The chandelier really is too large and grand for this room, Martha thought, every time she rattled its glass beads on her way past. It had been a wedding gift from a great uncle: an utter darling, but completely ignorant of the dimensions of modern homes.
The children—Nancy and Jacob—had been speaking without pause since they woke up that morning, and not always in any recognisably human tongue. What is fascinating at lunch is exhausting at six am, and absolute torture now, after bedtime.
But Daddy got home earlier than usual and, instead of lending a hand with the washing of faces and the reading of stories, decided they should stay up late and listen to a record. For a treat, he said. And before Martha could protest Nancy was solemnly carrying her mother’s pearls downstairs and Jacob was sitting dreamy-eyed on the stiff velvet chair, his thumb slapping in and out of his mouth.
So Martha and George dance in slow, tight circles around the rug beneath the chandelier. For minutes in a row only the plink of piano keys and the burr of a trumpet, diffused to even gentler vibrations through the needle and horn of the gramophone.
Martha lets the music carry her mind away, and it wanders about between the walls of the house. From her ever-increasing to-do list to the novel lying open on her bedside table. Her thoughts burrow into the pages; the meaningful looks and the men of rank. The wild, frozen landscape.
Nancy stands tall and straight and Not Tired on the chair. Her white cotton nightie reaches to her toes where her brother lies, asleep now. She watches her parents spin lazily around and Martha turns her face away and into George’s shoulder.
“It’s looking to be our most productive year since–” George begins, and Martha’s thoughts of Anna Karenina halt, mid-waltz.
Martha slides her hand gently over his mouth. Her mind has been caught up in the words of the children all day, tangled in their disagreements and repetitive songs.
She senses him rolling and bulging his eyes at Nancy, hears her laugh and feels a stab of guilt that the noise irritates her. George wriggles free of her hand and goes on talking about his work. She feels her eyes prickle and her chest knot up in anger.
“Please be quiet,” She mouths into his shirt. “Please please please please please be quiet.”
They are turning on the spot now, and Nancy is standing very still so as to be invisible and not get sent to bed.
“Please be quiet.” Martha makes a small sound.
George chuckles. “Just let me finish telling you about–”
Martha takes her arms from around him and turns for the door, but something jerks her painfully backwards.
“Mummy!” Nancy jumps down from the chair, pointing at Martha’s hair, piled on top of her head and caught in the low-hanging drops of the chandelier. Martha is stuck in the centre of the room, and she can’t stop the tears falling onto her dress; tears she had wanted to shed alone. Her husband is unpicking the frayed and knotty strands from the twinkling glass peardrops, her daughter is hugging her leg and whispering comforting words, her son is asleep on the chair. She gulps down the hard pain on her scalp.
“It’s too tangled in the metal fixings, we’re going to need to cut it.” George and Nancy leave the room in search of Martha’s dressmaking shears.
I must have been slowly winding myself up with every turn, she thinks. She stands helplessly, like a hanged criminal, gazing at Jacob. Her mind is completely empty. When George and Nancy return with the scissors and free her, she wipes her eyes and holds them both close. “What heroes you are,” she says.
The cut hair stands straight up in a tuft. Later that evening Martha will try to smooth down the cowlick with water, with soap, with George’s hair oil. But every time she looks into the mirror on her dresser, there it will stand.
Poppy O’Neill lives in Sussex, UK. Her writing has been featured in Oh Comely, The Ham Free Press, Halo magazine and The Forgotten and the Fantastical anthology. She’s currently working on her first novel and studying for an MA at the University of Chichester.