She liked to bake bread. She had grown up in a well-off family, of course, but they had never been quite so dependent on servants, so Nicoline had done a lot of things on her own, or at least learned to. She could cook some, enjoyed cleaning small spaces when time was given, and could even repair her own clothes. She would always remember the look of horror on Charles’ face when she had first suggested cooking him dinner. His wife would not lift a finger in the home, she was too precious for that, her hands too small and fragile. If she wanted she could knit and pour up the tea on her own, but work? That was completely out of question.
But it had been a long time now since he had cared one bit about what she did. He had long ago given up on trying to control his wild French wife, with all her strange ideas and ways. As long as she did it in the home she could walk around in trousers or invite the entire whorehouse to dinner for all he cared. Luckily, all she felt like doing was bake bread.
So she sat by a low, long table on a stool. The oven was turned on behind her and heating her back. And that was when Federline appeared in the doorway among all the copper pots and pans on the shelves that ran along the walls. He, after Charles, must have been the last person she expected to meet in the kitchen.
“Good day”, he said with a smile. “May I come in?”
He ducked for the doorway even though he was not too tall too fit under it standing straight.
“It’s so empty in the house during the day”, he said. “I didn’t know you were home. I was feeling a little peckish and didn’t want to bother the servants.”
“Didn’t want?” Nicoline raised a doubting brow.
Federline laughed. “All right. I couldn’t bother the servants. They’re all imported from France, aren’t they?”
“Almost. Here workers-”
“Don’t speak French”, he filled in. “Yes, Charles said.”
He rocked on his heels in silence, seemingly having forgotten his reason for going into the kitchen in the first place. Or perhaps he was waiting for her to offer him something to eat. She would hate to have to admit it, but she did not actually know her way around the pantry or what the servants would not mind her taking. All she had was the dough in front of her.
“Monsieur Federline”, she said. “How do you feel for England yet?”
Charles would have smiled condescendingly and handed her a list of all the mistakes she had made in that one simple sentence, but Federline did no such thing. He laughed awkwardly and made an embarrassed smile, saying, “Well…”
“I know”, she said with a theatrical sigh.
“It’s very English”, Federline smiled. “Speaking of which, I think yours is improving.”
Nicoline felt her cheeks heat. “Thank you.”
She was not going to admit that she had looked up and dusted off her old dictionary, the one Charles had bought her back when they had both been convinced that the English language was something she could master.
“It’s not so difficult”, he had promised. “If even I’m considered well-spoken, you know.”
He had been so funny back then, and always cracking jokes. That was an effort he did not make nowadays.
But she had taken her studies seriously. In bed she had read him page after page with random words in alphabetical order. He had listened carefully for hours upon hours, occasionally correcting her pronunciation. Most of it had gone forgotten, but she had started remembering now that she did it again. Except this time, of course, she read the words out loud to herself.
“What are you making?” Federline asked.
“Bread”, Nicoline said.
“I didn’t know you baked.”
He took a few steps closer to the table and looked down at the dough with an approving look.
“It looks good”, he said. “Not that I’m an expert. I’ll have to try it when it’s done though. I’m better at that.”
If she did not say anything now, it would soon become impolite. And impolite was the last thing she wanted to be to James Federline.
“Will you sit?” she asked, nodding for another stool in the corner of the room.
“If it’s all right with you”, he said. “We never did make much of becoming friends, did we?”
“It’s all right with me.”
He was already walking towards the stool with determination in his steps.
“Did you know”, he lifted it up and came towards her, “I’ve been sitting for a painting for a few weeks now. Now the artist is just painting the background though, so I haven’t had much to do all day. That’s why I’m here, drifting through the house.”
Nicoline, who had returned to kneading the dough with her hands, hummed. It took her a few seconds to process the words, but she found that she understood most of them, given enough time.
“Background”, Federline continued, putting down the stool next to hers, “that’s everything else, behind you, like the oven right now. And all these pots and pans and so.”
She smiled at him as he sat down.
“Thank you”, she said.
“Well, I know what it’s like to be a stranger in a different world, Madame Carmichael.” He gave a compassionate smile in return. “It must be ten times as hard when the language is new.”
For her sake he counted it as a new language after eight years. Not even she could do that any more.
“How is speak in India?”
He shrugged. “Complicated. Haven’t heard much of it. The Englishmen speak English. Is there anything I could do to help?”
“Yes, that-“ She pointed at a pot on the table, nodding gratefully when Federline did the same to confirm that they were talking about the same thing. “Clean?”
“Ah.” He reached out and took it in his hands. “With what?”
“That.” Nicoline nodded to a bowl of white powder that stood between them.
He looked down at it with hesitation.
“Really?” he said. “That looks like it’s for the baking.”
“No”, she laughed. “It is, I think, salt of sorrel? It is much-“ She shook her head, “bad.”
“Poisonous?” He raised a question brow.
“Yes!” she exclaimed, mentally noting the word. “Much poisonous.”
He took a towel from the table and shook his head jokingly.
“And you want me to handle it”, he said. “What a slave-driver. Like this?”
He was just about to dip the towel in the powder. She nodded, and he did it.
They worked in silence for a while. She worked the dough well past how much she was supposed to, and he rubbed salt of sorrel against the insides of the pot with the towel. He looked very concentrated, but a lot more comfortable and experienced than she would have guessed, almost as if he had done this before. The mere thought of Charles sitting next to her like that and contently cleaning a pot was enough to make her snort. Not only was it servant’s work, but female servant’s work.
“What?” Federline asked with a laugh.
Nicoline shook her head but could not make her smile disappear. “No.”
“So you’re just laughing at nothing?” he said, sounding amused. “Not at me?”
“No!” she insisted.
Charles would have- Why did she keep comparing him to Charles? It should have become clear to her at this point that Federline was nothing like her husband. To even imagine the two of them in the same situation was insulting him.
Yet there he was. And he must have been there for close to two months now. She could not understand why he had not fled yet. If she could she would have left a long time ago.
“Okay then”, Federline said, redirecting his attention back to the pot.
Perhaps he was just as stuck as her. If not by the law then something else, but stuck nonetheless.
After that realisation was made they sat quietly together in their shared misery, like two captives working for their daily bread in a prison that looked like an ordinary house. She knew that he understood just like her that a deeper bond between them had been, not quite formed, but discovered. She could not remember when she had last felt so not-alone.
There would not come a better moment to bring it up.
“Do Charles and you,” she wrinkled her nose, “um, still?”
That word was one of the first ones he had taught her. She had pretended to be offended and slapped him softly as a joke. But she would not say it out loud, especially not in this context.
Federline seemed to have understood anyway. He stopped scrubbing the pot, went stiff and grew red.
“Oh”, he said. She could see him try to decide whether he should play dumb or not. “You know?”
She stopped kneading and nodded. He was embarrassed enough for the both of them.
“Well…” He gritted his teeth. “I suppose – I suppose, yes. But we shouldn’t…” He lowered his voice. “Shouldn’t talk about it.”
“Monsieur Federline”, Nicoline said. “I am French. We are not so collet monté as you English.”
He laughed nervously. “I don’t even know what that means, but I don’t think it’s anything good.”
Before she knew what she was doing she had reached out her hand and put it on his arm. She had only wanted to steady it, to comfort him, but she knew the second it happened that she had crossed an invisible line. He froze and met her eyes. For several seconds neither of them could get out a word.
“So you know”, he stated with a surprisingly matter-of-factly voice. “What do you feel about it?”
She slowly retracted her hand and shrugged as if she had not given it a lot of thought.
“Priest I see said it is why no children are”, she said calmly.
And no matter how little sense she made, Federline always understood her.
“Do you think he was right?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No, I do not think.”
She knew the problem was not with Charles, but with her. He gave her children. She was the one who could not bring them into the world.
“I didn’t know you wanted children”, Federline said quietly.
Nicoline just bit her lip and forced herself to smile.
“God”, he said. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t pry.” He scratched the back of his head. “Pry, that’s – that’s when you ask questions you aren’t supposed to.”
He spoke as if he had to add the last part against his will, as if he had no other choice but to define words for her now that he had started doing it.
“And I’m… I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “It is not you.”
He smiled compassionately. “He does it a lot?”
“I think, yes.”
Federline sighed lightly and shook his head in disbelief.
“I don’t understand it”, he said. “I really don’t. When he has you, and doesn’t even appreciate it. I would.”
She sucked in a breath, certain that what she thought she was hearing could not be what he was saying, and his eyes widened.
“I mean, if I had a wife like you”, he explained, “god knows I wouldn’t go running after boys hardly dry behind the ears.”
Nicoline laughed, the last thing she thought she would do. He finally let go of the towel and the pot that he was still holding.
“You do deserve so much more than this”, he said. “You know that, don’t you?”
“No”, she said. “I don’t know.”
Perhaps if she was younger, if she could learn to speak a language, if she could have children, but not now.
He looked down at the table, thinking of something else, but lit up with a smile and picked up the bowl of salt of sorrel instead.
“We should give him a taste of this”, he suggested with a grin.
She smiled in acknowledgment of the joke, even though she did not find it funny in any way. To him it might be a joke, because he was still able to leave. When he failed to perform satisfactory and Charles grew tired of him, all he had to do was take his suitcase and walk out the door. Her only option actually was salt of sorrel.
Federline was farther away again.
He realised that he had done something distasteful, so in an attempt to fix it he decided to put the bowl as far away from both of them as he could. Doing so very awkwardly and hastily he reached across the table, and elbowed the flour bag in the process.
It fell to its side and pressed out a dusty, white cloud that flew at Nicoline before she could defend herself. She threw out her arms and looked down at the dress that had been green and was now spotted white.
“Oh no”, he said. “Your dress! I’m so sorry.”
He reached out to grab the bag and undo the damage, but she waved off his hands and took it herself.
“No!” she said. “I do.”
She carefully raised it up to stand again. Then a deep breath – was this really what she wanted to do? – and she lifted it, tilted it towards him, and, with the speed of light, shook it. A lump of flour landed at his chest.
He gasped in surprise and looked down at himself. She started laughing uncontrollably at how ridiculous he looked. With wide eyes he stared back at her and opened his mouth, as its edges formed into a smile seemingly without his consent.
“Oh, you’ll regret that!” he exclaimed.
Only barely in control of her body because of all the laughter, Nicoline could do nothing when he sunk his hands into the bag and tossed up flour right into her face. Momentarily blinded, she must have thrown the entire bag at him.
The next thing she saw was a Federline that looked like a ghost. He was almost completely covered in white and his clothing was messed up, but he was laughing too. He bent forward, pretending to brush flour of his trousers, and reappeared with his hands full, flinging their content at her.
She shielded her face with her hand and cowered to make herself smaller. There were some more attacks and even more laughter, but eventually the latter seemed to stop the first. She felt safe enough to peek out at the white man beside her.
“Your face!” she screeched, exploding with laughter.
“Don’t think you look much better yourself!” he growled, holding his stomach.
Slowly they pulled themselves together enough to manage to look at each other with only chuckling. Nicoline was still catching her breath. Federline pointed at her, but could not actually speak for several seconds yet.
“You have”, he laughed, “on your eyebrow”
“You have-“ She made her eyes big and smiled.
“Everywhere?” he said. “I know!”
She shook her head amusedly. This had been enough to make her forget for a very long time.
“Hold on”, he said. “I just have to…”
He leaned closer, took her cheek with one hand and rubbed her eyebrow clean with the other, gaining a more serious and concentrated look on his face.
Still she felt that distance between them. He had been so close and now he was so far away. She had been alone, then not alone, then alone again. She wanted the distance between them gone, she wanted him closer again. She did not want to be alone.
Maybe that was why, when he leaned in, she did too. Maybe that was why, when his lips brushed against hers, she did not immediately pull back. For a fraction of a second there, she might even have pressed her own against his. And she could not in any way deny that she actually closed her eyes.
They flew open, and she flew up so fast the stool fell behind her.
“James!” she exclaimed, correcting it quickly to, “Monsieur Federline!”
He almost fell backwards as he too stood up. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do that!”
She took a step back over the collapsed stool. There were a million things she wanted to say – We can’t, we shouldn’t do that, I don’t even know why we did that – but she had no English way to express it. All she could do was scream “No!”
Federline – or James, could she call him Federline when they had kissed? – stumbled backwards as if she was a fierce wild animal intent on attacking him.
“I had no intention to-“ He shook his head desperately.
“He can’t know!” she yelled.
“Why would he know?” Appearing more collected, Federline threw out his hands. “I won’t say a word, I swear! Swear is when-“
She placed a shaking hand over her racing heart and tried to steady her breathing.
“We won’t talk about it”, he decided. “It never happened.”
“It never happened”, she parroted in a whisper.
“And even if it had”, he continued with a calmer voice, “it was only a kiss, and you know he’s done worse. And you wouldn’t have done it if he had actually cared about you, and you wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t done it.”
He could never understand that it was a matter of principle, not whether Charles had done worse or not. It was not about what he had done, but what she had. Because through everything he had done she had always comforted herself with the fact that she was better than that, that she had never sunk so low, but now she had. She had even – may god have mercy on her! – done it with the same man!
“But it didn’t!” that man added quickly.
Nicoline nodded numbly.
“But it didn’t”, she repeated, pretending that it was another sentence which pronunciation she was learning.
He spent a few moments confused about what to do with his hands. They were on his hips, in his hair, holding each other, hanging aimlessly in the air. Then he opened his mouth to speak again, but never did. Instead he turned swiftly, hurried through the room and out the door, where he disappeared.
As if, indeed, it had not happened, because he had never even been there.