(c) Kate Aaron
Lord Shrivam woke early, pulled on a mauve dressing robe and made his way downstairs to the breakfast room. The servants brought him his two soft-boiled eggs, three slices of dry toast and a pot of tea, only breaking the silence when he bade them good morning. They agreed and left him with his copy of the ‘Times’ and the deafening sound of silence that closed down around him and suffocated.
Lady Shrivam woke late and took her breakfast in bed, rashers of bacon, toast with dripping and a fried egg with a copy of the latest romance. It wasn’t just his wife’s crass taste that offended him, but it was high on his list. She chattered nonsense to a maid he paid to listen to it, anything to stop her speaking to him. He hated the sound of her high, girlish voice even more than he hated the silence that accompanied him.
He finished breakfasting and met with his valet in his closet, a brief encounter, not that any of them were ever long enough, something to stave off the quiet and to empty his coffers a little faster. He let the threat of unemployment hang in the air afterwards, mocking him soundlessly. He wondered to himself where the gardener was, if he was going mad, if his wife suspected, knew, cared.
She took an age to dress, harrying her maid back and forth between wardrobe and bed, selecting and reselecting outfits that made little impression, and were never right even though he’d picked them for her himself. She had never felt passion like the kind of which she read. She had never even felt wanted. She wondered briefly where the gardener was, if her husband knew, if he cared.
He padded noiselessly around the house, his slippered feet softly grazing the carpet where they touched, pausing frequently to stare out of the windows, to watch the butler open lattices and clear plates. A deep laugh emanated from the bowels of the house, shocking the silence into defence. Were they mocking him, those quiet and all-seeing few who catered to his every need?
She tripped merrily down the stairs, jewels jingling, nails scraping the banister, skirts rustling. The noise made her feel better, reassured her. There was nothing so destructive as the silence that accompanied her husband. With every speechless encounter she felt herself drowning, sucked into the cold and menacing intent she imagined lurked behind his tightly pressed lips. Sometimes she longed to scream, just to get a reaction.
He met the gardener by the back door, encouraged him to detour into the stables. Wondered where the groom was. A horse nickered softly, a quiet, mocking noise that seemed to reverberate long after he had pulled up his trousers and left. Things were simpler when he was a boy, when all the borders did it. If a cow is deprived of salt it will lick it from the ground. Where are those boys now, what did they grow into? Had all their fathers tricked them into marriage too, with hollow promises that things would change, that they had done the same, but that they loved their wives? Did any of them ever love the women they were tied to?
She settled uneasily in the parlour room, picked unhappily at a tapestry that she had undone and restarted more times than she could count. It was supposed to be Cupid, but she couldn’t picture him, having never met him herself. She remembered her mother’s words, how she had promised that her husband would love her, that she would be happy. She said nothing of being married to a ghost. She remembered the girls she had grown up with, their shared dreams of a Heathcliff or a Darcy, and she wondered how many of them had actually got what they wanted. She pricked her finger with the needle and cried out, watched the fleck of blood stain the cherub’s bow. It seemed a bad omen and she threw the thing from her.
He settled uneasily on the edge of his chair at the dining table, smiled stiffly at her across its length, picked unhappily at a stain on his trouser leg. Seeing her made him feel dirty, guilty, like a failure. He couldn’t even have children with her. He wondered for the thousandth time that day if she suspected, if she cared. He had felt like this since the earliest days of their marriage, since he spent their wedding night with a waiter he tipped handsomely for his pleasure. There was no one in this world to love him, if he couldn’t love her.
She braced herself steadily against the back of her chair, awaiting the onslaught that he would hurl noiselessly at her. With every tight sip, pinched breath and bitter mouthful he would accuse her more. Her husband did not love her and she was sure that the world must know it. Servants talked, her friends and family talked, everyone in society must talk, but her husband never did. So much talking, except for where it mattered! She wished there was something to say, but there never was. She finished her meal in silence, afraid even to meet his eyes.
He passed the groom in the orchard but let him go, tired of paying for favours that were too dearly bought. All he wanted was someone to hold and kiss, but those things were priceless. Each time cost him dearer than the last, and he was heartsick with it. He climbed the stairs wearily, undressed in the dark and slid softly into bed beside her. Her back was turned. Left with no alternative, he pulled her gently to him in a tender embrace. She kept her back turned, but curled her arms around his. It wasn’t what either of them wanted – they had left it too late for that – but it was better than nothing, and that was all either of them could hope for.