This week’s words were:
shoe polish :: face :: copper :: rotten :: high altitude
Somewhere in the cavernous drawing-room, a clock pinged. Clara didn’t react. I wondered if she’d even heard it. Her hands remained still, crossed on her lap like a negation. Or, I thought, like an ‘X marks the spot.’
Another hour missing. Another hour has passed without word.
My eyes got lost in the room. Dust motes floated in the sunbeams streaming in through the tall windows. Outside, far below us, the slow, sleepy river threaded its way to the sea. All human life was wrapped in its coils. Father had taken great pains to build our house at such a high altitude, so that we could keep watch on those below.
He said ‘keep watch’ as though he really believed he was their guardian. I knew better.
I drew my gaze back inside and watched the burnished reflections dancing around the face of the barometer on the wall, resplendent in brass (which looked more like copper, I’d always thought) and mother-of-pearl. It hung right in the path of the evening sun. Father was obsessed with weather and kept a barometer, it seemed, in every room; we had more weather- than time-tellers in this house.
In the depths of my heart, I blamed him. If it hadn’t been for his crazed obsession… My breath caught, and I realised I was trembling. I settled myself more firmly in my chair. I gripped my left hand with my right, running my finger over my bright wedding ring as a reminder to myself that I must keep still. I must be strong. My thoughts must not be allowed to run wild.
‘Do you think they will go rotten?’ asked Clara, suddenly. Her voice was like a scream in a dark room, and I jumped at the sound of it, shocked out of the privacy of my own thoughts. Clara had not spoken for some days now, but I had not been permitted to call for Dr. Wesley. ‘An unseemly business,’ I was told, when I inquired. ‘No doctors here. Not now.’
I gathered my wits enough to reply. I trained my eyes upon her, but her own focus was lost somewhere in the view outside the window.
‘I beg your pardon, Clara?’
‘Rotten,’ she repeated. ‘Do you think they’ll go rotten? In the cold. Perhaps they’ll freeze instead, and be preserved.’ She turned her head and flicked her gaze towards me. I felt the weight of her stare like a naked blade.
‘I… I’m sure I don’t know what you mean…’ I began, even though I did. I knew very well. I gripped my left hand again, and my ring, so new and still uncomfortable, burst out against the bones of my fingers.
‘Do not insult me! Do not!’ I felt her words, issued through her gritted teeth, like the gentle brush of a stinging nettle against my skin. Her eyes were wide. Her hair was beginning to slip loose on one side. She leaned forward on the arm of her chair, rising slightly from her seat. She reminded me of a hunted fox.
‘But, my dear, we do not know if they have been lost!’ I tried to say. I could not fully form the word ‘lost’, because I could not bear it.
‘It has been three months, Elizabeth. Three months, with no word. They are at the Pole, I know; it is difficult to get a message through. That I also know. But three months is too long.’ Her chest heaved with her heavy breaths, and she flopped gracelessly back into her chair again. ‘It is too long. They are gone.’
A delicate, chiming melody began as the clock reached the hour. I was overcome with the memory of my brother as a child singing a lilting tune, based on these same notes. My brother, now a man, a married man, a father to Clara’s daughter. Then, my mind strayed to the face of my own husband, his best friend, his companion in all things.
Including, it would seem, in death.
‘Do you remember their jokes as Neville packed their valises, Elizabeth,’ said Clara, almost laughing. ‘Do you recall their insistence on bringing cufflinks and shaving mirrors and shoe polish – to the Pole! – as though they were going to see His Majesty! As though they had anything to brush up for!’ She shook her head, her face sinking into her hands. ‘As though they would be dressing for dinner while they searched for your father’s ridiculous essence…’ The rest of her words were lost in a fit of sobbing. I leapt from my chair and crossed the floor that lay between us in three quick steps, despite my belly.
‘Do not give up hope, my dear,’ I whispered into her ear. Her body shook with grief. ‘All is not lost. Not yet.’ I gathered her into an embrace, and she wept in the hollow of my neck like a child against her mother’s bosom.
It was at just that point that the bell jangled in the hallway.
Through the drawing-room door, I watched as Father pushed a serving girl out of his way, racing to answer the summons in person. Clara sat up, her hair askew and her face puffy, her breath coming in hiccups. Father’s voice, speaking to our caller, was low and private and official. He used that particular tone, the respectful, deferential one he customarily used when speaking with the Minister Optimal himself. I did not know if that was a good sign, or a bad one.
Clara held her breath. I held mine.
When Father appeared in the doorway and faced us, his eyes told me all I needed to know.