He is seven years old when he asks his father about the golden haired woman in the lovely violet dress.
“Is this mama?” Charles inquires softly, cobalt eyes wide as one hand comes to gently touch the brass picture frame. It sits on his father’s desk, this one lone picture frame—small and unadorned but visible against the backdrop of paperweights and black horse figurines.
Charles doesn’t actually expect an answer after the silence drags on for a few minutes more. His father is good at deflecting and in this business (though Charles can’t quite bring himself to admit what this business is just yet) illusion and elusion are the eyes of the whole operation. So instead of expectation, Charles focuses on this framed photograph of his father and mother. She looks so different from the elegant—but distant—woman in the family portrait.
Here, his mama is smiling—beautiful and soft though Charles can see the iron underneath. No mere blossom could have ever matched his father—she would’ve needed an implacable will and cunning determination to catch Tommy Shelby’s eye. Sometimes, Charles likes to think that his mother charmed and smiled and danced her way into his father’s heart. Other times, he believes that his mother had simply walked onto an ash soaked street and decided Thomas Shelby would be the one for her. Aunt Polly and Aunt Ada sometimes tell him stories about his mama but the tales he likes best come from Uncle Arthur.
“Oh-ho, she was a spitfire, boy.” His favorite uncle chortles fondly, one large, calloused hand balanced atop his head. “Full of elegance and culture but if you looked a little closer, she took no shit from any man—not even your father. Especially not your father.”
Sitting behind his father’s desk, Charles wants to know if it’s true. Because even though he is only seven years old, he wants more than just a memory.
He wants the truth—and isn’t the truth whatever Thomas Shelby makes it out to be?
Charles looks up, eyebrows furrowed. His father is staring out one of the study room windows—floor to ceiling in length and letting in cold grey light. His hands are in his trouser pockets, a cigarette dangles from his lips and—
His eyes are fixed towards some indistinct point, hidden behind the hazy grey horizon.
“That’s Grace.” His father’s voice is both present and far away—as if only half of him remains with this world. The other half has gone, to a rosy dance hall with a live orchestra and a golden haired maiden with mischief hidden behind her sparkling jade eyes.
Charles looks back down at the photograph and is suddenly hit by a spur of inspiration. “Papa?”
“Did mama sing?”
His father turns towards him, ever so slightly, just enough so Charles can catch a glimpse of his delphinium blue eyes. “Your Aunt Ada never told you?”
“I don’t think so. Aunt Ada said mama was beautiful and clever and dressed very prettily. Aunt Pol tells me even less than that.”
A faint smile appears on his father’s lips, faded and foreign. His right hand comes up and releases the cigarette from his mouth, allowing a plume of pale smoke to escape. “Yes.” He breathes out—gradually, almost tenderly. “She sang like an angel. Sad songs were her forte.”
“Sad songs?” He looks down at the picture. “I don’t remember mama singing sad songs. She smiled too often to be truly sad.”
Charles does not notice his father’s eyes widening—just a fraction. “You remember that?”
“Fuzzily.” He confesses with all the childish innocence of youth. “Like a dream. But I won’t forget it.” He adds fiercely, because he is a Shelby after all. “I refuse to forget mama. I won’t.”
Thomas Shelby turns away from the window then, facing his son with an unreadable look in his eyes and suddenly, Charles feels very small. Sitting in his father’s black leather chair, behind the satinwood desk where documents, mergers, and files are neatly splayed. He feels like an intruder but he’s also a Shelby. So Charles does not apologize—no matter how badly he wants to.
For a long time, father and son study each other with the same analytical quality Thomas Shelby has come to patent. Charles’s gaze is unsteady—less sure—but he has the will to endeavor on and that is what makes Tommy smile. That quiet, implacable will that was entirely Grace’s trademark. Hidden, of course, beneath her soft aureate beauty but still—it was there for anyone who looked for it.
Charles begins to slide off his father’s chair when Tommy gives him a smile—truer and more genuine than anything he’s offered anyone in years. “You are your mother’s son.” He intones with that reticent gravitas of steel and gunpowder, soft and commanding. “You have my features but you are your mother’s son.”
“Uncle Arthur says I have her smile.”
“Did he?” His father’s lips quirk up even more, until it almost looks like a real smile. “He’s never been unobservant.”
“Could mama play the piano?”
“Your mother was a patron of music.”
Something bubbles up in Charles—something exciting and true. “I want to learn the piano, papa. I want to play mama’s songs.”
Silver soft emotion flashes across Thomas Shelby’s eyes but it’s gone in a flash—like a too brief star fall. He is composed within seconds but Charles knows that it’s his papa speaking to him now.
“And so you shall.” He agrees. “You’ll have the best tutors, the best instructors—and you’ll play your mother’s songs beautifully, won’t you Charlie?”
“Yes! I promise papa! I swear on it!” He nods eagerly.
His father smiles, one final beatific time. “Run along then and tell Aunt Polly. She’ll have someone scout out potential teachers. Go on, Charlie. I’ll see you at supper.”
The little boy—overjoyed by his father’s acquiescence—does as he is told, scrambling out the door with a jubilant smile Tommy seeks to preserve for as long as he can. Situating himself behind his desk, the leader of the Peaky Blinders picks up the brass picture frame and looks at it, blue eyes searching and mournful.
There was his Grace, forever young and beautiful, captured by the camera lens. He could see, even in this faded picture here, all the joy and hope of a woman in love—a woman of contentment. She had not only brought him happiness but in his dark, malevolent world she had built a little shrine of bliss and peace for the three of them. A place Tommy could retreat to when work became too much; when the bodies piled up and sullied his already stained hands.
Grace. His forefinger came to caress the image of her face. I know you’re watching over us. I’ve never been a religious man but for you, I’m willing to believe in something. I promise he’ll never forget you—and neither will I.