Gathering Rosebuds of Rust Nicola Belte
His reputation preceded him. Each letter of his name was a polished pearl upon a string, the tongue a pink, velvet pad beneath them. Fathers grew nervous, mothers swooned; the hair of young ladies sprung overnight into curls, the eyes of young gentlemen narrowed with suspicion.
My mother rushed around the parlour, spraying herself with icy water as she tried to bleed the blush from her cheeks. She couldn’t look too desperate, we couldn’t, she said, meaning me.
She frowned as she straightened down my dress, like I was a little girl. And that was the problem. I wasn’t. I was twenty-five, and unmarried. I had poise, piano skills, and pretty fingers pricked from many an embroidery needle, but not a husband. No longer a debutante, I was just a debt.
“He’s here!” the cook bellowed, like a beast from Baskerville, making my mother and me jump.
“Show some decorum, Mary!” my mother admonished her, before yanking up her petticoats and pushing and pulling me outside.
He had wavy, dark hair that was parted in the middle, and a thick moustache that curled up the ends. He bounced over, as if on springs, wildly waving his ruby-tipped cane as he saw us, threshing all the tulips from their stems.
“A pleasure, Miss Buzzlesby,” he said as he bowed to kiss my hand; as his nose burrowed along my bodice; as his ear found my bosom.
My mother spluttered. Mary coughed. A horse whinnied. I tried to protest but he pressed a finger to my lips, and waved his cane like a metronome, tick, tick, tick, the tip blurring as it quickened.
Was it fear? Desire? Or just because I knew what was in his locked, leather holdall?
“Hmmmm,” he said.
“Is she suitable?” my mother asked, desperately, and then grimaced, as if she’d swallowed a fly.
He worked on me all night, splattered his demented visions across the pale pink canvas of my skin, leaving it bloodied and bruised; coated in candle-wax and soldering fluid.
I ran my fingers around the bumpy rectangle of stitches on my chest, around the tiny keyhole in the centre, rimmed with purple and yellow, over my brand new heart.
“Every morning,” he said, as he looped a small copper key onto a thin, gold chain and placed it around my neck, “you must open it up, and wind it back, and my dear, then you’ll be young and pretty forever. You’ll have years to find a husband.”
I trembled, felt sick. I couldn’t, yet.
A proposal. He’d liked the way that my old heart had felt as he’d cradled it in his bloody palms; liked its weight. Just before he’d thrown it away.
“Ruddy unprofessional!” Mary harrumphed.
“Fate,” my mother said, picking at her threadbare shawl, relieved that he’d waived the bill. I didn’t know, or care, either way.
Every morning I slid my fingers inside my chest, and gave three sharp turns to reverse the cogs. Every night, I’d lay out the gifts that he’d given me; the red roses and the beautiful emeralds and the satin gowns, and I’d feel confused, like a child who’d untied all the silver bows and teased open all the pretty boxes, only to find them empty.
I was convalescing, he told me, it would take a while, and he chuckled and waved away my impatience, for hadn’t he given me all the time in the world?
I was numb the day that we married, stiff at his side with my bright, painted smile, like a wooden figurine on a Chalet Clock.
He does, he did; do I?
Mary creaks in with the soup. From the far end of the long table he calls, “Happy Anniversary.”
Our two children are dining with us, both sitting with their elbows up and their napkins spread across their laps. Edward and Jane. Their names should be italicized, Latinized, like a species. They’re strange, silent moths, always fluttering behind me with their long pale limbs and their desperate eyes, trying to find a flame that isn’t there.
“Delicious,” he shouts over, dabbing at his greying beard.
“Yes,” I reply, marvelling at my smooth reflection in the back of the silver spoon.
Yawns cuckoo from my mouth as he rattles on about the women he’s transforming; the lonely lives that he’s transfusing with hope; the glorious weddings that we’ve been invited to.
“Her mother was delighted…” he says, and stops, the ‘M’ word stuck in his throat, like a fish-bone. “Sorry,” he coughs.
He needn’t worry. It’s been a month since we buried my mother; a month since my “minor malfunction”; a month since my heart had broken down.
As we’d stood at her grave, a sonorous gong! had seemed to emanate from the very pit of my stomach. I yelped, jerked forward; clutched my chest, as the mourners — mistaking my outburst for grief — turned to me, relief embroidered all around their sympathetic faces.
My heart was ticking furiously, as if about to detonate; and I grappled for breath as the sky span and the tombstones blurred and as my feet gave way on the wet grass.
The congregation gasped; the priest’s prayers stopped; my husband thrust his cold hands under my arms, trying to hoist me up, to help me, but his touch made me howl; cry out; made me think: I could tear it out, this wretched thing, I could bury it here; let it wind-down, forever; let it rust amongst the bones; but then it juddered, clicked, resumed its normal rhythm, and it’s been fine, ever since.
Mary pours the custard, and I smile at her, and at him, and at my Edward and Jane, and they all smile back. My heart tick tock ticks in the silence of our swallows, on and on and on, it goes.
“No need to apologise dear, it’s fine, really,” I say. And it is.
I don’t feel a thing.
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