The Burmese Tailor

by Genevieve Valentine

John’s breath was curl­ing around his bones when the house girl opened the door. 

“To see you,” she stam­mered. He could see the light through her skirt. He won­dered if Charles was back from Europe with his por­tion of the inher­i­tance used up; Charles would look for him here. 

“Show him in,” John man­aged, his tongue thick and dry in his mouth. He rubbed quick­ly at his eyes, wished for a bowl of cool water to stick his head in—he was sweat­ing, his eyes were burn­ing. Charles would laugh.

The mes­sen­ger stood in the door­way, mud­dy to the knee. 

“Your broth­er is dead,” the boy said, hav­ing been paid to say exact­ly that, and not about to hand out any free words of condolence.

It was a moment before John real­ly heard—at first it had sound­ed like the boy was singing the words of the nurs­ery song—but then John real­ized what the boy had said. He seized, coughed until his lungs were emp­ty, sucked humid air through his teeth. Dread pinned him to the couch.

“Charles is dead?”

The mes­sen­ger frowned, embar­rassed, and said, “No, sir,” and it took John a moment to remem­ber that Richard was his broth­er, too.

The next few days were mon­strous. Bax­ter hung black crepe over the door­knob until John couldn’t even reach the thing to open it and had to pull the bell for entrance into his own house, and the tai­lor came and fit­ted him with a mourn­ing suit and said all sorts of com­pli­men­ta­ry lies about Richard.

“A true gentleman,” the tai­lor said sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly, wrap­ping his tape and tuck­ing it into his case. “My prayers are with you, sir. Of course, I shall delay post­ing my bill until the worst of your grief has passed. We are all Chris­tians here.”

“You’re too kind,” he said, rang the bell for Baxter. 

He went to the sta­tion­er to buy cards and paper, and as the man showed him sam­ples of black bor­ders John pulled at his gloves—dull leather and too tight, but Bax­ter was no good at that sort of thing. He should have known bet­ter than to leave it to a woman.

“If I may recommend,” said the thin man behind the counter, and slid over a white card edged in black. The ink bor­der was so thick that John’s fin­ger sank into it.

“The Wid­ow Claridge’s house­hold has ordered them for her­self, sir.”

John had no doubt. If left up to Elaine, the entire card would be black, and all her polite thanks would be etched with a knife. Elaine nev­er shirked on these things; it was a relief to know that she was han­dling all her mat­ters so properly. 

He had only to fol­low her exam­ple, and he could seem as bereaved as necessary.

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll need a new blot­ter as well.”

He sent a telegram to Nice.


John was now the old­est male of the fam­i­ly, and at the ser­vice he walked Richard’s wid­ow to the front of the church, wished his father hadn’t died. 

Elaine was draped in a veil so long she had to lift it to walk, but he tried not to hate her. Per­haps Lady Clar­idge was expect­ed to mourn with so much pomp. John knew noth­ing about women’s fash­ion. It must be the style to wrap a wid­ow in a net. Richard would be proud; he enjoyed butterfly-netting. 

It cov­ered her face, at least, which was a blessing.

“Where is Charles?” she asked under her breath when she saw the emp­ty space in the front pew, and John pressed on her shoul­der to make her sit. 

He didn’t know how Elaine could stand her dress—black, tight, cuffs drawn over her gloves, and the black vel­vet rib­bon at her col­lar catch­ing at her hair. She looked like a tomb.

He got a telegram from Nice, set it on his man­tle with­out open­ing it. A few days lat­er he cov­ered it with a bill. Then came a news­pa­per clip­ping about the opi­um dens, some cards with the “Condolences” cor­ner fold­ed down, a ladies’ book he had ordered from a friend in Paris, and after a week he could for­get the telegram had come at all. 

After two weeks Bax­ter threat­ened to resign if he didn’t eat, her bull­dog jaw sway­ing under the weight of her right­eous­ness, so he pushed food on a plate until it was dark enough that he could go out of doors.

He pulled on his coat with­out wait­ing for the valet, and Bax­ter shuf­fled into the hall­way, frowned at him as he beat at his lapels.

“Sir,” she started.

“I must go to my tailor,” he said, didn’t look behind him as he shut the door. 

The Burmese Tai­lor, Charles called John’s hob­by. The deft­ness of the nee­dle; per­fect­ly fit­ted to his needs.

Richard was ten years old­er. Richard they hard­ly knew. Hard­ly a broth­er at all. 

John breathed in some­one else’s smoke, imag­ined his eyes were being gen­tly sewn shut for the last long jour­ney. It was a relief.

He hat­ed Lady Clar­idge for ask­ing after Charles, as if John didn’t know what was best for the fam­i­ly, as if Charles need­ed to come back to bury a broth­er he nev­er loved. John could pre­tend well enough for both broth­ers, and if Lady Clar­idge real­ly meant any of this black-cre­ping she was a fool.

(Charles could nev­er come home; how could John look Charles in the eye and not say, “I’m glad it was not you who died”?)

John rest­ed against the wall, his bones too heavy to move, and won­dered what Richard would think of him. 

He called to the girls to bring more.

There isn’t enough in the world, he thought, but he tried. 

Charles sent him a telegram from Paris. 


John set him­self to employment. 

He vis­it­ed Lady Claridge’s house and left a card. It would be two weeks before she could leave the house again, so there was no imme­di­ate dan­ger of hav­ing to see her, and leav­ing the card light­ened his heart. Now she could nev­er say he’d shirked his duty. He thought about send­ing a let­ter on his new black-bor­dered sta­tionery, until he real­ized he had noth­ing to say to her. He wrote Charles instead.

When Bax­ter remind­ed him he had a club, he went there, too, col­lect­ed his pile of con­do­lence cards, threw them in a trash bin around the corner. 

He went through all the mail on his desk (one let­ter after anoth­er into the fire) until he reached the ladies’ book, and then he read it in one night, an unlit cig­a­rette clenched in his teeth.

It should have tak­en him less time—it was a woman’s pub­li­ca­tion, and so the writ­ing was childlike—but he stared at the gowns. Four thou­sand pleats on a wed­ding dress. Forty but­tons on a mourn­ing gown. 

After pages and pages of mourn­ing gowns there was a vis­it­ing dress in rose, and the col­or sur­prised him so much he shut his eyes a moment, had to remem­ber that not every­one had died. 

When the cig­a­rette fell into his lap, he threw the sog­gy thing away.

All the women had the same expres­sion, and it lin­gered after he closed the book; brides and wid­ows alike with a heavy-lid­ded indo­lence, a polite dis­missal of the world. Closed lips. Four thou­sand pleats.

He hadn’t tak­en him­self to the Tai­lor for ten days, and as a reward he’d lost his appetite and his rea­son. He paced in his library, shiv­er­ing, until he gave up and returned to the fire, stok­ing the embers and wrap­ping his father’s blan­ket at his knees. 

He picked up the lady’s book to cen­ter his mind, but the blan­ket was too hot and the women looked so choked at the col­lar that he hurled it behind his desk. He stood, peeled off his jack­et, wiped his brow. 

Christ, he thought, Christ, I shall die with­out it. 

He undid his cuffs with shak­ing hands. He could bare­ly stand; his knees were made of smoke. 

“Baxter,” he shout­ed, unnerved by the fren­zy in his voice. “Baxter! Do some­thing, will you, about this infer­nal heat!”

Bax­ter appeared in the door­way. “Lady Clar­idge for you, sir.”

Lady Clar­idge. Nat­u­ral­ly. Man­ners dic­tat­ed she return the visit. 

“Very well, fetch her.” He fell into the chair, stamped at the coals with the heel of his boot. 

“Sir, your jacket,” Bax­ter start­ed, but when he looked at her she retreated. 

He won­dered if he could open the win­dow, just for some air, won­dered if that was done these days. 

She was still in full mourn­ing; the dull ben­ga­line of her dress made her face look even paler, and in the dim light of the room he couldn’t make out her fea­tures. He saw the slope of her too-high cheeks, but her mouth was lost in the shad­ows, her eyes sunken. 

Per­haps she’d let him open the win­dow. Sure­ly in a dress like that she need­ed a cool night, too. 

She was a lit­tle taller than a girl should be, thin­ner than his taste, but the mourn­ing clothes suit­ed her youth. He had for­got­ten Richard pre­ferred them so young.

When he looked back from the win­dow she was watch­ing him, her brow fur­rowed and her lips part­ed. Her lips were even paler than her skin. 

“Lady Claridge,” he acknowl­edged at last. 

“I came to pay my respects,” she said. “Thank you for your vis­it. Richard was so fond of you.”

That couldn’t be true. Could she real­ly be as stu­pid as she looked?

“It has tak­en you near­ly a month, Lady Clar­idge. Have you been pay­ing such respects through all of London?”

“Of course.”

She said it with none of the ven­om the ques­tion deserved; she was prop­er as an almanac. In every draw­ing room she had made a show­ing, for the fam­i­ly name; she had made all of them prop­er mourners. 

“Then you must be tired, and I shall not detain you,” he said, fixed his gaze out the win­dow. “Good night, Lady Claridge.”

Long after she was gone, he real­ized he nev­er invit­ed her to sit, and she nev­er remind­ed him.

He hat­ed the man­ner of it all, but he repaid the call in two days, as one did. 

He’d brought a card, thank God, though he was insult­ed to be asked, and he fold­ed all four cor­ners before he passed it to Simms. 

“Let the lady guess why I’m calling,” he told Simms. “Give her some­thing to do.”

“Sir,” said Simms with­out open­ing his teeth, and disappeared. 

In Richard’s cav­ernous draw­ing room she looked small­er still, but­toned up like she was still try­ing to keep Richard out.

It was some­thing Charles would think. Charles hat­ed Elaine; he said she looked common. 

“Do you hear from Charles?” she asked, as if she could read his thoughts. He shook his head.

“He was very kind,” she said. “I remem­ber how kind he was the first night I came.”

He shouldn’t be offend­ed, since Charles had always been charm­ing to peo­ple he hat­ed. Still he sat taller, said too polite­ly, “I will pass along the compliment.”

She looked at him, didn’t apol­o­gize for the slight. 

He felt the sting of her silence and real­ized she must be right; she would know what was right.

The black lace col­lar of her dress touched her chin, and he wor­ried. A col­lar that high made the neck look long. Her tai­lor must be told. 

She called on the sec­ond day. He remem­bered to offer her a chair.

“John,” she said at once, “I must ask you some­thing unpleasant.”

She had used his Chris­t­ian name, and from her the impro­pri­ety was so strik­ing he for­got to extin­guish his cigarette. 

In the silence, he heard the fab­ric sigh as she pressed her gloved palms flat against her skirt. It would not be long before she had ruined the pile and would have to pass the dress to a maid. He won­dered if she had ever lis­tened to her tai­lor, if she took any care of her clothes at all.

“I wish I could have seen him,” she said. “Before they … com­mit­ted him.”

The word chilled him, and he sat back, let his cig­a­rette smoke veil her from him. 

“What would it help?” he asked at last.

She shook her head, twist­ed her hands in her lap. “No. Of course. Noth­ing, nothing.”

Her cuffs were stained; she had been weep­ing into her hands. The image con­fused him. He didn’t think they’d loved each oth­er. Cer­tain­ly she had not loved Richard. No one loved Richard.

“I shall nev­er recover,” she said, and tears sprang to her eyes. 

He had no answer.

After she was gone he called a han­som for the Burmese Tai­lor. It hard­ly mat­tered who knew about it now—any of the Wid­ow Claridge’s brood would be respectable enough—but he had to drown out her words.

The door was open before his car­riage stopped.

“We miss you,” said the girl in the thin red dress.

When he closed his eyes, after, he saw the flute of black lace, won­dered how Lady Clar­idge would get through the sum­mer wear­ing her col­lars so high.
Poor girl, he thought. In his dream her veil was cloudy; she sat with the coun­te­nance of a Moth­er Supe­ri­or in his rooms, and he lived in an orbit around her, pass­ing by on his way from the Tai­lor to ask forgiveness.

He thought about her naked fin­gers in her lap. He thought about kneel­ing in front of her, press­ing down the fab­ric of her skirt with his hands.
When he dropped the pipe to the floor, it rat­tled behind his eyes. 

There isn’t enough in the world, he thought, but he tried.

Lady Clar­idge invit­ed him for sup­per, in the drea­ry din­ing room that could seat six­ty peo­ple and had nev­er seen more than twelve, and he sat at her right side feel­ing like a footman.

She wait­ed until the ser­vants cleared the plates before she said, “Lord Allan tells me you have found some­thing to fill your hours.”

John owed Allan a debt of hon­or; this, it seemed, was Allan’s idea of collection.

“It’s nice to know you lis­ten to idle gossip,” he said, stand­ing. “From now on I need nev­er come see you; they’ll let you know how I get on.”

Lady Clar­idge looked up at him, her eyes sharp. “If you can­not bring your­self to mourn your broth­er, per­haps you could be more dis­creet about your vices so as not to dis­grace his memory.”

He won­dered if this sud­den courage hap­pened to every woman who put on widow’s weeds.

A month lat­er, Charles sent a telegram.


John lit the telegram with the tip of his cig­a­rette, held it in his fin­gers as it burned. 

Lady Clar­idge was not at home. She’d gone to her tailor.

Well, he thought, step­ping into his car­riage, some­one should be with her. Mourn­ing was a del­i­cate business.

She was already inside when he arrived at Markham’s Fine Clothes for Ladies. The place seemed new, too new. He stayed across the street under the awning of a milliner’s and watched the window.

The net veil obscured her face. All he could see was her lips, slight­ly part­ed as if she had been weep­ing, though it was impos­si­ble to tell for cer­tain. That was the com­fort of a veil. 

He hat­ed Richard for dying. 

The cig­a­rette trem­bled in his lips, and he had to hold his match with two hands to catch the flame. 

The tai­lor brought out a bolt of black vel­vet, and when she held out her hand the jet but­tons on her gloves caught the light. 

He tugged at his cuff, pushed the but­ton until it was undone. The small rebel­lion sent a thrill through him, and he looked around to see if any­one had tak­en note of his dis­re­gard, but the flow of faces did not pause. No one fixed him with an accus­ing eye. The doors to the shops opened and closed; down the street, an apple sell­er called his trade. 

He but­toned and unbut­toned the cuff, some­thing for his hands to do. 

The tai­lor brought her bolts, and she reached out again and again with her pale hand, touch­ing each one, nod­ding yes or no, nev­er smil­ing. Beneath the veil her eyes were solemn and still, fixed points in the world. 

The last bolt was silk in gob­lin blue, grey-pale and glis­ten­ing, star­tling­ly bright through the win­dow after miles and miles of black. 

He reeled. He was unable to com­pre­hend her look­ing at such a thing. When she touched it, her white hand stark against the sea of blue, he flinched. 

She should know bet­ter, he thought des­per­ate­ly. She should know bet­ter. What would Richard say, if he knew she was look­ing at col­ors so soon?

Past the win­dow her veil fell away as if he had pulled it, and he saw her face as a fea­ture­less cipher: betray­ing, uncar­ing, dead.

The sil­ver but­ton fell to the street. 

When she emerged she frowned against the late sun, and it took her a moment to see him.

“Elaine,” he said, and she shivered.

Her eyes were shal­low pools; as blue, as empty.

In the car­riage he watched her, and she watched his hands.

“Why do you look at me that way?” she asked at last, and he won­dered how she knew with­out look­ing up.

“I am the old­est liv­ing son,” he said, too kind­ly. “Surely I must keep watch over the fam­i­ly. They are so dis­posed, one finds, to throw off what is decent and right.”

Charles a thou­sand miles away, Richard in the ground, his wid­ow wish­ing already that she could wear col­ors out-of-doors. 

“No,” she said.

He said, “As least you could be dis­creet, and not dis­grace his memory.”

She cried qui­et­ly when he low­ered the win­dow-shades, rubbed her cuffs against her eyes like a child. 

There was a law, he thought, about mar­ry­ing a brother’s widow.

After he had torn away her gloves she stopped resist­ing, and he was glad of it; he didn’t want to rip any more at her. He could tell by the pleats that her dress was well-made. 

He wrote out telegrams in the dark. 


They burned in the fire­place with all of the oth­er papers, faster than he imag­ined they would.

He wrote one at last, hand­ed it to Bax­ter with­out look­ing at her. 


There isn’t enough in the world, he thought; but there was. 

Genevieve Valen­tine’s first nov­el, Mechanique: a Tale of the Cir­cus Tre­saulti, is forth­com­ing from Prime Books in 2011. Her World-Fan­ta­sy-Award-nom­i­nat­ed short fic­tion has appeared in, or is forth­com­ing from: Run­ning with the Pack, Fed­er­a­tions, The Liv­ing Dead 2, The Way of the Wiz­ard, Teeth, Clarkesworld, Strange Hori­zons, Escape Pod, and more.

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