Chapter 1: Away it Goes
Away it Goes
The light from the window was warm and sweet, soft with the glow of late afternoon. Dust motes floated into and out of sight—suspended in existence before flickering out, cast unseen into the shadows. She too, must be cast into shadow, for her existence in Birmingham had reached its natural conclusion. This she understood, but as she sat before her closed valise, observing the dust come into being and fade out of it, feeling that warm sunlight seep into her bones, she knew she would not leave.
She’d come to England seeking some sort of retribution, but instead she’d stumbled upon a feeling that filled her to the brim. It began that night, when they were alone at The Garrison, she perched on high upon a wooden chair, he staring up at her, those frostlike eyes licking fire across her skin.
“Happy or sad?”
“Ok. But I warn you, I'll break your heart.”
Outside, the sound of the rain pattered against the damp ground, its roaring rush remained distant and muted. Inside, the warm light of The Garrison wrapped around them and her voice rose over the rainy silence.
A sad misfortune came over me
Which caused me to stray from the land
Far away from me friends and relations
Betrayed by the black velvet band
She glimpsed his soul that night and her own unfurled within her. Her rage for the IRA, already a pallid, lukewarm feeling, made room for this new thing that took root and flowered.
Her eyes they shown like diamonds
I thought her the queen of the land
And her hair, it hung over her shoulder
Tied up with a black velvet band
When the last notes of the song faded away, they were left empty and uncertain. As if they had poured out too much of themselves and now had no way of taking it back.
These thoughts kept her company while she waited in her Birmingham flat. When the knock came, the sun through the window was thin and weak, it’s blue-grey tendrils cast cold shadows over her skin. She stood slowly, shaking the wrinkles from her skirt and turned to face the door. Her handbag she took from the coatrack, draping it across her shoulder, reaching into it to feel the gunstock of her “comforter,” a Webley Bulldog revolver. Her heartbeat sounded as loud and forceful in her ears as the knocking at the door.
“Grace, open the door. Open the door.”
Her hand uncoiled from the revolver, but she left her handbag hanging from her shoulder as she undid the lock. Blood stained his shirtfront; beneath his open collar she could see bandages, already soaked through. He had one shoulder resting against the doorframe, with his head turned down towards the floor. As soon as she stepped back, he brushed by her. Grace closed the door behind him, leaning into it for a moment—the grain of the wood rough beneath her fingertips. He was watching her, she could feel his gaze upon her back. She inhaled slowly, and turned.
He had already managed to light a cigarette, and was pulling the first drag into his lungs while he stared at her.
“Billy Kimber nearly killed me today.”
“Why are you here, Tommy?”
“Nearly killed my family.”
“Then you can only have one reason for being here.”
Thomas took another deep drag of his cigarette, shaking his head just the slightest bit, his eyes boring into her unblinkingly. He had the uncanny ability of looking straight into you, as if his eyes could peel your skin away, layer by layer, and leave your soul bare upon the ground.
“No.” He shook his head again and pointed at her with the hand holding his cigarette. “No. I can have two reasons for being here Grace. But one of them would leave you dead.”
She said nothing to that.
Thomas turned away from her, to look out the window. He took slow, measured breaths while he smoked. His gaze cast itself from the approaching night to the luggage gathered tidily over the threadbare rug.
“No goodbye, then?”
Grace went to the shelves of her kitchenette, pulling down two crystal glasses. “I had time to leave, Tommy,” she said quietly, uncorking a bottle of rum and pouring a thimble each. The smell of alcohol wafted up to her. With one hand gently outstretched, she turned her head over her shoulder. He took a step nearer, then another. The glass hung suspended between them. When he took it from her, his fingers brushed over her skin in the lightest of touches—a soft whisper of a feeling—like those caresses he gave her the night before, in this very flat, hands skimming over her ribs. They stood like that, unable to escape each other’s gravity.
Clearing her throat, Grace untucked the bench from beneath the vanity, set it next to the window, and sat on it, smoothing her skirts as she motioned to the armchair opposite her. Thomas took a long sip of his rum, looking at her over the rim of the glass, then he swept out his coattail and sat, elbows resting on his knees, drink hanging from one hand.
“You know, Campbell told me that before this day was through, my heart would break. How could he know that, I wonder?”
She wrapped both hands around her drink, looking down into the amber color of the rum as it shook and trembled in her lap. “What exactly could I say, Tommy?”
“I don’t know, Grace.”
“I could tell you who I really am.”
“I think I know who you really are. You know who I am.”
“I do, sometimes. But when I think about us, Tommy, I think of the secrets. I think, ‘How can we see each other; how can we feel this between us and yet know so little of one another?’ I don’t just mean the terrible things—the war, my occupation, your business—I mean other things, too. I don’t know how you take your tea, you know, or whether you still prefer a straight razor when you shave. I couldn’t tell anyone whether or not you drink coffee in the mornings.”
He leaned back a little in his seat and said, “So it was an occupation? What got between us?”
“Just a uniform.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter now. I know that even if you won’t kill me tonight, you won’t stay with me either. You can’t. It’s not in your nature.”
“Then you do know me.” Tommy knocked back the last of his drink and rose. He paced to the window, then to the kitchen, where he took up the bottle of rum and set it between them. He refilled his glass and drank it down in one. “Tell me, Grace. I want you to tell me.”
It hurt her to imagine the end of this conversation, to imagine him putting on his hat and walking out the door. She felt the cold night press down on her. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she rested her lips there a moment, holding onto her words and her hopelessness. “Do you remember, where I’m from?”
“Galway. If it can be believed.”
“You never said much about yourself, one way or the other.”
She hummed in agreement, “Yes, that’s the key in this line of work.” She couldn’t look at him as she spoke, so she looked out the window, through the lace curtains into the nearly black, miserable city of Birmingham, its hard, terraced houses packed beside each other with not a single green, living thing between them. “I was born there. Have you been?”
“It’s beautiful; a coastal town. The River Corrib comes winding down from the north, through the docks and the Claddagh. It splits into tributaries—lined with enormous trees—that spill into the sea. There’s a cathedral, the Galway Cathedral, which sits just a ways up from the shore—growing from the riverbank. I used to go there, when there was no mass, to hear the silence curl inside the soaring ceilings.”
Tommy leaned back into his seat, his body unfurled into the cushions and his head he rested upon the seatback. He stared up into the dark ceiling, then closed his eyes, letting her voice wrap itself around him. Her words spilled into his ears like honey, sweet and slow.
“We lived in a house on the outskirts of town…”
The house belonged to the Royal Irish Constabulary. It was made of grey stone, in the Georgian style, with quoins and a gabled slate roof. Matching two-story bay windows pushed forward on either side of the recessed door. In the winter, smoke would rise in a steady plume of white ribbons from the chimney stacks, which bookended the tidy, little building. In summertime, the house grew a green coat of ivy. It was summer when Grace and her brother, William, loved their house best.
From an early age, the siblings roamed over the six acres of their father’s borrowed land. They climbed sturdy ash trees or quivering alders, Grace in her pinafore with the branches catching her petticoats and William in his breeches, his milky legs red with scratches. When their father allowed it, they swam in the River Corrib, stripped nearly naked, laughing madly as they threw themselves from the overhanging limbs of sturdy oaks. On occasion—usually after relatives filled the sitting room with war stories from China—they drew lines in the dirt, claiming territories and casting pebbles at each other, to pretend they were soldiers in the Boxer Rebellion, like their uncles or grownup cousins.
“You can’t be a soldier, Grace! You’re just a girl!” her brother William would yell, never really meaning it.
“Colonel Ear Lingus!” she’d holler, “Prepare for enemy fire!” whereupon she’d release the rubber band of her slingshot with a crack.
Grace was, as her brother mocked her, just a girl. But she was William’s only sibling, and therefore the only live-in playmate at Kinnaird House. She was also the eldest. This unique happenstance of geography and primogeniture granted her liberties many other young ladies lacked in 1899. Her father believed she should spend less time running through fields and more time in the sitting room, learning to manage the domestic affairs of their house. As Assistant Inspector General to the RIC, her father spent most of his time in the heart of Galway, leaving his children alone. Excepting the housekeeper, theirs was a household of three, with the lady’s bedroom sitting empty since William’s birth. Mr. Burgess allowed her these freedoms for the sake of companionship. But all things come to an end, and so, too, did her boyish adventures. As she grew, her pinafores were set aside and she was given long dresses whose close hems made it nearly impossible to take long leaps over muddy puddles. William, too, felt the constraint of suits with starched collars that closed about his neck like a noose.
Even when they managed to escape and climb up high into trees as if they were still children, they never again played at war. They had no desire to. Ireland’s troubles poured over like too much water in a boiling kettle. It seemed the world had gone mad. On Easter week of 1916, her brother, fresh from the front, agreed to meet a relative set to arrive by rail from Clifden. He waited for the train outside Galway city. It was a cloudless night with stars like dewdrops. When the locomotive thundered slowly into the station, hissing and spitting, handmade grenades were tossed into the buffers, clinking melodiously as they danced against the iron. Two miserably unfortunate souls were blown to pieces by the resulting blast: her brother and a porter. Three years later her father was escorting a shipment of gelignite when he was ambushed. The men who shot him would soon adopt the name of the Irish Republican Army.
His body was still fresh in its cold grave when she joined the force.
“Birmingham was my first assignment,” Grace told Tommy.
His elbows had been resting over the arms of the chair, his hands clasped over his torso, feet crossed out in front of him, and his were eyes closed. He opened them, blinking up at the ceiling before sitting up. He favored his right arm.
“I was naïve, I thought I could make a difference. But you see, it was never about you or me or the Peaky Blinders, or even the IRA. We’re pawns in the game. As to Campbell, it became personal. He wanted to hurt you.”
That lingering softness about his face abruptly fell away and he fixed her with an unwavering stare. “He had everything he needed to do so,” Thomas said, pulling up a freshly lit cigarette. The smoke from that first breath unfurled from his lips like a slow-moving snake.
“If he had been any other man his only interest would have been the guns. I asked him, when I delivered them, to leave you be. Instead, he turned you over to Kimber. We both trusted the wrong people.”
Tommy shook his head, the faintest motion, just once. “No, Grace. I was the only one giving my trust away. More fool me.”
“You’re not a fool, Thomas. You never will be.”
“That song,” he said, staring at his cigarette, “that song you sang me in The Garrison. You warned me. I should have listened.”
They both fell silent. He turned a little to look out the window, his gaze lost in the middle distance. She took the opportunity to drink him in. His eyes she loved best of all, even though they could cut as surely as the razor blade in his cap. In the whisper-soft glow of the oil lamps, she couldn’t see the striations that shot through them. But when they had been in bed that night, she looking down on him, they were as beautiful and changing as cloud wisps in a bright, blue summer sky. He turned those eyes on her, then.
“Where will Agent Grace Burgess go next?”
“Oh? My black velvet band didn’t like her taste of espionage?”
“No, she did not.”
He made a little hum of agreement, deep in his throat, then stared at her. “Why not before, Grace?”
She couldn’t hold his gaze. “I was afraid that the guns would fall into the hands of the IRA. And I was afraid of abandoning everything my father believed in for a man I’d known less than a year.”
“And, before my father’s pension came through, I had no means of supporting myself. As it was, my uncle’s charity was the only thing that kept a roof over my head. My father truly believed I would never need to work. It did me a great disservice.”
“You could have been a barmaid.”
Grace laughed, despite herself, and looked up at him through the curtain of her hair. He wore the thinnest of smiles. “I wish that’s all I was when I met you.”
“If wishes came true, Grace.”
She waited a moment—her fingers curling around each other, her breath held still within her chest—before daring to ask him. “Could I still be your barmaid, Thomas?”
He had been looking down at the floor, when she gave birth to the words. As soon as they fell between them, Tommy looked at her. He stared up at the ceiling for a moment, then rested his forearms on his knees and leaned forward, eating up the space between them. His hands took hers from her lap, holding them loosely. With each thumb, he stroked her skin, whisper-soft, before rising to pull her up and out of her seat. Still holding onto her, he placed her hands over his heart, pressing them there as his palm moved to cradle her jaw. She felt him lean into her, felt his lips whisper over her cheek, her eyelids, her brow. He ran his nose along her neck, breathing her in. In the mornings, Grace used Jasmine water to perfume her skin. In the evenings, she rubbed almond oil along her hands and shoulders. Thomas had watched her perform both these rituals from his place in her bed. First the oil, that night they made love, and then the perfume, the next morning.
Thomas pushed up her hair and curled his hand lightly around the nape of her neck, letting his head rest in the cradle of her collarbone. For a time, he only held her—both of them standing still in the quiet of her flat, penned in by the muted, yellow glow of her bedside lamp. He stroked her neck in slow, featherlike touches.
Why did he have to be so tender?
The past bore down on them with unforgiving force, but worse yet was the future, drawing nearer like black, cumulous clouds, enormous and unavoidable. This still moment was only a breath away from breaking. And when it did, it would pull them each in separate directions. Grace began to cry, tears spilling over the rim of her eyelashes without a single sound.
“Come away with me. Or let me stay. Please, let me stay,” she whispered.
Thomas rested his brow against hers and they both closed their eyes. She felt him shake his head softly. “You said you knew me, Grace.”
She wrapped her arms around him, digging her fingers into his back to bring him closer, to hold him to her. She kept her eyes firmly closed as the words spilled out of her chest and gathered on her tongue. “Here it comes, Tommy.” She tilted her head to the side a little, brushing his cheek with her own, her lips dropping the words straight into his ear. “I love you.”
She trembled with the strength of her grip and he returned it despite the pain in his shoulder, crushing the linen fabric of her blouse in his fist, his face buried against her neck as they embraced. He exhaled once, a dry rasp.
“And there it goes, Grace. Away it goes.”
He pried himself free from her hold, letting go of her. “We can say it as much as we’d like. But it’s gone now.”
Grace turned her back. She scrubbed the tears from her cheeks and walked up to the window, where she wrapped her arms about herself and stood still, waiting. The sound of the doorknob cut through the silence of the room. Her breath hitched in her throat. She heard him pause there.
“Wait.” She hurried to the bedside table. There, upon it sat a letter, sealed into an envelope worn with folds and creases. He was watching her from the threshold. “Take this, please. Read it when you can.”
“What difference will it make, now, Grace? It’s gone.”
She pressed the letter into his hand, closing her fingers around his own. “It’s not. You know it’s not. I’ll be in London one week. Finish your business here and join me. I have an idea.”
Thomas stared at her, unspeaking. He touched her cheek, his eyes flickering over the features of her face, and then he was gone.
No copyright infringement is intended with this work and no profit will be gained from it. Peaky Blinders belongs to its creators, producers, and writers (as does the image used for the story’s cover).
Peaky Blinders is a phenomenal show. It has its inconsistencies and its moments of melodrama, but, overall, it’s riveting and addictive. I greatly respect what the writers, directors, actors, and production staff have accomplished. That said, I feel that after Season 1, Grace’s character was discarded.
When we first meet Grace, she is a capable woman, if a little too soft for the world she's in. Despite this, she's an agent willing to murder, deceive, betray, and seduce, presumably in the name of vengeance. She gets just enough screen time to justify herself to the audience and to allow us to believe in the romance developing between her and Tommy. Yet, in Seasons 2-3 we see her a total of 15 minutes (if at that) and it seems this Grace has undergone a lobotomy. She's turned into an accessory to Tommy's new role as millionaire tycoon and a vehicle to engineer his grief.
This colorless, society wife is a cardboard cutout. She’s not the same character, nor is she the Grace we are led to expect through the line Tommy delivers in s1e5: "Will you help me? With everything…the whole fucking thing. Fucking life...business. I've found you. And you found me. We'll help each other."
This failure in Grace's character extends as well to her relationship with Tommy and the credibility of their romance. Who can believe in their love story anymore when she's hardly present and does nothing to help her partner? It's almost a relief when they kill her off at the start of Season 3, if only to spare her character further butchery. Why the writers turned her into a useless prop is beyond me.
This story is my poor attempt at righting the wrong done to her. I will mostly follow the show’s principle events, except here, Grace will act and speak. Our leading lady will get back her voice.
Which brings us to the title. Why Ophelia? After Hamlet’s Ophelia, who, like Grace, is a female character stripped of all agency and killed purely for the shock.
P.S. I always found it so strange that her last line in season 1 is “I have an idea.” The writers introduce a loaded statement and then take it nowhere (beyond her plot to sail away to New York), but, I did leave it in for the sake of accuracy.
P.P.S. Most sources point to 1919 as the year when the IRA was formed. If Grace is seeking revenge for their involvement in her father’s death, then that means one of two things: Either the show uses the name of the Irish Volunteers (or other predecessors) and the IRA interchangeably, or Grace was an agent for, at most, a few short months before arriving in Birmingham. I like to think it’s the second, as it fits with her inexperience.
Any historical notes below are cobbled together using copy and paste, with editing for brevity and clarity.
-In the show, Grace’s apartment does not have an armchair. Given the size of the apartment and the socioeconomic sphere it represented, the exclusion of an armchair is likely much more accurate than the inclusion of one. But, I wrote myself into a corner and refused to revise (again).
- I’m not sure what the perks of being Assistant Inspector General in the RIC (see below) were, but have chosen to make it a sort of “lighthouse keeper” deal that involves a house to live in. Completely made up.
- Metropolitan Police constables carried a revolver during uniformed night time patrols. These were colloquially called ‘Comforters.’ This remained the case until 1936.
- The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was the police force in Ireland from the early nineteenth century until 1922. A separate civic police force, the unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police, patrolled the capital, and the cities of Derry and Belfast.
The RIC's successful system of policing influenced the armed Canadian North-West Mounted Police (predecessor of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), the armed Victoria Police force in Australia, and the armed Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in Newfoundland.
-I’m uncertain what kind of guns an agent like Grace would be given access to, but Webley Bulldog Revolvers were popular, light, & compact. Introduced in 1872, its shorter barrel made it ideal for concealment in a coat pocket. Additionally, the history of the Webley Bulldog is closely linked to the Royal Irish Constabulary (and was therefore too tempting to pass up). In the 1860’s the RIC commissioned Webley to design a revolver for them. It was stamped with their initials and came to be known as the RIC Model. Webley produced several versions (marks) of the RIC Model including the British Bulldog. Among others, it was used by “disposable men” or plain clothed detectives in the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the RIC.
They stopped production in 1917, so it might be inaccurate to portray it as her gun of choice. But everything else is spot on!
-There really is a Kinnaird Country House, but it’s in Scotland.
-The IRA was created in 1919 as a successor to the Irish Volunteers, a militant nationalist organization founded in 1913.
-During the Easter Rising of 1916 (aka the Easter Rebellion), Galway saw 600-700 Volunteers engage in guerilla warfare. Most of the action took place in a rural area to the east of Galway city. They made unsuccessful attacks on RIC barracks, captured several officers, and bombed a bridge and railway line. There was also a skirmish between rebels and an RIC mobile patrol at Carnmore crossroads. A constable, Patrick Whelan, was shot dead after he had called to the rebels: "Surrender, boys, I know ye all".
-There really was a train that moved between Galway and Clifden. Though I’m not sure what hours it kept (did trains run at night in rural areas?).
- The Soloheadbeg ambush took place on 21 January 1919, when members of the Irish Volunteers (or Irish Republican Army, IRA) ambushed Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers who were escorting a consignment of gelignite explosives at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. Two RIC officers were killed and their weapons and the explosives were seized. The Volunteers acted on their own initiative and had not sought authorization for their action. As it happened on the same day that the revolutionary Irish parliament first met and declared Ireland's independence, it is often seen as the first engagement of the Irish War of Independence.
-I’ve no clue how long pensions took to kick in. I’ve no clue if children could receive them. Therefore, that whole thing might be B.S.
- Quoins are decorative rectangles or squares of stone, brick, wood or concrete, placed at the corners of buildings to add architectural interest.
- Ear Lingus: someone with big ears.
Chapter 2: I'm Asking You to Stay
I’m Asking You to Stay
The sitting room was wallpapered sage green, in a pattern of gilded fleur-de-lis. A glittering glass chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling, emerging from a plaster medallion, its chain wrapped in gold satin. There was one couch with a matching armchair, upholstered in burnt orange velvet. Between them stood a spindly, mahogany side table, which showcased the wood’s exquisite grain in a highly-polished butterfly pattern. Atop it sat a stained-glassed lamp with two bronze figures holding aloft the milky white lampshade. On the marble mantel were matching toile porcelain vases overflowing with white roses. Above them, a painting of a schooner tossed by a stormy sea at sunset with the waves a translucent blue-green, like glass lit from within.
“It’s beautiful,” Grace said, her T-Strap heels sinking into the short pile of the silk rug.
Thomas stood opposite her, by the fireplace, his hands tucked into the pockets of his three-piece suit, a careful silhouette cast in flickering light. She had only taken in a glimpse of him from the corner of her eye, and he too, had hardly looked at her.
“Ada finds it comfortable.”
“Yes, you mentioned she lived here. How is she?”
“She’s well. Karl is three now,” he said, as they sat, him in the armchair, she on the couch. And then, “Are we really here to talk about, Ada, Grace?”
“What is it we’re here to talk about, then?”
At last, he looked at her, truly looked at her—sweeping his gaze from her black, patent heels to the golden crown of her head.
She had planned her outfit carefully. The day before, she’d chosen her dress at Harrod’s—a teal satin closely draped, decorated at the collar with iridescent lace that fell from her shoulders like the feathers of a peacock.
The attendant, a young red-head, had wrapped her purchases in tissue, telling her “Your husband will be thrilled with this dress, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Thank you,” she’d replied, barely above a whisper, placing the crisp bills upon the counter.
The following evening, at half past five, Grace had begun to style her hair. She’d parted it off-center, spending over an hour at her vanity, layering curls with the hot iron, telling herself there was nothing unusual about wanting to look presentable.
Powder, kohl, rouge, and lipstick followed, applied with a light, careful hand. When Clive had walked in, complimenting her, she’d had to hold her wrist steady as she lined her eyes, for it shook with her nerves. Sweet, gentle Clive.
“When will you be back?” He’d asked.
Grace had looked at him through the mirror, her throat caught in a noose of her own making. Staring down at the compact in her hand, she’d closed it gently, carefully replying “Sometime before midnight, I suspect.”
His hands had landed softly upon her shoulders, sweeping over her collarbone as he leaned down into an embrace. “I’ll wait up.”
No, She had wanted to say, Please don’t.
Grace unfolded her hands from where they rested in her lap, over her beaded clutch, then twisted her engagement ring about her finger. She stared into the fire flickering in the grate, considering how far this betrayal would go. Clearing her throat a little, she said, “Aren’t you going to offer me a drink?”
With the hand holding his cigarette, Thomas pointed at a delicate table, topped by a mirrored tray filled with liquor and glassware. “Help yourself.”
She waited only a moment, but then rose when she realized he was comfortably reclined and had no intention of serving her. Pulling out two crystal glasses, delicately etched with festoons, she unstopped the whiskey decanter, asking as she poured, “Do you still drink whiskey?”
“But other things have changed,” she said, handing him his drink before returning to her seat, observing the fine chinoiserie coffee table before her, with gold-leaf peonies against a vivid, red lacquer. “I saw lorries down by the docks, with your name on them.”
“Some things have changed.”
Silence took over them. She stared into her drink, thinking of the last time they had been together in a room, feeling this terrible brick wall building itself, stone by stone, rising between them.
“I wasn’t sure if I should come,” she said, touching the rings on her left hand again. Her skin itched beneath them.
Tommy’s gaze drifted down at the motion, then away. Taking a long drag of his cigarette, he looked straight at her. “Then why did you come, Grace?”
The words came to her immediately, “For the same reason you called, Tommy. Or am I wrong?”
He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply from his cigarette. As the smoke uncurled from his lips, he said abruptly “I lit a fire in the bedroom upstairs.”
Grace wasn’t sure how to reply to that, but he wasn’t finished. Not at all.
“My plan was: we’d sit down here for a while, talk about old times, drink some whiskey. I was going tell you that I hadn’t spent a day without thinking about you. Then we were going to go upstairs and sleep together.” He shook the ash from his cigarette into a crystal ashtray, leaning back into his seat once more, elbows resting easily over the arms of the chair, neck titled a little to the side, as if discussing a particularly banal matter with his brothers. “Just now as I was opening the door, I changed my mind. So, just have one drink, tell me how happy you are in New York, and you can go.”
Blood rushed to her cheeks, warming her face and neck. “You changed your mind?” she breathed.
“Yeah. I did. Have your drink, tell me about New York, and you can go.”
Grace tightened her fist around the delicate glass, imagining the satisfaction of throwing the liquor left in it straight into his arrogant face.
“You thought some conversation and one whiskey was all it would take to get me into bed?”
A glimmer shone in his eye, “I was counting on three whiskies.”
A short bark of laughter escaped her. She knew, in her heart of hearts, what she had come here for, and so did he.
“I am happy, in New York, if you must know. And I am married. My husband is a good man. He’s sweet and gentle and kind.”
“Yet here you are, Grace.”
“Yet here I am.”
She set her glass carefully onto the lacquered table, getting up to stand by the fire. The sound of the logs crackling in the grate cooled the rush of her blood. She watched little embers float up, then fall to the tile like meteors, snuffed into obscurity.
“Do you want to hurt me, Thomas, because I betrayed you or because I built a life without you?”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Don’t lie, Thomas.”
“There’s only one liar between us, Grace. I wonder what you’ll tell your husband, when tonight’s over.”
A knot formed in her throat; her eyes, dry from the hot fire, watered. Shutting them tightly, she whispered, “That was too far.”
When she recovered, she pressed on, measuring her words, ensuring they fell between them evenly and flatly. “Is it your pride? The reason you want to make me feel insignificant? Do you want to show me you don’t need me?”
She heard the rustle of his wool trousers as he stood, the whisper of his approach, the warmth of his body at her back.
“What is it you expected, Grace? Should I treat you like before, when I thought you were my future?”
Her eyelids fluttered closed, the hot fire before her. She wanted to lean into him, feel the contours of him pressed along her spine, feel his fingers remove her wedding band, hear his heart beating alongside hers, the echo of it deep inside her chest. She wanted, she wanted, she wanted. The word sailed from her lips like a ship coming slowly into harbor, sweet and steady. “Yes.”
His hands rose to touch her shoulders, his fingers stroked her skin through the lacey collar of her dress. He leaned in, closer, breathing in the scent of her hair. “We can’t pretend anymore, Grace.”
She shook her head. “Then don’t say anything.”
Lightly, he turned her in his arms until she could tuck her brow against his shoulder. “I wasn’t sure,” he said.
“If you still loved me. If I still loved you.”
“Do you, Grace?”
“Did you light the fire in the bedroom, Tommy?” she whispered.
He stroked her neck, took her chin and tilted it up. “I told you, Grace, I changed my mind.”
She pulled away, feeling his hand slide down her arm as she drew back, catch on the fingers of her hand, and finally release her. Walking to where she’d left her clutch on the couch, she heard him ask something completely at odds with their conversation. Which was a uniquely Thomas-like thing to do.
“Do you like Charlie Chaplain?”
Grace paused, turning her head to look at him over her shoulder. She observed the little Cheshire smile on his lips. “Yes, I like Charlie Chaplain.”
“Come out with me, tonight. I want to impress you.”
“You’ve always impressed me, Tommy.”
“All the same.”
I met Charlie Chaplain, she thought, stroking Tommy’s chest in the upstairs bedroom. I betrayed my husband. She hid her face into his neck, searching the quiet darkness of that warm, sinewy refuge. His left hand ran the length of her back in soft ellipses, continuously looping over the stepping stones of her spine.
“Is it that time, then? When it becomes real?” He asked quietly.
Beneath her cheek, his chest rose and fell in slow, steady breaths, his heart a lullaby against her ear, soothing the roiling thoughts surging within her. Like a menacing counterpoint, the clock on the bedside table ticked each passing second. It seemed unbearably loud.
“This was wrong.”
“Don’t think about it now.”
“What time is it?”
His torso twisted beneath her, one arm reaching out across the mused sheets towards the clock. She turned to look at the muscles in his shoulder stretch beneath his skin.
“Half past eleven.”
Grace closed her eyes and sat up. “I have to go.”
“Back to the husband who’s sweet and kind?”
She remained seated in bed, her legs hanging over the side, her back to him. “Please, don’t.”
The mattress shifted as he pushed up to lean against the carved headboard.
“You’ve lost your sense of humor, Grace.”
Standing, she hurried to the Windsor armchair by the fire, there she took her slip, which had been neglectfully thrown over the high, leather backrest. Earlier today, she’d slipped into it in the presence of her husband, his eyes had glanced up briefly from his newspaper, then returned to it with a secret smile.
She pulled the peach silk over her head, tugging it down quick and hard enough for the thin straps to dig into her shoulders. Her dress she found on a footrest, neatly draped.
The scent of a cigarette wafted up behind her. Tommy stood by an armoire, shrugging into a fresh shirt, the cigarette hanging from his lips.
“I’ll take you back.”
Her lover, escorting her to the doorstep of the hotel she shared with her husband. What would her father say?
“Just help me hail a cab, please. I’ll be fine. It’s early still.”
Thomas nodded, tucking his shirt into his trousers. She watched him put himself together, piece by piece and that wall between them was nearly up again. She imagined this would be the last time she saw him, because Clive deserved better. And really, what did it matter anymore? She could punish herself tonight, lie awake beside a sleeping husband, stare up into the dark ceiling of the Ritz, contemplate guilt and absolution; wonder about what was, what could have been. But now, now was nearly at an end.
Stepping toe-to-toe with him, she pulled the cigarette gently from his lips, taking a deep drag from it. The warm smoke filled her lungs, the nicotine seeping into her bones. She took his hand, closing his index finger and thumb around the cigarette’s stub. “Hold that, please,” she said, positioning his arm so that it stayed well away from her clothes and hair. Tugging the rest of his shirt closed, she slipped the remaining mother-of-pearl buttons through their eyelets. Thomas stared at her all the while. Those unblinking eyes saw through her skin and into the heart of her.
“Why did you come here, tonight?” The words were whisper-soft.
She paused, laying her hands flat against his chest. His skin was warm and alive beneath her palms. The scent of him—tobacco, sandalwood, and fresh soap—pulled on feelings too powerful to remain idle and quiet. “For the same reason you called.”
“Tell me, Grace.”
The words stuck to the roof of her mouth. He seemed to understand, and instead asked, “When do you leave?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Can I see you again?”
Her thumbs stroked the soft, woven silk of his dress shirt. “It’s wrong, Tommy.”
“I never put much stock into right or wrong.”
She remained quiet.
“Do you remember what you said to me in Birmingham?”
“I said a lot of things, Tommy.”
“You told me you had an idea; told me to find you in London. We’re in London.”
“You asked me then, to come away with you. I’m asking you now, to stay.”
The possibility born from that question settled over her shoulders like storm clouds, a dark burden heavy with hope and despair. Though which should win depended on the storm’s outcome. Would it water the parched soil—nurture weak, pale shoots, or sweep them away in a furious torrent?
“Think about it, Grace.”
She nodded, looking down at their feet. “I will,” she said faintly.
His lips touched her brow, and then he led her through the hall, down the stairs, and out into the cold night, to hail a cab that would take her to her husband. That question would echo about her head for weeks to come, trailing behind her through doctor’s appointments and museum visits, ready to wash her world away or build it anew.
“You’ve been absent, lately,” Clive said.
They were in Green Park, having spent the day sightseeing after their latest and last appointment—another inconclusive, rambling explanation, whereby the doctor reviewed, once more, her tubal patency tests from New York, their long line of familial genealogy, their pages of medical history, Clive’s accounts of terrible fevers during his bout with measles. It was recommended they go about their marriage with no expectations, except perhaps for vague hope.
After having been bled of both money and spirit, they decided the only cure for their malady was distraction. So, to Westminster they went. From its neo-gothic spires, they walked to The Mall, beginning at the newly built Admiralty Arch, passing Carlton House Terrace, stopping to visit Victoria at her incomplete memorial, and peering into Buckingham through its wrought iron gates resplendent in gilded wreaths. When a long, rambling hike around the lake in St. James Park left them thirsty and exhausted, they’d stumbled into a café with a wooden placard hanging above the door, marking it as The English Rose. Fortified by earl grey and butter biscuits, they had purchased sandwiches from a trolley on Piccadilly, near the train. These they carried to Green Park, to eat at their leisure under the cool shade of an enormous oak, older than most of Buckingham itself.
Grace took the butcher paper from her lap, folding it over itself into quadrants, trapping the breadcrumbs from her meal within it. “I’ve had a lot to think about,” she told Clive.
He sat beside her, leaning against the weathered oak, his knee propping up a lazily draped forearm. “This whole business,” he began, “it’s damn well unfair, isn’t it?
Their eyes swept out across the park, settling onto a family of four, with a young mother holding close the newest member of her brood—a fat-cheeked baby drooling over his fist. Others dotted the expansive green lawn, appearing like brightly colored confetti strewn by the errant hand of a giant. The rare warmth of a sunny Saturday in London called most of the city’s inhabitants from their dark townhomes and their darker tenements. Rays of sunlight danced through the canopy of whispering leaves overhead, skittering across the exposed skin of her arms and neck. Grace closed her eyes, tilting her head back to feel them shift over her face.
“It doesn’t matter to me, you know,” Clive said beside her, “that we can’t have children.”
She kept still, eyelids closed, listening. Her stomach turned over, the taste of the ham lingered stale and acrid over her tongue.
“We should sail home. Leave this ugly business behind us.”
Taking a deep, quiet breath—catching notes of fresh loam, cut grass—Grace held the sweetly perfumed air within her lungs for several beats of her heart, wishing for a cup of peppermint tea. Exhaling, she told him quietly, “I’d like to visit with family first.”
He removed the wrapping from her lap, setting it onto the ground before them, then tugged on the tasseled hem of her skirt, playing idly with the strands. “Well, I’ve had too much time away from work, but we can carve out a little more. Introduce your proper, British family to a rustic American.”
“Oh, did I put my foot in it, Gracie?” He laughed, “Don’t crucify me for it.”
“I was hoping to visit with them a while.”
“You rascal, you want me to lose my job!”
“I could stay behind.”
The laughter drained out of him. “You mean just you?”
She turned away from his staring, open face. “Yes. It would do me good.”
“Ireland is dangerous now.” He took her hand in his, pulling it towards him to kiss it. “I know things have been hard, but we don’t need a baby to be happy.”
Freeing her hand from his, she tucked back an errant curl.
“I know, but I need time alone.”
His body had been close, his head leaning in next to hers, but at her words he drew back, as if he were a wooden doll, yanked away by its string.
“Time for what, Gracie?” He let his usual smile overcome him, and imbued the question with a bit of laughter, but his eyes remained mirthless.
The park was bustling with bystanders. Children ran nearby, their screams close and sharp. She could hear the loud, boisterous conversation of a group of young men, their wicker hats balanced on their heads like upturned plates.
“Let’s walk back to the hotel.”
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
She gathered up her handbag, unfolding her knees and standing up quickly. “Nothing’s wrong, I’m just missing Galway,” she said, reaching down a hand to pull him up, brushing crumbs from his shirt, smiling. “Come on, let’s get back. It’s late.”
When he made a joke about it, pretending to confuse Galway with Belfast, she knew he wouldn’t pursue the matter.
But such feelings as what she’d begun to express could not be taken back. Given the slightest breath, those sentiments gained form, erupting from the dark corners of their prison, wild and untamable—impossible to put away.
No copyright infringement is intended with this work and no profit will be gained from it. Peaky Blinders belongs to its creators, producers, and writers (as does the image used for the story’s cover).
Any historical notes below are cobbled together using copy and paste, with editing for brevity and clarity.
- In 1920, Dr. I. C. Rubin in New York introduced his carbon dioxide insuiliation test to determine tubal patency. Tubal patency is when a woman's fallopian tubes are not blocked. ... HSG (hysterosalpingogram) is a standard radiological imaging study that is used to determine if the fallopian tubes are open and free of disease.
- The Victoria Memorial was unveiled on 16 May 1911, but was not completed until 1924
- Admiralty Arch was constructed circa 1910.
- The Mall has been around for centuries, but it’s look has evolved over time, from an unpaved, tree-lined path for sport, to a promenade, to the red, paved road of today (the red was added c. 1950).
- Until the middle of the 20th century, the most common places to find take-out were major transit hubs, like train stations or the intersections of well-traveled highways.
- Butcher paper is a type of waxed paper that would have been available in sheets from the meat market. It predates Reynold’s wax paper (which was invented in 1927).
Chapter 3: Something’s Come Up
Something’s Come Up
The town of Epsom sat 15 miles southwest of London. For most of the year, the red-bricked, terraced houses lining High Street—presided over by the Epsom Clock Tower with its newly installed toilets—and the Georgian cottages on the verdant countryside were home to less than 3,000 inhabitants. These men and women went about their insular lives in the manner most Surrey folk did: quietly and pastorally. On Sundays, in the shadow of the neo-gothic tower of Saint Martin of Tours Church, residents caught up on gossip. Ladies stood round in their cloche hats and flowing, pastel dresses, like clusters of capped flowers swaying in the wind—their menfolk lingering nearby in groups of two’s or three’s. There was talk of marriages, affairs, scandals, and flamboyant London visitors—made possible thanks to Epsom’s extraordinary rail service. It was this rail service which allowed Epsom’s yearly transformation from a market town where bees could be heard buzzing between window boxes, into a metropolis rivaling the noisy, mad population of New York.
The Derby fell on June 6th, and, as it always did, seemed to draw the entirety of London, cramming the city into the too-small Epsom. The Metropolitan police, along with the Surrey Constabulary, deployed over 2,000 officers to the Downs. Disposable men and uniformed constables disappeared within the teeming mass of visitors crowding High Street. Bodies shuffled side-by-side, pressed against the metal frames of coaches, buses, char-à-bancs, and motors, all crawling in disorderly lines towards the racecourse.
A whistle pierced through the roar of the crowd, originating from the lips of a red-cheeked officer standing upon an upturned crate, furiously pointing and shouting: “Mind your lane! Motors to stay to the right! Motors right! Horses to the left!”
From her bench seat in the tall char-à-banc, Grace could look out across an ocean of hats, bobbing along beside her. Early that morning, she had boarded one of the hundreds of race-day specials going into Epsom, purchasing a ticket into the rundown Epsom Town station. She would have much preferred Tattenham Corner, but the proximity of that line to The Derby made it nearly impossible to secure passage. This didn’t seem so terrible when they were circling round outside Epsom, and the char-à-banc pottered through pitted country roads, jarring her like a bit of cork in the Thames. But now, the speed of the coach could be outpaced by a woman carrying a heavy burden.
The air was ripe with the odors of sweat and petrol. Across her brow, perspiration rose in beads, caught by the band of her hat. The woman sitting beside her was tucked into her side, the heat from her body an intolerable furnace. Grace squeezed herself more tightly against the door, leaning her elbow out over the coach, minding she didn’t knock off some poor man’s hat. She thought of asking the chauffer to stop, that she would walk the rest of the way. But the rest of the way was three miles in white leather heels, pressed between the shoulders of the mass marching alongside them.
She began to carefully extricate herself from her coat. The whisper pink silk, with its collar of ivory fur, perfumed overnight on its hanger with lavender sachets, had provided warm comfort in the chill of early morning.
Her neighbor spoke up beside her, “That’s a lovely color. It goes very well with your pink dress.”
“But it is awfully hot, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Grace gave the slightest of smiles, turning her head away, but the woman remained undeterred.
“The track is going to be like flint in this heat. Best not to bet on those who like a soft going. Is this your first time to The Derby?”
“I’ve been once or twice,” she replied.
“We come all the time, don’t we Henry?” The woman looked to the man on her other side. “It’s really quite the to-do. If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re dressed pretty enough to be in The Club. Did your party leave without you?”
“I’m meeting them there.”
She gave a girlish squeal, “My goodness, you are going to The Club! Do tell! I’ve never managed it, not knowing the right people of course.”
Grace mentioned an uncle with a membership—a decorated Major-General.
“How lovely. I have a brother in the Navy. He served at—“
She continued, but Grace wasn’t paying close attention to her. On the side of the road, a merchant sold fried cod from a wooden stand. Beside him, another enterpriser had converted his motorbike into a three-person rickshaw, with a hand-lettered sign reading “Derby Non-Stop. 1s.” As he haggled with a passerby over the one-shilling fare, the fish vendor lowered a fresh batch into a scalding pot of oil. The wind shifted, throwing the rising smoke into their faces. She clenched her jaw against the bile crawling up her esophagus.
“You’ve gone pale, Mrs. Macmillan. Are you alright?”
“I’m sorry, I’ve not been feeling well, today. Would you mind terribly if I closed my eyes for a time?”
The woman tittered an apology, mercifully turning to her husband.
From behind her closed eyelids, Grace could hear the cadence of her voice rising and falling, drawing others around her into conversation. The smell of the cod fell behind them.
Grace turned her face outward, to the tall trees that bent their limbs into a bower over the road, their quivering limbs upraised like sheltering arms. She drew small circles over her belly with the hand resting in her lap and tried to imagine telling Tommy. In her mind, she pictured his face: his blue eyes deep-set beneath a smooth brow; thin, pale lips; the cheekbones and jaw all sharp, fine angles. Would those piercing eyes soften or harden at her announcement? She found herself too uncertain of his reaction to know.
The three miles stretched on like eighteen, Ashley Road spooling out before her in a never-ending thread of towering trees, brick cottages, a pastoral cemetery. It seemed to move further into the distance the longer they traveled. And yet, when she caught sight of the Grand Stand, the building a small, square blot on the horizon, her stomach slid up into her throat.
When they arrived at the Downs, she was helped from the coach by Henry, her neighbor’s husband.
“Easy does it,” he told her, holding onto her hand firmly as her heels struggled to manage the tiny footrest. Their row had the smallest door, placed over the wheel’s fender, with an elevated metal footrest to offer a platform for egress. It was a long way to the ground.
Holding onto her coat and the door with one arm, and onto Henry’s elbow with the other, she found solid footing on the soft, green grass. Grace thanked him and his wife, then turned to look out over the crowd.
She could hardly see through the wall of sweaty necks, stained collars, wide hat brims, fluttering fans. The crush formed a mass of slow-moving bodies, malodorous and hot beneath the summer sky. Grace tried to regulate her breathing, feeling like a flightless bird swarmed by ants. There was no recourse but to push against shoulders, turn herself into a sliver of flesh to squeeze in-between narrow gaps, mumble apologies, and shuffle towards the Grand Stand, her short heels sinking into the earth with every step.
Her chances of finding Tommy in such a crush were as likely as the miller’s daughter from the fairytale spinning gold. But she had no Rumpelstiltskin to bargain with. Grace turned to walk towards the paddock. If he had a horse in the race, then the paddocks were as likely a place to start.
Once she passed the paddock supervisor, the crowds began to thin and the attire of the spectators changed. Bowlers and boaters became high hats, suits turned into morning dress, brogues into cap-toed Oxfords. Her silk coat was no longer out of place. She slid into it, smoothing it over the dusty pink chiffon of her dress, where her lace gloves caught on the beaded neckline.
Grace paused in a corner of the paddock, her eyes sorting through high hats, picking out the flat caps among them, then, the faces of their owners. He had her back to her, but she knew the shape him, the manner of his stance. He was clear across on the opposite end and already in motion, walking with fast, aggressive steps that ate up the ground under him and placed him further out of her reach. She hurried, side-stepping man and horse alike, trying to keep up with him, but his figure wove into and out of sight, first obscured by a group in conversation, then by a bookmaker, or else by enormous advertisements. She pushed through the crowds outside the paddock, catching a fleeting glance of his flat cap as he headed towards the Luncheon Annexe.
Her breath came quick and short when she managed to catch his arm just on the steps leading up to the double-doors of the building.
Thomas caught her hand in a vice-like grip, throwing it from his forearm; he nearly struck her. And then he saw her.
“Grace! What are you doing here?”
“I need to speak with you.”
His eyes darted towards the uniformed men ahead of them, then back to her. She could see the gun holstered inside his jacket, the beads of sweat on his brow, how his fingers clenched tightly into fists. He tried very obviously to stay within the queue on the steps.
“Now?” he asked, looking again at the men.
She let go of his arm, understanding. “Finish whatever it is you’re doing. I’ll wait outside the champagne tent—the one closest to the paddock.”
He squeezed her hand once, then leaned in to whisper “Stay away from the winning post and the King’s Box. There’s going to be an uproar later.”
She nodded, letting him go. “Godspeed,” she whispered, the words chasing after him, released in a breath of fearful hope.
Thomas did not find her again at The Derby. Grace waited until well after the crowds began to thin. It had been some time since the winning horse, Captain Cuttle, was led to the King’s Box, after which the uproar Thomas promised took place. Armed officers rushed from the champagne tent, joining their colleagues in a mad gallop. Speculation began to circulate, whispers passing from exited speaker to attentive listener. It was said that King George was hastily escorted from his box and into his Daimler Tourer by a centurion of constables.
She sat at a small table in a bentwood bistro chair, looking through the open flaps of the tent onto the back of the Grand Stand. Outside, pamphlets, racing forms, tip sheets, and tickets littered the ground, left behind by their disappointed owners, who likely went home poorer than they arrived.
The voice stilled the blood in her veins. She stood up from her seat, taking a step back. “How dare you speak to me.”
Campbell held his derby hat in both hands, turning it over in circles, face cast down towards the ground. His wolf’s head cane leaned against a nearby table. “You’re right, of course. I only wished to—“
Grace hurried past him, forcefully knocking against his shoulder. He stumbled, barely catching himself on his bad leg. Only the barkeep was left within the tent, and though she didn’t think he’d try to shoot her in his presence, she wanted nothing to do with the man.
“Do not follow me,” she whispered, throwing the words over her shoulder.
But Campbell did follow.
She stopped abruptly just outside, in plain view of the barkeep, the workers setting the track to rights, and the last of the stragglers.
He walked up to her with his three-footed gait, leaning heavily against his cane, which, she noted with great pleasure, sunk into the dirt.
“Please, I only wished to apologize, for wronging you.”
“You did not wrong me, Mr. Campbell, you tried to kill me.” She wanted to spit at his feet, like a lowly fishwife or a traveler, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead, she set her jaw and spat out her next words: “Listen to me well, I never wish to see or speak to you again. If my father were alive, he’d have killed you himself. But as he’s dead, I will gladly do so the next time you cross my path.”
“If your father were alive he’d have killed Thomas Shelby first. He’s no good for you. You should—“
“You have no right to tell me who’s good for me. As to Thomas, you aren’t fit to polish his shoes.”
Campbell cleared his throat, staring at the ground. Grace kept her eyes firmly locked on him, measuring the distance between them and the placement of his hands.
“Right, well, be that as it may, your father would be glad if you shook yourself free of whatever traveler magic Shelby has woven over you. A husband deserves fidelity if not love. Perhaps, in time you’ll realize the favor I’ve done you today.”
From his waistcoat, he withdrew his pocket watch. “Any minute now.”
Goosebumps pebbled her flesh, a shiver working its way from the crown of her head to the ends of her toes. “You gave me your word once, as a gentleman. It’s since become apparent you’re no gentleman and your word is worthless. You pretend to despise Thomas for his crimes, but your real hatred stems from this: he is the man you will never be.”
He didn’t reply.
“Tell me what you’ve done.”
Setting his hat upon his head again, he said, “I’m afraid I don’t take your meaning.”
“I would take care, Mr. Campbell. Unlike you, the Shelby’s keep their word.”
Grace hurried away from him, feeling her heart beating in her throat. She glanced over her shoulder once, her fingers clasped tightly before her, but he had already gone. Her hands trembled as she gripped the white, wooden barrier before the racecourse. She had no way of knowing where Thomas or his family were, but she knew the Surrey gypsies were camped on Lady Sybil Grant’s estate, less than two kilometers away, and she knew Thomas worked frequently with gypsies.
Just up ahead, on The Hill, she could see a gaily painted vardo, with three figures clustered before it. She ducked under the barrier, crossing the dusty track where only hours before thirty of England’s finest thoroughbreds had thundered towards the winning post. The Hill was a large expanse of grass circled by the racecourse and though near to the Grand Stand, it took her several hundred meters to traverse. When at last she approached the red vardo, her feet blistered within her heels, the man sitting on the step rose to doff his cap. The woman remained over her blanket on the ground, a thin toddler half asleep in her lap and an array of charms and oak leaves spread out for sale before her.
“What can I do for ye, Miss?”
“Do you know Thomas Shelby?”
The man threw back his head and laughed. “Aye, I know him. What would you need with him?”
“His family and the Lees. Do you know where they are? Right now?”
“Aye, Miss. I can’t say though, as I’m not sure of your connection. But I will say this, Mrs. Gray is here somewhere.”
“The one and only.”
“Can you find her and deliver a message?”
“Aye, for a price.”
“If you have paper and pen, I’d be glad to pay the asking rate, double, if you can manage to get it to her within the hour.”
Grace paid him fifteen shillings, an exorbitant amount. “Give this to Polly. If you can’t find her, then you can give it to Johnny Dogs, Arthur, or John Shelby,” she said, pressing the letter carefully into his hands. “Please. It’s very important.”
The soft sheets of her hotel room seemed like wire wool that night, catching against her skin, tangling around her waist. She remained awake, staring up into the dark ceiling. When she did sleep, she woke on the tail end of nightmares; terrible dreams where Campbell cut out her heart. His arms, bloody to the elbows, dug through her open chest while she said tonelessly, “Give me your word.” This phrase she chanted over and over as he plucked out her ribs. Her beating heart Campbell would serve on white Wedgwood china, placing it upon a finely dressed table with only one setting. In the single chair, sat Tommy, ready and waiting to receive his meal with a wry smile. Another of these dark visions showed her a freshly-tilled grave. Into the interminable void of its gapping maw, Thomas was pushed by a red hand. He tumbled endlessly in that black abyss, becoming smaller and smaller until he disappeared altogether.
Over the blue damask curtains, the faint light of dawn crept into the room, softly crawling across the buttery yellow wallpaper, the white, coffered ceiling, and the polished wooden floors. It was a benediction, allowing her to rise from her sweaty sheets. She left those awful dreams trapped in the wooden bedstead, sinking her feet into the Turkish rug and pressing her fingers into her closed eyelids.
Her beautiful Derby attire hung in the wardrobe with sachets of lavender. She drew out the dress, bringing it close to her nose. It could stand another wear, and, if paired with a casual cloche, she might get away with it.
She had finished curling her hair when a knock came at the door. Smoothing down the chiffon dress, Grace paused before the door to peer through the peephole. Immediately, she unlocked it.
He stood on the threshold, his hands tucked into his pockets, a cigarette hanging from his lips, crisply dressed in a grey, herringbone suit with matching waistcoat. His easy look couldn’t hide the scab above his brow, the scratches on his neck, or the bruising on one cheek.
She pulled him into the room, closed the door behind him, then wrapped her arms under his jacket and around his shoulders, holding him lightly, afraid of what other wounds she might find.
“Nothing’s broken, Grace” he said, pressing into her.
“Where have you been?”
His arm came up around her, his other pulled the cigarette from his lips. “In a graveyard.”
Grace drew back to look at him, the nightmarish vision of that endless void rose to the forefront of her mind. “I dreamed of a grave you fell into.”
The cigarette he’d been raising to his lips paused midair. Thomas stared at her. “There might be a touch of gypsy blood in you. It’d explain whatever spell you’ve caught me in.”
Her fingers traced the broken skin by his temple. “You were in a fight.”
His laughter was dry. “One or two.”
“Campbell, he did something, didn’t he?”
“Campbell is dead.”
For a moment neither of them spoke, he, measuring her reaction, she, wondering how a good Protestant girl could feel joy at such news. “I’m glad,” she finally told him.
Tommy swept his eyes over her dress, his fingers played with the beaded bow at her chest. “I didn’t have time, to appreciate this yesterday. But I have time now. What was so urgent you came all the way to The Derby?”
“What makes you think I was there only for you?”
A smile worked its way over his eyes. “You wrote Polly a letter and paid David fifteen shillings to deliver it. Polly, Grace.”
“Circumstantial evidence, at best.”
“Your husband sailed to New York three weeks ago.”
“Something came up.”
“What came up, Grace?”
She took his wrist, bringing his hand down to her waist, pressing it into her abdomen, which over the passing weeks had grown firm and would wax full and round in the coming months.
Tommy stared at their hands upon her stomach. His fingers flexed against her dress, lightly stroking her through the fabric. The silence between them felt electric.
She looked away from him, swallowing thickly and clearing her throat. “Come sit down. I’ll order some tea.”
When she returned, Thomas was sitting on the couch, his elbows resting on his thighs, one hand hanging between his knees, the other holding onto a fresh cigarette. He was taking deep, long drags, burning through it quickly. When he finished, he lit another.
Grace set a glass ashtray before him, then went to the window, unlocking it and pulling up the sash. A fresh breeze blew her hair back.
“Does it bother you?”
“No, it’s alright.”
He ground the cigarette into the glass, putting it out. “Come here.”
She walked over to him, sitting beside him.
“Is it mine?”
“How can you know?”
“We were here for treatment—in two years we hadn’t been able to conceive.”
“And what if you did manage it?”
“We didn’t. The doctor instructed us to wait while we were tested. He hadn’t touched me in weeks.”
Taking hold of her jaw, he looked straight into her, his electric eyes touching the deepest corners of her soul. “This would be a lie I could never forgive you for. Swear it to me, Grace.”
A knock ran out, clear and loud. “Tea service!”
She placed her hands over his own, curling her fingers lightly around his. “I swear it, Thomas Shelby, by the graves of my father and brother, may they strike me dead.”
He held her stare for a long while, then pressed his forehead against hers. “A baby,” he breathed against her ear.
“Yes, a baby.”
“I think that’s what got us here.”
His laugh caught against her neck, but when he drew back, the smile had fallen away from his face. “Tell me what you want, Grace.”
The knock came again, more insistent. “Tea service!”
Grace got up to open the door. The waiter on the other side gave her an impressive sneer as he hurried in to drop his heavy burden over the coffee table. “Will that be all, Ma’am?”
She nodded. When the footsteps echoed down the hall, she turned to Thomas with a secretive smile.
“Are you a man who drinks tea?”
The memory of that evening wove itself around them. She could see it playing across the softness in his eyes.
“Only when the alternative is rum,” he finally replied.
She dropped one sugar cube into the cup, and, gripping the handle of the blue toile teapot, poured the hot tea over it, watching the crystals dissolve. Steam rose up wetly against her skin. Setting the pot carefully onto the silver tray, her fingers smarting a little from the boiling touch of the porcelain, she topped the black tea with a tablespoon of milk, handing the cup and saucer to Thomas.
He took an obligatory sip, then placed it onto the coffee table. “What do you want, Grace?”
She cradled the teacup in her lap, running her thumb over the smooth sides. “I want this child. I want to raise him with you.
Their mood ebbed and flowed like the tide, rising in one moment and falling in the next. The jokes and their joy overshadowed by the rings on her finger.
Thomas touched first the wedding band, then the sharp diamond of the engagement ring. “These come off.”
“I want to visit him, to ask for a divorce. It shouldn’t be done over the telephone.”
“I’ll come with you, to New York, when you do.”
She nodded. “Alright, then.”
“Do you think Polly would plan the wedding?”
“She might plan my funeral if you ask nicely.”
Grace moved closer to him, tucking herself into his side, resting her head on his shoulder. His arm came up around her back, to stroke the nape of her neck. “The doctors, they weren’t sure who was at fault. You understand this might very well be our only child?”
He leaned down to give her a long, hard kiss. “It won’t be for lack of trying, I’ll promise you that.”
“I’m serious, Thomas.”
He titled her chin up, so she would look at him. “So am I.”
No copyright infringement is intended with this work and no profit will be gained from it. Peaky Blinders belongs to its creators, producers, and writers (as does the image used for the story’s cover).
This is where the story begins to deviate a little from canon. Going forward, Grace will have a more active role in her relationship with Tommy.
Any historical notes below are cobbled together using copy and paste, with editing for brevity and clarity.
-The Epsom Derby is the most prestigious of The Classics, the crème of the crème of English horseracing. In the early 20th century, The Derby was arguably the most prestigious horserace in the world. Horses entered into the Derby must be three-year-olds, colts and fillies only (no geldings, as the point is to further the sport, which requires breeding winners). During the Derby, there are smaller races held, where younger or older horses may race.
There is an astounding amount of information, videos, figures, charts, maps, and accounts of the event (with plenty covering the 1920’s). It was in many ways a national holiday, parliament closed and thousands upon thousands took special rail service to Epsom. The 1922 Derby fell on June 6th and featured 30 horses, the largest field since 1914. There is an excellent, but small, article from The Daily Racing Form, an American periodical, which recalls the day being “scorching” and the field “hard as flint.” Captain Cuttle, ridden by the very popular jockey Stephan Donoghue won, setting a record time and a record prize winning. Steve Donoghue is the only jockey to have ridden three consecutive Derby winners – Humorist (1921), Captain Cuttle (1922) and Papyrus (1923).
-Racing was not a profitable sport. Racetracks, even at the height of their popularity, did not make grand profits. Neither did horse owners, who made very little on the winnings—apart from the considerable cost of raising a thoroughbred, in the UK, owners put up most of the prize money for races (more so than anywhere else in the world). For most, horseracing was a leisurely activity and a passion project. True gentlemen in the late 19th century and the early 20th century were said to breed their own thoroughbreds, to further the sport. Purchasing bloodstock, as Tommy did, signaled new money.
-The Met Police and the Surrey Constabulary did employ over 2,000 men to police it (the year before they’d even used a dirigible to patrol from the skies).
-I couldn’t find the population of Epsom in 1922, thus the figure of 3,000 is absolutely made-up.
- Epsom Clock Tower does exist and it did have newly-built public toilets in the 1920s (public restrooms were much harder to find back in the day and an indicator of modernity and progress).
- Saint Martin of Tours Church is a real church in Epsom
-Disposable men were undercover officers
-In an effort to lessen traffic, police created separate lanes for different kinds of transport (horses, motors, buses, pedestrians)
-Char-à-banc: a type of horse-drawn vehicle or early motor coach, usually open-topped, common in Britain during the early part of the 20th century. It has "benched seats arranged in rows, looking forward, commonly used for large parties, whether as public conveyances or for excursions.” More common spellings today have it as “charabanc,” but sources from the early 20th century show it as “char-à-banc.” Although, this spelling might have already begun to fall out of favor by the 1920’s (couldn’t find a solid answer on that).
- The Epsom Town station closed in 1929, thus why I chose to describe it as “rundown” though I don’t actually know if it was in disrepair in 1922.
-The crowds at Epsom could rival, in looks if not in numbers, the sorts of crowds one might expect for major national sporting events. In the early 20th century, crowds could range in the tens of thousands, around 30,000 – 70,000.
It was also a spectacle of entertainment: Gypsies sold lucky charms or read fortunes; vendors set up stalls offering lunches or beer; families picnicked on the lawn; friends ate atop small, double-decker buses; owners sat on the roof of their cars, which parked by the hundreds; spectators donned outrageous outfits; bookies took bets with loud shouts; religious zealots tried to save the sinning masses; advertisers filled every available inch with large signs; and bombastic personalities dressed in elaborate costumes to sell tip sheets (like the self-named Prince Monolulu, famous at the Derby and who actually won his bet in 1920 and made a fortune).
- A Major-General in the British army is a very high post, only a couple of ranks below General. The word was typically hyphenated before the 1980’s.
- Grandstand: A grandstand is a large and normally permanent structure for seating spectators, most often at a racetrack. At Epsom in 1922, the Grandstand would have been a large structure with over four stories of seating. In the early part of the 20th century, most writers seem to spell it as two words, Grand Stand, which is why I’ve chosen to spell it thusly.
- Luncheon Annexe: Behind the Grandstand, connected by a bridge, was another large building in the Renaissance style with three or more stories. Built in 1914, it was used as a hospital during WWI. In our story, it serves as the dining room Tommy visits. Sadly, it was demolished in the 2000s.
- Despite the incredible resources available documenting Derby Day at Epsom, there is little to nothing online about the experience of a VIP at the event. How much did tickets cost? Through where did VIPs enter? What areas did they stay in? What did accommodations look like? I found only one vague mention in a diary account of “The Enclosure” costing £1 (year unknown). One source mentions the Ascot race, which had the exclusive areas of the “Royal Enclosure,” by invitation-only, or the “Royal Box,” which was even more selective.
Further research indicates that members of distinct racing clubs were entitled to special areas, and gentlemen were given two ladies’ passes with their membership. I’ve chosen to make Grace’s uncle the holder of one such membership, and thus how she was granted access to areas where she has a likelier chance of running into Thomas (an owner). Although I’m unsure if Grace, as a guest of her uncle (who wasn’t himself present at the Derby) would have been able to make use of his lady’s ticket. Most of what little I was able to gleam on racing culture in England came from the book, Horseracing and the British 1919-1939 by Mike Higgins (specifically chapter 5).
-The Paddock: this is the area where horses are saddled and then marched off for the parade. I’ve chosen in this story to make it an exclusive area for VIPs such as owners, members (their guests), trainers, and jockeys. It can sometime be an owners, trainers, and jockeys only area, however, I’ve no idea if that was the case in 1922. Resources specifying such details are hard to find.
- King George owned Daimler All-Weather Tourers for several, consecutive years. Talk about brand loyalty.
- There were areas in racetracks that were inaccessible to women, or at the very least, socially inappropriate for a woman to visit. In the early 1900’s, the betting ring would have been one such area. By the 1920s, these rules began to relax, but only just. It’s possible that the champagne tent where Grace waits for Tommy in this chapter might not have admitted her, especially alone. I couldn’t find a concrete answer on that and thus chose to leave it in.
- I’m not entirely sure how many hours the racetrack, and all its amenities, would remain open after the last race.
- Surrey (the area Epsom is found in) is still home to the fourth largest Gypsy and traveler community in Britain. Gypsies were a part of the races for centuries. They would set up their caravans on The Downs to supply racing folk with goods and services. The eccentric author and actress, Lady Sybil Grant, allowed them to stay on her lands during Derby Week starting in 1930—following her father’s death in 1929, whereupon she inherited the Durdans Estate, located only a mile from the racecourse. She had her own caravan and would sometimes join them. I’ve anachronistically inserted her into the story, as it was much too interesting and convenient not to.
-Traveler: another word for Gypsy, specifically in Ireland (spelled Traveller outside the US).
- The British Pathe has fascinating videos of the Derby in the early 20th century. I highly recommend Googling them. The Epsom and Ewell History Explorer website is also excellent, as is the BBC’s local page on Surrey, and their gallery on The Epsom Derby.
Chapter 4: This is Who We Are
This is Who We Are
Four years ago, she sat before an oak vanity at The Plaza Hotel in New York City. The mirror, through which she’d secured a heavy cathedral veil into her hair with the help of a maid, reflected the view of Central Park outside the window: horses pulled coaches stuffed with riotous tourists, snug beneath musty, woolen blankets; businessmen crossed the wide street in a headlong dash, hardly waiting for the carriages and motors to pass; ladies in fur-trimmed coats carried their colorful parcels in both arms, or a maid did the carrying, trailing at a marked distance behind them. All this played out upon a stage of dusty city streets, hemmed in by buildings reaching towards the cloudless sky, at the heart of which grew an unexpected park—a woodland incongruous with the man-made world around it—dressed in vibrant oranges and reds.
In stark contrast to the fall foliage reflected by the vanity’s mirror, she was dressed in white—the color for first-time brides, so established by a young Victoria, nearly one hundred years ago. Her uncle had greeted her outside the hotel, waiting for her by a black Rolls-Royce. His smile upon seeing her reminded Grace of her father. They shared the same strong jaw, long nose, oval eyes, and straw-blonde hair. Sometimes, when she glanced at him quickly or from the periphery, she could almost pretend it was her daid, stern-faced as he always was, in his black coat with matching bowler, reaching to tuck her arm into the crook of his elbow where he would pat her hand gently from time to time as they went on long, quiet walks after her brother was killed.
“You look like an angel, dove. As pretty as your mother.”
If he had lived beyond 1919, these were the words he might have told her. Instead, her uncle, having sailed across the Atlantic for her wedding, was the one who delivered them that cool day in New York, beneath the portico of The Plaza.
Now, years later in Warwickshire, England, her uncle would not need to travel quite so far. Indeed, Grace thought, affixing an amethyst earing, her family might have preferred the excuse of a transatlantic voyage, to politely decline her invitation. As it was, only four of her father’s siblings and a handful of cousins agreed to bless the wedding.
Grace stared at the woman reflected in the large mirror over the polished vanity. She was a woman four years older than the one who’d stood in that Plaza room, a mother once over, with shorter hair styled into finger curls, a widow, and she could not wear white. Her dress this time was lilac silk, with a drop-waist, chiffon panels flowing down either shoulder, and a lace overlay, in the same color, sewn carefully over the loose bodice, along which a row of abalone pearl buttons ran from collar to navel.
Mary, the head housekeeper, appeared in the mirror at her back. In her hands, she held a royal purple veil made of silk organza, chapel length, with a Spanish blonde lace blusher dyed to match. Linda, the only woman in the Shelby family who didn’t have reason to dislike her, helped bury the comb at the back of her head. Between them, to further support it, they added Kirbigrips. Their blunt edges dug painfully into her scalp, and she closed her eyes against the pain.
“Forgive me, Mrs. Macmillan. I want to make sure this lovely bit of silk doesn’t stay halfway down the aisle.”
Grace gave a soft laugh, “If that’s all that went wrong today, Mary, I’d be a very happy bride.”
“I’m sure God will give you the day you deserve,” Linda said.
Grace wondered what sort of day a woman like Linda could wish upon an adulteress with a child two-years out of wedlock. A maid and a zealot, the latter of which cared little for her; these were her only companions in the bridal chamber, where neither cantankerous Polly nor jaded Ada deigned venture.
She remembered, years ago as a young woman, visiting the National Gallery in Dublin, accompanied by her brother, together as they always were on their adventures. An exhibition of the Royal Collection was on tour, with a painting of Queen Victoria on her wedding day. She stood before the canvas, boring her brother with her examination. It was an enormous piece, at least 250 centimeters across, with smooth, nearly imperceptible brushstrokes. In it, the young Queen stood beside Prince Albert, surrounded by her court of ladies, twelve women in airy, white dresses, like swans floating over a lake. Some of them must have been Victoria’s friends, perhaps even close companions. Grace longed for a mother, a sister, a cousin, a confidant to stand behind her now, to fiddle with her hair and her veil, to hand her a cup of hot tea with a wink and a squeeze of her shoulder.
She longed for her father. At this moment, he would be waiting in the sitting room downstairs, with a glass of whiskey, watching the staff hurry from door to door, carrying vases of flowers or linens. Her brother would lounge beside him on the couch, curved into the shape of the cushions, neck thrown lazily over the backrest, wrinkling his suit as he read The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He’d never had the opportunity to finish it.
Grace closed her eyes tightly, picturing Charlie in the nursery, held in his father’s arms—both of them waiting for her. The image of his silky, brown hair, his button nose, his perfect face red-cheeked, aglow with fresh, new joy. And Thomas. Her Thomas, looking dapper in his wedding suit, blue eyes soft at the edges as he played with their boy. The tears caught behind her eyelids stopped gathering. She blinked them away carefully, ensuring the two women behind her saw nothing of them.
As Mary and Linda finished securing the veil, their hands slowly falling away to see if it would hold, the weight of the organza—which seemed no more than a feather in her arms—felt like an anchor clipped into her hair. It was, in some ways, a relief, for that small discomfort moored her firmly in the present, holding her steady against the current of memory and desire.
Kneeling, Mary spread the veil pooled on the floor, opening it out behind her, so that the lace flowers sewn at the hem sat flat over the rug.
“You look beautiful, Grace,” Linda said, smoothing the veil carefully.
“You’re a vision, Mrs. Macmillan. Mr. Shelby will have a shock today.”
Her heart gave a girlish flutter at the thought and she smiled. “Let’s hope so.”
“Oh, I know so. Begging your pardon for the imprudence, Mrs. Macmillan.”
“I won’t tell the priest if you start calling me Mrs. Shelby now, Mary.”
“I’ll be happy to say it, as will Mr. Shelby, no doubt.”
Linda walked to the chaise, where the bouquet of calla lilies, heliotrope, sweet peas, and lily-of-the-valley rested. “That he will, after two years of waiting.”
Pulling the blusher over her face, mindful of the laboriously styled finger curls, Grace tried to make out her reflection in the mirror through the heavy Spanish lace. Rather than respond to Linda’s quip, she remarked instead on the disorienting effect of the blusher, “I can hardly see through this.”
Linda stood before her, “This might actually succeed in unnerving the unshakable Thomas Shelby.”
“Why, you could be another woman under there. Your face is completely obscured.”
“That hadn’t been the objective,” Grace replied, finding a thin bit of lacework through which to peek. She stared at the willowy figure of a faceless woman with a dark veil and flowers in her folded hands—the walnut edge of the mirror like the outline of a coffin. Goosebumps crawled up her arms; her soul shuddered within its setting, as if it had come loose. She felt like a wraith staring at its corpse. Grace tried to remove the blusher hastily, while Linda took the bouquet from her nervous hands. The lace caught on the diamond headband and Mary had to help her unhook a thread of silk from a silver prong.
“What’s wrong?” Linda asked her.
“Nothing at all.” She took the bouquet back with a tight smile. “I just feared I’d break my neck on the stairs.”
Mary tutted, “Oh, nonsense, Mrs. Macmillan. No one here would let you come to harm. We should hurry along now. Mrs. Shelby, I’ll have the car brought round. It wouldn’t do to get there after the bride.”
At the foot of the stairs, her uncle waited, dressed in the handsome red coat of the Royal Irish Dragoons, as she’d specifically requested he not do. All his medals were pinned in a row over his heart on the left side of his chest. On the right, hung golden aiguillettes, looped through the epaulet at his shoulder. Under his arm, he held a plumed hat tucked into his side. At his left hip, from a tasseled, golden sash, was his sword. His white gloves where spotless, as were his tall dress boots. He wore no smile, not like he had four years ago outside the Plaza, and his eyebrows were set closely together, wrinkling his brow. He looked most like her father when sporting that somber, disapproving face.
“Hello, Uncle Connor.”
“Grace. You look lovely.”
She rose up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “Thank you. You look a little too serious.”
Clearing his throat, he extended his arm for her to take. “Let’s not dredge things up now.”
“I might not make it to the church if we do.”
“Oh, you’ll be married today, child. Even if I have to draw my sword to manage it.”
“Thomas needs no incentive, Uncle.”
Cornelius scoffed, “He hardly waited for Clive to be lowered into the ground. You’re sure that divorce wasn’t signed in blood?”
“Thomas is a persuasive businessman, used to getting what he wants.”
He took the hand in the crook of his arm, gripping it firmly. Tugging them to a halt, he turned to face her. His blue eyes studied her face with a frown. “I can pretend that’s true, for your sake. That’s not my first concern. I don’t condone the things you’ve done, but no matter what’s happened or is yet to happen, you’re my blood.” He patted her hand. “If you ever have a reason to fear this businessman of yours, you come to me. I will always protect you, dove, like your father before me.”
Those words wrapped around her soft and warm, a thick, woolen shawl on the coldest of winter days. They seemed to her the first glimpse of a sheltering cottage after a frostbitten journey through unfamiliar paths. She wasn’t sure if her uncle meant those words, or if she could trust them to be true, but they made her ache fiercely with loneliness and hope. She turned her face away, blinking quickly, then, clutching his hand tightly, rested her brow on his shoulder. “I’ve missed them so.”
He hugged her close, only a rare, fleeting moment before he cleared his throat gruffly, stepping out of her reach as he straightened his medals. “None of that, now. You’ll stain my dashing, red coat.”
Grace smoothed her hand across the skirt of her dress, to regain her composure without having to look at him. Tutting, she turned a hard stare up to him, but there was a playful light in her eyes to soften her rebuke. “I begged you not to wear it.”
“It was insulting to have been asked.”
She pulled him along towards the foyer, where it became progressively cooler as they approached the large entryway, leaving the warmth of the house behind.
From the edge of a discreet door, a footman appeared, his black livery disentangling itself from the shadows, giving shape and form to the man within it. He followed behind them, holding up her veil so that it wouldn’t snag on the gravel drive.
“Did the others wear their uniforms?”
He caught her sidelong glance. “Don’t look at me like that, child. No amount of restraint or niceties is going to make us friends with those Shelby’s. Nor would we want it. Quite the group of ruffians you’ve chosen.”
“So many good, Irish men at home hoping to marry into the Burgess family. Or another American. A Protestant, at least.” He gave a long sigh, shaking his head. “And Charles, what will that boy say when it comes time to inherit? When it all comes out.”
She didn’t reply, having no way of defending herself. Instead, she took in the grey, colorless sky, feeling the freezing chill of late autumn raise goosebumps over her skin, biting down deep into her bones.
In the distance, beyond the sundial statue in the middle of the drive, were the naked branches of the sugar maples and the exposed framework of the deciduous hedges. Their barren bodies gave Arrow House a ghoulish appearance. The original owner, a lord with enormous debt, neglected the land leading up to the house, sinking whatever was left of his fortune into the upkeep of the sprawling gardens behind it. Their long, neat gravel paths, lined by trim, evergreen shrubs, shone even in the depths of autumn.
Grace spent long hours lost on those paths. There were mazes designed by a Viscount in the 17th century, which predated the current house; interminable rows of towering green giants; dwarf orange trees planted in porcelain pots, placed between trellises of night jasmine, whose perfume traveled on the breeze; lines of enormous boxwoods shaped into cylinders that rose five meters into the air; formal Italian herbaries with weathered, Greek goddesses at their heart; walled kitchen gardens, where apricots, grapes, and peaches grew from espaliered trees; long tunnels of flowering wisteria bookended by wrought iron gates; enormous, square ponds with topiaries at each corner and marble Venuses rising from the water; fountains bedecked by copper, lotus statues as wide as carriage wheels; walls of climbing roses, which erupted into fat, white blooms whose petals were scattered over her bathwater; tennis courts in clay or grass, put in by the young, wastrel Lord; and a clock tower in the Tudor style built in 1470, towering over a cruck barn which once served as the stables, but now housed Tommy’s collection of cars and carriages.
One warm, Spring day, when Charlie was only three months old and light as a feather in her arms, she’d gotten lost in that landscaped warren. She meant to take him on a short walk, to help distract them both from a fit of endless crying that stretched on from the dark, early hours of the morning to the bright, hot light of day. Her eyes were bloodshot and glassy, her ears ringing with the sound of his hiccupping cries. The world seemed underwater, as if her mind and all its senses were wrapped in cotton. The left turn outside the maze became a right. It didn’t seem to matter much at the time. She continued walking, bouncing Charlie lightly against her chest, “shhing” him softly, cooing Irish ballads she’d sung to his father in The Garrison, all the meanwhile praying he would settle.
When, at last, his crying abated, she sighed from the depths of her soul, standing stock still, surrounded by sweetly-smelling flowers, feeling his weight in her arms, his warmth through her georgette blouse. Listening to the sound of sparrows warbling in the hedges, their wings fluttering as they darted about, her tired eyes fell closed. Leaves rustled on their branches, stirred by a lazy breeze which ran its fingers across her skin and caught the edges of her skirt, tugging at it playfully. She lifted her face to the sun, soaking it in, and took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the perfumed air.
With Charlie finally asleep, and some semblance of peace returning, Grace continued to walk, strolling at a leisurely pace from garden to garden.
There were no groundskeepers to greet her, as it was Sunday. They were tucked away in their cottages and their tools stored in red-bricked sheds, waiting to be taken out again the following day. This she found suited her, she wanted solitude and silence.
Eventually, she turned to make her way back to the house. Charlie, light as he was at such an early age, was growing heavy in her arms. She paused by a pond with a tiered fountain. The water fell over its marble steppes in a gentle descent—an easy, trickling sound. There was a willow to provide pleasant shade, and her arms were so tired, she cared little for grass stains against the peach silk of her skirt. She lay on her back, setting the still-sleeping Charlie on her chest, and almost at once, fell asleep herself—the sound of the water and the leaves like a shot of morphine into a vein.
Charlie woke her, rooting against her chest, making soft, mewling sounds that would soon turn to earsplitting wails. Her hand was resting against his back when she startled awake, and she pressed him into herself as she sat. The sun had shifted several paces in the sky. The baby began to cry in earnest. It must have been four or five hours since his last feeding. She rocked him side-to-side on her upraised knees as she undid the buttons on her blouse and untied the ribbon of her brassiere. He latched on almost immediately, his fingers curling and uncurling, his cheeks hollowing out as he suckled furiously. Grace had little milk left—she’d begun to use the bottle. He unlatched, beginning to cry again.
“Shh, love,” she cooed, “hush, my treasure.” She sat against the willow tree, leaning her back into the rough bark, settling in for a long struggle.
It seemed to take forever, a painful battle with her inconsolable child and her body, but she succeeded. Charlie finished his meal and dozed, milk-drunk, against her breast. She tidied up her blouse, then rose, using the tree to help her stand.
She’d gotten so turned around, blisters began to form on her feet, appearing in those tender places where paper-thin skin, protected only by silk stockings, rubbed against hard, cowhide leather. Charlie’s weight seemed to her as solid as a blacksmith’s anvil, her arms shook from carrying him. The inside of her mouth was dry and cottony. She was incredibly thirsty. The warm sun, so pleasant earlier in the day, sucked the moisture from her skin, raising beads of sweat on her brow. Her bobbed hair clung to her neck. Grace sat on a mossy, stone bench, laying Charlie down beside her over the excess folds of her skirt, carefully penning him in between her hip and her arm. She laughed aloud, covering her face with one hand, driven desperate by her meandering path and yet recognizing the absurdity of it.
She did find Arrow House again, near five in the afternoon, walking in through the French doors of the sunroom. The first person to greet her was Mr. O'Brien’s eight-year-old son, Oisín, a stable boy with flaxen hair and a propensity for mischief. He began wearing a flat cap and waistcoat after meeting Tommy, who he thought hung the moon.
He froze when he saw her, turning to the doorway, then pivoting back around to face her, upon which he doffed his cap, gave her a quick “Hello, Mrs. Macmillan,” before immediately running into the hall, from which he yelled with incredible strength: “She’s here!”
His scream rang up into the carved wooden ceiling, flying into the rest of the house. Charlie’s head bobbed against her shoulder, turning to see the source of the startling commotion with wide, blue eyes.
Grace stood curiously waiting to see what the boy’s announcement would herald. The silence of the house was broken by the distant echo of voices carrying up the call, and hard steps upon the wood floors, growing nearer.
Thomas came into the room, pushing open the large, double oak doors. He stood in his dress shirt, collarless, with golden arm garters pulling up the sleeves; his hair was disheveled, and the veins in his hard eyes were like a red, gossamer veil. He swept his gaze over her and the baby, taking them in from head to toe.
“Are you hurt?”
“No, of course not.”
He exhaled, turning his face up towards the ceiling, where he closed his eyes for a moment. She could see his chest expand as he took in a deep breath.
His voice, when he spoke, remained quiet, but there was no mistaking the fierceness in it. “Where the fuck have you been?”
Oisín ran out of the room, slamming the doors behind him and shutting out the curious gazes of several servants who had wavered in the hall, most of which were men armed with long rifles.
Raising one brow at his question, she sat heavily upon the damask couch, gratefully setting Charlie down into its soft cushions. “Why are there armed men in the hall?”
“There are armed men in the hall, Grace, because every abled man within a fucking mile of Arrow House has been looking for you. Where were you?”
Despite her exhaustion, Grace straightened her back, leaning forward on the cushions. “I was lost. There’s a thousand acres of land, Tommy.”
“I’ve spent the better part of the day wondering if you and Charlie were dead.”
Grace stared at him. The silence of the sunroom, usually a sweet, peaceful sound full of warm sunshine, was alive between them with all the weight of a storm, electric and wild.
Tommy went to the tallboy in the corner, pulling it open to serve himself a generous glass of whiskey, which he downed in one. He set both hands against the cabinet, leaning into it, letting his head hang between his shoulders.
“Thomas, is there something I should know?”
“You were missing for hours.”
“I fell asleep; I had to feed Charlie and I had a hard time finding my way.”
He served himself another drink, swallowed half of it, lit a cigarette. Every motion he performed with deliberate slowness, taking his time to stopper the crystal decanter, setting it nearly noiselessly over the mirrored tray within the tallboy, the gentle clicks of glass on glass, the lid of the lighter, the flame erupting from the flint, the scent of the cigarette. All this, with his back to her.
“In the future,” he said in that even voice of his which indicated a rip tide was stirring beneath seemingly still waters, “you will take one of my men with you—”
“Tommy, I got lost in the gardens. It would be ridiculous to—”
“A bodyguard will also be arranged for other outings.”
“Grace,” he finally turned to face her, his eyes cutting into her. “I thought you were dead.”
“How could I have known you would think that? How can I know when you hardly tell me anything?”
He remained silent, walking with drink in hand to Charlie, gently stroking his downy head.
“I know I betrayed your trust,” she said quietly, watching him with Charlie. “I know I jeopardized everything you’d worked so hard for and that’s no easy thing to forgive. But I can’t bear the burden of that betrayal for the rest of our lives.”
He wouldn’t look at her, still staring at the baby instead.
“Tommy, I need to know the things that are happening to us.”
“We’ve had threats.”
“It doesn’t matter."
"Of course it matters!"
"I have enemies, Grace. By extension, so do you.”
She placed a cushion before Charlie, to prevent him from rolling onto the floor, then stood from the couch. Folding her arms across her chest, she stared out the French doors onto the lawn. “And when will you stop collecting enemies? When will you toss that gun into The Cut, like you promised me?”
“This is who I am. You’ve known it from the moment you met me. You knew quite a bit about it, in fact.”
“Yes, I did. Just as I knew you had ambitions, Thomas, to put that all behind you.” She ran her hands over her face, then looked around the sunroom of Arrow House, with its mahogany paneled walls, its glass chandeliers, its coffered ceilings, its gilded frames. She pictured the vault in Small Heath, rows and rows of metal shelves stacked with notes. She thought of the thoroughbreds in the stables, the fast, gleaming cars in the carriage house. “Isn’t this enough, Thomas? Can’t this,” she waved her hand to indicate the room, them, and Charlie, who stared attentively from his bed on the couch, “be enough?”
“It is enough.”
“When will that be true, Thomas?”
“Look around you. Look at what you’ve built,” she stepped close to where he sat on the arm of the couch, standing before him. She took his hands, brought them up, and clutched them in the space between them. “You’ve made it, Tommy.”
He stared first at her, then down at their hands, stroking her skin with his thumb. But he remained quiet.
In his eyes, she could read his answer.
Like the addicts who gambled their wages away at his races, his ambition was an addiction he could not cure himself of. She feared, even as she was hours away from marrying him, that it would make her a widow.
“Come along, Grace,” her uncle said, “we’re running behind.”
They reached the coach just outside the door. It was a highly polished, black phaeton, with two oil lanterns rimmed in brass and large carriage wheels edged by a fine line of gilded gold. Thomas had found it in the old carriage house, years ago, forgotten under an oiled tarp, precariously favoring its right, rear wheel, the left having rotted away on its axis. Only months ago, a local craftsman, overjoyed at the opportunity for work in an increasingly destitute field, resprung the carriage, stripped the opaque, peeling paint, applied a fresh coat with new varnish, and painstakingly gilded a thin circlet within each wheel. Thomas took it for a drive the minute it was finished, stealing Charlie away from the nursery and her from her study, tucking them into the newly upholstered bench, with its black, tufted wool.
They spent two rare, sunny hours jostling about the winding paths, following Arrow River, stopping to show Charlie rabbits running from their warrens, newly bloomed flowers, or flighty robins in their boughs.
“We’ll make a gypsy of you, my boy.” Thomas had said around a cigarette, tossing up Charlie in his arms, eliciting riotous squeals from him and nervous glances from her—though she knew Thomas would never drop him.
“What do you think?” He’d turned to her, setting Charlie on his knee, “Will it do?”
“Yes, for a grand entrance.”
“Oh? Was this all just for me, then?”
“Who else, Grace?”
“You fancy your toys, Thomas, and you know the Sunbeam would have suited me just as well,” but she leaned in to peck his cheek quickly, then Charlie’s, before stealing the reins from his gloved hand with a secret, little smile. “But it’s beautiful,” she said, giving the horse a flick, “and fast,” she finished on a laugh, pushed back against the seat as the horse took off.
Today, there would be no easy ride along the river, nor would they speed through country lanes at their leisure.
At the head of the carriage stood the same horse from that pleasant spring day. She was a chestnut mare, with a white blaze and one sock on her left foreleg, for which she’d been named. Solitaire stepped from hoof to hoof, tossing her head. Poor thing had been waiting too long. A stableman took hold of the bridle, holding her steady.
Uncle Connor helped Grace maneuver the running board, gripping her arm while she balanced upon one white, satin heel, grabbing her skirt precariously with the hand holding her bouquet. Once she’d managed to fall somewhat gracefully into the bench, the footman handed her the rest of her veil and a purple muff. She set the veil and bouquet gently at her side before arranging her skirt. When her uncle flicked the reins of the horse with a firm “Trot on,” she pulled the blanket over them both, tucking her hands into the muff to bring the blood back into her fingers.
She looked out over the dull countryside, watching it pass by in faded greens and muddy browns.
After a long silence, her uncle spoke again. “The man you’re marrying, the way this whole business has gone about, it’s a stain on us.”
Her gaze turned from the land to the bouquet at her side. The calla lily had been used to represent purity for centuries. But it was also the flower most closely associated with the Virgin Mary, a woman whose pregnancy brought her scrutiny and shame, but also great joy. The tiny heliotrope blooms symbolized eternal love, because, as their name suggested, they followed the direction of the sun, like a lover always seeking their beloved. The sweet pea was for good fortune, of which she would need a great deal of in this marriage.
“Do you know why I chose lily-of-the-valley for my bouquet?”
“It seems you’re keen on telling me.”
“They represent a return to happiness. Each time I have met Thomas, I have regained the happiness I had lost.”
“Weren’t you happy with Clive, Grace?”
“I was content.” And she had been, in the cynical way one adapts when it seems there’s nothing more to discover, when life feels redundant and passionless. “But I want to be happy, uncle. Do not begrudge me that.”
He gave a long sigh, shaking his head. “You have made a mess of things, child. I do resent it, but you’ll remember what I said?”
“Which part?” she asked. “The part where I’ve ruined my reputation and dishonored the family or the other bit?”
“Don’t be smart. You made your choices, Grace.”
“And I don’t regret them. My only regret is Clive.”
“The less said of him the better.”
Grace didn’t think she would ever be able to set aside his specter. That was a cankerous sore that would fester, deep within a dark corner of her heart, for as long as she lived. The things his mother had spat at her in New York were pressed between the folds of her brain, the memory etched into the soft tissue like words chiseled into marble. They would weather, with time, but their mark would always linger.
“Let’s get this over with, shall we?”
Her uncle’s words matched the strangeness of her mood. A life with Thomas would always split her into two pieces, one half of her soaring high through cloudless skies, the other mired in deep snow banks, trudging forward through a fierce storm. These parts of her soul struggled to fit within a single body, her frame too small to hold them both at once. Some days she felt as if one mood pushed the other down into her toes, and that was the Grace who presented herself to the world. Today, she had been in that white, bitter storm for hours. Now, as they drove over the gravel path leading into the parish church, she felt herself float above those snowy banks, rising high into the air like a bird taking flight. Inside that church, at the end of the aisle, standing before a gilded altar, waited Tommy—and Charlie waited for them both in the nursery.
She held her uncle’s hand as he helped her alight from the carriage, letting him drape the blusher over her face, but even its dark, oppressive lace, which had so frightened her earlier, could not tear her from the sky.
The good news is: this story is completed! I have ten chapters in the final editing phases and will be posting one per week.
There may be some words or phrases that were meant to be italicized, but due to the website's text formatting, may have been lost.
Any historical notes below are cobbled together using copy and paste, with editing for brevity and clarity.
- It’s difficult to imagine how the show writers would have depicted society’s view of Grace, a married woman, living with her lover and their child. How much would the servants know? Family members? Society at large? Did they lie and pretend Grace was unwed, or perhaps already a widow? And how long was Grace actually a widow before they married? Did she use her maiden name or her married name during those two years? The only clue provided was during the vows, when the priest calls her “Grace Helen Burgess.” But was this a clue or simply a trait of an Anglican service (or a Catholic or Protestant one)? I have no idea.
We tend to believe that an unwed couple, especially one with a child, would be outrageously scandalous and rare for the period, but apparently, it wasn’t quite that rare. There are several accounts of couples cohabiting and having children outside of wedlock, but it did remain a delicate subject.
Likewise difficult to understand (at least without a local understanding of British laws and history) was how Charlie’s legitimacy would be handled. At the time, England had some of the toughest inheritance laws in Europe. No child born out of wedlock could inherit, not even if their parents married thereafter. It wasn’t until 1926 that children born out of wedlock could be legitimatized by the marriage of their parents, but only if the child was conceived when both parents were free to marry, which means Charlie was still out of luck. Eventually, I found a source which suggested it was possible for illegitimate children to inherit if their father left a crystal clear, legal will with no room for contest. This is how I imagine Thomas would have handled Charlie’s inheritance in the show.
Since those two years of cohabitation aren’t shown, I’ve chosen to have the servants in Arrow House address Grace by her married name. Perhaps Thomas would have cultivated the idea that Grace was already a widow when they got together. With her husband in New York, the local community wouldn’t have an easy way of knowing the truth from the lie. Only people who knew her in connection to her husband might know otherwise.
- The Plaza Hotel has been around since the 1800s. It was completely rebuilt in the early 1900s, which means it would have been a modern structure in the early 1920s. This was also the time when new construction began to add a three-hundred room annex and when The Great Gatsby dropped a mention of the hotel. All in all, it was swanky, hip place.
- Daid is Irish for “dad.” Grace would likely speak Irish, as Galway is a Gaeltacht district, even today. Gaeltacht is an Irish-language word for any primarily Irish-speaking region. It refers individually to any, or collectively to all, of the districts where the government recognizes that the Irish language is the predominant vernacular, or language of the home. The 2011 census reports that 42% of the residents of Galway City speak Irish and 20% speak Gaelic in the home. In important ways Galway City is the capital of the Gaeltacht. Galway is the home of the National Irish Language Theater and the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) has a presence in the city.
I did have a hard time finding information on whether an Irish Protestant household in the 1920s, made up of pro-British military officers, would teach Irish as a child’s first language, or their second, or if they might not teach it at all. Given the very high percentage of Irish-speaking locals in Galway in the 1920’s, I’ve chosen to make Grace fluent. If anyone can point to good references indicating the politics of language at the time, I’d love to read about it.
-So, what’s the difference between Irish and Gaelic? Specifically, Gaelic is an adjective that describes the people and culture of Ireland. The Irish language is sometimes referred to as “Gaeilge” (pronounced Gwal-gah), but it is not Gaelic; Gaelige is the name of the Irish language in Irish. Like its Gaelic cousin, both are Indo-European languages, but Irish is a language unto its own. The term “Gaelic”, as a language, applies only to the language of Scotland. If you’re not in Ireland, it is permissible to refer to the language as Irish Gaelic to differentiate it from Scottish Gaelic, but when you’re in the Emerald Isle, simply refer to the language as either Irish or its native name, Gaeilge.
But, wait, there’s more! As if the above isn’t mind-bending enough, Irish has three dialects:
Ulster Dialect—Spoken in the northwest corner of the country;
Connacht Dialect—Spoken in the west of the country; the two most prominent areas are Connemara and Mayo (Galway is hereabouts);
And Munster Dialect—Spoken in the southwest of Ireland.
- Some people speculate that Grace wore a lilac wedding dress because it’s a half-mourning color, and she was still in the mourning period after her husband’s death. This seems dubious to me, as I doubt Tommy would allow his wife to marry him in mourning colors. I believe a likelier explanation is the simplest: Grace had already been married before and she was a mother, wearing white may have been inappropriate by the standards of the time.
- In the first few episodes of Season 3, Grace addresses a maid she calls “Mary.” The maid says something that seems rather conversational and familiar to her (she scolds her for reading in poor light). I’ve chosen to make Mary the head housekeeper who came before Francis. She also doubles as Grace’s occasional lady’s maid (forgive any historical inaccuracies inherent therein).
- Blonde lace is a continuous bobbin lace from France that is made of silk. The term “blonde” refers to the natural color of the silk thread. Originally this lace was made with the natural-colored silk, and sometimes dyed in black.
There was a lot of blonde lace made in Spain, mostly in the Catalonia region, and especially in Barcelona. It had all the same qualities as blonde lace made elsewhere, with very large flowers. It was used mainly for mantillas and scarfs and became part of the archetypical image of a Spanish lady. Blonde lace made in Spain is called Spanish blonde lace. Because I’m unfamiliar with most laces or their patterns, I tried to find something to adequately describe the heavy lace blusher Grace wore and this seemed to fit the bill.
- A kirby grip is the same as a bobby pin (though some would argue this). Its name is derived from the trademark Kirbigrip, used by a Birmingham manufacturer of such pins, Kirby, Beard & Co. Ltd. I was doubly pleased to include a product manufactured in Birmingham into Grace’s getting-ready scene.
- I switch occasionally between the metric system and the imperial. Originally, I wanted to stick to the metric system as a nod to the story’s geographical setting, but that was a mistake, as the imperial system is British and was used in the UK until the 1960s. Let’s pretend all units of measurement are as they should be until I’ve had a chance to go back and adjust them.
- The Marriage of Queen Victoria, by Sir George Hayter (1792-1871), was begun on the day of her marriage, February 10, 1840 and completed in 1842. It is oil on canvas and measures 195.8 x 273.5 cm. Currently part of the Royal Collection Trust. Did it appear in Dublin during the early 1900s? I’ve no idea, as that was entirely made up.
- The 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards was a cavalry regiment in the British Army. It was renamed as the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards in 1788 and service for two centuries, including the First World War, before being amalgamated with 7th Dragoon Guards (Princess Royal's), to form the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards in 1922.
- An aiguillette, also spelled aguillette, aiglet or aglet, is a cord with metal tips or lace tags, or the decorative tip itself.
- Connor is short for Cornelius.
- I may have made Grace’s uncle a tad too soft in this. I do apologize for writing him out-of-character, but, in my defense, he only has one line in the entire show.
- Arrow House is meant to be between Birmingham and Warwick, on the River Arrow (thus the name).
It’s about a 42 minute drive from Small Heath to Warwick and the River Arrow today. Given the state of the roads in the 1920’s and a sustained speed of around 30 mph (which was really fast for the break systems and road conditions then), the trip would probably take about an hour to an hour and a half.
- The manor used to represent Arrow House is Arley House in Cheshire. The front of the house, which features an Atlas-like figure bearing a sundial upon his back, is actually quite nice compared to the somewhat haunted appearance it’s given in the show. But nicer still are the enormous gardens around it (even in the dead of winter); they’re famous and are counted among the top ten gardens in Europe. There is an herb garden, a kitchen garden with espaliered trees, statues, ponds, fountains, at least one tennis court, enormous boxwoods, green giants, long gravel paths, cottages, etc. It really is a maze. There are also tons of sundials (guess one of the owners was a busy man). The house is the home of Viscount Ashbrook and is Grade II listed and open to the public. The cuck barn with the clock tower is Grade I, having been built circa 1470. There’s also a large, private chapel (as large as most churches) and loads of picturesque acreage. The description in this chapter of the gardens is inspired by the real thing, but heavily sprinkled with fiction, so take it with a (large) grain of salt.
- The italicized use of “my treasure” in the scene when Grace is lost in the gardens with Charlie is supposed to signal her use of Irish. The Irish term used there could be A Stór, which is a term of endearment similar to “my darling,” but literally meaning “treasure.” Its anglicised form asthore appears in English-language literature, poetry, and song. Sometimes it appears as m’asthore, a mixed-tongue contraction of mo stór, “my treasure.” A thousand apologies to any Irish speakers who might cringe at the use of this (or of daid). Please drop a comment with any suggestions or corrections.
- The popularity of breastfeeding has waxed and waned throughout history. Before the 19th century, it was fairly unpopular for wealthy mothers to breastfeed. For various reasons, it was the fashion for the upper crust to employ a nursemaid. This trend began to change in the 1800’s, when doctors began to urge mothers to nurse their own children. Society followed suit, building up the image of breastfeeding as part and parcel of motherhood. Strong efforts by public health commissions were made to popularize breastfeeding, especially in poorer, urban neighborhoods where unsanitary water, hygiene conditions, and unpasteurized cow’s milk could easily lead to an infant’s death. The trend was reversed again in the 1920s, when advancements in public hygiene and standardization of pasteurization made it safer to use formula. Formula, which had been around since the late 1800’s, also saw improvements in the early 1900’s and by the 1920s it was seen as a reasonable alternative. The fashionable thing to do was to bottle-feed or to wean early and then bottle-feed, which is what Grace does with Charlie.
- It took a bit of digging, but the car Thomas drives in the early episodes of Season 3, and subsequently loses to Tatiana, is a 1924 Sunbeam 20/60 hp Enclosed Limousine. Tatiana’s car was a 1929 Bentley 4½ Litre All-weather saloon by Salmons, considered the height of technology at its time.
Arthur drives a 1926 Vauxhall 30/98 Peppercorn Tourer, which had a reputation for being sleek and fast.
- A phaeton (also phaéton) was a form of sporty open carriage popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Drawn by one or two horses, a phaeton typically featured a minimal very lightly sprung body atop four extravagantly large wheels. With open seating, it was both fast and dangerous, giving rise to its name, drawn from the mythical Phaëton, son of Helios, who nearly set the earth on fire while attempting to drive the chariot of the sun.
With the advent of the automobile, the term was adapted to open touring cars, also known as phaetons.
- Lily of the valley, sometimes written lily-of-the-valley (as per a British magazine), is a highly poisonous woodland flowering plant with sweetly scented, pendent, bell-shaped white flowers borne in sprays in spring. Other names include May bells, Our Lady's tears, and Mary's tears. Its French name, muguet, sometimes appears in the names of perfumes imitating the flower's scent. In pre-modern England, the plant was known as glovewort (as it was a wort used to create a salve for sore hands), or Apollinaris (according to a legend that it was discovered by Apollo).
In the "language of flowers", the lily of the valley signifies the return of happiness. It was used in the bridal bouquets of Kate Middleton and Grace Kelly.
Chapter 5: I Want to Remember You
I Want to Remember You
Across the flat, open land of Warwick, the damp wind tugged at the bare branches of the passing trees. Their naked limbs shook in the biting breeze, brittle wooden fingers scratching against the oppressive sky. Within a few weeks' time, winter would blow its icy breath over the still-soft soil. Grass, already gray and sickly in the throes of autumn, would wither beneath a frozen blanket. The muddy land would bloom with frost and a moon-white cape of snow would cover the world for brief moments of perfect beauty.
Grace imagined that first full snowfall, glimpsed through enormous windows, from the comfort of Arrow House, with a fire crackling in the stone hearth.
Driving the two miles from the church in the phaeton had seemed feasible from the shelter of her study, tucked behind thick, stone walls and warmed by faithful radiators, which were kept in order through means of an automatic stoker in the basement, constantly feeding the furnace.
"We need to order more coal," she said aloud.
"Already done—Mary set the accounts on my desk last week. You must be freezing to bring that up now."
Grace wrapped the fine wool of his overcoat more tightly around herself. Its heavy weight kept the warmth trapped within it, but the thieving wind snuck through the smallest of crevices, winding about her prickled skin.
"We're almost home," Thomas said, watching the road while he absently tucked the blanket more firmly around her hip.
She sunk into herself beneath the coat, clutching her hands within the fur muff over her lap. He draped an arm over her shoulder with a whispered "Come here."
Her nose hid beneath the velvet collar. Every breath brought her little traces of his scent, which she began to categorize: eucalyptus from his shaving soap, peppery nicotine from his cigarettes; and a nearly imperceptible combination of bergamot, orange, and cedarwood from the Italian cologne she'd purchased on Savile Row—which he'd received with skeptical disdain.
Those aromas tied her to different rooms within Arrow House, and to different hours within their day.
At dawn, when the sun stretched over the horizon, she could picture him at the shaving stand in their bathroom, in his pleated, cotton underwear, fresh from bed—vulnerable—soft as few would ever see him.
In a small, silver dish, he would create a rich lather from a round wafer of Proraso's shaving soap. On some mornings, when they had no urgent errands, she would step up to him, to take the brush and bowl from his hands and to apply the shaving cream slowly over his face. The aromatic eucalyptus oils in the soap would perfume the air between them. Sometimes she would set about her task practically, taking up the tortoiseshell handle of his silver razor and running it in smooth motions over the taut skin of his jaw or neck. In those quiet moments, the soothing sound of the razor head swirling through a porcelain bowl of fresh water was like a balm to her soul. Other times, she would dab cream on his nose and fruitlessly wrestle him for control of the brush, both of them slipping over the tiled floor, their skin streaked with dollops of the lathered soap.
On most evenings, after long hours of paperwork or errands or business, they would return to their room to dress for dinner, the sunlight through the window a pale specter clinging to the newborn body of a twilight sky.
Thomas would emerge from a hot bath, slick and new, the steam from the water escaping through the open door into their bedroom, carrying up the traces of clean, fresh soap into the corners of the tall ceiling. After dressing, he would dab the smallest amount of cologne onto his jacket.
And always, the biting smell of his cigarettes, at all hours and in all corners of their lives. She didn't know anyone who smoked as voraciously as he did, or as handsomely.
He was smoking now, as he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, mouth turning up into a smirk around his cigarette. "Are you smelling my coat?"
She untucked one hand from the purple muff to hold up the peaked lapel to her nose. "You're wearing the Acqua di Parma."
"I've no idea what that is."
"You do, but I won't tell Arthur or John."
"Arthur would wear frankincense if Linda asked. But John would drive me round the bend."
"And Finn would tell Isiah, who would tell Johnny Dogs, who would tell the Lee's. And then every gypsy and gangster in Birmingham would know the stoic Thomas Shelby wears cologne."
"On special occasions."
Grace tucked her arm through his, leaning against him to steal away the warmth of his body. "Is today a special occasion?"
As if he were in no hurry, Thomas took the cigarette from his mouth, rolled it in his fingers, tossed it over the side of the phaeton. He placed both reins into one hand and with his other caught up the back of her neck, through which he pulled her into a hard kiss. The firm press of his lips, his fingers clutching her hair, the feel of him against her breast, like fire through her veins. The grey, cloudy sky, the whistling wind, the cold in her bones—it all faded beneath a rising fire deep in her belly. A soft breath escaped her when he pulled away to glance briefly at the road. Her eyes remained closed, face upturned, lips slightly parted.
"That's how I wanted to kiss you."
She opened her eyes to meet his stare. "In the church?"
"Before God, the Virgin, and all witnesses, real or imagined."
"Shocking, Mr. Shelby."
"Oh, I aim to do shocking things to you, today."
Blood rose to her cheeks and she turned her face into his shoulder, where she felt the breath in his chest rattle with a single, quiet laugh. Thomas relished any opportunity to break her usual stoicism.
As did she, thought Grace, resting her palm high on his thigh, letting her fingers brush in-between his legs, where she touched him without warning.
All at once, his right hand jerked back, pulling the reins too roughly, the horse gave an angry huff, dancing back a step, the phaeton jolted into a stop that threw them both slightly forward, and his spine shot up into perfect straightness. Her hand was already on his knee when he threw out his left hand to catch it and keep it from further mischief. She could feel the muscles in his thigh jump in tense expectation. Thomas tossed her a hot look, then cleared his throat as he resettled into the bench. He straightened his suit's jacket and gave Solitaire her lead.
Grace kept her eyes firmly upon the road, tilting her chin up. "I can do shocking things, too, Mr. Shelby."
"Foul play, Grace."
"No such thing in love and war." Her smile, which had been narrowly kept to a tight line by force of will, finally curled up into the apple of her cheeks when she caught sight of his red-tipped ears and flushed neck.
"What will the servants think?" He said as they entered the drive, circling round the dormant roses with their sundial statue—the weathered figure of Atlas bearing the burden of time.
"Nothing they would ever say to us."
The enormous entryway they drove up to featured ionic columns carved in high relief from a stone façade, with heraldic crests at the spandrels, above which sat another coat of arms, surrounded by intricate knot work. Before this stood the servants, lined up into two rows on either side of the stone arch, waiting to greet them for the first time as husband and wife.
When the carriage rolled to a stop, two footmen wearing immaculate black livery came forward to help them. Thomas passed the reins to the first, then stepped down from the phaeton, turning to offer her his hand.
She placed her frigid fingers into his warm palm, kept so by black leather gloves. His long, Chesterfield coat dragged behind her as she alighted. The footman nearest took up her veil, which she'd forgotten to wrap around her arm, handing it to her. Thomas draped it twice over her shoulders, to keep the delicate lace from the grasping teeth of the gravel. Along with the coat, it made her appear like a child having stolen into her parents' wardrobe. She could tell he thought her a ridiculous sight by the sparkling mischief in his eye.
Mary, along with George Williamson, the head butler, approached them. Both extended their congratulations.
"Welcome home, Mrs. Shelby." Mary said, standing straight in her neatly pressed uniform, hands clasped before her, wearing a warm smile.
"Thank you, Mary. You are the first person today to call me that." Having placed extra emphasis on "first," she glanced at Thomas with an upraised brow.
"I'll have to dock your pay for spoiling my moment." Thomas said to Mary as he lit a fresh cigarette.
"My apologies Mr. Shelby. Shall I unsay it until you've had the opportunity?"
"Consider it unsaid." She gave a little bow to which Thomas tipped his cap.
"Where's Charlie?" She asked Mary, tugging the coat closer around her.
"He's been fussy without you. I managed to get him to nap an hour ago."
"When you wake him, bring him down."
Williamson looked at Thomas as if he'd requested Charlie be flambéed before the wedding party. To a man who began service in 1876, she supposed a toddler mixing with the Waterford crystal was like a madman set lose among a munitions factory.
Mary didn't blink twice, well-used to Tommy's unconventional requests. "Of course, Mr. Shelby."
"Before dinner?" Williamson interjected.
"He's one-and-a-half. Any later than dinner and he'll fall into the soup."
Grace mediated. "Bring him down after we receive the guests. That will give us time with him before we sit at the table."
Thomas tossed his cigarette into the gravel, looking out over the road leading into Arrow House. Their guests must have left the church by now. "Come on, before we're invaded."
Mary and Williams bowed as he took Grace by the hand, leading her up the steps into the recessed porch, where he pulled her through the large, arched double-doors, throwing over his shoulder one final statement "We'll be out in a minute, Williamson."
In the foyer, it was quiet and dark. None of the warmth of the radiators reached them this close to the entryway. A draft blew in behind her, whispering through the hall before the door shut it out. Up ahead, she could see the landing of the staircase, over which hung their portrait in the pale glow of electric lights. There wasn't a sound to be heard, not a single servant underfoot. Any moment, their guests would arrive, a caravan of cars to line up in the gravel drive. Their owners would expect them to stand in the grand entryway, ready to receive them.
"We really don't have time to sneak away."
"A husband and wife have certain rights on their own wedding day."
"We can't be absent when the guests arrive. It would be terribly rude."
Thomas turned to face her. "This is as far as we'll go. I just wanted you inside the house."
He untangled her veil and removed the overcoat from her shoulders, throwing it carelessly into a chair at his back. "I hadn't wanted to say it until we were here."
His hands rubbed against the thin sleeves of her dress, warming her arms and shoulders. "It's been two years of waiting; I wanted it to be right."
Grabbing his hands, she removed his gloves slowly, pinching the fingertips one at a time before peeling away the leather.
"I'm tired of pretending not to hear when people call Charlie a bastard. And I'm getting too old to defend your honor with razor blades."
The teasing light in his eyes brought a smile over her face. "My honor? You didn't used to care about things like that."
"I was a long way from parliament then."
"You're still a ways from parliament. I should talk to my cousin about it. He's a solicitor, very academic, he can suggest—"
"I don't want to talk about your cousin."
"No? What should we talk about?"
"Goals, Grace. We were talking about goals."
"Just the one: the goal, right this minute," he took her hand in his, pulling her close by the small of her back, "Is to hold my wife before the cavalry arrives."
"Are we dancing?"
His eyebrow ticked up, "Aren't we?"
"There's no music," she said, already following his slow lead.
"We've never needed music."
"You're awfully romantic, today."
They swayed in the silence, her temple pressed into his chest, his jaw resting against the crown of her head, the sound of his heart steady and deep against her ear. The dark, cool foyer wrapped them in shadows that kept out the harsh, bright world.
He leaned closer, dropping his next words into her ear. "Welcome home, Mrs. Shelby."
"Is that what this was all about?"
"I've waited five years to say that."
She felt as if he'd slipped his hand in-between her ribs, straight through the flesh and cartilage, to wrap his fist around her beating heart—a painful ache and yet sweet all the same.
"Don't say anything. I didn't mean it that way."
He did mean it exactly as he'd said it. But she understood, for she too wished it had been so. All those years ago, that day when Kimber came knocking, just before, when Thomas had been smiling and high, building visions of their future, and her, tight-lipped, each of his promises a sword lancing through her. If only we could act in the present with the knowledge of the future, or at the very least, its wisdom, how much suffering might we avoid? To turn back the hands of the clock, to stand within one's body, older yet younger.
Thomas sensed her spiraling thoughts, or so it seemed, for he kissed her cheek, whispering against the soft, velvety skin. "It was worth it, Grace."
She tucked herself closer to him, hiding her face. His voice traveled through her when he next spoke, still softly, but lighter.
"It might be hours before we're alone again."
Clearing her throat, she strove to distract them. "By then, you likely won't look as dapper as you do now." She drew back a little, holding onto his hands as she said, "Let me look at my husband."
He wore a three-piece woolen suit, in a deep navy that appeared nearly black in the dim light. The trousers were double-forward pleated and the jacket was single-breasted, with peak lapels rising from a short gorge. He looked trim and stylish—the lines of the suit closely followed the strong, lithe lines of his body.
"Haven't you looked at me enough, already?"
"I want to remember you in your wedding suit."
"It looks more like you want me out of it."
"I do," she said, continuing to categorize the details of his attire.
As always, his jacket remained unbuttoned—a useful habit for a man who carried guns. Peaking from the sleeves of the jacket were crisp French cuffs secured by golden links whose faces held a single diamond stone next to the etching of his initials. She'd given him those cuff links for his birthday last year.
"You wore my gifts."
He touched the drop earrings hanging by the line of her jaw. "So did you. Have you finished your study, Mrs. Shelby?"
He had a linen handkerchief tucked into the welted pocket at his breast, below his boutonnière. This she pulled free, walking around him to unfold it over the surface of a tall pedestal, whose gleaming wooden tabletop held an arrangement of fresh roses in a porcelain vase. He came to stand at her back, observing her actions over the slope of her shoulder.
From a hidden pocket sewn into the folds of her dress, she unearthed three flowers—one heliotrope bloom small enough to fit on the pad of her index finger, a stem of lily-of-the-valley holding three tiny bells, no longer than her thumb, and finally, the smallest bud of a blossomed sweet pea. They were slightly crushed from their journey, and already wilting, but she arranged them gently upon their linen canvas, folding the handkerchief into the required shape. She turned, tucking it into the pocket from which she'd pulled it. He watched her all the while.
"What's this for?" he asked, tapping the handkerchief.
"A number of things."
"You're a clever man. I'm sure you'll figure it out." Grace said no more on the subject. Instead, she took the newsboy cap from his head and set it over his discarded coat. Thomas drank her in as she came closer.
She laid a kiss into his palm, then set his hand against her jaw. "Won't you touch your wife, Mr. Shelby?"
"You're trying to kill me," he breathed, the fingers of his right hand tangling into her hair, the left clutching her waist through the silk of her dress, digging into her skin.
The soft quiet was cut through by the explosive pitch of a car horn. They heard John's voice yelling outside, "Where's the bastard?"
Thomas dropped his forehead against hers. "Fucking John."
Grace laughed, agreeing with him. "Williamson's blood pressure must have shot into the stratosphere."
"Already there." He laced his fingers with hers, walking them to the oak doors. "Let's get this over with."
"You sound just like my uncle."
The small sitting room off the entrance hall was paneled in elm, with gilded mirrors and pale raw silk curtains descending five-and-a-half meters from the ceiling. These were offset by a contemporary set of armchairs and couches, upholstered in off-white wool with curved armrests made of highly polished rosewood, all set over a plain, cream rug.
Most of her family had commandeered the room as theirs, holding court away from the travelers, business associates, and Birmingham-bred ruffians they so disdained. It was an obvious and snobbish maneuver which forced her to split her time between hosting them in their isolation and hosting the rest of her party.
"I'll say this for the man: he has taste." Her aunt remarked, indicating the room with one hand, the other clutching her third glass of champagne.
"He married a Burgess, didn't he?"
This caused a round of laughter and mild teasing, which she took with a distracted laugh of her own, her eyes darting once again to the doorway, through which she searched the entrance hall for Tommy's blue suit.
"Where is that husband of yours?"
"Business, no doubt," she said absently. Then turned to address the speaker, her cousin, asking him for advice on a good law tutor.
"Write to me about it, or call. I'll forget otherwise, Nell. And I can recommend some excellent books come out recently—classics, too."
"Don't get him started, Grace! He'll talk your ear off. I swear he gets hot thinking about Blackstone."
They both ignored Seamus, who was always doing his best to get a rise out of Sean, ever since they were all young enough to play with sticks.
"I'd appreciate that," Grace told Sean.
"Is it for the foundation?"
"For that and other things. You'll find out about it eventually."
"Freshly married and already keeping secrets?"
"From you nosy lot? Absolutely."
Someone asked her about the wedding guests, drawing her attention away from her cousin.
"I can't say how many are in attendance," she said with a smile, "it seems a number of people are here who weren't invited, but it makes for a lively party, doesn't it?
"Too lively." Her uncle muttered.
She made a great effort not to roll her eyes, and succeeded, likely due to all the times her housekeeper boxed her ears as a child for doing so. "Arrow House has never seen this many people, not even at Christmas. I would love to host this year, if you'll come."
The wife of her eldest cousin, a woman with ice chips in place of eyes, muttered an answer into her champagne coupe which Grace pretended not to hear.
"Not bloody likely."
Her cousin cleared his throat loudly, pitching his voice over his wife's, "We'd be delighted. Wouldn't we Uncle Connor?"
Uncle Connor did not reply.
"How long has it been since we've seen Nell at Christmas?" Someone else spoke to fill in the heavy silence.
"Six years, at least."
"It can't have been that long!"
"Sean had just gotten home from the front; 1918, I can never forget it."
Her father's last Christmas, spent in his boyhood home.
"Don't you remember the good time we had, Grace?"
She did. Uncle Connor's country estate sat at the edge of County Galway and County Tipperary, nestled atop a hill overlooking the River Shannon as it fed into Lough Derg. It was a short drive from Portumna, but hours from Galway. With her uncle's help, Grace purchased the rail tickets to surprise her father for Christmas. They were hard days for him since the loss of his son and the month leading up to the holiday saw him shut in his study or at the Constabulary, dragging a dark cloud wherever he went. They had so many arguments that year. Mean, hard words thrown between them about politics, women, marriage, vengeance, justice.
For Grace, that Christmas was an opportunity to wager a ceasefire—a brief peace removed from the stresses of their everyday lives. She hoped to walk the halls where'd he'd played as a boy, to learn a little more about who he'd been as a young man and she hoped those halls would bring him some measure of comfort.
"It's a shame you had to lease it, Connor."
"The IRA's torn the country apart. May's nerves couldn't take it anymore."
"You're always blaming my nerves, Cornelius, but you were the one worried we had a target painted on our backs."
"Because we did."
"Come now, you two. No arguing on a wedding day," someone interjected, laughing.
"When all this Separatist nonsense is over, you should host another party at Shannon, Connor. Open up the house, relive the glory days."
"Nothing can ever outshine that Christmas. It was sublime."
"Do you remember the caroling and the riding? The hot chocolates served with the butter biscuits, still warm from the kitchens?"
"And the snow! Snow in Portumna!"
"What a grand holiday that was."
It had been grand. In twilight of the Belle Epoch, her uncle had thrown open the doors of Shannon Manor, hosting twenty close friends and relatives for nearly six weeks. Horse riding by the river, decked in velvet coats, ice skating on a rink built for the festivities, sledding down snowy hills on cloudy days, waltzing in a vaulted hall, where liveried musicians played into the night and towering evergreens grew from the corners of each room, dressed in ribbons and strings of electric lights. Or else raucous caroling beside a gilded piano, long evenings by the fire, succulent fruits flambéed in brandy, cups of Hot Toddy with fragrant, curling steam, chocolate tarts stacked a meter high. It had been like a dream, the likes of which is lived and then recalled with wondrous disbelief, as if staring into a room through a crown glass window, watching the distorted figures within glow in the candlelight, a riot of colors as they spun through a waltz, their shadows dancing along the walls.
Christmas Day that year dawned heavy and grey. But the dark clouds hanging low in the sky did nothing to ground their spirits—nor the snow turning to slush under a drizzling rain. The house woke with a clatter of cheerful noises. Children ran through the halls, their feet pounding against the floorboards or over the soft runner, racing from their nursery to invade the peaceful rooms of their parents, or else to raid the kitchens for rare treats. Servants gave loud, pleasant greetings as they ran into each other, the lovers amongst them sneaking kisses beneath mistletoe branches. Boisterous relatives knocked mischievously on the doors of their sleeping neighbors, yelling "Up! Up, you slothful heathens! It's Christmas Day!" To which their reply was a bark of irritation or an appeal to mercy—oftentimes both. "We were up 'till dawn! The Devil take you!"
Tea preceded church, then their Christmas breakfast was served in the French style, the oak table groaning under the weight of silver trays laden with oranges, sautéed potatoes, salted mackerel, chipped beef on toast, blood puddings, soft eggs, buttery scones, roasted tomatoes. This was followed by skating, the ice having been carefully preserved through the morning's rain, covered by tarps. Grace could remember the creamy Edwardian dress she'd worn—its loose chiffon overskirt weighed by beaded patterns of flowers in the art nouveau style—getting torn and dirtied as she'd fallen more than once, taking her father down with her, both of them laughing and wild. The happiest she'd ever seen him.
That evening, her maid came into her room bearing a blue velvet dress from Worth's. All along the front of the gown ran a bold pattern of large, stylized lilies, embroidered in silver thread. This pattern was repeated across the back, where the lilies bloomed down over a sweeping train. The tiny sleeves were off-the-shoulder, the bodice form-fitting, and the skirt generously flared into a princess cut. It was the grandest gown her mother ever owned, and worn only once before her death. In some ways, it was inappropriate for an unmarried woman, and it was dated, conforming to late Victorian standards.
"Who sent this?" She asked the maid.
"Your father, Ms. Burgess."
"Does Mrs. Burgess approve?"
"In that case, will you help me try it on? It's been ages since I laced myself into anything like this."
It was a little tight at the waist, her mother having been a wraithlike thing in her last years, but a tighter lacing of her stays solved that. Between them, they applied the hot iron to her long hair, pulling it up into a lose coiffure that sat low on her neck. They added long earrings—white, enameled lilies her father had given her for Christmas. And now she knew why. The dress was already so stunning, they left her neck bare and on her arms, she wore only her long, creamy gloves.
When her father knocked on her door, to escort her to dinner, he stood unmoving at the threshold.
"You look so much like her, my child."
The maid curtsied, leaving them alone.
"Will you tell me about her, when she wore this?"
They sat on the couch before the fireplace, her father staring into the flames and into the past. Between them were two empty spaces that would never be filled.
"I could never afford such a gown, but we'd received a rare invitation to a grand ball. I had every intention of declining, but your uncle bought the dress for your mother, to force my hand. She adored it, and I had no further excuse to refuse her."
"You've stayed close, over the years, with Uncle Connor."
"Mostly through his own efforts, I'll admit. You've heard the stories, of all our misadventures when we were children."
"Only because others tell them. You rarely speak of that time, Daid, or of them."
"No reason to live in the past, my girl. You may come to appreciate one day, how painful it is, to view fond memories through the lens of an imperfect present." He patted her hand. "Though I hope you never know such things."
"You wanted to know about the dress, yes?" He said over her, turning to help her stand. "Your mother wore it in 1896. She looked as beautiful as you do now. Men envied me and women envied her gown, which I was told, by more than one vapid creature in that ballroom, was 'Simply the pinnacle of fashion.'" He pitched his voice a little at the end, in imitation of a crone's nasally soprano.
Grace laughed, standing as he did. "It's beautiful, Daid. Thank you for bringing it."
"I'm a gruff curmudgeon of a man, Grace, but I do have a bit of sentiment left in me, and enough sense to know the world that dress was made in is fast fading. This is likely the only chance I'll get to see you in it."
"I don't think I could manage it outside of family. I'd be ridiculed."
"Vapid creatures, the lot of them."
"Am I vapid, then, for caring?"
"You have more heart than that, my child. Enough to drive any father mad with worry. All those ideas you have."
She stood, pulling him with her. "Let's not argue."
They walked down to dinner together and together they danced along with cousins and siblings and uncles and aunts, well past midnight.
Those weeks spent at Shannon Hall carried for her a magic she'd never been able to recapture, perhaps, because like her father, that was an age and a world since buried.
"Grace. Grace, darling, your housekeeper is calling you."
She brought herself into the present, looking towards Mary, who stood in the doorway. Grace excused herself, walking out of the room to speak with her on the stairs, nestled behind three raucous guests spilling champagne over the carpet.
"The baby's just woken. Would you like me to bring him down?"
"Yes, that would be lovely." Before she could curtsy, Grace added, "Have you seen Thomas?"
"He's in his study, Mrs. Shelby."
"Thank you, Mary."
Her journey to the study was halted by numerous guests pulling her aside into brief conversations.
"Grace, have you met my sister?"
"Come and verify this rumor about your husband, Mrs. Shelby!"
"Darling do tell me about your dress. Is it Lanvin or Vionnet?"
"Mrs. Shelby, when will the foundation be ready?"
"Grace, love, Linda was just telling me—"
To avoid further interruption, she chartered a course close to the paneled walls and breathed a sigh of relief when the door to the study finally closed behind her, shutting away the loud clamor of voices. An echo from the noise rang in her ears within the silence of the room.
Sitting at his desk, leaning into his hands, arms outstretched on either side of him like the wings of a bird, was Tommy, his head hung low between his shoulders. She heard him take a deep breath before he straightened.
"Whatever it is, it can—" he begun to say as he stood, before realizing it was her. "Grace."
Pushing off from the wooden door, she stepped into the middle of the room, her heels sinking into the Persian carpet.
"You look as tired as I feel."
He tucked one hand into the pocket of his navy trousers, running the other over his face. "I should have agreed to an elopement."
"I did ask you for one."
"Don't remind me." He pulled his silver case from his jacket and lit a fresh cigarette. It was nearly at his mouth when she gently plucked it from his fingers.
"I'll have one today."
His lips pulled up into a short smile. "Hours to go yet."
"You've been far away." She half-sat on the edge of his desk.
A soft hum of acknowledgement left his throat. "I've been trying to keep the Lee's from stealing the silver, John from gutting a red coat, and Arthur from proselytizing."
"No leash for Polly?"
"Polly can behave herself. Though she'll curse like a man no matter what company she keeps."
The warm smoke filled her lungs when she took a long drag. As she exhaled, she observed the circles under his eyes, his pale skin, and the lines around his mouth. "But that's not all, is it Tommy?"
He came around his desk, taking a seat in the leather chair before her. She turned her waist to face him. Around them, the leather-bound books lining the walls kept silent testimony.
"You've been anxious for weeks."
"I'm run thin, Grace. Between today, the business, my family, yours." He placed particular emphasis on "yours."
"It's our wedding day, Tommy. We'll only get the one. Come out of your head." She softened her words by tapping his calf with the toebox of her satin heel. "At least for a little while."
His tight smile didn't hold much promise. He took the cigarette in her hand, inhaled, then gave it back to her.
"Maybe Charlie will cheer you. Mary is bringing him down."
She had expected the news to be well-received, but whatever levity she had been trying to build faded at his reply.
"No," he said firmly around a mouthful of smoke, shaking his head. "Keep him upstairs."
"You were the one who insisted."
"I've changed my mind."
"You were adamant."
"Grace, I said no."
She looked away from him, crushing the cigarette into a glass ashtray, then standing from the desk. Finally, she met his stare. "What's going on, Tommy?"
"Nothing. There are people here that weren't on the list. I don't want Charlie in reach of strangers."
"But that's not all of it."
Silence stretched out between them. When it became apparent that he had nothing more to say, Grace marched from the room, the door slamming behind her.
This chapter was a struggle to write. There's so much going on during the wedding that it's difficult to find organic moments where Tommy and Grace can speak candidly about difficult subjects. I'm continuing to take liberties with the order of events and with scenes, deviating from canon (such as giving them a few minutes alone at home before the guests arrive from the church).
- Many houses still used fireplaces to heat in the 1920's. However, central furnace heating became popular providing hot air. Larger houses required steam or hot water boilers and radiators. Firing the furnace meant hand shoveling small lump coal into the furnace, sometimes every 2 hours or so. Hand adjustments of the draft and damper on the furnace regulated the amount of heat provided to the house, which, in turn set the coal shoveling frequency. A considerable amount of smoke, gasses and dust worked its way thru the hot air ducts directly from the furnace to the floor registers in each room. "Clinker", or the burnt remains of coal had to be removed almost daily so the furnace would continue working.
A half winter supply of coal was delivered to a home through a coal door at the side or rear of the house. The coal truck would get close, extend a metal chute through the coal door and into a coal pile in the basement. From there, the coal was hand-shoveled into a furnace. Starting in the 1920's and 1930's some more affluent homeowners could afford a new invention called a "stoker", a small metal coal hopper that sat over a metal feed screw, which fed small pieces of coal to the furnace. An upstairs thermostat activated the coal feed which increased the house heat.
This dependency on coal meant that larger homes had to plan their orders for the winter because they needed A LOT of coal. The Biltmore Estate in America, for example, placed coal orders that numbered hundreds of thousands of tons.
- The history of perfume, specifically as it relates to men, is a long one. Originally, perfume was unisex. Cologne was only a name used to describe the ratio of oils to alcohol and did not have the masculine connotations it does today. Everyone could wear cologne and everyone could wear perfume. Perfume was extremely popular for both sexes in the 18th century. In the late 19th century there are some suggestions that it lost popularity among men, seen as a bit too feminine, besides which, it was expensive and not easily accessible to working class men until synthetic scents and better extraction methods were developed. But, nevertheless, there were wealthy men who continued to wear it and ordered bespoke mixes. Acqua di Parma was an Italian cologne first developed in 1916 and used originally to perfume men's handkerchiefs (they're still in business today). It had a lighter, fresher scent than the heavier perfumes fashionable at the time, and as such was widely popular across Europe. A tough gangster from Birmingham would probably never wear perfume. But, as we can see in Season 3, Tommy is fond of expensive creature comforts. I like the idea of him secretly liking cologne, especially if it was Grace who got it for him.
- Proraso was a brand of men's grooming and shaving supplies developed in 1908. They were lightly scented and continue to be used today. "Green" line products are scented primarily with eucalyptus oil and menthol and are the first line of products produced by the company.
- Before pressurized cans allowed for instant shaving cream, men used shaving soap and a shaving brush to create a rich lather.
- It was hard to find details specifying the popularity of safety razors in the UK during the early 20's. They were around, undoubtedly, and were very popular in the US because Gillette had cleverly gotten a government contract (where his safety razors were included in the kits given to soldiers), but their popularity in the UK is a little bit harder to gauge through cursory online searches.
- The phrase "no such thing as foul play in love and war," has an incredibly long history. It's phrasing has changed over the centuries, but Grace and Tommy would definitely be familiar with a version of it.
- There's a phenomenal description of Tommy's wedding suit by BAMF Style, titled "Tommy Shelby's Blue Wedding Suit." Linen, according to them, is apparently the most accurate historical choice for a handkerchief in the 1920s. And his suit would have been the height of fashion. The blue, a rare choice for Tommy, also sets it apart from his usual grays and blacks. Additionally, it was accurate of the production team not to do up the lowermost button of his vest (apparently this button is always left unfastened)
- Nell is short for Helen, which is Grace's middle name in the show.
- I've based Shannon House, the country home of Grace's uncle, on Portumna Castle, which does sit near the Shannon River Basin and Lough Derg.
- The menu for the Christmas Breakfast was taken from a historical site describing a breakfast served in 1906 (albeit likely from America), which listed the following: oranges, germia, broiled salt mackerel, chipped beef on toast, baked potatoes, griddle cakes, muffins, coffee.
- Snow in Portumna is apparently very rare.
- I tried to find the times when breakfast would be served and the times when a church service would be held on Christmas Day in the Protestant tradition, but could find nothing specific to the time period. Thus, that bit about breakfast preceded by church may be inaccurate. If anyone has any information on that, leave a comment, please!
- Originally, I mentioned creamy coffee served with whiskey in Grace's memories of her 1918 Christmas, but Irish Coffee wasn't invented until the 1940's, so I replaced it with a Hot Toddy (tea spiked with brandy, sweetened with syrup, and flavored by spices).
- Grace's Christmas evening gown is heavily inspired by the 1896 Lily Dress by Worth. The version I imagine her wearing wouldn't have the large, white Bertha collar. House of Worth was one of the most expensive and popular couture houses in the Victorian era. In 1918, it would have looked out of place among the looser, simpler silhouettes of the Edwardian Era. It was also an incredibly elaborate dress and eccentric even for the time in which it was designed. Given that Grace was surrounded by an intimate gathering of close friends and family, it may have been tolerated—or I may have let the story get away from me.
- Lanvin and Vionnet were two couture houses that were very popular at the time.
Chapter 6: Let This Be Enough
Let This Be Enough
Soundlessly, Grace shut the adjoining door to the nursery—Charlie had finally fallen asleep. Leaning her forehead against the painted wood, one hand still upon the glass knob, she closed her eyes in the hopes that this moment's stolen peace would stretch out before her into hours.
Downstairs, the dinner table was covered by an immaculately laundered white linen cloth, into which were tucked forty-two mahogany Chippendale chairs with openwork splats. Footmen, overseen by the exacting Mr. Williams, had set out the cut crystal, the Bernardaud china, and the Tiffany silverware, measuring the distances between each item. Over a watered-silk runner rested tall candelabras, interspersed between twenty squat, silver urns holding arrangements of velvety orchids in claret, creamy white roses, burgundy carnations, tissue-like sea lavender, and playful baby's breath, shot through with sprays of eucalyptus, Leyland cedar, and leatherleaf fern. These were softly illuminated by the candlelight, which danced across the crystal and the silver in flickering flashes. In the corners of the room, electric bulbs, hidden beneath frosted glass orbs and upheld by the bronze arms of tall, beautiful nymphs, filled in the shadows. The sounds of a string quartet, tucked by the windows, played on.
The wedding guests trickled into this room of warm colors and mellow music, pouring forth through the double doors. They split into two rows, parting before the table like the arms of a river before a canyon. To her left sat her family, and on her right, Tommy's. Both parties looked across the narrow expanse of the tablecloth. They faced each other like the German and British armies staring out over no-man's land to survey the enemy trenches. From their Chippendale parapets, they launched their attacks.
"What is it you do, exactly?"
"I'm a bookmaker."
"A bookmaker? How very modern. Yes, quite modern."
"What division did you serve in?"
"The 4th Dragoon Guards."
"Fancy name, ain't it Johnny?"
"Rations must have been good fare."
"As far as those things go, yes, I suppose they were."
"We ate rats in the tunnels."
"Fred was a deft hand at roasting them."
"Big, fat rats. It don't take a genius to guess what they got fat on."
"I'm surprised you weren't late to the wedding."
"John, that's enough."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Nothin,' just that you cavalry lot have a reputation."
"I'm not sure I know what you mean."
As their wedding guests eviscerated each other bloodlessly over the meal, her appetite withered away like seafoam on the shore. The oysters over ice, the cucumber soup with dill garnish, the broiled fish with watercress salad, the veal croquettes in béchamel sauce, the lamb roast with glazed carrots, the palette-cleansing sherbet; these things passed her by in a nauseating parade of barbed quips. She observed distantly as the crisp tablecloth soaked in splashes of wine or port, the size and number of stains proportional to the level of alcohol imbibed.
At her side, Thomas, who had favored his whiskey glass over his dinner plate, seemed equally stone-faced and prickly. Her anger towards him had followed her from his study and sustained itself on the poisonous fumes rising from the dinner table. She found it a relief when a maid leaned down to whisper in her ear.
"The baby is ready for bed, Mrs. Shelby."
She'd excused herself from the minefield of their dining room, and now found herself in the master suite, leaning before the vanity to reapply her lipstick.
At its heart, their bedroom featured a large rosewood bed, dressed in silken pewter sheets, set over an ivory rug whose thick, soft pile was a sensual delight under the soles of her feet early in the mornings. Behind the bed towered a bay window three times her height. It took up the entire wall, with original diamond-pane latticework at the transom, and newly replaced single-hung, sash windows to best showcase the front gardens. White paneling disguised the French shutters, which the maids drew closed most nights. In the mornings, when he was sure she was awake, Thomas would slip out of their warm sheets to open them. Rosy tendrils of shy sunlight would unfurl into the room, chasing away the cozy darkness which had sheltered them through dreams; illuminating the ivory pattern of peacocks and stenciled flowers on the muted, emerald wallpaper.
The sound of footsteps in the hall reached her, followed by the bedroom door creaking open—it stuck, sometimes, from the many layers of paint applied to it over the decades. Through the mirror, Grace watched Thomas walk in.
"You're needed downstairs."
He was down to his waistcoat, shirt wrinkled about the golden arm garters he favored, and hair mused from worrying it.
She finished applying her lipstick without answering.
He spread one arm outwards, towards the open door, as if to emphasize where he expected her to go. "Grace," he said slowly, "you're needed downstairs. Arthur wants to give his speech."
"I was putting the baby to bed. He kept asking for you, but Mary says you weren't at the table." She capped her lipstick, placing it into the velvet-lined drawer of the vanity.
He stared at her through the mirror, nodded, and moved to close the bedroom door firmly. He stood with his back to her for a moment. Distantly, the sounds of the clock striking the hour could be heard. It's deep, resounding chimes were the only sound in the room.
Thomas stepped from the shadows of the foyer, leaning his elbow over a tall chest of drawers and massaging his temples with one hand, as if he had a headache. "I'm sorry to have missed it."
"You've missed a number of things today, Thomas."
"I needed a smoke and a talk with John; away from those red coats before one of us spilled blood at the dinner table."
She swiveled to look at him, palms outstretched at her sides. "I'm sorry they wore their uniforms, Thomas, but—"
"Yeah, they fucking did—"
"For God's sake—"
"—they sure fucking did."
"—it doesn't mean anything!"
"It means fucking everything if you fought in that fucking war."
"How would I know anything about that when you never speak of it?"
He walked away from her, into the bathroom. She followed, her blood high, her footsteps eating up the ground. But the fight in her drained away when she saw him, sitting on the edge of the tub, head in his hands, fingers curled tight into his hair.
He sighed and looked up at her when she stood before him.
"This isn't about the uniforms or about the bad blood downstairs. Tell me what's wrong, Tommy."
"Nothing's wrong, Grace."
There had been fears living within her for the past two years; dark, unfounded secrets that floundered in the light of his affection, but rose like shadows at dusk in the aftermath of harsh words or long silences. He had been so nervous these last few weeks, snapping at the servants, at his family, at her, in uncharacteristic bouts of caustic replies.
"Do you regret it?"
"Regret what, Grace?"
"Meeting me again in London? Charlie?"
He remained silent, looking at her for a long while. "Are you really asking me that?"
"I need to know it's business making you this way and not regret over me."
She turned her head to the side, to escape his hard stare, absently observing the tiles above the paneled tub. "You've always had great ambition, Tommy. The way things happened between us…There are days when I wonder if you don't wish I'd never come back."
"Even when Kimber was one gunshot away from killing me, I've never regretted you."
"Then tell me it's business. Say it now and I'll know it's true."
"It's business, Grace. Bad business all around." A pause, then a long sigh. Looking at the ground, he added, "And I'm scared, Grace."
Fear was a word she could hardly imagine in relation to him. He seemed so surefooted at even his lowest moments. "Of what?"
He shook his head, reaching into his waistcoat pocket for his silver case of cigarettes. "I'm scared for you. I'm scared for the baby."
The blood iced within her veins. The room shrunk around her, its tall ceiling coming down on her head. "Is this why you wouldn't let Mary bring Charlie down? Has someone threatened him?"
"No, no. That's not it."
"Then why are you afraid?"
"I just am" he said, taking in a deep drag of the cigarette. "Look, this is how I am when I'm scared. It's unfamiliar to you but not to me. I can fucking be scared and carry on. I know it's not pleasant to look at, not a joy to be around. Alright? I'm sorry."
She stepped into the space between his legs, kneeling on the ground, the cold tile hard and unyielding. Setting her hands on either thigh, she said, "Tell me what you're afraid of, Tommy. Tell me the truth."
"It's nothing, Grace. It's just me in my head."
"I doubt you've forgotten what I used to do for a living, Thomas. There have been strange cars coming and going for weeks; your brothers have been hanging around your study in closeted meetings where not a single maid is allowed to interrupt. You're irritable—worse, you're nervous—and a Russian who has no place at our wedding is asking odd questions about the company."
His blue eyes remained unreadable, even as he looked down at her hand on his knee, which he took into his own, lacing their fingers.
"You promised me, Thomas. Partners, in life, in business, in everything."
"I'm starting to see what your uncle was talking about."
A faint smile curved the corners of his lips, "He said you were too headstrong, for a woman."
She clicked her tongue against her teeth in irritation.
"His words, not mine."
"You're trying to distract me."
"Tommy, are you going to tell me what you're afraid of or not?"
The air was warm and dry from the radiator, almost stifling within the smaller space. Silence stretched between them, interrupted only by a drop of water falling from the faucet into the porcelain sink.
He spoke not a word.
She leaned all of her weight into her palms, digging them into his knees to stand, ripping her hand away from where he held it. Her heels clicked harshly over the tile, then the wooden floorboards. Sitting at the vanity, she tucked errant strands of hair beneath the diamond headband for want of anything else to express her frustration. Thomas appeared behind her in the mirror. He walked around her, obstructing her view.
"Stand up," he said quietly, placing his hands on her arms.
Ignoring her, he pulled her up. "Stand up, come on." He stubbed the cigarette out in an ashtray, then gripped her jaw gently, holding her face so she had to look at him. Leaning down to meet her stare, his eyes holding hers, he said with utmost seriousness, "Arthur's speech."
"I'm scared of fucking Arthur's speech."
A laugh bubbled up out of her, despite what she was truly feeling. She sighed, smoothing the front of his waistcoat. "So am I."
He pulled her close, wrapping his arms about her shoulders. She let them have this reprieve, breathing him in, listening to his heartbeat, feeling the quiet silence sink into them.
One of his arms dropped down beneath the small of her back, grasping her skirt in a fist, dragging it up.
Kisses dropped along her neck.
"Tommy, there's half the British army waiting for us downstairs."
"They're King's Irish. I waited two weeks in the mud for them."
He herded her closer to bed, toppling her gently into it. The mattress with its silken sheets was soft beneath her, but even still, she feared for the delicate waves in her styled hair. Already, the diamond headband shifted against her scalp, straining against the pins keeping it in place. "Tommy, there are things that if I take off, I won't be able to put back." She strained her neck, trying to keep her head from sinking into the mattress and crushing her hair.
"That's alright." He said, bending over her, kissing her. His lips traveled a path over her skin, soft caresses that took the stiffness out of her neck and plucked all concerns from her mind.
"Hello, Mrs. Shelby. I'm sorry for being busy in my head." His hands dragged her skirt up higher and he unzipped his fly, settling in the cradle of her hips. "Let us complete the ceremony."
She laughed, then chastised him. "You'll ruin your trousers."
"I have others."
"You'll wrinkle my dress."
"You have others."
"Not like this I don't. Thomas—"
He gripped the back of her knee, hooking it over his hip. A glimmer of light caught his attention, and he turned his face down to look at her thigh. "I like these," he said, tracing the glass gemstones that decorated the garters holding up her thigh-high stockings. She could feel the ghost of that touch through the silk; gooseflesh broke out across her flesh.
Catching his hand, she brought it up to her lips to kiss.
"You aim to distract me through underhanded means, Mr. Shelby."
Her head fell back when his fingers slipped between them, her eyes closing against the sharp pleasure.
He dragged his nose along her neck, up her jaw, his temple resting against her own. She felt his breath whisper over her hair when he spoke next, the words dropped into the shell of her ear.
"Love and war, Grace."
She helped him into his waistcoat, slipping five buttons through their eyelets, leaving the bottommost one undone, to ensure the notched edges of the vest moved with him as he sat or stood. Her hands wrapped around his waist, gauging the fit.
When his back was to her, she tightened the strap. Running her hands over the satin, Grace pushed lightly against one shoulder blade.
Tommy turned to face her. "You're quiet."
"We forgot your watch." She walked to the rosewood bedside table, spotting the golden gleam of the closed hunter-case. All the while, Tommy's eyes followed her.
"It's never a good thing when you're quiet."
Taking the T-bar clasp, she slid it through the third buttonhole in his vest, tucking the watch into the lower left pocket. She arranged the onyx fob to fall face out, and adjusted the open-link chain leading to the watch, ensuring it hung in a perfect arch.
"Where did you throw your collar?"
Peaking from the edge of the bed, she spotted a thin, white strip of starched fabric. "Will you get that, please?"
Thomas looked to where she pointed. He leaned one hand onto the bed, tipping forward to retrieve his collar, which he handed to her silently.
She sat on the chaise, where his tie lay. Threading the knit silk through the inside fold of the collar, she stood and walked behind him to attach it at the golden stud sewn into the shirt's tunic neck, fighting to keep the tie neatly within the starched fabric. "This would be easier if you weren't already in your shirt."
"We were in a rush."
"As Arthur has kindly reminded us."
"At least he didn't interrupt."
She turned him to face her, attaching the final stud, weaving the tie over and under into the knot he favored.
When she was done, he stilled her hands, holding them against his chest. "Alright, out with it."
Finally, she looked at him. "Do you trust me?"
"You know I do."
"Then tell me the truth."
"It's complicated, Grace."
"Are you saying I'm simple?"
He scoffed a laugh. "Anything but, love."
She stretched out her fingers, reaching up to cradle his jaw. He still held onto her wrists as she gripped him. "Partners, Tommy. In life, in business, in the whole fucking thing. Those were your words in Birmingham. Prove them now, if you've really forgiven me for betraying them."
"Arthur's going to come knocking again."
He led her to one side of the bed, sitting her down on it. "Wait." Walking to their bedroom door, he opened it, looked out into the hallway, then closed and locked the door. He sat beside her in bed, their thighs touching. He told her everything, from Churchill covertly funding the Whites in Georgia, to his role and his interests in the mad plot.
"The Russian downstairs. Is it him?"
"He's a soviet."
"And what does that mean for us?"
"That he has to be taken care of."
She cradled her head in her hands, leaning her elbows on her knees. "Christ, Tommy. In our own house?"
"You wanted the truth, Grace."
"Promise me something."
Taking his hand, she placed it flat over her heart. His fingers curled gently against her, the warmth of his skin bled through her silk bodice. "Can you feel that?"
"Yes," he said, looking at their hands.
"Promise me, on my life, on Charlie's, that this will all end soon. That this business with the Russians will be the last of it."
"I don't care about the liquor or the smuggling or the fixed races. That doesn't worry me. But this sort of thing, this will get us killed, Tommy."
"It's not so easy, Grace."
She pressed his hand more firmly against her rapid heartbeat. "You're not an average man. You can move mountains when you want to. Give me this, as your wedding vow to me."
"What would you have me swear?"
"To settle for the life we have, Tommy. To let this be enough."
"It is enough, Grace."
"If only you believed that."
He touched her cheek, cupping her jaw. "I can promise you this: I'll keep us safe."
"That's not what I asked."
"I know, Grace."
She looked away from him, facing the wall opposite, staring at the pattern of peacocks in the paper. They swirled before her in unfocused lines. "Pride and ambition."
"Mark me, Thomas."
"Don't say it."
"These will be our end." The words came to life between them, like the explosive sound of a bullet, which once fired from its chamber could never be returned to it.
The ballroom had white paneling in the French rococo style, decorated lightly with gold leaf. These were broken by swathes of a silken fabric in pastel yellow, used as wallpaper. The rich decor fit well within the cavernous room, from which hung three crystal chandeliers, each over a meter in diameter. Mirrors caught the light they cast and reflected it back into the room, along with the rainbow flashes of the faceted pendalogues.
Grace paused before one such mirror, whose gilded frame stretched to a width of six meters. Beneath it sat a silver punch bowl bracketed by crystal candelabras.
At her side stood Polly, in a flattering pewter dress of velvet brocade set into chiffon silk. Her smile was too wide. She looked like a woman in a painting, the courtesans with their vixen eyes and curling lips.
She took a sip from her punch while Grace served herself a cup. "You look absolutely beautiful. Everything, the dress—" she waved a hand slowly about her head, "—your hair. Everything. Beautiful."
Looking at her through the mirror, over the rim of her silver cup, Grace took a sip of the punch, then said. "Oh, I see. Tommy's orders?"
Polly remained smiling and unspeaking.
"No upsets tonight?"
"Welcome to the family."
Grace had been about to raise her cup, but she paused, that sentence cutting through her composure. Few people managed to burrow themselves so successfully under her skin as Polly did. Every word she spoke traveled through her ear like a needle prickling into her brain. The instinct to prick back was too strong. "You know," she began, "there are certain things you would like to keep me away from. Certain things that Tommy would as well. But from the moment he met me, he's told me his secrets."
Taking out her cigarette case, Polly lit a licorice-wrapped cigarillo, maintaining her wide smile. "Men are so easily lead, aren't they?"
"Today, I could tell he was keeping things from me. We went upstairs to have sex, and after he told me everything."
It was vulgar to say it, and unfair to Thomas to paint him like some green boy led by his prick, but she wanted to dig that needle deep into Polly's ear, to wipe the vixen's smile from her face.
"The business with the Russians, with Churchill. The Whites purchasing guns to fight their revolution in Georgia. Tommy doesn't believe they stand a chance."
Polly's smile finally faded away. Through the smoke of her cigarillo, she stared carefully at Grace. "You know it's begun tonight? The business with the Russians?"
Both of them had turned a little to face the party. On the dance floor, the tasseled skirts of women rose and fell like ribbons in the wind; beads sewn into hemlines or bodices caught the light in glimmering facets; men's coattails flared open when they spun their partners in short, fast circles; watch chains flew against waistcoats; and glasses of champagne or whiskey trembled precariously in the hands of their owners, the liquor within spilling out in translucent, amber arches. The blonde floorboards, varnished to a high-gloss finish, had been polished the evening previous. They would need to be polished again.
Grace continued to observe the guests as she replied. "Yes. I know. Though I'll admit it took everything I had to pry that fact from Thomas."
"You're quite good at that, it seems. Weaseling out secrets."
"Let's not forget what I made my living on."
"Oh, sweetheart," Polly said, casting a loaded glance at her, "It's only Thomas that's forgotten what you are."
Grace savored an insult, like a bit of molten chocolate, but let it die upon her tongue. She looked down into the contents of her silver cup, then at Polly. "He has forgotten, but contrary to what you might think, I wish he would remember. I wish he would use what I learned in that time."
"He'll never mix you up with this."
"Yet he'll use you? Arthur, John, Ada? Even Finn?"
"It's not the same to him. We've always been a part of this. It's who we are."
"I've been a Shelby for two years, whether you'll admit it or not."
"You weren't born to it, much less with that family of yours, all gilded red."
"That gilded family has connections in parliament, the army, the constabulary—"
"Don't boast about your connections, darling. Thomas had a chance to marry a woman who could open doors you'll never even manage to knock on."
"I'm not May Carleton." Grace had planned to follow that sentence with a meaningful point, but Polly spat out a barb so poisonous even she seemed taken aback.
"No, you're an adulteress with a bastard and a family whose importance is, like Ireland itself, fast becoming irrelevant."
The music around them, ragtime, loud in their ears, seemed to shrink away beneath the immense presence of those words. Polly took a step back, placing her hand on the table to steady herself.
Staring at her through unblinking eyes, Grace raised her free hand slowly, plucking the cigarette case from Polly's grasp. She took her time pulling a cigarillo from its interior, placing it to her lips with no hurry. Perhaps as a sort of peace offering, Polly extended her lighter.
Finally, Grace felt composed enough to speak.
"I'm not May Carleton, that's true. I am an adulteress, that's also true. And that bastard," she cast the word through closed teeth, "is your blood."
Polly cleared her throat, looking away into the crowd. "You know I love Charlie."
They smoked, unspeaking, listening to the rising music, watching the dancing.
"Despite the doors I can't open," Grace finally said, "my family has connections in important places. They can secure introductions and I can secure information through them."
Polly remained quiet, taking a deep drag of her cigarillo, holding the smoke in her lungs before releasing it slowly. Her eyes observed her all the while, flickering over the planes of her face. "You're serious."
"Whatever hate you might feel for me, you share my love for him. I want him out of this world, Polly. I want him safe. I want Charlie safe."
Grace had already cut out her heart, there was no point in hiding it now. "You've always dealt in the unseen, haven't you? Tommy says you have the sight."
Polly watched her carefully. She took the cigarillo from her mouth and crushed it into a glass ashtray beside the punch bowl. "What about it?"
"I've never believed in things like that, not really. But there's something in me," Grace paused, unable to describe the chill in her veins, the sensation of skeletal fingers softly stroking her shoulders. "I want to untangle him from all this before it's too late. And this business with the Russians. He needs every ally he can get."
Her voice faded beneath the loud music and before Polly could reply, a woman hanging on Esme's arm tumbled into them.
"It's the bride!" Her screeching laugh pitched as high as the trumpets on stage. Esme shot them both a look through a frown. "This is my sister. In case you couldn't tell, she's three sheets to the wind."
"Grace—" The sister began, then she looked to Esme "—Can I call her 'Grace?'"
"Fuck off," Esme replied, to which the sister continued on, unbothered.
"I just had to tell you, Mrs. Shelby, Grace, how much I liked your spiffy bouquet. I love lily-of-the-valley. It means happiness, don't you know?"
"Yes," Polly interjected, looking sweetly between her and the lush. "It's also a deadly poison. A perfect choice for our bride."
The blood rushed to her cheeks and Grace gripped her cup with white-knuckled fingers. "Did nothing of what I just said mean anything to you?"
Esme looked down at her closed fist, then up between the two of them. Instead of taking her sister with her, she remained, always eager to gather information.
"Don't expect me to cut the quips. It's tradition."
"Polly, I'm serious."
"This week, come visit me. For tea."
"I love tea," the drunk laughed.
"Tea." Grace said flatly.
"Yes, afternoon tea. Isn't that what rich girls do?" Polly added.
"Have you always been rich, Mrs. Shelby?"
"Shut up, you idiot," Esme spat.
Grace turned to march away, but Polly's hand shot out to grip her wrist. Their eyes met. With one hand, Polly took the fresh cigarillo from her mouth, with the other she held onto her. "The same thing you want for Thomas, for Charlie, I want for Michael."
The music playing on stage abruptly stopped as the Master of Ceremonies approached the microphone. His rich voice spread over the room, cutting between them. "Ladies and Gentlemen, the bride and groom will now dance alone."
In her periphery, Grace could see Tommy approaching. She placed a smile on her face, feeling the eyes of the room upon her.
Thomas reached her with an outstretched hand, which she took.
They came together in the center of the dance floor, in a space cleared by the guests. His right hand clasped hers, his left curled around her waist. The band struck up a slow jazz tune. Thomas began to lead, holding her close as they swayed. Their cheeks touched.
"Should I be worried?" He said, the words whispering by her ear.
"Polly clutching your wrist. Both of you locked in a duel."
She shook her head slightly. "You witnessed a truce."
"Given the two of you, that's more troubling than a war."
"Perhaps you should be worried."
His lips curled into a smile against her neck. He set a kiss onto her jaw. "Perhaps I should."
The faces watching them seemed to fall away, the room narrowed the focus of its embrace, the music spinning about them.
"Grace," his voice had lost its teasing edge, "what you said in the bedroom—"
He squeezed her hand, looking at her intently. "I'll keep us safe, Grace. I promise you."
But he still hadn't given her the vow she truly wanted. She knew he never would, because he wasn't capable of it. It was not in his nature, as she'd once told him.
"I love you, Grace."
Her answering smile was small, her voice a shadow when she replied, "I love you."
He kissed her: a brief, sweet kiss in consideration of their audience. But he pressed her closer into him, bringing the hand at her waist up between her shoulders, fingers splayed, to hold her more securely, to shield her.
Grace closed her eyes, tucking her face against his neck. She did not want to see the world around them, she only wanted to feel him, his warmth, and his love.
Let that be enough.
Thanks to everyone for the kind comments! I hadn't realized the double paragraph breaks between one scene and the next weren't coming into effect, it must have made it a little difficult to identify when one scene ends and another begins. Apologies for that! Like the issue with the italics, that's something I'll have to keep an eye out for. Also, if you haven't yet read the lyrics to Nick Cohen's Breathless, which they played in Peaky Blinders just after Grace and Tommy get married…then you're missing out. This show knows how to choose the perfect song to support a scene!
Any historical notes below are cobbled together using copy and paste, with some editing for brevity and clarity.
- The menu described from the wedding dinner is based on historical accounts of foods and menus served in the early 20th century (with some liberties, such as the mention of veal croquettes). Weeks after writing this I stumbled across a fabulous recipe book based on the show Downton Abbey. It's titled The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook by Annie Gray and has a fairly comprehensive list of British upstairs/downstairs recipes along with historical notes.
- The 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards was a cavalry regiment in the British Army. The regiment landed in France at the outbreak of the First World War as part of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade in the 1st Cavalry Division on 16 August 1914 for service on the Western Front.
- "The king's Irish." As in the Northern Irish Protestants
- The show drops some clues as to why the Peaky boys would hate cavalry uniforms at their dinner table. There are hints that they "waited two weeks in the mud" for the cavalry, so likely it's a personal grief specific to our fictional characters. But, on a historical and social note, Grace's family comes from a privileged class of officers. Not too long ago (for people in the 1920s), British commissions could still be purchased and sold, though the practice was abolished well before WWI, the wealthy had taken ample advantage of this system, and Grace's family likely did as well. Additionally, there were serious differences between how officers were treated and how privates were treated. Those uniforms, therefore, also represent a class division, the haves and the have-nots.
- The description of Grace attaching the detachable collar and the pocket watch come from various sources. There's a great Youtube video showing how it would have been easier to thread the tie through the collar before attaching the collar to the shirt. The pocket watch Tommy wears could possibly be a T-bar chain, as it disappears behind the buttonhole of his vest. The chain also features long, rectangular open links and a decorative fob (in some sort of dark stone). Hunter-case describes a pocket watch with a metal face that can be popped open to reveal the glass face of the watch (it protected the glass from damage).
- Pendalogues is the term for the individual crystals which make up a chandelier.
- I keep trying to find the brand or name of the cigarettes Polly might have smoked. There were flavored cigarettes that had dark wrapping papers, and there were also dark wrapping papers sold to roll your own cigarettes, but as to the proper name or the likeliest type Polly might have smoked, I'm left in the dark.