This story is set a few weeks after the events of Love Never Dies. It's not necessarily linked to my other 2 LND related stories, but can be read in that way if you wish. Please let me know what you think!
He lives in a house of ghosts and shadows.
All the visitors have gone now, their wreaths and flowers already wilting, already reminding him of death as if he needed any reminder. His relatives and friends have departed along with their well-meaning sentiments and awkward sympathy, none of them knowing how to grieve for a young woman they secretly, and sometimes openly, resented. But none can deny the tragic circumstances of her death and none are willing to speak ill of the dead; suddenly they have found so many complimentary things to say about her now that she lies alone in a windy cemetery.
Now he is alone, save for his memories and thoughts which never leave him, night or day. Each morning, there is a brief, blissful moment of forgetfulness when he first awakens… only for the memories to press down on his heart once more as he realises he is lying alone in a single bed in a sparsely furnished guest room. For how can he lie in the room they used to share? During the day he mostly sits in his study but can find no relief in his many books. He drinks tea, he tries to work, but there are too many images in his mind now; a blood splattered dress, a child's pale face, a monster in a mask weeping like a child…They crowd out all other thoughts until he storms out of the room, slamming the door.
He stands at the front door, looking out at the roses she once loved. Soon their season will be over and the gardener will be planting the winter shrubs. Everything changes in ruthless succession.
Sometimes he wanders into their old room and sits on the bed, remembering. If he can bear it, he sometimes goes to the wardrobe and looks at the dresses she wore, wondering if they still carry her familiar scent. On this particular day, he does not wish to look at them; rather, his attention is drawn to her dressing table. All her things, her "ladies things", are laid out neatly, just as she left them. Her hairbrush, cosmetics, perfume, her jewellery box that he bought her when they were first married… Today, as he holds the intricately carved box, he remembers fondly how it poured with rain that day and how they huddled together in the carriage on their way home, Christine holding the precious parcel and smiling at him, and how safe and happy they both felt, tucked away from the world in their own little cocoon.
They were children together. Once, long ago, when they were happy and innocent and thought they would be young forever. Why couldn't they be, he wonders? Why couldn't time have just frozen and kept them as children, instead of letting them grow up and face all the problems of the world?
He ventures on to the landing, only to see the maid turn around and hastily walk the other way, her arms full of freshly ironed laundry. The two remaining servants do not like to be around him now; it is too awkward for them, particularly the maid; the social gap between them is too wide for her to offer anything more than polite sympathy and she has run out of platitudes by now. That day, the cook only seeks him out to discuss the menus, and even then he dismisses her politely but quickly, assuring her that whatever she wants to cook will be fine, no, he does not want soup today, no, he has no preference regarding dessert. She is visibly relieved that there will be no further conversation and slips away quietly to the refuge of the kitchen.
Later he wanders into the child's room, which seems to be one of his favourite places these days. He sits on the bed, wishing he had ventured here more often when the boy lived here, that he had taken more of an interest in what he was doing instead of wasting his life drinking and gambling. Sometimes, when he starts to open the door there is a split second where he thinks he sees a crop of brown hair over by the wall or against the bed, but it is merely an illusion, a trick of the light.
He gazes sorrowfully at the rocking horse which the boy was too old for, but could not bear to part with. A memory comes to him, out of the blue, in which he is sitting on the bed, just as he is now, and Christine is beside him on a chair. The boy, no more than three years old, sits on the rocking horse, rocking gently and smiling.
"Giddy up! Giddy up, boy!" Christine is "telling" the horse, and surprisingly, he is joining in, not yet embarrassed or self-conscious of such playful actions.
"Giddy up, boy!" the child is exclaiming, and all three of them are spurring it on as Christine rocks it a little more. And then… the child turns towards him and laughs, a genuine, spontaneous laugh for the man he thinks is his father, a happy, joyful sound for him alone that makes his heart soar. He wonders if he laughed back but cannot remember. He is sure he did, though. He was happy that day.
The three of them were happy that day. It saddens and relieves him at the same time for those years cannot all have been bad ones. And yet, those moments will never come again for the child is gone now. The child. Gustave.
Gustave is lost to him now, he knows that. He will be raised by a man who is a virtual stranger to him in a very different world. Was he right to leave him there? If he had taken him home, this silent house would be full of happy, playful noise instead of deathly silence. Or would it? Would they not mourn for Christine separately, both of them in their own private worlds?
Will his old enemy raise him properly and look after him? Will he lose his temper and frighten the child? Or will he teach him all the things he wants to know and make his music soar at last? They have written to each other, but Gustave's letter seemed polite and guarded, as though afraid of giving too much away.
He rummages around until he finds Gustave's sheet music. It may as well be Arabic that he is looking at, but these sheets meant a great deal to the boy and perhaps he should post them over to Coney Island? But he knows Gustave will be making much finer music now, with his real father. He may be his enemy but even he cannot deny that the man they call Mister Y is a great musician and will nurture his son's talent as no-one else could do.
Casting a glance over the toys in the room, he goes downstairs and finds himself in front of the piano, remembering all the times Christine and Gustave sang here together. When he listened to them he was not only reminded of his own minimal talent but of their deep, abiding love for one another and how, as the final note was played, they would smile at each other in that special way, an smile of understanding that saddened him, for it was a living symbol of the club the that he could never join.
With stooped shoulders he sits at the piano, feeling like an imposter, and hits a key, then another one. How he wishes he had listened to his piano teacher as a boy. But he manages to play a simple scale and then plays it again in reverse, unsure of what notes they actually are. He presses high notes and low notes, he presses black keys and white keys, he presses down on the pedal for no reason at all, then abandons all attempts at creating a proper melody and hits keys at random, creating a discordant, jarring symphony that would make his old enemy cover his ears.
Suddenly he thumps on several keys at once, startling the maid who happens to be walking past.
"Enough of this!" he snaps, getting up and shutting the lid firmly. Putting on his coat, he steps outside for some badly needed air.
Even here, his memories of his wife and...her son haunt him. Setting off to Paris in the carriage, having picnics under the oak tree, throwing a ball to each other, walking around the grounds together, the two of them chatting about his lessons perhaps, or Christine telling him one of her endless stories. Both of them are everywhere.
That bond which once ignited his jealousy is the one thing he could never destroy. Right to the end, all through that last, fearful summer, after he had lost everything and made them objects of pity and humiliation, they sang together at the piano. Right to the end, they played together and read books together and went off on outings together, the two of them united against that world for reasons he could never understand until that trip to Coney Island.
He knows, you see. He knows now, although he never knew before, that their closeness never depended on material things, that it existed outside of this cloistered, upper class world they lived in, that they would have been happy if they had gone to live in the filthiest slum together. And with that realisation comes the knowledge that it is too late to change his priorities now.
The sun sinks below the horizon and soon the house is full of darkness and shadows. Another day is at an end, the vicomte is wearily making his way to bed and before long the world around him will be quiet and peaceful. But as he reaches the top of the stairs, he is sure he hears a sound from the empty bedroom down the landing, a sound which sends a shiver down his spine. And although he tries to convince himself later that it was just his imagination, at that moment he could have sworn an oath that he heard the creak of a rocking horse.
And the happy laughter of a child.