Chapter 1: Prologue
The sun was shining bright, the men were all in their suits, and Tommy pinned a white flower to John’s lapel as John stood staring at him in dread of whatever that steel-eyed fucker was going to say.
“Smile, John,” Tommy said. “It's a wedding.”
John looked like a spooked horse about to bolt. “Whose bloody wedding?”
“Now if we'd told you, you wouldn't have come. There's a girl from the Lee family who's going a bit wild, and she needs marrying off.”
“You have no bloody right, Tommy!”
“Listen to me. Listen to me. A girl who needs a husband. A man who needs a wife.”
“Tommy, it can’t fucking happen—”
“Shh, John boy, come on. Listen, I’ve already betrothed you.”
“There’s something you—”
“If you back out now there's going to be one fucking mighty war breaking out here that's going to make the Somme—”
“It's going to make the Somme look like a fucking tea party. But if you marry her, our family and the Lee family will be united forever, and this war will be over. It's up to you, John. War, or—”
“Will you shut the fuck up?”
That startled them all, Tommy included, into a split second of perfect silence, into which John said: “You lied to me about Lizzie.”
“John, that’s not—”
“She’s not seeing other men any more.”
“ —fucking relevant—”
“You lied about Lizzie to me, so I lied to you about Lizzie too.”
“Lied about what?”
Tommy’s disbelief lasted all of fifteen seconds. “Jesus.”
“What do you want me to do? Do you want me to leave a bastard in the world, and just fuck off with my life, make Lizzie handle it on her own?”
“Do you not know what a rubber is? Did I not fucking show you when you were all of fucking thirteen?”
“I’m going to be a father, Tommy! Do you want me to leave her? Do you want me to be like Dad?”
“Tommy! Arthur!” Johnny Dogs, evidently unable to wait any longer, strode down the lane with an anxious smile on his face. “And John, there you are. You’ll do. You’ll do nicely, eh?” He clapped John on the shoulder.
Arthur and John just looked back at him, stricken. Johnny looked at Tommy, who looked at John and then back again. He rubbed his face and came to some kind of a decision, motioning Johnny aside and speaking quietly. “Listen, ah…” He cleared his throat. “John can’t make the wedding.”
“What do you mean? It’s his wedding! He’s right there.” Behind all of his good humor, there was a bit of a strain.
“He can’t make it.”
Johnny Dogs deflated like a cut balloon. He seemed more dismayed than angry, really. “What happened, Tom? You said we had a deal.”
“And I’ve got all the family waiting up there, and we killed a deer for this, and there’s music and all the kids are dressed in their best. All ready for a wedding.“
“I know, but Lizzie’s pregnant.”
“She’s—it doesn’t matter. John’s going to be a father.”
“I thought he already was.”
“He is. He’s just going to have another child.”
“Well, Jesus, Tom, this is all very complicated.”
“That it is, Johnny. That it is.”
They both stood in unpleasant silence, Johnny chewing on a toothpick, Tommy leaning on a tree looking ill at ease.
“Well, what are we gonna tell them, Tom? Of course John boy can’t marry her now, but they’ll see this as an insult. You’re breaking your word. Not to mention placing this Letty woman above their own kin.”
“Tommy?” That was Arthur speaking, and even though Tommy didn’t look over, he was tempted. He was so, so fucking tempted. But Arthur wasn’t a man you’d push on any woman. Not in his current state, with the nightmares, and the snow, and having just beat a boy to death without realizing it.
“Too bad Ada can’t marry her.” Tommy half-smiled. “I don’t have any other—“ Oh shit. Shit.
He reached in his pocket.
“What is it, Tommy?”
Tommy took out a cigarette and lit it up, resolve crystallizing in his blue eyes. “Tell them we’ll be up in a minute.”
“What am I going to say?”
“You don’t need to say anything, Johnny. I’ve just found the bridegroom.”
Tommy took one last, long drag, then dropped the cigarette and ground it into the dirt with his heel.
Chapter 2: The Ceremony
“Come on, Tom. Kiss the bride, will ya?”
“What did you tell them about me?” said Esme.
“Told them you needed marrying off.”
“Is that what I need.”
“What you need is a good smack.”
“Which I’ve gotten aplenty.”
Esme’s aunt fastened one last hairpin and stepped back to get a full look at Esme in her white wedding dress and veil. “Yes, well, it’s up to the Shelby boy now. Poor bastard.”
“If he touches me, I’ll cut his cock off.”
“I’m sure you’d like to.” She stepped closer. A few years ago she would’ve been Auntie Kat, but here, staring down into Esme’s eyes from that height, with not even the trace of the smile, she wore her full name, Katarina. “But you will treat him as a wife—”
“—shouting at him at all hours for being a fat drunk?”
Katarina seized her jaw in a viselike grip. Her voice was so quiet, Esme had to strain to hear it. Hated that she was even trying to hear it, but there was so much power running through it, so much power running down her arm into Esme that Esme’s jaw hurt, and she couldn’t look away.
“You can argue all you want, Esme, but don’t you ever forget that I know you. Don’t you try to pretend that this wedding is anything but a gift. You came to me, asking for a way out. You came to me at a time when Zilpha wanted to cast you out, when nobody else was even fucking speaking to you. After everything you did.”
“Marriage is not what I had in mind,” Esme managed to say, but the words came out squashed and clumsy.
Katarina released her and went to go check on her own reflection in a small hand mirror. “With absolutely no money, no power, and not a scrap of the family honor left, you should be on your knees thanking me. Not even my own daughter had a car for her dowry. And the groom’s rich, he’s young, and he only has two children.”
“Being a mother isn’t so different from being a nurse. You can help if one of them gets colic.”
“I didn’t train for colic. I barely trained at all. And what does colic have to do with bullet wounds and amputations?”
“Well, maybe colic is a bit more like tuberculosis. You’ve had plenty of training for that, haven’t you.”
Just as Esme’s mind narrowed to a single, unbearable longing to beat her aunt bloody with that pretty silver mirror, Johnny Dogs entered the tent.
“There you are,” said Katarina.
“Sorry, there was a complicated thing. It doesn’t matter, he’s here now. You look lovely, Esme,” he said, breaking into a genuine smile. “Lovely.” He gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you.” Esme smiled. Bless him, he was the only one left that was any good.
“If her cunt is as sweet as her face, she’ll be all right,” said Katarina. “Just remember, Esme. Food and fucking. And keep the children out from underfoot. Men are simple creatures.”
“I’m, ah, sure she’ll be grand, won’t you,” said Johnny Dogs, having the grace to look a little embarrassed.
“She’d better be.” Katarina motioned at Esme to follow her, then walked out of the tent.
Esme lingered. “What’s he like, Johnny?”
“You’ll be alright, Esme. They’re good people.”
Oh fuck. If Johnny Dogs couldn’t think of something nice to say about him… “That’s not what I asked.”
“Aw, he’s a good-looking boy, and I’m—”
Katarina poked her head back in. “You can’t be late to your own fucking wedding.”
“Right,” Esme said, mostly to herself. She’d had men before. She’d had worse than men before. How hard could one husband be?
Outside, the sky was bright and Zilpha was waiting. Esme took her arm.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Esme said, as they set off across the grass. “Katarina already scolded me enough for a hundred weddings.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything. I know you’ll be a proper wife,” Zilpha murmured back. Perhaps a stranger would interpret this as comforting or even kind, but Esme knew the shape of her real smile, and this wasn’t it. This was the smile for when company was coming over.
There was everyone, yes, by the wagons; there was a knot of men in gray, white flowers on their lapels and all. Absurdly, this was the moment Esme’s heart chose to start racing, the moment her mind stopped thinking. She barely managed to catch a proper glimpse of one of them, and it was a grinning, mustachioed man who was clearly too old to be her future husband. Fuck. Fuck.
There was the two boxes, a pillow atop each. Esme knelt. She heard the man come up beside her. Johnny Dogs was standing before them, talking, something about matrimony, but she couldn’t catch the words if she had been trying to. God, would he never stop talking? She couldn’t stand it. The man was staring straight ahead—that much she could see out of the corner of her eye—but fuck it. She lifted her veil, thought of someone she loved, and put on her best sunshine face.
For one terrible moment, he didn’t even seem to notice; then he turned to look, lips curving into a small smile, barely an echo of her own. He blinked, and then the smile spread to his eyes, but by then it was too late. The first thought she’d ever had of her husband was that his eyes were cold, like the eyes of a dead fish. And there was no shyness there, no curiosity, nothing that showed that he cared about who she was, about what she thought. Even his fear would have been preferable to his indifference, and now she felt her own fear rising again, at the worst possible moment. It was all she could do to keep her smile in place.
A knife now. Yes. “The mingling of the bloods,” said Johnny Dogs. Something in her surged up and broke through the fear, something small and hard and irrational and angry.
Fuck you, she smiled at him as the blade sliced open her hand. A cut’s nothing. Do you see?
In return, his smile turned something satisfied, almost, as if this was a pleasant surprise, which only made her angrier. Presently her hand was in his, or his was in hers, the blood mingling sticky and warm between them, and everyone was cheering.
“Come on, Tom. Kiss the bride, will ya?” Johnny said, and her husband just knelt there, staring at her with those eyes, and she reached up and brought him down to her. She kissed him like war.
For a moment that was all there was.
Then there were fingertips on her neck, his. His thumb, brushing gently down her jaw, and she opened her eyes in surprise and it was all over. He pulled away. The cheers were so loud now and though she remembered that she had been angry, for the moment, curiosity overrode it. Curiosity, and maybe something else.
He was a good-looking boy.
Chapter 3: The Holy
And then it was women’s work.
“He hunts his own sister down like a rat, and he tries to kill his own brother-in-law.”
The ride from field to Ada’s home was long, twenty minutes maybe, even with John steering the car like he was trying to win a race, and every second of that ride, Esme kept hearing Ada’s words, over and over. Maybe she should’ve been trying to review what she knew of babies, maybe she should’ve been wondering why John was driving and not Tommy, but Ada’s eyes had gripped her and held her. The words were a wound to Tommy, but the way Ada looked, she meant it as a warning truly too.
“Look at him!”
And Esme hadn’t, not really. She’d sat by him, his arm slung over her shoulders, talking to relatives, receiving gifts. She’d danced, but the dance was quick, and there was nothing between her and Tommy like the looks of the ceremony, nothing of the communication, and now Ada was still screaming in the echoes of Esme’s ears and she was cold, cold, cold.
The car screeched to a halt and Arthur helped her out. Polly and Tommy were talking something quiet and slightly sharp, but she didn’t bother staying, just went in and ran up the stairs, Polly’s brief brush of hand on her shoulder maybe the only real touch she’d had all day.
And then it was women’s work. She knew this, intimately, felt a part of a family again, felt Ada’s belly. “I think it might be the wrong way round. I attended three sisters,” she said, and knew better than to let drop one of those sisters had died in the process. No, Ada wouldn’t die. She had the glassy-eyed look of such pain that she was losing track of time, but she was fighting, she let Polly tip her forwards, let Esme gather up her sweat-soaked hair, and pushed.
Polly caught the baby when it finally came out, and Esme looked at the sheets with her heart in her throat. Reddened as they were, there was no mad gush of blood, and she threw her arms round Ada’s shoulders with the sheer relief of it as Ada sobbed into her neck.
“It’s alright, it’s over. It’s over. Look,” Esme murmured, and then Polly laid into Ada’s arms the most perfect, tiny creature that any of them had ever seen in their lives. He was yowling like a wet cat but even that was fucking magic, that tiny O of a mouth, that tiny pink tongue. Esme almost began to cry. Ada cried harder. Polly might have been crying as she cleaned and bandaged the mess between Ada’s legs, but Esme couldn’t tell from that angle.
By the time Freddie arrived, Ada was sitting radiant in a chair by the fire, keeping the baby warm, and the reverence in him as he knelt beside her made Esme turn away for a moment, like it was a kind of nakedness. Maybe was right. Maybe a baby was a holy thing.
“Welcome to the world, son. Welcome,” he said, and she was watching them through the door, could see the love radiating even from just the back of his head and the shape of his shoulders as he held the child.
And then it all got torn apart.
She tried to stop the police as they burst through the door, but they shunted her aside like she was a leaf, like she was nothing, they slammed Freddie’s face to the wall and that was worse than anything for the way Ada flinched, cried, “You’re hurting him!”
Ada had not begged the whole night long, but she was begging as they dragged him through the doorway.
Freddie’s howls lasted a long time. He fought. It took them ages to get him down the stairs, and for once in her life Esme was frozen, useless in her horror, until at last Ada quieted, just a little, and Polly managed to get her onto the sofa. “Take her,” Polly said, rising from the sofa with pitch black eyes, and Esme obeyed, arms round Ada. When Ada fell asleep, Esme gently plucked the baby out from her arms, rocking it. It was an absurdly quiet little thing, and she checked it far too often when she feared it had stopped breathing, but maybe, against all reason, it still knew peace. At any rate it slept beautifully, while Ada, even in her sleep, twitched now and again.
Esme had held hatreds in her time, but nothing like this. How could she love the tiny boy in her arms so much and not hate the police with a hatred that screamed for their pain? Not their death, not their imprisonment, not their just fucking punishment, but pain to them and all who had helped them, to whoever had done this, to whoever had broken this family the night it needed to be whole the most. This family. Her family.
Whoever had done this, she wanted them to hurt.
Chapter 4: The Revelations
The morning after Ada gives birth, Polly drops by.
“Where’s Ada?” said Polly.
Esme closed the door quietly behind her. “In the bedroom, nursing. Listen, before you talk to her…”
“I thought she’d be better for a bit of sleep. I stayed up with the baby all night, to keep an eye on him.”
“You look it.”
Esme half-smiled in acknowledgement that even half a pound of makeup couldn’t hide the dark smudges under her eyes. “When she woke up, though, I could barely get her to eat anything. At first I thought it was just the porridge. Some kids take a disliking to porridge. So then I made her pancakes with golden syrup. That didn’t go well either. And then she started talking. Polly, she...”
“Obviously I don’t believe it—”
“She thinks Tommy did it. She thinks Tommy told the police. I tried to talk some sense into her, but she keeps insisting. And I tried to make tea for all of us, but she said she’s not a Shelby anymore, so she doesn’t need to see you.”
They both fell silent, Polly thinking it over, Esme observing her.
“It could be just the baby,” Esme added. “It happened with my middle sister that way. The mothers, afterwards, they get melancholy, they don’t want to eat. It could just be natural, with the shock of it all.”
“It’s not that.” Polly sighed. “I suppose you’ll find out soon enough. Tommy did it. He’s got some fucking battle going on with a copper, this business with machine guns, and he’s been taking bigger and bigger risks for a while now. Freddie’s a Communist, so it’s a deal, I guess. He doesn’t tell me shit any more.”
For once, Esme had nothing to say, no questions. She just stared.
“Welcome to the family,” Polly said grimly.
It was unthinkable, and yet Polly didn’t waver no matter how Esme looked at her. Not to mention that the unthinkable, when it came to men, had shrunk considerably in the past year. Had shrunk considerably in the past years, if you wanted to count the war. Really, when you thought of the trenches, perhaps crimes like this were to be expected; once you got past poisoning entire swathes of men, and destroying an entire countryside, the only worse destructions you could invent were this kind, inflicted at home.
“Come in and have a cup,” said Esme, if only because she couldn’t keep standing there in silence, but she couldn’t let Polly leave, either. How in hell —
“Won’t Ada object?”
Esme opened the door back into the flat and stuck her head through. “I think she’s reading something to him.”
Polly gave the smallest smile. “What’s she reading?”
“I don’t know.”
They both listened. “She sounds happy.”
“Maybe she is, for the moment,” Esme said. “You’re right, let’s have tea another day.”
It had to be true. What motive would Polly and Ada both have to lie, both not having spoken since the baby’s birth, having no way to coordinate their lies? And the truth had been in her husband’s eyes, too, from the first moment she met him, the truth was in all those rumors she’d thought were only built to scare her. Men were capable of anything.
“What are you going to do?” Polly asked.
“I don't know. How are the children?”
“Tommy’s kids must be going mad over this, their dad giving their uncle over to the police. Unless you’ve managed to hide it from them?”
“Tommy doesn’t have kids.”
“I thought he had two.”
“John has two. Katie and Jimmy. Why...”
They sat in a miserable silence for a moment. Then Esme half-chuckled. “You’re a tight family, all right, trading wives.”
“John got a woman pregnant. He’d have done it otherwise.”
“So much for Tommy’s brilliant planning.” But this all made it simpler. On top of Ada, and the baby, and Tommy’s betrayal, there was the simple fact that she’d been treated more like a game of hot potato than a woman. “Can you get a message to John? He promised me at my wedding that he owed me a favor. Now that I know why he owes me, I think it more than covers the trouble of bringing me my trunk.”
“There’s business going on, and Lizzie needs him. You can borrow Ada’s clothes for just a couple days.”
“It’s not going to be just a couple days,” said Esme.
“Are you a Thorne now?”
“I’m not a Mrs. Thomas fucking Shelby, that’s for sure.”
“You’re a poor replacement for a husband.”
“Anything’s better than an empty flat when there’s a woman who won’t eat in it.”
Polly nodded. “If it lasts longer than a couple of days, Tommy will come knocking.”
“If his past is any indication, it’ll take him a full week before he remembers I exist.”
“Don’t forget, you’re our alliance with the Lees.”
“How could I.” Esme gave a smile, all teeth, and Polly nodded.
“Good luck with her.”
“Good luck with him.”
“Better me than you, eh?”
“You do know him better.”
“To my eternal regret.”
Much to Esme’s surprise, Polly stepped forward and enveloped her in a tight, warm hug before she turned and set off down the stairs. On the landing, Polly seemed to remember something.
“Try a toastie,” Polly called up.
“All right,” Esme called back down.
“Lots and lots of cheese. She used to love them when she was younger.”
“Cheese, got it.”
Esme walked back into the flat, locked the door behind her, and dropped down into the sofa, head in her hands. What had she done? Traded one fire for another, one enemy for another, one poisoned family for another? Not a poisoned family, maybe, but a poisoned man, again. The head of the family, again. The one they all needed most, again. Jesus. She drifted into something more troubled than a nap.
“Esme?” That was Ada’s voice, small, from the bedroom. “I think I’m bleeding again, can you take him?”
Esme got to her feet and got to the bedroom as quickly as her weary body would let her. “Do you need some help?”
Ada just handed the baby over and disappeared into the bathroom. Almost as soon as the door closed behind her, there came the soft sounds of stifled sobbing.
Esme looked down at the little boy, who looked right back up at her, brown eyes wide.
“Right,” she said to him, far more cheerfully than she felt. “Cheese.”
Chapter 5: The Traitor
Late at night, Tommy comes by.
Deep into the evening, Esme’s muddled brain cried out for sleep, but the baby cried harder. She’d had a good five hours during the middle of the day, but now Ada needed her night’s rest, having just fed him, and Esme was determined not to let anything get in the way of that.
“Hush, you tiny thing,” she said. “You had the milk twenty minutes ago. Fifteen, even. You can’t be hungry.” She shifted him to a different position, this time vertical, leaning up against her shoulder, and he quieted a little as she bobbed up and down round the room with him.
And then the knock came. Her first thought was that Ada was sleeping, and then that it was the wrong time of night for a knock, and then that out of all the things a woman wanted to be holding when opening the door to a stranger, the last thing she wanted it to be was a baby.
All but holding her breath, she laid him carefully down in his big bassinet, put her face up as close as she dared, and observed not a single little twitch of dismay cross his face, not even when whoever-it-was knocked again.
Feeling as though she’d just won the Olympics, she turned and made her way to the kitchen, grabbing a knife before she opened the front door.
For a moment, it was all Esme could do to not cut him. Not twenty-four hours since Freddie had been taken, and Tommy was standing at the very same flat?
“Don’t you think there’s been enough blood on the premises?” Tommy said quietly.
They stared at each other for a long moment, and then she set the knife down on a side table.
“I just got her down to sleep,” Esme whispered furiously.
Now that the knife was out of the picture, he had the gall to look only casually, mildly surprised. “I thought it was a boy.”
“It is a boy. I was talking about Ada. I just got them both down to sleep. Why the fuck are you here?”
“Polly said you wanted your trunk.”
And sure enough, there it was, sitting by the top of the stairs. Esme had been too busy trying not to kill him to notice. She didn’t know what to say about it; thank you was out of the question, and even good or fine ceded far too much.
“You’ve brought it now,” she said. “So go. Traitors aren’t welcome in this house.” When that didn’t have the desired effect, and he stayed standing there, looking over her shoulder as if he’d be able to see Ada through the bedroom door, she added, “ You are not welcome in this house.”
Now he was looking directly at her, with nothing but a hint of scorn. “It’s not a house, Esme, it’s a flat. Paid for by a man who is now—”
Forgetting all else, Esme slapped him, her face contorted in rage. “You threaten eviction on your own—”
“I—stay quiet. The baby.” His hands were on her wrists, now, and she stopped struggling. They both stood in perfect stillness, listening for the sound of a baby crying, or a door opening. Sure enough, there was a soft coo from the bassinet, but miraculously, no wail.
Tommy broke the silence first. “You think I own the building?”
“Who knows what the fuck you think you own,” she spat.
He blinked, but it was nothing satisfactory. It was that fucking dead-eyed stone face that she was quickly growing to hate. “If I let go, will you hit me again?”
“I was told by someone that Tommy Shelby is the smartest man in the family. But that was at the wedding. They were probably just drunk.”
“Right.” His grip on her was loose, but enough to stop her from hitting him again, if need be.
The gentle babbling in the background was beginning to turn plaintive, panicked. Twisting her hands up and around, Esme broke Tommy’s hold on her and all but ran to the bassinet, catching the baby up and praying silently that he wouldn’t start wailing. She stayed facing the far wall, but she glanced over her shoulder, once, to see that Tommy had at least enough good sense not to come into the flat.
It took a good five minutes, but once the baby had mostly quieted, Tommy cleared his throat.
“What?” said Esme, without turning round.
“Can I bring the trunk in?”
Trunk in his arms, he staggered in and set it down by the wall.
“Don’t sit,” was all Esme said.
He leaned against the wall. Presently, he lit a cigarette.
“I wouldn’t plan on staying until Ada wakes up,” Esme said. “She’ll kill you, and then she won’t even eat pancakes.”
“Why are you still here?”
“What’s wrong with pancakes?”
“You go first.”
“I’m still here because we’re married.”
“I’m not about to fuck you on my sister-in-law’s sofa, that’s sure.”
“I need to know how it’s going to be, Esme.” He breathed out a long trail of smoke. “I’d prefer a marriage with less slaps.”
“You can avoid them entirely by not coming here.”
“How long are you going to stay here?”
“I was supposed to marry John. You can’t possibly give a damn.”
“Well. I was supposed to marry nobody at all. And you are an alliance.”
“It’ll look how it looks. And it looks fine, by the way. Precisely because Ada’s had a hard birth, you can pass it off as sisterly devotion.”
“Is it? Sisterly devotion?”
“You’ve never seen a woman give birth, have you.”
“I’ve seen a horse do it.”
Esme turned to face him. “You know you have to work at a woman to get your cock in, and that’s likely smaller than a carrot, yeah? Well, a baby’s the size of a fucking watermelon. And she did it, and she loves him, and she’s a thousand times stronger than you could ever be.”
She realized she’d made an error. He could see the baby now, even though Ada would kill them all for it if she knew, and his pale eyes had gone something like soft, something like the very end of their kiss. Tommy holding her wrists had been bad enough, Tommy speaking in scorn had been bad enough, but Tommy hurting them all and then coming in the night and falling in love with the baby was even worse, because it meant that to him these things were not a contradiction, and that was pure madness.
After a long moment, he looked up and simply said, “I don’t doubt it.”
“You know I’m staying here now. So you should go.”
“You said you were going to explain what you said about Ada and pancakes.”
Oh God. She knew she shouldn’t, but for once Tommy might be useful, and she was at her wits’ end. “Did you used to make her toasties?” she said.
“Ada’s appetite seems to have disappeared, and I’m working out theories on what she likes best. Polly said she loves toasties, with masses of cheese, but she didn’t eat a bite. She said she doesn’t like them.”
Tommy pushed off the wall and crossed the room to dispense of his cigarette butt in the kitchen ashtray. “Yes,” he said, back to Esme. “When Arthur was at work throwing papers, and mum was sick, and Dad was gone. I wasn’t exactly a chef.”
“Lovely,” Esme said, disgusted.
He walked back to her till they were standing as close as two people at a party about to dance, save for the baby between them. “Does everything I say offend you?”
“Yes. And also, that means all the comfort food’s ruined. If I make something that’s easy and tasty, something from her childhood that she likes, it reminds her of you, and she won’t eat it. If I make something that’s Romani, I it reminds her of her mother, and even if that’s a good memory, I’ll never get the flavors perfect, and she won’t eat it. So now I’m stuck with fancy bullshit gadje messes that I don’t know how to cook anyway. And even if I could...”
Tommy wasn’t looking at her anymore. It was back to the baby, and she didn’t blame him, just this once. The baby was this close to asleep, feathery eyelashes almost brushing each other, tiny mouth open in a yawn. Tommy stuck his hands in his pockets, and Esme realized that everything in him must be wanting to hold his nephew. But there was Ada. And Esme just couldn’t.
“Can’t you make another deal?” she said. “With the copper, whoever he is. Can’t you trade something else? There have to be other communists, other organizers—”
“Esme,” he said, still quiet, “I didn’t do it.”
She said nothing.
“I didn’t turn him in, someone else did. And I can’t get him out right now. There hasn’t been a successful direct prison break in that facility since 1891.”
“Then get him a lawyer.”
“I have, just, this is...it won’t make any difference. Campbell wants him, and it’s a long plan, Esme. There’s so many pieces to it, and there’s no way I’ll be able to get him out for a while, even if I sacrificed everything else for it.”
“Then go to hell.” She said it in the same conversational way they’d been talking all along. Maybe it was the baby in her arms, or maybe she was just too goddamn tired, but now it wasn’t spite, it was simple. “What am I, a schoolgirl? Polly believes you did it. Ada believes you did it. You can’t prove to me that you didn’t, and you don’t even have an alternative explanation. Just ‘someone else.’”
“You should leave.”
The way he took one last long look at the baby reminded Esme of a bear, long ago. It had wandered into camp, nosing after food, stuck its enormous head into wagon and gotten itself loaded with shot. She still sometimes dreamed of the way it staggered back in the moonlight, shot now by men on multiple sides, making a low and mournful sound, as if it was surprised by all this. She remembered wanting it dead, to stop that sound, and yet wanting to save it. The closest thing she'd ever met to a monster.
“Goodnight,” he said.
Chapter 6: The Workweek
lunch with Tommy, learning the ropes at work, a mysterious wedding gift
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“It’s Monday,” Polly announced, when Esme answered the door the next day, bleary-eyed and still in her nightie.
Polly brushed by her and went straight to the kitchen to put on some coffee, not even bothering to take off her hat. “Go put some clothes on, you’ve got work in half an hour.”
“What about Ada? And the baby?”
“You can come back after lunch, let Ada have an afternoon nap, make it a half-shift. But you can’t sit in the flat all day. You’ll go wild and you’ll drive Ada wild.”
“Are you sure?” Esme turned to Ada, but Ada was nodding. Esme would’ve been hurt, but then, Ada was showing mild enthusiasm, which was the closest to positive emotion that Esme had seen since Freddie had been taken. So she acquiesced as gracefully as she knew how. “Fine.”
Squatting in front of her trunk, Esme tried to pick a dress that she thought might best fit into Birmingham. She missed having earrings, and necklaces, and pocket knives, all the other little accessories that might have helped her walk with a touch more confidence. As she unfolded her final choice, a little metal box, no larger than a pack of cigarettes, fell out of the folds of the dress and clattered on the floor. Tied to the box, by a bit of twine, was a note: Remember that one thing remains. Family first, always. Z
Zilpha? What was this, a late wedding gift?
“Esme, we’ll be late,” said Polly. Ada, despite all her exhaustion, had apparently remembered that she didn’t want to be talking to Polly, or having her in the flat, so Polly was hovering by the front door, casting longing looks at the little whining bundle in Ada’s arms.
“Right.” Esme went to the bathroom, rushed her way through changing, threw some water on her face, and walked out the door with the metal box in her pocket and her hands occupied with braiding her hair.
Outside, she tried to take stock of everything: exits, streets, directions. But there was all so much, and all the same few shades of grey and brown, that she couldn’t help but feel some of that old wedding-fear seeping back in. God, was this home now? This? How did these people go through their days with barely a speck of grass and still emerge sane? Or was it all just a city of madmen?
“You’re late,” said a familiar voice, as soon as Polly had the front door halfway open. Tommy was sitting behind a desk in the corner, reading the morning paper.
“We’re on time,” said Polly, hanging up her coat on a rack. Esme mirrored her every move, looking round the place and taking everything in: the desks, the bars on the windows, the giant blackboard, the--was that a kitchen? Were they running a betting shop in the front room of their house?
“On time’s late, for you,” said Tommy.
“I took a detour, ran an errand.” “Oh?” He looked up.
Esme gave him a stiff little ironic wave hello, like the King, if the King knew Tommy and hated his guts.
“Morning,” Tommy said, in much the same tone.
Ignoring the entire exchange, Polly sat down at the front desk, and gestured for Esme to sit down next to her. “I’ve got errands to run this morning, so I’ll oversee your first few exchanges and be off. You can both place bets and give payouts, since it’s quiet on Monday mornings. There will be a small rush around lunchtime. Arthur will be in for that. For now, things will be simple, if you can do a little math, and deal with men.”
Esme would’ve preferred work done outdoors, without a pencil, but she nodded. Men and maths, how bad could it be?
“Right,” said Polly, and then came a dizzying array of instructions. Win bets only paid out if the horse won; show bets paid out if the horse placed first, second, or third. Get the payout by adding multiplying the odds by the bet amount, then adding that to the bet amount, unless it was a show bet, in which case you had to factor in which place the horse had come in. All bets a tuppence or larger. All bets two pounds or higher had to be flagged by a mark next to them in the book; five pounds or higher had to be handled by a senior Shelby.
“If Arthur’s not coming in till lunch, and you’re out in the morning, who’s that?”
“There won’t be any bets that size placed this time of the morning; even a drunk wouldn’t be that stupid. But if there’s any trouble, Tommy should be around, working over the ledgers.”
Ah, lovely. Asking him for help, exactly what she wanted.
“Did you get it all?”
“I think so.” And Esme repeated everything Polly had said, as best as she could remember.
“Good. Just remember, once it gets busier, they may want to push you around a little, but put your foot down. Think of them as children.”
The first few customers must have been able to smell the reticence on her, but with Polly standing there, looking over her shoulder, they waited as Esme processed their orders and paid out their cash a touch more clumsily than she would have liked. Far too soon, Polly was gone, and Esme was left to an incredibly slow morning, which she spent practicing sums on a scrap of paper and longing for Tommy to go away so she could open Zilpha’s box.
Her opportunity arrived when Tommy (who had been silent the entire time), went upstairs. She felt like a child sneaking sweets about it, but she’d rather be petty about it than share anything with him, especially when he got to enjoy the glorious big black car and she was stuck indoors with a restless baby and grieving mother.
She gave the box a little rattle. No sound. She opened it. Inside was only a scrap of paper with a telephone number scrawled on it in pen. Zilpha’s handwriting. But whose number?
Steps on the stairs. Shit. She closed the box and shoved it back into her pocket.
If Tommy saw, he didn’t mention it. All he said was, “Make some tea.”
Esme looked over at him.
“Please,” he added, the faintest smile flickering at the corners of his lips.
Damn him. She wanted to be childish, but that was handing him a victory of another sort, wasn’t it? With an aggrieved sigh, she pushed her chair back and headed for the kitchen. What she didn’t expect was for him to follow her.
“What do you expect?”
“Polly says she’s not eating.
As she stood filling the kettle, he sidled up to her, close, and reached up and across to fetch, as it turned out, a tin of biscuits. What, could that not have waited? Esme grit her teeth. “She ate two pieces of bacon this morning, very slowly. But I think that was mostly to spare my feelings.”
“Did you try popcorn?”
“She loves movies.” And just like that, he disappeared into the front room.
Esme shook her head. Men.
The week passed rather more easily than Esme thought it might.
On Tuesday, she figured out that the key to enjoying the job was talking to the men as they came in, about the news, the weather, their lost bets, their wins. It was all so much better when she liked the people, and John and Arthur were easy to like too. Arthur, especially, with his loud, genial ways, reminded her of some of her uncles, and from the affable way he treated her, teasing her about her hair and sharing cigarettes even when she hadn’t asked for one, he felt the same way.
On Tuesday, she also had her first rowdy customer over something as stupid as change.
“But I gave you two pounds!”
“No, you gave me a pound and a half crown.”
“What--” He looked round the room. Thankfully, the line behind him wasn’t too long. “Can you believe this?” He was more than a little drunk, not dangerous, but belligerent nonetheless. “Oi! Tommy! Can you believe this?”
Tommy didn’t so much as look up. He appeared to be reading a book.
Esme wanted to roll her eyes badly, but instead she said: “My husband could break you in half without breaking a sweat, but he’s on his break at the moment, so instead there’s just me. Tell me, have you been pig-walloped by a Gypsy woman before?”
“Do you want to find out?”
He took his change and left.
On Wednesday, after a particularly brutal rush during the lunch break, Esme found herself actually sweating, despite having been sitting down the entire time. By some miracle, Tommy was finally not around, so she got up her courage, took out her box, and went to the telephone to dial the mysterious number.
“Hello?” said a woman’s voice on the other end. Middle-aged, it sounded. Esme felt hot and cold all over.
“Is Ronald Lee there?”
“Never heard of him. Who is this?”
Esme’s heart was thumping away like a drummer in a parade. A panicked drummer, in the parade from hell. “His daughter.”
“There’s no men living here.” Click.
Esme rang again.
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t want any trouble. Don’t call,” was all the woman said, and then she hung up.
On Thursday, Esme didn’t make it in to work at all, as the baby had had a colicky night of it and only eased up at around ten in the morning. There came a call, though.
“What do you want, Tommy?”
“Zilpha’s cousin lives in town. He came in asking after you today.”
“Two of Zilpha’s cousins live in town. Which was it?”
“Ian. Does it matter? They’re checking up on you. Seeing if the marriage was a success.”
Despite everything, Esme’s chest warmed a little at this. They cared just enough to vaguely threaten her husband, in case she was being mistreated. It wasn’t much effort, or much caring, but it was something. “What do you want me to do about it, write her and tell her that we’re expecting a child?”
“I thought a lunch in public might do it. He follows a regular routine. Always gets soup at The Bean on Thursdays.”
“How do you know that?”
“We’ll eat in the hotel next door. I’ll pick you up in the car, ten to noon.” He hung up.
And sure enough, he arrived exactly ten to noon. Esme swung up in the seat beside him, offering no greeting and receiving none.
“How’s the baby?” he said.
“I could send the doctor over. Just to have a look.”
“Every baby gets a bit of colic now and then.” He didn’t seem convinced, so Esme added: “I offered her all kinds of different family names, all kinds of Romani names, but she’s stuck on Karl.”
He laughed. He looked like a boy when he laughed. “He’ll catch hell for that.”
“Ada said you don’t believe in God.”
“I meant from the other boys, for having a German name. But it’s good to know Ada’s talking to you about me.”
“Better talking than silent. She’s stubborn, but the easiest way to break through the sort of blank-faced stares, aside from Karl, is just to annoy her. Sometimes I read her quotes from the newspaper, mostly Tory politicians. Sometimes I fake the quotes.”
“I can only imagine.”
“The angry speeches are terrific. Dangerously good. At this rate I’ll be naming my firstborn Friedrich.”
Tommy pulled the car up around the back of the hotel, a neat little thing painted a bright white that looked slightly out of place next to the general Birmingham darkness. He noticed the way she was looking at it.
“A Londoner runs it,” he said, by way of explanation. “Come on. The turtle soup here is the best argument in favor of the bourgeoisie that I can give.”
It was her first time in a non-Shelby establishment, and Esme couldn’t help but notice the way the waiters jumped to attention a little faster, the way the room quieted slightly, the way everyone’s attention seemed to bend towards Tommy, as though he was somehow the center of gravity in a way she didn’t feel. At least he didn’t seem to notice.
“How’s your soup?” he said, after they’d settled in.
“Why are we speaking Romani chib?” She could feel the slight change in the people round them at the sound of it, but by some miracle, she didn’t catch a single dirty look. That, more than anything, made her understand the power in the Shelby name.
“There are ears.”
Esme did her best not to look round like a clueless child, but she found herself wondering, nonetheless, who it was that he was afraid of. What, the elderly couple by the table? The thin, tall woman by the stairs? “There’s ears everywhere. So?”
“I’ve already married you, isn’t that enough?”
“How’s your soup?”
“I think it’s turned me into a full-fledged revolutionary.”
Tommy switched his plate for her bowl. “How’s your fish?”
Esme took a bite. “Passable.” They both ate in silence for a good while, Esme listening keenly to her surroundings, before she said, “Is it the Irishman?”
She could see the exact second in his eyes when he gave up on talking round it. “Yes.”
“Aren’t you half-Irish? What trouble do you have with them?”
His mouth lifted in a crooked smile. “If you don’t think the Irish can have trouble with the Irish, then you’ve missed the past hundred years.”
“Don’t be so theatrical. Who’s he with, the IRA?”
Tommy sipped his soup.
Esme put down her fork. “Is there about to be an assassination?”
“No.” He said it in a don’t-be-ridiculous tone that made absolutely no sense, given that they were literally only one table away from the man.
“Finish up your fish. Ian passed by the window and saw us five minutes ago, the job’s over.”
“Is this to do with the machine guns?”
“Who told you about that?”
“Polly. Is this to do with the murdered Irishman?”
“How--” Now he set down his spoon too. “I’m not discussing business with you.”
“I’m your wife.”
“You’re a woman I’m having lunch with.”
“Wearing the ring you gave me.”
“And going home every night to live with Ada. You’re more her wife than mine.”
“I wish. But since it is your ring, what more do you need to discuss business? Do you need a fuck? Is that it?”
Tommy cleared his throat and glanced round the room, but Esme barrelled on. If anyone spoke Romanes, she’d have known it already. “What’s it going to take, Tommy? We’ve had the blood ceremony, and I’m tired of not getting the full picture. What, do you want to go upstairs? Hm? Because I’ll do it. You can look at me with those dead fish eyes all you want, I’ll ride you like you’re a fucking--”
“How are you enjoying the food?” Ah. Apparently the waiter had noticed the switch.
“Very well, thank you,” said Esme, in a perfect mix of pleased and dismissive. The waiter left.
“--racehorse. I will ride that cock like I’m trying to win the fucking Derby.”
Tommy was wearing one of those I’m-the-only-sane-man-alive looks. “That’s not the issue.”
“Then what’s the issue? I don’t see how I’m not in any way your wife.”
Tommy set down some money beside his plate, and stood. “Time to go.”
Esme hesitated, then stood too, and followed him towards the door. “If this was anywhere other than a place where a bunch of gadjes were judging us, I’d handcuff myself to the table till you gave me an answer.”
“If this was anywhere else--”
They were out in the parking lot now, and he switched back to English. “I know. You’d pig-wallop me.”
Esme smirked. “That’s not real. I just wanted something that sounded interestingly violent.”
Tommy opened the car door for her, and she climbed in.
“Everything you say is interestingly violent,” he said.
“Thank you.” She noticed she was sitting in the driver’s seat. “Wait.”
“I’ve got some business to attend to here.”
She sighed. “If the IRA cuts you up, remember I was a nurse.”
“Wouldn’t you rather finish the job?”
“If I always got what I wanted, I’d be on a horse right now.”
He squinted up at her against the noonday sun, and she could’ve sworn that was a smile just barely passing over his face. “Me too.”
On Friday, Tommy was more absent and distant than ever, maybe even a little hostile, though Esme found herself tolerating it decently well, if only because he seemed so stressed. She herself was feeling the wear of the week; between the baby’s colic and the fact that she hadn’t touched an animal or breathed clean air since her wedding, she felt ready to bolt like a green horse let off its halter. Arthur noticed. “We’re going to the Garrison tonight,” he said. “You should come. Have a drink.”
“Have a couple drinks,” said John, from the opposite side of her. (Fridays were busy, and all brothers worked on Fridays, even little Finn, who swept up and counted change.)
“Have three drinks,” said Arthur.
“Are you paying?” said Esme.
“Of course!” said Arthur.
“I hope you have deep pockets.”
“Deep as the ocean,” he said, and sure enough, that night, he made absolutely no protest when she ordered drink after drink. Arthur felt safe, safe enough to drink with, and she hadn’t even gotten drunk at her own wedding in anticipation of the possible wedding night, and she was in a strange city with all new people, and her life was like a painting with only a couple trees colored in, and her husband was charming and fun and strange and distant and a fucking traitor who hurt his own sister so badly she couldn't eat and Esme. Was. Drinking.
And dancing, too, when it came down to it. Singing, a little. It was a half hour to midnight when Tommy showed up, sober. Drunk as she was, she could see him cutting through the crowd with barely a word for anyone, and talking to the blonde barmaid.
“Is Tommy a teetotaler?”
“Fuck no,” John laughed. “Who told you that?”
“Forget it.” Yes, he was talking far too long for it to be a drink order, and the barmaid wasn’t pouring a thing. Lovely barmaid, actually. Shining golden hair…
“Oi.” Arthur had his arm round her shoulders. “Esme. Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’ worry about what?”
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing. Come on, have another.”
“Can’t be nothing if even you are seeing it,” she muttered, but she let herself be cajoled into another whiskey.
“Bar’s closing, boys! Peaky business, business meeting, come on.” That was Harry, and though there were groans, they were quickly replaced by cheers when Arthur stood up on a table and announced that he’d buy the first round of drinks over at the Stag. As the flood of men went out, Esme sat there, finishing her whiskey very slowly. She noticed that even Harry left. She noticed that the barmaid didn’t leave. She, herself, waited till the last possible moment to look Tommy squarely in the eye, gulp down the rest of her drink, and leave.
At midnight exactly, there were gunshots. From the Garrison. The whole night had begun to blur by then, but she remembered the gunshots, and remembered the expression on Arthur’s face as he bundled her into a cab and then set off running. She tried to lurch out after him, but by then the cab was already pulling away. The last thing she remembered from the night was Ada hovering over her anxiously.
“What happened?” Ada said.
Esme looked blearily at her, then turned aside and threw up on the floor.
hope the length made up for the wait! lmk what you think
Chapter 7: The Sister
Esme makes a promise.
"Wake up, wake up, wake up."
"Wake up." The sofa began to shudder under a series of sharp kicks. "Wake up, wake up, wake up."
"Mmh?" She cracked open one eye, then shut it again. "Finn, what're you doing here?" Oh fuck. Shit. Her head felt like it might disintegrate at any moment.
"Polly brought me." He kicked the sofa again. "Wake up!"
"Nnnnnh." Esme opened both her eyes and squinted into the kitchen. Sure enough, there was Polly, rocking Karl in her arms, sitting by the fire. By the slant of the sun, it was very late morning.
"Enjoy your night?" Polly said dryly.
"I--" Esme thought about it. She sat up, far too fast, and gagged. "Tommy."
"Terrible, yes, but not worth throwing up on your clothes for."
"I mean...there were shots, at the Garrison."
"He's fine. It was just Irish business."
Business? Recalling that night was like looking through a series of bottles; everything seemed twisted and blurry, but still. There was nothing businesslike about the way that Tommy had looked at that blonde.
Esme rubbed her eyes, thought about it, and gave up. She went into the bathroom, squatted next to the toilet, and threw up again. Very little came out, but it still helped, and once she'd cleaned up properly (brushed her teeth, undid the old braid from the night before, bathed, and dressed again), she felt functional enough to venture into the kitchen and investigate the contents of the pantry.
"You went shopping," she observed. "It's a minor miracle that Ada let you do anything."
"Karl was fussing again, you were out cold on the floor, and she was five seconds to fainting herself, so she called."
"Finally." Esme hacked off a couple slices of bread and cheese, then sat down next to Polly by the fire. After a few seconds, Finn came to sit on the arm of Esme's chair, and she passed over some of the bread and cheese to him. Despite her headache, it was a great pleasure to just sit and eat and watch Karl sleep.
"I'm sorry," Esme said, once all the food was gone. "I should've been at least conscious, for Ada's sake."
"It was understandable. But yes, don't do it again. She's not doing any better."
"What are we going to do?"
"Finn, go run and get the morning paper from the shop, will you?"
He lingered, loath to leave the conversation, but only for a moment. He closed the door quietly behind him, and Esme was deeply impressed by that level of obedience. Had it been her, at that age, an order to leave an interesting conversation would've led to a full tantrum.
Polly sighed. "The problem is, Ada's not entirely wrong. Tommy got her husband arrested, so it's Tommy's responsibility to get him out. And Tommy's got the guns, which is what the coppers want more than anything."
"More than a Communist?"
"There are 100 of them. Fresh out the factory, ammunition included."
So there it was, stark and simple: the price that family was worth. More valuable than forty pieces of silver, and significantly more dangerous. Polly's sharp eyes were on her, but she couldn't help it. She was tired, and her head hurt, and now it was clear.
"He told you there was nothing he could do, didn't he."
Esme said nothing. She started braiding up her damp hair.
"It's all right. That's what he says to everyone."
"And Ada knows this."
"She's the smartest of all the Shelby children. Possibly cleverer than Tommy. She's just never seen fit to put it to use for much of anything, whereas he wants to become king of the world."
"How's fighting the IRA going to make him king of the world?"
Polly shook her head. "It's not. He's learning now that he shouldn't have picked a fight with the fucking government without having any plan. The IRA were a complication he didn't foresee, a potential buyer for the guns that went sour."
"If he thinks that he can kill his way out of his troubles with the Irish, then he's a fool."
"He's playing it as he goes."
Esme tied up her hair and sat back in the chair, thinking it over. "You ran the business while he was at war, didn't you?"
"It was different then. But yes."
"Usurp the throne?" Polly shook her head. "It'd tear the family up."
"And there's no more pressure we can put on him."
"Ada's doing the best anyone could. They don't look it, but she used to be closer to him than Arthur or John, at least before the war. Used to find her in the boys' room, sometimes, because she was trying to protect Tommy from nightmares. Can you imagine?" Polly's smile was the saddest Esme had seen in a while. "She's putting the most pressure on him that she can. If she hurts herself, she hurts him, probably more badly than if she was starving him directly."
"But the baby."
"It's a hard choice. Maybe she thinks: better if Karl drinks weak milk for a week than if Karl wakes up to no father for the rest of his life."
"You think they'll kill him?"
"They're keeping him for leverage, because they want him, but once they have the information they need, and once this business with the guns is done..." Polly shook her head. "Men have 'accidents' in the cells all the time. And the coppers aren't keen on communists."
"There has to be something." Esme rubbed her face, got up, and began to pace the room. "What about the Garrison?"
"He doesn't own it, so you can't ransom it in any way. As fond of it as all the boys are."
"I mean the barmaid there."
"That's her. Esme." Esme stopped pacing and gave Polly her full attention. Polly spoke a little more slowly than usual, to give full weight to each word. "I wouldn't threaten her. He'll go completely mad."
He'd go completely mad, would he?
"You don't need to be jealous, it's just men and their cocks."
"I'm not," said Esme, more offended that she'd been accused of wanting Tommy than she was offended that she'd been accused of contemplating blackmail. "First of all, only a fool would fall in love with a husband like that. Second of all, if I needed a fuck, I'd find one. Finally, I've had both the experience of kissing him and smacking him, and if I had to choose one, it'd definitely be the smack." Polly was smiling a little now, and Esme couldn't tell if she was convinced or not, but fuck it. She resumed pacing. "Anyway, threatening Grace wasn't what I had in mind."
"What did you have in mind?"
"I don't know yet. Thinking."
Finn burst through the door, paper clutched in one small hand, face alight. "It's almost noon!" he said.
Polly stood and handed Karl over to Esme. Karl, in turn, wrinkled up his tiny nose, but allowed it. "I've got to go," Polly said. "Finn's been good all week, and I promised him I'd take him to a matinee."
"Well, have fun."
That afternoon, Ada slept fitfully, sometimes coming out of her room for tea or to nurse Karl, then trudging back in and shutting the door behind her. Polly called, briefly, to say that there was a police raid on and not to unlock the door for anyone, but even that brief excitement was snuffed out when Esme realized that their flat was too away from Shelby central for her to see any action in the streets below their window. When it had been four or five hours of a grand nothing, Esme took out the little box from her pocket and went to the phone. Even being shouted at by her father's likely-mistress would be far preferable to this level of boredom.
"Hello?" she said, first thing. In the background of the call, there was a little music. "This is Esme Lee. Zilpha gave me this number, and I don't know who you are, but I think I deserve at least a--"
A woman's voice cut in, hesitant but clear. "Esme?"
"Rupa?" Esme's knuckles were turning white on the handle of the telephone. "Don't hang up," was all she could think to say.
"Oh my God. Esme, where have you been?" And when Rupa slid into Romanes, she sounded just like she had when they were six years old and squabbling because they had to share a bed. A proper sister.
"On the road. Where have you been? Where are you?"
"Who was the other woman that answered the phone when I first called? I thought--was it Paige?"
There was a bit of shifting on the other side of the phone. "No, that was Maisie. You haven't met. Paige is living with her parents now."
"Is Maisie...was she an ambulance driver, too?"
Rupa laughed in a way that somehow trickled through the phone and made Esme's chest ache. "She's in love with me, if that's what you're asking."
"Are you in love with her?"
"Always with the difficult questions, you. We're living together, aren't we? But don't waste the time on me and my romantic troubles. Tell me about yourself. Tell me your number."
Esme did, then added, "I'm married now."
"Yeah. You heard what happened with Dad? They married me off not so soon after. I've been a wife for a week now."
"How is he?"
"Dad? I haven't seen him since. He just up and fucking left."
"No, your husband."
"Oh." Esme thought about it and decided to keep things short and simple. "He's a bit of an evil fucker, but I'm not even living under his roof, so it's fine. He won't hurt me."
"You're always free to come up to London and live with me, you know. Anyways, how do you know he's evil?"
"I'm living with my sister-in-law, that's how." And Esme dove right in, telling her everything: the police dragging Freddie off, Karl's tiny nose, John's jokes, Arthur's favorite drink. The only bits she glossed over were the barmaid and their father; that much, she thought, could keep till the next call.
This call didn't last nearly long enough. It felt like only a few minutes before Maisie, in the background, said something irritable about dinner, and then Rupa had to go, but the difference that few minutes made was everything. When Ada came out at midnight to nurse Karl, she found Esme still wearing that same stupid grin.
That night, the colic had returned. After three hours of wailing and neighbors banging on the door, Esme understood completely when Karl finally went to sleep and Ada just handed him over, sat at the kitchen table, put her head down, and began to cry. Taking the risk, Esme set Karl down in the bassinet, and was rewarded by the sound of only one person crying, which at the moment was the best she could hope for.
When Esme sat down next to her and put her arms round her, Ada sobbed even harder, like that made it worse, but when Esme let go, Ada clung on. So Esme held her, murmuring nonsensical comfort like "it'll be okay" till her left sleeve was soaked in saltwater and Ada was reduced to hiccups. When at last Ada peeled away and rubbed her nose, Esme thought that she might say something; something heartbreaking, or maybe just a joke to cut the air.
Instead, Ada got up and went over to the pantry, looking over the food.
Esme hovered behind her, almost too afraid to ask. "What are you doing?"
"Making toasties. You want one?"
"Yes. Absolutely." Esme tried not to look too excited, but it was 4AM and her emotional fortitude was almost entirely spent.
They moved round the kitchen silently, knocking against each other with the weariness, Ada dropping the cheese on the floor twice, Esme burning the tip of her finger.
When all that was left were crumbs, Esme finally felt it was safe enough to talk. Even if she said something indelicate, it wasn't as if Ada could take the sandwiches out of her belly.
"It's good to cry, sometimes, isn't it," she said.
Ada looked at her. "It is."
There was something about that look. It wasn't mocking, but it was knowing. "The walls here are very thin," said Esme.
"I guess you heard me, then."
"It's all right." Ada patted her hand. "If I were married off, I'd be crying at night too. More than you do. I only remember you doing it twice."
"It's nothing. It's childish. I don't mind the new family, so much--Tommy I barely see, and it's mostly you and Polly. And Arthur and John at work, and they're good men too. It only feels like there's no clean sunlight here. And no horses. People own horses, but I can't touch them, or talk to them, or ride them."
"Tommy had a racehorse, once," Ada said. "Maybe he'll get another one, and you can ride it. He has connections with some of the local stables, anyway."
Now there was a thought. "I should go visit. You could come, you know. Horses are good for melancholy."
"It's not melancholy," said Ada, but she said it almost softly.
"It's your husband, you're right. I'm sorry."
"No, don't be. I've been the childish one, refusing to eat. I heard everything you said, you know, you and Polly. The door was ajar, and I was awake."
"It's fine. I want you to know, though, that I wasn't thinking about it like that. I wasn't thinking that it would be worth it to hurt Karl a little if it would hurt Tommy."
"That's not what Polly said."
"But it's what she was thinking. I'm not...that's not what I was doing. It just feels wrong. Enjoying food seems wrong. Going to work seems wrong. Doing anything normal seems wrong, because it's acting like the world is carrying on, and the world shouldn't be fucking carrying on. It shouldn't." Esme handed over a handkerchief, and Ada wiped her eyes and kept going. "They're hurting him, I know they are. And I know Tommy's probably got some kind of a plan, but that's not something I can trust in when I know they're hurting Freddie. I mean, I've talked to other wives. I've got some connections in the Birmingham communists, even though they don't fully trust me. And it turns out the police can be worse than my brothers. Worse than the fucking Germans, I mean at least the Germans let you die, if you want to die."
"It may not be so bad," Esme murmured, though she knew it was weak even as she was saying it. "Freddie doesn't know where the guns are."
"But he knows who the others are, and he won't give them up. Ah, I don't know why I started talking about this." She scrubbed at her face again. "I wanted to give you an explanation. It's not working, of course, so I'm giving up. Tommy's told me that it's all a failure, by never showing up. I mean, I thought he'd come by at least once, and I'd get to shout at him."
"You still can, if you like. I'll go get him, right now."
Ada smiled. "It wouldn't make a difference. He's as stubborn as a donkey."
"He is an ass."
Ada laid her head on Esme's shoulder, and Esme was desperately tired, but she didn't want to let go of this. It was a long, drowsy silence before she said, "Ada?"
"I don't think this is normal, either. I don't think I should be going to work and acting like things are normal. If he wants to do this, I'll make it as hard for him as I can. And I think I have an idea of how to get at him, maybe. It's probably nothing, but I can try, at least."
Ada lifted her head. "Could you?"
"It's probably nothing, but of course I'll give it everything. Of course I'll try. I promise."
"It just feels different, if we're trying." Ada hugged her. "You know what we should try?" she added. "Sleeping. We should try sleeping."
They disentangled themselves, and Ada headed for the bedroom. Before she closed the door, she half-turned and said, "It's nice, having a sister."
Esme's throat caught. "Goodnight," she managed to say.
Chapter 8: The Prisoner
Esme confronts Tommy and takes matters into her own hands.
mild trigger warning for the second half of this chapter
"Working on a Sunday, Tommy?" Esme leaned against the doorframe of his little office, taking in the riot of paperwork that spilled out across his desk.
"Did you expect me at church?"
"You should go. It's a nice place. I didn't stay for the sermon, just talked to Polly, but the singing seemed decent enough."
He didn't look up till she walked in, pulling a chair behind her with a screech of wood on wood, and sat. "What is it?"
"Put down the pen."
"Well?" Brusque, even for him. And those blue eyes were nothing but impatient.
"It's a Sunday, Tommy. I know you can't possibly be at your busiest when the shop's not even open."
"Only legitimate businessmen get to rest on Sundays."
"Then make this quick for me."
"Gladly, if I knew how."
Esme phrased it carefully. "Ada's not doing well."
"So I've come to bargain for Freddie. Don't tell me there's nothing you can do; Polly's already told me about the guns. No copper would turn down even half of them in exchange for a mere Communist."
Tommy leaned back and lit up a cigarette. When he exhaled, slowly, she felt a chill run down her back. Damn him, she refused to put a name to it.
"What are you offering?" he said.
"I know what you want."
"Oh, you've discovered how to end Billy Kimber, is that it? You've got Campbell out of the city, and the IRA to boot? Well done, you."
"Her name is Grace."
There it was. His eyes lit and his whole attention was brought to bear on her. Esme was expecting it, so it didn't shake her. "What is it you think you're offering?" he said.
"I'm offering you the wife you really want."
He shook his head and took a drag. "You don't--"
"I do. I've found a way to preserve everything. If you release some of the guns for Freddie, he'll come home and Ada will no longer need me. You've never needed me, so I'll then be free to go. You can fake my death; fire, explosion, there's plenty of ways to get rid of a body. There's a place in London that I could disappear into. I could be happy there. It's the only way you'll clear the way for your barmaid; you can't divorce me on adultery, because I'm not that foolish, and I'll refuse to divorce you."
Tommy appeared just on the edge of smiling. "You've thought it all through, eh? Have you never considered that perhaps you're the wife I want?"
"Don't be fucking coy with me. I spoke to Polly at the church, and Finn was there. He's little, but he's observant. And he's terrible at lying. He told me everything." Tommy looked away, and from that brief expression, Esme knew she'd scored a hit. Even if Finn had not been in church, and in fact not told her a damn thing. She went on. "Also, Polly tells me that she works in the shop, looking over numbers, like your secretary. Hardworking, John says, but we've never been introduced. She's simply never around when I'm there. And even when we were at the Garrison, it was Harry pouring my drinks."
He had put down the cigarette now, and was looking at her in complete stillness, in that way he had, like he could turn to stone. When he spoke, it was surprisingly softly. "I never meant to show you disrespect."
"Fuck off, disrespect's nothing from a man without honor," Esme said, quickly and without bitterness. "Just tell me what you think of the deal."
He paused, weighing options, but ended up only saying: "It is thorough."
"As of this morning, the guns have been taken."
Esme's stomach dropped. "What, all of them?"
"Every last one."
"Why do you think I'm in on a Sunday morning, wearing Saturday's clothes? Look. I already called the police, tried to get them to move on bail. But they're planning to transport him to another prison within the week. He'll be heading to trial."
"Does it matter?"
"Will he make it to trial?"
"We'll get him back before then. Soon. You can tell Ada that."
After a second, Esme reached over, plucked his cigarette from the ashtray, and took a drag.
"Take your time," said Tommy dryly. She ignored him until the cigarette was this close to blistering her fingers. Then she threw it back in the ashtray.
"That's not good enough," she said. "'We'll get him back soon' is not good enough. Maybe coming from another man, 'soon' would mean something, but not from you."
"For a woman who keeps asking for my help, you do enjoy insulting me."
"For a man who keeps saying he's busy, you do enjoy fucking around."
"I can't give you anything else, Esme. This is all there is."
The longer she sat there, the more convinced she became that he meant it. But she wasn't going home to Ada with just that. No. After a moment's deliberation, she shot up, out of her chair, went out the door and up the stairs.
"Esme!" He followed after, but not fast enough. She burst into the first room.
"Jesus, is that a pipe?" Fuck, what a bleak place, just an unmade bed and a little furniture and an old Victorian wallpaper.
"What are you doing in my room?"
She ducked out and began investigating the other rooms. "Looking for Ada's."
"Go back down and work on your papers, Tommy. Go be busy."
Aha! She opened an armoire and hit the motherlode. Every dress was a couple years out of style, but every last one fit in better with Birmingham than her current one. Without further ado, she reached down and pulled her dress over her head.
Esme chose a black dress from the armoire and put it on, then checked herself in the mirror. Over her shoulder, she could see that Tommy had his back to her, but was still standing in the doorway. She brushed past him and headed back down the stairs. "I'm going to church, because if the great Tommy Shelby can't save Freddie, then it truly is in God's hands."
"Wait. Whatever you're doing. At least take this."
Tommy rummaged in a drawer of his desk and came back with a small revolver. He held it out to her, palm open, like he was presenting her with something breakable.
"What is that?" Esme questioned his eyes. "Is that concern for me?"
"You know how to shoot, don't you?"
"I do. But it's not the answer to everything, as much as you might wish it." The longer he looked at her like that, the worse it got. Because this was not the usual mixture of disbelief and annoyance that an uncle or cousin might give her when she went off on one of her projects. It was concern. She felt seen, and she hated it. She closed his fingers over the gun. "Better get back to your desk, Tommy. The IRA waits for no one."
It was a long walk, but she had good boots. And from the lack of looks she got going in, she thought she'd done a decent job fitting in.
"I'm here to visit Eddie Hargrove, please." Hopefully Mr. Hargrove, the butcher, wouldn't be pissed at her when he found out she'd been borrowing his son's life story for this. But she had more pressing concerns, at the moment.
The copper, a somewhat elderly fellow, tall and thin like a beanstalk, frowned at her. "And who are you?"
"His cousin. Myrna Brooks, pleased to meet you." She shook his hand. "There's been a sickness in the family. It's not likely his mother will live long, and his sisters and father were too distraught to come. So here I am. Bearing the bad news." She contrived to look as tired and sad as she could, and it wasn't much distance to cover.
"Mm. Well, you're lucky. It's a slow day. Come here." After making her empty her pockets, he unlocked the grate and escorted her through. She had affected a limp on the way in, and it allowed her to move much more slowly than usual, enough time to look in every cell.
"I'm just so worried," she said.
"I'm worried about his wife. Ada. She's not been the same since he went to jail, even with the baby."
"I didn't know Hargrove was married."
"Yes, well, it was all so recent."
And there he was. Freddie. Just as he'd looked in the little black-and-white picture Ada had showed her, with more of a beard maybe, but that same thin face, bloodied, pressed up against the bars and looking at her like she was an oasis in a desert.
"She keeps saying she just wants to know how they're treating him. So I thought it would also soothe her a bit if I came and saw him myself." The guard was looking ahead as he walked, and Esme dared a deliberate glance in Freddie's direction.
At this, Freddie spoke. "It's not so bad," he said. "Tell Ada it's only fists and boots. My bones are mostly intact."
The policeman looked from him to her and back again. "Ada..." God, he was a slow one. She wished he'd hurry up and arrest her, if that was what he was going to do.
"Tell her I love her," said Freddie, quickly, and suddenly Esme thought of everything she had to say.
"Ada, I knew I recognized that name," said the elderly policeman, frowning, as Esme said: "She wants to name the baby Karl." Freddie's face shone the way it had when he'd first saw his son, and again the only thing comparable to that love was the light through stained glass, something reverent and unbreakable and--
"Ma'am, you'll have to come with me."
"He's a little colicky, but he's growing fine."
"Ma'am--" The policeman took her by the arm and dragged her towards the door. She didn't try to resist.
"He's a hungry boy, he sleeps well enough when he's not sick, he likes it when she sings--"
The door clanged shut behind them. It was like a thread had been cut. Suddenly, she became very aware of the perils at hand.
"Now, miss," said the policeman, sitting her down in an office, "If you wanted to visit Mr. Thorne, you should have said so in the first place." The way he said it, reproving, like a schoolmaster rather than a killer, made her feel better. This was not the voice of a man that was about to arrest her.
"You wouldn't have let me visit him," she said.
"With all due respect, ma'am, he's a Communist. One can't be too careful."
"I suppose that's true," she said. "But I only wanted him to know about his baby son. Can I go now?"
"No, ma'am. I'm afraid I'll have to tell my superiors. You stay here, now." With that mild tone, she thought she might be able to make a run for it, but before he left, he handcuffed her to the chair.
Esme scooted the chair forward, reached for the telephone, and dialed. "Ada? There's not much time. Freddie's here. He says it's just fists and boots, and I think he can last a while. The police have me now. I told Freddie about Karl. I think it's going to be okay. They can't--" And there were two men in the doorway, suddenly. The first, silver-haired and beady-eyed, the second, portly and horrified.
The shorter one, evidently the senior officer, reached over her and hung up. His hand was clammy on her skin, and the way he lingered close long after she'd let go of the telephone made her want to bite the nose off his face.
"That's Esme Shelby, Inspector," said the other man.
"I know." Inspector Campbell's slow smile was altogether too self-satisfied.
The other man's horror made much more sense now, as the Inspector sat on the edge of the desk. His leg was against hers. She pushed the chair a little ways away, chair legs screeching horribly against the wood of the floor.
"You can leave us now, Sergeant Moss," Campbell said.
The sergeant lingered. "Should I call the Shelbys, sir?"
"No, no. No need for that. Just close the door behind you."
Moss looked Esme in the eyes the whole goddamn time he closed the door, and then he stood outside it like a soldier on watch. In return, Campbell stood up and drew the little curtain across the glass.
Esme wished, wretchedly, that she'd at least pocketed a pen from the table. A pencil, even, something she could stab with. She'd known this man less than a minute and already she knew she'd have to fight him sometime very fucking soon.
He was surveying her with open interest. "You're not at all his kind, are you," he said. "I mean you are a fucking Gypsy. But you're not the kind he likes."
"Oh, Tommy likes me well enough." The way she said it left little room for interpretation.
"That's not what I hear."
"And what do you hear?"
"I hear the Shelby family is falling apart. I hear that some very important merchandise has disappeared. I hear that the rat has opened his eyes and begun to see the wires of the trap closing around him. And I hear stories of lies. Such lies. Such terrible betrayals. And into the middle of it all, they dropped you. Unsuspecting." He reached out and brushed a strand of hair away from Esme's face, and with her teeth set it took everything in her to not shrink away. No fear. No fear. Or was she frozen?
"Tell me," he said, "Were you innocent when you began? The ink has barely dried on your wedding certificate, and here you are in the city jails, lying your way in, with no plan and no one to rescue you."
"Do I need rescuing?" Esme said. Her throat was terribly dry. She managed to get the words out intact.
Campbell gave her a piercing look, then went to look out the back window. The distance helped her breathe a little. When he spoke, it was as if he was speaking to himself. "He defiles everything he touches."
"I don't understand," she said. Perhaps if he could only keep talking forever, he'd stay by that window.
"Of course you don't." Her words had the opposite of the intended effect. He turned from the window and came back to her. "She's not like you. Maybe that's the attraction for him. She's lighter. She sings." He said the last words with a touch of irony that was entirely lost on her. The overall meaning, however, was not.
"So you do understand." This seemed to please him. "You see that you have been wronged. I, too, have been wronged. In fact, it seems we have been wronged together. In a way, it would be its own kind of justice."
"What would be?"
He was close enough now that she could smell tobacco on his breath, some kind of meat from his lunch. His eyes gleamed. "I think you know."
A high note of panic escaped from her throat and she rammed the heel of her hand into his chin, trying to get that fucking face away from her. Most alarming of all was the calmness with which he recoiled, caught her wrist, and pinned it, like this was his everyday, like she was predictable. She was predictable. Her wrists strained against the cuff and the hand and she could barely hear him say, "Don't make--"
A knock on the door, and Sergeant Moss's voice saying, so politely it seemed alien, "Arthur Shelby to see you, sir."
"Arthur!" she shouted, and the door burst open, Arthur pushing the Sergeant in front of him, the sergeant hurrying over to uncuff her and Arthur standing red-faced and panting with rage, far too close to Campbell, who wouldn't stop fucking smiling.
"He couldn't even bother to come himself, could he," Campbell said.
The cuffs came undone and Esme shot to her feet. "Let's go, let's go," she said, pushing Arthur out the office door, grabbing him by the arm and rushing him out the front door into the street. Outside the air was damp and cool and good and she climbed into the car and Arthur peeled away as fast as he could.
"Are you all right?" he said, looking over, looking her over.
"Keep your eyes on the road," she bit out. She was so angry she could feel it in the clench of her teeth. Angry at him and at the coppers and at Campbell and-- "Fuck!" She slammed a hand into the side of the car. Not angry, fucking incandescent with rage at herself for not hurting him more. She could trace it back down to the exact minute where she wished that instead of using her hand, she'd hooked her fingers into his eye and just fucking ripped it out of its socket--
"Keep driving. No. No. Stop the car. Get out."
"Esme, love, you can't go back there," he said, as he walked around the front of the car towards her.
"I'm not," she said, snatching the keys from his hand, darting into the seat, and driving away.
It took her a long, long time to find the place. She didn't know the city, but she knew north and south, east and west, and when finally she spotted a bridge over the river, she knew roughly where she was, crossed the bridge, and kept going. Here, the land rolled more loosely, the houses spread out farther and farther, the farms became sprawls, and finally she reached a path up to the place where there were hardly any fences at all, and here she parked the car.
The walk up the hill was long, but it sloped so gently that she saw what she needed to see long before she crested the hill.
They were gone.
There and there were charred places on the ground where they had made fires, so she knew it was the right place. Standing there above the great green desolation, she tried to remember where they all had been. Over there had been Zilpha’s wagon, no doubt about it. To the west, Katarina’s. But whose had been right over there, and where her wedding ceremony had been, and where they’d kept the horses, she could not remember. Any other day, it wouldn’t matter. Any other day she didn’t have to remember, because wherever they moved on to, there she was. Any other day, she was with them.
Esme began to cry.
She cried until she was spent, until the field was almost just a field again, until she was thirsty and the clouds gathered overhead and even sitting silent now, she didn't want to go. Why couldn't she sit there, on that tree stump, until the sky fell down and ended her? Why couldn't it go simple, just like that?
The rain came down, and she tried to ignore it, but suddenly it came down all at once in sheets and even she could not stand that onslaught for very long. Soaked to the bone, she clambered back into the car. There was only one real destination, and she knew it. She felt silly, and small, but above all so exhausted she couldn't muster much shame. Maybe that was fortunate. In any case, she made her way back through to the heart of Birmingham, looping round a few times when she got lost, but finding, at the end of it, the same flat she started from.
Stamping her feet in the entrance to knock the mud off her shoes, she didn't notice until she reached the foot of the stairs that Tommy was sat there, waiting. He rose to his feet, unbearable questions in his eyes.
"I want Ada," she said, too tired to be plaintive. He stood well out of the way, and she climbed the stairs, entered the flat, and shut the door behind her.
Chapter 9: The Woman
Esme moves out. Also, Grace.
For a long time, all Esme felt and all that Esme wanted to feel was Ada’s one-armed hug. All she could hear, and all that she wanted to hear, was Karl fussing quietly in Ada’s other arm.
“I’m sorry,” Esme said, finally. “Sorry I caused Arthur so much trouble, and you so much worry. I’m fine.”
Ada released her, face full of gentle disbelief.
“I really am. It wasn’t so bad.” Esme sank into a kitchen chair and recounted the entire thing in all its detail. She was tempted to wash over the last part, with Campbell, but she needed Ada to believe that things had not been so bad, and in retrospect, of course, they hadn’t been. They’d been fine. No harm done. She left in every detail, except for Grace; during the car ride back, she’d become convinced that Campbell’s obsession with Grace had been similar to his treatment of her; focused on her relationship with Tommy, and drawing mainly on his manic desire for domination, the deep satisfaction he seemed to get from every little display of power. She’d be damned if she carried out his work in her own family, spreading that poison.
Esme finished on a light note: “I’d call it a success. Freddie knows that Karl’s all right, and you know that Freddie’s still alive, and it’s not so bad.”
“What about Campbell?”
“He’s an ass. I don’t think he’ll try to arrest me, unless it’s part of his game with Tommy. It’ll be fine.” Between the warmth of the flat and Ada rubbing her shoulders, Esme felt much better than before, and when she said fine, it was with real confidence. “The lesson, I think, is not to jump in without an exit route marked out. Which, come to think of it, is exactly the mistake Tommy made with those guns.” She shook her head at herself.
“Well, I’m glad. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you were arrested.”
“I don’t know what I would’ve done, either. But since I wasn’t, I think I might have a bath now.” With one last hug, Esme rose to go.
“Thank you.” Ada’s smile came like a sunrise, and Esme couldn’t match it, but she tried.
Deep into the evening, when Esme had bathed and was wrapped up warm in a quilt, with her feet up on the table, reading the newspaper and eating some biscuits, there came a knock on the door. Two knocks, tentative. Setting down the newspaper and picking up a knife, she went for it.
“Tommy.” He looked awful, and she felt a little guilty. Somehow, she’d thought that when she told Ada that everything was fine, the world would magically right itself, but come to think of it, Ada still wasn’t talking to Tommy and probably didn’t even know he was in the building. Esme stepped out into the hall, wrapping the quilt more tightly round her shoulders, and closed the door behind here.
“I didn’t realize you were waiting all this time,” she said, quietly.
“The walls here are thin.” It wasn’t a reprimand, just a warning.
He swallowed. When he spoke, it was quieter and a few shades lower, too. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Again, there was that look of disbelief, the same as the one that Ada had given her, only in his eyes it was more stark, more frank. More miserable. “Tommy. I promise. All they did was make speeches.”
Esme’s right hand held together the edges of the quilt round her shoulders, and Tommy touched her right wrist, briefly, where some bruises bloomed in the shape of finger-marks.
“I didn’t even notice that,” she murmured. “It’s embarrassment, is what it is. I tried to hit one of them, that’s all. And he restrained me.” Still the disbelief lingered, and he didn’t even try to hide it. He was looking away now, thinking, lost in his own head. “ Tommy. ” She claimed his attention, and tried a half-smile. “ When have I ever lied to you?”
That was his cue to say something about her heading to church, or something cutting, something that would bring them back onto the path of conversation that she recognized with him. Instead, he asked, as gravely as before, “Where did you go?”
“I needed fresh air.”
“Alright.” He slipped off into his own mind again, and this time, she allowed it, just watching him now, looking for all the world as if he carried the weight of the whole family on his shoulders. Eventually, he said, “Esme, you can’t do that again.”
“I know. I won’t.” She sounded too soft to her own ears, so she amended it: “I think Ada’s as satisfied as she can be, until you find a way to release him. I’ve done all I can do on that front.”
A little of the tension drained from his shoulders, and a little of the old Tommy slipped into his voice. “You’re sure you won’t try to break him out yourself?”
“Very sure.” It was cold there in the hallway, and there was nothing further she could do about how incredibly weary he looked. Just. “You should sleep, Tommy.”
“Alright.” He looked her over one last time.
“Tell Arthur I’m sorry I got water all over the seats of his car. Tell Arthur I’m sorry about everything.”
“You’ll see him sooner than I will, at work tomorrow. Goodnight, Esme.”
Esme nodded, and watched him go.
He was wrong. The next morning, Esme woke up with a sore throat, a cough, and a fever. It was the downpour that had done it, she knew, her stupid decision to sit out there in the rain feeling sorry for herself. It had felt cool and refreshing and delicious at the time, but nowhere close to worth it.
“I have to go,” she told Ada. “I can’t risk giving the flu to the baby.”
Ada chewed her way through an entire sausage before answering. “You’ll have to stay in the house,” she finally said. “Polly’s over at John’s place, helping Lizzie with some complications, and Arthur’s place isn’t fit to be seen. You’ll have to take my old room.”
“It will only be a day,” said Esme, shrugging and reaching for a piece of bacon off Ada’s plate before she remembered she really shouldn’t be spreading the flu to Ada any more than she should spread it to Karl. She sat back. “I’ll be back in no time.”
She was wrong about that too. It took her three days to weather the flu, and at the height of it, the fever rose so high that she drew herself a cold bath and sank into it, fully submerged save for the tip of her nose, for ten minutes.
When finally she woke up on the fourth morning, while it was still so early that it was a little dark outside, Esme sat up and and found the fever had broken and her mind was perfectly lucid once more. As she combed through her hair and took stock of the situation, she found that her memories of the past few days were a significant worry.
Polly floated in and out a little, but it was Tommy she’d seen the most. He came in at unexpected moments, bearing a glass of water or a piece of toast and sat her up, saying, “Here, drink.” He took away her old dress when she threw up on it, and brought it back clean. And once, just once, she could’ve sworn she heard singing. That was him, wasn’t it? Polly’s voice didn’t go that deep. It hadn’t been a tune she’d known, but it was bittersweet and nearly slow enough to be a lullaby.
God, what a mess of contradictions he was. If only he could pick one thing and fucking stick to it, she’d feel a lot more settled, but here he came with his callousness one minute and his honeyed tea the next. How was a woman supposed to build a marriage on that? Whenever this struggle with the police and Billy Kimber ended—and she knew it would end soon—she wanted to know what she was going to make of that future. And he was not helping.
Downstairs, Tommy was making toast and eggs, and she joined him in the kitchen to make some coffee. Neither of them said a word, but he dished out the food onto two plates, and she poured the coffee into two cups. He was well into the business section of the newspaper when Esme said: “Did you take me to see the horses?”
Tommy didn’t look up. “Yes. I thought that the fever had broken, and neither of us could sleep. You don’t remember?”
“I remember parts of it. I remember a massive bay trying to eat your cap.”
“That was the night.” He turned to the next page of the newspaper.
Well. “Thank you.”
He cleared his throat. “Polly would have done it, but she was busy with Lizzie.”
“Ah. In that case, I take it back.”
He looked over, and smiled.
“I have an errand to run now, but I’ll be back in time for the shop opening.” Esme patted him on the shoulder and headed for the door, still stuffing the last scrap of toast into her mouth as she went. She nearly ran smack into Polly. “Oh!”
“Morning,” Polly said, a touch dryly.
“Morning.” There was something in Polly’s expression that didn’t put her entirely at ease. “Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”
“It’s no trouble, I was just in the office for a minute. I’m glad to see your fever’s broken.”
“Recovering more slowly than you are. Don’t delay your errand for me, I need to speak with Tommy anyways.”
The implication that Polly needed to speak with him alone made Esme want to stick around, but the sun was rising and she still wasn’t completely back to full fighting force after that flu, so she said her goodbyes.
Grace was stacking clean glasses when Esme came through the door, readying the Garrison for the rest of the day. “We’re not open.”
“I didn’t come for a drink.”
“Would you like one anyway?”
“No. Thank you.” Esme took a seat at the bar, and Grace left the glasses to face her.
“What can I do for you?”
“I thought I’d come and introduce myself. I’m Esme.”
“Tommy’s wife, I know. I’m Grace.” Grace’s hand was cool and dry, her handshake firm.
“I know. I’ve been busy lately, with Ada, and with other things. That’s why I’ve missed meeting you so many times, perhaps. Polly tells me you’re an excellent secretary.”
“Oh, well. It’s only papers.” Her self-deprecating smile didn’t meet her eyes.
“Business in this family isn’t only papers. Don’t sell yourself short.” It wasn’t a compliment quite as much as it was an accusation, but it was a compliment nonetheless.
“Thank you. It’s a pleasure to meet you, after hearing so much about you.”
“Really? From who?”
“Oh, everyone. Arthur.”
Of course. Bless him. “I was talking about you the other day, actually, when I visited the county jail.”
“I heard about that, too,” said Grace. “It was very brave of you.” There was no way to tell whether that was ironic or not.
“It was stupid, but it was for Ada.”
“I’m sure she feels better now. Especially since Freddie will be back soon.”
Grace blinked. “I don’t know.”
“How do you know he’ll be back soon, then?” Esme didn’t give her time to reply. So Tommy trusted this woman with the date of his plan. That was to be expected. Men and their cocks were like that, as Polly would say. “Anyhow. There was a man visiting the Birmingham jail, an Inspector Campbell. He had plenty to say about you and Tommy.”
“He’s convinced that Thomas has committed some sort of crime. I’m sure he likes to feed rumors and stir up discontent. I wouldn’t mind him, if I were you.”
The words were a denial, but the name Grace used for him was an admission of guilt. Perhaps not guilt, even; there had been a visible widening of her eyes at Campbell’s name, but not a speck of shame in her voice. Esme found herself admiring it.
“I’d mind him more, if I were you,” Esme said. “Campbell is loathsome, and if he believes half of what he says, I’d keep my door locked.”
“My doors are always locked.”
Esme nodded. “It’s not that I mind the rumors. I do find the spread of them through the city to be...annoying. But I don’t mind their content as much. Half the reason they spread so quickly is because they make sense. He’s been alone since the war, he didn’t know the wedding was coming. You’re beautiful, trustworthy. Why wouldn’t he?”
“It sounds like you believe these rumors.”
“Only because they’re true.” Grace’s stare held, and Esme knew the direction of what came next was all down to her. “I’m inconvenienced,” she added slowly, “But as long as they don’t become more than an inconvenience, I’m not angry.”
Grace absorbed this. “May I ask why that is?”
How odd it was, that Esme would tell this to the one Shelby woman she trusted least. How odd that she was offering this truth, a truth that had become the backbone of all decisions during her short but eventful time with the Shelby family. “From our wedding night, from the time that Freddie Thorne was taken, I knew I couldn’t put myself in a position where I’d be more than inconvenienced by his betrayal.” She looked away, so to soften, slightly, her next words. “Loving him, I think, would be its own punishment.”
Grace met honesty with honesty, in a way that was almost friendly. “It’s not so bad.”
Esme half-smiled. “Isn’t it?”
“He has his good moments.”
“And his razors, and his arms deals, and his complete inability to trust.”
“I don’t blame him for all of it. He was in the war.” Grace paused a moment, the sudden sharpness in her green eyes betraying the mellow tone of her voice. “He has nightmares, sometimes. A cup of tea—”
Esme was leaning forward slightly in her seat
“I’m so sorry, I should go back to work,” Grace said, hurriedly, pushing a strand of hair out of her face. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
Grace disappeared into the back room, and seconds later, Harry Fenton emerged.
“Can I help you with something, ma’am? Get you a drink, perhaps?” Harry said with a kind of rough politeness that indicated he expected an argument from her.
“No, thank you.” And Esme was out the door, walking slowly back towards the shop and thinking hard.
There had been something so deeply wrong about those last few words. What was it? What was it? It wasn’t that Grace was admitting to sleeping with him; that had been established long ago. She wasn’t laying claim to his bed; Esme had ceded that. So why on Earth would she need to say it? Why would she want to? More than words, when it came down to it, why did Grace have that look in her eye, as if she was reaching out, as if she was remembering a past hurt?
Or was she anticipating one?
Esme stood outside the shop, unable to walk in and still think about it properly, unable to do anything until she worked it out, but then there was a familiar, gruff voice saying, “‘ello, Esme,” and she lost her train of thought altogether.
“Arthur!” She mustered her sunniest smile.
Work was busy, and it wasn’t till later that night in Polly’s flat, sipping whiskey, that Esme had the time to collect her thoughts. He has nightmares, sometimes. A cup of tea— Like Grace had been sharing. Why would she need to share that? Like they were friends, and—think of it carefully. Lay out the facts. Grace loved him, and Tommy loved her; trusted her and slept with her, at any rate, which was close enough to assume it. Esme had come to lay out an understanding, and she and Grace had both made themselves known. So what was it?
It wasn’t a warning, exactly. If it reminded Esme of anything, it reminded her of the way her aunts might give her little details about their children, when she was younger and had to go over and mind them for the night. “Aishe likes fighting with her sisters. Mind that Chal doesn't get into the sugar, last time he made himself sick. Tommy has nightmares from the war.” Passing the baton. But why would Grace need to do that? Esme had been clear that she wouldn’t make herself a challenge, and business was going to return to normal soon, with the end of the deal…
“What?” said Polly.
Esme looked up. Polly had finished her glass of whiskey already, and was now looking straight into her. Esme hesitated. She knew how it would sound, but she decided to try anyways. “I talked with Grace this morning.”
Polly put her glass down. “And?”
“There’s something wrong with her. Not that she’s fucking Tommy; I knew that already. But he trusts her.”
“How do you know he trusts her?”
“Do you know when he plans to take out Billy Kimber? Because she does.”
“She could’ve been lying.”
“But she wasn’t. I think she’s hiding something.”
“What is it you think she’s hiding?” Polly said, and in the moment that Esme faltered, Polly tilted her head just so. Fuck.
“She’s going to do something.”
“I…” Esme finished her glass and set it down. “Never mind. I need to think on this more.”
“It’s better if you don’t.”
Esme felt her temper rising, and she knew it was uncalled-for, but fuck, if there was one person in the family that could help her untangle this, it would be Polly, and here Polly was trying to help her with all the hurt feelings she didn’t have. “I’m not looking to fight with her over him.”
“You may not be thinking it, Esme, but it’s there nonetheless. You’ve been cut off from your old family, and now he’s anchoring you here with us. He took care of you for days, and he’s not without his charms.”
“His extremely dubious charms.”
“And he’s your husband. No one would blame you.”
“I would. I’d blame myself.”
“I know. That’s why you’re sitting in my flat with a whiskey instead of marching over to hers with a crowbar.”
“I’m not mad.”
“Marching over to hers, period, then.”
“We’re barely married.”
“You seemed married to me, this morning.”
Esme just shook her head.
“If you really believed this woman was a threat, you’d have better evidence, and you’d be talking to him, not to me.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Esme rubbed her face and returned her glass. “Well, this has been embarrassing,” she said, by way of farewell.
“Nobody has to know. Walk safe, Esme.”
On the walk home, she resolved to talk with him, but when she arrived, the house was empty. Come morning, it was Polly calling her up on the house phone to tell her that the day had arrived, Kimber was being taken, and she should go stay safe with Ada until the battle was done.
Chapter 10: The Victory
A battle they all win, a battle they both lose.
Ada wasn't in her flat, and neither was the baby. This alone would not be unusual--perhaps Ada just needed some air--but time went by and Ada didn't return and the streets outside were far, far too empty. Even the policeman that came round once every fifteen minutes had disappeared. Esme called everywhere, but nobody was home, not even Polly, and she began to get desperate. Finally she cracked. There was one Shelby she hadn't tried yet. She called up the Garrison.
"This is Esme Shelby calling for Grace Burgess?"
"Grace...isn't here." Harry's voice sounded odd, strained. "But your husband is."
"Put him on, please."
"Esme, what is it?"
"Ada's not at home. She took the baby."
She could hear his sigh go down the line. "I don't fucking know where she is, Esme."
"Why aren't you at the tracks yet? Arthur told me you were going to meet with the Lees."
"Change of plan," he said grimly.
"Is that why all the coppers have cleared out?"
"I should go."
"Wait." Esme gripped the phone tighter, as if that would give her some answers. But all she had was: "Don't die."
"I'm too young and pretty to spoil it with crying."
"You wouldn't be crying over me." But at least he said it with a bit of irony.
"I'd put up an effort at your funeral, for appearances' sake." It was stupid, but she just wanted to keep talking. If he was on the phone forever, he couldn't be killed. That's how that worked, right?
"Don't--" She was speaking to nobody at all. She put down the phone.
Waiting for it all to be over was like feeling the flat being slowly drained of air, feeling like she was floating out of herself, like she couldn't breathe. But it wasn't so long. It wasn't more than an hour before Ada burst in all bright eyes and laughter and Karl in her arms and Freddie close behind, Freddie like she'd never seen him, cleaned up and laughing too, an arm round Ada's waist, a bottle in his other hand.
"Victory!" said Ada, her one free arm gesticulating wildly from happiness or alcohol or both. She handed Karl to Freddie and threw herself on Esme for a big hug.
Was it really over just like that? That simply, that cleanly, that joyously? "What happened?" Esme said, voice half-muffled by Ada's coat.
"She came onto the street like a goddess," Freddie said. "They were too afraid to shoot."
"Nobody shot," said Ada quickly. "And then Kimber tried to shoot Tommy, but he can't aim for shit, so it was Tommy's shoulder and Danny Whiz-Bang."
"Is he dead?"
"Danny, yeah." They all sobered up for a moment, but only a moment. "Anyhow, Tommy got Kimber, the Lees hit the racetracks, the coppers were away, and we're set!" Freddie kissed his wife, and then didn't stop kissing her, and after a few minutes, still hadn't stopped kissing her.
"I think I'll take a cab down and see about Tommy's shoulder," murmured Esme.
"Okay," Ada said, still gazing at her husband with those kiss-sweet eyes.
"Think I'll take my trunk with me, move into the house for real."
"Think I'll buy an elephant for Sunday dinner, make some soup, fuck a hussar. Maybe plant an apple orchard."
The midmorning sun filled the house with light as Ada kissed Freddie again, and Esme wished she could take a picture. How ridiculous they were, and how glorious.
Esme locked the door behind her, lugged her trunk down the stairs, and caught a cab.
"Congratulations, Mrs. Shelby," the cabbie said.
She had to shake herself for a second there. It wasn't a title she was used to. "Thank you. News travels fast. You're Dominic, aren't you?"
"Yes, ma'am. I've seen you at the shop before. Will you be going to the Garrison, then?"
"Is that where they all are?"
"Yes. All having themselves a good drink, I imagine."
And Grace pouring. Right. "Just take me to the shop, please. I have to drop this off, and the Garrison's in walking distance."
She didn't go to the Garrison, of course.
Midnight and he didn't come, one and he didn't come. Two and Esme got the picture, and it was all right, wasn't it? They were all safe now. Ada would be sleeping next to Freddie and getting up early to nurse Karl; John would go home to Lizzie and eventually build her that house he was always talking about; Arthur wouldn't have to fight so much, and perhaps would find the time to heal; Polly would have half a minute to breathe outside of family issues, and maybe travel somewhere lovelier; and Tommy would sit at the head of the table, not quite at peace, but satisfied, with Grace at his right hand.
Esme hadn't realized at the beginning of the daydream what world she'd been building, but by the end of it, she knew exactly what it was, and what she had to do to get there.
"Bloody hell, Esme, what time is it?"
"Did you mean it when you said I could come to London?"
"Fuck. Yes. Are you all right? Is there trouble in Birmingham?"
"The trouble's over, and that's why I can go now."
"The alliance--it doesn't matter. Just. I think your woman hates me, and I wanted to make sure you meant it."
"Well, I don't understand anything that's going on right now, but I promise you'll always have a home with me."
"I'm going to get on the train tomorrow morning."
There was a bit of noise at the back door. Esme talked faster. Rupa was taking this so easily, it seemed unreal, and Esme had to be sure. "I mean it. I'm going to take the train to London."
"Then do it, little one." Esme could hear the sleepy smile in her voice. "Do you need money for the ticket?"
Heavy footsteps. "I'll find the money myself. I have to go."
Dripping from the rain, arm in a sling, Tommy looked at her with a sort of dull surprise amid the general haze of, what was that? Misery?
Esme caught herself staring. "Not dead, I see."
That haze of misery coalesced into a single baleful look of disgust, and then Tommy turned and went up the stairs.
"Fuck you too," Esme said, slowly putting down the phone. Drunk men forgot things, and apparently this included the existence of their wives. It didn't bring sunshine and rainbows to her heart to know that in all honesty, he was disgusted to be married to her. But it made things easier. Her trunk was packed, sitting by the door. She'd write to Ada after a couple months, she thought to herself as she settled into her bed. She'd pay them back for the ticket, send John something nice for the baby. It would all work out.
Why did it feel so wrong, then? She expected to be nervous, going to a new city, but all she felt was sad. Pushing that aside, she pulled the covers up and slid into a troubled sleep.
Taking care of Karl had trained her to wake easily; if she could prevent tears from turning to wails, she could occasionally save Ada from having to get up, too. So tonight, when she woke, she slid out and walked to a bassinet that didn't exist, then blinked blearily down at the empty wooden table there. She rubbed her eyes. There was a sound, yes. Out in the hall...
It sounded like someone was taking pliers to a dog. It sounded like someone had taken a record of a man breathing and then beat it to pieces while the needle was still somehow playing it. Jesus, was this what Grace meant by nightmares? It wasn't fear. It sounded like nothing but hurt.
Esme wrapped her blanket round her shoulders tighter, leaned her forehead against the wall, tried to understand. God, she was so tired. What was it? Danny? Perhaps that was it. Watching a man be killed, with bad memories and all. Esme hadn't expected it, since she'd never even seen Danny round the city once before, but she could understand.
She couldn't do anything about it now, of course. An interruption would be unforgivable. Even if she were someone else, Polly or Grace, it would be the most foolish thing in the world to dare knocking on that door, so all she could do was witness, drifting in and out of the fog of sleep, till he'd quieted to sobs that sounded human again. Presently, there were footsteps, and the sound of a bit of water. Washing his face, perhaps. Esme was just about to return to her room when there was a smash, followed by a small "fuck" of surprise and dismay.
That was a forgivable entrance, wasn't it? She rapped on the door. "Tommy?"
"It's all right, Esme, I've just dropped something. Go to bed." He was able to speak normally. So there was that.
"I can't sleep anyway."
With a clear edge of irritation: "Try."
"I was thinking of making some tea."
Alright, fine. Give him time. Fifteen minutes later, she was back. "I made tea."
"Not now, Esme."
"It's lemon, with honey. It's good. Polly said she bought it from the--"
Right. Esme put down the cup. It wasn't as if she needed to use her hands, but she wanted to feel completely unencumbered for this most difficult task. Softly, now. "I think it got harder," she said into the fragile silence. "After the war. Losing people became harder, and I didn't understand it, at first. Maybe it's because it makes Armistice feel like a dirty lie. Like...there had been a massive party, and uniforms turned back into regular clothes, and canned salt pork turned back into home roasts, and it was all supposed to be over. Whoever you had, you could keep. Whoever had survived. So now when you lose one, when you lose any of them. Feels like you've been robbed. Like someone broke a promise."
Silence, for a long dead minute. Then Tommy yanked open the door. "What the fuck are you talking about?" he demanded tiredly.
"I...heard about Danny."
All weariness vanished, replaced with sheer scorn. "Get out."
He moved forward like a boxer getting into the ring, so close now that she could make out an individual eyelash fallen on his cheek. "Get out! It will never work. All right? It will never work. There's another woman beat you to it."
"Take a step back, Tommy Shelby. I was trying to help."
"Help, yeah." He chuckled bitterly. "Help. Oh, you've been grand."
Esme stared, bewilderment warring with anger.
"Fuck it." Tommy turned went down stairs, tossing "Come on!" over his shoulder.
By the time Esme made it to the ground floor, Tommy was already in his office on his knees in front of the safe. He took some money out, then returned and met her at the base of the stairs. "A hundred and fifty pounds," he said. "That's more than half of what a factory worker makes in a year. Take it and fuck off."
"I don't need your money."
"Is that so?"
"Your father was a man who stole from his own people, then let one of them go to prison for it. And you, Esme, you are your father's daughter." He caught her wrist before she could hit him, and stood fast, eyes narrow, words quick. "The Lees were still taken in by you. 'Poor girl, left behind, keeps acting out, let's find her a husband.' But you didn't even make a fucking effort with me." He shook his head. "First day at work, you looked at that box with the phone number inside. I picked your pocket. I had a man in London find where the calls were going to, a flat whose tenant is R. Lee. Ronald Lee. What. What? Do you have something to say?"
"No," said Esme, slow and venomous. "Go on. I want to hear."
"It was all obvious. You chose the one person in the family that hated me the most--the most vulnerable, because she'd just had a child, because of Freddie--and you attached yourself to her. Tonight I come home, find you talking on the phone about London. About 'finding the money.' A child could put that together, Esme. Finn could put that together. But I've had enough, and we don't need the Lees anymore. So don't come to my room at night talking soft about the war, like you know anything about it. Take the money." He let go of Esme and shoved the bundle of bills at her. "Take the train, go live with your father. And don't ever fucking talk to my sister again."
For a long moment, nothing. They stood staring at each other as if either one might set the place on fire, and then, just as Tommy turned to go, Esme began: "That's--"
He swung back. "Oh, you do have something to say."
Esme's dark eyes snapped up to his face. "Wrong Lee. Rupa. My sister."
"You only have one sister. I have an entire file--"
"Gildi lives in France. Rupa lives in London, where she's been ever since she was cut off from the family for living with another ambulance driver." Processing, before, had made her slow, but now she was warming up and making up for all the lost time, in volume and in fury. "They talk about her like she's dead, but she sounded very fucking alive to me when last we spoke, which was four hours ago. Yes, I was going to leave, but it wasn't to take your money and give it to him. Who the fuck do you think you are, calling me my father's daughter? When I defended him, that was an honest fucking mistake. What about you? You sold your own brother-in-law to the police! What's your excuse?" she shouted.
"Then for the thousandth fucking time, who did?" Oh, now he wouldn't look at her? "Who--"
"Grace." So quietly, she almost couldn't hear it. But hear it she did. He glanced at her, then away, but that glimpse was enough for Esme to read the truth.
She was still so angry that for a second, his silence made her angrier; she wanted to shout more, wanted to take all this fucking energy and tear the house down with it, with him, the way she'd expected. But that faded with a little time, and a little thought. This was no way to run a marriage, and it was the first time she'd ever seen him ashamed.
With her left hand, she gave him back the money; with her right, she gave him not-quite-a-slap on the cheek, a sharp pat. Then she headed for the kitchen. "Come on. I'll make some more tea."
They moved around each other in the kitchen, Esme pouring the last of the hot water, Tommy getting down the box of Earl Grey. After both of them had drunk an entire cup each, in silence, Esme set hers down, looked across the table, and said, "Tell me."
"She's going to New York."
"Her business here is finished."
"I should've warned you."
"Just...the way he talked about her."
"Mm. Apparently, he fell in love with her."
"Doesn't seem possible, from a man like that." Although, look at Tommy. Grace did tend to have that effect on men like that.
Tommy shrugged and lit a cigarette.
"I'm sorry. I must have shouted at you about Freddie a thousand times, and you didn't deserve it."
"Are you apologizing, Esme?" Though his face was stone as ever, there was a hint of a smile in his voice.
"I am. Which means it's your turn now."
"If you don't want to, I can retract mine. I'm sure you deserved shouting at, if not for Freddie, then for something else. Any one of a thousand things."
Bitterly exhausted, they smiled at each other.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Esme took both the empty cups and went over to put them in the sink.
"Aren't you going to take the money?" he said, as she rinsed them out.
"The same reason you're not going to New York."
They walked up the stairs together, and went to sleep in their separate rooms.
Chapter 11: The Honeymoon
he's heartbroken, she's homesick. they both go hunting.
in which everything is settled, until suddenly it's not.
Although Tommy had insisted there was a bit of side business with the Chinese that needed wrapping up, Polly put her foot down and more or less kicked him out of the city.
"Honeymoon?" Esme said, just as displeased. "Where to? I'm not going to bloody France."
"I'm absolutely not fucking going to France," said Tommy.
"Not going to Italy, either," said Esme.
"And if we go to Ireland, we're likely to get our throats cut," said Tommy.
Polly put down her pen. "I pray every morning for the patience to get through the day, and every day, He fucking tests me. Esme, don't you want to be out in the countryside, with the grass and the rabbits and the shite?"
"Yes," Esme admitted.
"And Thomas, would you rather be shooting birds, or would you rather be dragged into the hellhole of social dilemmas that is planning a wedding between a Catholic Rrom and a Protestant prostitute, with all of Birmingham watching?"
Tommy gave her a look that expressed his willingness to die instead.
"It's all happening now," Polly said. "Better to get the wedding in sooner than later, otherwise she'll be showing the baby as she walks down the aisle. I'll handle it for a couple days. Now go and pack." She picked up her pen again.
Packing was simple: food, a horse, and a rifle each. A tent. The complicated part was figuring out how exactly she was going to bring herself to fuck him.
Yes, he hadn't betrayed his sister, and she still felt mildly guilty about fighting him so hard on it now that she knew the truth; and yes, he'd been blessed with the austere, savage beauty of a mountain god; but at the end of the day, there was nothing on the face of the Earth less appealing than the prospect of fucking a man who would be thinking of someone else the entire bloody time.
Their ride together didn't help. There was nothing romantic about hunting with a heartbroken Tommy; he was exactly the same, except surlier and more taciturn, to the point where Esme couldn't tell whether or not he was only generally angry at the world, or also angry at her specifically. By the evening, she was so irritated with him that she stopped trying to figure it out, and instead focused on the familiar pleasures of the sunlight and birdsong round them, the slight chill in the wind, the silent communication between herself and the roan mare beneath her.
The one pleasant surprise came when they settled in a relatively high spot, sheltered from the east wind by a small copse of trees. Esme was expecting the messy job of plucking the wood pigeon he'd shot, but he did it himself. After she'd rustled up the tent, she watched him still aggressively plucking away. It was a little funny, the childishness of it all.
Tommy glanced up and caught her smiling. "What?" he demanded.
"Nothing." But that settled it. He could be as sullen as he liked; she didn't take it personally. The night air was as crisp, the silence as full as she remembered. It was good to be halfway home, at least for a little while.
That peace slipped away when they slipped into the tent. It wasn't quite autumn yet, but it was cool enough that she was aware of his warmth beside her. The one thing the hill lacked, she thought, was a watch. Without a way to tell time, every excruciating moment of this fucking waiting rolled into the next with no warning of when it might be done, and he neither moved nor slept. How long? How long? How fucking--
"Alright," Tommy said roughly, turning on his side. For a moment, he hovered above her, pale eyes hard as flint, and then, as he came close, she put her hand over his mouth. He froze.
"We could lie," she said. "There's no way they could tell otherwise. There's years of lying in it before anyone begins asking questions about fertility. Then there's doctors, all kinds of tests. We have time."
His eyes moved over her face, and she thought she could read disbelief, then relief. Or possibly disappointment? How could relief and disappointment coexist? She lifted her hand.
"I thought you weren't leaving," he said.
"Because I'm not leaving."
A smile flitted across her face.
"'s just occurred to me that I may be the first woman who's ever said no."
He propped himself up, half-sitting against the saddlebags, and produced a cigarette. "Regan O'Donnell, fifth form."
"Your poor little heart."
He gave a wry smile, and offered her a cigarette. She took it, and he lit it.
"Good odds I'm not the first man," he said.
"The first man that's not wanted me? Is this another lovely Shelby tradition, telling your wife she's ugly?"
"Not the first man you've turned down."
"Ah." She went through her past quickly. "I wasn't so discriminating in my younger days, especially during the war. The number's lower than you might think."
He cocked an eyebrow, then settled back for half a cigarette's silence before saying, "Do you think you'll ever change your mind?"
She shook her head. "Just think of me as the blood relative that everyone's always reminding me I'm not."
"Don't think a blood relative would've kissed me like that," he murmured.
The corners of her mouth lifted. "A woman's entitled to a little fun on her wedding."
"And a husband's entitled to what?"
There was no threat in it, so she gave it genuine thought. "Don't think I've ever lied to you properly before. And I don't think I'll start. It's not what you're entitled to, it's just something you get."
Their cigarettes were spent, and Tommy took them both and ground them into the dirt with his boot before he lay back down on their bedroll.
Esme gave him a moment to counteroffer, and when he didn't, she prodded him. "What does a wife get?"
"A family, a room, a job. And when business permits, when she's getting choked by the factory smoke or when she thinks she wants to kill me, a ride on a horse of her own."
The offer was substantial and safe. It wasn't everything, but she acquiesced anyway. Some things could only be offered, never bargained for. "Sounds alright."
"I think it will be." With both of them on backs, in the darkness, she couldn't make out his face, but she thought he sounded satisfied.
Esme woke panicked without knowing why. It was pitch dark and there were small unformed sounds, beside her, and fast breathing and oh. He has nightmares. She sat up, moved as far away as she could within the tent, and then pinched his shoulder. He awoke with a gasp, flailing under the blanket till he'd got it off, breathing hard and looking around him wildly. The moment he saw her, his surroundings became clear, and he visibly settled, at least a little, though there was a fear there she didn't understand until he spoke.
"Did I hit you?"
"No. I'm alright." She swallowed. Her hand moved on her knee, forwards a little, but no further. "I'm going to make some tea."
He rubbed his face and adopted his I'm-surrounded-by-mere-children voice. "We're in the middle of the woods, Esme."
"I brought a tin. What kind of a heathen do you think I am?" She reached out, palm warm and steady on the nape of his neck, as he took a deep breath in and refused to look at her. Then she ducked out of the tent.
It wasn't long before he emerged from the tent and sat beside her. She'd hung the little camp pot directly over the fire, and was poking and blowing at the embers to get a new fire started.
"I don't need any," he said.
"Well I do."
They both looked into the eye-ache of a smoky orange fire, sitting cross-legged, his elbow resting on her knee.
"It was a good speech you had back there," he said.
"Which one? I think I've given you a few by now."
"The one about the war."
She leaned over to check on the water, found it hadn't boiled, and settled back closer than she had before, this time loosely hugging her knees. "I meant it at the time, but looking back, I think it's bullshit."
"Didn't sound like bullshit at all." Gentle, almost.
Esme hesitated to take his invitation. "It wasn't easier then. There's just more time to think about it now. All the ways they tried to kill us, and it filled the sky with noise, and it filled every bed with people, and I think it just crowded out time to notice that you'd lost anyone for more than a minute." She checked the water again. "Do you want lemon or orange pekoe?"
She handed him a tin mug and a teabag, then poured carefully from the pot.
"Where's your cup?" he said.
"Only packed for myself."
"I didn't anticipate the variety of beverages."
He sipped slowly. In the east, the sky was showed no signs of getting any lighter. "I heard you were a nurse," he said, "But I thought you were at some hospital in the city."
"No. I was an ambulance driver for a couple weeks, then was reassigned as a base nurse."
"Don't you need training for that?"
"There wasn't much technical subtlety in what they were having me do in the thick of my first big battle."
"The Somme." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him turn to look at her. "I know. But, Tommy, there were hundreds of thousands there. You can't expect to have a monopoly on a battle like that."
"I was thinking we could have met."
"You wouldn't have wanted to meet me then."
"You were in the surgery ward?"
"Mm-hm. One doctor per surgery. And because I was stronger than some of the other nurses, they had me in on amputations, when there were amputations."
"You had to make the cut?"
"No, that was the doctor, and they had something like a guillotine rigged up for it. I had to help hold the patient down."
"Don't...I asked for the reassignment."
"Was ambulance driving so bad?"
"I didn't like talking to the people." He passed her his empty mug, and when she refilled it, he stuck his hands in the pockets of his jacket. So now it was her turn to drink. "How did you like it?" she said, between sips. "Come on, Tommy, I'm sure you've got yourself a pretty nurse story. Every soldier has a tale to rival the Iliad when he's got a free hour and he meets a pretty nurse."
"Oh, but those were always lies," he said.
"I know, but I liked them."
"All right, you want a story. Let me see." He leaned back, supporting himself with his arms. They were closer now. Esme leaned into it, a little. It was chilly out, and the tea was not enough. "I had a mate, Auerbach, a half-German boy. He was a card fiend, and he was terrible at it. I used to lose to him sometimes on purpose, that's how bad he was." Esme could hear the smile in his voice. "One day, Auerbach got a straight flush, won a bunch of money off of John and a few others, and by bad luck, that was the day that Big Jimmy came by. He used to sell us cigarettes, and trinkets, but his main racket was bottles, and Auerbach, fresh off the win, got absinthe."
"Yep. I got distracted helping our captain, who had fucked up some regimental papers, and before you know it, there's Auerbach climbing up out of the trench and cutting our own fucking wire to get through No Man's Land."
"Was there a strafe on?"
"No, we'd just had the one in the morning, and this was mid-afternoon."
"Did he run across?"
"Like the devil was after him. Shouting the whole time. Shouting: it's gonna be over, lads! It's gonna be over! Almost believed him for a second, when he didn't get shot right away. He made it all the way to the other side, chucked the bottle--still half-full of absinthe--at some German, and then came running back home. Poor captain wasn't sure whether to court-martial him or give him a medal. Next morning, he swore he'd become a teetotaler. Never drank a drop since."
By now, somehow his arm was round her, her hand was on his knee, and her head rested on his shoulder. It was too comfortable, she thought, to bother moving. "I like your story," Esme said.
"It's not a pretty nurse story, though."
"Of course not. In reality, he got caught in the wire halfway through and shot to pieces."
She patted his knee by way of apology. She hadn't been looking to make him speak of reality. "I only meant that for this to be a pretty nurse story, it'd have to make you the hero."
"I'm never the hero in any war stories."
"The king seems to think differently."
"The king can kiss my ass. Why do you want this so much, eh?"
"I thought you might like to tell. Everyone knows you threw your medals in the Cut, and it takes a particular kind of man to both throw away his medals and let everyone know he's had them at the same time. The kind of man who tells stories."
Tommy made a noise of disgust. "That's Arthur's fault. He found out when I got the damn things and he never let me forget it. It's almost an insult. Or he's proud of it."
"Or both," he conceded.
"We keep doing this to each other," Esme said. "Have you noticed? Taking up spare pieces of information, and then making the worst out of them."
"See enemies in everyone, and you're bound to be right eventually," said Tommy. "In Birmingham more often than not."
"But we've been mistaken every time."
"Might have to do something about that."
"Hm." She looked to the east, in mild curiosity. The sky was starting to show streaks of indigo. "What do you suggest?"
Tommy said it half into her hair, and she turned to him and tilted her head back a little to get a look. What? she was going to say, but then she knew.
At first, it was slow and luscious, but then Esme made a small sound in the back of her throat and surged up, clutching at his coat collar, and his fingers tangled in her hair, and oh. Oh.
He laid her down on the grass, her head on his arm and his hand on her hip and the ache was still there but fuck, so was he, tender. He pressed kisses to her jaw, her neck, her shoulder, and at the exact second she opened her eyes and saw a golden eagle overhead, he reached down and lifted up her skirt.
"Mm?" His hand paused, warm, on her thigh.
Esme pushed at him, once, twice. He rolled off, onto his side, as she sat.
"I have to take a walk." She sounded wrecked, even to her own ears.
He looked as wrecked as she sounded, sprawled out on the grass, one button nearly torn off his shirt. "Esme." That was his only concession to pleading, and she was glad of it. Begging wouldn't have suited either of them, anyway; his ragged breath was enough.
His blue eyes were left unguarded and she couldn't help it. She leaned down and gave him one more kiss.
"Fuck," she said, realizing that she was still holding his face in her hands, that this was the part where she'd have to let go. She did. She got to her feet. "Fuck." She looked around. "I have to take a walk."
"Anywhere." The copse of trees looked inviting enough, if only because it held shadows against the light of day that she'd very much like to hide in. Without looking back, she walked into it until she was able to stop and lean against a birch and catch her breath.
God, he was fit to break her heart and she was almost stupid enough to let him.
Chapter 12: The Dressmaker
Shopping with Tommy comes with many surprises.
Esme paused at the place where the trees met the long grass of the hill. Looking out across the landscape, she thought that the image was almost close to perfect. A stream cut across the fields to the west, and to the east, the trees' shadows were quickly shrinking against the rising sun. The two horses, roan and grey, were grazing a small distance from the fire, which Tommy had put out. He was wrestling with the tent, had on a fixed expression of seemingly permanent frustration when a lick of wind tugged the canvas this way and that in his hands.
If only there were a couple dozen wagons over there, in the grasslands below, a few fires burning, the sounds of children mixing with the low murmur of the running water. That would be the good life.
This, though, was only close enough to be dangerous.
Esme had desperately underestimated him, that had been her mistake. All that time in Birmingham, and she'd thought she understood him, but thinking back now, it was only in the past day or so that they'd ever had a minute alone; even that night at Ada's, there had been the baby between them. So now she saw the enemy more clearly, and the worst of it was not his lies, his violence, his family, his callousness, or his appetites; he could simply be who he was and that still left her fucked ten times over.
She'd like to blame that night on the situation alone. But in the woods there was nobody to lie to, so why bother? The city could help, though. She had been happy in Birmingham before, in moments: with Karl cooing in her arms, with Ada laughing at the newspaper, with John and Arthur rising to meet the noonday rush. If she could string those moments together more closely, she could make a good life of it. She just had to get back there.
It turned out to be surprisingly easy. She just walked across the grass, stood next to him as he settled the saddlebags on his mare, and said, "I think we should go back now, cut this short." She could've added, Polly's going to need a hand with the wedding, but then, no. She'd rather not have him talk to her like she was other people, so she wouldn't do it to him. It was close enough to a lie.
"I thought the same," he said, and that was it.
They talked quietly and pleasantly, in little snatches here and there, of small and irrelevant things: of Rupa's abrupt, suspicious woman; of Arthur's nascent boxing career cut short by the war; of Lizzie's ailment and Polly's slight softening towards her. But it was so casual, so blatantly on the surface, that to Esme, it only highlighted that there lay depths below. She didn't let the discomfort show.
By the time they reached the stables, trading the horses for the car with a brief hello to Curly (possibly the most charmingly friendly man she'd ever met), Esme had moved on from the complex miseries of the night to the much smaller, pettier, and more solid miseries of a thicker air, a dimmer sky, and an uglier landscape. She got lost in her head, thinking about whether all that factory smoke might make for weaker lungs or stronger ones, when Tommy stopped the car and said, "Here."
"It looks like fucking London."
The shop windows were clear, or as clear as any window could be after a half-day's worth of Birmingham traffic; the dresses on the mannequins glowed under soft lights. One of them was sleeveless altogether.
Tommy smiled. "Not exactly Selfridges, but Polly's come here once or twice. When there's been a good haul or a celebration."
As they got out of the car and crossed the street, Esme caught a young woman walking with a pram down the sidewalk, giving them both a funny look. She decided to ignore it. "Is this where you go?"
"No, I still get my suits made in Chinatown."
"Of course you do."
He opened the door for her, an anomaly that she forgot all about the second she walked in.
Before them spread a veritable sea of clothing in a rainbow of colors, enough to paralyze even the most confident woman. For fuck's sake, Esme had made most of her dresses herself. Where would she even start? She picked a direction at random and found herself looking at the beading on a delicate sea-green dress that suited neither her complexion nor her life, something suited to a flapper, something she'd never wear. She could feel the eyes of the shopgirls on her--it was midday, after all, and not on a Saturday--and did her best. This was some gesture on Tommy's part, after all, and fuck it'd been a long time since she'd last had something new. All her scarves and earrings, pawned to pay back what they owed, not to mention her mother's necklace--
Beaming at them was one of those rare women who managed to look exquisite without looking breakable, with a magnificent mane of tawny hair dark eyes that would put a doe to shame. She stood there, almost expectantly, looking at them.
Tommy met her with the rare, soft smile he usually reserved for horses and babies and old mates from the war. "Esme, this is Astrid Jurossi. She was a couple years younger than me in school. Astrid, this is Esme. My wife."
"Oh." Astrid took her in, and suddenly Esme was aware there was likely still a bit of grass in her hair, likely too many wrinkles in her dress.
"His unbridled gypsy wife," Esme said dryly, and whatever she'd expected in return for that, it certainly wasn't a quick and lovely smile of appreciation.
"Pleased to meet you," Astrid said, and Esme was astonished to find herself believing it. The shook hands.
"Astrid, you're needed in the backroom." A disapproving woman built like a pencil with a bun on the end was bearing down on them with remarkable and frightening speed and smoothness, looking down her nose at Astrid with the unmistakeable air of a manager. Tommy's lips parted and Esme stepped on his foot. She hated the woman on sight, too, but she'd be damned if she was going to be embarrassed by her husband in a fucking department store with all the shopgirls looking. Tommy took a small step back, slipping his shoe out from under hers.
"Bye," said Astrid, just as the manager said, severely, "Can I help you?"
Esme looked her up and down with all the raw condescension of a policeman surveying a campground he was about to tear up. "No," she said finally, meeting the woman's eyes. "I don't think so."
Shopping was so much easier when she had an enemy. Esme surveyed the rows of dresses and finally came to one, white and gold, intricate but fluid. She walked to it, felt the sleeve between her fingers. The woman followed, hovering just over her shoulder, and Esme had to give it to her; she was persistent, at the least. Esme turned to her. "Well? What do you think?"
"I think," the manager said, coolly, "You may have mistaken this shop for another. The place you want is Mrs. Hart's, down on Union and Sixth."
"You're right," said Esme slowly. "It'd be a shame to get blood on something so pretty."
When she smiled, she made sure to show teeth. When she left, Tommy followed right behind.
"I can come around later and put in a word with--"
"Don't. My feelings are fine." They settled into the car, and Esme smiled again. "Although I may be in love with Astrid. She's a heartbreaker, isn't she?"
Tommy cleared his throat. "She is a Jurossi."
Esme sensed she'd scored an unexpected hit, but she hadn't been trying to. There wasn't a need for it, and Esme had known that since Astrid first walked up. She had seen the way he looked at Grace and that wasn't it. There was something else, but she couldn't place it.
"Isn't Union to the south?" she said, looking out the window.
"You're taking that woman's advice?"
"Dika Hart's place may have been suggested as an insult, but better our coin goes to a Roma than that bitch. Besides, it's about time I met the Birmingham branch of our people, and I think she may be related to my second cousin."
"Polly knows them all. She could tell you."
"For once, I'd like to meet someone on my own terms, without a Shelby as introduction."
"As you wish."
Hart's dress shop was tiny and a little disorganized but within minutes Esme was already deep into it, five pairs of chandelier earrings in her hand and three dresses thrown over her arm.
An old woman in an long red jacket came out from the back of the shop and squinted at Esme, not critically, just directly. "Do I know you?"
"Esme Lee." Esme held out her hand, and at the handshake, she felt a ripple of relief and warmth go through her. Something of home was still here, even if the wagons weren't.
"Esme, very good to meet you. I'm Dika." Dika settled into a tall chair behind the counter. "So what happened? Why aren't you with the Lees? I heard they left camp days ago."
"They did. I forgot for a minute, it's funny." Esme wanted to laugh, but it wasn't actually funny. "I forgot. I'm not Esme Lee. I got married to Tommy, the middle of the Shelby boys, son of Mary Shelby, who was a Cavanaugh herself before she was married. He's just out there, having a smoke." She hooked her thumb over her shoulder.
The woman peered over the counter at the grey shape of Tommy's wool-clad shoulders, barely visible in the small window set in the door.
"Put the dresses down, child. Come here."
Esme did as she was told and Dika grabbed her hands. There was something profoundly disturbing about the strength of the grip beneath her the tissue-frail, feather-soft skin. "Listen to me, Lee. You need to be prepared for that family. I can tell he's charmed you, but that family is nothing but poison and ashes."
Esme's pulse jumped, and she had to hold herself in place to match Dika's dark eyes. "I know they're bookmakers. I know they get into fights. But it's all right. Kimber's gone, the copper's going. It's going to be all right. The family, they're all right. Everyone that's not an enemy gets spared."
"How do you account for the imprisonment of Freddie Thorne? Or the death of little Tim Whelan? Or--"
"Timothy Whelan went to Marcus Gates' place to take boxing lessons one day. Arthur Shelby beat him to death with his fists. He wasn't any older than fifteen. His brother covered it all in money, and made it all go away. That's the man you married."
"That's not..." None of this made sense, but Dika's eyes were iron in a way Esme couldn't doubt. She swallowed. She was scrabbling for excuses and she could hear it in her own voice. "I know he had a bad time of it after the war. It's shell shock, but he's all right now. Polly says he's come a long way."
Dika's fingers tightened, painful now in their urgency. "That wasn't 1918, child," she rasped. "That was two weeks ago."
A scrape and a sudden wash of fresh air announced the opening of the front door.
"I was thinking you should pick something up for Lizzie. A wedding present," Tommy said, and then: "Esme?"
There was a single moment of mute horror when Esme felt acutely that both Dika and Tommy wanted to protect her from each other, and that somehow, they were both right. But then the storm gathered on Tommy's face and Esme tore her hands away. "We need to go," she said.
"Let's go, Tommy." She shoved him back towards the door, out it, into the wind.
"Are you all right?"
"Get in the car."
When they were two blocks away, he finally said, "What is it now? I've seen those eyes before, Esme. I thought we were done with misunderstandings."
"This isn't one you can talk your way out of."
She looked down at her lap. The bare bones of it was so terrible that she was almost afraid to say it out loud, because it sounded unreal to the point of foolishness. "Did Arthur beat a boy to death two weeks ago, and did you cover for him?"
He was silent long enough for it to be an answer. And how many times now had she felt this awful feeling of suddenly realizing the earth beneath her wasn't fucking solid? God, she was so weary of it all, and angry, angry in a way she could feel vibrating in her fucking chest.
"He didn't mean to. It just comes over him, sometimes. It's been hard for him, returning from the war, and--"
"We've all had a fucking hard time of it!" she shouted. "Half the country's mired in nightmares and the other half is dead! But you don't see everyone going out and killing boys, because that would be the entire next generation done for!"
"What did you think this family was, Esme? Did you think I'd let him go to the fucking gallows?"
"I thought he was a good man! I thought--he rescued me from Campbell, he took me out to drinks my first Friday, he taught me some of the accountant's shorthand. I was fucking--I was going to ask him to teach me how to fight, I thought I'd need to protect myself. From Campbell, from the coppers. I didn't think I'd have to protect anyone from him! I didn't think he'd be a fucking danger to just whoever breathed near him!"
"That's what a brother is, Esme."
"No! A brother is not by necessity a murderer, a brother is only the son of a shared mother, and God bless her but she was not my mother. This is not my family. Every fucking time, I think it is, and you prove me wrong. You keep me half-blind, like I'm other people, like I'm not a Shelby. This is not my family."
A grim silence settled over the car for a moment. And then:
"Be honest, Esme." He went slow, now, grave, and a little sardonic. God, she hated that voice. "This isn't Arthur alone. It's all for the same reason that you wanted to 'take a walk.'"
"Yes, Tommy. You're right. My feelings about you covering up the murder of a child are all down to my untouched cunt. You've done it! You've solved the mystery. Sherlock fucking Holmes."
Still slow, now, still controlled: "At some point, you'll have to stop seeing your father in every other man."
This was genuinely fucking breathtaking. It took her a minute. Maybe more than a minute. But then it all came pouring out. "You think I didn't fuck you because I was worried you'd betray me? That's fucking--you already have. You already have. You want to know why I had to go for a walk? Because you can't take me just because you're lonely. Why would you think that's automatic? Why do you think I would be looking to eat Grace's leftovers?"
The car screeched to a stop.
"That," he said, quietly, dangerously, "is the last time I'll hear you say her name."
For a moment, staring, Esme thought he might lay hands on her. For a moment she wanted him to. She'd prefer by far the clean blood of breaking his nose over this tangle of thorns. But then he didn't, and she spoke.
"This is your problem, with me and with every other person in your entire fucking family. You think of everything as a one-way street, and you don't understand when money and power and some useless mirage of safety aren't enough to make up for it. You can talk about my father, but I can't talk about Grace. You can demand honesty, but you can't give it. We all serve, and what do you do? A family is not a fucking company, Thomas. No matter how much you might want to run it like one."
She opened the door and climbed out. "I'm walking to Ada's." She slammed the door shut. The car sat there for a heavy second, then shot away.
Chapter 13: The Visitor
Esme receives an extremely unexpected visitor.
It was a long walk to Ada's, and Esme got lost twice, but that was probably all for the good; by the time she arrived, she was exhausted, and a bit muddy, and had gone over all the things she'd wished she had shouted perhaps a dozen times each. It wasn't enough to put all the anger to bed, but it was enough to let her put on a smile when Ada opened the door.
Ada looked good, with rosy cheeks and a smile that reached her eyes. Freddie--well, after a stint in prison as a Communist, he didn't look good, but he looked happy, did up Karl's diaper and took him out for a stroll in the pram while Ada and Esme sat and talked, about Karl and the croup, Freddie and nightmares, Dika Hart and the Romani women they knew around town. And most of all, they talked about the Peaky Blinders, as an organization and as men. Ada was, thankfully, extremely detailed, extremely unflinching, and made no excuses. By the end of the conversation, Esme was positively dizzy with tales of cut eyes and broken bones, not to mention the men shot. And so, so many lies.
"It's not a pretty family history," said Ada, when she was done.
"For all that it's a pretty family," said Esme, doing her best to swallow it down.
"You don't have to pretend it's alright with me, I'm not reporting back to Tommy."
"I'm not pretending, I'm thinking."
"Are you going to be alright?" Ada rubbed her shoulder.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"It's a bit of a turnaround from the honeymoon, that's all."
"Oh, not really." Esme mustered a smile. "The honeymoon was...uneventful."
"With everything, I think it's better that the marriage stay that way."
"Yes." Ada was giving her some kind of a look. "What?"
"I think you're the right wife. Or the right sister-in-law, at least. The right sister."
Esme couldn't resist giving her another hug. "Thanks," she said, voice slightly muffled by Ada's shoulder. "You're the only one, you know. The only Shelby I trust now. The only one that's never--you've never lied to me, have you?"
"Hm. Let me think about it. Well, I did say once that I thought I had to check on the bleeding. But really I was going into the bathroom for a good cry. Does that count?"
"Oh, I already knew that one. Thin walls, remember?"
"Thin walls. Hey, do you want a present?”
Esme’s eyes narrowed.
“It’s a good one, Jesus.”
“Sorry, I’ve been spending too much time with him. It’s turning me into a suspicious bastard. Sorry, sorry.” Esme closed her eyes and held out her empty hands.
There was a silence for some time, and the sound of Ada walking round in her bare feet, and some kind of rustle. Then Ada sat back down. “How would you like to be Karl’s godmother?”
Esme’s eyes snapped open and she made a high-pitched sound of excitement. “Thank you!”
Ada laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Three nieces, two nephews, and I’ve never gotten to be a godmother!”
“Oh no. Maybe I should find someone with more experience to fill the position.”
Just then, the clock struck on the hour. Esme sighed. "I should go. There's likely another fight left between us, because I got in the last word last time, and he hates that. And I'm hungry besides."
"You could stay for dinner."
"No, that's my plan to end the fight. He's a man. He'll find it fairly difficult to keep shouting if he's too busy putting his spoon in his mouth."
"You're as brilliant as you are beautiful."
"A Shelby woman, then."
"I know, I know. You're a Thorne now."
Dinner was a stew, a little heavier on the potatoes than Esme would've liked, and frankly it was a miracle that she managed anything at all in that bachelor's kitchen. After half an hour of waiting, she turned off the stove and settled down with a stack of newspapers and a bowl for herself. He could take leftovers if he made it in time.
There were knocks at the door, fast and impatient. The front door though, to the betting shop. She debated shouting at whoever-it-was to fuck off, but pissing off a customer was probably not the best idea.
"Oi! I know you're in there!"
Esme dropped the newspaper and sprang to her feet.
"Shelby! Open the fucking door! I can see the light on, you bastard!"
Esme fumbled with the lock. Jesus, why did the front door always stick?
"Where's my daughter?"
"Right here," she said, as the door swung open. "Dad. I'm right here."
That brown three-piece suit was new and that beard was new and that cane was new, but the man himself was unmistakeable, built like a mountain and saying her name in the same voice that she'd heard even before she was born.
He hugged her. Blinking back tears, Esme let him.
Back in the kitchen, with the door safely locked behind them, Esme tried to get ahold of herself. They ought to be arguing, she knew. Or she ought to say something. It was far too peaceful a dinner scene for a man who had ruined her entire life and put her in this marriage, much less for a man who had committed a crime against one of his own.
"I thought I wasn't going to see you again," she said. That seemed a decent try, but he only gave her a look of mild incredulousness.
"Of course I'd come see you," he said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. "I would have waited a little longer for things to die down, but your sister told me you might be in trouble."
Rupa, Jesus. "She knew where you were all along?"
"We live in the same city. I see her all the time. She just said you were a bit upset at me, and maybe I should let you cool off a little. Except then you called her in the middle of the night, all upset, saying you were going to leave your husband, and she never heard back from you, and you didn't come. So she sent me to come get you."
"That's what the cane is for, isn't it."
"You don't like my cane?"
"You're not limping." Esme tilted her head. "You were expecting to beat my husband with that thing, weren't you."
"If it came to it."
"Fuck." Esme laughed. "That's a fight I'd pay to see."
"From all I hear, he's a little thing that relies on hidden blades. Not a match."
"He's shorter, I'll give you that. But he's more vicious."
Her dad pointed at the fading remnant of a bruise on her wrist. "Is that where that comes from?"
"No, that was a policeman."
He made a chuh sound of disgust. "Did they try to throw you out?"
"Of this house? No, Tommy this. Completely. There's no mortgage." Now why would she say that, when she had no earthly idea what state the house was in? Fuck. Esme shifted in her seat.
He didn't appear to let on. "I have a house now too."
"A flat in a good neighborhood. You're going to love it."
Jesus. "I'm not going to love it, Dad, because I'm never going to see it. Do you see this ring?"
"It's an arranged marriage, Esme, to a Shelby."
"What? They're not the Golds."
"They're half-Irish boys that enjoyed the war so much they thought they'd come home and start another one. Liars, thieves, and murderers. They don't deserve you, Esme."
He didn't say it earnestly, like he was trying to persuade her. He said it matter-of-factly, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, and wasn't that some kind of backhanded compliment? She found herself getting defensive without knowing why. It wasn't so much the truth of what he was saying, but the way he took for granted that it was natural to crave escaping the Shelby name…
Maybe it was the devil in her. Probably it fucking well was. But, after weeks of wanting to get out of the family for all the same reasons he gave, she found herself clinging to it the minute she was given an out, and wasn't that something? She said nothing, for once in her life, knowing that whatever she had to say was something she'd likely regret.
He was smart enough to sense the change, at least. "Love, I'm asking you to choose between a family that wants you and a family that leaves you waiting up with dinner going cold. I'm sorry if I don't see how that's a hard choice."
"Yeah?" she said tightly.
And there it was. “In this family, they fuck each other over, but least they don’t leave each other behind.”
“So you are angry." He leaned back, and the chair creaked under his weight. A painful sound. "You’re angry I didn’t take you with me? I thought you’d be angry about what I did.”
Esme barked a mirthless laugh. "Oh, I am. I fucking am."
"Look, Esme. I did what I had to do. And you...you remind me so much of your mother. The insistence on honor." He smiled shiny-eyed and Esme's throat closed up. There was a bit of noise at the back door, but she hardly noticed. "I thought if I told you what I was planning, you'd tell me to go yourself, or turn me in. I never dreamed you'd agreed to be a part of it, otherwise I would of asked, of course I would have ask. Would you have come with me, if I'd asked?"
The answer was simple. It was a lie, but at least it was only one syllable. "No," she managed to say.
"Esme." He reached for her hand, but it was about six months too late. She pulled away.
"Dad, I think you should go."
"She's right, it's getting late," said a deep voice from over Esme's shoulder. Without looking, she knew it was Tommy. She grabbed the cane before her father could.
"Dad, this is Tommy. Tommy, this is my father, Ronald Lee."
Her father got to his feet heavily, as Tommy crossed the room and stuck out his hand. Her father shook it, though afterwards he grabbed Tommy by the wrist and checked to see that he had the cut from the marriage ceremony. It was healing up well enough, still a little pink. "Hm."
Tommy shot Esme a look, and Esme just shrugged. If it wasn't are you Rom enough, it would be are you rich enough, and if it wasn't are you rich enough, it would be are you smart enough, and so on and so on. Her father could be just as obstinate as she was when it came to disliking people.
"I can sleep on the sofa if you don't have a guest room," said her father.
"We'll have trouble enough with the Lees if they find out you came here, let alone if they find out you're staying with us," said Esme. "Go back to your flat in your nice neighborhood."
"I'm married , Dad. I don't know how many different ways there are to tell you that." Tommy walked behind her and stood there, looking about as deadpan and blank-faced as possible. There was something strangely comforting about it.
"But you never wanted to be married. Even just a year ago, you swore you'd never get married."
"People change. You're proof of that, aren't you?" She handed him back his cane, pointedly. "Safe travels. Tell Rupa I'm fine."
He didn’t budge. "Tell her yourself."
Her chin lifted a fraction. "Fine, I'll call."
After a dead silence, her father stepped back. "Goodnight, Esme," he said softly.
She locked the door after him.
Then she turned to Tommy. "What?"
He studiously maintained no expression as if his life depended on it. "Nothing."
He put his hands up.
God, he was no use. For reasons beyond fathoming, he was being absurdly tolerant. Fine. She brushed past him, collected her fork and empty plate, and went over to do the washing up.
Tommy got his food, but instead of sitting down at the table, he leaned against the stove with his plate in his hand and watched her. She ignored him, focusing instead on the dishes and eventually drifting deep into her own private thoughts.
Esme looked up to find that she'd finished all the dishes and was standing at the sink with one clean plate in her hands. "What?"
"You can throw it."
God, that was tempting. Just to hear the shatter, even...She opened up the cupboard and set it down deliberately atop a stack of all the other plates. "If I smashed things every time--if I broke things like that, you'd be out of dishes by now. And cups besides."
"I could eat out of the pot."
Esme reached out and took the plate out of his hands with half his stew left on it. "The last time I saw you, you looked like you wanted to put your hands around my neck, and now you're offering to let me smash up your dishes? And you're quiet. Why are you quiet?"
"The last time I saw you, you had nothing good to say about me or the family that you just chose. I'm quiet because I'm trying to understand why you're not getting on the 9:15 train to London right now."
"I couldn't go."
"I wouldn't have stopped you."
"That's a comfort, Tommy, but not every decision I make is about you."
"I do find that almost none of them are."
She could feel him watching her, and it was unbearable; she didn't know how to exist with gentleness just then. She took the fork from him and ate off his plate, but out of the corner of her eye, she could see him almost smile at that, bordering on affectionate, and fuck it. She shoved his plate back at him. If she couldn't fight anyone properly then she was going to have to cry. "I'm going to bed."
Esme didn’t even need the Karl-trained light ear that night, because she never fell asleep in the first place. When she heard a fuck and his footsteps moving around, she didn’t bother trying to formulate some kind of plan to not hurt his ego by showing that she knew about the nightmares. She got out of bed, crossed the hall, and knocked on the door. “You make the tea this time,” she said.
When he opened the door, she was pleased in her own mean-spirited way to see that he looked just as exhausted as she felt.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said.
“I know.” She turned and made her way down the stairs.
It took a long silence for both of them to get settled; the exhaustion deprived them both of the usual masks, or at least made it that much harder. At any rate, Esme wasn’t trying to be angry and Tommy wasn’t trying to be blank; they eyed each other with the same wariness, moved around each other with the same clumsy comfort.
Esme was half a cup in before Tommy said, “I thought that if you ever saw him again, you’d cut him.”
“That’s your game, not mine.”
“That you’d tell him the ninety-seven different ways he violated all human decency, then.”
"Yeah.” Esme shrugged, swirled her spoon round her cup for no reason. “We used to yell at each other a lot. Over anything: food, a bad bet. Fight and make up, mum and my sisters too. We were a yelling family. I don't--" Her voice caught. "I don't know how we ended up talking to each other quiet, like used to talk to other people. But that’s what we are now." She looked across the table and made a half-hearted attempt at provocation, knowing it was stupid even as she did it. Old habits died hard. “Congratulations on having the Lee alliance intact.”
“I’m not so sure I have her.” His voice ran the edge of ragged, and she knew that was only the blood loss and sleeplessness combined, but fuck it brought back some very recent memories.
“No.” “I’m open to suggestions.”
“I don’t want any more surprises,” Esme said. “I’m sure there will be some lies along the way. But I don’t want to wake up every morning wondering who I can trust. Now, if I say where are you doing with that money and you say it’s for a horse when it’s for a bomb, there’s nothing I can do, and that’s not so important. But if I find myself the last one to know that you, I don’t know, fucking threw Polly in the Cut.”
“You greatly overestimate my capabilities with that particular scenario.” But he wasn’t smoking, or drinking, or returning to his newspaper. She had his full attention, and she intended to make the most of it. She intended to be heard.
“I don’t think I do. Or at least, I underestimating the Shelbys is a mistake I’ve made before, and not one I mean to make again. Arthur? An unarmed boy?” She raised her hands like he had, like someone was pointing a gun at her, both a gesture of appeasement and a sign she was washing her hands of it.
She went on: “It would be foolish to ask you to stop protecting your family in the way you’ve always done. And it would be laughable to ask you not to lie. But if I can’t control you, you can’t control me. I won’t commit crimes for you, I won’t hurt people for you. I’ll put work into this family like a draft horse, and I’ll play the wife like Greta Garbo herself, but I’m not going to be silent in my own home, if this is going to be my home. When you’ve done wrong, you will hear it from me.
“Probably very fucking loudly, eh? I wouldn’t expect anything less.” He studied her a moment. “Is that the deal?”
“It’s an opening offer.”
After some thought, he spat on his hand and offered it to her. But instead of shaking, she pulled away. “One more thing.”
Tommy raised an eyebrow.
“No matter how late it is, or what you’ve smoked, or what you’ve drunk, or what I’ve drunk or what either of us have dreamed or whatever the fuck else, we are not fucking.”
It was futile to ask, but there he went, asking anyway. “Why?”
“Has she even left Birmingham, Tommy?”
He pulled back his hand and gave her a look.
“Well?” Esme demanded.
“No, she hasn’t.”
So there it was.
He offered her his hand again, and this time she spat on her own and shook. Palm against palm, it was the marriage ceremony again. No blood, no witnesses. But looking into his eyes, she felt it would be enough.
Esme got up and put her cup in the sink. “Crack open a window in the morning,” she said. “Your room smells like you’ve got ten dozen month-old flowers in there from all the opium.”
She could feel him watching her ascend the stairs. “Sleep well, Mrs. Shelby.”
Chapter 14: The Dinner
The entire family comes together for the first time since the wedding.
It was a fairly uneventful week, with a few exceptions.
Esme knocked on the door of a nondescript little flat in a nondescript little building.
"Who is it?" Lizzie called.
"Esme Shelby. Pleased to meet you. I brought some soup."
The door squeaked open and a very rumpled, mussy-haired, obviously swelling Lizzie looked blearily at her.
"Sorry," Esme said.
Lizzie took the soup from her hands. "You can tell Polly to stop fussing, I can take care of myself now that the flu's over. Unless she wants to send over a barrel of pickles, I don't need any deliveries."
"Polly didn't send me. Actually, I was wondering if you were coming to Sunday dinner. I told John to tell you about it. Tried calling a couple of times."
"Oh, the phone's having some problems." It was a lazy cover-up; Lizzie didn't even bother trying to account for John.
Esme wasn't imagining it, was she? Lizzie didn't like her. But on one hand, it was unfair to turn on a pregnant woman, and on the other, she'd been in the family less than a year; she couldn't afford to start any feuds over a bit of irritation. "I could bring the car around and drive you there and back," she said.
"I'm not sure I can make it," Lizzie said. "It's been a long week."
"Right, okay. It's six days away, so if you rest up and you change your mind, call anytime."
Lizzie's eyes could be just as blank as Tommy's when she put her mind to it, and Esme backed off. "I'll let you rest. Goodbye, Lizzie."
"Bye." The door locked behind her.
Tommy looked skeptical. "A pig?"
"It's nothing special if I just pop in a bit of roast beef, or whatever it is you do."
He slipped into Romani chib. "We're not gadje."
"You cook on a stove. It's not the same. I'm going to build a fire pit."
Tommy leaned back in his chair and considered her. "You want to show off."
"Pot, kettle. We were once driving, and you stopped the car to say, word for word, 'I'm going to own that one day, and then we can take family portraits in front of it.'"
"It was a pretty building."
"It was the fucking City Council."
He smirked at her, and she couldn't help but smirk back. Jesus, the worst of it was that she believed him, and she didn't hate it.
"A pig's expensive," he said.
"Yeah, well, you got a car."
"And you got a horse."
"I got the promise of a horse. Haven't seen a horse yet. Just borrowed one of yours."
"Now you want a dead pig and a live horse."
"And a trip to Dika Hart's sometime in the near future, though of course without you this time."
"Is that all?"
Without another word, Tommy went back to the safe, came back with a wad of notes, and handed them over.
Esme gave him that half-pat, half-tap on the cheek, then picked up the car keys.
"No sense in getting the pig so early," Tommy said.
"I know. I'm going to get a jar of pickles."
"Who is it?"
Lizzie peeked out, looking much better this time, though her mood had clearly not improved. "John's already got me some, thank you."
Bless him. "Well, you might run out." She held out the jar, and reluctantly, Lizzie took it. It was that split second, that moment of is she really going to say no to just a jar of pickles? that made up Esme's mind for her. "You know what?" she added. "I could really use a glass of water before I do the rest of these errands. Do you mind?"
That was forcing the issue. And clearly Lizzie wasn't prepared for it; after a moment, she took a step back, letting Esme in.
The flat was spare but smart in its own way, not drab at all, fashionable even in the wallpaper, and the small, stout bookshelf was lined with books that looked thick enough to be intimidating. That said, there were clothes strewn over the furniture, dishes unwashed in the sink, and other signs of untidiness. No wonder Lizzie looked a touch defiant. Esme sat down on the sofa, taking care not to disturb the pile of blouses to her left.
Lizzie got the cup of water and then stood there as Esme drank it. Esme tried to drink slowly. "How's the baby?"
"Don't you see him every day at work?"
"Sometimes there's a rush, and we don't get to talk much. Besides, when he does talk, it's so often about--cars, or something."
"Yes, we're planning to get one before the wedding."
"Smart. In case you want to take the baby to the hospital." Esme had run out of water, and now Lizzie took the cup from her hand and stayed standing. Esme was made of stern stuff, but even she had to admit to herself that there was a certain amount of power that came from an incredibly tall woman glaring down from that height.
There was a moment of dead silence, and then Lizzie blurted, "Fine, I'll go to your dinner."
"Thanks, but I don't think you should."
"Why not? You just invited me yesterday."
"Yes, but you just said no yesterday because of the baby's health. I wouldn't want to endanger the baby's health."
"It's only a car ride."
"It was only a car ride yesterday too."
Lizzie put the cup down on a low table with definite force. "What do you want from me?"
"I was thinking the same thing."
"You seem to hate me a surprising amount for a woman who knows almost nothing about me."
Lizzie laughed bitterly. "What don't I know about you?"
This was the point at which Esme would love to say, what the fuck does that mean? but again, family. Pregnant. And she was clearly missing something. So she sat there, obstinate in her silence, until Lizzie sighed and dropped into the chair opposite her.
"Isn't it obvious?" Lizzie said.
"It couldn't be further from obvious."
"There's two new wives in the family; you're the good wife, I'm the bad wife."
"Lizzie, that's absurd."
"Don't--Esme, you're Romani, you're from their mother's side. The good side. Me, I'm just a whore. A whore who can't speak the language, or teach the children those ways. Who was forced on the family by a pregnancy nobody wanted, and who in turn forced Tommy to get married--bet he loves that, by the way. Who can't work because she's pregnant, now, and couldn't even work in the shop even if she wasn't pregnant, probably, because most every man in there has used her services and is too ashamed of himself to look her in the eye in broad daylight. And who absolutely did not come with a fucking new car attached."
Lizzie took a breath, and Esme tried to put thought together fast enough to cut in, but then Lizzie plowed ahead: "You know, I was really sick, and Polly took good care of me, but it was like she was a nurse. Just like that. Not like she was family. Not like she disliked me--although she does. But fuck, it's not a marriage license that makes a Shelby. You're in and I'm not. I'll come to the party, but you can't expect me to enjoy it."
Esme spoke slowly, choosing her words. "Lizzie, I don't doubt that they're giving you a hard time for your past, and I'm sorry. You don't deserve that."
"I do, but go on." Lizzie lit a cigarette.
"And so I won't try to argue there's no difference in our situations, but I do think you may have exaggerated the difference somewhat."
"For one thing, I don't come with a sterling reputation either. My father did a bit of bad business a little while ago and ran off. I don't know what John told you about our people, but it's generally not taken well when one of us leaves another in the lurch. Leaves one of us in prison for a crime he didn't commit, specifically. They took all my things, and by the time they married me off, I was glad to get away. Now, I've been working with the family for some time now, so I think I may have their trust a little, but Polly's the heart of the operation and she still says, in front of all of them, she's not blood. I've heard her say that without the slightest bit of embarrassment. I'm an intruder too. You talk about Tommy like you know him, and probably you do, so you have to know that he's not pleased to have even the slightest additional obligation to look after, even if that obligation cooks him dinner and runs around the city mostly by herself. And then there's the most important thing, the thing you didn't mention at all."
"What?" Lizzie didn't say it sharply. She was still a little wary, but no longer angry.
"John loves you. He knew all of this would happen, going in, and he chose you."
"There was a baby. He had to, for the family honor or what the fuck ever."
"No, there's plenty of bastards in the Shelby history. I've talked to Ada, I know. But just--Lizzie, listen. He had to provide for you, maybe. He had to be a good dad. But he didn't have to marry you. I know you know this. And John doesn't talk about you or the baby much, but when he does, he lights up like the sky on Guy Fawkes Night. He's happy. Do you know how Tommy looks when he's actually, truly, completely happy? Do you know what joy looks like on his face?"
"Neither do I. But I know what it looks like on John's."
"Jesus." Lizzie took a drag and looked away. "I was being unfair. But you didn't have to say all that." Her eyes glimmered with unshed tears, and Esme looked at her own hands in her lap while Lizzie wiped her eyes quickly with her sleeve.
"I wanted to. We're going to be sisters. And I have found that contrary to popular belief in this family, honesty yields the best results." She thought about it. "With the women, anyway."
"Tell that to Polly."
"Why, what did she say?"
"She said it would all be pretty easy until six months in, but already all I want to do is sleep forever. My tits hurt, Esme. Like someone punched me. You ever been titpunched?"
Esme laughed. "By my sister, yeah."
"Then you know the feeling."
They sat there, smiling in the awkward newfound light of--what, sisterhood-in-law? In any case, it felt good.
"Well, I know you have errands to run," Lizzie said, after a bit. But she said it reluctantly.
"I do, yeah." Esme thought about it. "How serious were you about sleeping all day?"
"Not at all. It's not physically possible to do. I've tried."
"Can you walk?"
"I'm only two and a half months in. I can do whatever I want."
"Would you want to go with me to look at dresses? It's at a very small Romani shop run by a very small Romani woman who hates Tommy's breathing guts."
Esme had regrets about the pig. It was deep into the night, and she was turning it on the spit slowly, as she should, taking little breaks to read the newspaper over for the umpteenth time, or a novel that Lizzie had lent her that frankly she didn't understand a word of, or obsessing over whether or not there was enough food. Finally, she was so bored she decided to check Tommy's office for something readable.
He was there, though, poring over some papers.
She stayed in the doorway. That was the wise choice. "Urgent business?"
He looked up. "No. How's the pig?"
"Still dead. Still juicy, hopefully."
"Mm." He returned to his work.
And she would have taken the stack of old newspapers with her and left it at that, but. "You should at least lie in bed a while, give your body the rest."
He kept writing. "I've rested enough."
"It's been less than a week since you were shot."
"I'm sitting down, not heaving bales or fighting off men."
Esme watched him a moment longer before finally saying, "Alright." She took the newspapers and went back to tend to the fire.
About half an hour later, Tommy poked his head out the back door. "Come in, I want to show you something."
"And leave the pig alone?"
"What do you think is going to happen to it?"
"Someone could take it."
"On pain of death."
"A dog could get at it."
"Esme, come on."
She sighed. "Fine. But if anything happens to it--"
"I'll buy you two horses."
Tommy led her back into the office, beckoning her closer, then dropped into a squat in front of the safe. "Are you watching this?"
"Five, twenty-nine, ninety-three, sixty, sixty-eight." The door swung open. "Now you do it."
Esme squatted beside him, closed the safe, and copied his movements, murmuring the numbers to herself. "Five, twenty-nine, ninety-three, sixty..."
"Sixty-eight. Do it again."
"It's four in the morning, Tommy. My mind is barely able to tell my hands to turn a pig on a spit. I'm not sure this is the best time."
"Just do it again, Esme."
When she'd gotten it right half a dozen times in a row, he finally relented. "Now you know," he said.
"I don't know why it matters." It had occurred to her that this was a genuine gesture of trust, but what he said next destroyed that.
"If you want to go, the time's now. There's never been a better time. There's the money." Tommy gestured.
"And there's the pig." Esme gestured likewise towards the back door.
"I'm serious, Esme."
"So am I. I've already made my choice. We shook on it."
"I'm only saying that if you want to leave, you should leave soon," he said. "We are going to make a go of it. We are. We're so close. There's just the negotiations with the Chinese to finish up, and the IRA negotiations appear to be going well. Soon there will be no more of our old enemies left. By the end of the week, it will be over, and I won't have to shout at Arthur for forgetting to lock the front door anymore, for fear of thieves or murderers. We'll be established. We'll be safe."
When he looked at her, it was as if he’d reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders. “It’s money if you go. But if you stay, I promise all that shit will be over for us.”
She could feel the conviction radiating from him, and she believed in it, in him. It was a relief to think that they could settle into some kind of normal, without his nightmares of violence infecting her dreams. She didn't know what to give him in return. An expression of trust? She studied his face; the sweep of his lashes, the set of his jaw. Something had brought this on. The list of suspects was incredibly short. "Tommy, did she say something to you?"
"No. Grace--Grace is gone."
"Jesus. I'm sorry."
"No, gone away. Gone to America, gone to New York. Left on a train tonight."
"Oh," Esme said, relieved. And then: "Oh."
A painful silence reigned in the office before Tommy was able to scrape together a diversion. "You'll be happy to know that she shot Inspector Campbell."
"Well done," said Esme, common sense temporarily overcome with the usual bloodlust that came up whenever Campbell was mentioned.
"I wouldn't order the victory flowers just yet. He was shot in the leg."
"A woman can have her hopes, can't she?"
He half-smiled. "She can."
Esme rose, wincing a little as her muscles protested against all that time squatting. She touched Tommy's shoulder. "You should try bed. Or you can come out get drunk by the fire. But the work will only ruin your eyes, Tommy."
He said nothing, but he put his hand over hers, briefly. It was enough of an answer.
The dinner itself was an absolute blur. Esme managed to get a nap in twice when Tommy looked after the pig for her, but even then, she slept uneasily, dreaming more than once of a disaster with the fire, or the pig burnt. But once it was carved and everyone had filled and then emptied their plate, Esme looked along the table and found that it was a good family. For all that it appeared to be made of the most unlikely rabble--an ambitious ex-soldier, a pair of Communists, a cold and cunning widow, a bomb waiting to go off, a former prostitute, and a man who talked far more about cars than any man ever had a right to--they also appeared to be, against all odds, extraordinarily capable of being together. Not like turtledoves, more like fussy, argumentative pigeons, but still.
John's rude jokes made Polly and Ada laugh, Freddie and Lizzie appeared deep in philosophical conversation, the children for once were not arguing, and even Tommy was seen to smile as Arthur rambled on in his loud, drunk way about the merits of home-cooked food and marriage in general. As Arthur turned the corner to thinking about whether or not he should get married and have some children, Tommy glanced across the table and shared a wry look with Esme.
She took pity on him and tapped her spoon against her glass. It didn't break through the noise. "Oi!" Tommy shouted. The table went quiet. He gestured to Esme.
"Thank you all for coming. Do eat up, or else Tommy and I will be having leftovers for two solid weeks to come."
Tommy shot her a shouldn't have roasted a whole pig look, which she pointedly ignored.
"I brought us here together tonight to say thank you. I know that times have not been easy, especially recently. But you've been good to me, and I think the fact that we are all able to be together is something that we should take the time to celebrate.
"Hear, hear!" That was Arthur, who could be very supportive when he was drunk. When he was sober, he was supportive too, though perhaps not as loudly.
"Now I think Lizzie has something she'd like to announce."
Lizzie rose to her feet a little awkwardly, but once she made it, she stood like a queen, one hand on her belly. "Polly and I have spoken, and the doctors have confirmed it. John and I are having two girls."
The table broke into hearty applause. Tommy gave Esme a look of mingled delight and curiosity. Did you know?
Smiling widely, she shrugged. No. She'd just thought it was the announcement of one name.
Lizzie beamed proudly. God, when she was as happy as that, she was gorgeous too. "We've decided to name them Lucy, after John's mother, and Penelope, after mine."
Arthur raised his glass. "To Lucy and Penelope!"
Everyone echoed. "To Lucy and Penelope!"
Chapter 15: The Night
"Say you understand."
Tommy came to dinner two hours late, but Esme was expecting that. She sat at the kitchen table, which was absolutely covered in the new arrivals; a few dresses, scarves, underthings, plus sewing supplies to boot. When he sat down with a makeshift sandwich of leftover roast pork and cheese, she had a needle in hand, which is perhaps why he didn't even try to make space on the table, just sat in the chair next to her.
"I see your orders from Hart's shop came in," he said. "Do they not fit?"
"They do, I'm just adding pockets."
"Ah." He tucked into the sandwich. He seemed content.
Esme sewed on, enjoying the comfortable silence, till he was done eating. "I take it your meeting with the Chinese went over well?"
"And the IRA?"
"They're finally convinced that we don't have a stash of machine guns hidden away somewhere."
"And they're not going to kill you over the three dead men?"
"I explained it as a misunderstanding," Tommy said, simple, as if it were as easy slicing butter.
Esme laughed. "I'd pay good money to see that conversation."
"They took it well enough when I offered to run guns for them down the Cut to London."
That put an end to her laughter.
"It's all right," he said, mildly. "We're getting paid."
There was nothing she could say to that that wouldn't devolve into an argument, and they'd had such a decent run of it lately. Days without a fight, and besides, she was tired. "The rush was light today," she said. "I ran over and gave Lizzie another jar of pickles. It seems the girls are particularly ravenous for brine."
"Doubt she needs that many pickles. Maybe she's just bored in the house."
"The food needs are real. But she is bored. You should let her work, Tommy."
He shot her a look.
"Not that. The work that we do. She's as good as any of us with numbers, and it wouldn't take much to put her into a typing class."
"Did she ask you to present this as your idea?"
"Does it matter where a good idea comes from? This is a family business, and it's the legal side that's expanding now. The side with the most paperwork."
Tommy shook his head, imagining it. "Lizzie Stark, in my office."
"You're a didicoy gangster who came from nothing, Tommy. You don't get to turn your nose up at whores, especially when you use them."
There was a flash of shock from him, and then anger. Slow and steady and looking away.
Esme caught him before he could go too far down that road. "Don't get angry with her, get angry with me. She didn't tell me a thing."
And now he was measuring her up for truth with his eyes, making calculations. She bit down a little her annoyance; it was in his nature to doubt even these small things, but she'd promised herself that she'd have the constancy he never did, and every time he doubted her there was a little temptation to make that doubt justified, next time.
"Polly's not the only one in this family with intuition, that's all," she said.
"If John finds out..."
Tommy nodded, then went to go wash his glass.
"I'll talk to Polly about it."
Fuck, why didn't Esme think of that? She could've gathered support from Polly first. But then again, she couldn't shake the sense that Polly approved of her in the way a factory owner would approve of a foreman; good and even admirable if hardworking and competent, but not someone she'd want to see making decisions within her own purview. And the last thing Esme wanted was to start any kind of a power struggle, especially among the women. Maybe she shouldn't have promised Lizzie to make it happen, maybe--
"Mm?" Esme looked up from her sewing. "Why've you got your coat on?"
"Going out to have a drink with the new Chief of Police."
"Did you initiate the meeting, or did he?"
Tommy hesitated, and not because he didn't know the answer. That fucking barmaid. "He did."
"You don't think it's Campbell? He was discharged from the hospital a couple days ago, I'm sure he'd like to have another go at you."
"Why do you know when he was discharged?"
"Arthur told me."
He considered that a moment, and then walked towards her with such slow purpose in the set of his shoulders that she shot up out of her chair, anticipating a fight. But he stepped back, hands up, whole body saying relax and eyes saying something else entirely.
"I only wanted to say, alright, I only wanted to say that you don't have to worry about him anymore. When I told you that this would be over for us, I meant it. Look at what's happened in just the past weeks: Kimber gone, the Chinese subdued, the IRA settling, it's all happening." He moved closer and put his hands on her arms, as if the whole of her attention was not already on him. "You'll be safe. Do you understand?"
"Tommy, I didn't ask after Campbell. Arthur just told me of his own free will." It was a dodge, yes, and she felt that even as she was saying it, but it wasn't a question she wanted to answer head on. It wasn't a decision she wanted to make.
His voice was low, but not rough. His pale eyes shone, unwavering, in the kitchen light. "Say you understand."
Jesus Christ. Esme tried to stare him down for a minute, but it didn't work. "It's not about understanding at all, is it?" she finally said. "In order for me to understand, I'd need to have all the facts, and I've got, oh, about a dozen of them. So this isn't about that. You don't want me to understand, you want me to believe."
"And do you?"
The silence between them was so complete that through the open window, she could hear the footsteps of a stray dog sauntering through the back alley. After a moment, she could see him closing up. His hands dropped to his sides, and he took a step back. "I'll--"
"Wait." She stopped him with a hand on his cheek, her palm warm on his skin, his jaw cutting across the heel of her hand. His eyes flicked back to hers, wary now.
"I do," she said. "I believe you."
His eyes were wary still and oh God, she was going to say some things, wasn't she. She was going to say some fucking things.
"For as long as I've known you," she went on, "I haven't trusted you. You lie constantly, withhold things from everybody--from fucking Polly, of all people, who used to run this place without you--and you fight far too often. You appear unbothered by dealings with the scum of the earth and you'll sanction more or less any crime against the law or God or basic decency to get what you want. And I can't claim to understand it; sometimes I feel like I was living on an entirely different continent, like the road and Birmingham had an Atlantic between them, because where I come from, there's only police for enemies and fights are quick and open. I know there are other people all over the country living their lives, mostly safe, mostly happy, people nothing like us. But you."
"I don't know what they did to you in France, but I know they had me hold down men while they begged me to let them go, and yet you have nightmares more often than I. And I know that those who put you there, the people that put all of us in the mud and muck to die together, I know that they did that because they had power, and because they wanted more power. Because we were small, and they thought they knew better."
"So I won't pretend to understand the instincts of your mind, and I won't even grant the premise that you need to be this way to keep people safe, but fuck. I'm a Shelby now. We are Shelbys, with all the blood that comes with the name. And everything you've done, as fucked as most of it is, I see you have done for us. You somehow get yourself into more dangerous situations in a week than the average policeman does in his entire lifetime, and yet you're also the most paranoid man I know, the most prone to turning that thoughtful mind towards all the things that could go wrong. We're just off the heels of a victory and John's got drunk and Arthur's got drunk and fuck, I think maybe even Polly's got drunk, but you've never been drunk to the point where you couldn't handle business if it was necessary. And I see you in that office late at night, still, thinking and planning and worrying. I see you, Tommy Shelby."
Esme held his face in both hands now heart was beating with the rhythm of a racehorse, eyes never leaving his. "If you, with your endless ability to fear and your endless capacity for violence--no, beyond that, your endless--endless fucking thinking--if you look me in the eye and say that we will be safe, then yes, I believe you. All right?" Softly, now. "I believe you."
He said nothing, at first, and she realized that it was because he couldn't. Then he swallowed. "All right." She realized then that they were very close; his eyes flicked down to her lips.
She looked down and tried to stick her hands in her pockets. Except she hadn't sewed pockets into this dress, at all, so.
"When will you be back?" she said.
"Ah--" He cleared his throat. "No longer than half an hour, likely. The pub's a short walk."
"Well." She readjusted the lapel of his coat for no apparent reason, avoiding his eyes. "Don't die."
"I'll do my best."
When she glanced up, he was standing quite still, looking at her knowingly, and so she retreated back to the table, turned her back on him, and picked up her sewing once again.
The door shutting behind him was awfully loud in all that silence. So was the key turning in the lock.
It was too silent after that, so she went upstairs and came back down bearing his big record player and many records. Most of the sounds, she found, were unsuitable; slow or sentimental in ways she didn't want to think about. But there was one, significantly older than the rest, less worn. It wasn't in its original sleeve like the rest, so it was probably purchased by him. Silver Star.
And yes, this one worked much better; the piano was upbeat, almost dancelike, and she found her shoulders moving in time with it until she came to a particularly difficult bit of sewing, whereupon she forgot all about the music.
"We will be dreaming by campfires gleaming in lands afar," Charles L. Johnson sang merrily. "Tell me you are my silver star..."
After four or five plays of this, the back door opened, and she heard footsteps.
"You know," Esme said, a little loudly, to be heard over the music, "I was thinking there should be a Blinder for the women. Not a cap, obviously; it would make a mess of the hair. But someplace with a razor sewn in. I'd say a fan, but only toffs carry fans, so--"
Something cold and metallic pressed against the back of her head. There was the click of a gun safety going off.
"Hello, Esme," he said, the terrifying, unbearable, smug voice of his unmistakeable in its Irish accent. She put down her sewing, slowly.
Chapter 16: The Night, pt II
Trigger warning: Inspector Campbell, et cetera.
"I don't see any reason this has to be difficult," Inspector Campbell said.
Through a haze of panic, Esme picked out the familiar tone of his voice, the insufferable way he seemed to find every needlessly theatrical word of his own incredibly delicious. Hate coiled heavy in her gut. It helped her talk.
"Neither do I," she said.
He walked around her, the gun tracing a line halfway around her head until he was standing directly in front of her, pressing it between her eyes.
"How's your leg?" she said.
She was rewarded with a big smile, deliberate, the way everything he did was deliberate. Like he was on some grand stage, hamming it up for an audience. There was something comforting in that; if she couldn't fight, she could at least prolong all of this by playing her part, entertaining to the bitter end. Giving him any pleasure was of course the second-to-last thing she wanted; but the last thing was getting shot. Palms sweaty, the best she could do with her body was to breathe steady.
He sat down in Tommy's chair, across from her, gun still aimed.
"I am walking, am I not?" he said.
"I'd call it limping. Slowly."
"Ah, Mrs. Shelby." He made a show of crossing his legs, pointedly, injured one on top, well within kicking range. "I like you. I've always liked a woman with spirit."
"So I hear."
His eyes gleamed. "Oh, you don't compare."
"But here you are, making do. Good for you."
He tried out a long, dramatic silence, but she far preferred his smug speeches to his smug stares, so she added, "I take it you have a message for my husband. What is it?"
Esme swallowed hard. Whatever repartee the situation required for was immediately subsumed under a mountain of a question.
Campbell let that silence stretch, savoring it.
"What do you mean?" she finally said.
"It's a tale as old as time, Mrs. Shelby. Husband kills wife. I've seen it in a thousand courtrooms and a thousand bedrooms. It's as dirty and as cheap a crime as they come, but more than enough to have him hung."
"All this because you can't manage to kill him yourself." She was not playing her part. She was aware of that, barely managing to eke out the words at all, putting them together on autopilot, flat and terribly delivered. Not much of a scene partner. But that seemed to be all right, because he'd hit his most cherished time, the monologue.
"No," he said. "This is much more than that. It is a crime so squalid yet so small that it will rankle his soul to be put on trial for it; the stupidity it implies, the sheer lack of self-control. And worse than that, he'll have to prove he has no motive. Before a judge, before God, before all of Birmingham, he will have to swear on the Bible to tell the truth. And then the barrister will stand before him and ask: is it true, Mr. Shelby, that you were in love with Grace Burgess, that you fucked her, and that she then betrayed you?"
His eyes were distant, imagining no doubt the courtroom, the high wooden stand, his own place in the benches beyond. Now was the time to act, but his hand didn't waver at all, and the gun looked at her like one big black eye and she couldn't move.
"He won't say 'fucked,' of course," Campbell said. "But it will be implied. And he will sit and face the court and say that no, he never loved her, and no, he never touched her. They'll make him squirm...Then they will take him away, put him in the darkest cell, and leave him there. The trip from New York to Birmingham can be a long one, and she will try to run. Maybe they won’t find her for months. Maybe years, even decades. She's very good at her work. I should know. I taught her."
"But at the end of it," Campbell went on, "when she is finally caught and dragged into the court, she will have to answer these questions, too, and she will deny him, like Peter before the first crowing: he was only my employer. That was a long time ago. I was never in love with him, I haven't thought about him in years. And then will come all the other witnesses: the bartender, the police. His family. Perhaps by then they'll be convinced that he did it."
"They know he wouldn't hurt me."
A flash of irritation crossed his face at the interruption, but it quickly smoothed out. "Sweetheart. You can't say that. If they know him at all, they know that he would most certainly hurt you, given the right circumstances."
For a second, amid all her bitter-tongued panic, Esme entered the twisted-mirror world of his logic and found that--fuck him. Fuck him. "Not like this," she said, but it was weak and she knew it.
"No," Campbell said thoughtfully. "He wouldn't leave you here afterwards. He'd dump you in the canal."
Her throat was tight. "Very romantic."
"As you well know, Mrs. Shelby, we can't all have happy endings."
The telephone rang, and he glanced over. Esme couldn't make the decision to move fast enough, and she cursed herself when he looked back to her. Getting to his feet, he walked slowly backwards towards the office, aiming all the while, and then picked up the phone.
"When?" he said. Then a noise of disgust. "I told you--never mind. Never mind."
Now would be the time if there ever was one, but with a gun in his hand, there was no safe bet and fuck where would she even run? Did it make a difference if she was shot in the back in the alley outside or in the forehead in her own home? God, there was something--something screaming for her attention under all the panic, some regret from last time, something--
Campbell put the telephone down. "I'm afraid we don't have much time," he said, advancing on her much more quickly than before, most of the slow self-satisfaction in his mannerisms falling away and leaving behind only a man. A man was bad enough. "You're not going to resist, are you?"
Esme lifted her chin. "No."
He set the gun down on the table with a deliberate clack of metal on wood. He followed her eyes to it. "Feel free to change your mind."
In two steps he was on her, hands around her throat, brute force and surprise. Underneath all that theater lay a punishing strength that had her pulling at his wrists, stupidly, futilely, trying to gasp and failing.
Campbell put his face so close to hers that she couldn't look away, rank breath spilling over her lips, blue eyes wide and delighted and greedy. "Oh, Mrs. Shelby," he crooned. "You disappoint me."
There was something she had to do. There was something she had to do but she couldn't breathe she couldn't fucking breathe she--what was it? What was it? What was it that she had meant to do, what had she thought of every fucking night since--
Esme let go of his wrists, gripped his skull with her right hand, and plunged her left thumb into his eye, driving it deep between the eyeball and the socket with all her remaining strength, beyond his first wince back, beyond the sickening pop, beyond when he let go of her neck and she gasped and still and still--
Her head snapped back with the hit, but her feet started flailing and thank God he was close thank God for her foot glancing off his thigh, the white bandage blooming red. She lurched to her feet, snatched the gun up off the table, and ran for the office, locking the door behind her.
When Esme turned, she could see Campbell struggling to his feet, hand covering his hurt eye, blood trickling through his fingers and down his arm.
They stared at each other.
Then she took aim. The first bullet shattered the glass in the office window. The second tore buried itself in the wood of the wall beyond. Campbell had dove to the side and crawled out the back door.
It was five minutes before Tommy came in that door, panting. Five minutes that she spent standing amid the broken glass, wondering why the fuck she hadn't chased him. Why she couldn't move.
Tommy put his hands up immediately, and Esme realized she was still aiming the gun. She set it down on the desk, and he walked towards her, hands still up, talking. Low and urgent and her name was mixed in there but she couldn't hear a word, it was just noise, getting louder, getting closer, fucking unbearable and--
Esme unlocked the office door. It took a little while because her hands were shaking, but managed it and walked straight to him. When she got close, his right hand made as if to reach, but she held up her own. The left one, still bloody. He went still. She came closer.
On her tiptoes, face inches from his, eyes never leaving his, she said it low and was relieved when her voice didn't break.
"I believed you."
Esme rocked back on her heels and walked around him, pausing to inspect the small white ball lying on the floor in a smattering of blood. She nudged it with the toe of her boot, and it turned till the blue iris was looking up at her.
She stomped on it hard, once. Then she climbed the stairs to her room, locked the door, and threw herself on the bed, boots on, clothes on.
She threw the covers over her head. She closed her eyes.
It was late in the morning, as Esme could see by the slant of sunlight coming in through her two bedroom windows, and she had grown sorry of lying there, thinking of the night before, and being miserable. Tired of making up reproaches in her mind to Campbell, to Tommy, most of all to herself. Tired of wallowing in helplessness. It wasn’t her natural state.
Tommy had not come by, as he usually did, with a knock on the door (or a kick on the door if he was in a poor mood) to get her up, and she wasn't sure whether to take that as a sign of consideration or to feel a bit amiss about the break in their routine. Perhaps both.
And why shouldn't she have a good day? When she looked in the mirror, the sight of her own neck made her stare as if watching a ship sink; the grotesque, mottled purples and yellows and reds striping her throat in evidence of two hands was possibly one of the ugliest things she'd ever seen in her life. But. She had scarves now. She had scarves now, and it was a Sunday, the sun shining outside, the birds still singing, and she'd had enough of moping about in the last month to last a lifetime. She’d take the day for her own.
With a red scarf patterned in tiny yellow flowers masking her bruises, a thick braid keeping her hair out of her face, and a new dress complete with deep hidden pockets, she was all set to go. There was an envelope slid under her door, rather fat, with Tommy's spidery handwriting spelling out her name on the envelope. He must have had plenty to say, but she didn't want to read any of it, so instead she put it in her pocket.
"The kettle's on," said Tommy. She'd expected him in his office, but he was sitting at the kitchen table with a newspaper, leaning back in his chair with apparent ease, but also with dark circles under his eyes.
"You're a terrible actor.” If Esme’s voice was more hoarse than usual, he didn't appear to notice. "That paper's three days old. I know you've already read it."
He didn't put the newspaper down, just watched her over the top of it as she picked out a mug and poured out the water and got the tea and the sugar and scrounged for biscuits and--
"I didn't read your letter, alright?" she said. "It's my day off."
"On Easter, it's everyone's day off."
Oh. She'd forgotten. Well, she could be forgiven for that. Despite evidence of scrubbing, there was still a dark stain on the floorboards, and avoiding it as she made the tea was taking up a large part of her mind's capacity.
"Why aren't you out on the town, then?" she said. "The shop's closed."
"Arthur and John are taking Finn for a hunt; he still hasn't taken down a deer by himself, and he's getting to that age."
"Why didn't you go with them?"
He shrugged. "I had to read the paper. And make tea."
That was a gesture of comfort, although one so paltry in comparison to the original offense that it was almost insulting. Every time she so much as looked at him, a hundred words all piled into her mind, clamoring to have their say, and going ignored because she knew that all she needed to say had already been said. She'd never admit it, but having him there was a small comfort. Tea with him at that table was the closest thing to a consistent pulse of normalcy that she had.
"Anyhow," he went on, "Polly and Ada and Lizzie are having a picnic. You're invited."
"Whenever you want. The car's outside."
Esme would've preferred to go on the hunt, but it was better not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Instead of heading out the door, she let herself into the office, checked the drawer, and yes, there it was, the revolver that Tommy had offered her. That felt like years ago.
Esme noticed that he'd gotten up and was leaning against the wall, watching her through the empty space in the office door where glass used to be. She didn't try to hide the gun, just checked to see that it was loaded and put it in her biggest pocket, next to the letter.
"You're not going to read it, are you," he said.
"I'm going to have a good day. However much I can."
She was nearly out the front door, car keys in hand, when she heard him say: "I am sorry."
"I know." The sunlight was on her face and she didn't turn. "But in your whole life, Tommy, when have your feelings ever been more important than what you've done?"
He cleared his throat, slightly. "So do you..."
Esme turned around completely to meet his eyes. "What?"
Tommy cleared his throat. “Do you want to know how he did it?"
"Campbell had a key to our house, I assume he got that from you. A crowded pub's an odd place to meet a copper, but a very good place to get pickpocketed. It was obvious that he’d coordinated with the new Chief of Police. Especially when he stopped making speeches long enough to get a telephone call from someone who told him to hurry up and kill me. It was earlier than he was expecting; you left the bar early. You arrived running, so you knew. Maybe the Chief of Police has a taste for making speeches too."
"However bad an actor you think I am, he was worse, actually."
"I don't give a damn," she said, without rancor and without much emphasis. It was a mere fact. "There is sunlight, outside. I am going to go sit in it. There are women who have never tried to kill me. I am going to go talk to them."
There were a great deal of hugs, but nobody made any particular fuss about her neck, which Esme was grateful for. Two cars, four women, one baby, and a basket of food all made for a merry afternoon, especially when that basket turned out to contain a few bottles of wine as well. Out there in the open, Esme felt as though she’d stepped into a pleasant dream, and though it would inevitably end, it was at least
"All right, let's play a game," said Ada, when at last most of the food and half the wine had disappeared down their throats. They were all sprawled out on the big blanket, watching the clouds go by as Karl babbled on from his little bassinet.
"What kind of game?" said Lizzie.
"Questions and Commands."
"Oh, how old are we?" said Polly.
"It'll be fun!" said Ada.
"Sure," said Esme, thinking to herself that one of the clouds looked very much like either a goat or Johnny Dogs grinning. "As long as I don't have to be queen."
"No." Polly’s tone, and the long drink of wine she took as punctuation, suggested it was a minor miracle that she was tolerating the existence of the game at all.
"Go on, Ada, you're the one who suggested it."
"Yeah, but now I can't think of anything clever."
“Do something obvious, then.”
“Hm.” Ada considered it for a moment, then grinned. “What’s the biggest cock you’ve ever seen?” To demonstrate, she displayed a length with her hands. Fairly considerable, nothing awe-inspiring.
“Ada!” said Lizzie. Polly, apparently either loosened by wine, was already copying Ada. Esme was thinking about it.
After a minute, everyone was goggling at the length Esme displayed.
“That can’t be possible,” said Lizzie, after a moment. “I’d know about it if it was. Who in hell…”
“A racehorse I once saw,” Esme said. “What? You didn’t say it had to be from a man.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Polly, disgusted but also faintly relieved. “Next question.”
“And this time, make it saner,” said Lizzie.
“Fine. How many children do you want to have?”
“Oh, I’m getting older,” said Lizzie. “And who knows if this cunt will survive the twins.”
“Yeah,” said Ada, “But if you could have whatever you wanted?”
Lizzie pondered the question. “The four I have, the two on the way, and maybe a little boy. Maybe.”
“Fuck, that’s a lot,” Ada laughed. “I think I could manage three. Four at most.”
“It’s fine,” said Esme. “If you have them far enough apart, the older ones mind the younger ones, and it’s actually less work, because the younger ones keep the older ones occupied.”
“You’d want as much as seven, then?” said Ada.
“No,” said Esme. “I’m not going to have any.”
The three others stared at her with varying degrees of fascination.
“What?” Esme said. “For one thing, I’d have to fuck my husband.”
“I sent you on a honeymoon,” said Polly accusingly.
“And I slept the night through,” Esme lied. “Best decision I’ve ever made. Can you honestly say that you blame me?”
They considered this. Polly was clearly calculating, Ada did not want to think of the presence or absence of sex in her brother’s life, and Lizzie, well. Lizzie was giving Esme a look paired with a half-shrug that could be interpreted several ways, one of which was: he’s not so bad.
“What about you, Polly?” Esme said hurriedly.
“If I could have whatever I wanted? Two. A boy and a girl.” Polly said it very casually, but Ada was looking at her with such regret that Esme immediately grasped the basics of the situation. She felt a little guilty too.
“Next question?” Esme said, hoping they could move that train of thought along. “Make it something ridiculous, and don’t make it about cocks again, I’m tired of talking about men.”
“Fine. Then let’s talk about communism. Ladies, why have you not yet joined the cause?”
“Oh God,” Esme groaned. “Ada, don’t proselytize, it’s unbecoming.”
“I’m not allowed to talk about children, or men. Now I’m not allowed to talk about politics?”
“Fine,” said Esme. “I’m not a communist because they’re all gadjes.”
“I’m clearly not.”
“Right, well, I’m out anyway. Lizzie?”
“I did go to a meeting, once. But I’m pregnant, I’m about to be married, and life is about to improve for the first time for me in about ten years. Bad timing to be plotting a revolution if you ask me.”
“I went to meetings all the time pregnant!”
“We can’t all be you, Ada! Besides, two babies means twice the sleeping. Twice the eating.”
“Twice the pickles,” offered Esme.
“Yes, exactly,” said Lizzie.
Polly snorted. “I’m not a communist because I’m not one for mad dreams.”
“You pray every day, Pol,” said Ada.
“When I pray, a whole war goes by, and Arthur and Tommy and John come back. When you go to your meetings, years go by and Lloyd George is still at Number 10.”
“Well. I’m a Communist because I believe that a decent life should not be out of reach. I believe that it’s a fanciful dream to ask for a country whose orphans are cared for. And I don’t believe that it’s ridiculous to ask for a government that doesn’t drag your men off to war and make them die in foreign countries for no goddamn reason at all.” With those shining eyes and all that conviction, Ada did look convincing to Esme. Or maybe that was just the wine.
“Run for office, why don’t you,” said Lizzie good-naturedly.
“God have mercy on us all,” said Polly.
Karl, who had previously been quite happy in his bassinet, began to cry.
“Time for his afternoon snack,” said Ada.
Polly checked her pocketwatch. “Time I got back. There’s a bit of business needs taking care of. Canal business. I can’t be late.”
Polly drove the car home, because of course she did.
After the food, the wine, and the sunlight, Esme rather enjoyed it; she dozed all the way into the city, and woke only when they reached Birmingham proper. It was just as well; every time she observed the slow fade from green to grey, she wanted to turn the car around. She'd never get used to it.
When Polly parked the car, she turned to Esme instead of getting out.
"This is who we are, you know," she said. "Going to a picnic with a gun in your pocket. Babies and men trying to kill you in your own home. Sisters, brothers, and coppers at every fucking turn. There is not one without the other."
“You’re not going to change him.”
Esme would have laughed, but Polly looked dead serious. “I haven’t the least intention. I’d be more successful trying Communism than trying to reform that man.”
Polly's dark eyes invaded Esme, and Esme had to bite her lip to keep from saying, what do you want from me?
“I married into the Shelby family myself, under circumstances not too different from your own. People think it’s a wedding band that makes you family, but it’s not. It’s something you prove, and it’s a decision you make for yourself. God knows I don’t need you to have children, and I certainly don’t need you to fuck Tommy; in fact I don’t need anything from you at all. But it will be better for you when you see a future with this family. When you make that decision for yourself. It may seem like all doors closing, but you’d be surprised at what it opens up, too.”
"I understand," Esme said, although she did not. She just wanted those all-seeing dark eyes away from her.
And just like that, the magnetic, almost royal authority in Polly’s voice slipped away, and it was back to Polly, her aunt-in-law, again. "I'll see you tomorrow. Put some honey in your tea for that throat." With that, she climbed out of her car and headed home. After a moment, Esme did the same.
As soon as she came in the door, Esme called, "How’s your old newspaper?"
The house was, of course, empty.
She sighed, hung up her coat, and started in on dinner.
It was well after dinner, as Esme was idly going through one of Lizzie's unreadable books, when there was a knocking on the door, fast and frantic. Hand on her gun, she advanced to the door, then peeked through the lookout hole.
She opened the door. "Jesus, Curly. Do you know what time it is?"
"No." He looked scared. No, terrified. A light rain fell, and he’d apparently lost that hat he always liked to wear.
Esme glanced beyond him and saw nobody following, just the tailor, Mr. Ellis, walking home from work. "Well, come in,” she said.
Curly was wringing his hands nervously. "I can't."
"I have to--have to get Arthur. Do you know where he is?"
"He's gone. John and Finn too, all on a hunting trip. What's wrong?"
"In the stables. They hit Charlie over the head."
"The Irish, I think. I think. And they hit Charlie over the head!"
"I don't know, they hit Charlie over the head and they're hurting Tommy."
Esme tugged him inside and locked the door. "Hurting him how?"
"I don't know."
"Then how do you know they're hurting him?"
"I don't know!" The poor man looked like a horse about to bolt.
"Okay. It's okay." Esme put a hand on his shoulder and slowed her voice. "Do you know how to use the telephone?"
"Can you call Polly and tell her exactly what you just told me?"
He nodded eagerly.
"Good man. Lock the door behind me."
When Esme snuck in, the stables were all dust and soft gold in the light of a couple lamps, smelling of sweet hay and horses and saddle soap, altogether too lovely a place for her to be hearing what she was hearing.
"Where are they?" a man shouted over and over, almost screeching really. It would have been funny but for the punctuation of fists hitting flesh.
Esme closed her eyes and tried to think it through. Fists he could take. Polly lived close; by now Curly would have told her everything. She'd send someone. No. She was on the way herself, probably; Esme could picture her striding in and shooting the man square between the eyes, the man dropping like a sack of flour.
"Where are they? Where are they? Where are they?"
"As I told you--"
In the silence, Esme winced. That was bone, wasn't it. That was bone. Fuck. And then, into the silence, Tommy said, through his teeth: "All right. 415 Eastwick."
"North or South?" That was a new voice, a second man. Significantly less shrill, quieter, more terrifying.
"South. South Eastwick. I'll take you there."
There was a silence.
"Give him to me," said the second man. There was a note in his voice that sent a chill down Esme's spine.
"Why?" said the first.
"415 South Eastwick isn't anywhere. It's the local cemetery."
A hail of blows, now. "You fucking--"
"Shut up," said the second man, and miraculously, there was silence again. For one brief, blessed moment.
And then a splash. Splashing, a lot of it, from the far end of the barn where they were, where the trough was, and why?
Suddenly the splashing ended and Tommy was panting hard and there were droplets of water falling in the trough and oh, oh, oh. The sound of him almost drowning was far too much like the way he sounded coming out of his worst dreams. That first gasp. She'd heard it a dozen times and it still made her chest clench.
"Enough?" said the second man, very quietly.
Tommy laughed, and she could picture his face, eyes mirthless and mouth stretched wide and bloody and she closed her eyes. Please.
Splashing again, and then suddenly more; he must be fighting back. Longer. How long could this go, Jesus, how long could he hold out? Don't think of him straining against the hands holding him down, don't think of his hands gripping the edge of the trough or the wrists, the wrists like she'd gripped the wrists, like she'd--
And this time when they let him up, he was halfway to choking, body betraying him in the panicked sounds from his chest when he couldn't catch his breath and she felt something flood her, something very cold in every limb. She got to her feet and put her hand in her pocket.
Then she walked into the aisle between the stalls and took aim.
Her first shot tore into the standing man's shoulder and spun him round till he was facing her. In a blur of movement in her peripheral vision, Tommy lunged for the man crouched over him, but she stayed staring, and aiming, at the standing man. Her second shot went a wild miss and her third hit the standing man just above the hip as he looked at her, absolutely astonished, swaying a little now and mumbling out, "Who—" before the fourth shot hit him properly in the chest and he fell hard on his back.
Tommy was wrestling with the second man, no longer making those awful choking sounds but growling primal instead, so she left him to it and walked quickly down the aisle to stand above the fallen man.
He still had on that bewildered look. She realized what that cold feeling was; it was rage.
"I'm his wife," she said to the man on the ground, but he was no longer listening.
She turned from the corpse to her husband. Tommy, kneeling, had gotten the second man in some sort of a headlock and was now shoving him headfirst into the water, submerging him up to his shoulders. Esme watched the drowning man writhe and kick futilely for a second, then walked to Tommy's side.
Tommy held out his hand, and she put the gun into it. In one fluid motion, Tommy yanked the man up out of the water, put the gun to his head, and blew a spray of red all over his face and her dress and the hay.
They stayed like that, she standing, watching him, he holding up the second corpse by its hair, gun in hand, for what seemed to be a frozen moment. But then Tommy let go of both.
He turned around and sat with his back to the trough, still panting hard. He closed his eyes.
Esme laid her hand on his shoulder. Tommy took it in his own, and as his panting slowed, as the sounds of peace (horses moving restlessly in their stalls, the wind outside, a few evening birds) took over the stables again, he interlaced their fingers.
That was how Polly found them. She came in just as Esme had imagined her: gun up, eyes hard. After taking stock of the situation, she put away her gun in her purse.
"What happened?" she said.
"IRA thought we still had the guns," said Tommy.
"And I decided," said Esme.
Polly took one hard look at Esme, which Esme met without force and without apology. Then she nodded. "I'll leave you to it."
As the stable door shut behind her, Esme got down beside Tommy and dipped her free arm in the water trough behind them. Gripping the sleeve in her hand, she washed his face, or at least wiped away most of the blood before it could get too badly caked on.
He wrinkled his nose and submitted himself to her ministrations, like a resigned but disapproving cat getting a bath.
"Is this necessary?" he said.
"This is what wives do."
"Is it?" He looked pointedly at the dead body next to him.
"No. But it's what I do," Esme said firmly.
That was precisely the moment for sarcasm, but he appeared to have forgotten the familiar cadence of their usual sniping. The expression in his blue eyes gave her pause.
Now that most of the blood was gone, she could see that come morning, he was going to have a very fine black eye. He already had a split lip, and yet, was that a smile on his face? Perhaps, barely.
"You read the letter, didn't you," he said.
"No. But…" Esme reached into her pocket.
She read silently to herself, though she mouthed the words a little, as was her habit. He watched her, not reading over her shoulder but reading her face instead.
I imagine you will have much to say to me after tonight, and if I were to try and tell you anything, you wouldn’t hear me. Nonetheless, there is some things you should know, and the sooner the better. So I write.
I should not have promised you anything. I am not a man who is in any position to make promises about safety to anyone he cares about. It must have been obvious even then, although I chose not to see it.
“You know,” Esme said, without looking up, “I think Polly managed to say as much to me earlier. In far fewer words than a whole page.”
"She said all that?"
But Esme had already continued reading.
What I should have told you instead is the truth: there is no end to this. We will never be accepted or protected by any but our own. Sometimes I allow myself to believe otherwise, but that is only a weakness, a wish to sleep through the night.
There is no excuse for this, but is perhaps an explanation, however insufficient.
When we married, I anticipated little from you, and have been learning my mistake since. Having a wife with so much fight in her is hardly convenient, but from the moment I heard you went down to the jail to see Freddie for yourself, I knew you were a Shelby. Ada says I’m lucky to have you, and out of all our father’s children, she is the one with the best judgment.
I wanted to be the kind of husband that could offer you safety in return, since I could offer you nothing else. There is money, but you chose Hart’s shop over the department store, so I doubt you consider it much of an advantage. I can’t give you the life you want, or the work you want, and I think you know my heart is not my own to offer.
In another life, I could do better. In this one, I won’t make you any more false promises. I am, perhaps despite appearances, pleased to be
Though she had finished reading, Esme continued to stare at the page. “No,” she said slowly. “Polly didn’t say all of that.”
"I didn't think so," Tommy said.
Esme folded up the letter carefully, put it back in the envelope, and tucked the envelope away once more.
“Well?” said Tommy. He’d produced a cigarette miraculously dry, and lit it. (Because of course he did.) Now he smoked, uneasily, and studied the horses in their stalls.
Esme leaned over and kissed his cheek, then settled back against the trough. A comfortable silence reigned.
After a little while, he pointed with his free hand.
"Do you see that?"
"Lovely," she said. It was a black mare, glossy even in the dull lamplight, a little short, sturdy but graceful. Her big brown eyes appeared completely untroubled by all that had happened in her home, and Esme soaked in that incredible placid trust. She hadn't felt the same way since she was a child, but there was something so beautiful about it, even in a horse.
"She's all yours."
Esme rested her head on his shoulder and watched the mare twitch her tail a few times to keep away flies. She smiled. "I love her."
"You love her, eh?" He produced a cigarette from his pocket, miraculously dry, and lit it. Because of course he did.
"Yes," said Esme. "I know I've only just met her, but I love her."
"Well," said Tommy. "I can sympathize with that."
Dear readers: I cannot thank you all enough. Your comments have really gotten me through; I absolutely could not have had the energy to complete this by myself. “I could not have done this without you” is a tired phrase, I know, but it is so completely accurate that it makes cliché unavoidable. I love you all so much, and I appreciate so much that you took the time to read what I’ve written. This has been an incredible 38 days of creative energy and I intend to keep the ball rolling!
Just. WE DID IT! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
On the sequel: I hope you do not find the ending to The Bride too disappointing, especially in light of the upcoming sequel. In The Bride, I set for myself the goal of answering the question: how and why would a person choose to become part of this family? For an independent, self-possessed, opinionated and capable woman, what would the transition from outsider to family look like, what would it feel like? I think I’ve answered that, at least in part.
I look forward enormously to writing the sequel, which I have already begun writing and plotting. It will be a much more explicitly romantic, darker story that follows the two perspectives of Esme and Tommy, hopping between two storylines, one in 1922, and one in 1923. I hope to continue indulging in my love of dialogue, while expanding my plotting capabilities, incorporating more action (as perhaps you’ve seen in the latest chapters), and overall paying very close attention to nuanced, believable relationship dynamics.
With the sequel, I intend to make you sadder in many, many ways. But I also intend to leave you more satisfied.
For a sneak peek and poster of the sequel, look here.