist as she lifts hand to glass, kindles the twisting need in Violet’s belly that she had thought was long extinguished.
A need so unexpected, in fact, that it took her nearly a year of pure hatred and rivalry before the storm had blown itself out and she was left, gasping, tossed ashore, naked, the clothing of her concealment ragged shreds, hiding nothing.
It happened like this: Isobel a fury in her sitting room, sharp, bitter words. Her own inability to concentrate on anything beyond the shape of the words, the fall of Isobel’s sleeve, the curl of hair falling behind her ear. Isobel all movement and gesture; herself, seated, stillness and distance. She no longer remembers the substance of their argument -- they’d wrangled over so many details in those early days of the war.
(They still argue details now -- though the tenor of those exchanges has changed, and their verbal battlefields are scattered with kisses.)
She remembers her inability to concentrate. The way she felt herself drifting apart, above, as if trapped in a cloud of marsh fog. Cold and clammy.
“Isobel. You continue to speak as if you expect people to care what you say,” she’d heard herself, distantly. Cruelly.
Untruthfully. Because of course she had cared, always cared, what Isobel said. Her treacherous mind had assiduously gathered every word, harboured it close, played it back to her mockingly in the early hours of sleepless nights, like a tune on one of her grandchildren’s tiresome gramaphones.
She had put a hand to her throbbing head.
“Of course I expect people to care! You of all people --” Isobel had run out of words then, and there had been a moment of absolute silence and stillness before she’d spun round to the mantle, picked up a (hideous) hand-painted vase that Lady Montmorancy had given Violet as a wedding present fifty years previous, and thrown it across the room, where it smashed against sitting room door and fell in a shower of porcelain onto the floor.
There was a moment of shocked silence. The two women looked at one another, dumbly. Violet found herself thinking about how anger brought out the high color in Isobel’s cheeks, and then discovered she was wondering whether sexual ecstasy would have a similar effect.
“Of course I expect you to care.” Isobel said softly, almost a whisper. In an odd, flat voice. “Though I can’t even begin to tell you why. I hardly know myself.” There had been tears sparkling in her eyes.
And it was then Violet had started to laugh. She hadn’t even been sure, at first, why she was laughing. Exhaustion? Relief? Joy? She only knew that she could no longer muster the energy to care about the whys and wherefores of staying silent.
She doesn’t remember crossing the distance between the chair where she’d been sitting and Isobel’s arrested form by the mantle. Only that, suddenly, she was there, with her hands at Isobel’s cheeks brushing away the tears.
“I think,” she managed, “I think I may be able to offer a reason or two?” And she leaned in to brush a rusty kiss -- hardly more than a brush of dry lips against velvety skin -- at the corner of Isobel’s mouth.
“Oh!” The surprise in Isobel’s voice was rivaled only by the relief as Violet slid her hands down over the contours of Isobel’s bosom to cradle Isobel’s slim hips in against her own. She denies to this day that her hands were shaking. A Crawley’s hands are always steady.
But she admits, yes, to a certain measure of relief when that first offering of a kiss was met -- and then mastered -- by Isobel’s own.
“I remember how it felt when my husband used to touch me here,” Isobel traces a looping finger down Violet’s back, circling each vertebrae with a press of thumb and forefinger, until her index finger slips gently between Violets buttocks, spread wide across the expanse of Isobel’s thighs, circles a finger against the tight muscle of Violet’s second opening.
Violet moans. “Yes.” She doesn’t know if she’s agreeing, or assenting -- possibly both. One of her lovers, years ago, before Patrick, used to caress her there, patiently opening her with fingers and ... other things. She shivers, remembering a particular knob of burnished copper with a flared base that warmed to the touch and slid home to ride inside her while the woman in question had turned her attentions elsewhere.
Isobel’s well-oiled hands caress her, soft and firm, from the nape of her neck down along the vertebrae to the curve of her arse. Violet pushes up and back against the palms, feels the cool rush of air between her thighs, hears the soft huff of fond, knowing, laughter above her as Isobel leans into the movement, cradling Violet against her belly, thighs, against the scattering of sandy curls that trail from bellybutton down between her legs.
They don’t talk about Matthew, Isobel’s son, trapped in the cesspool of France. Violet knows that Isobel’s work at the hospital is the only thing keeping his mother from fracturing into a thousand tiny pieces, pieces no one could ever put back together. She imagines it: The shattering, the glittering scatter of diamond-hard shards (Isobel is made of much sterner stuff than her soft exterior implies), imagines kneeling in the dust of the road to gather the pieces together, pictures stringing them one after another on long loops of twine and hanging them across the ceiling of her bedroom -- a constellation of grief.
It would be her place to do it, she thinks, because Violet is suddenly, improbably, the one whom Isobel has left.
“Show me,” she gasps, grinding her sweat-damp forehead in the pillow. “Isobel -- please --” She needs Isobel inside her, suddenly, urgently. Insurance against the tide of loss. The sweat along the back of her thighs has melded them together, Isobel’s hands braced firmly against the sharp angle of Violet’s hips. Isobel dips her hand into the glistening bowl of oil again and pushes a slim hand down the crease of Violet’s arse, in against her own belly, seeking, circling, pressing in. Violet half moans, half sighs into the motion, Isobel’s finger is careful, no deeper than the first knuckle, but solid, intrusive, unyielding.
Violet clenches around her, feels a fierce satisfaction uncoiling deep in her belly. Mine.
“What--” She manages, “--would he do then?”
“Sometimes he’d hold me there, like this,” Isobel slips her finger out, replaces it with a slightly broader, equally well-oiled, thumb -- a movement that allows her to settle her hand along the curve of Violet’s behind, to anchor her against further motion, pinning her in place.
Violet moans in approval, resisting the urge to push back, to pull away, wanting both more and less at the same time.
“And then with his cock he’d slide into me like this.” With her other, equally well-oiled hand hand Isobel slips down between Violet’s spread legs, fingers searching between the folds, then curving up and in -- oh yes please -- filling her, so solid, so there.
Both widows, they had realized from the start it was no use pretending their lovemaking could escape the shadows -- good and bad -- of the past. Patrick and Reginald had both been attentive husbands, and not unadventurous. It had been with some relief that Violet found Isobel brought the same practical initiative she exhibited in hospital administration into their bed, frank and plain in her preferences with the somewhat terrifying habit of inquiring in so many words as to Violet’s own. Isobel and Reginald had apparently been believers in technical specificity and communication of sexual likes and dislikes in a manner that Violet found to be a slight strain on the nerves.
Not that she, herself, was a stranger to pillow talk -- just language slightly more obfuscatory in nature. The men and women with whom she’d ... “lapsed” was how she’d always thought of it; given in to the near-suffocating beat of want that thrummed inside her ... with whom she’d had liaisons weren’t given to bluntness. Those affairs had been negotiations in dark corners, fucks in her boudoir, in their bedroom. Everything had to be discreet; you could get away with the most blatant of dalliances as long as the actual words were never spoken aloud and Society was never forced to acknowledge what was right under its nose.
For example, she’d never had a lover, Patrick included, ask -- as Isobel had, their first night in bed -- “What do you like?” or “Tell me how this feels,” or (a question that had left Violet feeling slightly winded by a mixture of indignation, arousal, and mortification she thought she’d left behind years previously), “Where do you keep the dildo, my dear? And do you keep flax seed oil on hand?”
Back in their bedroom (Isobel’s now, as much as hers), Violet can feel her thighs beginning to tremble with fatigue as she rocks into Isobel’s hand with circumscribed, jerky movements. Isobel’s left hand, in and against her behind, holds her still while the right hand rides over and over the sweet fullness just inside her opening. Two fingers at first -- hardly enough to be felt -- then three, and at some point after she’s stopped fully paying attention, another slips in. She can feel the pull of the fingertips scraping across the spongey flesh.
She hadn’t thought, before Isobel, that her body had it in her to become this sodden with lust again. She feels as though her skin has split open from heat and lack of sleep and need and oh so good so good so good she’d forgotten what it felt like, to be this full.
They aren’t using the wooden cock tonight, just hands and mouths and skin sliding over skin. She’s always felt, in these moments, as if by strength of will alone she can breach the barrier of flesh between herself and the person with whom she shares this most intimate of touches.
That, perhaps, contained within the eye of this storm, this tempest of feeling she’s struggled all her life to contain, conceal, to indulge just enough so that her feet remain planted on firm ground -- that perhaps in a moment such as this, the storm will rend her open, allow her to fly apart, released.
And no longer quite so alone.
“Tell me,” Isobel is whispering in her ear, bent over Violet’s body so that her small breasts are pressed, nipple-hard, against the jut of Violet’s shoulder blades. “Tell me how it feels. Tell me what you need.”
No one has ever asked this of her before, not until Isobel.
“I --” Violet gasps, “I just -- need.” And for the first time, in a long life of love-making, it seems possible that this is acceptable. Allowable. Possible. That Isobel -- with her capable hands, her practical, unflappable nature, her courage (in standing up to Violet, in standing up to the doctors, in facing the reality of war) -- that perhaps Isobel could be her anchor so that Violet, in her ocean of need, would never lose sight of the shore.
“I’m here, love,” Isobel is whispering into her hair, “I’m here. You can let go.”
And she does: the tight knot of feeling that’s gathered so full and heavy in her groin breaks over her, pushing her up, up off the bed and arcing back and over against the solidity of Isobel’s waiting hands, chest, belly, thighs, which catch and hold and lower her to earth.
The curtains move in the slight breeze, moving still-hot air across their sweat-damp skin.
“What --” Violet experiments with speech, yet finds coherent thought has yet to return.
“Hush.” Isobel cradles Violet against her chest.
The lamp flickers, shadows moving across the ceiling. Violet traces the veins on the back of Isobel’s hands, still slick with oil and bodily fluids, with her fingers. A looping, clumsy dance: her hands have temporarily forgotten their social graces.
“What do you need,” she finally whispers into the dark. A question she never learned asked, before Isobel taught her by example.
Perhaps the twentieth century has a thing or two to recommend it after all.
Though she’ll still draw the line firmly at electric lights.
In answer to the question, Isobel turns her hand beneath Violet’s fingers, pulls Violet palm-to-palm down between them, presses Violet’s fingers through the rough hair between Isobel’s legs. Violet can feel the beads of moisture that have gathered in the tangle of curls, even before Isobel withdraws her hand and leaves Violet to explore at her leisure the gentle slope and valley of her heavy, swollen folds, the way sweat and fluid have run down the inside of her thighs, pooled in the crease where the soft inside of her thigh meets the join of her hip.
Into the dark, Violet hears Isobel sigh. She presses her palm down against the mound of Isobel’s pelvic bone. Feels Isobel shift slightly behind her, legs spreading slightly to allow entry.
Violet slides two fingers down and hooks them in, feeling the soft-hard nub of Isobel’s clitoris slide against the gutter between her fingers, come to rest against the palm of her hand.
Isobel arches up into her touch, “Yes.” Still barely more than a breath out, then in. The urgency that had overtaken them has gone again and every motion feels elongated in time, heavy with sated desire, and with desire still to come.
“Tell me how it feels,” Violet tries, experimentally. She hasn’t asked this question before. It felt odd when Isobel asked her, at first. How did one formulate a response? There were no etiquette guides for such a thing. Good? Overwhelming? Painful, yet so exquisite I don’t wish you to stop?
“So good,” Isobel is murmuring in her ear. “So wet. Can you feel how wet you made me? So full. Everything so heavy. I love the feeling of your fingers stretching my opening like -- ah!”
“Like this?” Violet pushes two fingers inside, then scissors them apart, feeling the taut flesh at Isobel’s entrance, unyielding against her fingers.
“Yes, God yes. Again. Please.”
Violet can feel Isobel restless beneath her, the muscles of her thighs beginning to twitch, her feet pushing against the mattress, seeking blindly for something to brace against. She’s discovered Isobel prefers confined spaces, likes her boundaries in place. She lifts a still-heavy leg and hooks her left ankle around Isobel’s right calf, pinning her to the bed.
Isobel arches against the weight, groaning in appreciation as the motion allows Violet to sink deeper. “Like -- yes. Hold me, keep me here, please. Don’t -- don’t let me slip away.” She’s starting to babble now, much more vocal in bed than any of Violet’s previous lovers.
“Come for me,” Violet commands, gently. “Can you do that?”
“Yes, oh God yes,” Isobel is rocking up into Violet’s hand, twisted between them, held in place by her own well-oiled buttocks. Violet uses the weight of her hip to push back against the motion so that they’re rocking together, apart, together, apart, while the tangle of legs and the length of her body pressed against Isobel from shoulder to knee ensured that Isobel stayed trapped beneath her.
The narrower her range of motion, the stronger and faster Isobel’s climax tended to be.
“You can’t slip away, love, I’ve got you,” She murmurs, turning her head to press a kiss against Isobel’s temple. Her lips come away salty; she licks them clean.
And then Isobel goes rigid beneath her, left hand back on Violet’s pressing down, digging in as she arches back and bites off a groan -- a noise that rises from deep in her belly, beneath the rippling muscles of her abdomen, and forces its way out through clenched teeth.
Violet tightens her grip around the flesh and bone of Isobel’s pelvis, feels the pounding pulse beneath her fingers.
And then it’s over.
The breeze is picking up outside, Violet can hear the wind in the fir trees by the garden gate. Perhaps the heat will break overnight. Perhaps not. Either way, she and Isobel are already drifting into sleep.
She shifts slightly, turning to pull Isobel in against her chest. When the maid comes in the morning, there will be linens to be washed, and baths to be drawn. But for now, she’s content to lay here, tempest-tossed, under the worn cotton coverlet, and be glad they’ve come this far, survived this long, to wash up on in this strange and terrible century, somehow together.
Everything else can wait.
“Sleep, my Olivia,” she whispers against Isobel’s hair, “There’s work to be done in the morning.”
“Some day,” Isobel murmurs sleepily, “You must tell me why ‘Olivia.’”
“Yes,” Violet agrees, “Perhaps I will.”