An extract from Inside The Beautiful Inside, the second novel by Emily Bullock, published by Everything With Words on 29th October 2020.
Back in the graveyard at Portsmouth. Sea mist thickens to drizzle; it shines on Ruth’s dark hair. I wish this was a dream, I wish I was deep asleep. Ruth turns when I call her name. Sweet pea, sweetheart…
‘Ruth, I’ve been looking for you.’
The Royal Garrison Church looms behind her, silhouetted in the thickening mist. She turns her face towards me, her body still pointed to the church. ‘I prayed for it, James Norris. They told me your ship was sunk.’ She pulls a grey blanket tight about herself.
‘Didn’t I tell you I’d be back? What a waste of prayers.’
Out on the water winter sun breaks through the clouds, drops of light sparkling. She smiles. ‘I prayed so hard and you didn’t come. But that’s your religion – out there.’ She nods, brushes down her skirts, like she’d been the one to summon me home across the seas.
I laugh. ‘I expected you at the dock. It was the girls told me you’d be here, not God.’
I can’t wait any longer: months, months, months of waking with wood, her face, her breasts, her buttocks melting away from me in daylight. Now I need to fill my hands with Ruth again.
‘Don’t I even get a kiss?’ I step forward, twist her about, lift her up in my arms.
Her skirts swing, she steadies her hands on my hips. She is between me and the sea, the sky; the tight blue bodice, its worn threads are soft to the touch. I slide my cheek against her breasts. But there is a heaviness to her, pulling her down. She drops lower until her feet are back in the mud. My hands slip down her back, gathering the wool of her skirts, kneading her buttocks.
‘Careful,’ she whispers.
‘Dead don’t care what we do, and no one else is about.’
This isn’t the welcome I expected. She leans away from me like a sapling bending in the wind. ‘If you want to fuck a whore go back to the docks.’ Her words slap against me. ‘If you want me…’ She reaches out for my hand.
Her dress is stretched tight. The blanket around her shoulders slips, her stomach pushing out in front. The drizzle lightens like held back tears, the stray drops falling on our heads.
Her hands twitch to that lump, cradling it with her linked fingers. ‘Yours,’ she says.
She takes a step towards me, leans in. She kisses me. Her arms swing loose like sails ready for the folding.
I catch hold of them, thrust her back to make sure. She’s caught against a tombstone, can’t go any further. There’s life inside her. ‘When?’
‘Soon.’ She doesn’t try to pull away. ‘I know a woman will give us a room. There’s plenty of work at the docks. And –’
I squeeze her arms. ‘I’ve been at sea seventeen months.’
‘Happens sometimes, babies don’t be ready to come out.’
She kisses me again. The lie burns my lips raw.
I haul her towards me, my head drops to her shoulder. She twists her fingers into my hair. She sighs, the air runs out of her and I want her to not breathe in again, for her body to deflate, for her to be what she was. I want her. Her damp hair scratches against my mouth but it can’t hold back my voice.
She twists like a landed fish in my hands. ‘Not with you.’
I feel the slime, the scales, the stink. I push her away. ‘Didn’t I always pay my way?’
‘He who has no faults is not born.’ The sun shines behind her, but it is far out at sea; that warmth will be too late to reach us. The leaves start to dance, a trade wind is brewing. I know it carries something cruel and ugly. Something is going to happen and it will happen because of me.
I need to know his name. ‘Who done it?’
Ruth shakes her head. ‘I only ever wanted you inside me.’ She’s making a fool of me. Laughter bubbles up from the sea. I turn. Two drunken sailors stagger against the wall. Slump over it, watching me.
I point. ‘Is it one of them?’
She stares up at me. ‘He told me you weren’t coming back.’
She wants to hurt me. Fletcher and me have great plans, we’re after Paradise. He wouldn’t do what she says. He’s my brother – like a brother. But we haven’t been on the same ship this last voyage…. Fletcher’s been back in Portsmouth for how long? I grip her chin, force her to look. ‘Liar!’
She seems to come awake at that. Snaps with her teeth, flicks her head back. ‘I want this baby to be yours. And there was a son. Our son –’
‘Lying whore.’ I wipe my hand on my shirt, I want the smell of her off me.
‘Our son couldn’t hold on for your return. He slipped out of me –’
I slap the lie out of her mouth. But she doesn’t stop.
‘Down on the shore… out into the sea.’
I squeeze my hands into fists, and she sees. She pushes me in the chest. She steps in so close, the pink of her tongue flashes in her mouth. ‘Our boy came out with a rope about his neck – probably how any son of yours would end his days.’
I raise my fist. She grabs it, presses it to her face, kisses my knuckles. ‘I’ll raise this child as ours.’
‘I’ll not give it my name.’
Her head sinks, she stumbles back, sitting down hard on top a gravestone. She deflates like a dropped sail, face white as the stone.
‘You’re a bloody fool, James Norris.’ She hits out, palms against my chest, forcing me off balance. ‘Why won’t you let us be happy?’
One of the drunks pisses against the wall. He whistles for attention. ‘That’s it, lad. Don’t give her a guinea. She’s probably done half the fleet over with that sad tale.’
His friend laughs but covers his mouth with his fist when Ruth picks up a stone, hurls it at them. Her aim is good. He collects his mate, they stagger away. The pisser laughing, the other snorting as he holds up his mate.
I wish I was that soaked in rum.
I wish that some other sod was standing here in my place. Not Fletcher. No, not him.
‘Do you know why I’m here?’ Ruth pulls a corn dolly out of her dress. It is no bigger than a plum. ‘I made a cross with his name. I remembered the letters you taught me.’
She holds it up to my face. My initials are burned on the corn. I feel a rope about my neck – yanked tight.
The sailors sing, voices drifting over the headstones, ‘The maid I left behind me.’
Ruth puts her hand out, it settles on my chest like the leaves blowing against the low stone wall of the graveyard. ‘You are my starlight, James Norris.’ She reaches for the star tattoo on my chest.
I step away, won’t give her the answer she wants.
She waits, lips parted, arms open. ‘Cariad…’
I want to push her face into the mud, kick that lump inside her. I shove past her, have to be away before I finish her.
Her voice lifts and trails after me. ‘Huryl fawr.’
I stop, lunge back, grabbing her hands. The cunning bitch smiles, thinks we’re going to embrace. I snatch the corn dolly from her. Crush it. Stamp it into the mud. Spit on it.
She’s too stonehearted to even cry.