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.
CHARLES—RICHARD DEAD SWIFT SICKNESS. STAY—RETURN POINTLESS. MISERABLE AFFAIR.
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.
REGRETS FOR RICHARD HE WAS A DEAR BROTHER. KEEP AWAY FROM THE TAILOR IT IS UNBECOMING.
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?”
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.
GOT YOUR LETTERS. POOR FELLOW YOU SOUND AWFUL. ITALY IS AS POETS PROMISED. PITY YOU DO NOT TRAVEL. YOU SHOULD COME AWAY IT IS BETTER THAN THE TAILOR.
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.
HAVE LOST EVERYTHING—
NEVER COME BACK TO ENGLAND—
I HAVE RUINED HER—YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN.
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.
CHARLES—AM TIRED OF IT ALL. COME HOME. HAVE RECOMMENDED YOU TO MY TAILOR.
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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