My husband, Rex, believes he is the sun. He shines orange-gold, and is attracted to money, power and flamboyance. He works with an abundance of other men. Some of them are highly intelligent, and I wonder if those ones tire of him. If Rex was prepared to increase his own vocabulary, he would speak better, but he has never listened well, and rarely reads. When we were first married, he’d gaze at me. He liked me most when I was almost, though not quite, naked. I’d been attracted to him because he seemed like the kind of man who would look after me. Protect me in some way. I wanted him to want me, and became quite an expert at that slow, tantalising reveal. I wonder now, what I thought it was that I needed to be protected from. Other men, perhaps. Or unpredictable people who wanted things I couldn’t give them. Or people that I loved, dying, like my father had when I was five years old. I suppose I was more fearful back then.
Over the years of our marriage, his vision of me has changed. When he notices me now, it is in the same way that the sun might notice clouds. Dimming things. Enhancing things. Things to send rays through. When I demand anything of him, I get the impression I’m distracting him from being able to shine.
So I’ve learned over the years to not make demands. To get whatever I need elsewhere, and give him as little of myself as I can. I know that with him, I can lead a privileged life. Rex is about to achieve his lifetime’s ambition. Tomorrow, he will become an Emperor. He used to be a politician, who was once a boy who went to a single sex school where he learned absolutely nothing about girls. He likes me to stand beside him at any kind of ceremony or celebration, but apart from that, I have never had any duties. He also prefers that I don’t have any profession of my own. It is not Rex’s wealth and high-standing which makes me stay with him. I’m not a gold digger as such, as to dig for anything implies effort. The success of our relationship is due to the fact that he is so often absent from our home. Spending days and weeks alone means that this is more my home than his, and I have always been fairly autonomous.
It is a beautiful house. A pool in the basement, a roof terrace, spare bedrooms. I fill my time with drawing. Having never done housework himself, Rex has no idea how long it takes. He assumes it keeps me busy all day. However, I have a man who comes in and does it for me, once or twice a week, by prior arrangement. I employed him, or perhaps this arrangement could be seen as him employing me, after seeing his personal advertisement in the local paper. No money actually changes hands. He wears a constantly furrowed brow and a business suit, calls himself Slave, but won’t tell me his real name. He insists I verbally chastise him while he cleans anything that needs cleaning. He’ll even wash Rex’s underpants. Never mine, though. It must be a sexual thing, for him. I’ve often tried to understand the nuances of certain types of sexuality, but usually give up at the first mental hurdle. I think the only way to understand something like that is to fully experience it, in a kind of immersive way. But I am generally faithful by nature and though Rex is not, his tastes are fairly straightforward. These days he wants far less from me than he did when I was young and beautiful. Our sheets are made from good white cotton, and usually remain unstained.
Today, Rex is at work, preparing his acceptance speech, hopefully with the assistance of his more articulate colleagues. I’m in the attic room, which is my favourite room in this house. The sun comes in through three skylights. I’m sitting at my desk, hardback sketchbook open, drawing pictures in a thin black pen. Yesterday I drew elaborate, detailed drawings of individual flakes. Today I’m drawing a landscape of white hills, a grey sky, and one solitary winter tree. I have sketchbooks filled with drawings of all kinds of imaginary snow-scenes which Rex doesn’t even know about. I wear my coldness on the inside. He loves the city we live in, the warm climate, the cascading grape vines. I grew up in a snowy landscape, and even in this attic which is filled with my poetry books, collection of snow globes, and the smells of cinnamon incense, I am sometimes homesick. I miss the landscape, more than any particular building or village. The light here is different – much brighter, and so constant that it burns my pale skin. I miss the smell of bonfires. But most of all I miss the silence and coldness of snow.
In the warmth of this climate, all the plants seem overgrown – almost monstrous versions of things which should be stunted and twisted. And yet, I love the exuberant white roses and lilies which grow everywhere in this city, even along the edges of the roads. Their scents are intoxicating, especially at dusk.
I was in my early twenties when my mother died. I inherited and sold the house. I went travelling and met Rex a year later when I was reading alone on a beach, only a short boat ride along the coast from here. With the bright sun shining on him, his hair looked bleached white and even his teeth were golden.
I still soften, nineteen years later, as I remember that moment of meeting a man who could shine sunlight from his smile. I was soft then, I think. Warmer. But I can’t really remember. It seems so long ago.
So tomorrow evening, after years of waiting, Rex finally becomes Emperor. Visitors to our city will arrive in red buses from the north, and on trains from the south, and in boats from the nearby islands. They’ll merge with the smartly dressed locals. I can already imagine what it will look like from the distance, to see Rex glowing bright from the top of the steps outside the City Hall, shining his light on a crowd of admirers that he warned me three months ago would be huge, enthusiastic, and want to see me smiling beside him. He told me to buy a new dress for it, gave me an envelope of notes, and suggested blue, so I match his shoes.
I didn’t think too much about it, as the future always seems so far away. I was busy finishing a drawing of a detailed rock formation on an icy mountain range.
Rex can’t have memorised all of my dresses – I’m sure I’ve got a grey one that’s arguably close to blue. Though I don’t really want to argue with him. He flies into rages when he believes there’s a point to be made, or doesn’t like the way I talk to him. Slave even mentioned that once. I think it was about six months ago. Slave had arrived too early, and overheard us arguing as he lingered outside, waiting for Rex to go out. When Rex had gone, Slave found me crying. He seemed to adapt well to the unexpected. He was reassuring, and told me that Rex was prone to fits of rages whenever anyone disagreed with him. It was a relief for me to hear this, as for years, I’d thought Rex’s tantrums were mainly my fault. When I asked how Slave knew this, he said he’d used to work for Rex, but had been fired. Once I’d stopped crying, I chastised Slave severely for being presumptive and talking out of turn. Even Rex complemented me on the cleanliness of the house when he arrived home the following morning.
I am fond of Slave. He is a strange, but clearly intelligent little man.
As I draw a ragged tree that’s been bent in a gale, I realise I’ve been worried for a while, but now I’m finally letting myself feel it. Rex has been growing bigger and bigger, of late. It’s not that he’s fattening from too many expensive meals, as he’s always eaten like that. It’s a kind of all-over bigness. He’s taller, wider, and brighter than ever. He’s recently bought five pairs of new shoes, two sizes larger than the size he usually wears. As he gets closer and closer to achieving his lifelong ambition, the bigger he grows.
But another strange thing is, that as he’s been getting bigger, how he talks has changed. I’ve rarely seen him for the past few weeks – he’s been at work all day, and spends the evenings with his colleagues or visitors or officials or lovers, or whoever. But three days ago, a meeting had been postponed so he was here for brunch. I cooked him scrambled eggs on cubed potatoes. He nodded appreciatively at the food, and then with the attitude of delivering a complement, said something along the lines of: ‘great peaceful grateful gracious magnificent special small.’
Feeling flattered, I’d laughed and replied, ‘you’re enjoying it, then?’
‘Bigly.’ He’d replied. Fork to lips, he grinned at me as if he’d said just exactly the right thing and it had been well received. Then he simply returned his attention to his meal.
It was only after he’d gone out that I realised I had no idea what he’d really meant.
So, tomorrow it’s Rex’s big night. I can’t hide from it any more. Perhaps I should go out and buy a blue dress just to avoid any arguments. But this drawing is so nearly finished. I might just twist this branch a little to the left, where the gale has dragged it to. I can almost feel the wind on my face…
The light’s changed. Will the shops still be open? I go downstairs to check what the time is.
As I pass our bedroom, the doorbell chimes, startling me.
My bare feet are sweaty. They stick on the black and white tiles of the entranceway as I open the front door.
It’s Slave. His thinning hair is less neat than usual. He steps over the threshold and closes the door behind him. He quickly removes his brogue shoes, as always. He’s wearing mis-matched pink and white socks.
I say, ‘I didn’t ask you to come here today, did I?’
He shakes his head. ‘Can you stop Rex?’ He says quietly, and grabs my wrist.
I laugh, more out of shock than humour, and gently ease my arm away from his grip. ‘Don’t touch me, Slave. Why should I be stopping Rex?’
He replies, ‘he has no policies.’
I shake my head. ‘He doesn’t discuss these things with me.’
‘Never. He wants to be Emperor, and wants my support.’
‘What kind of support?’
I shrug. ‘To make him look good I suppose. Married and reliable, with a faithful Empress in the background. He’ll be good enough. He’s charismatic and popular.’
Slave smirks. ‘So he keeps saying.’
‘I don’t know what he’ll do once he’s Emperor. He just always wanted to be one.’
Slave folds his arms across his double breasted jacket and paces up and down. He pauses, and raises his gaze from the floor to my eyes. ‘Have you heard the things that are being said about him?’
‘I don’t get out much.’
It seems our usual roles are reversed. I usually question Slave relentlessly as soon as he arrives, so I can decide which particular misdemeanor to discipline him for. Slave is quite sweet when he’s this focused. I reply, ‘I’ve always been quiet.’
A little uncertain, I shake my head. ‘Rex says everyone here is too loud for me. Party types. I’d find them difficult to get on with. And I don’t mind – I’m busy with my own things. I’ve always been independent.’
‘You’re his hostage.’
‘How dare you, Slave!’
He looks away, cheeks flushing slightly. ‘Not playing. This is serious.’
‘Why? I thought you said he’d got no policies?’
‘He’s no longer speaking in the same way as everyone else, and he’s being constantly misinterpreted. Some people hear one thing, others hear quite another. It’s a clever tactic, though he won’t have thought of it himself.’
I frown, thinking of Rex’s string of words over brunch. It occurs to me that this could be true. He was flattering my cooking entirely with adjectives. And I half-believed in them, because he’d blinded me by using quite so many.
Slave says, ‘taking power, the way that he has, has gone to Rex’s mouth, as well as his head.’
‘He didn’t take power. He was appointed Emperor by the last one. I wonder if there will ever be an Empress appointed, or if it will always be a man.’
Slave has no answer, but that was a hope, more than a question.
He says, ‘bribed him, more like.’
I shake my head. ‘What do you fear he’ll do with power?’
Slave removes a piece of folded paper from his jacket pocket. He unfolds it as he says, ‘my brother scribes for him. He wrote down Rex’s proposed acceptance speech from their meeting this morning. Rex believes that everyone needs to know he is a man of action, so he’s decided to talk in verbs.’
He hands it to me.
It’s been handwritten in a gold metallic pen. I tilt it so the light falls on the words:
“protect ravages making stealing destroying
lead fight let will winning winning
bring bring bring bring
build rebuilding follow buy hire seek do
put do seek impose let shine shine follow
reinforce form unite
It continues over the whole page.
I shake my head. ‘I don’t know what this means.’
‘If you look at the language, his ‘action,’ at the moment, is that he’s deliberately building fear in as many people as possible – fear of ‘dangerous’ people, fear of failure, fear of being useless. He’s promising protection to some by eradication of others.’
I shake my head, looking at the shapes of words. They look like a code, and shimmer like fools gold.
Slave rummages in another pocket, pulls out a handkerchief, and locates another piece of paper from the depths. ‘And here was the beginning of an earlier draft of his speech, which he tried out and then rejected. These are Rex’s nouns.’ He hands it to me.
“crime gangs drugs lives
country potential carnage
nation pain pain dreams dreams
Slave says, ‘see – again – he’s saying be afraid of these things, and I’ll save you from fear. I’ll remove your pain. Here – have some dreams and success. But as I said, he’s got no policies. You can’t just give people dreams. Success. They aren’t things which can be bought or sold. When he fired me, it was because I’d simply pointed this out to him. He has opinions and rages, and doesn’t like to be disagreed with. As you well know.’
I can’t read any more. ‘He’s burning like the flames of the sun.’
Slave nods. ‘He’s becoming dangerous. And he’s not the only thing burning. On one of the islands north of here, there’s a massive fire raging. The people who live there have had to flee from the fire. They’re out on the ocean in row boats. Children are dying, but my brother tells me that Rex has already said that he won’t let them land. And then he said that they weren’t really there. And the next day, he said they were there, but they were monsters who were coming to attack us. He’s not even consistent.’
‘But that’s inhumane. He must let them…’
‘Clearly, he won’t. There’s much scandal surrounding him, and his cronies are all playing it down.’
I shake my head in disbelief. ‘But I should know this. I’m his wife…’
‘Who he discusses nothing significant with, and has persuaded to stay at home, and who he usually calls Mrs Housekeeping.’
Stung, I reply, ‘Does he, now. What kind of scandals?’
‘Several young women have accused him of being sexually inappropriate and he’s silenced them. I don’t have a scribed copy of his response to that particular situation, but it was along the lines of him calling them ugly, and liars… and also threatening to sue them.’
‘Has anyone offered them support to sue him?’
Slave avoids my gaze. He’s used to seeing my eyes flash, and clearly doesn’t want to be distracted by them. He says, ‘when I first worked for him, he used to brag about grabbing your arse. And other things he said made me worry, rather a lot, about you…’
‘Well he’s not interested any more. And I’ve got winter inside me.’
His eyes moisten.
‘Don’t you dare feel sorry for me, Slave. I’m responsible for my own choices.’
He shakes his head as if shaking off thoughts. ‘The thing is, if someone takes him down, one of his cronies will step up. And they’re probably as bad as him, if not worse. They do have policies. But he’s the shining one because he was appointed. And now he’s talking so unpredictably and strangely… some of the most influential people are actually starting to listen to him. But it’s all a trick. They misinterpret and hear what they want to hear.’
‘I’m sure you wouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you.’
‘But you could bite off the mouth that will eat you. You are, after all, powerful yourself. As I well know.’ He glances at me, and his pupils are dark.
Slipping into the role I usually play with him, I rise to my full height and lower my voice. ‘Slave, Rex will be back late tonight, and I’ll expect you to be here. Clean him up. Thoroughly. You’ve been very, very wicked. Sneaking, spying and making me trust you when I rarely trust anyone. So make sure everything is completely pristine, or I’ll have to punish you. Severely.’
‘Yes.’ He replies, with a glint in his eye. ‘And in the meantime, if you’ll allow it, I’ll gather up the things I might need, and hide in the cupboard under your stairs.’
‘It’s what you deserve. A small, confined, dark place in which to contemplate your wickedness.’
He hangs his head. ‘Oh, I do. That’s exactly what I deserve.’
I lie in the centre of our king-sized bed, propped up on pillows as downstairs, Rex clumsily keys his way into the house. The white curtains are open and I look at the lights in the harbour below. A crescent moon is rising. Even as a child who was filled with dreams, I never dreamed of living in a house as beautiful as this. My mother had so little, but she loved our small home as much as I love this one. Everything we had, she had to work hard for. The warm night air smells of succulent plants. I might miss snow and ice, but I can carry them inside me like a frozen and unchanging secret.
There’s a loud bang, followed by a crash in the hallway downstairs.
Silence. Dragging. Silence.
Good Slave. There won’t be a single fingerprint left anywhere. I must be certain not to show him my gratitude. He would hate that.
Still staring out of the window, I think that if I could paint that moon, I’d paint it only an inch above the horizon line. Make it far smaller than it really is. Thin it. But I’d still paint it as perfectly cold, and perfectly bright. The waves out there will be wild, tonight. I think of the people in boats who are stranded on that ocean. What a choice they have had to make: to drown in the waters or burn to death on their land.
The evening sun shines in through the kitchen window. Slave is helping me get dressed for the ceremonials. I ask him if there is an actual crowning, or just a speech.
He says, ‘a parade through the main street, then up the steps to the City Hall, then a short speech. Though I don’t think there will be too many people there. A few hundred at most.’
‘Rex said there would be thousands.’
‘Of course he did. And no matter how many people were there, that’s what he would have seen.’
As Slave sews something or other into place around my thigh area, I’m looking at the cornice along the ceiling and thinking about grey dresses being called blue, and blue dresses being called grey. I wonder if I’d have got away with it.
Slave has finished work on my thighs. He says, ‘that was thoroughly revolting. Now, just stretch your hands out, and I’ll pull it onto your fingers. Like gloves. Good. Clench. Relax. Practice moving your fingers?’
I wriggle my hands, and he nods.
‘Point?’ He says. I point my index fingers.
‘Trustworthy gesture, Rex style?’ I open my palms.
‘Good. That works.’
I say in my deepest voice, ‘is it convincing enough?’
‘There’s a slight looseness around the upper arms, but at least the torso fits firmly now with the extra padding.’
Slave buried most of Rex’s body in the back garden, under the Juniper tree. Rex’s entire skin, which Slave has indeed cleaned very thoroughly, is my new outfit.
I tie my hair back.
Rex’s face hangs like a hood at my neck. Slave lifts it over my head so the face lies over my face. He makes sure I can breathe through the nostrils and checks the eye holes won’t slip. Once he’s added extra padding to my cheeks, he steps back to look at me. Then he goes to the sink where several sharp knives are soaking in bleach. He retrieves the needle and thread he’d left beside the taps and sews the neck into the padding at my throat.
Stepping back again, he examines me with forensic focus. ‘Perfectly believable and quite hideous.’ He exhales and says. ‘Now, which clothes would he have worn?’
‘I don’t think clothes are necessary,’ I say, stretching my thick-haired leg, and examining my overgrown toenails.
Slave’s eyes gleam and he bites his lip. ‘Now, that is really wicked.’
‘That’s my line, Slave.’ I smirk. ‘Perhaps just Rex’s blue shoes. To match my eyes.’
‘How will you explain your wife’s absence?’
‘I’ll tell everyone she’s a brilliant artist, and has work to be done which she can’t be disturbed from.’
He shakes his head. ‘Rex would never say that.’
‘Well what would you suggest?’
He looks thoughtful, and for a moment I want to ruffle his hair. He says, ‘I’d suggest you finger an imaginary tie, or pinch at invisible lapels. Then tell them that when your wife saw you in the lovely new suit you’re wearing, she was so blinded by your gloriousness, she’s become temporarily unwell.’
‘Should I say that before, or after I accept the position of Emperor?’
‘Afterwards. But leave earnest pauses between each phrase. Speak clearly and give them time to hear exactly what you’re saying. If you want Rex to be described accurately in the history books, show them who he really was.’
Raising an eyebrow beneath Rex’s eyebrow, I reply, ‘at first.’
Slave is doing this because he cares. Because he wants revenge. He wants to have Rex discredited and damned. But it occurs to me that this type of infamy isn’t necessarily the best outcome.
I touch Rex’s cheeks with Rex’s fingertips, to see if they move when I smile. They do, just a little.
If I’m clever about this, the new Emperor could gradually change to become the person I’d have liked Rex to be. As Emperor, I could play at being radiant, orange-gold. Shining like the sun. Strict, but fair. And as long as I also remain myself, I’ll have my own secret winter to retreat to. A core of glittering ice, and the silence of snow.
There’s the sound of a trumpet from outside as Slave ties the shoelaces of Rex’s blue shoes. I stamp them, becoming accustomed to my new swollen feet.
He says, ‘are you ready?’
I nod my overgrown head, and step towards the front door.
Slave opens it and steps back.
Outside there is a small crowd, applauding. I raise my eyes to the sunset above them, which spreads pink and gold across the horizon. As I step into the doorway, I extend my arms, and imagine my fingers are sunrays.
I walk outside into the street, clothed as a fool.