Toby, with his wife Rose still grieving over a miscarriage, attends an aristocratic engagement party and faces up to a difficult truth; by John C Adams.
As Rose and I clambered out of our tiny beaten-up car she grasped my arm and whispered, "Toby, spending a night under this roof could be the answer to all our troubles. Look what happened to Radclyffe."
I shook my wife off and waved to our host and hostess. "I'm not discussing this with you now!" Rose began to sniffle. I rolled my eyes. "We'll talk about this when we get to our room. I'm not having a domestic in front of the relations." I grasped her arm and encouraged her up the stone steps to where Aunt Veneria and her beau were waiting by the main door. I loved my wife more than life itself but, since her late miscarriage last year, she had been overcome with grief and emotion whenever she suggested having another child. I wanted to be a father far more than I let on to Rose. The loss of the baby had hurt me deeply too. I had to be strong, to support her and to prevent our tumbling headlong into the abyss of despair. Radclyffe had conceived her baby after spending a night at Slimeport Manse but I was damned if I was going to let Rose undergo the same torture.
"My dear niece." Professor Tinia bowed to kiss Rose's hand.
"She's not your niece until after the wedding," I said. I pecked Aunt Veneria's cold cheek. Since her engagement she'd become much less feisty around young men but it was still best to be cautious. Women in their early fifties appeared to get a shot of what my father-in-law Lord Arthur referred to as 'the randy hormone'. When a man young enough to be their son showed an interest in them, however slight or imagined it was, it invariably let to trouble. It was a phenomenon I'd always called 'mad about the boy'. Aunt Veneria embodied that frailty more than any other woman I knew.
The four of us went into the great hall. Slimeport Manse was a gothic monstrosity of the kind that made my home, Whiteacre Hall, look admirably restrained. Aunt Veneria motioned to the ancient butler to take our coats and fetch the luggage in from the car. The two women linked arms like co-conspirators and wandered away deep in engagement and wedding talk.
Professor Tinia and I exchanged awkward glances. He was pale and lanky. His black hair was very greasy and his grey eyes harboured the sort of knowing look I'd seen plenty of times in malevolent eyes at my childhood home Blackacre. Last time we'd met he'd suggested I call him Gray, which was short for Graham. I wasn't going to. He was only four years older than me.
"I'm sorry about your wife's miscarriage. I understand it was very late in the pregnancy and she's had trouble putting it behind her?"
I murmured that it really wasn't something we wanted to talk about.
"I'd be happy to help."
I was on the verge of pointing out that a young wife grieving for the loss of a cherished baby doesn't require a charlatan psychiatrist so much as the passage of time. Rose turned back from her conversation with Aunt Veneria. "I'd love to talk to you about it, Gray."
I frowned and turned away from them both. Nothing would normally have induced Rose to discuss the loss of her baby with anyone but me.
Aunt Veneria looked even more disturbing than usual when she welcomed her guests that evening. The party was a black tie event so the women wore full-length evening gowns. She wore a shimmering silver dress so low cut that her immense cleavage was only just restrained. There was a slit up the side of the dress almost to the hip. As she bent over to greet a small child arriving with her parents I saw a hideous flash of silver suspenders and stockings. I felt myself scarred for life and at times wished myself blind, even if it meant putting out my own eyes with burning pokers from the fire, but that would've been of no use. There are some images one can never expunge from one's memory.
I'd imagined that most people we knew would boycott the affair but a ghoulish desire to see a fifty-five-year-old widow become formally engaged to a twenty-eight-year-old lad had brought anyone who could scrape an invitation to Slimeport Manse tonight. The guests of honour were the Earl of Darkwater and his countess. They brought all five of their unmarried daughters, and their sickly son, with them. Other county families rubbed shoulders with staff and patients from Tinia's work at Lancaster Asylum. It's a well-known fact that the English aristocracy are all bonkers so it wasn't always easy to tell the difference.
As the uniformed staff circled with silver trays of cocktails and the band played 'It Must Be Love' I asked Rose if she wanted to dance. She was wearing the white fluffy tulle evening dress she'd worn at her eighteenth birthday party. Even though Rose had barely noticed me back then, I counted that evening as the night I fell in love with her. Every lad in the county had felt the same but for some reason she'd finally married me.
I put my arm around Rose's waist and spun her into a waltz. My father-in-law Lord Arthur arrived with Rose's mother on his arm. Fenestra was Veneria's younger sister. She wore a straitjacket and a terrible pink hat with roses all over it. Arthur paraded her across the ballroom as if nothing whatsoever was amiss until they were both standing in front of Veneria and Tinia. Rose and I quietly left the dance floor and went over to them.
"My dear sister," Veneria said, with a glint in her eye. "So glad they let you out for the evening."
"I wouldn't have missed it," Fenestra said. She looked Tinia up and down. "You think now you can keep him satisfied but I tell you he'll be copulating with anything that moves, if he isn't already. I've heard all about you." She poked Tinia full in the chest with her elbow. "I hear you're to blame for Radclyffe's current condition. Better stay away from Blackacre. Her husband ain't at all pleased with you, my boy."
Rose took Fenestra's arm and drew her away. "Mother, why not come and say hallo to everyone?"
My father-in-law patted his jacket pocket. "Got my speech for the toast right here, Veneria. Can't wait."
Supper was at ten o'clock. The band took a break and everyone filed into the dining room to pick over the buffet. Afterwards, Arthur gathered everyone round and made sure that the champagne flutes were full. "Friends," he said, raising his glass. "I've known Veneria all my life. If things had been different I might've led her up the aisle instead of her sister, but I've no regrets that I joined my life to Fenestra's. She and I were destined to be together."
I tried to catch Rose's eye but she stared straight ahead. Her mother had spent most of the last twenty years in the Whiteacre asylum. I'd only met Fenestra once before but I knew precisely what she was capable of. Arthur might've been as eccentric as the rest of the Fanshawes but I'll say this for him: he understood that nobility was about being able to carry the thing off.
"And now, after crying a river over old Lord Slimy -"
"Please don't talk about dear Augustus like that, Arthur," Veneria said.
"- she's bravely decided to get hitched again. Of course the chance of shagging a boy half her age has enticed her into this folly. Never mind. Let's just pray this ill-conceived second marriage satisfies her as well as the first." Arthur lifted his glass. "The happy couple!"
Somehow my father-in-law had made an even more inconsiderate spectacle than the vulgar speech he'd delivered when I'd married Rose. I turned to my wife, intending to mutter that her father had surpassed himself tonight, but she was gone. Just a moment earlier she'd been standing at my elbow. I searched around the dining room. It was thronging with guests eating a last plate of dessert and enjoying the vintage champagne from the manse's cellars. I gazed around again. Aunt Veneria was berating my father-in-law for the way he'd just spoken about her late husband. She seemed oblivious that her fiancé was cringing at the overblown devotion she still felt for Augustus five years after his death. Arthur took her scathing comments in good spirit. He beamed at Veneria. Fenestra slunk over and murmured, "Dearest, just loosen me up a bit."
Arthur fiddled with the back of his wife's straitjacket. There was something in Fenestra's eye that I didn't like. I turned away. She would probably lunge at her sister again but that was Arthur's problem. I ran across the dining room and slipped along the corridor to the ballroom. Guests were beginning to filter back through there and the band was warming up again. The dancing would be beginning in a moment but I could see no sign of Rose or Tinia. I went looking for them in the oddest nooks and crannies. That was something Slimeport Manse had plenty of. Twenty minutes of skulking like a burglar later I heard whispers as I tiptoed past the doors of the conservatory.
The black lemons were the pride of Slimeport Manse. They required plenty of heat but not too much humidity. Over the course of hundreds of years they'd excreted poisonous chemicals into the earth in the conservatory beds and killed off everything else. The manse was left with two hundred thorny black bushes that every decade bore bitter fruit. I froze outside the open door and listened.
Rose was whispering, "Gray, no one need know. Come upstairs right now."
Tinia murmured something I didn't catch. His tone had that non-committal air. Rose was beautiful. No man alive could resist her when she brought out the charm but he was bravely doing his best to delay the inevitable. "Veneria would never speak to me again. She's paranoid about younger women."
"With reason!" Rose spluttered into a laugh. "I know what you did to Radclyffe under this roof. I don't care who gives me a child. Toby's such a trusting fool he'll never be able to tell the difference."
I shrank back. Now at last I knew what my wife really thought of me. Rose's voice came closer and I snuck behind a large potted plant. They passed by, Rose dragging Tinia with her. The stairs behind the green baize door led up to the first-floor guest bedrooms via the back passage. She was taking him up to our room.
I ran back to the ballroom and told my father-in-law what I'd heard.
"Oh, I don't think there's anything to worry about. I never saw a man so in love as Gray," Arthur replied breezily. I fumed at his nonchalance. He didn't care who fathered Rose's child, so long as it could be passed off as legitimate. I folded my arms and stared at him. He rolled his eyes. "Toby, my boy, when you see it's just a harmless little chat you'll feel like an utter cad for bursting in on them. When that happens my daughter will be entitled to a proper apology from you. I want you to remember that and do it without being asked. I don't want to be uncivil if you force me to insist."
I didn't bother to challenge Arthur. If I could prove that Rose had been unfaithful, I would divorce her. I couldn't forgive her for hoping to pass another man's child off as mine. I couldn't live for the rest of my life wondering when she'd cheat again. The years I'd spent watching her make other men fall in love with her purely for sport had just taken a darker turn.
I looked over at Veneria. She muttered that Gray might be a little wayward during the engagement but she was sure he'd make a faithful husband. Fenestra chuckled under her breath and said, "If you're right about this, Toby, I'll skin Gray alive. No way is that confidence trickster impregnating both my daughters. Rose has always been a randy little madam ever since puberty. Such a shame the Cure didn't help get it under control. Made a world of difference to me, I must say."
My father-in-law nodded in recollection. "Say what you like, Lox knew his business." He scratched his chin. "Shame he died, really. Never did get to the bottom of that mystery."
Nobody moved. I stormed away upstairs. I crept along the landing to the bedroom Rose and I were sharing. I paused with my hand on the doorknob. I felt the same momentary reluctance any husband feels when he is sure he's about to be confronted by proof of his wife's infidelity. Just for a moment it seemed better to cling to hope, then I hardened my heart and yanked the door open.
In a split second I registered that Tinia had his head buried between Rose's legs. She was moaning his name and grabbing the bedrail. Her long blonde hair was splayed across the pillow and over her shoulders. She lifted her abdomen and cried out as he ran his hands over her thighs and hips. The door banged against the wall and they both stopped and turned to face me.
"I can't believe you would do this to me," I said. My voice broke at the heartbreak.
"Oh, get over yourself! D'you see Brett crying over spilt milk?"
Brett had pledged to kill Tinia if he set foot on Blackacre soil. I personally felt he was only waiting until the baby was born to hunt Gray out and put an end to him for what he'd done to Radclyffe. Rose sat up and began to pull her dress back on. The meringue-like confection of the white tulle spread across the bed. She turned round and presented her back to me. "Zip me up, will you?"
"We're done here," I said, turning away. For the first time since we'd been innocent children playing together I looked at Rose and felt nothing.
I felt a dark shadow rise up behind me. It slipped past me through the doorway and onto the landing. It blocked the way. I stopped and eyed it warily. Gradually the shadow formed into a grey slimy octopus creature with dark narrow eyes and flailing tentacles. I backed away. Then I heard voices and footsteps coming up the stairs. The creature drained away into a crack in the floor. Rose and I were alone. She smoothed her white evening gloves up her pale arms and said, "He did it better than you, too."
"Yes, well, he's probably had more practice," I snapped.
Tinia came out of the next room along, Aunt Veneria's, just as the others joined us. He'd recovered his usual shape alarmingly quickly. "I was just helping Rose to relax. It's so important to her healing process, you know," he told his fiancée. He casually zipped up the back of Rose's dress.
I threw a punch that floored Tinia. As he grovelled at my feet, Aunt Veneria came to help him up. She cast a reproving glance in my direction. Whatever lies he spun to save face I knew she'd swallow them whole. As I turned away I caught a glimpse of the anger on Rose's face that, after five years of playing me for a fool, I had escaped her net at last.
Arthur ran after me, calling that I should at least stay and talk things over properly with Rose. I shook him off. All the guests had gathered at the foot of the great staircase to listen to Fenestra's lunatic attack on Gray. I pushed my way through the throng and out to my car.
As I drove away I realised that I was glad to know for sure that my wife had been prepared to cheat on me. I'd loved Rose but I didn't delude myself that I'd been man enough to satisfy her. I don't think, looking back on it now bearing in mind her subsequent disturbing behaviour, that one man ever could. I had left her before she could send me spiralling down into madness from jealousy at standing by whilst she cuckolded me over and over. That was some slight consolation. I prayed she'd leave me alone now but I doubted that she'd let me go that easily. Rose wasn't used to a man escaping from her clutches. For the first time I regretted admitting the truth about my feelings when, at Radclyffe and Brett's wedding, Lord Arthur Fanshawe, Fifteenth Baron Whiteacre, had asked if I'd ever thought of settling down myself.
When I'd packed my things I decided to head south. I'd been happy at Souls University. It was somewhere I could lose myself in the graduate throng and rebuild my life without Rose.