Down in the pool William floated, sun-warmed, on a blue and white striped air bed, winged sunglasses obscuring his gaze, his hair tied in two ear-like sheaves atop his head. Intermittent smoke drifted from his nose over the water as though he were some font of minor, lackadaisical volcanism. Susan sat down with her back to it in the windowsill and gazed at the griddle print on her toasted sandwich, cheated of its enjoyment, the tactics she had devised to beguile the morning failing to efface the prospect she so dreaded. She shook her head, set down her lunch and walked with some resolve toward the doors, wiping her hands on her pinafore.
A capacious garage had annexed a portion of the original servants' quarters, the remainder fashioned into a primitive laundry and warren of utility rooms linked by a sequence of doors painted shiny absinthe green. An impressive consignment of furnishings and objet trouvé had half-filled the garage since her arrival, like ballast drafted in against the vacancy of the house itself; she threaded through them, arms raised where they narrowed the way uncomfortably. Only by keeping the building's exterior in mind did Susan rediscover the portal to the windowed passage traversing the rear of the ground floor. At its end she paused before another door and listened carefully before tapping at its recessed panelling. The slice of room beyond was lit by one dim source; knocking again, she stepped into the midst of a private library, a carefully-assorted cache of thick, reptilian volumes, bound folios and journals and the green tobacco smell of hand-worked hide, of rag and linen paper. The collection stood in shadow, much of it enjoying the security of the locks set into the glass-faced shelves, and she frowned at such a measure.
Susan could not stay the hand that leapt to her breast as she finally perceived the figure seated in the rear third of the room, behind a black Directoire desk. Her intrusion had stilled him in the midst of excising shagreen from the handle of an old square-bladed knife, the procedure performed upon a piece of leather faced with the intimate grain of an animal's skin. He did not smile at her intrusion. In his imposing shape and unaccountable ethnicity he was as surely William’s brother as she was not. She cleared her throat and forced words from her mouth.
“Mr Lamb, good morning... I'm Susan Christabel, your housekeeper. We... um, met last night." she reminded him when he evinced no sign of recognition. Edward's attention proved coldly metallic, like chain mail draped across her throat and shoulders, flushing her face with swathes of high colour. She coughed into her hand, using it to look away from him. “I’ve already talked to... to your brother... he said you won’t be needing me to cook. There are chefs, though, at the agency... they’ll do macrobiotic... I can have them send you a li...”
"I didn't engage you." he told her. She nodded slowly, then frowned and shook her head.
"Well... I didn't just wander in... somebody hired me..." she reminded him. He rose unexpectedly, and she stepped back through the doorway, letting go of the frame. "There's a trial period, a month... we get paid for that..."
Edward slid back one of the glass partitions and extracted a slim wooden box. The ensuing silence threatened impasse until he turned to study her directly, forcing her to brave the weight of his unqualified attention. In watching her, the colour of his gaze was necessarily revealed and she saw that some conspiracy between shade and aversion had cast it in an aureate, fimbriated bale. She stepped back again into the passage, her hands finding and clasping each another.
"Mr Lamb, I'm sorry for the misunderstanding last night... you did surprise me, and I didn't mean to be rude. But once we're signed on to a place, we get the..."
“Submit your account details." he muttered, returning to the table in a gesture of dismissal that did little to relieve her, even as she walked back along the windowed corridor.
Her sandwich had cooled by the time she reclaimed it, its layer of oozing cheese turned to greasy rubber. Cursing, she bore it back into the passage, intending a return to her rooms, but caught sight of a figure hunched before the doors to William’s suite, a woman rattling the lock with something she had worked into the keyhole.
“Can I help you or something?” Susan called, blowing a tea leaf from her tongue.
The stranger straightened quickly and began to stalk toward her down the hall, blond hair streaming back over her shoulders.
“You are?” she quipped.
“The housekeeper. Is Mr Lamb expecting you?”
Rachel hitched up the golden chain strap of her handbag and cast a withering eye over the new arrival; Susan lifted the sandwich to her mouth, crunching noisily through its brittle crust. The large gold letters emblazoned on the glasses propped atop the woman's head were repeated on her bag and in the printed leather of her heels; her breasts challenged the fabric of her tawny tank-top with their distracting amplitude, their proportions answering the tanned hips so tenuously contained by the brevity of her custom-distressed jeans.
“Where is he? I have to talk to him privately.” she insisted, sighing loudly and staring at the ceiling as Susan began to reply. “You have food in your mouth... I cannot understand what you are saying.”
Taking a moment, the latter wiped a crumb from the corner of her chin and took a quick sip of her cold tea.
“Mr Lamb's downstairs.”
“It’s sort of... like a cave."
Rachel glared pointedly.
“Are you going to show me, or are you just going to keep on eating whatever that is?” she exclaimed, throwing an open hand at her repast. Susan swallowed unhurriedly and shook her head.
“I’m on a tea break. It's down there, through that door at the back... just follow the hall.”
Disgusted, Rachel stalked down the stairs alone, the jarring clatter of her heels dying away to nothing.
William swapped his phone from one ear to the other as the breeze blew him toward the end of the pool, chuckling at his caller’s reportage. He barely heard the aerodynamic disturbance accompanying the object stabbed down into the pillow by his ear, but held his phone clear of the water as his craft deflated beneath him. His brother’s expression was far less scenic than the clouds it had replaced. Edward shucked the tines of the gardening fork from the airbed and thrust it into the grass.
"Macrobiotic.” The single word sunk under the condensed weight of his antipathy.
“I know it was dumb... you sprung this on me. She was asking about food and I couldn’t think of anything. What the fuck.” William sighed. Igniting his cigarette with a table lighter at the water's edge in the shape of a jewel-eyed carp, he smiled and stretched out again on his back, floating unassisted. Taking the folded newspaper from under his arm, Edward dropped it onto his face; the gossip section rewarded the recipient's curiosity with a lurid description of his own conduct at the avant-garde event the night before. “Promiscuous flotsam floats quite conspicuously." he explained. "And three weeks running is something... it’s not nothing...”
"C'est naze. Why not just lock me in a fucking room full of burning tyres? And Susan's staying. I've already told her that legally, she comes with the house as a chattel and that I was going to keep her here, secluded from the gaze of others while I alone knew her flesh in marathons of sweaty, freaky shit til one of us, and it wouldn't be me, called time. She wanted to go right there, but I said child, I will give you a night of prayer and contemplation so that you can come to me in a state of readiness. But Kala'amātya, if you don’t like the way I handle things, fucking deal with it yourself.” He let the paper darken and submerge and lay his hands on his stomach, thinking better of the suggestion. "Okay, so maybe... don't do that. But fucking Opal sent her, so that's on you..." His brother's irritation prompted him to lift his arms in an expansive gesture. “We’re the upper ten thousand now, mahatma... it’s totally appropriate and necessary to have a household full of buxom maids of easy virtue. She's been undressing me with her eyes ever since she got here." William laughed, intensifying Edward's displeasure.
"Was anything ever more redundant?" he muttered bitterly.
"At least buy her contract from Opal. You've seen her... she's friandise. She won't last a hot minute with that fucking old crocodile handbag." He received no reply. "Whatever. We're keeping Susan. I like her.”
“You liked Rachel.” Edward spoke with such distaste that, for once, his words influenced his expression, his teeth appearing in the midst of an involuntary grimace. "Gas gangrene..." he added, the association as powerfully impulsive as it was obscure.
“I never said I liked Rachel... I just asked her to stop pitching rufies into my piña colada but apparently that came out as stalk me til I lose the will to live." Gazing up into the sky, William smiled in beatific gratitude. "She was here and you scared her away, didn't you? Je t'aimie tellement..." he sighed. "I didn't tip her off about this place, so it must've been Opal, and don’t come crying to me about your evil overlord... you're her little punk bitch now. Better lube up and grab a chesterfield... get some wood between your teeth.” Edward looked toward the fork standing in the grass. “I can live with your art thing... you're a creative, they couldn’t beat that out of you, and christ only knows you need the outlet... but you're letting neckfuckers up in your business, et putain de merde... Opal’s the worst. What do the dogboys say? If three rounds won't put it down, don't unzip...”
“Say what now?”
“Open an account. Discover modern insolvency. Become an OFAC superstar. Report back to me with your single designated phone call while black helicopters land on the roof.”
"You're just mad because I'm in your swimming pool and you don't know how that happened. Kala'amātya... allez. You are the only creature with my bloodtype on this entire fucking landmass... well you were until a week ago... B and Ny are here now... and you're always looking at me like the history's all bad, when it’s not... it’s chequered. That’s not the same thing." He sighed again at the protraction of their exchange. "Fucking say something or I'll book you an open casket."
"I live alone."
“I know that.”
“Then why persist?”
“Because you’re so unhappy. And I just want to sit in a room with someone I don’t have to explain myself to.” He did not read too much into his brother's silence. “You're totally harshing my buzz right now, but did you notice how many words you just said? You're opening up like a beautiful flower. How fucking theraputic am I?"
“No reggae, no inflatable plastic. If I find evidence of conjugation I will hire a bitumen truck."
"Sachiin..." Edward warned, his stare falling toward him. "Don't ever make her think she feels the ground tilting toward you.”
William scowled after him as he walked back toward the house.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce