Joyce Pelles stared at her sister and wondered how it was that so much had gone wrong in so little time.
A little over a year ago, she’d been the one to run to Meg for support and soothing. She’d been begging for advice on what to do about Berach, about their parents. Meg had been the calm, the composed, the level-headed one. Meg had told Joyce that what Berach had done wasn’t so bad; that relationships could survive a betrayal of even that magnitude. She’d even told Joyce that Pierre had done the same thing to her, and look, they were fine. But at the same time, Meg had accepted that Joyce wouldn’t put up with crap Berach dealt to her, and had helped her find alternative arrangements. Meg had been the strong one that day.
Now it was Joyce’s turn to be the strong one. She wondered if Meg had felt half as inadequate that day as she did today. And at least Joyce had warning; she hadn’t even given Meg that.
But wondering that wouldn’t help her sister. Joyce took a deep breath, straitened her skirt, and asked, “So, Meg, how’re … things?”
“Huh?” Meg said, turning her gaze away from the wall she had been staring at as if it held all the answers in the universe. It didn’t; since Joyce often stared at that selfsame wall on the rare occasion when she had trouble getting to sleep, she figured that if it did she would have noticed it by now. “Oh … they’re all right.”
“Don’t lie ter me.”
“Oh, Joyce …” Meg shook her head and sighed. “I’m fine. Really.”
An’ I’m the Empress of Reme.
“I mean, I’ll admit it ain’t been the happiest time in me life,” Meg went on. “But I’ve jest been feelin’ sad every now an’ then. That’s all.”
“Not all of us have yer an’ Da’s murderous instincts, dear.”
“Speakin’ of which, has Da beat that cheatin’, no-good–”
She sighed. “Has Da beat him up yet, or not?”
“He hasn’t, an’ he won’t, because I’m the one who told him an’ Ma what was goin’ on — before he could hear it from … someone else.”
Like Cerise, or worse, Simon!
“An’ when I told ’em … well, Da looked about ready ter go fer his old cudgel, an’ so I axed him to leave Pierre alone –”
“Meg! Fer Wright’s sake, if ye don’t let Da teach that man a lesson, how’s he gonna learn?”
Meg turned to Joyce with one eyebrow raised. “He wouldn’t learn nothin’ from Da goin’ after him with a cudgel. ‘Sides, I don’t want ter be raisin’ Basil all on me own, an’ let’s not ferget what would happen ter Da if he went after Pierre.”
If there was an argument against that kind of logic, Joyce couldn’t come up with it.
“An’ it ain’t like he ain’t learned. He’s apologized ter me a hundred times since … since she showed up.”
Another reason for Joyce to be thankful; not only had she learned her man’s faults before the wedding, she still didn’t have more than a tentative face to haunt her nightmares (back when she’d had those kinds of nightmares, of course, which she hadn’t — not in months, at least) of Berach and the other woman. Meg had not only seen that woman face-to-face; had not only that face to make tiny, minute comparisons with her own; she also had to live with the knowledge that the woman felt she had enough claim to Pierre to not only name him as the father of her child and show up at Meg’s house!
Whereas little Leah’s mother had, so far as Joyce knew, never been within three miles of Joyce.
“Ye accept any of them?”
“I …” Meg looked away.
“I’ve got ter live with ‘im fer the rest of me life,” Meg murmured slowly, as if she hadn’t even heard Joyce. “An’ we’ve got Basil together. So like it or not … we’re stuck. But at the same time …”
All the angry retorts Joyce had planned swiftly melted away.
“I jest don’t know, Joyce — I — I don’t wanna keep bein’ angry, it ain’t helpin’ me an’ it ain’t helpin’ ‘im, an’ the house is jest awful with the way everyone’s steppin’ all around each other, it’s like waitin’ fer a thunderstorm ter break, only a thousand times worse … but every time I think about forgivin’ ‘im, I keep thinkin’ about ‘im goin’ ter see that woman so soon after we were married, an’ … an’ I jest get so angry, it was one thing before we were wed but this …” Meg blinked, still staring at that wall. “Maybe I’m jest not as strong as I thought I was.”
“Meg! Don’t say that! Ye’re strong, strong as anythin’!”
“How do ye know that?”
“Because ye’re here, ain’t ye? Ye’re here, ye’re goin’ on with yer life, ye’re pullin’ through … o’course ye’re sad, o’course ye’re hurt, ye’re a Sim like everyone else, Meg! But that don’t mean ye ain’t strong.”
“I jest feel so worn, though …”
“Well … well, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that,” Joyce hedged. “I mean, anyone would. As if a one-year-old ain’t tirin’ enough, plus yer work, ye’ve got a cheatin’ husband ter deal with an’ ye’ve got his parents in the same house … ye can’t lay into him the way ye want to — if ye want to — because they’ll be sure to take his side an’ make ye feel like an ingrate fer yer perfectly natural feelins.”
“Joyce! They wouldn’t do that!”
Joyce raised her eyebrows.
“… Well, Papa Edmond wouldn’t do that!”
“That I’ll give ye.” Joyce bit her lip. “… Meg, if I suggest somethin’ ter ye, will ye promise not ter bite me head off?”
“I’ll certainly try …”
“Have ye thought about gettin’ out of that house fer a bit?”
Meg looked at her — not a shocked, What are you suggesting?!? kind of look, but a What do you think I’m doing now? kind of look.
“Not jest fer an afternoon,” Joyce replied. “Fer — fer a while.”
“Ye mean — ye mean leavin’? I couldn’t do that!”
“Well, not fer ferever — but jest fer a little while, give both ye an’ Pierre some space — Ma an’ Da would let ye stay with them, hell, ye’re always welcome here –”
“I couldn’t leave Basil!”
“Take ‘im with ye.”
“I couldn’t do that! Pierre’s a good da, I couldn’t — no. Jest no. Absolutely not.”
Joyce sighed. Well, she’d made her attempt. Staying in that house, surrounded by the enemy — or at best neutral parties (because Edmond would do his best to be neutral, and little Basil wasn’t exactly a combatant) — couldn’t be good for Meg, so the best thing to do, in Joyce’s mind, was to get her out of it. But if Meg didn’t want to go … she didn’t want to go.
“‘Sides,” Meg said — was that bitterness in her voice? — “I think it’s a bit rich o’ ye, suggestin’ leavin’.”
“Meg, all I was sayin’ is that ye should get out of that house fer a week, two weeks, a month — I ain’t sayin’ ye should give up on Pierre entire-like.” Not that Pierre wouldn’t deserve it — he would — but of course the whole village, the whole kingdom, whoever heard of it, would blame Meg for it and be shocked that she’d been daring enough to leave her husband and the father of her child. She’d be the one in the wrong, the weak one, the one who would be shunned and scorned when it was Pierre who had screwed up. No, that road was a steep and thorny one; she wouldn’t suggest Meg walk it if her life depended on it.
“Still. Coming from ye?” Meg asked.
“It ain’t my kid makin’ that endless plinkin’.” And Meg nodded her head toward the floor at their feet.
As if the little girl could sense their attention, she chose that moment to begin a barrage of notes that would have impressive, had there been any harmony or melody to them. There might have been more, but Basil bashed the bear’s head against her xylophone. The girl looked at Basil, then at the stick she still held in her hand.
“Be nice, Leah,” Joyce admonished, before turning back to Meg. “That’s different.”
“How? Didn’t ye swear ye wanted no part o’ Berach while that little girl was in his life? Didn’t ye strike out on yer own because ye couldn’t fergive ‘er existence? An’ now ye’re bringin’ her over here every day — fer free?”
“It’s — look, Meg, I’m jest helpin’ out a friend, that’s all.”
“Why not?” Joyce shrugged. “I mean — jest because I didn’t want ter marry him don’t make him a bad person. He … he’s a wonderful father, fer one.”
“Is he?” Meg asked.
“Oh, aye. Ye can jest see it, whenever he’s with Leah, whenever he talks about her — he loves her ter pieces. And fer Wright’s sake, he could have brought her down to the nunnery orphanage any day an’ kept his house an’ all — an’ he chose ter keep her! If that ain’t bein’ a good father, what is?”
Meg shrugged. “Still. Ye’re tellin’ me ter leave Pierre, an’ here ye are bein’ Berach’s babysitter.”
“Meg, I ain’t sayin’ …” Joyce stopped; if Meg didn’t hear what she was saying before, who was to say she would listen now? She tried a different tactic. “Meg, ye remember what Ma used ter say about hate an’ love?”
“Maybe ye weren’t around … but she used ter tell me, that hate wasn’t the opposite of love. If ye’re hatin’ someone, it means ye ain’t over ’em — ye ain’t past ’em — ye’re still feelin’ somethin’ strong fer ’em, it jest ain’t love. Indifference, that’s the opposite o’ love. An’, well, if I’m all right enough with Berach ter be watchin’ his kid, I certainly don’t hate ‘im … so I ain’t lovin’ ‘im either, ye see?”
Meg did not look convinced. “I see that ye don’t hate ‘im, but … Joyce, bringin’ ‘is kid over ter yer house every day but Sunday don’t make ye look indifferent to him, neither.”
“Naw. If I was really feelin’ somethin’ fer ‘im, I’d be watchin’ Leah at her house … but I ain’t, even though it’s much more trouble fer Berach ter have ‘er here. He’s got ter bring toys fer her an’ everything, ye know?”
“So makin’ him lug over a xylophone is yer idea o’ bein’ indifferent to ‘im?”
She would leave it at that. She would not tell Meg the real reason why she made Berach bring Leah here. At first she had gone to his house to watch the little one, not thinking anything of it. Berach didn’t have a problem with her bringing Sable with her, so the dog got fed and let out when she needed to be; and since Joyce was only one person and didn’t make that much of a mess, living on her own, it wasn’t like she needed to be at home to clean. Furthermore, Berach pretty much told her to help herself to lunch every day, saying that since she was saving him a small fortune in nannies it was the least he could do. So why not go to Leah, instead of having Leah come to her?
Clarence, that was why not.
The man thoroughly unnerved her. He didn’t look at her, he leered. He didn’t talk to her, he salivated while he made horrible attempts at flirtation. And more than once, he’d “bumped into,” or “brushed past” her, his hands attempting to get into all sorts of places where they had no business being.
She’d told him off once, twice, three times. She’d smacked his hands away from her skirts or her apron strings. Sable barked and Joyce had even tripped him, once, when he got too close! The man just would not take a hint. Was it any wonder that Joyce then told Berach that it was too much difficulty to watch Leah at his place, and would he mind bringing the little one over to her place instead? He’d been only too happy to do so, and hadn’t even asked why.
It was good that he hadn’t asked questions; Joyce didn’t want to make trouble between him and Clarence. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that Berach was asking her for her hand — in a very businesslike manner, true, but asking for her hand nonetheless. If he knew that Clarence was making moves on Joyce, the best case scenario was that he would give Clarence a talking-to — which would do nothing — not-so-bad case, he would get jealous for no reason (not, of course, that it mattered to Joyce whether or not he got jealous); and worst case, he would try to physically “defend Joyce’s honor” or some similar nonsense.
In that case, Berach would get his ass handed to him; there was just no question of that. Berach had always been a lover, not a fighter. And Clarence … the scars on his face, the worn leather armor he wore constantly, the way he carried himself … Clarence struck Joyce as a man who would rather fight than love any day.
No, it was better that Berach not know about it. Better that nobody know about it, really, since Joyce had already extricated herself from the situation and other people might say foolish things, things like how men like Clarence were the reason why women like Joyce shouldn’t live alone.
Fools, all of them.
A knock came from the door. “That’ll probably be Berach,” Joyce muttered to Meg. Then, louder, “Who is it?”
Aye, Berach. “Door’s open, come on in!”
The door opened and in Berach came. He barely had time to nod to Joyce and Meg and put his cloak on a chair before Leah made her way to her feet. “Papa!”
“Hello, angel.” He swooped down and picked her up. “How’s Papa’s girl?”
“Lay-Lay good! How Papa?”
“Papa’s good too. An’ ye, ladies?” he asked, shooting a glance especially at Meg.
“We’re fine,” Joyce answered for both of them, and letting Meg’s face do the talking for her. By Berach’s expression, he read Meg’s face and disbelieved Joyce’s words — but that was fine, considering that she hadn’t expected to be believed in any case.
“This is Basil?” he asked, nodding to the little boy, who was too busy gnawing on his bear’s ear to pay much attention to them.
“Aye, aye, it is,” Meg answered.
“Ye’ve got a good little man there. Won’t be long before I’m worried about leavin’ me Leah alone with ‘im — eh, Leah?” he asked. She looked at him, confused. “Did ye make a new friend today?”
“No?” Joyce asked. “Why not?”
“Because Basil stupid!”
“Leah!” Joyce tried to scold, though it was hard to muster up the proper tone when she was trying to keep from laughing. “That’s not very nice!”
“He still stupid!”
“Aw, Basil’s littler than ye, ye can’t be expectin’ him ter be as quick as ye are,” Berach said.
“An’ don’t ferget he’s a boy, Leah,” Joyce added with a wink in Meg’s direction. “They ain’t never gonna be as smart as us girls.”
“Wright knows that,” Berach chuckled; while Meg only smiled. “Anyway, I’ll get this one out o’ yer way, an’ ye two can go on with yer visit — Leah, let Papa get his cloak on an’ we’ll have some supper, all right?”
“I swear I feed ‘er,” Joyce muttered. “Ax Meg if ye don’t believe me.”
“I’ll believe ye — she does the same thing ter me when I have her,” Berach answered as he swung his cloak over his shoulders and picked up the xylophone, all without letting go of Leah. “Anyway, thank’ee fer havin’ ‘er. Again.”
“Weren’t no trouble. Again.”
“Nice seein’ ye too, Meg.”
“Aye,” Meg replied. “Nice seein’ ye, Berach.”
Joyce got up and walked Berach to the door, opening it for him since he really didn’t have a spare hand for it. She stood there, watching for a quick moment as he walked away, quickly so as to get Leah in from the cold.
When she turned around, Meg was watching her and shaking her head. “Indifferent, my arse.”