She looked different in the mirror. There were no physical signs of the night before, no bruises or wounds, not even dark circles under her eyes. But she saw the difference. Her skin was more matte somehow, her eyes less shiny. Her lips looked like they had never known any other way than being perfectly straight. Someone else might have seen this too, but no one would have known what had caused it. Mabel closed her eyes as if the act was painful. There was another person that knew.
It had taken her a long time to pull herself out of bed and drag her feet after her to get to the dressing room. She moved slowly and stiffly, with pain, but mostly pure exhaustion. Every movement was an exertion.
She had managed to get herself into a new dress, without looking at all at the broken one she left abandoned on the floor. She had chosen a long sleeved one with a covered neck, which she thought she had never worn before. But today her body felt like something she wanted to keep to herself, every part of it she could. She knew no other way to claim it back.
And then she had sunk down onto the stool in front of the mirror, and not gotten up. She had been stuck there for a long time now, looking at herself and trying to recognize the person she would have seen there just last night. The person who had looked into another mirror in the next room for the last happy minutes of her life. Thinking that Mabel felt that she was almost succumbing to exaggeration, but it was just how she interpreted the situation.
Eventually though she took a deep breath and got herself to turn on the chair to face the dressing table. She brushed and put up her hair, simpler than usual, put on some rouge, sprayed on some perfume, and almost looked herself when she turned back to the mirror. Enough herself anyway, to stand up and leave the room.
She was still moving like that other person though, and seemed to have her mind as well. Spectacularly empty it was, but Mabel was grateful for it. She descended the stairs with a hand on the rail, ten years older than she had been when she last went up it. She thought the entire world would have changed along with her, but it seemed to have remained the same. The entrance hall looked as if the events of last night had never taken place within the very same walls. She stepped over a pair of suspenders on her way, and in a corner there appeared to be some broken glass. What did that matter to her? Servants would get to it all in time.
The dining room went in the same style as the ball room, light colours and big windows, a table long enough to seat a party of 20. Constance looked very small and insignificant sitting alone at the opposite end of it.
“Good morning”, she said.
Considerate as she was she had filled up another plate next to her own. Mabel sat down and thought it all looked inedible.
“Has Alfie eaten yet?” she asked.
He was the only person she wanted to see, the only reason she could have for staying in there, either way unable to eat.
“No”, Constance said. She was looking through the newspaper and chewing on a piece of bread.
“Do you think he’ll come down?”
“How would I know?”
She must have heard something in her voice, because Constance looked up at Mabel and furrowed her brows.
“How are you?” she asked, sounding concerned. “You look…” Was there a word for how she looked? “Pale.”
Mabel opened her mouth before she had decided if she should tell her or not, but she quickly found that the latter was the only alternative. She could not tell her. She did not have the right words for it.
“I’m fine”, she said.
She looked down at her plate, intent on giving it another try. But she would not be able to get anything down, so she pushed back the chair and stood up again.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” Constance insisted.
“I’m not hungry”, Mabel said. “And Constance – I think you should go home. I don’t feel like having any guests today.”
Constance just smiled, nodded and accepted it without further questions. She was good like that. If you had her trust you could demand anything from her, and expect to get it too.
Mabel left the room less than two minutes after she had entered it. If Alfie was not eating breakfast she knew exactly where he was. She went back up the stairs, then through the hallway, and up even more stairs.
She saw him as soon as she opened the door to the studio. He was standing further away, in the middle of the room, completely absorbed by a painting. She loved him like that, she could watch him for hours when he painted. She just had to see his back to know that she had overreacted, that it was not as bad as it seemed, that this was actually a thing they could get past.
He heard her as she came towards him and turned around with a smile.
“Good morning, precious.”
“I thought you’d be at breakfast”, Mabel said.
“We ate in here.”
We. She looked past him and saw Jimmy splayed out on his side on a purple couch, wearing nothing but what he had been born in.
“Good morning”, he grinned.
Mabel shielded her face with a hand and turned to the floor. During a split-second she had seen more than she should have. The slight inward curve of his stomach, the v-shape of his hipbones, a dark bush of hair, and something more in it. It was a different sight for her now, not the same old of beauty and pleasure. It was the sight of Clyde as he pumped into her furiously, causing more pain with every hump. The twisted fury on his face, his voice mumbling “Is this all there is?” with spite.
“I’m sorry!” she exclaimed, louder than intended. “I didn’t realise – I didn’t realise it was a bad time.”
“No”, Alfie said, already returned to his painting. “It isn’t, is it, Jimmy?”
The motive of the painting smiled without the smallest hint of embarrassment.
“No”, he repeated. “I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Hm”, Alfie huffed. “Don’t remind me.”
Mabel lowered her voice. “Can I talk to you?” She nodded towards the wall. “Over here.”
A bit reluctantly he put down his paintbrush and came over to her, smiling smugly at her embarrassment.
“What is it?” he teased. “Never thought you’d pass up an opportunity to see a naked man.”
She turned so she had her back towards said naked man.
“No, but he’s-“
“I know.” Alfie sighed, positioning himself in front of her. “I’ve been looking at this all morning and don’t think I’ll ever be able to see myself in a mirror again.”
She bit her lip. “Did he sleep here?”
He nodded and kept his eyes focused behind her.
“Jesus Christ, Alfie!” she snapped.
“What?” He met her eyes with confusion. “It’s a big house, what does it matter if I lend out a bedroom every once in a while?”
“So you did loan him a room?” Mabel sneered. “You didn’t just invite him into yours?”
“Don’t poppet me! Go poppet your new one!”
Alfie never got angry. What he did when people raised their voice was that he looked at them the way one does when someone is correcting an embarrassing mistake, and waited until they felt that that was exactly what they had done.
“Are you done?” he asked, like a patient father to a child throwing a tantrum.
She sighed and lowered her hand.
“I’m sorry, darling.”
He grabbed her arms and smiled.
“I didn’t suddenly grow a taste for buggery”, he said. “We’re painting, and you’re taking out something else on me.”
“So what’s wrong with you, sweetest? What’s happened?”
She had intended to tell him, and she would have, if Jimmy had not been there. The situation was bizarre enough already, how could she possibly add a rape onto the naked man? Now she could not possibly get out the words that had been difficult even with Constance in the dining room.
“Nothing”, she said. “I just don’t like the man, so I’d appreciate being able to walk around my own house without having to find him naked everywhere.”
Alfie almost-laughed, leaned down, kissed her on the forehead and pulled her into a hug.
“Who would have thought my little Mabel was a blushing maiden”, he said affectionately with his chin on her head.
Mabel scoffed, but in his embrace it was almost as if Jimmy was not naked behind her, as if last night had just been a bad dream, and now she had woken up. But Jimmy was there, because suddenly he cleared his throat and said, “Alfie, it’s a bit cold here.”
“There’s a blanket over there”, Alfie replied.
She tensed up in his arms. If Jimmy was there, it had not been a dream.
“Are you sure nothing’s wrong?” Alfie whispered.
“Yes”, she squeaked.
He stroked her back with both hands before he let go, just as Jimmy appeared beside them with a small blanket around his waist.
“Not much in the way of keeping warm”, he said cheerily. “But I take it not everyone was comfortable with my marvellous physique.”
Just as Mabel opened her mouth to protest he gave Alfie a mischievous look and smirked.
“Isn’t that right, Alfie?”
He blew out some air with his nose. “Damn right it is. Nature isn’t fair.”
“It was to Lady Mabel.” Jimmy smiled at her.
She furrowed her brows at the unexpected compliment and eyed him carefully, trying to determine if he was joking or sarcastic or merely acting polite in Alfie’s presence.
“It certainly was”, he agreed proudly.
The sun must have moved, because suddenly the light shone in brighter at them all. Still looking at Jimmy, Mabel lifted a hand and placed it beside her face to avoid getting blinded. In a second Alfie froze. His eyes widened, his mouth opened and he seemed to have stopped breathing entirely.
“Oh my god”, he said breathlessly. “Oh my god!”
She knew that look all too well.
“Over here!” he said in a state of euphoria, as he started to push Jimmy backwards in the direction of the window.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Alfie, deaf and blind to the world, had moved on to dragging Mabel by the arm after him.
“Please, darling”, she said exasperatedly. “Not now.”
“This is perfect.” He grabbed her waist and turned her towards Jimmy.
“Alfie, I really don’t feel like standing for a painting right now.”
He was already rushing after his sketch block and pens. She sighed and Jimmy looked at her for an answer.
“Jimmy, we’re about to be immortalised”, she said.
“I thought I already was.”
“I think he changed his mind.”
Alfie was coming galloping back towards them with a sketch block in one hand and the other full of pens.
“Honey, put your hand up like that again!” he shouted.
With a shrug of her shoulders at Jimmy, Mabel obeyed. He scoffed and turned towards Alfie, who immediately protested with a “No, Jimmy, look at her! And you look at him!”
“All right, Alfie”, Jimmy called back. “I think we can manage.”
Alfie had stayed further away in the room and hoisted himself up on his table, where he had crossed his legs and started sketching frantically. There was no longer anything to do about it. They were going to become art whether they wanted it or not.
“He gets like this”, Mabel said.
“He’s very… enthusiastic”, Jimmy agreed. “But I think I too might like this painting more.”
“You’re more covered, that’s for sure.”
He laughed. It was a very happy and genuine laugh, one that made the edges of her mouth twitch against her will. Jimmy did look a lot better when he laughed – and once you had seen what he hid under his clothes.
“I do hope you accept my apology”, he said sincerely.
“You know what I mean.” He raised a meaning brow. “I was – let’s just admit it – terribly rude when we first met. It was just a bad day for me, a horrible opera, Alfie, this place and then you.” He smiled. “I’m afraid it all became a bit nimis for me.”
Mabel looked out the window to avoid his hypnotising gaze.
“Look who’s learning Latin.”
“No, that doesn’t work!” Alfie yelled across the room. “You have to look at each other!”
“Yes, Alfie, we heard you the first time!” she shouted back.
She rolled her eyes as she redirected them at Jimmy. His were so warm and brown; it took five seconds, and then she did not mind having to stare at them any longer. His entire soul was concealed in there, everything he had and everything he was, and she was the only one who had seen it.
“You do have such beautiful eyes”, he said.
She blushed when she realised that he must see the same in hers as she did in his.
“I’m not one to hold a grudge”, she said. “I accept your apology.”
His eyes lit up and became even more beautiful. “Really?”
“Did you not expect me to be magnanimous?” She attempted to sound offended.
Jimmy smiled like a child. “From you, Lady Mabel, I expect anything and everything.”
He was not so bad. You could look into his eyes and unmake the night before, you could look into his eyes and the rest of the world would leave the two of you alone. Everyone else disappeared, including Clyde, and Alfie – Alfie was no longer in the room. Alfie who?
“Is that a challenge?” she asked breathlessly.
Jimmy smirked. “Do you take it as one?”
“I take it as one”, she said, “and accept it.”
“Dear, your hand!” Alfie was back in the room, or they were back in the world.
And her hand was slowly giving up and falling down. They were in for something exhausting.
“For Christ’s sake, Alfie!” Jimmy shouted.
They were in for something wonderful.
The doors of Nimis House were locked and the ballroom was empty. Sometimes people appeared outside, yelling to be let in and throwing things at the window in the belief that the party was happening without them. But eventually they always gave up and left, either told by servants that the party was over, or just grown tired on their own.
Constance, as one of the few people allowed inside, made occasional visits and pursed her lips in suspicion, but never asked. Mabel convinced her that she was just tired of everything and needed a break. She never told her that the thought of a regular night at Nimis House now disgusted her, or that the possibility of Clyde turning up horrified her.
Alfie probably never even noticed. It was strange, but he always seemed to have his worst periods when he was the happiest and things were going his way. Morning and night he could be seen drifting through the hallways with an opium pipe in his hand and a foreign stare, contently reclined and dragging his feet after him. If he ever saw Mabel pass him by and say something he could sometimes smile.
“How empty and quiet it is today”, was all he could say.
She did not come to his bedroom and he did not come to hers. He never seemed to eat until after Jimmy had arrived.
When he came, some time in the forenoon, Mabel greeted him at the door and waved off Pip when he came barking. But after a few days Jimmy brought a sausage and gave it to him, and after that Pip too had accepted him. He waited by the front door and wagged his tail when it opened and Jimmy appeared on the other side with a big smile and pats to distribute. Mabel found that she often waited herself at the foot of the staircase, as if she had nothing better to do with her life.
Alfie was always in the studio already. He woke up from his coma long enough to excitedly shake hands with Jimmy and passionately kiss her, before he pushed them towards their place and had to start painting.
Jimmy stripped down to his underpants and wrapped the blanket around them. Mabel wore a pink and black day dress and a large hat with feathers, all carefully picked out by Alfie. They turned towards each other, he smiled and she brought her hand up beside her face. And while Alfie painted, shouted out occasional commands and emptied whole wine, scotch and champagne glasses, they simply stood there and talked.
They stood for the painting for weeks, for hours every day, with only a small break to eat something, and during that time they managed to do a lot of talking. Or rather, it seemed Mabel did most of it. She spoke of no important things, just whatever came to mind. She talked about her childhood, her family, when she bought Nimis House, how she met Alfie, and moved on to other people, art, literature, politics, Pip, something she had read in the newspaper.
Jimmy mostly smiled and listened, always looking into her eyes. He had a very special way of listening, as if he made careful note of every single word and marked and stored it somewhere to bring out when necessary. Because that he did too. He mentioned little things she could not even remember telling him, as if everything she said truly was important enough to be saved indefinitely inside his head.
“Do you actually remember that I said that?” she laughed sometimes.
“Of course”, he only said with a serious face.
Sometimes she thought he knew things she had not told him, just because he had managed to see it in her eyes. Then he knew about Clyde, and that was why he smiled so comfortingly and was such a great support for her, despite never saying it out loud.
Not even Alfie knew. He had not noticed that anything was wrong, and she was angry at him for it. He was too busy with his painting and never seemed to be completely sober. She felt that he was supposed to have been her help through this, but he had prioritized his art. He could only talk about the painting. He called it his masterpiece and had named it accordingly to The Masterpiece. All conversations not about The Masterpiece were suddenly below him.
Mabel thought she might be unfair, because she had not even told him, but it did not change the fact that while Alfie only paid attention to her when she could not hold up her hand, Jimmy was always looking at and listening to her as if it was the most important thing he could do.
With him she could pretend that it had never happened. She could ramble on and on and forget that life was not what it had once been, and as soon as he left Alfie disappeared somewhere or was too drunk or high to understand, and she was left alone with nothing to do but think of it. So she cherished her moments with Jimmy, all the hours they spent staring at each other to pose for a painting that, knowing Alfie, might not even ever be finished. She waited for him every night she spent alone – because she could not let Alfie touch her like that – and could barely eat breakfast as she looked at the clock and waited for the minutes to pass and the knock on the door to come.
He stayed afterwards sometimes. Alfie shared his alcohol with them and they all ended up on the floor. She lay between them with Alfie’s hand in hers and they all laughed. Then Alfie stopped laughing and started drifting away, and more and more Jimmy’s hand seemed to end up in her free one. She turned to him with furrowed brows and he just smiled. Her heart skipped a beat and she looked back at the ceiling with a smile on her face and two hands in hers.
Those were the happiest times they had together. It felt as if the world consisted now only of the three of them, but there was nothing more they needed. What more could they ask for, than to lay three in a row on the floor of the studio and look at the ceiling? Mabel never wanted that painting to be finished. She never wanted Jimmy to leave.
But that was when she got sick.
She started getting so tired that the only reason she managed to drag herself out of bed in the morning was Jimmy’s expected arrival, and even then all her energy seemed to have left her. Her body became too heavy for her to move, walking up the stairs caused her to pant and sudden fits of nausea forced her to sit down. Pip refused to leave her side. He always knew when something was wrong and had to be locked out from the studio when she stood for the painting.
It was pure torture. The sun shone in at her until she was so warm that she was sweating, her legs started bending under her and she could not for long concentrate on looking at Jimmy. She stopped talking to him because it became too exhausting, and he took over speaking, but she could not hear what he said. Her hand was impossible to keep up for so long at a time, and every time Alfie yelled out that it was lowering again she had to bite her lip to keep from crying. With every day she became weaker. She felt, slowly but surely, that her body was failing her.
And then she fell. Black spots sneaked into her vision, her head started spinning, and before she knew it her legs had given up on keeping her upright. She stumbled towards Jimmy, and he reached out and caught her. His blanket fell to the ground instead of her, who had ended up in his arms, with her face against his chest.
“Are you okay?” she heard his voice ask, somewhere in another world.
She looked up at him. His brows were furrowed and his eyes concerned.
“Back up again, love!” Alfie called.
Mabel knew regular Alfie would have been even more worried than Jimmy. She knew he would have ran for her, sunk down to his knees and grabbed her, he would have looked as if he though she was dying. But this was not regular Alfie. This was Alfie painting The Masterpiece, Alfie that was high and drunk during all waking hours. And in some way, she felt as if this was the only Alfie that was left, that the other one had been lost along the way, sometime when they had been looking at the ceiling and she had squeezed Jimmy’s hand while letting go of his.
“Mabel”, Jimmy said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine”, she pressed out with a weak voice.
To prove this she broke lose from him and managed to stand on her own again. She took a deep breath, lifted her hand and looked at Jimmy.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “You look very pale.”
Mabel nodded and smiled. She might have lost Alfie, but for some reason that felt completely fine when she still had Jimmy.
How much this painting had brought out about all of them. And even more this regular cold.