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The Things Which (Might) Have Been

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Sometimes she thinks it's a relief that he does not look like his father.  It makes it so much easier (for her husband) to love him, to look and see a face with a nose, and eyes that don't shine golden in certain lights. (She loves him so much, sometimes she can't breathe with it. It all gathers in her throat, a world of pain and grief and love, and she can't smile, can't speak, can only hold her precious boy close to her chest and silently will herself not to cry, pressing tiny soft kisses to his forehead. She kissed his father like that, once, tiny kisses planted along his forehead, and kisses to wipe away the tears trickling down his cheeks.)

Sometimes she thinks it would be easier if he did look like his father. She wouldn't have to pretend, when confronted with that face, would be able to hold her head high and admit that yes, I loved him and yes, this is his son. She could look on him and know that it really happened, know that she didn’t dream that night however much it feels like a dream. It might be a comfort, to see that face, even in miniature.

(A year. It’s been a year since she lay with him in her arms and felt him slip away. How can it be a year? Surely she only left him five minutes ago, the candlelight flickering gently over his pale face. Surely if it had been so long since she left him she would have learned not to cry, the flow of tears that she fights so hard against every day would at last have been stemmed. (Raoul cannot know how she still cries for him. Raoul must never know. It would destroy him and she cannot let that happen.) Yet, the calendar insists that it is a year, tonight, since the breath left his lungs and his heart stilled, and how can that be?)

Nadir knows. She had to tell someone and she couldn’t bear to tell Raoul and watch his love for her die from his eyes, so she told him instead. She put it in a letter, because it was the only way, and the words that he wrote back were filled with a gentleness that broke her heart. He advised her, softly, to do what she considered best as regards Raoul, and spoke of Erik’s kindness to his own Reza.

He might have been a good father, he finished, the words engraved forever on her memory, would certainly have filled your child’s days with music and magic tricks and his own inventions. But he would have kept his distance, too, being dreadfully afraid of corrupting the child. Have no doubt over the love which he would have held.

(She cried over the letter the night she read it, hidden in the semi-darkness and Raoul asleep beside her. The tears simply would not stay at bay, the wounds were too fresh. She tucked the letter away with the others and lay back down beside her husband, and feigned having gotten some sleep. Her mind was a whirl of thoughts that night, ideas and half-formed dreams of what might have been. And she woke from a haze, convinced for a moment that it was Erik in bed with her, breathing softly.)

She cannot allow herself to think of the father that Erik might have been. It will twist her up inside and choke her with the longing to see him, to hold him, to simply exist in the same space as him. Some nights she can see him, cradling Charles in one arm and the fingers of his other hand dancing slowly across the organ keys, a lullaby, and she feels she’s seen it before, somewhere, though how she cannot be certain. If she could only reach in and pluck him from her memory to stand before her, as he was, she would do so in a heartbeat.

(A dream, it must have been. One of those soft dreams from when her head was filled with chloral. They’re lost to her now, most of them, impossible for her to get at, but she remembers the overwhelming sense of peace, of warmth and comfort. She will attest that Erik was there as she lay sedated, somehow there stroking her hair and singing softly. Of course he was there, watching over her. He would not simply leave her alone. And sometimes she thinks she can see him, even now, catches the black cloak swirling from the corner of her eye. For a moment, she thinks he’s come for her and Charles, come to claim them back so that they may live as the family that they should have been. Then she remembers that he’s gone and she feels she’s bleeding to death with the throbbing in her heart.)

Tears prickle the backs of her eyes, one slipping down her cheek to land on Charles’ forehead. The baby snuffles in his sleep, squirming in her arms, and she kisses his fingers, holding him a little tighter. He nuzzles into her chest, whimpering for a moment and settles, cuddled as close as he can. Sometimes she thinks he knows, in his baby way, the agony that led to his birth. It’s her own fancy, she knows, that he might know about Erik and the night that they spent with each other that brought her here, and yet she wishes for him to know, aches to tell him about his father. But she cannot tell Charles when she cannot even tell Raoul. For Charles, Erik can only ever exist as an unnamed character in bedtime stories, a singing little boy or a grown musician, ever elusive.

Her precious, beautiful little boy…

He has his father’s eyes. Not their colouring, that would be too obvious, too condemning, (though his eyes and how they look are not within her power to control) but their shape, their narrowness, the length of his lashes. He’s only four months old and yet there is so much of Erik clear in him. He nuzzles into her breast in his sleep the same way Erik did as he lay in her arms, that same desire to be close to her. And when she sings, unpractised though her voice is now, he seems to smile, though truly he is too young for that. His fingers are oddly long and slim for a baby, wrapped around her own. Sometimes they twitch on his sheets, as if he is playing music.

She wonders what his voice will be like when he’s older. Will it have that same rich musicality? Will he take to music at all? Or will his desires lie elsewhere – architecture, art, medicine? He has a world of possibilities open to him, so many different choices that he can make. (Will he find a woman who will love him and cherish him for all that he is and will be? He will. She knows he will with a bone-deep inexplicable certainty. He will love, and be loved in return, and be happy.)

Because Charles has a normal face, and Erik did not.

It comes back to that, always, that first key difference. Charles is not marked out as his father was. Charles can live a life surrounded by love and happiness. Charles need never wear a mask.

(She wouldn’t have made him, anyway. She knows that. Had Charles looked like Erik she would have loved him just the same, would have held him just the same and vowed to protect him against everyone and everything, every harsh word, every slanted gaze. She would have protected him even from Raoul and would have left with him to make their own way in the world if Raoul so much as suggested giving Charles away. The betrayal of her intimacy with Erik would have been plain to see, of course he would have had to throw them out, and she would not have blamed him. She fancies she might have returned to the Opera, and lived belowground, or sought help from Nadir. Nadir would have understood, understands now as it is, and would have seen them looked after.)

She is built up of love. It consumes her, this sweet writhing inside when she looks upon her son, upon her husband, permits herself to remember her dead husband. Everything is love, and grief, and the love far outweighs the grief so that it is all she knows, this delicate tenderness and she knows that she would lay her own life down in a moment to protect her family. Let her be the sacrifice. Let Charles live and be happy. Let Raoul have his son, even if he is not truly his son. There is nothing that she would not do for them.

Surely Madeleine felt the same way, once, thinking of the child that she was to have. How could all of that love turn to fear, and the hatred with which Erik insisted she treated him? How could she look upon her son as Christine looks upon Charles and not love him? Yes, she would have needed time to adjust to his face, but surely she must have come to love him after that.

(Nadir told her, in soft, hushed tones, of Erik’s visit back to the house of his childhood, only to discover his mother’s death. He told her of Mademoiselle Perrault producing the drawings and compositions which Erik had put together as a child, and of how Erik scoffed at his mother for being a hoarder. And what Nadir didn’t say, what Christine didn’t need him to say, was that Madeleine must have regretted her treatment of Erik. Erik, of course, never believed that, but all Christine can do is wish that Madeleine would have realised that sooner, when she had a chance to do right by Erik instead of making him suffer. She would protect that young Erik if she could, if it were within her power, and save him from the hurt that life was determined to throw at him. But such things are impossible, and all she can do is love Charles even harder, as if that might atone for the pain his father went through.)

He is so lovely, really, her little Charles. What did she ever do to deserve him? Lying with Erik that night she never dreamt for a moment that a year later she might be holding their son in her arms. She told Erik of a son, of several sons and daughters too, and she spoke as if they were real but they were only stories to fill his ears and maybe his dreams as he lay unconscious. Sweet little lie-children, inventions of her mind as if it were a life that they would ever have been able to live, even had he not been ill and she not engaged to Raoul. She gave them names, and faces, and some of them looked like him and some like her, and they were all loved the same. She never once thought that there might be such a child just beginning to grow inside of her, their own red rose.

(She was so scared, that night. Scared of losing him though she knew she had to, and scared of living a life with Raoul knowing that Erik was dead and there was nothing she could do to save him. She was so very afraid, after, when she discovered that she was with child. Not afraid of what Raoul might say, but desperately afraid of what might go wrong and snatch the chance of this precious life from her. It very nearly did, but that does not matter now. Not when she has her little boy sleeping in her arms, alive and healthy.)

She is not afraid, not anymore. She has her son, and her husband, and Erik safely inside her heart. What need has she to be afraid now?

Gently, she smooths back Charles’ soft baby hair, and kisses his forehead, and raises her voice in a lullaby to protect him from the world.