Every morning she rolls into the dip he leaves in the mattress as he lumbers out of bed and into his whites.
She keeps her eyes closed and feigns sleep as he kisses her softly on the forehead. Daylight still hours away, she lies, fixed, unable to rest, unable to dream until all she can do is pull back the covers and get up. She wonders if he guesses her longing as she stands at the window listening to the sounds of the bakehouse only a brick wall away. Standing with arms curled round her hollow frame, Elizabeth becomes stone, growing colder and colder until she feels the penetrating glance of ice through her heart.
The thump and roll of dough being kneaded keeps her standing there. She pictures his thick heavy hands squeezing and plying with chewing fingers sinking into the elastic wheaty flesh. And so she grows colder into her paralysis.
It’s not jealousy. It’s something else. A melancholy, a longing—yes, a longing for something she doesn’t know even exists. What is this thing, this frozen unidentified need? she wonders.
She stares and stares while the monotonous whir and drone of the ovens are punctuated by his kneading, kneading, kneading.
“Pick a place, anywhere.” James animatedly thrusts a map of the world between the bowl and spoon that she only just manages to sup before spluttering it all back out again. His excitement and enthusiasm are infectious and they laugh together as they mop chewed up bits of carrot and barley from the Atlantic Ocean.
“You’re mad,” she smiles as he pushes her unfinished lunch away and spreads the map out on the table. She looks for clues of where he might prefer by perhaps a twitch of his finger or a pause as he smooths the paper out with both hands, caressing it like a precious gift. But he gives nothing away, all latitudes and longitudes receiving equal attention.
“We can’t just swan off, James, what about your father?”
“He’s tough as old boots, that one; don’t you worry about him, he’ll outlive us all. Too bloody mean to pass on our inheritance.” He smiles and places a hand on her shoulder, urging her to take a look at the map. “Come on, Lizzie, when will we get the chance again?”
Such a familiar thing, a world map—always around in every schoolroom—but now it looks alien, like trying to choose which star you might like to visit. It doesn’t sit in any sort of reality for her.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” He crouches and takes her chin, beaming at her with absolutely no doubt about what they are planning. “I told you I was going to take you away from it all, like those books you read, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” she whispers. It was all they’d talked about when they were courting, but now it seemed like a frivolous dream.
“Come on, other people do it—look at your aunt May who went all the way to Australia. If she can do it, a woman by herself with barely a brass farthing, then surely we, two capable fit people in the prime of our lives, will find it easy.” He comes close again, his expression losing the carefree expression, his eyes dimming just enough for her to notice. “Don’t bail on me now, Lizzie.”
Fear is what she sees in those eyes. But fear of what? Of losing her? Of losing his dream?
She gives herself a shake.
“Well, let’s see,” she says, focussing back onto the vast paper. “It has to be warm. Not humid though, I couldn’t bear that. And not too arid, I can’t stand barren landscapes.”
“Well, that’s a start,” he says, his body language softening as he ruffles her hair.
“And not too flat, I feel oppressed by flat lands.”
“Ok, not too flat. Anything else?”
“It can’t be landlocked—I must be able to get to the sea easily.”
“The sea, check.” He scans the map appearing to mentally tick unsuitable destinations off the list.
“But not too far from the hills.”
“Hills. Yup. Got you.”
“Or forests. There has to be trees.”
“Trees. Ok. Trees.” He exaggerates the pointing and casts his hand over the paper, waving off countries in an ever-decreasing circle until only one island remains. “So what you’re telling me is, you want to go somewhere exactly the same in every way as where we are right now.”
“Well,” she blushes, realising how silly she sounds. “Well, I suppose so—except there is one big difference.”
“Warmth. I want to be warm.” As if to highlight the point, a draft snakes in under the door, making her shiver. He wraps his arms around her and rocks her from side to side.
“You know I’ll keep you warm, my love.” He kisses her on the back of the neck and she absorbs the heat from his hot fleshy lips. It is like an elixir; his body heat sustains her. She doesn’t know how she survived without it all those years growing up. He produces so much of it—in abundance and gives it so freely.
She always believed she was never meant to be human—always felt there’d been a mistake somewhere along her evolutionary line—she is reptilian, she is convinced. They say everyone has a totem animal, but this is more than that. She is sure there was a mix-up and she is her totem animal—a snake, or a lizard, or some other strange creature that can only function if it is stealing the heat from an external source.
She lets her head fall back as she absorbs the last few bits of warmth from his kiss.
“You’re freezing, woman! What’s wrong with you?” he says, but it’s the same thing he always says.
She’s warned him before that one day she’ll emerge a blossomed heat-filled flower of a woman oozing life and radiating light and they’ll find him, a withered broken shell lying in bed after a night of lovemaking and cuddling. It is a genuine fear of hers that she will suck him dry of his life force and so sometimes remains distant until she can bear it no more and falls upon him, devouring and feasting on his body heat.
“Come on, I’ll run you a bath.”
She smiles, knowing it means that he wants them on an equal level so they can make love in the afternoon. He’d lit the fire early. He must have been planning to heat the boiler just for this.
The bubbles cocoon her in a thick layer, holding in the warmth of the water beneath. Slowly she thaws from the outside in. When she is sure that her bones are finally heated, she cautiously lifts a toe out and stretches it onto the taps, sliding the arch of her other foot up the shin to her knee. The foam slides off her skin and her fine blond hairs lift. She never saw the point of shaving—felt like it must be a dreadful chore.
The knock is soft, tentative, as always.
“You can come in, I’ve melted a little.” She smiles as she sees his burly frame creep round the door—always so respectful of her, her privacy, her womanhood as if he is a little intimidated by her. It’s still surprising to her, such a contradiction to his physical strength. Through his expression, lust is building and she tips her pelvis up unconsciously.
He is rolling up his sleeves as he approaches and crouches on his toes, knees jammed into the side of the bath.
“You’re so damn beautiful,” he says, staring hard at her face.
She blushes. She’s not sure from the scrutiny or the curse word; he so rarely expresses himself in profanity.
“Thank you,” she murmurs as a large hand caresses her throat then disappears under the surface, sliding to her breasts.
His fingers slide over the slippery mounds and he squeezes hard, thumbing her nipple and she rises. Her head is tilted and her eyes are closed, her lips a parted invitation and she can feel his breath as he leans in and kisses her. That’s it, that’s the fire she needs. He is hungry for her and he devours her mouth and kneads her breast—she can see him in her mind’s eye pressing hard against the bath to keep his balance as he squats. His tongue is sweet and salty, exploring hers, wrapping around each other and twisting, getting lost in their feast. She pulls her toe back under the water and parts her legs, letting water rush in and fill her.
Taking his cue, he releases her breast and slides his hand all the way down between her legs. She whimpers as his thick fingers part her swiftly, allowing yet more heat to fill her. Suddenly she is too hot—his mouth still clamped and playful on hers is stifling in the steam. Twisting and writhing from pleasure and panic, she breathes hard through her nose feeling trapped, but joyously so. His fingers have pushed inside now and are pulsing at that sweet spot, that place that elicits a quiver and spasm that builds and builds. She squeals in her throat and he pulls his face from hers and she inhales just as he jabs his fingers fully inside. His thumb is circling her peaking clit and she groans out loud.
“That’s it, that’s what you need now, isn’t it, my little ice queen.”
The bath is too narrow to open her legs the way she wants to so she jams them hard against the enamel and undulates her hips to heighten the building pleasure. She knows she’ll have bruises but she pushes harder with her knees and tightens her sex around his digits.
“Come for me, come for me now.”
And she does. Her climax gushes from her, juices mixing with water and foam over his deft hand. He tweaks her bud once more and she convulses again, begging him to stop, no more, she can’t take it, but he does it again and in a flurry of heat and starburst she is spent. She flops back against the bath as he slips his fingers out and for a second she tries to hold onto him, feeling the oddest sensation that he may take her with him when he pulls out. But he withdraws and she thinks she remains whole.
He reaches down, pulling out the plug, and lifts her to standing, sluicing off the bubbly foam with his hands. He places a towel on the floor and she has an inward flash of anger at the wastefulness of this act; after all it’s not him who washes the linens. She snaps herself out of it and tries to see it as the caring gesture it is and delicately steps out onto the floor and into the large fluffy bath sheet that he holds stretched out for her. He wraps her up and carries her through to the bedroom where he carefully dries every part of her, saving her sex until last.
“Lie back,” he whispers and she does, parting her legs and letting them flop open fully for his attentions. He takes a corner of the towel and begins to wipe her, delicately ruffling the thick curls until they are fluffy and not quite dry, but almost. Then he falls upon her, licking her and dipping his tongue into her.
She grabs his hair, pulling him deeper. Abruptly, he stops and stands between her legs where they now hang off the end of the bed, then flips her over onto her front. She bends her knees and forces her behind up in the air, exposed and ready for what will come next.
Her sex is still swollen and ripe and the movement allows a little bathwater to trickle out of her. She imagines him watching it moving in a glistening trail down her leg and she hopes he thinks it is her desire. He seems to as two thick hands grab her hips hard and she keeps her head down, face pressed into the bedding and braces herself for the invasion. He pulls her back and he is at her entrance, solid and stretching her, easing her open despite her walls squeezing together. He pushes easily past her natural resistance and right into her fiery depths. When he pulls out a little, she has the same sensation from earlier—as if he is taking a piece of her with him, but she quickly dismisses it and lets the sensations of being taken hard and fast from behind absorb her. His hands grip tighter and a new wave of arousal washes over her at the thought of the purple marks that will appear later.
“Harder!” she shrieks into the blankets and he slams into her, rocking her to the core, but she wants more, she wants more. He is panting and heaving and thrusting with all his might now and she can hear he is nearing the brink of his pleasure. She reaches up under herself and cups him just in time to feel the shudder and release. Another couple of thrusts and he slumps on top of her; his weight is too much for her and they fall together on the bed.
“Mmmm,” she says as he snuggles into her neck and wraps his arms around her body from behind, “that was lovely.”
“Sure was.” His voice is languid and sleepy. “That should keep you warm for a while.”
But as she fights to pull a shard of blanket across her legs, she can already feel the chill returning.