We left early in the morning to avoid being seen, at least until we arrived at the train. Robert’s mother said it would be easier that way. I fell asleep soon after boarding. I was tired, exhausted, and my brain had split in two. The pain was always worse in the morning.
I don’t know how long I’ve been awake now, but still I haven’t opened my eyes. Sleep, although never absent from my life, has never been my best friend either. I pretend to love it all the same though, because that’s what we do. We carry on as though nothing has ever been wrong before. The sun pokes at my eyelids, asking to be welcomed in; I ignore the impolite rays and burrow deeper into the solitude that is my thrown-together bed. Why must the day come so suddenly? I only just began to get used to the night.
The train shifts and immediately I am tense. It’s not confined spaces that give me trouble, but the feeling of being trapped. That’s what trains are to me now, or anything that moves and is out of my control really. They are something from which I need to escape. I can’t be in here. I shouldn’t be in here. The forward bumpy motion, the enclosed space, it is something I am all too intimately familiar with, something which I had hoped to never experience again. I am not pleased about being forced into the train after everything Robert and I have been through, but as long as Robert stays with me I think that I can make it. I know better than to handle this without him. One shouldn’t have to deal with a cruelty such as this alone. So I won’t. We are together, as before.
I can hear him stirring beside me. “Tinsley.” He never asks for me anymore. I am a statement of being to him.
“Robert,” I reply, just as matter-of-factly. I know that if I open my eyes, I will see him smiling at me, but I choose to keep them closed. It’s still too early for reality to begin. My voice is met with silence and my throat begins to tighten.
There’s a knock at the door. I groan inwardly, but clamber from under the sheets and feel around for my robe. The room still has that unfamiliar hue to it rooms seem to get these days when you’re never in them long enough for them to accept you. I peek at the lump in the covers. It remains still.
I open the door ajar to see a young lad in a uniform and a disgustingly large toothy smile on his face. He immediately straightens when he sees me and gives a small, hasty salute. I raise my eyebrow at him and his face turns red. He clears his throat. “Will you be taking your breakfast in the dining car this morning, mum, or would you like it to be brought to your room?”
“What’s your name, boy?” He can’t be much younger than me, but just before we were married, Robert’s mother told me I was always to raise myself as far above the help as possible. My mother, a firm believer in anything Robert’s mother was against, would scoff at lessons such as this, but I was eager to please. I knew I could be the perfect daughter-in-law, and grow greater than even Mother dreamed possible. I’m careful to look down my nose at him, emulating the Lady Carleton.
“Er, Fitz, mum.”
“Well, Fitz, I believe I was perfectly clear when I boarded this ridiculous steam contraption that all my meals were to be served in my room unless otherwise stated, and that I was to be left alone.” The red glow on his face quickly fades into a pasty white.
He ducks his head and mutters a quiet “Yes mum,” as I shut the door firmly, sliding the latch into place.
“Poor Fitz,” Robert chuckles. He stretches out in the bed. “Already had his head bitten off, and the morning’s just begun.”
I glance at the bed and shake my head, moving swiftly to the window. Damp moors rush by. The sky is still tinged pink, the cloud wisps looking fragile from their ethereal wanderings. They too seem unready to face a new day. The train shivers once more, and I cling to the windowsill, slamming my eyes shut. I take a deep, slow breath. I will not let it happen again; I repeat my mantra to myself in my head, focusing on it alone. My spine tingles as I sense Robert behind me. I grip my anchor tightly. I do not want to feel this.
Coming into my mind, his voice whispers “Don’t be afraid. Just close your eyes and listen.” My ears flinch. He continues, “I need you to listen to me.”
“I am listening. I listen. I know. I swear I do. None of it…” I struggle with my words. “We can forget these things, sometimes. Let me forget. Let’s play pretend like we used to, wouldn’t that be fun?” I turn around.
“You have to move on, Tinny. I’m worried. I said I would always keep you safe. And haven’t I? So why aren’t you hearing me anymore?”
“I am.” I can no longer tell if I’m speaking aloud.
“No, you’re not.”
I roll my shoulders, trying to alleviate the stiffness that has since been forced into them. The headache only worsens. My body aches. I am slow to move. Every step is a painful reminder. But it never fully makes it. There is something missing. I know it, I do not know what I know, I cannot make up my mind. There is no solitude here. That in itself should say everything but still I cannot bring myself to truly see anything.
I hear people chittering out in the hallway and I’m gripped with the unwelcome twisting of the mind. It’s that paranoid feeling you get when you hear someone laughing and you think they’re laughing at you. They might not be, but you’ll never know, so you’ll go around for the rest of the day thinking there’s something funny about you. Not funny ha-ha, but funny mean. The kind of funny that makes people stare. I’ve gone my entire life experiencing various stages of this. There have always been voices, real or imagined, whispering against me, mocking me, and I am tired of it. Trust me when I say it’s not a pleasant way to live. There are always eyes, those eyes, watching, waiting. Porcelain and perfect. The thought of it makes my skin crawl. Because I am not porcelain. And I will never be the perfection that she was.
The laughter outside our room grows louder. I squirm to get away from it.
The memory ebbs in slowly, and I hungrily welcome the escape it offers. Robert and I are in the garden. The trickle of water sounds off in my ears and I turn towards the pond, where the miniature waterfall flows gently into the creek. We are lying in the grass, the larkspur casting pretty little shadows across our faces. Robert smiles at me and I blush with the attention, eyes fluttering tentatively. I look up into the clouds, lazily stretching my hand out to them. Two magpies fly overhead, and for some reason it makes me laugh. Someday, I say to Robert, I’ll learn to fly, and everything will be as it should. I can sense him grinning. We’ll learn to fly together, he promises. And then we can fly forever.
The train rattles and I’m thrown violently from the garden. I gasp and my muscles contract. Robert lightly touches my arm and I begin to feel safe again. Secure. Whole. Let the feeling never disappear. I close my eyes, begging it to wash over me. In my blindness, I reach out to grab hold of him, knowing full well that he has already moved away, but hoping that he might still be there, waiting for my touch. I follow him to the bed, no longer wishing to see the reflection in the window doing its daily mocking variation. I only ever see myself, and that is the problem which has crawled into my mind and begun to moisten it, rotting out what little is left of the dimming light. I need to escape before the collapse. The eyes have been waiting for the inevitable for too long.
“Has mother been giving you a hard time again?” Robert interrupts my thoughts. I could almost laugh at what he says. A hard time – every breath the Lady Carleton takes gives me a hard time. That woman is the most terrifying person I have ever met. I’m a fool if I think I could ever live up to her, in anyone’s eyes.
On the evening we were to announce our engagement I spent my first moment alone with Robert’s mother. She bustled into the room while I was getting ready and ushered out the help, leaving me shivering in my undergarments. I tugged uncomfortably at my garter, my face bright red at the idea that I was standing before my future mother-in-law in something only her son was meant to see (and mortified still more at the idea that it was she who had been the one who chose what I was wearing). She picked up where the maid had left off, tying the strings of my corset. Despite the latest fashion trends my jealous eyes saw other girls wearing on the streets, ladies did not wear loose-fitting anything.
“How are the classes coming along?” She looked fixedly into the mirror at my reflection. I flicked my eyes away from hers, my stomach dipping in her presence.
“They are,” I hesitated, “interesting, despite them being unnecessary I think.” I spoke as quietly as I could, lowering my head.
Lady Carleton rarely laughed, but air escaped her lungs then in a chuckle-like expulsion at my uncertainty. “Unnecessary?” She raised an eyebrow. “Why would you think that?”
“It’s just… well this isn’t the first grand banquet I’ve been to. I know how to conduct myself in situations like these; I’ve been doing it my whole life. All the girls in the class are much younger than I am. Some would consider that an embarrassing notion.” I bit my lip.
“I see. We’re embarrassing you then, are we?”
My head bounced up and I stared wide-eyed at her, shaking. “No! No, that’s not what I meant, of course not! I-I am honoured t-to take any advice you see fit I should have!”
“My dear, you were not raised to be a lady.”
“Nor was I raised to be a pauper.” I could only hold her gaze for a second before I grew overwhelmed again. I stared hard at my hands, moving only as she tugged on my corset, tightening the laces. I straightened the brushes on the vanity desk, so they all ran parallel to its edge.
“What titles does your family have?”
“None, Lady Carleton.”
“My point exactly. You may come from money, but your family has no history. You are not a lady yet. When you marry my son, you will be, and I want you to be ready for this. I am not doing this to be cruel, only to prepare you for the pressure that is sure to come from the rest of society. Understand?” She gave a final tug on the corset, and I stuttered out a gasp as my chest tightened.
“Yes Lady Carleton.” I lowered my eyes once more.
I focus my attention back on Robert. He flickers in my view, as my vision spasms with the rattling train. My head is pulsing. “I’m tired. I think I should lie down.”
He shakes his head. “You should get out of this room and walk around.”
“No, I don’t want to. I still feel weak. Besides, I can’t face them.”
“I thought you’d learned not to be ashamed of yourself anymore.”
“That was before. When you…” I trailed off.
“Were there to protect you?” he finished for me. “I still am, aren’t I? How much have things really changed? We still talk just the same. Who cares what they think? I’m here only for you.” When I don’t answer, he continues, “Go, Tinsley. It will be good for you. Stretch out the aches and pains.”
“Robert, please.” I can feel my throat begin to scratch at itself. He holds his hands out and I reach for them, just beyond my grasp.
I find myself floating towards the door of our carriage, my resistance wilting away.
Once in the hall, I move slowly. I am still not used to the rhythm of the moving compartments, and I do not like it. My balance wavers on a thin line. We move into the lounge car. I hover in the doorway. The scattered people stir in their chairs, shifting in my presence. Somewhere far away, I hear a baby crying. I look at Robert imploringly, and his face reflects my own. He squeezes my hand. “Be brave for us both.” The words are quiet, barely there. I feel prickly all over, growing colder. Now there are whispers buzzing everywhere around me. My breathing quickens.
“Everyone’s looking at me.” I pull at my sleeve, my chin refusing to raise itself high.
“Ssh, no they’re not. This is all in your head, remember.”
“I don’t want their pity. It’s humiliating.” I am starting to shake. I fight hard to control my breathing. “I just want them to stop. Please make them stop.” My voice wavers, ending in an uncontrollable high note.
“What am I supposed to do, baby?” The buzzing grows louder, a frenzy of nasty black birds feeding on me. The air scalds from their pecking and emptiness turns within me, bubbling up through my throat until it curdles out of my mouth with a suffocating gasp. I feel the grip tighten, and I flee from it, back to the safety of our room. I close my door against the eyes and lean heavily on it. I feel it shake violently against me, or perhaps it’s just me that is shaking, spasming. The train lurches and I drown myself in the covers, hiding my tears from his gaze. He cannot see the suffering, because surely then it will be over. In times like these I must let my mind wander, otherwise I’ll never be alright again. “Get it right, get it right, get it right,” I moan.