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Mag Challenge 131

Under Windsor Bridge – Adolph Valette, 1912

The top edge of the sun would just be visible above the horizon, but the fog is too close in and thick to see it, even more impenetrable now that daylight is diffusing through it.  The barge comes belching out of the fog, a heavy breathing behemoth, chuffing steam.  Its lantern eyes are beady and baleful athwart its stubby prow, glimmering across the leaden water.  The underside of the bridge ricochets the noise back down onto the water and the waves of its passage shlap against the stone pilings.  It will growl off downriver soon enough, and quiet will descend again, but the spell of the fog has already been broken.

The world is waking up.  There are things that need doing and another day to be gotten through, and standing here with his hands in his pockets staring at the river isn’t getting them done.  He’d left the house at ridiculous o’clock in the morning when he should have been sleeping but couldn’t, with the idea that a walk would settle his mind and help him think things through.  He’d stepped out the front door into a darkness fur-lined with fog that snuffed out the sound of his footsteps on the stone walkway.  He’d felt furtive and secluded, like he was walking through some cool, damp cave.  He hadn’t meant to walk as far as the bridge, but he’d only been able to see six or seven feet ahead of him, and he hadn’t thought he’d been walking all that long when the bridge’s huge irrefutable reality had suddenly materialized in front of him. Wasn’t that a perfect metaphor for life, he thinks, hmphing at the irony of it.  You can’t ever see all that far ahead, can you?  But you keep on going, until suddenly, there’s this big hulking something lying in your path and you’ve got to figure out how to get past it.  Abruptly, he realizes that he’s been standing here for hours and that he is chilled to the bone. The morning breath of the river is fetid with the smell of machine oil and rotted vegetation.

Elizabeth will likely have woken up by now and discovered she is alone in bed.  She would have searched for him and determined he is not elsewhere in the house.  Had he known he would be gone so long, he would have left a note.  He didn’t like to give her cause for concern.   How like the fog she is, he thinks, muted and quiet. He’d gone out with other women, glittering, beautiful, all of them appropriate choices, but he found them too disruptive.  They sought to preempt his life, and their presence quickly began to chaff and irritate, like sand in one’s shoe.  When had he met Elizabeth?  He couldn’t quite recall the actual circumstances.  She had just been there one day, dark haired, quiet, with a cat-like self-possession.  She was three years his elder.  Her people were not well off but they, like she, lived wisely and with an elegant simplicity.  He hadn’t been in love with her nor, he though, she with him when they’d married quietly at a registry office.   His mother had been quite put out with him about it.

He wouldn’t accept St. John’s offer.  No doubt people would think him a fool to turn down a junior partnership in such a prestigious firm, to forgo such an opportunity to advance his career.  The money would have been nice, but the rest of it wouldn’t have suited.  He would have had to shift the focus of his practice. He’d have been expected to move to a more fashionable neighborhood, buy a bigger house, run with a more fashionable set.  They’d have had to entertain.  And not to put too fine a point on it, he didn’t really like any of them.  The garden gate recalls him to the here and now.  He notices the fog is beginning to thin.  The metal doorknob is cold and damp with condensation.  He has to wipe his hand dry on his coat to get enough of a grip to turn it.  He hangs up his coat and hat and makes his way back to the kitchen.

Elizabeth is sitting at the kitchen table.  She is wearing her navy robe, her long dark hair twisted up and secured with a hair pick.  The cozied teapot is on the table in front of her.   “Cup of tea?”  she asks.

“God, yes.” The mug she pours for him is warm between his clammy hands.  “It’s quite foggy out and cold.  I think we’re in for a drippy, dreary day.”  He sips his tea in silence for a while. “I’ve been mulling over St. John’s offer.  I’ve decided not to take it.”

“I was hoping you wouldn’t.  Scramble you some eggs?”

“Please.”  He watches her move about the kitchen gathering what she needs.
“You think I’m right to turn down such a sterling opportunity?”

“It’s only an opportunity if it helps you get to where you want to be,” She says in that quiet, pragmatic way she has.

“True.”

“And if you had taken it, I would have lived in fear that we’d be at a party somewhere, St. John’s wife would laugh one time too many and one or the other of us would suddenly snap and throttle her.”

That makes him laugh.  It was true.  St. John’s wife had one of those high, shrill laughs that sounded like nothing so much as a horse’s whinny.  It grated on the nerves like fingernails on a blackboard.

She has made enough for two, and toast besides.  Neither of them speaks until they’ve nearly finished eating.  She is comfortable with silence.  That may have been what had first attracted him to her.  She sips her tea.  “Shall you be working in your study this morning?”

“Yes, I think so.”  He runs his fingers across his chin thoughtfully.  “I’ve just got some odds and ends to finish up.  But I think I’ll go upstairs and get cleaned up first.”

“Would you like the fire lit in the study?”

“Yes, that would be lovely.”  He pauses in the doorway. ” Your father’s not getting any younger, you know.”

“Nor is mother, come to that,”  She replies, looking up at him speculatively.  “He asked me last Christmas if you had your heart set on a practice in the city.  I said I wasn’t the one to to ask.”

“Williams offered to buy me out if I took St. John’s offer.”  He cocks an eyebrow at her.

“What about the house?  You’ve put so much work into it.”

“Only because I liked doing it.”  A thoughtful pause.  “Would you miss the city?”

“I could force myself to make do with the odd weekend.” The corners of her mouth quirk and in the night dark of her eyes, a single star twinkles.  Her expression sobers.  “He put their house in my name the week we were married.  Said it was a wedding present.”

“Oh?” He frowns.  “That was forward thinking of him.”

“As things stood, it was of no relevance unless something happened to one of them.”  She begins to stack the breakfast dishes and gather up the silverware.

He pauses in the doorway, leaning up against the door jam.  “It has lovely bones, your parents’ house.  It just wants a touch here and there.  It could do with a second bathroom for starters.”

“It wants the plumbing sorted out.” She frowns, piling dishes in the sink. ” And the wiring.”

He smiles remembering how peaceful and quiet it was at her parents’ house, and how lovely it had been the two of them sitting on that little stone bench in her mother’s cutting garden in the evening.  “Why don’t you call your mother later, see if it would be all right if we came up for the weekend.  We might launch a trial balloon or two.”

“I shall.”

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