Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Part Seven

So, it's time for Part Seven; thanks so much to everyone who's been reading so far! If you've missed them, here are parts one, two, three, four, five, and six, and as ever, any and all feedback is much appreciated! Hope you enjoy...

When Maxwell was six, his father, Maximillian Maxwell Senior, had given him some advice, which, given that it was the only time he could remember his father being sober whilst talking to him, had stuck with the reverend through many of the trials and tribulations of his life. He could remember the occasion clearly, even now. His father, also a vicar, and his mother, the housekeeper, had been having another of their intermittent arguments about the older Maxwell’s womanising behaviour, which had culminated in Maxwell senior having to be treated for third degree genital burns from a skilfully wielded kettle. As the doctor administered to him, he had looked over at his son, a thin, pale youth already well on his way to developing his own list of social and behavioural problems.

Maxwell still remembered the look in his father’s brown eyes, that strange mix of melancholy and mischief that he had not seen before or since. He remembered leaning in close to hear his father’s words.

“Son, don’t worry about all this. We’ll make up, don’t you fret. It’s like I always say, you should always try and make the best out of a bad situation.”

His mother had left the next day, never to return, but Maxwell had never forgotten the optimism in his father’s tone, despite the leeches the doctor was administering to his most delicate area, and had at that moment decided to live his life by this one and only counsel he’d ever managed to wrest from his parent. He saw no particular reason not to apply it to his current situation; after all, it was certainly a bad one.

He turned his head towards Lydia and said “Well, worse things have happened at sea.”

If Maxwell’s father had been more concerned with him and less concerned with the contents of the next bottle and pair of knickers, he might have given him some more advice. When a woman looks at you in the way Lydia was now looking at Maxwell, like a lion with a thorn in its paw and quite ready to devour the next poor fool who comes along and tries to pull it out, it is time to stop talking and remove yourself from the vicinity post-haste. The old adage, “let sleeping bears lie”, indeed, might have been sufficient, and would certainly not have hurt. Unfortunately, as has been mentioned, Maxwell’s father had not been concerned with Maxwell (indeed his only legacy apart from this one sage piece of counsel was the small silver cross that Maxwell still wore around his neck); this explains why, instead of letting Lydia lie on the floor and keep her thoughts to herself, he kept on blithely trying to make small talk, an act akin to prodding a hornet’s nest with one’s unprotected genitalia.

“I mean, this isn’t so bad, really, is it? Quite a nice place, by all accounts. And people have been in much worse spots before, don’t-cha-know. Rather a quaint old hole, really, all things considered. I must say, I’m actually feeling quite chipper about the whole-“

Finally, far, far too late, he noticed the look in Lydia’s eye, and shut up. Far, far too late.

She stood up, sweeping her dark hair from her eyes, and looked down at him with contempt radiating from every feature.

“Chipper? Well, sir, I am glad you are feeling so happy about the situation! From where I am standing, it hardly looks so – quaint, was it? No, sir, it hardly seems quaint to me; this, sir, seems like an utter hell-hole!”
Maxwell’s feeble protestations about blaspheming in a house of the Lord had absolutely no effect in dampening down the flames of her fury.

“I shall damn well say what I damn well want to say, sir! My mother has just been brutally slain, slain by fiends that I can only assume have been sent by Satan himself-“ she brushed aside his meagre whimper at the Prince of Darkness’ name- “and are now outside the very door you lean against, sir, clamouring to get in and administer the same treatment to both of us! Pray tell me, Mr Reverend, what worse situations have there been than this?”

Try as he might, Maxwell could not call one to mind just at this moment, as he lay wilting like a delicate flower under Lydia’s blowtorch of a tirade. In any case, he did not have a chance to answer; Lydia ploughed on, seemingly without drawing breath.

“And as for this room, sir-it is the worst room we could have selected! From hundreds of perfectly well-furnished possibilities, you have selected this foul-smelling, dusty cave! Yes, sir, cave! For that is all it is apt to be described as! A dark, dingy cave!”

“It has a strong door,” Maxwell blurted out. Lydia, red in the face and with her foot starting to stridently tap on the stone floor, seemed almost taken aback for a second, but she was made of stern stuff, and reacted to this unexpected riposte like a skilled fencer.

“A strong door! And if the door does, by some miracle, hold, sir, what then? What are we to do for food? For water?”

Maxwell glanced over towards the font at the back of the room. With a shrill, almost manic laugh, Lydia walked over to the appliance in question, and knocked off the wooden lid which lay atop it. Even at the other end of the room, Maxwell could smell the foul, decayed stench of long-stagnant water.

“I am no expert, sir, but I hardly think we can drink that. Though you are welcome to try.” She stepped away from the font, her heel sending one of the many dusty and discarded bottles which lay on the floor flying off into the corner. Her lip curled slightly. “Perhaps you could use one of these.” She bent down, picking up another of the bottles and, turning it around, brushed some of the dust off with her sleeve so she could read the label. “Bordeaux, 1634. A fine vintage. How very civilised.”

Maxwell had to make a kind of awkward sitting leap to avoid the bottle as it flew at his head. Shards of broken glass rained down on his by now very dirty cassock. Lydia stood trembling with emotions she was trying to suppress as he finally stood to face her.

As several of those at Louisa Tunnicliffe’s ill-fated tea party had privately noticed, Maxwell was something of a wet blanket, an observance not only directed at his perpetually sweat-soaked clothing. Years of neglect by his father, and being browbeaten by his mother and the band of gossipy old women she used to invite to their home, had indeed turned Maxwell into a man who was rather too polite and, to slip into vulgarity for a moment, drippy to ever truly impress anyone of his acquaintance; to be polite, he had before been described by a man he had known for several years as having “a backbone made of jelly, and a brain to match”. Yet as he watched Lydia standing there, red-faced and shaking, accusing him of leading her to her death as though he had not just saved her life, something snapped within Maxwell. Thoughts he had never allowed to reach the surface of his brain erupted, thoughts he had forced into the deepest recesses of his mind revealing themselves with a sudden surge of hitherto unexperienced anger. Sometimes, the heat of a situation can dry out the wettest of garments.

As Lydia looked on, he turned his face to the floor, eyes closed, and took three long, deep breaths. Then his head rose once more, and his eyes snapped open. He took a step forward towards her, and spoke. His voice was soft after the shrillness of Lydia’s, but there was a conviction behind it that made every word carry to her scarlet ears.

“Miss Tunnicliffe, you have neither the cause nor the right to assault me, verbally or otherwise. I acted only in the best interests of us both, only to keep you safe from those hellish creatures outside. Despite the fact that I have been treated with only disdain since I first arrived here, looked at as a figure of fun for you to flirt with and ridicule, I helped you away from those monsters and have done my utmost to keep you, and myself, safe from their demonic grasp. And, if you will excuse me, I have better things to do than to bandy words with such a spoilt, capricious creature as yourself.”

He strode past her, taking hold of the wooden lectern which stood opposite the font and taking it back to the door, where he propped it up against the jamb in an attempt to strengthen their only line of defence. As he did this, he did not direct so much as a single glance at her. He once again sat up against the door, pushing his weight back against it as it shuddered and shook, and put his head on his chest, keeping his eyes cast down away from the youngest of the Tunnicliffe sisters. For a few minutes were the thumping beats on the door produced by the monsters outside.

Lydia had not moved at all since Maxwell had said his piece. Not a muscle had twitched on her face, not a finger had flexed on her hands. But now, in a much lower voice than she had been using before, she spoke again.

“You think I like having to act like that?” Maxwell looked up at her, now. Her face had lost its expression of poised contempt, had lost the cruel sharpness it had possessed for all the time he had known her. Now, it seemed softer, more open, more scared and alone than he had ever seen a face look before. Maxwell realised he was seeing Lydia without her social mask, and with a jolt realised his anger had given way to compassion.

“You think I like having to constantly scrutinise everyone I meet for faults so that I can comment on them for my mother’s approval? To have to keep up with every single one of the latest fashions so that my sister will still talk to me? To have to constantly belittle my fellows, to always be cold and aloof, to be, as you put it, spoilt and capricious? Always, always spoilt and capricious, because it is what is expected of me!”

Tears were streaming down her face as she spoke, and Maxwell realised they were flooding out of his own eyes too as her words made her pain manifest. “All I ever wanted, from when I was small, was to be able to be myself, to make my own way, to be liked and loved by those around me. But I was never allowed to, no, no care for Lydia, only training in decorum and praise given for sharp wit and not soft-hearted concern. Taught not to care, but to disdain, not to enjoy but to criticise, not to love, but to hate. Taught so much that it became second nature, that it became part of who I am and stopped anyone from seeing anything else, so that I could never love or be loved, but even in crowds I am always alone.” She walked over to one of the pews and sat down heavily, her head in her hands. Muffled by her tears, Maxwell could hear her repeating “spoilt and capricious” over and over in little more than a whisper which cut to his core.

A few seconds passed as she sat sobbing. The Maxwell stood up and walked over to her. He sat on the pew beside her and put his arm around her shoulder.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. She leant into his chest, shoulders shaking, and he put his other arm around her as tears flooded down both their faces.

There they sat, clasped together in their own private moment of intimacy while the monsters of the world outside howled and banged on the chapel door.