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darkness makes any woman fair

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It always rains in London in March. This is a lesson Florence has never learnt, despite many repeat performances. It is 1919, and Florence’s skirt is wet. It is 1913, and her soldier who is not yet a soldier smooths her hair, says, “You are so very clever, Flo.” It is 1921, and her cheek is stinging in the street, furniture arrayed about her like stars. It is 1911, and 1917, and 1920. There’s water running down the pavement in rivulets, and her jacket (a man’s, of course) is heavy and sodden. It is 1912, and 1915, and 1918. The ink in her notebook(s) is running, and her hair is hanging around her face in braids that water’s made. It’s--

--it’s 1922, and everything is different.

Robert writes her letters of astonishing learnedness, and even more astonishing raw feeling, running under his copperplate handwriting, simmering in the green ink he always uses, smearing beneath the page like sand. She cannot quite call them love letters; she can never quite call them anything else.

Intret amicitiae nomine tectus amor, opens the first one, Let love steal in disguised as friendship.

They both know the context; knows it speaks of seduction. Robert does not speak of seduction, because Robert does not need to. Florence seduced him. Florence, he writes, seduces him still.

Every day, my darling, he writes, every day I am not with you, and every day I am.

She keeps them locked in a drawer in her desk. Sometimes she holds them to her nose, thinks of emerald ink on firm fingers, smiles.

It’s not that she doesn’t remember it all; she does. It’s that there are other things to remember, seances where things flickered just outside the line of her sight, where she heard giggling in the dark and a boy, not yet ten, whispering her name. She did not know it was Tom, she is not certain that she knows it now. There was giggling in the dark, but sometimes that hair flashed blond, not brown, and sometimes it was a girl’s petticoats of thirty years ago, fluttering around the nearest corner. Sometimes there was fire, and smoke, and faces that were never bloody, always bled. She wrote the book, you see, she knows what it means to say that now is a time for ghosts.

“Some of the boys still remember you,” says Robert, as she perches next to him on his tiny bed in his tiny room in a boarding school (house) no longer haunted.

“I should imagine so,” says Florence, and, as Robert huffs out a laugh that is only a little self-deprecating, she takes his hand and presses her thumb into his wrist.

“I am glad that they are no longer afraid,” she says, “but there is only one man here who I wish to think of me at night. Do you think of me at night, Malory?”

Robert blushes, and Florence leans into his neck, whispers, “That, Malory, was the correct answer.”

She dreams of the house; she didn’t before. It’s strange, to miss something you never truly loved, but stranger still to love someone you almost never knew at all. (Tom.) She dreams of the house, but not of what you’d expect. Her father’s hands never hold a shotgun, her mother does not bleed out on the floor. Sometimes she chases Tom, sometimes Tom is chasing her. Every so often, they run into the drawing room, and Robert nods at her, looking up from his tea, The Times spread out on the table before him. There is usually a body at his feet, but Florence has never felt sorry. (She is not a thing to be possessed. Even Tom knew better than that.) Her dress blurs and changes, as does everything else. Sometimes she is twelve, and sometimes she is fully grown. Tom’s hand is always cold, and her laugh is always bursting out of her chest like sunlight. She is never sorry.

“I am going to write a new book,” she tells her publisher, and prepares herself for battle. It is hard to be a woman in the sciences - education turns women’s heads! - and it is hard to be a woman contradicting them, too - women simply cannot be rational! - but Florence has spent her whole life fighting battles. She will not lie down and die. (And--) She will not, in fact, lie down at all.

“Marry me,” she says to Robert, on a July day in Cambridge. They sit on the grass beneath the turrets of Girton, careless about grass stains and sunburn and the lazy bees that float by, and he flushes so deep she fears he might have lost the ability to speak.

“Traditionally, I b-believe--” he says, and she cuts him off with a kiss. It is 1923, and his stammer is almost eradicated. (They both know why it is there. She would love it even if it stayed forever, and he will be ashamed of it even once it is gone. So it goes.)

“Traditionally?” says Florence, and throws back her head and laughs. “How many times have you taken me to bed, Robert?”

“I wish you would not raise your voice quite so loud,” says Robert, flushing, impossibly, deeper, and she smiles at him, fond, says, “There is nothing traditional about us, my love. Let us not pretend so, now.”

“Yes,” says Robert, so quietly it is almost a whisper, and Florence kisses him until her lips burn. They sit in the shadow of the red brick of her alma mater until the sun goes down, and his hand rests in the curve of her back, warm and only shaking a little.

She has been back to the house precisely five hundred and thirty one times by 1924. (Weekends in London, without Robert, are intolerable, and trains are so very fast these days.) She has sat with her feet in the lake, and made herself contemplate what would have happened if she had succeeded in drowning herself in it. (Tom would never have been lonely, she supposes.) She is proper - for a given level of ‘proper’ - at dinners with the headmaster, who still believes her a demented bluestocking who shall one day kill them all. She sleeps in the crook of Robert’s neck, huddled in his tiny bed, as she did even in their unmarried days - no one dared to confront them - and wears men’s suits, tailored to her exactly, as she walks barefoot across the grass before the house. The boys love her, for they can do naught else. So does Robert, so much so that his eyes, if she is in a room, can look on nothing else. She, too, can look at Robert and only Robert, because now there is nothing just outside the corner of her eye. If this is not happiness, she does not know what is.

“You know the city so well,” says Robert, admiringly, in 1925. Florence had considered keeping secrets from him, and then dismissed it without a second thought. Robert knows her, and loves her, and knows and loves her all the more for knowing that there is the corner where she spoke to Mary Ann Nichols, here a matchstick girl tugged on her sleeve, there a Tommy who never saw the bullet that hit him asked her where to find his sweetheart. Once she was blind to it, and deaf, besides, but now she is neither. It bleeds through the bricks, the voices that had forever spoke her name in earnest, and she is not afraid.A life haunted is a life not worth living, she said, once. Now she knows that she simply meant a life afraid.

“As well as I know you,” says Florence, and takes his hand, leads him across the road, around the cars that honk their horns, through the stagecoaches only she can see, and all he does is look at her, and look at her, and smile.

Their first time was the exception, not the rule. Robert leaves his leg alone, in time, and in even more time permits her to kiss it, to run worshipping hands over the scar tissue, never with anything but love on her face. Almost always, Florence rides him, his hands digging into her hips, her hair long and loose and brushing his shoulders. He had never even kissed a woman before her, although she had not known that at the time. He went from Oxford to the trenches, halfway to becoming a don and suddenly a lonely father with twenty boys not yet twenty under his care. (All but one of them died. Some nightmares never truly stop.) He came back not broken, but different, not empty, but scarred. We both have scars, she whispers to him in the night, and he shakes beneath her, his eyes shut tight in the dark, and breathes adoration against her neck, drunk on the sound of her laughter and her weight on his chest and his hands tangled in her dark, dark hair.

“You can still see me?” says Tom, startled, and Florence smiles.

“Sometimes,” she says, “but you’re very faint.”

“Oh,” says Tom, and she smiles again. She sees him rarely, gets up and wanders around the house when Robert is sleeping, and he is sleeping, much better than ever these days. She runs her hands over the gilt-edges of picture-frames, sits and taps her feet on the stairs. She huddles in the bolt-hole her little brother died in, and she brushes out her hair with a silver-backed comb, perched on a windowsill and watching a still lake that never ripples.

“Come and watch the stars with me,” says Florence, and takes his hand. (It is always cold.) Sometimes she does this and isn’t sure he’s really there, half-way sure it’s her wishful thinking. But she’ll see him again one day, and she isn’t afraid. She isn’t afraid, and Robert loves her, and she him, and she lies under the stars, beneath a house that’s always loved her, and can’t even remember what it was, to ever feel fear.

A life haunted isn’t a life at all. We all learn our lessons, given enough time.