Eugene Watkins has a problem, though nobody talks about this. A nasty little worm of a problem, it takes up all the space in his head every hour of every day.
Fanny Suresha, nee Watkins until that very afternoon, has a problem of an entirely different hue. Everyone mentions it, most frequently Fanny herself. Her new husband's job overseas, a consulate position, very well-paid yet him so far away for all that time. She shouldn't complain, an embarrassment of riches really, but honestly, she will miss him dearly.
Eugene cannot bring himself to feel sympathetic for his sister, dear though she is. The romance of the fair Fanny Watkins and the rich diplomat Felix Suresha has been a tumultuous affair, replete with comedic misunderstandings, tearful reunions and a chaotic dash to the altar; an affair into which Eugene found himself wound and unwound, the shoulder to cry on and the barbed wit as necessary . Four Singapore Slings down, Eugene sidles unnoticed between bridesmaids and ushers. He loves dancing and has a magpie's fondness for sparkling things. Yet he finds himself curiously untouched.
The delicate matter of children is raised several times at the reception. Eugene and Fanny's mother dismisses it with her usual candour. “That is what a honeymoon is for,” she says to Eugene later, “Fanny will make a wonderful mother,” though Eugene does not know what this assessment is based on. His mother pats his shoulder and straightens his gray cravat. “And you would have made a wonderful father too.”
The entire room—furnishing, the people in their finery, the platters of food, the drink in crystal glasses—is black and white and the little shades in-between.
Eugene has no intention of remaining at the party long, but as the hours wear on he finds himself distracted by one of the guests, a man Eugene cannot remember seeing seated during the ceremony or the following meal. While dancing with cousin Beatrice, and then cousin Georgine, and later cousin Effrygia (“We so love dancing with you, Eugie!”) he recalls his mother's usage of 'would', realising that the word releases his from familial obligation, free to become the broken branch on the family tree.
This realisation lends him courage: he looks around for the man. Not seeing him anywhere, Eugene leaves his spinning cousins to circle the room. He spies the man several times amongst the crowd, but as soon as he makes pursuit, the man would vanish. Can people be mirages? he wonders.
By the perspiring string quartet he is cornered by Fanny dragging a girl behind her. Her prisoner is perhaps a few years younger than either sibling, solid and fresh-faced in the manner of a milk-maid in an advertisement, barely contained by her evening gown. “Eugie, darling, I so wanted you to meet my friend Cecily. I've told her so much about you—”
“Not now, Mince-pie,” Eugene says, and enjoys the wince the childhood nickname elicits. “Have you seen a gent... He's...” The man possesses a distinct color: blonde hair. “He's very handsome,” says Eugene.
Fanny purses her lips in distaste, as if Eugene is a cat who has deposited a half-eaten mouse on her pillow. “Now, you know I only have eyes for one handsome fellow—my Felix.”
Cecily sweeps to his rescue. “I think you must mean Mr. Frank Stallard. He is rather a dish, isn't he? He's a director, I heard—for the moving pictures.” She utters the last words with the sort of hushed Catholic awe reserved for the holy mother.
Over her shoulder, there is a flash of blonde, departing for the hall. Eugene grips Cecily by the shoulders and kisses her on the cheek. “Thank you, dear. If you'll both excuse me...”
He runs for the hall. Emerging into its solemn hush, he is disappointed to find no phantom movie director; in fact, his only company is four marble busts, the grim visages of his grandfather, great-father and so forth, judgemental in the gloom.
A door closes, the sound of the quartet and the stamp of dancing feet muted. In the back of his head, Eugene's nasty little problem squirms for attention.
“My darling Bakewell Tart,” says Fanny, with all the menace one can invest those words with.
“Yes, my favourite Mince-pie?” She stands by the foot of the stairs and he notices for the first time: she is not wearing anything blue. Not on her white dress. There is no sign of blue, or any other colour, in the entire household, though there is an oriental carpet and portraits on the wall. All pitch-black or ghost-white.
“That was very rude. My friend is a lovely girl. I had rather thought that...” She sighs. “But no. You're pursuing some damned man around the house like some... sunset lover.”
Eugene sets aside the glass. “Darling, we cannot all be so lucky as to net ourselves such a plum specimen as your wonderful Felix, can we?” Actually, Eugene thinks that Felix looks like a gooseberry about to burst, but to say such to Fanny would be akin to kicking a bull. “Come to think of it—shouldn't you be upstairs by now, making the next generation?”
Her face contorts. “Honestly, you are foul, you know that? It's my wedding day—why can't you behave?” She storms up the stairs. As she approaches the landing, Eugene counts down; Fanny always carries on after she should stop. “There's no man,” she shouts down at him. “There's no man, and there never will be.”
Then she is gone, and Eugene finds himself in his bedroom, alone.
You would have made a wonderful father, whispers the room, and we love dancing with you, Eugie! In the back of his head, his nasty little problem stirs and stretches.
He reaches under the bed for the carpet-bag stashed there. Until now, he wasn't certain that he was going to open it. Inside is a rope, thick but easy to knot. Eugene has tested it. Standing on the dressing stool, he loops one end over the light fitting and pulls the knot tight. He holds the other end, already tied with a slipknot, in his hands. The rough fibres scratch his fingertip. His nasty little problem is wide awake now; it's scratching its nasty little fingernails and chattering with its nasty little tongue. You're foul, whispers the rope.
He places the rope around his neck and closes his eyes.
The blonde man—Frank Stallard—is inside his head, Eugene is sure. This is not how your story ends, Stallard says. Do you understand?
Eugene's feet are on the edge of the dressing stool. He feels himself slip, and the rope pull tight around his neck. He opens his eyes, fumbles to pull it loose and slip free. He collapses to the stool, drawing his knees to his face and wrapping his arms around his head.
The sound of the reception can be heard from below, and Eugene feels like he did when he was a boy, sneaking out of bed to watch his mother's extravagant parties through the gaps in the banisters. A strong sense that he should not be there to see any of this, trembling first with terror and then elation.
He awakes the next morning to what feels like the worst hangover he has ever experienced. Inspecting his neck in the mirror, though there is only the faintest of scuffing to the delicate skin, he is certain the imprint of the rope is emblazoned there; he ties a fresh cravat tightly. He looks into his own grey eyes and shivers; he feels disconnected from the day, as if the morning light from the window should pass straight through him rather than alight upon his beaded brow and pallid cheeks.
Downstairs, he pauses at the door of the dining room. He hears Fanny's voice from within, plaintive. “It's so sad, of course it is, but quite honestly—why that day of all days? It was my wedding...” More voices join hers—the cousins, comforting her, and Eugene thinks he recognises Cecily's voice amongst them too.
He steps through the door. “Good morning!”
Fanny freezes mid-sentence; Eugene almost laughs. His sister isn't moving—none of them are. They are frozen in a tableaux of confusion, and Eugene is struck with how ridiculous they look.
As one, their pause unspools. “I thought you were—we believed you to be—” Fanny casts around, looking to the left and right. It is as if she is in a play, Eugene thinks, and has forgotten her lines. He cranes his neck for the prompter in the wings, but there is no-one. “Is this some cruel game? I was given to understand you were... indisposed.”
“I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.” He stifles laughter, and instead piles his plate high with monochrome eggs, bacon and mushrooms.
Cecily's cheeks are streaked with tears. She looks at him uncomprehendingly. “You're here! I was thinking, perhaps—I mean, Fanny suggested yesterday, before you—before...” She stops, scrunches and un-scrunches her napkin in distress, and starts again. “Perhaps we could go boating today? The weather is really delightful.”
Eugene bit into a slice of gray toast. “Top idea, old sport!” He eyes Fanny. “What's wrong, Mince-pie?”
She looks down at her empty plate. “Nothing, nothing.” They watch him eat in silence, as if he is a rare species in a zoo they can't quite believe exists, let alone consumes scrambled eggs.
His plate finished, he asks the ladies if Stallard stayed the night at the house. “I thought perhaps I might seek his company this morning. I am so fascinated with the moving pictures.”
Fanny's mouth sucks into a moue of discontent. “No. No-one of that nature.” The word nature drips with the same oily accusation of would. Eugene is astonished to feel the word pass in one ear and out the other; his nasty little problem doesn't so much as stir.
He shrugs. “I'll look for him myself.”
Fanny stands and hurls her napkin to the table in disgust. “If you're going to be like that, Eugie.” She makes for the door, then stops and turns on him. “Honestly—you are foul, you know that? It's my wedding day—why can't you behave?”
He is the good kind of tired after a day boating with Cecily. The girl had been a delight; she had quickly forgotten her upset over breakfast and arrived at the lake fresh-faced and excitable. The day was marred only be his failure to find Stallard anywhere on the premises, but he had been uplifted to realise as he and Cecily rowed across the lake and she told him about her upbringing in the Dales that he felt not the faintest stirring of his nasty little problem in the back of his head. Now his legs and arms ache as he ascends the stairs and walks the corridor to his chamber.
The chambermaid has made his bed. She has helpfully neatly folded his pyjamas, dusted the dressing table and the mirror, opened the curtains. With forethought, she has provided Eugene with everything he will need for the evening: a fresh bar of soap, the bowl refilled with cold water, and a hanging rope from the light fitting.
The loop hangs there, empty, waiting for his neck.
This is not how your story ends. Agreed?
Eugene pulls the dressing stool to the centre of the room and climbs onto it. He runs his fingers over the length of the rope, then unknots it from the light fitting, opens the window, and drops it out. The rope curls in the flowerbed below like a snake. Satisfied, he closes the window and draws the curtains.
That night he sleeps deeply, the inside of his head as still and quiet as a lake in winter.
Red No. 2 is the fiction section of Harlot Media, serializing one story per month. New installments are published every Friday. We focus on queer, intersectional, #ownvoices fiction with an eye for the strange and beautiful. Submit to us through this form.