England awoke cold, blankets covering only his legs and a sharp breeze on his bare skin. The other half of the bed was empty, mattress chilled under the blankets when he explored it with his fingers that spoke of it long being unoccupied.
A distant beep of a car horn, louder than it should have been, and the smell of late-night, greasy cooking and exhaust fumes.
Opening his eyes, he sat up. The balcony door to France’s bedroom was half open outwards, the glass reflecting the lights of the city behind on top of the city beyond, a ghostly refraction of itself worn thinner. France was out there, as England expected him to be, hair loose about his shoulders and half curled up on a large round wicker chair in the corner, his elbow on the iron railing and head on his hand. A cigarette dangling from the other, ash building on the tip that fell after a practised flick of his thumb.
‘You could have at least shut the door,’ England told him, pulling on a top and some bottoms quickly with a shiver, ‘It’s fucking freezing in here now.’
France took a long drag of the cigarette. He held the smoke in, eyes fixed on the city and tipped his head back to slowly release the smoke, the cloud obscuring the view, ‘You could sleep like a normal person and keep the covers on you.’
‘I do when you don’t steal them.’
France didn’t respond.
England picked up a throw that was puddled on the floor and went to join him, closing the door properly behind him before sitting in the chair opposite with it draped around his shoulders, ‘That doesn’t automatically lock, does it?’
‘Too late now, if so.’
‘So does it?’
‘Why couldn’t you just bloody well say that the first time.’
France was still staring at the city, eyes unfocused and heavy lidded. England sighed and leant back into the chair, bringing a knee to his chest. He couldn’t see that there was anything in particular that France was looking at, nothing down there caught England’s attention, at least. Late night traffic travelling along the roads, lights on in bedrooms or living rooms or kitchens- tiny glimpses of a whole existence through curtainless windows. But sometimes the point of looking was not to see, just to observe and so he settled into the silence, waiting.
‘I met my new president the other day,’ France said after a good while, cigarette burnt down to the end. He stubbed it out in an ash tray on a table by his knees before propping his head back as it had been before, gazing out to the cityscape, ‘He found me fascinating.’
A rebuttal immediately came to mind- ‘Lord only knows why’- but England swallowed it back, fingering the tassels of the throw instead. It was ugly, in his opinion, too gaudy and fine to every be truly practical or worth the money for its purpose. Very Francis, to buy something for looks and impression over practicality.
France drummed his fingers on his cheekbone, ‘He couldn’t quite get his head over how old I am. That I have been around for so long.’
‘I take it that he believed you, then.’
It wasn’t really a question, but France answered anyway, ‘Oh yes. No trouble there.’ He gave a half laugh, half choked sort of sound, ‘Instant recognition. “Were you alive for the Middle Ages?” this child asked me. “Yes,” I said, “Of course. I have been here this whole time.” You know how it sometimes is.’
England did. He had had his fair share of wonderment cast his way, the odd look that his people would sometimes get when they stared at him for too long. As if they could see something on him that shouldn’t be there, blood that hadn’t washed off or a stink of the ages past which lingered about his shoulders and soured the air.
‘But he wouldn’t let it go,’ France pulled a carton of cigarettes out from a baggy pocket and popped open the lid to extract one, low hung jogging bottoms and loose baggy shirt swallowing him like a bird in the curled way he was sitting, ‘He apparently did a history degree-‘
‘-and so was far more excited than perhaps I was expecting. Asked me all sorts, one after the other: What is it like, to live so long. To feel death come upon you but then to return anyway? Does it hurt? Do you miss anything now gone?’ France gave a sharp tut, ‘Fool.’
England made a noise of agreement and stretched out for a cigarette. France dropped the carton in his waiting palm and lit his own, flame from his lighter briefly illuminating his downturned face and scoring the bags under his eyes deeply into his skin, ‘But then he asked me, “Do you remember Versailles?”’
England winced and France held out the lighter for England to take, turning his face away once again as it twisted from something bitter, ‘It’s always fucking Versailles. As though all of my years on this earth have amounted to just one point in time, just one piece of history. The most defining moment of all that everything leads to and from.’
The lighter was warm from France’s body, metal worn smooth from years of use. England clicked it, cigarette between his lips and inhaled the first bite of smoke, staying carefully quiet.
‘I hate those questions. I feel as though I am some sort of strange specimen put here to spout whatever event I can recollect at their command like a toy. Giving sordid details to a history already nicely painted in their minds according to their school books and then to be damned as a final witness.’
‘Because that was the point of it all,’ France continued, pausing to wipe his mouth with a shaky hand as if to hold back what was building there, cigarette flashing in front of his eyes, ‘To be judged according to detached modern morals like a fascinating pet in the corner with a shackle around its neck.’
England rolled his cigarette between his fingers, watching him from his peripheral vision, ‘They struggle to make the connection that the history of their nation is our history,’ he said, tapping the ash away to be caught on the wind, ‘Something that we have seen personally. Have lived through.’
‘They always seem shocked that we didn’t do anything to change it. Or change enough.’ France huffed, ‘As if we could. As if war or famine or mortal greed can be stopped if we just asked nicely.’
‘As if sides are so clean and easy to choose.’
‘As if we don’t regret the choice,’ France took another drag, ‘as if we wouldn’t change things, if we could.’
Below them, an ambulance sped across a roundabout, traffic tilting out of its way as sirens screeched its arrival. It disappeared into a whine, the traffic beginning to move once again.
‘What did you tell him,’ England said after a moment, ‘about Versailles.’
France swallowed, silver scar around his neck jumping, ‘All of it. How they were killed. The height before and the fall it led to. The hunger and anger of the people. The terror of the royals at the end, and their arrogance. How the sons of peasants starved in the street. And my heart tearing in two to heed them both.’ He cocked his head, chin up, ‘I’m sure he won’t ask me again.’
‘A morbid fascination is often the strongest, I’ve found.’
Humans enjoyed the macabre. The dark, dangerous details of lives that did not affect them. That which they could use to feel better about themselves and their lives by comparison, a shock value to soothe them into enjoying and accepting whatever lot they had been given.
And England’s kind had seen it all.
Time hung heavy with them. Sometimes, it was possible to see too much.
‘You’d get bored of a shorter life,’ England said after a moment, ‘It’d go in a flash, never been enough and then you end up in a nursing home, which we both know is not our ideal pastime.’ (1)
France gave a wry smile, ‘You’re only saying that to convince yourself that it’s true.’
‘About nursing homes? No, thank you, I can assure you I’ve had more than my fair-‘
‘No no,’ France gave a dismissive wave of his hand, ‘You know what I’m talking about.’
England gave a one-armed shrug, ‘Maybe. But what is the point considering anything else? It does not change me.’
France’s mouth thinned into a tight line, ‘How nice for you that all of this,’ he gestured to himself, to the city. To everything that he was, ‘is so easily dismissed and swept away.’
England ran his tongue over his teeth, ‘You know I don’t think that’s true.’
A pause. Then, ‘No, I know.’ France shook his head and took in one final drag of his cigarette, the tip glowing red, ‘But for all of us, I wish it were sometimes.’
England weighed up his options. There was no point in offering platitudes, nor lies. He could not tell France that things would get better, or worse. Nor that their existence was one worth living, one that they should be lucky to have. He didn’t know himself.
He was. He existed. He didn’t have a choice in what he was, and nor did their people. Regardless of what they all wanted; they were what they were. Being haunted by ancient ghosts was the whole point of them. To be haunted, and to learn. To direct the almost undirectable, to remember lost moments and near forgotten experiences just in case they could help.
To keep alive where they had come from and those who had gone, in order to maintain the foundations which held up their future. Whether anyone cared to listen, or not.
‘You told me not too long ago that you wished you could have nothing to do for a time, nothing to be responsible for.’ (2)
France dropped the remains of his cigarette into the ash tray and brushed ash off his lap, ‘Yes?’
‘It’s easy. Give your lands to me and I’ll look after them,’ England waved a hand down at the city below, ‘You can go down there and be boring and I’ll take charge.’
France gave a very inelegant snort and stood up, ‘You would like that, wouldn’t you?’
‘Well, I’m afraid I can’t do that.’
England clicked his tongue and got to his feet as well, ‘Shame.’
France opened the door but stood in the doorway, not moving when England drew close, ‘You are oddly endearing, when you try.’
England tucked a piece of France’s hair behind his ear, taking the hidden gratitude for what it was, ‘Who said I was trying.’
‘Of course. Because heaven forbid that you do.’
England rolled his eyes and pulled the throw from his shoulders to gently push it at France, ‘Have I told you that this is hideous?’
‘You have. But you’re not allowed to steal it.’ France seemed as though he were going to say something more, looking at England with a strange expression on his face until he began to feel self-conscious.
‘Come on,’ he said eventually, kissing England on the cheek and glancing quickly again out at the city behind him, ‘Let’s go back to bed. I promise you can keep some of the covers this time.’
‘That is a promise you have no intention of keeping.’
‘Not all at.’