When next I leave the room, I do so without Robert. Perhaps it is better this way. Perhaps it is possible. But the moment I feel the train rattling beneath me, and I’m hit with the benumbing anxiety, I know that it is not. I need him. I’ve gotten as far as the lounge car once more, but I won’t go any further. I’m about to make my way back, when I’m accosted by two women I recognize to be distant acquaintances of Robert’s mother. I shift uncomfortably in their wide gaze with their wider, phony smiles bearing down on me. None of the Lady Carleton’s friends were particular fans of mine, as I had married Robert young and the marriage, which was still fresh, had been one that they had all hoped would be held for their own daughters. I’m sure they had all continued hoping, until very recently, that a marriage like that could still occur, if only I could soon be out of the picture. Unluckily for them, that’s not what happened. Instead this happened. Whatever this is. I can hear myself breathing and I tell my lungs to stop. Everyone can hear you; everybody knows. Stupid little girl. Stop.
One of them takes my hand in hers; it is moist and her grip is too firm. “Such a tragedy! Not one of us should ever have to go through what you are, my dear. Poor Robert…” She clamps her mouth shut. I wince at her blatant courage, peeking around to ensure that no one is really listening. I’m aware that most people on this train know me at least by sight, but still I hope for the common courtesy that they will pretend they don’t. My only qualm with marrying Robert had been all the attention it would bring to me; I was a girl who preferred the background of things, unsure still of how exactly I managed to attract the attention of one so public as Robert. Lady Carleton was right of course when she scolded me that night; my family is nowhere near the caliber of the Carletons, and everyone with their judging scornful eyes knows it. Robert’s mother never understood it either, he and I together, but she allowed it, only because she loved her son more than class, and I think she had even begun to accept it. Now however, I fear she may have grown cold towards me again. I blame myself as much as she must.
“It’s wise to get out of London. The countryside will do you well.” The other woman is speaking now. She is wearing a headdress with a tall pink ostrich feather stretching upwards. It flutters aggressively every time she moves her head. I nod politely, feeling more and more like a cornered doe. “I assume you’ll be staying at Robert’s estate up north?”
“Yes.” My voice hinges against my throat. “Lady Carleton is there already. From there, we will make the proper arrangements.” It is a stuttering mess of a sentence. I look away, wanting nothing more than this conversation to end. I murmur some pathetic excuse and begin to slip past them.
“Of course, dear. Get some rest; you look far too pale.” I do not know which one spoke but I hate the two of them equally for it.
Mother said I was a paranoid child, scared of my own imagination. I often shut myself away because the panic grew too great at times. She said it was something I would have to learn to control. I’ve tried. I’ve tried very hard, and for a time it seemed I’d been successful. I met Robert, and things just sort of became easier to grasp. It seemed as though I truly wouldn’t let it happen again. But despite my deepest strives for perfection, the buzzing always made its return, and I couldn’t always outrun it. Falling back was so much worse after I had gotten so far. Bouts of girlish whims. Mother told me that to explain away the tears, because that is what the doctors told her. But that only made the tears come more frequently. Bouts of girlish whims.
One day, not long ago it seems, Robert found me hiding in the closet. He stopped my shaking with a soft touch to my shoulder. He sat with me until my breathing had returned to normal. I wasn’t humiliated, not with Robert. He had seen everything, knew the worst of me. He understood, and let me talk about it, not like Mother. He did not look down on it. He told me he had tried to kill himself when he was eleven by falling out of a tree, because it seemed a poetic way to go. It didn’t work though; he only broke his arm, and his mother refused to leave his side for months after. Yes, Robert understood the pressure, better even than I. I’ll always be there for you, he’d softly purr into my ear. No matter what, when you need me I’ll be there. I remember lying with him, on the darkest of nights, when the tears flooded without any warning, and I had whispered to him that I had never known quiet or peace and that everything around me had always been a vibrating blackness pressing against my eyes and my nose, suffocating me. I breathed easier because of Robert, much easier than ever before. I felt very much like a child who had just been given a new toy, unsure of how I would react were it to be taken away from me after I had cleaved to it. There always was the fear that someone would come and take him away from me, no matter how unreasonable that seems. More than ever, I understand now why I need Robert, what he is to me, and what I am to him. The dream. Our dream, only ours. The dream of flying together forever stands more golden in my mind than ever before. I just need to get it right. Get it right, get it right, get it right. I go to find Robert, to keep his promise true.
As I move along through the car, avoiding eye contact with anyone where I can, I spot the newspaper in the grubby hands of a woman and I stop suddenly. On the front of the paper, there’s a picture of a contemptible car, all broken and ugly, and it makes me sick. I hate that car. I want to tear the newspaper from the woman’s hands and scream – Why are you reading that! The woman notices me staring and she looks shocked, hiding the paper in embarrassment. No, not embarrassment, amusement, glee even. The laughter has started up again, echoing all around me. My teeth grind circles in my jaw, feeling closer to the collapse. My knees mimic my brain, weakening. There is a searing pain in my head. I deflate against a chair. Stop laughing at me, please stop it! The room morphs around me, black waves buzzing into my ears and eyes. Stop!
Somehow I find my way back to my room. Robert is waiting patiently for me. He has not moved from where I left him. “Are you listening now?” he inquires, his voice sounding far off and fleeting. I wave my hand, pushing down the doubt. He sits firmly before me now, and my body slowly unfurls itself from its clenched state.
“Will your mother hate me?” I ask.
Now it is his turn to wave his hand. “She never hated you.”
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
He looks at me carefully. “No one can be blamed for what happened. It was an accident.” I know what he says is true, but it still makes me bristle. Useless, useless girl.
I’m aware of my voice getting higher and higher, aware of the foretold hysteria setting in. Aware but not mindful. “I told you I didn’t want to go out that night. We could have stayed at home.”
“I had to go. You know I had to go. It was business.”
“There were plenty of other dinners on plenty of other nights we could have gone to.” Suddenly I notice the waistcoat and top hat. There is a little line going across Robert’s forehead. “Why are you wearing those?” I begin to panic.
He looks at me apologetically. “What else am I to wear? It’s up to you.”
“I don’t like it. Take them off.” The words are choked over crescendos of breath. My eyes remain fixated on the line. It makes me uneasy. I lie down, my head spinning. I need rest, I need sleep, let me sleep Robert, just let me sleep! I can get it right. Right. Right.
When I was very small I fell apart and got sewn back up together. Now all I see are the bits and cracks, where blackness slides in creeping. This is where the buzzing began, where all I saw of me was wrong. Bad girl, rotting girl, you ugly little thing, when will you get anything right? Bzzz. I feel the porcelain eyes judging me. And the panic sets in, and I am both clutched so tightly I can hardly breathe but also tossed out with nothing to hold me close. The darkness has gobbled me completely now. Let me go, please just let me go. Bzzzzz. I will not let this happen again, I will remain in control this time. Robert where are you? Am I screaming loud enough yet?
I awake to find Robert missing. I stare around the room, half-heartedly thinking he’ll simply appear again. When he doesn’t I go out to look for him. My fingers are in the fidget mode, scratching and picking at the seams of my skin. The train hits a bump, throwing me off balance and I cry out, and just like that I’m in the car again. I hear the tires screeching. All I see is black. Then comes the loud crash and I am thrown, jerked hard against the door. I’m trapped, I’m trapped! Get me out of here! Something within me gives way. Blurred images flash and I’m disoriented. Through the haze I see Robert’s body nearby tangled in the glass, his coattails hiding the worst of it. There is a long gash along his forehead that won’t stop bleeding. I try to reach out to him, but he is too far away and I cannot move.
“Mrs. Carleton, are you alright?” The voice brings me back to the train’s corridor. A portly man in a pinstriped uniform has his hand on my arm, supporting me. I quickly straighten, blinking blankly at him.
“Yes, I’m fine.” He knows, he knows, he’s going to take him away from me! Stop!
He does not look convinced, but is kind and doesn’t press it. “Are you feeling well enough yet to sign these?” He holds up some papers to me, along with a fountain pen. When I don’t answer, he continues. “We do need them for the transfer of the body, ma’am.”
“Yes ma’am, your husband’s body.”
I hear silence. Even the buzzing has stopped. Stop. Stop. Don’t. Come back. “Of course,” I whisper. It comes from nowhere. “I’ll take those.” He hands them to me and tips his hat before drifting away.
I stand before the window, twisting and ripping the paper in my hands. I feel it begin to fall apart, slowly at first, but hastening its destruction as more and more pieces peel away and hurtle to the ground. I alone am reflected back. “Robert.” Never asking for him, only hoping he still has a state of being, somewhere.
“I’m here.” I turn to his voice and see him standing beside me. The line on his forehead has gotten bigger now, a jagged ugly gash, painted out by blood. My eyes flicker back to the empty reflection, my brain itching. Come back.
“Are you really though?” I trace my fingers along the window, drawing in his shape. “I can’t feel you around anymore.” I wipe my eyes. “You promised forever. I need you now. Now. Now.” I press my forehead against the cool glass, but then quickly lean away again. There is no longer comfort in my repetition.
“How could I have known that this would happen?”
“You promised forever!” I must be screaming now, surely he must hear me now. I see my reflection shatter. My head ticks with a sharp thrust every few seconds. It hits the glass. I feel it giving way. “I’m not ready to be alone. Please don’t leave me. I’m scared.” Tick-thunk, tick-thunk, tick-thunk.
When I was very small, I broke my porcelain doll. She fell from my bureau and threw herself against the floor. I didn’t cry. But I had to look away. I bundled up the little pieces, tucking them back into her silky dress. I brushed her hair, smoothed every crease. The bundle went into my closet, away from the light, so no one could ever turn their eyes from her in disgust. But it was her eyes I should have been worried about. They were nothing more than broken ugly pieces, but still they judged me. I told no one about what I did. I loved my porcelain doll. Didn’t I?
I look to where he was, but he’s already gone. The panic begins to rise again, and this time I cannot swallow it back down. The world has turned into a slow moving black swirl that is pulling out my breath. I open my mouth but cannot remember how to breathe. “Robert!” I see a flutter at the other end of the corridor, the tails of a waistcoat slipping around the corner. I run after them. “Robert!” I shriek.
I chase the tails to the end of the train. Robert looks back at me and smiles, putting a finger to his lips. Forever and ever. He gestures me forward before opening the final door. I follow, floating out into the cold. The train is moving fast, causing the wind to rush all around me, but I hardly notice it. I stand at the end of the train, with nothing but a rail between me and the tracks below, clicking away as we whiz over them. I take a deep breath, but I am done trying to be porcelain and I cannot bear the staring any longer. I close my eyes and fly.