Alfie would always, despite everything that happened after, consider the day The Masterpiece was uncovered as one of his happiest. He had known from the second he first put the pen against the paper to make that first sketch that this, this, was it. The best he would ever be able to achieve. It would make or break him. Either way, it would never get better than that.
He had not smoked all day, and the only thing he had drunk was the morning morphine just before he chose the purple suit with the feeling that nothing less would do for a day like this.
The night before he had been hit by sudden mania and started planning an uncovering ceremony, mumbling the names of the guest list out loud as he scribbled them down. On the other side of the dinner table Mabel had softly said his name and looked very serious.
“I don’t want a big party”, she had said.
“So, just us?” he had asked.
It had been silent for a few seconds, as if she had said more with those two words than she ever could have with a thousand.
“He’s in the painting”, she had said then.
“He is in the painting”, Alfie had realised.
So now it was just the three of them in the big drawing room. There was a lot of furniture in it, a couch there, a chess table in the corner, a tea table with chairs here. And over the fireplace – on either side of which there had hung paintings that had both been removed now – was a red curtain that looked as if it was hiding a whole lot more than a painting.
“Are you ready?” Alfie asked excitedly.
He turned to Jimmy and Mabel, who stood side by side facing the curtain.
“Oh, I don’t know”, Jimmy said, sounding sour and negative. “Can we truly handle this?”
With a fond smile she punched him lightly on the shoulder. She had not noticed then, that it was not a joke.
Alfie had not been drunk or high enough to escape it. Ever since he had started painting, Jimmy had looked at him very critically, almost disgusted at times. He did not talk to him, did not accept being touched by him, and replied only sarcastically when forced to respond to something. Alfie had no idea where he had gone wrong, but Jimmy suddenly seemed very cold to him. And here he had thought they were the ones who were going to be friends, but it was only Mabel he did as much as smile at lately.
It was very cruel, he thought. Like getting someone hooked to a drug and then denying them access to it. But Alfie, with his painting, thought he had handled his Jimmy abstinence magnificently. And whatever the reason might be that Jimmy suddenly did not like him, he had The Masterpiece, and that Jimmy would always be his. He was glad though, that Mabel did not know. This Jimmy, it seemed, belonged to her now.
She turned back to him with a tired smile. “Of course we are, darling. Show us our masterpiece!”
Alfie turned back to the painting behind the curtain, exhilarated by the knowledge that in just a few seconds it would be out there. No taking it back, the world would then indefinitely own The Masterpiece. But he was tired of keeping its greatness to himself, so he got up on his tiptoes and pulled away the curtain without delaying the moment further.
He let it drop to the floor as he stepped slowly back towards Jimmy and Mabel, smiling as proudly as a father might at a particularly talented child.
“Tada”, he said breathlessly.
He stepped in between the other two, putting one arm around Mabel’s shoulders and the other around Jimmy’s. When they did not speak he looked at both their faces and eagerly awaited their responses. Mabel had opened a smiling mouth and stared dreamingly at the painting, speechless apparently by adoration. Jimmy, on the other hand, simply looked bored and as if he regretted prioritising this over other more important things. He just raised a hesitant eyebrow and said nothing because he had nothing to say.
Alfie ignored him and looked back at The Masterpiece. There they were, the Jimmy and Mabel of his dreams. With canvases, easels and sculptures around them, in front of the window with the sun shining in at them from behind. He stood naked apart from the blanket he held around his more private parts, staring stoically into the middle distance somewhere behind her. She was wearing a day-dress with a broad skirt and a big hat, and eyed him curiously with her head slightly tilted and a hand keeping the sun from her face.
“Oh, darling”, she said. “It’s beautiful.”
“Do you see it?” he insisted, a dog with a bone. “He’s a sculpture, art in the making, he’s the masterpiece. But he’s unfinished, that’s why he has the blanket.”
“Ah”, she said. “I see it.”
“Unfinished”, Jimmy said. “Somehow that doesn’t sound like a compliment to me.”
Mabel smiled at him in front of Alfie. “It’s a painting, Jimmy.”
Alfie furrowed his brows. Was it? He thought it had stopped being a painting to him even before he had started painting it.
“It’s a masterpiece”, he corrected hesitantly.
He kissed them both on the cheeks and either he imagined it, or they both leaned the other way when he did. He sighed, contently or angrily he could not say.
“Do you think you have somewhere to show it yet?” Mabel asked, sounding slightly disinterested.
“I’m looking around.”
“It deserves to be seen. Doesn’t it, Jimmy?”
He hummed sceptically. “I don’t know. Seems a bit unfinished to me.”
“Shut up”, Alfie laughed, to uphold the illusion of it all being a funny and very elaborate joke.
He looked at Jimmy with a warm smile and got a dark glare and crooked smirk in return. Yes, it was good that Mabel did not know. She never smiled quite so brightly as when Jimmy was around.
“I actually need to leave right about now”, he said.
“Oh?” Her face dropped in disappointment.
“I don’t even have time for this, but I just had to see the painting.”
Alfie let go of him, suspecting that he was the cause of this sudden rush.
“When can we expect to see you again?” he asked cheerily.
Jimmy shrugged. Mabel squirmed away from Alfie and said, “I’ll show you out.”
They disappeared from the drawing room side by side and he looked after them, alone with the painting. He had accepted that the uncovering ceremony would be small, but he had still hoped it would be longer than five minutes. He turned back to The Masterpiece with a sigh and the profound feeling that the people in it were very different from the ones in the real world. But he could not tell whether that was a mistake made by him in the painting or a change that had actually happened.
Unpleasant thoughts – which this qualified as – always made him pull up the flask from his coat and drink. It had been a nice idea, to go through an entire day sober, but only in theory. To actually do it was much harder.
“Darling”, came Mabel’s voice from outside the room. “Can you come out?”
Alfie slid the flask back into his pocket and made sure to put on a smile before he exited into the entrance hall.
“What is it?”
She held out her arms towards them. “Let’s walk together. I need to tell you something.”
He let her cling onto his arm and thought that that sentence never meant anything good.
“Pip!” she called.
One second was all it took for him to come thundering down the stairs, half-tripping and half-rushing.
“It’s too late”, Alfie said. “You just missed him.”
The dog looked behind them with disappointment, and resigned to following them with a tail that was wagging not quite as aggressively as it had done moments before.
They went through the empty ballroom into the garden. Belonging to any other house it would have been called overgrown, but as the garden of Nimis House it played its role perfectly. Thin paths meandered through weeping and wisteria trees, statues, bird baths, sundials and beds of azaleas, hydrangeas, roses and other flowers of all colours imaginable. Take few steps into it and the house behind you does no longer exist, reach the middle and the entire city of London is gone. It was quiet here apart from the twittering birds, still and peaceful apart from the giant dog running along the path and kicking pebbles behind himself.
Mabel and Alfie followed more slowly. She held his arm tight and pressed her head against his shoulder, and he contently looked at the flowers and smiled to himself. The air always felt easier to breathe when Jimmy had left.
They passed under an ornate arch and he stopped in front of a tree of white flowers.
“The dogwood is blooming”, he said. “Has it been for long?”
He asked because he did not know the time had come, because it often slipped away from him and moved faster than he could manage to keep up.
“I wish you would have noticed”, she whispered.
He pulled free from her and went up to the tree. “Noticed what?”
“Oh”, she said behind him. “Just everything.”
Alfie chose out the biggest flower he could find and picked it with a satisfied smile. When he turned around and proudly held it out for her, Mabel had sat down on a stone bench and looked tired with her hands on her lap.
“Look”, he said. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Somewhere Pip barked. She managed a smile that looked strained and forced.
Alfie took three big steps to the bench and presented it to her ceremonially. “It’s for you.”
She took it and looked down at it with a slightly furrowed brow, seemingly deep in thought. He sat down next to her and smiled.
“Almost as beautiful as you, sunshine”, he said.
She let out a small puff and tried to hand it back to him. He gave her a few seconds to change her mind, but eventually accepted it and let his smile fade disappointedly.
“If you don’t tell me what’s wrong I can’t help you.”
He held the flower tightly, pretending that it was more valuable than it was, and she looked at him with desperation in her eyes. She had thought he had not noticed. Even someone on the other side of the city would have noticed that there were no more parties in Nimis House. And Alfie always knew when Lady Mabel Day’s smile was fake.
“It’s so much”, she said weakly.
“Is it nimis?”
She smiled and made her eyes look even sadder.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I want your help.”
“Then to be even more honest, I don’t think I’ll give you any help”, he countered.
She sighed and looked out at the garden, at the blossoming dogwood and all the bright colours, at a place in the middle of London that seemed to be in a different world. He looked down at the rejected flower in his hands and felt a sudden pang of This is not how it usually is.
“Alfie”, she said. “I’m pregnant.”
“That’s not what I’m saying, Constance!” Alfie was losing his temper. He grabbed the door to hold himself still as the carriage stopped abruptly. “All I’m thinking about is her best!”
“You’re only thinking about yourself!” she sneered from where she sat opposite him. “As always!”
The carriage door opened and Jimmy came inside. With Alfie lying on his side across two seats, he had no choice but to sit down next to Constance.
“Who does always what?” he asked.
“Alfie being a man”, she said, keeping her eyes narrowed at him instead of the newcomer.
“Debatable”, Jimmy said.
Alfie sighed. “Mabel’s pregnant and having an abortion.”
“You needn’t tell the whole world!” Constance yelled.
“It’s not the whole world!” He raised his voice. “It’s Jimmy and he’s madly in love with her!”
Jimmy did nothing to confirm or deny or even acknowledge this, just looked at him indifferently.
“Nimis House now!” Alfie shouted to the coachman.
They started moving again.
“And you’re the father?” Jimmy asked.
Alfie put a hand on his forehead and closed his eyes in pure exhaustion. “No, it’s Clyde.”
“Huh”, Jimmy said. “I didn’t know they-“
“They don’t. He forced himself onto her.”
“Raped her!” Constance corrected harshly.
Alfie opened his eyes to glare at her. “Yes, Constance, if it makes things better to use the most gruesome word possible, do go ahead!”
“It certainly doesn’t make it worse”, she huffed.
Jimmy furrowed his brows. “Why an abortion?”
She turned to him with an offended expression on her face. “Are you serious?” she asked. “Are you serious?”
Alfie threw out a hand. “So this is what I’m dealing with.”
“I don’t need to be dealt with, thank you very much!”
Jimmy obviously decided that despite what he might feel about Alfie, he seemed to be the only person in the carriage one could actually hold a conversation with, and turned to him.
“When this did happen?” he asked.
“A few weeks ago”, Alfie said. “Just before we started painting.”
“And there’s no doubt that it’s he?” Jimmy raised a brow. “I mean-“
“There is such a thing as protection, Jimmy”, Alfie said. “For responsible people like, for example, us.”
Constance shook her head and lowered her voice to a normal speaking level. “I can’t believe you didn’t notice it, Alfie.”
“Jesus!” he shouted. “I just didn’t, so stop!”
“Because you were high”, she stated calmly. “Like always.”
Did she honestly think he did not know that, that he did not already blame himself for it all?
“So fill me in”, Jimmy said. “She’s having an abortion?”
He pronounced the word like religious people swear, as if it was something that had personally offended him.
“I’m trying to convince her not to.” Alfie rubbed his forehead, trying to subdue the dull aching. “I’ve told her we’ll take care of the child together, like a family, and I’d be the father.”
“But you wouldn’t be”, Constance pushed in. “She’ll always know who the real father is.”
“And so will I!”
“But you’re not the one he raped!” she snapped. “And don’t you see that she can’t just make this decision based on what you want? She’s the one who’ll have to carry it, give birth to it, then take care of it for the next 18 years! If you were married maybe, but now, how does she know you won’t just grow tired of playing house and take off?”
“Because she’s Mabel and I’m Alfie”, he said matter-of-factly, “and it’s just as simple as that.”
“This isn’t about you, Alfie”, Constance insisted. “This is about her life!”
“Exactly!” He scoffed as if it was all ridiculous. “Her life! We’re talking about a very dangerous procedure here!”
“Oh, you mean like childbirth?”
Jimmy turned to her with dark eyes and a lower voice.
“I’m with Alfie”, he said. “This is performed illegally by people who have received no education in the matter, with questionable instruments around vital organs. It can kill her, Mrs Stevens.”
Constance’s eyes flashed with rage for a second. Alfie did not think he had ever heard anyone call her Mrs, and he did not know if her reaction to it was something he wanted to witness. Another time it might have been amusing, but at the moment, nothing could really be.
“Qua people who have no idea what you’re talking about”, she said, her voice shaking, “I kindly ask you both to shut up.”
“How do you know I don’t know what I’m talking about?” Jimmy smirked, tilting his head.
She bit her lip and narrowed her eyes to the point where Alfie doubted that she could see with them.
“Oh, I’m sorry, do you have a medical degree or a uterus?” she asked, raising her voice with every word. “Otherwise, I don’t see why your opinion has any relevance at all!”
“Constance”, Alfie said gently. “I understand why this is a difficult subject for you, but you’re not seeing things clearly. We are, honestly, only worried about Mabel.”
“You both have penises!” she yelled. “I’m not listening to either of you!”
Alfie was about to roll his eyes at Jimmy, but stopped himself when he saw that he would not even notice if he did. He was too focused on staring at Constance with more hatred than he had ever seen in someone’s eyes before, looking perfectly ready to fly at her and choke her to death right then and there.
He was not given the chance though, because the carriage stopped once again and Nimis House stood beside them.
Alfie sat up and looked at it through the window. They had gotten there too fast. He was not ready.
“All right”, he said. “Whatever our personal opinions are, we will say nothing of them when we enter the house. What’s important right now is to show her that we are all people who love and care about her – right? –“, the others both nodded, Constance aggressively and Jimmy almost unnoticeably, “and that-“
“The decision is hers?” Constance finished for him with the only end to that sentence she would accept.
Alfie gritted his teeth. “We support her, no matter what.”
She beamed. “We do?”
Jimmy opened the carriage door and said, “Fuck you, Mrs Stevens.”
“That’s harsh, Jimmy”, Alfie said as he disappeared out with his ears turned off.
Constance started picking at her gloves and her dress.
Oh, Constance, Alfie thought. I’m sorry I raised my voice at you. I’m sorry I couldn’t make you understand me. I’m sorry he’s calling you Mrs.
She was widely considered a lot stronger than she actually was, but he knew, and he had not even forgotten it, just ignored it. But this was about Mabel, and for her he would do anything and hurt anyone. Constance had merely been caught in the crossfire, after she had stepped right into it, balling and swinging her fists like a boxer.
With a sigh he escaped the carriage and let her pay the coachman. She always insisted on doing that herself.
Jimmy was already opening the door, as if he was the one living in the house. Alfie hurried up to it to get inside at the same time as him, for which he got a dissatisfied frown. He had not needed to run though, because as soon as the door opened Jimmy was tackled by Pip and almost fell backwards at the impact.
She stood on the balcony, holding the railing. Her hair was out and her dress looked ill-fitting. Alfie saw her force herself to smile, but she did not say a thing.
While Jimmy was stuck with the dog, he took the staircase as quickly as he could and only slowed down when he reached the top. Mabel had turned to him and he gave her a smile that he hoped was comforting.
“Oh, sweetest”, he said.
She held out her arms to indicate that she would allow him to hug her. He did not let the moment go to waste. He squeezed her tightly, breathed in her scent, and wondered how he could possibly make her understand. Just how happy they could be, the two of them with a child, how wonderful it all would be. It would not have to be a horrible thing at all, it could be whatever they would make it.
“Sweetest, dearest little butterfly”, he said.
“Can we not talk about it?” she whispered against his shoulder. “Can we pretend for just one last time that it hasn’t happened?”
“Of course”, he promised. “Of course, angel of mine.”