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The Bride

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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."

"When?"

"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."

"Polly?"

"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.

"Lizzie?"

"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.

“I will.”

“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."

“I know.”

“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."

"Why?"

"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."

"Who's they?"

"The Irish, I think. I think. And they hit Charlie over the head!"

"Why?"

"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?"

"Yes, yes." 

"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--"

Crack.

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.

"What?"

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.

Dear Esme,

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

Your husband,

Thomas Shelby

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."