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Ghosts

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I am a happily married woman. I have done what I was told. I live in the light.

My luck has turned, our trials are overcome. Raoul wanted us married as soon as the fiasco was over, so we were. Since then, it’s as if the fiasco never happened at all. It isn’t spoken of. He isn’t spoken of. The nightmares that still wake me and bring Raoul to my room in worry means that the phantom is off topic.

That is how it’s been ever since we wed two months ago – that is, until this evening, when we sit down to dine. The Parisian papers must have been dry for a story this afternoon, my husband tells me, for men with those new cameras had accosted him as he exited his carriage in town.

“Such impertinent questions,” Raoul observes across the lavishly set dining table. “Determined to upset the calm. Calm doesn’t sell papers,” he adds, his brow pinched as he chews.

“What questions?” I ask, forking my food. I haven’t much of an appetite these days.

He hesitates. “Oh... nothing worth mentioning.”

But he has mentioned it. I smile, and draw one from him in return. “Come, Raoul. You vowed to share all things with me.”

He laughs and loosens up a little at my apparent good mood. “Well, let's see. The same old questions; same old stories. They started out innocently: asked when the new opera house will be finished, where we’d taken our honeymoon, etc.. They then tried to catch me out, asking what they really wanted to know, about that - about your... final performance.” He blinks and grinds to a halt, mouth still half-full of mackerel.

The smile sticks to my face. My cheeks burn. Don Juan.

Raoul eyes me carefully. “They asked whether we’d known – if you’d known... that the actor who played the lead that night...”

I look at the table.

“I put their questions to rest,” he hurries on. ““Of course we didn’t know; who could have? Of course we never thought he would act on his feelings in such an ungentlemanly manner.””

My heart thumps faster than a timpani drum. “You lied?”

“Well, to protect you.”

I look up at him. “Protect me?”

Raoul gazes at me with that same vulnerable look he wore when I was forced to choose between them. “Your performance,” he continues softly. “Your… duet.”

My hand begins to shake. He sees it and, stricken, abandons his dinner to reach across the table and cover my hand with his own. “Forgive me. I ought not to have reminded you,” he implores. “I don’t mean to bring it all back, but... who can blame them for thinking…? A performer as magnificent as you,” he smiles, rubbing my knuckles with his thumb. The haunted look in his eyes softens into concern.

I keep my breathing slow. “Thank you,” I murmur, “for protecting me.” Extracting my hand, I push back my chair with a scrape and stand. “Please excuse me, darling,” I say without a tremor. “But I feel rather tired. I would like to retire.”

I turn from the table. Raoul's face creases into guilt as he stands to take my leave. “Of course. Goodnight, Christine.”

 

*

 

I go to my room and shut the door, lean back against it, and close my eyes. Protect my reputation? Rather, he’s protected his own. It wasn’t me who wanted to set the trap that night, nor set myself up as bait! But when I recall the pain on Raoul's face at the table, I feel ashamed for my bitter thoughts.

I take a deep breath and open my eyes. My room is perfectly clean again. No matter how I leave it, it looks just like this whenever I return - like a museum rather than a room. An enormous bed for just one person; vases of fresh flowers scenting ever corner; the gentle tick tock of a mahogany wood and gold-plated clock.

And then there’s the mirror. The only mirror I ever see, now. My temporary practice rooms, little as I visit them, are always devoid of glasses, my husband has seen to that. My new opera house will be as well, he promises. I have nothing to fear now, he promises.

But I was afraid at the dining table - just not for the reasons he suspects.

I walk towards my full length mirror, its frame glittering in the soft light. Passing the mantle piece, I blow out half of the candles, throwing the room into shadow. Taking a deep breath, I watch as my reflection enter the frame.

This dress is Raoul’s favourite. I take it off.

In my chemise, I recall our lessons on posture, and stand straighter. My eyes roam over my hips, waist and throat: all the places where the ghosts still live. Gloved fingers, open palms. Pressing hands. Breath.

I lower my chemise from my shoulders, baring where he touched me that night, for all of Paris to see. Him, crossing the bridge towards me. Straight backed. Proud. The glint of perspiration on his chest peaking through his low-cut shirt. His gaze unwavering. On me.

Hungry. 

I press my fingers against my throat and lean back into the memory of his hold.

Yes, I am a happily married woman.

My skin hums with feelings I don’t feel from the living.

Yes, I live in the light.

The man I see holding me in the mirror is not my husband. Our faces are both half in shadow.

Yes, I was frightened tonight. Frightened of discovery.