Slowly the tip of his sword slid between the laces of her bodice, each breath from her heaving bosom forcing the opening a little farther apart, revealing ever more of the milky white flesh concealed beneath…”
“‘Please, Captain, if you are any kind of gentleman don’t—oh, please…’ Eliza begged, her heart fluttering with both fear and undiscovered longing as the captain’s dark gaze roamed over her tender form.”
“‘You are mine now,’he rasped, his voice husky with desire. ‘Just like this house is mine now, just as this sword always has been!’ Eliza gasped, her eyes widening as she laid eyes on the captain’s burgeoning weapon. ‘Reconcile yourself to the knowledge that you are mine and I will have you at my will, first body, then soul…’”
Ellen’s head snapped up as finally the voice of her son dragged her out of the seventeenth-century darkened chamber with a locked door, where a young puritan maid was about to be ravished by her rakish royalist captor, and back to her kitchen table in Hammersmith. Discovering Charlie at her side, she slipped a folder on top of the latest Allegra Howard manuscript that she had been sent to proofread by the publishing company she freelanced for and fixed her gaze on him.
“Yes, love?” she asked, mildly.
“What does ‘burgeoning’ mean?” Charlie asked with wide-eyed curiosity. Ellen squirmed. How long had her eleven-year-old been standing there reading over her shoulder?
“Burgeoning?” It means… um, to, um, grow rapidly or sprout—like… um, like buds in the springtime.”
“How can a weapon, like a sword, burgeon, then?” Charlie asked, his level blues eyes searching out her gaze and holding it. “Because it’s made of steel, isn’t it? Hard steel. Steel doesn’t burgeon.”
“Obviously it doesn’t!” Ellen agreed. “I’ll be correcting that! I don’t know—these writers, they haven’t got a clue about metaphor. I swear I could do it better myself. Now, what would you like for tea?” Ellen asked, even though she knew the answer, because it was the same every day.
“It might be a metaphor,” Charlie said, casually loosening his school tie. “Maybe the writer is using his burgeoning sword as a metaphor for the man’s erection, for example.”
“Charlie!” Ellen exclaimed, folding her arms across the offending manuscript as if she might somehow stop any further indiscretions from escaping it.
“What?” Charlie said. “I’m only discussing literature with you, Mum.”
“Yes, but… Charlie, you’re only eleven—you shouldn’t be discussing…”
“Erections,” Charlie repeated. “I shouldn’t be discussing erections with my mother? Who should I discuss it with?”
Ellen’s mouth opened and closed as she fought for an answer. For the millionth time, at least, in the last eleven months, the thought If only Nick were here flashed across her mind. But Nick wasn’t here, and Ellen had to try to learn again how to manage without him—something else that she felt she had to learn and relearn many times.
“Well, because you’re only eleven and I’m not sure it’s appropriate for a boy of your age…”
“I’m nearly twelve,” Charlie reminded her.
“Your birthday’s not for two months. Don’t wish your life away, Charlie.…”
The pair held each other’s eyes for a second, an unspoken thought passing between them.
“James Ingram’s mother talks to him about sex all the time,” Charlie challenged her, papering over the gulf that stretched between them with practiced ease. “James Ingram’s mother told him he could ask her anything he liked, and she’s an accountant. She doesn’t read porn for a living, like you.”
“Por… Charlie, you know full well that I don’t read anything of the sort. I copyedit romantic fiction for Cherished Desires, you know that. And if… if you have any questions about anything, you can always come to me, of course you can.” Ellen felt heat color her cheeks. “Is… is there anything you’d like to talk to me about? Sex-wise.”
Charlie stared at her for a long time, and finally Ellen detected the spark of mischief in his deadpan eyes; he was teasing her in that way he had. Deadly serious, edged in equal measure with humor and what Ellen often thought might be anger. Or perhaps frustration that he was changing so rapidly and she was failing to keep up with him.
“Er—no—that would be too weird!” Charlie grinned. “I think James Ingram is a freak anyway.”
How Nick would laugh, Ellen thought. He’d come in from work sometime between nine and ten and they’d stand in the kitchen, he leaning against the counter while she cooked for him, she telling him every last thing that Charlie had said or done, and he would laugh and say something like, “That’s my boy.” With some effort, Ellen held back the threat of tears and smiled at Charlie.
“So how was school today?”
“Same as ever, only I have to get my permission slip in, you know, for the skiing trip—so can I go or not?” he asked, and Ellen realized that she would have preferred the most explicit question about sex that he could think of compared to that one.
“Well, Charlie—the thing is…”
Ellen sat back in her chair and wondered how to tell him what she herself didn’t yet fully understand. She and Charlie were broke.
Nick’s accountant, Hitesh, had visited her just before lunchtime. He’d been a regular visitor over the last months, taking on the financial mess that Nick had unwittingly left her with and battling on Ellen’s behalf to try to get it sorted out, which Ellen was eternally grateful for, especially when neither of them knew how or if she would be able to pay him for all the time he’d given her. He’d told her on the phone that now that at least her affairs could be finalized, she should try to think through any investments or savings that she might have tucked away. Ellen had been unable to think of any. Nick had dealt with all the money stuff; Nick had dealt with everything.
When Hitesh had gone, she made herself a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea and sat at the table for a long time, staring unseeingly at the pile of washed saucepans gleaming like long-lost treasure on the draining board.
There had been two options open to her—to deal with the situation head-on, as Hitesh had advised her, to look at her incomings and outgoings to see exactly how bad her position was, or to finish reading the first segment of the latest Allegra Howard novel, The Sword Erect.
So, once Hitesh had left, the choice had been an easy one, and within a few seconds Ellen found herself lost once again in the heat of that locked room, struggling along with Eliza to fight her barely understood desire for a man she ought to hate but yearned to have.
Then Charlie had talked about erection metaphors and asked her about the school skiing trip and Ellen was firmly back in the last place she wanted to be, the real world.
“There is no money,” Hitesh had told her, sitting at her kitchen table. He spoke kindly, slowly, as if he wanted to be sure that she really understood him.
“None?” Ellen questioned. “But the insurance, the appeal—you said…”
“I said I’d try, and I have—you know that I’ve been on the case since they first refused to pay out, months ago—fighting with them for the best part of a year,” Hitesh reminded her, sipping the glass of cold lemonade she had poured him, loosening the top button of his shirt. “Nick was insured up to the hilt; if he’d got cancer or been run over by a bus, you’d be fine, sorted for life. But he didn’t. Death by dangerous driving, Ellen, his dangerous driving. Look, I know you don’t need to hear all this again—but the skid marks on the tarmac, the distance from the road they found the car—the state of the wreck. The level of blood alcohol. It showed he took that bend at around a hundred and twenty miles an hour, and he was just above the legal limit for drinking. I’ve come to the end of the road: there is no other appeal process or arbitration board I can go to. The insurance company doesn’t care about you, Ellen, or your mortgage, or the years of premiums Nick paid. It doesn’t pay out on death caused by reckless behavior. You won’t be getting any money from them. I’m sorry, but we need to face that and work out what to do next.”
Ellen twisted her wedding ring around and around her finger. She heard Hitesh, but nothing he said seemed real. For the last year she had just carried on as normal, financially at least. She and Nick had had almost twenty thousand pounds in a savings account, which Hitesh had helped her transfer into her household account to tide her over until the insurance money came through. It was meant to be a temporary measure, but month after month had passed and still there was no payout. Everything, the mortgage, the electricity, gas, and whatever else there was had all been paid by direct debit from the household account. Ellen hadn’t even thought to check the dwindling balance, confident that everything would be resolved. But now Hitesh was telling her that that money was running out. And then what?
“Hitesh, the money we had in our savings account—it’s nearly all gone? Won’t there be anything left from the business?” Nick had run a small but successful advertising agency, or at least he’d always told everyone, including Ellen, how well it was doing. When the recession hit he’d pointed to their five-bedroom Victorian villa and his Mercedes in the driveway and told Ellen not to worry.
“Advertising is recession proof,” he’d assured her, planting a kiss on her forehead. It had fallen to Hitesh, not only Nick’s accountant but the executor of his will, to spend the better part of the last year winding up his business affairs, a murky affair that Ellen did not want to even attempt to understand.
“Wages, rent, bills—Nick was behind on all of them and he was late paying his taxes. I’d got him some wriggling time with the revenue to sort out his cash flow, but he… didn’t manage it. Most of what little capital there was, was in the business; the sale of the premises et cetera has gone to them, and you’re lucky that you’re not left owing anyone any money.”
“It’s just… I don’t see how—is it really that bad?” Ellen was disbelieving. “Nick never mentioned anything to me, he never gave the impression that things were tough, that we should economize.”
“You know Nick, he was a traditional man. He never wanted to worry you, and if he hadn’t had the accident you probably would never have known. He’d have got all of this sorted out and everything back on track.” Hitesh smiled fondly. “I don’t know how, but he always did.”
“Do you mean we’ve been in this sort of mess before?” Ellen asked edgily, uncertain if she wanted to know that the tranquillity and certainty of her married life had been compromised before.
“Now,” Hitesh said, avoiding her question, “I’ve had a look at your expenses. The interest-only mortgage you took out on this place is sizable; if you tried to borrow that much these days, no bank would give you the time of day. And you’re tied into a fixed rate for another three years, which is a shame because interest rates have plummeted—you’d be paying a fraction of what you are now if Nick had gone for a tracker mortgage. Should you try and sell and repay the loan, the redemption fee runs into the thousands, so…”
“What? What can I do?” Ellen asked. For the first time, the reality of her situation was nudging its way into her consciousness. All she had concentrated on in the months since Nick’s death was living from minute to minute without him, and that had been more than enough for her to deal with; it still was. And now time had run out and she would have to do something for herself, would have to find a way to deal with this situation—and she had no idea how. Ellen twisted her fingers into a tight knot in her lap, feeling panic gripping her chest.
Hitesh paused, and Ellen wasn’t sure if it was the warm day that made him so uncomfortable or what he knew he had to tell her.
“Right—well, let’s look at the facts. This house is a good size, well located—you and Charlie could move out and rent it, enough to cover the mortgage until you can sell up and pay it back without charges. You’d still need to find a way to support yourself and Charlie, of course, but rent on a two-bedroom place will be a fraction of your current costs and…”
“Rent out our home to another family? Move out, you mean?” Ellen swallowed, her mouth suddenly parched.
“Well, no, you won’t get the same revenue from renting it whole as you would renting it room by room to young professionals or perhaps students. What you’re looking for is to maximize your assets. Now, it’s a bit hooky, renting out without converting the mortgage to a buy-to-let, but I know a letting agent who deals with it on the QT.…”
“But this is home.” Ellen barely heard her own voice as she whispered the words. “It’s Charlie’s home, his safe place. You know how he’s been since the accident. But at least he has his home, his room, his things around him. I can’t take that away from him, too. I can’t.”
Hitesh sighed, pinching the top of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, closing his eyes briefly. When he opened them, he held Ellen’s gaze, making her look him in the eye.
“Ellen, you know Nick was a friend of mine. Shamilla and I consider you and Charlie like family. I don’t want to see you in this position. If there was anything else I could do, I would do it, I promise you—but there isn’t. Nick thought he was invincible, he never thought he was made of flesh and blood like the rest of us. He knew that everything was riding on him coming up with the goods, pulling off a miracle like he always did—it was that kind of risk he thrived on. But this time he couldn’t make everything all right. And even though he didn’t mean to, he’s left you in a mess. Now, if you want to stay in this house without it being repossessed, then you either need to come up with two and a half thousand pounds a month pronto just to survive, or you need to think again. When I say pronto, I mean it—you don’t have enough money in your account to pay next month’s mortgage.” Hitesh leaned forward, his voice softening. “I’m sorry to be harsh, but there it is. I have to make you see. Is there anyone else who could help you—I know Nick’s parents are dead but perhaps yours…?”
“They don’t have any money,” Ellen told him, thinking of her mum and dad in their chilly bungalow in Hove, surviving on a state pension and very little else.
“Then you need another plan,” Hitesh explained. “Look, take some time. Think about it. Talk it over with someone. If you find another way, then great. If not, come back to me and I’ll put you in touch with that letting agent.”
And Ellen had taken some time. But she had chosen not to think. How could she? How could she think about something that was as incomprehensible and irreversible as Nick’s death?
If only Nick were here. The thought escaped her before she could stop it.
“Well?” Charlie asked. “Can I?”
“I don’t know yet,” Ellen hedged. “I need to think about it. It’s a long way away, and you’ve never been skiing before. I’m not sure I want you so far away. It sounds dangerous to me.”
“Climbing the stairs sounds dangerous to you,” Charlie complained, frustrated. “Mum, if you don’t let me go, everyone will think I’m a mummy’s boy. They’ll think I’m on free school dinners! You have to stop treating me like a kid. I’m not going to die, you know; I’m not Dad.”
Ellen dipped her head, feeling the warmth of the manuscript beneath her fingers, as if the heat between Eliza and Captain Parker were escaping between the lines. Just a few flimsy pages away, another world—without debt, or dead husbands or angry boys who didn’t know what they were saying or why—was waiting for her. A world where intensely passionate men stole you from your problems and ravished you into delirious submission, conquering you with their love. A world where you didn’t have to do anything except be irresistible. How could she explain to Charlie that even though she knew he wasn’t his dad, and even though she knew it was highly unlikely that she would lose him as suddenly and as violently as she had lost Nick, she couldn’t persuade her heart to feel the same way.
“So, what would you like for tea tonight?” Ellen asked, weary from the constant onslaught of emotional battles that raged in her head.
Since Nick’s death, Charlie had eaten only the same thing he had on the last day he saw his father alive: fish fingers, white bread, ketchup, and Frosties with low-fat milk. She’d seen in turn a doctor, a child psychologist, and a dietician, and all of them had said that the best thing was to let him get on with it as long as his health wasn’t being compromised, but every time she fed him something from that all-too-short list, Ellen felt like a failure: a mother who couldn’t even nourish her own son, either with the kind of food he should eat or the love and security he needed to feel in order to eat it. It was proof that no matter how much she tried to fight it, Charlie had been steadily drifting away from her since they had lost Nick, each day edging a little further out of her reach. It wasn’t just the money that made it difficult for her to say yes to this skiing trip. It was the thought of him so far away, even farther away than he was standing right next to her now, that she couldn’t stand. Ellen didn’t think that Charlie blamed her for his father’s death exactly. It was more that he seemed disappointed with his remaining parent. The quiet, loving little boy he’d been now strove more and more each day to be entirely independent from his mother, and Ellen was sure that the skiing trip was part of that, too, another thing he could do without her. The more he struggled to be free of her, the more she wanted to bind him to her, to keep him that same adoring little boy who had held her hand at Nick’s funeral.
Charlie dipped his head, his shoulders heaving in a sigh, and then after a second or two he put his arms around Ellen’s neck and hugged her, leaning his body into hers. She tensed, taken off guard by the gesture of affection that had become so unfamiliar to her, missing the opportunity to return the embrace before Charlie withdrew.
“I’m sorry, Mum,” he told her, his lashes lowered. “I’m sorry I’m a pain sometimes. I don’t know why I say the stuff I do. I’m an idiot.”
“No, you are not.” Tentatively, gently, Ellen put her hands on Charlie’s shoulders and looked into his eyes. “Charlie, this last year—we’ve had a lot to deal with, you and I. And you—you have been anything but an idiot. You’ve been an amazing, strong, brave little boy.” Ellen winced inwardly at her choice of words. “Learning to get on without Dad. It’s hard for us both, and sometimes we do and say things we don’t mean to. None of it matters if we love each other and stick together.”
Charlie held her gaze for a second, as if he wanted to say something more, something important. But instead he shrugged and stepped out of her embrace.
“Anyway, I don’t care what the boys at school think,” he told her bullishly, that relic of sweet boyishness passing as quickly as it had arrived. “It doesn’t really matter if I don’t go skiing, I suppose. Emily Greenhurst isn’t going, and she plays the electric guitar.”
“The electric guitar. Really?” Ellen nodded; this Emily Greenhurst name had started to crop up a lot recently. “Charlie, I’ll be honest. I don’t know about the holiday. It’s a lot of money and we’re still sorting out our finances,” Ellen hedged. There was one person she could ask for help to pay for the holiday, even if the thought of letting Charlie go horrified her. These school holidays were always supersafe, Ellen told herself, despite her instinctive misgivings. The school had to make sure they were safe these days… although there had been that case on the news a few weeks back about a boy drowning in a canoeing accident. Ellen stifled her anxiety. She didn’t want him to be the only one of his friends who missed out, even if this mysterious Emily Greenhurst wasn’t going. Ellen knew that her younger sister, Hannah, would give her the money, if she was prepared to ask for it, but she just wasn’t sure that she was, not even for Charlie. Hannah, the bright, beautiful, successful one, had made it her business to be around for Ellen a lot since Nick had died. Hannah had always glided through life so effortlessly, the world falling into place around her. For most of her life, Ellen had felt as if she were trailing along behind her little sister, plodding along through life while Hannah blazed a trail, like a bright shooting star. And then Ellen had met Nick, and for the first time in her life she’d had something that Hannah didn’t. A loving relationship, a husband and a son, a proper family home. And as foolish and as shallow as it was, while she had these things Ellen had felt like her sister’s equal, her superior, even. But now all but one of Ellen’s treasures had either gone or were on the brink of being lost, and it would cost her a lot to have to turn to Hannah for help. Even for Charlie.
“I’ll try my best, okay? And in the meantime, please don’t call people trash. Or ‘gay,’ if you’re using it as an insult.”
“But it’s okay if you’re using it as a compliment?” Charlie quizzed her. “Like, oh, Simon Harper, you are so wonderfully gay!”
“Charlie.” Ellen repressed a smile. “You are nearly twelve years old. You know what’s wrong and what’s right—try and stick to it, okay?”
“Okay.” Charlie grinned. “I actually think Simon Harper is gay, though.”
“So, fish fingers?” Ellen smiled, ever hopeful that one day he’d change his answer.
“Yes, please, Mummy.”
Ellen didn’t know what broke her heart more, the scars left by his father’s death or the fact that sometimes, just for a fleeting moment, her little boy forgot to be all grown up.
© 2010 Rowan Coleman