26. Fifteen

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I was useless in the Hutch, misplacing things and forgetting what I was in the process of doing. 

My thoughts had been running higgledy-piggledy since the shouting match with James, and I found myself unable to herd all of them in again, much less focus them on a meaningful task. The ugly thought that James might be being difficult on purpose kept me scattered, and tetchy, for a good part of the morning.

Pritchard noticed, but didn't saying anything. The second time he got up and retrieved a file that I'd absentmindedly laid somewhere silly, I knew it was time to give up and clear out. 

Stalking down to one of the lesser-used rooms on the ground floor, I rummaged around in a games drawer and found an abandoned old Fifteen-Number puzzle of Father's. The objective of the puzzle was to shift numbers printed on wooden squares into numerical sequence. It was grand for doing the same thing with thoughts. Or so Father had always claimed.

I threw myself into an armchair and started the puzzle by scrambling the numbers around into a chaotic mess. Rather like the chaotic mess my insides felt like. 

Was James honestly making it a point to nettle me like he was? 

I began moving the squares around to unblock the 1. 

Surely, the anger that had flushed his face was real, but were the accusations? Did he honestly think Montgomery and I were lovers? Honestly? Or was it jealous insecurity that he was blasting scatter-shot all over the situation, hoping to hit something vital?   

Charlotte had warned me sufficiently about that, though, hadn't she? A whoopee and a gasper for afters and they think you're their wife. Wasn't that one of Charlotte's favourite litanies? How some men simply could not relinquish their territorial claims on a woman once they'd been intimate with her? She certainly had more experience than I did with that particular problem, but Charlotte lived a rather privileged life and could get away with murder if she put her mind to it, no doubt about that.

Times were still not as liberal everywhere and for everyone as they were for Charlotte and myself. They were becoming more so, but it was like driving over lumpy, uneven ground when it came to sex and what was expected of women. Some points were easy coasting, others rattled your bones. And most of the turmoil had little to do with men. 

I now had the 1, 2 and 3 in the proper positions. 

The stir the Suffragettes had been causing with their parades and dramatic actions had made as many strides forward in politics as it had pitted women against each other. I found it surprising the number of women who vehemently did not want the right to vote or to be allowed to take a university degree, while others were starving themselves and committing suicide to get it. Women were as much locked in a battle with themselves as they were with the government.   

Add to that the number of young women refusing to quit the war jobs they'd grown to adore to make way for returning Tommies, and you had more petrol thrown into the flames. More than once I'd overheard men in London bitterly complain about girls who only wanted a job to be able to buy themselves pretty frocks, when a man desperately needed that same job to feed his starving children. 

I called myself to order. The immediate problem was with James and his motivations, not with votes for women and pretty frocks.

I slid 4, 5 and 6 into place.

I may have been to bed with more men than the average Englishwoman, so I couldn't dismiss James' suspicions, or fears, entirely. But to accuse me of taking serial lovers among the Cloud Hill men? Did he have to accuse me of being an indiscriminate tart?

Mother

A light shiver ran down my spine. 

Was that the difficutly? Had his accusation been too close to what I now knew had broken up my parents marriage? Was he seeing something in me I didn't see in myself? Feared seeing in myself? Was he really accusing me of being her?

I didn't believe so. But how could I be certain if --

What about him, though? He'd had a girlfriend and if there had been one, then there had certainly been others! And let's not forget brothels and the women who strolled the pavement round Hyde Park. Celibate, he certainly hadn't been. Of that I was certain. Why did he expect such things from me? Did he think I was his wife?

I shoved the 7 into place.

But all that was idle speculation and bruised feelings on my part. Whatever the real difficulty was, he'd quite got the hump over it and wasn't letting go. 

One thing was clear. If he genuinely was making a nuisance of himself on purpose, then his appearance in my bedroom had been a terrible bungle on his part, and he knew it.

He'd let his mask slip for a moment and shown me exactly what was underneath. Even if I didn't understand exactly what I had seen in those brief moments, he certainly knew exactly what he'd revealed. That kiss had been more than genuine, I was sure of it.

No, the anger was real. He hated me for what he felt I'd done to him, but for some reason couldn't let go of the feelings of affection. 

That thought caused a pang of remorse to pinch my ribs and I moved the wooden squares even more swiftly, shifting the 8 and 9 into place. 

What about that smile? The one he'd given Father O'Shea? Hadn't that shown me that my Bright Spark was still in there somewhere?

Conclusion: the anger was real, the behaviour was not.

No, he was putting on a show, to a greater or lesser degree. That had to be the answer. He was growling like a mangy dog at me, warning me not to touch him. Stay back, Olivia! Don't get a mind to pet me! I shall bite! I shall! You won't play with me and then drop me again. Didn't he say something to that effect? 

A thought struck me just as I moved the 10 and then the 11 into place: what if he was speaking about himself, and not about me? What if the show was entirely to reassure himself

Yes, that made sense. 

No matter what happened while he was here, he could feel safe in the knowledge that he was immune if he groused long and hard enough. That way, whatever feelings he had couldn't touch him where he was sensitive. Wouldn't hurt him again.  

And then Montgomery'd gone and had his episode, shattering that illusion like so much broken china. He wasn't immune. And so James had automatically bitten down even harder, and was now bloody impossible to deal with for almost everybody. 

No wonder James' hackles had risen like they did seeing Montgomery going into the house. He blamed Montgomery for instigating what had made him expose himself and he'd accused me of fawning over him, of being intimate with the poor man. Only that way could he defend himself against the fear, and perhaps embarrassment, of having gone too far.

I slid the 12 and 13 into place. 

James was going to need the wind taken out of his sails, but I was less sure now his lathering would make things better between us. Make him more accepted by the men and help him get on better here, yes, certainly. But would it help me get back my Bright Spark? 

I slid the 14 into place and realised something.

If the James I knew was no longer in there, then he wouldn't be fighting like he was to keep it a secret. He wanted me to see a totally different man. He was war damaged, yes. He'd been through some horrible situations, yes. But he was still in there, just covered with muck and grime. 

And to get him back, I'd have to find a way to scrape it off and show him he was no longer in danger of being thrown away. 

The 15 slid into place, solving the puzzle. 


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