Let me set the scene for you.
A candid evening. Why candid? I don’t know. Candles around the drawing room. Laura in her peach dress, flowing gently from her shoulders. Golden curls pinned up; it was the evening, she would unpin them soon. Aunt Abigail had rung the bell for supper. She would join Laura after seeing to her roses in the conservatory.
Laura gently arranged the pillows, setting the tables straight. She was purposeful in every movement, as though she wanted time to tick by slowly.
They had left in a hurry; John had a patient to see to and Mary wanted to go in the carriage so she could bundle the little puddings into their own beds. Hugs and kisses, sloppy ones from the darling angels, a sweet one from Mary, a squeeze on the arm, a murmur that she would see her soon. A hug for her brother, tall and grim, lips taut. He had a patient to get to.
Laura straightened up, sighed. There was a soft knock on the drawing room door. Supper.
‘Come in,’ she said, turning to the window to pull the drapes against the darkness outside.
She heard the door open so she turned around with a smile on her face – which then froze, lips halfway there, dimples just beginning to form. A painful drop in her heart. A throb in her chest. Tightening so she caught her breath. Then she composed herself quickly, one hand on her hair, the other to her neck. Her eyes didn’t meet his, they rested somewhere on his collar.
‘Hello, Tom.’ She smiled properly, moving towards the settee. Something else to look at.
Another painful throb. She could die. In fact she would. Right there. That would show him.
‘Miss Smith? Come now!’ she smiled again, ‘How could you?’ a teasing lilt in her voice. She kept her smile, dimples dancing, and sat down, arranging her skirts around her as she did so.
‘Laura, then. I.. how are you?’
‘Oh, very well thank you. John and Mary left only moments ago. Did you not see them?’
‘I did. John was in a hurry to get to old Mrs Pettiforte.’
‘And my sister frazzled, as always.’
She heard, rather than saw, the smile on his face.
‘As is Mary’s way,’ Laura agreed. ‘We were not expecting you for another year,’ she said then, abruptly. Her eyes lifted to his face. He was looking directly at her, into her soul, even. Piercing, green. His face, so familiar, so different. Older, more tired. Drawn. Something in his look compelled her to look away again.
‘I know.’ He opened his mouth to say more. She saw him swallow, hard, search her face until she flushed. She waited for him to give her more information. She didn’t know what to ask. How to ask. She could not ask. So she looked at her sleeve and picked at it.
‘Aunt Abigail and I will have a light supper here by the fire,’ she said, after a short pause. ‘Please join us.’
‘With pleasure,’ he said. She felt the settee bend as he sat down next to her.
Supper arrived, as did Aunt Abigail. Larger than life, sailing into the room and immediately taking command. Fawning over Tom as though he were her own nephew, she took control of the conversation. She enquired after his studies and his work abroad. She lamented on the Medical profession, in turns berating it for taking Tom away from them all for such a long time, and praising him for his medical feats, saving lives and relieving discomfort. Laura was quiet through supper. She kept her eyes on the bread; thick slices with a beautiful golden crust. The butter spread generously on top. Beautifully cut slices of cheese, rich and deliciously fresh tomatoes from the vegetable garden. Her tea was milky and sweet. A nice meal.
It tasted like cardboard in her mouth though. There was a pain in her chest, a lump in her throat. Her eyes glittered brightly in the firelight, her cheeks flushed from the heat of the flames. She took her tea in gulps, but the lump in her throat would not budge. It grew larger as the evening lengthened, as she watched Tom become more comfortable, as she felt his eyes look her way a few times, questioning her silence.
Finally he stood up to leave.
‘A wonderful meal,’ he said, as he bid them goodnight.
‘Laura, see the boy out,’ her aunt said.
She dragged her feet. Smiled at him, followed him out the room and down the hall. He opened the front door and stepped out into the moonlight. A gust of cold air around her, and she shivered.
‘You’d best close that door,’ he warned, ‘no use getting a chill.’
‘It was good of you to come by,’ she told him. She still did not know what he was doing home a year early.
He didn’t say anything, forcing her to look up at him. Tall, dark with the light of the moon behind him. Crisp wintry air, stars alight in the heavens. She couldn’t see his eyes, nor the expression on his face. Yet she knew he was about to say something, for there was dread in his stance. His shoulders sank with heaviness, the joy he had displayed that evening around Aunt Abigail had left him completely.
‘Laura I…’ he began.
He cleared his throat. Then, abrupt, ‘Goodnight. Be warm.’
He turned and walked down the path. She felt as though a pack of wolves ought to have been chasing him, he should race away from her, she should throw her fury at him and shock the calmness out of him. Oh she could scream! His walk was a meander. He even paused to look at the sky, then back at her. Then he raised an arm in salute.
Fingers trembling, she shut the door upon his wave and stalked upstairs to bed. Not a word to her aunt, who Laura heard humming to herself as she marched past the drawing room.