Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Pinwheel 5: Bertram Saves A Life

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July 31st, 1928

Lower East Side, New York.

Bert is prepared this time. He is wearing the closest approximation he could make for the peasant clothing of the time: long shirt, old pants, boots, flat cap inherited from his English great-uncle. He feels a little odd wearing two belts, but he deems it necessary: the first, over his shirt, makes him look more authentic, and contains an empty pouch and a small knife which he hopes he will not have to use; the other, under the shirt, hides his revolver – only for extreme emergencies. To truly blend in, he thinks, he should have a beard, but he isn’t willing to go that far for what will be only a short, experimental trip.

The date he has decided on is July 31st, the year 1600. Easy to remember. The place is a small village in the south of England, so tiny that hopefully no-one will believe the locals if anything does happen to go awry. He will go there, look around and revel in being the first man to see history as it was. Then he will return – and without the stink in his soul that came home with him after 1944. The past is known. Predictable. He will not take the risk of the future again.

He takes a breath, closes his eyes, and squeezes the necklace in his palm. Part of him still wonders if 1944 was a fluke, a dream, a hallucination. The second time is what makes it sure.

White space consumes him and he flies.

When the world comes to and ground is under his boots, he blinks and sees sunshine, and trees. The smell of dry summer grass, half-hidden under manure and sweat. He hears hooves in the distance. The lone strain of a lost folk song belts out over the air.

A smile breaks across his face.

When he steps out of the trees, he finds he is beside near to the entrance of the village. He chose this place at random from an old map, and he is glad to see that it is perfect. Low stone buildings, thatched roofs, pigs and dogs and horses – yes, perfect. And the people! Not many of them, but they wear tunics and aprons and Robin-Hood caps, and they talk to each other in gutter Shakespearean tongue. They sound nothing like the English people he has met, and that makes his smile even bigger. He could go back and correct all the historians – he could go back and correct everyone who has ever conjectured about this time – he could –

A middle aged woman and red-faced man stop their conversation to turn and squint at him. The cold glare of their suspicion is like an ice bath.

Bert tips his cap at them, and continues to walk, ambling with purpose, as if he has a right to be there. Maybe this place is slightly too small for this kind of expedition. Somewhere bigger might afford more opportunity for blending in. But he so wanted to see this kind of old-world farm existence for himself…

Or maybe he is too obviously outsider, with his half-made costume, short hair and shaven chin. A troop of children goggle at his passing. Everyone is looking, even if only for a glance. Muttering. I shouldn’t stay long, he thinks. A few more minutes, and I’ll go back to the trees, and New York. Finding out information to shame other scholars can wait for another time. This was only meant to be an experiment, after all. And besides, he thinks, as he looks again at the picaresque before him – it’s not as if those scholars would believe him.

The bitterness of 1944 threatens to sweep him away again. But before his mind turns the ground beneath him into bloodied sand, he hears a shout.

The people nearby perk up like dogs at dinnertime. A boy runs round the nearest house and cries:

‘They’re bringing her out!’

Everyone stops what they’re doing and take after him, round the corner. Bertram can’t help but follow, wondering what renaissance wonder he’s about to see.

Round the corner and past two more houses is the village square. A fair crowd has gathered there already, and he can see over the top of nearly everyone’s head. He didn’t think he was that tall, but that doesn’t matter – what does matter is that the people pass him and look him up and down, like he’s a giant. He remains still and wears a mask of calm, ignoring their shoves and insults.

Over the heads, in the centre of the square, he sees a gibbet.

An execution. No matter, he tells the squirm in his heart. This was normal back then. He has never seen a person die, and the same morbid curiosity that makes him stare at bar fights refuses to let him turn away. That would only attract more attention, he reasons.

A moment later, no-one thinks of paying attention to him. Hush. A door opens, and a roar rises from the people like an aural tsunami. Two men come out of the house, jostling the person between them. A person much smaller than they. A pale spot in a sea of rustic browns.

Bert pushes forward without realising.

The jailers barge through the crowd, and the hissing and yelling grows. Bertram swims through the people, keeping his eyes on the criminal, unwilling to stop until he sees exactly what they are. A clod of dung splats on the prisoners face, the gaolers curse, and the prisoner turns their head away – eyes scrunched – and gasps.

The gasp is high. It is a woman. Bertram could hardly tell, because her head has been shaved as bald as an egg. Even her eyebrows have been shaved. She’s wearing nothing but a greying smock, arms bare with bruises blue. As she wipes the shit off her face, Bert sees that her fingers are bleeding. Most of her fingernails have been ripped out.

The crowd’s howls morph into words: Witch, witch, witch!

He needs to leave, he knows it. Curiosity be damned, he will not watch this. He steps back, ignoring the anger of those around him.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, the crowd will not move quick enough, and he is like a post stuck in a marsh. On the first step to the scaffold, the prisoner glances up and sees him.

Black circled, red eyes, it doesn’t matter – she sees him, all of him, as if he is made of glass. He is naked. He is exposed. He feels he has been outed, yet no-one has eyes for him, but the condemned witch.

A new panic overcomes her, a frenzy of hope. She struggles for the first time, and reaches out a hand directly to him.

‘Help me!’ she screams, as they push her further up the step. ‘Help me!’

I can’t! he wants to yell back. You idiot, if you know, then you must know – but how can you–?

Her eyes are praying to him. She is on the platform. The lowing of the crowd intensifies.

Help me!’ she screams again.

His secrecy means nothing to her, when she is about to die.

I can’t, he thinks, history – paradoxes – I can’t –

The executioner readies the noose. The hope fades in her eyes, as she sees he is unmoving.

‘Please,’ she mouths – or speaks, it is too noisy to tell.

They start to read her crimes. She turns away from Bert, and her face creases up. One soundless sob, and she begins to cry. The crowd are calling for her head.

Damn it all.

God damn, damn it all.

He reaches for his second belt.

He throws everyone out his way and ploughs a straight path to the gibbet. Eight feet from the scaffold, the reader of crimes pauses. An official walks up to him, hand on his sword, snarling.

Bert points his pistol to the air, and fires.

The crack peals through the crowd and people scream and dive out the way. The official quails, and Bert fires again, before pushing the man out the way. He jumps onto the stage, and fires once more into the air before pointing it at the executioner. The jailers are yelling insults, calling him a demon and devil, but he can’t decipher well with the ringing in his ears. It’s not important. What’s important is that he has his other hand in his pocket, fingers hooked round the chain of his necklace, and he’s not sure if this will work or not but dammit he has to try.

Still pointing his gun, he takes out the necklace, and presses it against the woman’s arm as he grabs hold of her, medallion sandwiched between his palm and her scrawny flesh. July 31st, 1928, home, New York. Again: July 31st, 1928 –

White rush. The screams fade fast.

He is still holding onto her arm.

His legs wobble as they smack onto his floorboards. Back in his apartment. The clock says 8pm. He has been gone an hour. He exhales, and turns.

The girl came with him.

She snatches herself out of his grip, and backs away, terrified. When her back hits his armoire, she flinches, and sinks to the floor, curling into herself. Her eyes rove over his bed, his books, his desk. His maps, his whisky bottle, the cinema poster on the wall. She doesn’t seem to be breathing enough for the amount her chest is heaving, heart beat visible under her flimsy gown.

The witch turns her eyes to him.

Again, he is transparent before her, and she understands everything of where, and what.

Panting, she puts her head on her knees, and trembles.

Bert sits on his bed and waits. His own calmness surprises him. He has done what should not be done – he has changed history, even if it is only a tiny part. There must be ripples of that change now, somewhere, perhaps making drastic changes out of sight. Who knows what he has created and destroyed with that one act?

But, looking at her now, he doesn’t care. He knows he could not have done anything else.

She is still shivering. He takes the coverlet off of his bed and – gently as he can – drapes it around her. She shudders as the cloth hits her, then clutches on to its edges.

Her fingers are still crusted with old blood. He can’t stand the sight of them.

A minute later, he sits in front of her with a damp cloth, bowl of water and antiseptic, and bandages. She flinches when he takes her hand – and again, when the cloth is pressed against her wounds. A high-pitched noise escapes her. She doesn’t relax as he washes and wraps the tips of her fingers. Her head remains on her knees the whole time.

He returns to his bed.

He waits.

She stops trembling. She loosens her grip on the coverlet. She taps the bandaged fingertips against each other, as if checking they are there.

Eventually, she looks up at him. This time, nothing pierces him. A normal look. With her large nose, bald head and battered skeletal frame, she looks like a goblin. It is harder to look at her bloodshot eyes and browless face without the interference of magic

Magic?

He shouldn’t laugh. After all, time travel isn’t possible either.

The girl’s breathing has settled now. In her eyes, he no longer sees fear or despair – instead, she exudes a cool determination, for more collected than he would be in her situation.

‘I thank ye,’ she says. ‘Ye’ve saved me life.’

Her accent is so thick he can barely understand her.

‘You asked me to,’ is the only reply he can think of.

She turns her gaze back to the floor.

‘I’m in America,’ she says. ‘Year of our lord nineteen twenty-eight. Is that true?’

‘How do you know that?’ he asks. ‘And how did you know I wasn’t from your time?’

Her brows pinch together and eyelids flutter.

‘I’m a witch,’ she whispers.

‘There’s no such thing. Witches are meant to commune with the devil, make potions and curses. They don’t exist. That’s not what you are.’

‘I am,’ she says, a crack in her voice. ‘Please. I am.’

Bertram sighs. He has heard of the “interrogation” of witches before. Torture will make anyone agree to anything, anyone believe anything. There’s a fleeting temptation to go back to 1600 and beat the men bloody with his fists.

‘I can take you back to a different place,’ he says. ‘A different town in your time. You could start again.’

‘No,’ she says. ‘I’ll never go back. I’ve no family. Nothing. They’d find me a witch again ere long.’

She turns to him. Resolution makes her look larger, near imposing. The coverlet is her royal cape.

‘I owe you me life. If’t please ye, I’ll stay and help ye. Me powers can help ye much…if ye let me.’

He wants to take care of her. God knows, he cannot dump her with nothing in an age she doesn’t know. But he can barely support himself as it is, and…

The necklace in his pocket presses against his leg.

No. He can do this. He can do anything, when he has this.

‘What is your name?’

‘Alice.’

‘Alice,’ he says. ‘I’m Bertram. And you can stay here as long as you want.’

Happiness wells in her eyes – she does not smile, but her emotion is unmistakeable.

‘Thank ye, Mister Bertram.’

That night, she lies in his bed, in his shirt, while he dozes in his armchair, using his coat as a makeshift blanket. Alice opens her eyes and looks at his drooping mouth, his messy hair, his gaunt cheeks. One arm lies free of the coat, sleeve rolled past the elbow. Goosepimples dot the skin of his forearm.

With a little concentration, the coat shifts, and moves, and covers his bare arm.

She feels a little happier. Turning her back to him, she goes to sleep.

~~~

August 18th, 1928

Fort Greene, New York.

His third trip, on the first day of August, is not a disaster. Quick, at night, not seeing or talking to anyone. He takes a cigar-case from a Georgian house in the Civil War years, and sells it to a collector from Rhode Island. It gives him enough to buy Alice a wig and second-hand dress. The sale gives him relief so strong it feels solid, like steel plate around his shoulders. Astounding. It is the realisation that he will never need to go hungry or cold again.

The second through fifth trips yield coat buttons, china ornaments, Napoleonic handguns. He is a cat burglar of the past, appearing in the night and taking only what will be assumed lost. Different collectors, different auctions. Driving up the price beyond his wildest imaginings. A sheet of sketches by Degas – gold. A monogrammed handkerchief from Marie Antoinette – risky to get, but it puts the bidders in a frenzy. When he takes the cheque, his knees go weak.

After the sixth trip, he buys himself a new house, where Alice has her own room and he doesn’t need to sleep in his chair every night. After the eight trip, he no longer needs to work for the university. He tells his professors that he has inherited a large sum from a long-lost aunt. They say they envy him. If he was anyone else, he would envy himself. His good fortune shocks him.

His new home smells of recent paint when they walk in. Alice walks behind him, staring around her like a new babe. She has worn an expression of perpetual wonderment since her first morning in New York.

‘It is so large,’ she says. ‘The colours – the high ceiling – it is all glorious!’

The removal men glance at her – her accent, her wig, her half-grown eyebrows – but know better than to say anything. Honestly, Bert delights in her childlike joy. He has to work hard to stop himself from smiling, when he sees her like this.

As soon as the men are gone, Bert looks for the smallest box in the pile: white, flat. He hands it to her.

‘This is for you,’ he says. ‘A house-warming present.’

‘But I have none for ye,’ she says.

‘It doesn’t matter. Open it.’

Inside the box is a pale green dress made of silk. Alice gasps as she runs her hand over the material. Her missing fingernails are no longer as noticeable as they once were.

‘It feels of water made solid,’ she says.

‘You like it?’

‘Very much,’ she says.

He is disappointed when she doesn’t smile. Instead, she turns to him and her sight flashes through him. Bertram is becoming more used to the feeling.

‘Ye’re rich. But it is cause ye’re a thief.’

‘I am,’ he says, folding his arms.. ‘Do you dislike that?’

‘I do. ‘Tis sinful.’

Sin is meaningless to him, and he’d have thought a professed witch would think the same. His hackles are rising.

‘I don’t deprive anyone of anything. What’s worthless in the past is more valuable, and gives more happiness, here.’

‘I know. Still, I dislike it. I’d rather you stop.’

‘I don’t like the way you talk, but I don’t tell you to stop it.’

She frowns.

‘It’s you talks strange, to me.’

‘I speak normally. You’re in this time now. If you’re going to stay, you’re gonna have to learn to talk like me.’

She looks like a schoolmarm when she frowns like that. She closes the lid on the dress and drops it down onto the pile of boxes. Silence. A standoff.

His conscience chirrups. He tries to gulp down his natural spite.

A sigh escapes from him.

‘Listen,’ he says. ‘I’ll use the money I have to make a legitimate business. I’ll stop stealing, if that’s what you want, but only after I have some other income. But I want you to take elocution lessons in return.’

‘Electrocution?’ she says, alarmed. Bertram taught her what electricity was on Wednesday, and she has been mildly terrified of it ever since.

‘No, lessons on how to talk properly, how to act properly. You have to learn how to be a real 1920s girl, understand?’

‘I am not,’ she says.

‘I know, but we have to pretend. Do you think people would accept the truth that you’re an Elizabethan witch?’

Alice has no reply.

‘People don’t believe in time-travel, or magic – whatever it is that you do. We’re going to have to lie, and lie a lot, just to survive. Understand?’

‘I’ve always lied to live,’ she says softly.

Standing like that, staring at the box before her, arms dangling by her sides – she looks so lost and lonely that he instantly forgives her for annoying him. He has to resist the urge to take her in his arms that second.

‘Listen, Alice,’ he says. When she looks at him, his words fail. Instead, he gestures vaguely to the boxes.

‘I bought a bunch of new books. Want to read one with me?’

There. There is the light in her eyes, and a second later, the smile on her lips.

‘Yes, please!’

‘Which do you want? I got lots of history –’

‘No, tell me more of the world,’ she says. ‘The other countries, in Asia and south of India – that’s what I want to know today.’

They sit on the new couch together, and she leans over him, looking at the pages and pointing and interrupting. She is learning to read very quickly. Her brain sucks up information like a vacuum cleaner. Her questions are incessant, and demand more than he knows and can explain, but her amazement at the answers, and at all the little things he takes for granted – oranges and polyester and plumbing – light a warmth in his heart that stays with him.

After dinner, she disappears into her room, and returns wearing the dress. Her clavicles jut out on either side of its straps, and her first through third sets of ribs are clearly distinguished. Around the neckline are multiple small red marks. Pinpricks. She is still covered in bruises.

‘You look good,’ he says.

She twirls, and runs her hand all over the fabric of the skirt. When she looks up, she beams, and his lie retroactively becomes truth.

‘I love this,’ she says. ‘Thank you.’

She says “you”, forcefully changing her vowel to approximate his. The warmth he feels towards her strengthens, glowing in his chest.

‘It was nothing,’ he says. ‘And I will stop stealing. I promise.’

‘I will hold you to your word.’

He vows to keep it. Anything for her wonder, anything for her happiness.

~~~

Midwinter, 1592

Bitton, England.

Mary Bunyan hums a hymn as she leafs through her grimoire. Alice doesn’t recognise the melody, since she rarely goes to church – a habit which her grandmother is dearly trying to change. Alice prefers walking in the woods to hearing rants concerning her inherent sin and the weakness of her sex. She would much prefer to be there now, out in the bitter wind and frozen mud, instead of here with her cousin Judith, who eyes the jars of herbs on the shelf with a greedy blush.

‘Ah yep, here it be,’ Mary says, running her finger along a line of symbols and letters. ‘This spell should help ye considerably.’

She draws a picture of a flower in an intricate diamond shape on a scrap of parchment, and sprinkles some rosewater from the vial on her desk. Alice gazes into her, asking her sight to tell her more. She has been struggling to get her power better under control, but it is a long and lonely task, asking a stubborn nothingness to do your bidding. Now, as often is the case, it is silent.

Mary waves her hands over the completed drawing, saying nonsense words in a rhythmical fashion. A crescendo, a clap of hands, and it is done. She rolls the parchment up tight, and hands it to Judith.

‘Put that there in yer locket, and wear it round ye at all times. As long as it’s near, he willna stray again.’

Now the sight speaks up: Mary truly believes what she says, but her spell – all her spells – are useless. Alice agrees that this one can’t work – her sight told her two months ago that Bobby was melling Prim Stanfield because he is bored with Judith and Prim is prettier – but for all the spells to be useless? Surely that can’t be? What does that make Alice, then?

‘Oh thank ye, thank ye, Mary,’ Judith says, and takes out her purse. Instead of opening it, she hands the bag over the table. There’s near a whole crown in there – everything Judith has saved for half a year.

‘Ye can’t give her so much for only parchment!’ Alice cries.

Mary sniffs as she takes the purse.

‘I charge what’s right for the good I do. Like when Peter Bridges was at death’s door, was me who brought him back.’

‘He was never at death’s door, and was only the mint in the mix that cooled his heart.’

‘Hush, girl,’ Judith says. ‘As if tha knows owt on it!’

Mary narrows her eyes.

‘How’d ye know there was mint in it? Not a soul saw me make it up.’

Alice looks down and says nothing. She’d been to see Peter Bridges soon after, and held his arm while the doctor patched up the bloodletting. It had been obvious to her upon touch: a cooling mix around a burning chest. Indigestion so severe it felt like his heart was dying. She had wanted to laugh, truthfully.

‘Ey, she’s a snooper, this one,’ Judith says, giving her a light whack across the back of the head. ‘Always knows more’n she should, and makes tales for the rest. Month past, she told me Simon Grey was barren, not his wife, and that’s why they’d no luck with children. A man barren, y’ever hear of that? Not to say she’s with child now.’

‘Was my potion did that,’ Mary says, with a pointed look at Alice.

‘Was not,’ Alice mutters. Was Bill Ponsonby did it, but she knows better than to tell anyone that.

‘Come, let’s be off,’ Judith says, tugging Alice around. Alice refuses to move, wriggling her shoulders away. Mary’s smug look inflames her.

‘It’s thievery,’ Alice says. ‘Taking honest money for useless charms.’

‘Cunning work is God’s work, little girl,’ Mary says.

‘No. It’s robbery,’ Alice says. ‘And God’ll see ye reap what ye sow. I know it.’

Judith half-lifts her away. Mary’s face has become purple. She swears revenge in her look, but Alice knows she wouldn’t dare push anything – not while Alice’s grandfather holds the town gavel in his hands.

”Struth, Alice,’ Judith says, once they are outdoors and the wind hits them like knives. ‘Ye never learn when to keep peace. What’s yer granny always said, ’bout mouthing away like that?’

Alice feels adamant that her grandmother would be on her side for calling out a fraudster like Mary. But that night, when she sits by the fire, her grandmother gives her her Sad Eyes again. Whenever Alice says or does something thoughtless, the Sad Eyes come out.

‘My Alice,’ Granny says, ‘Judith told me what ye telt Mary Bunyan. Ye can’t go saying things like ‘at.’

Alice protests, but Granny merely nods in response.

‘Girl,’ she says, once Alice has finished her explanation. ‘If ye dinna go to kirk, and ye know things ye shouldna, what’ll folk say?’

Alice opens her mouth but does not voice it. Granny nods in reply.

‘I heard it more’n once already, girl. If not for me, and your granda’s status, and the love folk had for yer mother and father – if not for us, you’d be hung already, lass. They can’t abide witch-like talk.’

Alice gets off her chair and sits by Granny’s feet, resting her head against her knee.

‘I can’t help seeing what I see. And Mary took all of Judith’s money for nothing – it’s not right.’

‘No, girl, but so’s life. Look to yerself, first of all. Protect yer own neck above all else. Church. Praying. Not so canny, not so mouthy. Lie if needs be. Never let em on that you see what you do.’

Alice rubs her temple against Granny’s kneecap. Granny had the sight once, she’d said. That’s how she knew about these things. She had to keep it quiet all her life. And then…

‘Ye dinna see any more,’ she says.

‘No,’ Granny says.

‘Why?’

Granny strokes Alice’s long blonde hair. Her hands are strong, pushing Alice’s temple further against her bones.

‘What ye have is a gift, child,’ she says, softly. ‘Gifted by God. But, in turn, ye can gift it on.’

Alice attempts to turn her face up but cannot move for Granny’s pressure.

‘I can give it away?’

Granny’s hand stops stroking, still tense, still a heavy weight on Alice’s head.

‘Before yer granda, I had a man,’ she says. ‘The day he asked me to be his wife, I gave him my greatest treasure. Two month later, came plague. He said he could see it running over his own body, killing off his insides.’

Alice feels a shuddering tingle as she imagines it.

Her granny’s voice remains calm. Purposefully, intently calm.

‘Ye have a gift, Alice. Ye’ve more than one. If ye ever find someone worth giving your treasure to, then do it with all yer heart and dinna reconsider. But til that one comes, who can take what ye are without thought, one who’ll never think to judge ye…’

Granny swallows audibly. The flames burn bright, casting black demons onto the walls.

‘…keep yerself breathing, child.’

~~~

October 31st, 1928

The Club, New York

The workmen are packing up when Alice arrives. She comes in through the back door, because she has trouble enough walking in her heels, and doesn’t want to risk the long front stairs just yet.

Bertram looks at her and smiles. The longer her hair grows, the healthier she looks, the more he smiles. He offers her his arm – she takes it, grateful for the support – and gestures at the room around him.

‘Isn’t it swell?’ he says. ‘Once the tables and chairs are ready, all we have to do is stock the bar and staff it. Should be ready in less than a month. Now it only needs a name.’

Alice looks at the wood-panelled walls, the shining bar top, the heavy stage curtains. Names come a blank. She doesn’t know what these kinds of clubs should be called; she’s only used to public houses, after all. The need to keep the alcohol a secret mystifies her, and is one of the more infuriating aspects of the future, but she doesn’t mind Bert breaking a law so long as that law is new and stupid.

‘I was thinking “spokewheel”,’ Bert says, tapping the pocket where his necklace lies, ‘because that’s what brought us here, but it doesn’t ring right. “Dharma” or anything else like that sounds too Eastern. I don’t know – I need to think more.’

The last workman shuts the door, and they are left alone. Alice hears the wind howling outside, and half expects to hear a town crier along with it, ringing his bell and calling for people to remember the souls of the dead on this unholy day. Should they call a priest to bless the club, and protect it from witches like her? She had never much liked All Hallow’s Eve, even before people started whispering that she should be hanged.

This year, in a new country and a new time, she has only seen Jack-O-Lanterns on doorsteps, and children dressed in home-made costumes, giggling along the streets. No-one thinks of witches in the future. Few people talk of souls.

‘How was your lesson?’ Bertram asks.

‘I think it went well,’ she says, carefully – she always speaks carefully nowadays, thanks to these lessons. ‘Though Mrs Braun seems often frustrated with me. Once, she called me something I did not understand.’

‘What was that?’

‘She called me a “dumb mick.”’

Bertram’s arm tenses under her fingers. He turns to her. She sees a storm gathering in him, as if something awful has happened that he needs to avenge.

‘She called you what?’

Alice tries to explain. His anger worries her.

‘She was teaching me to say “I” correctly, it was perhaps the fifth time, and I didn’t say “ah-ee” open enough, and I slouched as I did it, so she called me a dumb mick. But I don’t understand – I speak easily enough, and what is a “mick”?’

Bertram’s cheeks are red. When he talks, it is as if he is trying to hold in half his breath.

‘You won’t go back to Mrs Braun,’ he says, softly. ‘That was an insult. “Mick” means Irish. And she said “dumb” as in stupid.’

‘Oh,’ Alice says, looking at the ground. She feels a little ashamed, not having recognised an insult, even if it was new to her.

‘You’re not Irish,’ Bertram continues. ‘And you’re not stupid, Alice. Don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you that. You’ve learnt so much, so quickly. You’re one of the smartest people I know.’

Alice knows he is exaggerating. Still, she squeezes close to his arm, and he helps her walk up the front stairs.

The wind is a gale outside, and she struggles to hold on to her hat. As they walk to their car, they pass the front of a toy store. Behind all the bears and wooden trains, are three wooden sticks, topped by a flower of plastic curls. Seeing her curiosity, Bertram points at them and shouts over the wind.

‘I’ve seen a few of these recently,’ he says. ‘They’re called pinwheels. They spin in the wind. I think tonight would break them, though!’

‘I would like to see that,’ Alice says. So he takes her inside, and buys her one as green as spring buds. Back in the street, the petals whirl so fast they become a circular blur.

Alice laughs.

Bert looks from the blur, to her, and back. The corners of his lips inch up, as if drawn like moths to the light in his eyes.

Once they reach their apartment, he calls Mrs Braun. Alice goes to her room so she doesn’t have to hear him angry again.

She looks at the now-still pinwheel in her hand, and spins it with her finger, finding its movement oddly satisfying. It is one of many presents Bertram has given her in the past three months. He has fed her, and sheltered her, and educated her – and he has never asked for anything in return.

Alice lies back on her bed. He has asked for nothing. Admittedly, she has very little to give, having come here with only her powers and her life. But even ugly women like her have what’s between their legs – and he has never asked for that either. Not once, not anything like that.

His kindness baffles her.

The door knocks. She sits up. ‘Yes?’

Bertram pokes his head through the door, and again he smiles at the sight of her, holding her new toy like a bouquet.

‘What do you think of “The Pinwheel Club”?’

~~~

August 24th, 1929

Fort Greene, New York.

‘What do you want to do today?’

Alice glances up from her breakfast plate. Bertram looks at her expectantly, and she wonders if he means something else besides his question. So often is she out of her depth, that she finds it easier to assume that every phrase and action has a secret meaning unknown to her.

‘I plan to go to the library, and then the park,’ she says. It is the same as most days. She loves to walk, and she loves to watch, and she loves to learn, and she never tires of any of the three. She has yet to find her existence purposeless, yet to learn of ennui – being alive is still enough reward for her.

‘Why don’t we go to the park together?’ Bertram says. He often looks happy, even if he does not always smile, even when he complains of problems with the club. He is not as gaunt as he once was, and he each day he wears an expensive suit. Alice enjoys this very much, thinking suits superior to doublet and hose.

‘But, your work…’

‘I took today off,’ he says. ‘It’s my birthday, after all.’

‘Oh. I did not know that. But then…’

That means she missed it last year. It is as if he reads her thoughts.

‘Don’t worry. We were both distracted last year.’

Still, guilt travels up her gut, lodging itself on top of her heart. It does not escape her that she has yet to repay him for saving her life, for feeding her and clothing her and sheltering her for the past year. It does not escape her that Bertram has not brought a girl home in the months they have lived here. Does he not care for romance, as some men don’t? Or does he know that bringing a girl home to her, to Alice, would look like bigamy? The staff at the club assume they are married. Maybe he should disabuse them. She would rather be thought a mistress or whore than hold him back.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asks, a few seconds later.

‘Nothing,’ she says, sniffing. ‘I was remembering my grandmother.’

‘You never say whether you miss your old time at all,’ he says.

She picks up his plate for him and goes to the sink.

‘I don’t,’ she says to the basin. ‘Only her. I miss nothing. I…’

She turns. He has his arm over the chair, turned back to look at her. The dark blue suit goes well with his colouring, marks out the V of his torso, adds to his satisfied air. God help me, she thinks, I am an awful person. I am an ungrateful wretch who didn’t deserve another chance at life.

‘I have a gift for you,’ she says. ‘A birthday gift.’

‘That was fast.’

‘Let’s go the bedroom.’

He raises his eyebrows and says nothing, not before he stands, not as he follows, not as they sit together on his bed.

She turns and takes his hand. Sitting together on the bed is safer than the dining chairs, if one of them is going to fall.

‘I know not if this will work,’ she says. ‘But I want to give this to you. My grandmother told me I could. She called it blood-reading.’

He is a stunned boy from a fairy tale, wide-eyed, offered a gift beyond imagining.

‘You can pass that on? To someone normal like me?’

Alice nods, though she is unsure. She fumbles with Bert’s cuff, and explains how it works, and how it works best on the forearm, by the wrist. She does not expect to see much on her last reading.

The images and messages come: sore knee, scarred hands…and an ardour rippling inside him, ready to swell into a tidal wave at a second’s notice, prepared to flood at any moment.

Alice takes her hands away from Bertram’s wrist. She has forgotten what she was doing, and is trembling instead.

‘Are you sure?’ he says.

‘Yes,’ she says, before she realises what she assenting to. When it returns to her, she says it again, with conviction: ‘Yes.’

So they sit up on the bed, and she looks him in the eye, and she asks her sight how it works. It says to call on her blood-reading, call it to her eyes and the front of her face until she can taste it behind her teeth. It rises like hot air. It tastes slightly like violets.

Bertram’s brown eyes are caught on her. A mist exudes from her eyes and passes between them. She breathes it, she pours it, and it sinks into his startled expression, fading away as he inhales, suckered into his skin.

They sag as the last of the mist fades. Overwhelm. Then he takes her arm, and runs his fingers from her wrist up to her elbow.

He’ll know, her mind cries.

Please, then let him know, she replies.

But he only smiles, joyous like a child, and she feels nothing of what he has seen, only his freezing fingertips.

He says: ‘This is amazing. Thank you.’

And then he says, ‘Let’s go to the park.’

In the park they talk of reading the illness in others, reading their potentials, and all Alice can think of is what she read in him. But nothing, nothing, she says nothing. Not for the rest of the day, she says nothing. He has a good birthday, they say goodnight, they go to their beds.

It is at 2am, or thereabouts, when she wakes with a jolt. The nightmares are less frequent now, but still she has dreams where knives stab into her body, and crowds cry for her blood, and no-one comes to save her, and not a soul mourns her death. So she wakes, frozen in bed, hot tears clogging the back of her throat. She cannot go back to sleep. But surely it is a dream, or some somnolent haze, that causes her to rise from bed and go to Bertram’s room.

He wakes with an enquiring noise as the door creaks, and sits up at the sight of her ghostly outline.

Alice wants to give speeches, paragraph-long explanations of how wicked she is, how kind he is, what she saw today and what she has been wondering this long past year and everything besides. Instead, she walks up to the bed, and kneels on its side.

‘Forgive me,’ she whispers, as she cups his face in her hands.

His stubble scrapes her chin, and his lips are thin, but his mouth opens and his tongue is oh, so inviting. His hands run up her thighs and find her hip bones and clutch on to her with a need that makes her liquid. He is warmth and safety incarnate, and she – and she – no, what is she doing?

When she rises and tries to break away, she finds his hands are locked behind the small of her back.

‘Don’t apologise,’ he says.

The “I’m sorry” stops at her lips. He strokes her hair, and in the darkness that touch means more than any smile or word. There is an inhalation, as if he is about to speak, to question or explain himself.

No.

He pulls her head back down to his. They kiss again.

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Written by G.J.

31/05/2014 at 1:09 pm

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