Sonnet LXXI: December Mornings at Five
"I told you this was going to be a tragedy."
"I wasn't ready for this kind."
"Forever is too long a time for waiting. I wasn't ready for that, too. I thought I was, but -"
"Obviously you weren't."
I took his hand from across the table. "I'm surprised you haven't noticed." His eyes flashed at the golden band around my right ring finger. "I'm sorry. It's a pity that it should end this way, but it really must end. It never ended to me, you know, even after I've met Eddie. And oh, it's Thomas now by the way, not Julian anymore." I looked at him tentatively. He was looking out the window. He did not move his hand away from mine. "He's out of town. And the children are in bed. I've got two. Maggie, and well, Johnny, named after you."
He looked at me.
"Do you love me?"
"Ardently so." Tears were streaming down my eyes.
"Will you leave him?"
He nodded. "I see."
"Oh, darling. I'm so sorry." I sobbed.
"So," he cleared his throat uncomfortably. He could not bear the sight of tears. "Oh please, love, stop crying."
I tried to laugh. I failed.
"So, uhm, do you – do you love Eddie?"
"As much as you love me?"
"Not as much, but I love him still. And I'm his wife."
"But you can't love two men at the same time."
"Apparently I can, but I can't be both your wife. And I chose him, and I still choose him."
"You have this appalling tendency to be painfully honest."
"Would you rather have it another way?"
"Of course not." He looked out the window again. "I suppose I must leave now."
"Yes, I believe so." I let go of his hand.
He took one last sip of the tea. "I've always loved tea. They remind me of early December mornings. Bittersweet."
"I'm not sure what that means, Johnny."
"Well, that's a pity."
"It sure is."
He smiled. I walked him out of the door and handed him his coat.
"You know I love you, Mrs. Thomas."
He kissed me on the cheek and I closed the wooden door behind my back. I fixed the cups and saucers on the table. His tea seemed to be untouched. But of course I remember. Early December mornings and teas just like this. Bittersweet just like this.
After a few days of nervous anticipation, there he finally was with the expected bicycle, looking like it was an absolute coincidence that he happened to pass by my bedroom window. I suppose it will suffice to say that our house is at the empty edge of the town, and beyond it is nothing but trees and trees and, perhaps, a stream miles off. I don't think he saw me see him the first time he passed by. He continued cycling below that same window for four more times before I finally pulled the curtains aside and propped open the glass. Then for the fifth time, he appeared again. He looked up and seeing me there, he grinned.
"Oh there you are, Julian."
"I was beginning to wonder if you've actually thought I've been passing around your house four times just by chance."
"I think I know what you were – are – up to."
"So you are deliberately making me go around in circles."
"Then perhaps we can talk?"
"But aren't we right now?"
He saddled off his new bicycle, propped it up and walked directly below me. He placed his hands inside his coat pocket. "It's cold out here, but if you prefer it this way I suppose it will do. Hm, in fact I think I like this. It reminds me of Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene. Romantic, don't you think?"
"I'd say it's an overrated reference. Romeo and Juliet? Haven't you got anything better?" I scoffed. "But I guess it's okay. Ending's a tragedy anyway. Now you know where this is all going."
"But should it really?" His eyes, deep and dark, looked at me sharply, directly. Too directly. Too confident. Too warm. Too knowing.
It was December and I felt suddenly cold. It had been raining last night. But it was more than that. He was seeing right through me. He knows that I still want him, and yet, something's holding me back. Oh, if only he really knew.
I opened my mouth but my voice got caught in my throat. He smiled, obviously amused and pleased by my lack of words. I rolled my eyes and sighed exhaustedly. "Oh come on, Middleton. It's five o'clock in the morning. What do you want?"
"You know what I want."
I sighed again.
"You sigh too much."
"It's your fault."
"It's you. I want you. And you know that, but you're making things difficult. And more likely on purpose."
I bit my lower lip then blurted out, "I hope you'd just go away and leave. Forever."
"I know you don't mean that."
Somewhere back in my head, he was right, but at that moment at least, I did mean it. "Oh, but I do, I do. I do mean it." Irrational tears began to form in my eyes.
"Oh, love." He was dear, very dear.
I sniffed and smiled. "Do you want tea?"
"Thought you'd never ask."
It was raining terribly hard. I looked out the window. There was a quick flash of light. After a few seconds, a great boom followed. The sky was dark, almost pitch black, and the clouds were almost unidentifiable. The branches of the trees were strained from bending; any moment they could fall off and topple a chimney. The wind howled. It scared me. Eddie was on the bed beside me, embracing me and my big seven-month belly. Then I heard the sound of bicycle wheels on the wet pavement. I sobbed. I could not bear to see him.
"Ssh. It's just the storm," Eddie said as the sound went away.
Then I heard it once more. Despite the far-off sound of the thunder, I heard the approaching bicycle wheels, swerving just outside our bedroom window. I sobbed harder. I know it was him, keeping his promise, not knowing I had broken mine. It was already five o'clock in the morning on the 3rd of December.
Eddie kissed me on the forehead and smiled, "Happy birthday, love."
I sobbed even harder: for the third time, I heard him there, and for every time he disappeared and came back again, I sobbed harder and harder. I thought he would never stop. I thought he would wait until I came out and walked with him, but after the sixth time, there was not a seventh.
Edmund Thomas was nothing short of a gentleman. He was new in the neighbourhood. He was tall and lean, very fair with deep brown eyes. His manners were sincerely chivalrous, so it did not come as a surprise that when he first dropped by to call on us, Mum, and even stoic Dad, adored him. And much to my pleasure, it was not a singular visit. I would be vain if I say that I did not find him charming, because he was extremely so. Almost twice a sennight, he would call on us and bring me trinkets and sweets. I was flattered but I did not put much stock into it. I supposed he visited every girl's house and gave them whatever he gave me. He certainly had the fortune to do that, and besides, I had my Johnny. But Mum was as particularly impatient as Edmund was insistent that I was the only object of his so-called "affections". I was four months away from my twentieth birthday, and in social customs, that was closely bordering to spinsterhood.
Because of Eddie's – that's what I fondly call him – persistent attention, I spent lesser time thinking of my Johnny and more time trying to be pretty. Avoiding guilt, I told myself I was being pretty for Johnny's next visit which was not very far. It was already September. I did not know where they sent him that time; I did not usually know. All I knew was that halfway during his stay in some ship, he got assigned elsewhere. Mum was only too happy to comply with my sudden need of new dresses and ribbons and shoes.
During the 3rd of December, I wore my newest dress. It was just about sunrise when I entered the living room. Mum was already in the kitchen baking her cakes. I could barely stay put on the sofa, so I stood up and looked through the window. I had so many things to tell him, mostly about my new friend Eddie. The sky was grey and the clouds even greyer, not a tinge of blue or pink.
"Helen? Is that you?" Dad said from on top the stairs.
I must have made a racket on my way down. I could hear his footsteps coming in the room, and then he was there, standing in his pyjamas, looking like he needed more sleep.
"What are you doing dressed like that at five in the morning?" He asked.
I suddenly looked at the wall clock. It couldn't be five already. He was never late. It said four-fifty-five. Oh, Dad.
"You're splendidly dressed for walking. Didn't you plan to wear that dress tonight with that boy Edmund?"
"Did I?" I asked, suddenly striking a realization.
"You didn't? I suppose you didn't. I can never tell dresses apart."
I stood there quiet.
"Oh, Helen? Happy birthday."
"Are you walking alone?"
"No. With Johnny."
It took my dad five seconds to reply, "Oh." Another five seconds to say, "Have fun." Then he went into the kitchen, probably to talk to Mum.
I still stood there silently. I was not fixing up for Johnny as I told myself I was. It was all for Eddie. All the dresses and the ribbons and the shoes, when all I needed was one inoffensive dress to impress Johnny. I could not possibly talk to Johnny about Eddie. He'd know right away.
I continued staring out the window and then he was there. Despite the knowledge that I had to keep something from him, I smiled. I felt happy. He raised a hand and smiled back, clutching his bicycle. I yelled a good-bye to Mum and Dad and rushed out the door.
"Oh there you are, Julian," he said in an undertone. His bicycle was already mounted the side of the road.
He took a step closer to me and closed the gap between us. He moved his face to mine, leaving a few inches apart. I thought he was about to kiss me and that thought made my pulse beat faster, but he simply took my hand and suddenly moved away. His light green eyes looked at me from head to toe.
Turning to the road ahead, he said with a smile, "You look differently today."
"You too. You look pale."
He chuckled. "I believe I'm supposed to."
I thought about how many men he killed and how many times he could have gotten killed. It must make anyone as pale as the dead.
We walked around the neighbourhood.
"I missed you," I said.
"Don't you usually?" He asked teasingly
"This time, especially."
"No one to catch your attention here?"
"None to match you."
He took my hand. It was cold.
"I heard they re-assigned you to somewhere."
"Yes, somewhere better."
"How is it there?"
"You still aren't telling me?"
"No. I'm afraid you might worry."
"Oh, I still worry, you know."
"But don't fret. You don't have to worry this time."
I saw his name on the list. Jonathan Middleton, but I know it's not him. I just know. Mum said it should be him. Dad said, too. Mum called his mum and said we were sorry about him. But I know it was not him. I just know. Because it can't be.
It just can't be.
On my way downstairs at exactly five in the morning, I passed by Mum in the kitchen. She did not even bother asking why I was up so early. I sat in the couch in composed silence from repressed excitement, but the moment I sat down, I could already hear the sound of his bicycle approaching, and when I looked outside the window, he was already there, propping up his bicycle and carrying a bunch of hand-picked flowers. I rushed outside to meet him. I almost squealed. He looked a tad more tanned and sturdy.
"Oh there you are, Julian."
"You're a woman today."
"I'm happy you're here."
He took my hand and kissed it. "O! She doth teach the torches to burn bright. It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear; beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows, as yonder lady o'er her fellows shows. The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand, and, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand."
"You found it funny?"
"How did you even memorize Romeo and Juliet?"
"I didn't memorize everything. Just that. It's one of the few things I can do out there."
"It's Romeo and Juliet. It's a tragedy."
"It does not have to be."
"If I kissed you, would you shut up?"
I was sitting on the edge of our window sill watching the trees shed off their last leaves. I paid close attention to what I was wearing that day. It was the 3rd of December, four-fifty in the morning. I was wearing a dark blue dress with yellow flowers. My hair was pulled back in a neat braid. It was modest and simple; that was how he liked to see me dressed.
"Helen, dear, what are you doing dressed up this early?" Mum said from behind. Mum was already up, baking fruit cakes for our neighbours. That's what my mother does during the holidays – baking fruit cakes and selling them to her friends.
I looked over my shoulder. "Johnny's taking me out for a stroll."
"This early? It's too cold out and the road's wet. It's just been raining last night."
"It's okay, Mum."
"You have to get him out of your head, Helen. You're too young to be a fool like that."
"Oh, but I'm in love."
"And I suppose old enough to know."
I smiled to myself and faced the window again. Then I grinned. My twenty-year old Johnny was looking quite dashing outside. He was grinning at me, too.
"Mum, I'll be off now."
"You take care of yourself, young lady."
"Sure will, Mum."
"And happy birthday."
I tried to restrain myself from bounding down the porch steps, but it was no use. He knew I was excited to see him. He knew very well. It was his first visit.
"Oh there you are, Julian."
"How have you been?"
"Having a fanciful time admiring the young men that were left here," I teased. And you, how do you do?"
"I'd say I was having an equally fanciful time admiring the young ladies that were sent there, but I'd be lying because there are none," he replied, putting up his bicycle by the side of the road.
"So how have you been really doing?"
"Have you seen a ripple?"
"Of course I have." I rolled my eyes.
"Well, have you seen a ripple sideways?"
"No. What does it look like?"
"It reminded me of you," he said, winking.
I laughed, smacking him on the shoulder.
I tried to look my very best that morning but I know I looked as awful as I felt. I sat on the top step on the front porch of our house, hugging my knees and trying not to cry. He does not like seeing tears.
"Helen! Come back up. It's just almost five." Mum shouted from the kitchen.
"I can't, Mum. I'm waiting for Johnny."
"Jonathan Middleton is a grown man and he's leaving today. Let him alone."
At that moment, I could already see Johnny three houses away from mine as he turned to my street. He was riding his bicycle. I stood up and walked to the middle of the road in front of our house. It was too early in the morning to have cars cruising in the neighbourhood. He grinned as he saw me. I did not know what I looked like, but I was trying my best to push back the tears. He went down his bicycle half-way to me and walked the rest of the way. He looked painfully attractive in his dark blue uniform, with squared shoulders and a head held high.
"Oh there you are, Julian."
The screen door of our house opened and Dad stepped out.
"Jonathan Middleton, what are you doing in the middle of the road with my daughter at five o'clock in the morning?"
"Good morning, Mr. Julian," he said politely, "I'm just saying good-bye, sir."
"Off to the army, eh?"
"I see." He nodded. "Helen, come in right away."
"Just a moment, Dad."
He gave a gruff clear of the throat as an answer and went back it. I took that as a yes. I turned back to Johnny.
He smiled. "I'm glad you're not crying."
"You do not know how hard it is not to."
He moved closer and wrapped his arms around my waist very tight. I hugged him back by the neck and buried my face on his shoulder, still holding back the tears.
"I don't want you to go." I whispered.
"I don't want to go, too. But I have always wanted to do this. You'll let me, won't you?"
I did not answer that. I did not want him to do what he wanted but I might very well cut my tongue than tell him that.
"But why do you have to go today? It's my birthday." I just turned fourteen.
"I'll come visit you here, on this day on this time."
"You will? Every year? For how long?"
"Every two years. The whole morning, probably."
"They keep you for two years then I only get to see half a day." I mumbled almost incoherently.
"That's how it works, Helen."
"I have to deal with it then."
"I'm afraid so."
"I'm afraid, too."
He pulled away but kept my hand in his. "I'll be here every two years on the 3rd of December at exactly five o'clock in front of your doorstep with my bicycle, waiting to take you for a walk."
"Only if you promise to wait for me."
"Forever, if I have to."
He grinned. "That's a deal then."
"Look at the sky," he said, looking up.
I followed. The sky was both orange and blue although there was no effable line between them. The sun was not yet showing but I could already feel its presence. The clouds were very thin and feathery, almost translucent. It was a fine day, although the weather forecast in the radio said it was going to rain today.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"It will remind me of you." Then he winked at me.
I laughed, it sounded ridiculously funny, and the tears fell streaming down my face. I quickly wiped them away.
He let go of my hand and kissed my cheek. "I suppose I have to go now."
He walked away from me to his bicycle, leaving me standing there, but before he could ride away, I called his name.
He turned back.
"It will remind me of you, too." And I winked.
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