Quietly, so quietly, I turn my key in the lock. The light coming from within is low, a burnt orange that reminds me of churches nearing Christmas. It bodes well; she may still be asleep. In I go, treading softly the crumpled path of precious clothes. They lie like discarded skins, and her perfume lingers. Lovingly, I pick them up. A diamond falls from something, and my heart jumps inside myself. I dive to stop it hitting the wooden floor, and land with a wobble, knees bent. The jewel is cupped inside my hand. It is the shape of a tear. I exhale mouthfuls of sweet relief, and smile. She is definitely asleep.
I remember the first time I came here, cream skinned and desperate to please. I wanted to absorb everything, from the diamonds to the Damien Hirsts. I barely comprehend them now; so steeped am I in luxury, it slips right by me. But this thing in my hand is suddenly real, cold and hard against my skin. I wonder what I’d need to have gone through to take it. I notice the brooch has drawn a pinprick of blood. It sits, a minute bubble upon my cushioned palm, and as I mount the stairs I stare at it outstretched before me like an offering.
The journey past her door is tense. I feel like a schoolgirl, corridor creeping. I so hate it when she greets me in her nightdress, the dark outline of her nipples making me redden, reminding me of my prudishness. I ease myself along the corridor, faintly pressing myself against the wall like a shadow, a thief. I have almost reached the office door when –
I breathe, don’t reply. Here it is, my burst of liberation. A diminutive act of revolt, but it allows my pulse to gather speed.
And still I say nothing. My heart is beating; I bite a long chewed lip.
“Coming” I call, injecting concentrated cheer into my tone:
“Just, just coming.”
I put the diamond in my pocket, suck the blood away. I place my hand on the door silently, cupping the cool brass handle with my other, twisting its head. I surprise myself by imagining it is a human head. It’s uncanny, allowing your mind to slip away from you like this. Click.
My voice is full of sunshine when it speaks.
“Good morning” it says, almost singing the latter word. I sound like something from an American advert. I want to laugh; so far away from myself do I feel. She eyes me with irritation.
“I slept terribly. It’s my back.”
I look at her, cock my head to one side.
“Oh dear. What can we do about it?”
A deep crease in my forehead appears. It will suffice for sympathy, this line. She buries her head under the pillow so that her voice is muffled. I catch something about tea, and retreat back downstairs to the kitchen. When I return, she is lying perfectly still in a silk Chinese robe. Her eyes are closed, her hands folded. The skin has a waxy appearance, but it is not unpleasant. She looks like a beautiful corpse, embalmed.
“I’ll just put your tea here, by your bed.”
She doesn’t move, not one inch. I consider leaning out to poke her.
“Next to your book. Make sure you don’t knock it over.”
I open my mouth to remind her to call her brother, but think better of it. Just as I am leaving the room, she speaks:
“Could you fetch my brooch?”
I cough with surprise, wondering at her intuition. Why do I always feel guilty for things I haven’t done?
Her eyes still seem closed, but under the curtain of lashes, I think some part of them sees me.
“The tear shaped one.”
I do not ask her where it is, for I cannot feign this dialogue. She knows that I know. When I place it on her side table it makes a loud thud on the wood. Her fingers move and she flexes them, heavy as they are with stones. I am suddenly aware of my un-manicured nails, the subtle traces of dirt beneath them. I pull my sleeves down so that they are covered, twisting the fabric in knots between my fists. She speaks again:
“I had the strangest dream.”
Dreams are usually far more interesting to the person to whom they occur. Yet I wonder what it was, this one she deems worthy to relay.
“Diamonds were worthless.” She smiles, and a crease forms between her eyes as she tries to decipher the intangible thread of her subconscious.
“It had been replaced by…bark, of all things.”
She lets out a small laugh, but it is uncomfortable, somehow. There is tightness around her mouth which real laughter should have loosened. I want to make an observation, say something interesting, but I can’t think what. She continues:
“And all the trees were bare. The jewelry you see… it just kept…breaking.”
In one sudden movement, she reaches out for the brooch, instinctively knowing, sensing where it is just from that thud. She doesn’t even turn her head to look at it. Perhaps she really has been watching me all this time. She clutches it to herself. I watch her earnestly, waiting for her to speak again. She has finished though, and I leave the room, tiptoeing out like a careful child.
Minutes pass, and I hear a door closing. It’s the housekeeper. I make out the growl of various kitchen appliances awoken from their slumber, and soon the familiar lethargic thumping on the stairs. As Martha gets closer, this is punctuated by light rasping breaths. She gives up half way, as I know she will.
“You wanna coffee, darlink?”
She mumbles something in Spanish, and I call words of thanks behind her. Within minutes there are noises from downstairs. I try to ignore them, but just as the smell of coffee and toast has begun to drift it’s way along the corridor, there is the sudden trill of breaking glass. A shriek comes from downstairs, but there is no real panic to be heard in it.
“Oh! Oh Jesus! Help!”
I close my eyes, sit back in my chair. I wonder for how long I can feasibly delay. As if she knows my game, the chaos amplifies. I surrender, get up.
Downstairs, the bedroom bears no resemblance to the quiet tomb I entered not long before. The acute, tremulous voice of Maria Callas resounds about the room. It pierces every orifice, bounces off the chandelier above my head. Everywhere there are clothes, products, books. A newspaper is open, its pages strewn about, encompassing the silken bed. The window is thrown wide open, and a sudden gust of wind lifts them. I follow the chaos like a trail and find her lying in the bath. Martha is on the floor cleaning up what looks like porridge. She gives me a knowing look. There is the smallest sound of a splash; a foot is raised, piecing the steaming film of water.
“Sometimes, I think people pretend not to hear me.”
She extends a liquid arm, knocking over a glass of what looks like beetroot juice. I believe she knew quite well that it was there. Glass shatters upon white tiles, and I see Martha’s hands raised to her mouth in distress, but the opera somehow silences all noise of this. I breathe. I am serene, removed. This, above all other things, infuriates her. She turns her head to me, narrows her eyes.
“Where were you?”
The maroon liquid stretches across the floor like lava. I pull up my sleeves, summoning my sincerest smile.
“Nowhere. Here now.”