She never knew when they had guests, she only learned by hearing the voices downstairs as she left her room. Usually, as it meant that he was there too, she would turn around and retreat back into her own domains, but this evening she was too hungry. And there did not appear to be many voices either, just two male ones, so she would take her chances.
At least she was wearing a dinner dress, the big beige and brown silk thing from America, and her hair (with some that had been someone else’s) had been put up in a chignon. She looked at herself in the mirror and added some more blush.
Nicoline had often been called pretty. She was the height of her husband but much heavier, had olive skin and dark brown hair, big blue eyes and plump pink lips. Lately she had found small strands of grey in her hair and wrinkles breaking out at the corners of her eyes, but nearing her 35th birthday she expected little else, and still she made men turn their heads. If only she could make them do more than that.
As she ran her hand along the black steel railing and looked down to the entrance hall she tried to spot who she was expected to be polite to tonight, but she could just see her husband. Of the man who had just made him laugh Nicoline could only glance his white tie outfit, his face was concealed by the giant chandelier that hung just below her and over them.
She stepped onto the top of the staircase and her shoes clicked against the stone. Downstairs became quiet. He had not expected her to be home, she realized.
Yet she made her way down calmly with a proud walk, not turning her head to look at them until the staircase turned and she came face to face with them. Her husband smiled tiredly at her, though she had not even said a word yet, but the man standing next to him had big eyes and a genuine smile. His lips were parted, but he appeared speechless.
“I didn’t know you were home”, Charles said in French, his slight accent no longer adorable.
“I didn’t know you were”, Nicoline replied in the same language.
The second man looked at Charles expectantly, as if he had not understood their words. Charles took a deep breath and glanced up at him.
“Federline, this is my wife Nicoline”, he said. “Nicoline, this is James Federline.”
“I do not believe we have met, monsieur Federline”, she told him in French.
Reluctantly her legs moved her towards them.
Mr Federline looked embarrassedly between the couple and laughed nervously.
“I’m sorry”, he said. “But I’m afraid French is not a language I have mastered.”
Charles raised a brow at him. Nicoline was afraid she might dislike this stranger.
“Well…” He gave her a quick glance. Her face was serious and set in stone. “By all means, speak English. Nicoline understands most of it.”
If he had not said it, she would have done so herself and gone on to hate James Federline in silence, but because he did it for her all the ill will was directed against him instead. Yet another thing he had stolen from her now, her language, all that she had had left.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Madame Carmichael.” Mr Federline lowered his head and put out his hand for her, and Nicoline understood what he meant to do.
She offered him her hand, and slowly he brought it up to his mouth and kissed it. As his lips left her skin he looked up at her and smiled crookedly, and did he wink? Her heart did a strange double-take. She had feared that he would call her Mrs.
“The pleasure”, she carefully made her lips form the words, disappointed that they did not sound as they had in her head, “is mine.”
It was probably lasting too lost, this kiss on her hand.
“Christ, Federline”, Charles laughed scornfully. “There’s no need to make such an effort, it’s just my old lady.”
Mr Federline released her hand. Nicoline bit her lip and looked at Charles.
“’Old lady’”, she repeated. “What means that?”
She may not know much, but she knew she was not old nor a lady.
He pulled her in by the neck and kissed her on the forehead, dutifully as if he had done it a thousand times before. He did not even look at her.
“Nothing, chérie. It’s a compliment.”
Nicoline did not believe him. He had been sparse with those for a long time. She rolled her eyes as he let go of her, to show that she did not enjoy the affection any more than he did.
“Are you having dinner with us?” he asked.
“Is he having dinner with us?”
“I hope it isn’t too much trouble”, Mr Federline apologized with a desperate voice. “It’s only that-“
“She doesn’t need to hear the story, Federline”, Charles said, sounding bored. “The cook should tell us when the other dines at home”, he added in French, giving her a quick glare. “This happens too often.”
She simpered at him. “I would be happy to tell you myself”, and then she spat out an English phrase, “dear husband.”
He granted her a quick smile with a wrinkled nose and bared teeth. Then he clapped his hands together, grabbed Mr Federline by the shoulder and said cheerily, “I believe dinner is ready.”
Without waiting for her he started moving and guided their guest with him through the hallway, pointing occasionally at a painting on the wall to bring his attention there instead of to her. It was broad enough for them all to walk side by side, and more people still, but Nicoline followed several steps behind the two men.
In a way Mr Federline’s enthusiasm amused her. He looked like a child in a candy shop, his eyes twinkled and his jaw dropped as he took everything in. The shiny black and white floor tiles, the golden frames around the dark, solemn portraits, the wooden double doors that Charles explained belonged to – in order – a reception room, the library, and the drawing room. To her everything shiny and golden had long ago lost its appeal. But it was new to him, as it had once been to her, and he cherished it, as she had once loved it with all of her heart.
Charles was showing everything off the way he had used to display her for everyone, and by the looks of it he enjoyed it. He liked more to let people know that he owned all these wonderful things, than he liked actually owning them.
The butler Guerin opened up the grandest double doors for them, the ones right in front of them at the end of the corridor. Charles patted Mr Federline on the back and smiled proudly at him. From behind them Nicoline could not see his facial expression, but she guessed that it was one of admiration. Their dining room was the heart of the house, the grandest room of them all, the one she had been shown first. He had covered her eyes and led her there, then proudly uncovered them and said, “Welcome home”. The dining room boasted two crystal chandeliers and a fireplace. It was gothic, the walls were dark and wood, the floor covered in a red Persian rug. The table was long enough to seat 20 people comfortably (and still the room was not cramped) but on the white cloth it had been set for only three. She and Charles as per usual on opposite sides and next to his place, wisely, Mr Federline.
Nicoline sat down and the men walked over to their places, Mr Federline giving her confused looks over his shoulder. These were the seating arrangements of a great dinner party, not a casual meal for three. But she would rather have eaten in her bedroom than sat closer to them.
Charles said grace and she did not know or understand most of the words. Usually it was in French; in her world everyone spoke French. Good French, bad French, everyone had to show off that they spoke the language, however poorly. If they had not been so insistent, perhaps she had actually learned English properly.
She wished she had, as they started on their entrées and Charles and Mr Federline spoke to each other on the other side of the table. They were so far away that she barely heard what they said, but even when she did they spoke too quickly and used too many words she did not know. All she could think to do was listen for her name and try to figure out if they were talking about her, but she never heard it. Maybe not even Charles would sink so low. They would probably wait until she had left.
When they had received the main course Nicoline had long sat thinking, found the right words and pieced them together to a sentence she hoped was correct. She cleared her throat, they looked at her, and she said loudly, “Where met you two?”
She did not hear it, but she saw Charles’ curl his lips as he did when he scoffed.
“We met at the club”, he said even louder than she had spoken, as if she would not understand it otherwise, “a few days ago, and again today at lunch. We ate at the Marriott and I offered James to dine with us.”
The funny thing was that he never used simpler words or sentences when he wanted her to understand him, he just raised his voice.
“I just arrived here from India”, Mr Federline – who had at some point become James to her husband – explained. “I don’t know the city at all, but your husband has been so kind as to keeping me fed.”
“How nice of you”, Nicoline told Charles in French, imitating his almost-shouting. She turned back to Mr Federline and lowered her voice again as she switched back to English. “An étranger in the country”, she pressed out with great effort, “just like me.”
Charles lifted his glass and took a sip. “It’s stranger in English, chérie.”
Mr Federline looked at him and Nicoline could have sworn that his smile was fake, but Charles did not notice this. He took a bigger sip of his wine, and if she knew him right he was getting drunk. She hoped he would stay sober long enough for her to have dessert too.
“Must you embarrass me so terribly?” he continued in French.
Mr Federline smiled stupidly and batted his eyelashes.
“How?” Nicoline put down her cutlery. “By speaking to our guest?”
“He’s my guest, thank you.” He was slurring now, his French always got worse when he drank, and his glass was empty.
“Do we need more wine?” Mr Federline shot in. He straightened his back and searched for a servant that he started snapping his fingers at. “We need more wine.”
Guerin came up to him with the bottle, and he grabbed it.
“I’ll take it”, he said. “Thank you.”
Guerin spoke no English and had not understood a word apart from wine; he stared at Mr Federline with suspicion and confusion.
“It’s fine”, Charles told him in French. “Leave the bottle with us.”
Guerin retreated hesitantly and Mr Federline started pouring wine into Charles’ glass. Nicoline found herself furrowing a brow. His own glass was still practically untouched.
“That’s enough”, Charles chuckled. “I think we’re all right, James.”
Mr Federline just looked at him and smirked, and for several quiet, long seconds he kept pouring. Then he put the bottle between them, though closer to Charles than himself, and raised his glass.
“To wonderful wives”, he said.
Nicoline thought Charles would break out laughing hysterically, but he just gave her a crooked smile and a dark glare before he straightened his back and clinked his glass against Mr Federline’s.
“To wonderful wives.” When he said it the sentence reeked of sarcasm.
And they drank. Several times Charles looked ready to put his glass down, but Mr Federline was staring at him all the while and just kept on drinking without ever letting the glass leave his lips. But he drank slowly, and in his drunken state Charles did not notice it. When he put his glass down it was empty, and Mr Federline’s only half so, and he was already pouring him more.
Nicoline wondered if she should tell him. She wondered if it was a game. She wondered if she cared at all.
“Isn’t it time for dessert?” Charles exclaimed, flinging himself back into his chair. “I feel like it’s time for dessert.”
No one had finished the main course yet, but he wanted to be rid of her, and when the master of the house wanted the plates taken away and dessert brought up, warm molasses cake arrived within minutes.
“I must say”, Mr Federline said as they were placed on the table, “that your jewellery is just beautiful, Madame Carmichael.”
Nicoline touched her necklace. It was silver topped and the shape of bands and bows, decorated with rubies and diamonds. From her ears hung big earrings to match it.
“Thank you”, she said weakly at the thought of when she had first gotten them. So much more beautiful they had been at the time.
“I trust it’s genuine?”
“I bloody hope so”, Charles scoffed.
Mr Federline ignored him and smiled encouragingly at her. “Family heirlooms?”
“No...” Heirlooms, heirlooms; at least she knew it had nothing to do with her family. Fingering the biggest ruby, she looked at Charles, who was staring into his glass. “From my husband.”
He looked at her with thin eyes and she gave him a strained smile.
“Well”, Mr Federline said, raising his glass, “they are simply gorgeous.”
“Thank you”, Nicoline and Charles said at the same time.
She did not attempt to make conversation again. Instead she focused on eating her cake quickly but seemingly slowly, because she wanted to leave but not for him to know it. She left Charles and Mr Federline in their own world, and the emptier the wine bottle became, the more laughter could be heard from across the table. At some point she became aware that Charles was often looking at her. His impatience was growing. He wanted her gone.
She dragged out on the last pieces of cake and made a spectacle of drying her mouth with the napkin when she was done. Then with a sigh she stood up, as did the others, Charles relieved and Mr Federline looking desperate to please.
“It is time I retire”, Nicoline said. This one was a phrase she had practiced many times, and it sounded almost as it was supposed to if she said it slowly enough. “Monsieur Federline, I hope I see you again.”
“As do I.” He bowed his head slightly.
“You’re going to bed?” Charles asked in French.
She pursed her lips. “I believe I am.”
He nodded and smiled, and added in English, “Sleep well, chérie.”
Nicoline felt physically sick when she turned around and exited the dining room. She walked back through the hallway that seemed a lot less pleasant now. It was already darker than it had been when they went to dine, and with no talking the clicking of her shoes was the only thing to be heard.
She walked wearily up the stairs and to her bedroom, where she closed herself up and sat down by her dressing table, white with ornate gold and pink patterns and a kerosene lamp on either side of the round mirror. On it stood their wedding picture in a golden flowery frame. They both look younger in that. He is sitting down in a chair with his arm against the armrest, and beside him, in her wide crème-coloured dress, she stands with her hand on his shoulder. They are both smiling. It had taken a long time to take that picture, but neither of them had been able to stop even if they had wanted to.
“My Nicoline”, he had whispered against her neck. “As addictive as nicotine.”
She started taking off one of the earrings, using the other hand to lay the picture down facing the table. This night she did not want to look at it.