The sound of footsteps rouses me from my sleep, heeled shoes running along the hall. My clock reads three in the morning. Obviously, she’s just got back from one of her parties.
It’s unusual for her to go straight to Rich’s room, though. Usually she needs to vomit or sober herself up first. I can’t complain, my room is right next to the bathroom, and if she’s missing out that particular ritual tonight, that’s fine with me.
I hear his bedroom door open with a bang. There’s a startled cry, followed by raised voices. I can’t help it, I have to go and look. I slip the covers off my legs and slide out of bed, making no noise as I tread on the soft carpet. My door creaks as I open it but I doubt they can hear anything above the racket they’re making.
I carry on along the hall, reaching the door to the master room and resting my ear against it. The tapestry on the wall flutters. I start, but realise it’s just a breeze. I turn my attention back to the door.
‘Don’t give me that rubbish, Richard, I know you’ve been sleeping with her!’ Michelle slurs. I bend down to look through the keyhole and see her standing just in front of his bed. Her make-up is smudged and her short green dress has a dark stain on it, probably red wine.
‘Sleeping with her? Don’t be ridiculous, she’s my brother’s widow!’ he says from somewhere beyond my limited view. By the mini bar, I’d guess.
‘That never stopped you before. I know you had a thing for one of your cousins.’
‘Michelle, please, we were children, and she was a very distant cousin anyway. Believe me, there’s no other woman in my life more important to me than you. Haven’t I proved that several times over?’
‘Oh yes, you buy me jewellery and clothes and ship me off on expensive spa weekends, but that’s not love, is it?’
‘What more do you want? You know I work all week, and on weekends I see you as much as I can.’
There’s silence while Michelle ponders his words. I can almost see the thoughts trying to swim through her befuddled mind and come to a sensible conclusion, but then she screws up her face and lets out a nausea inducing wail. Again, the tapestry next to me quivers. I examine it, wondering if her astounding vocal talents are causing some kind of tremor effect, but then the tapestry is still.
‘You liar! You don’t need to work at all, you own two companies! They bring in all your money,’ Michelle says, at last stopping her awful noise.
Now I know it’s wrong to judge someone’s intelligence on a single sentence, especially when they’re so plastered it’s a wonder they can even talk at all, but good god, woman, have you no concept of running a business at all?
‘Companies need to be maintained, my dear. I can’t just hire someone else to oversee how they’re run, that’s how things go wrong. Indeed, that’s how I managed to buy them out in the first place.’
‘Well, you could at least cut down your hours, instead of spending all your spare time with her.’
Mentioning me, again? Where had she got that idea? As Rich said earlier, I’m his brother’s widow. Now that Jon’s gone, I have no other family apart from my brother Markus, who’s employed here as Rich’s butler anyway, and since I was already familiar with the house and grounds, Rich asked if I’d like to live here too. It’s true I like him, but not in any sort of romantic way. I see him as another brother, nothing more.
‘Listen to me, Michelle. What makes you think I’m having an affair – with Jody, too?’
‘I’ve seen the way you look at her, the secret smiles, the twinkle in your eyes. Oh yes, I’ve noticed. I also found one of your shirts smelling of that sickly sweet perfume she wears.’
‘I can explain that. The shirt had a hole in it, and you were busy, so I asked her if she could mend it for me. As for those so called secret smiles, you know perfectly well that Jody and I are good friends and we share lots of jokes about how similar I am to Jon.’
I can hear the sorrow in his voice as he mentions his brother. Jon’s death was so sudden it cut both our hearts to pieces. It’s scarcely a year since his funeral, and Rich is the only one who I can share my pain with. How does Michelle expect us to act, when we each need to be consoled by the other?
‘You really expect me to believe that this is all because of Jon? Get over it, Rich, he’s dead. I’m not, so pay attention to me!’
Something made of glass shatters on the floor, I see shards of it skitter towards Michelle’s feet. Her jaw is hanging slack in shock. Rich must have smashed a bottle. How he stopped himself from throwing it at her after that remark, I’m not sure. I certainly wouldn’t have held back. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that I know barging in would only make things worse, I’d have punched her already.
With those two words, Rich projects enough authority to make even Michelle obey. She scuttles towards the door quicker than I can move out the way, but as it opens a pair of slender arms grab me and pull me behind the tapestry. Michelle stampedes past without any idea I was ever there.
I turn in the darkness, sensing that I’m in some kind of narrow corridor. Someone’s standing close to me. I catch a whiff of spiced aftershave. ‘Markus?’
‘Who else would it be, little sis?’ he replies, lighting a candle so that I can see his clean-shaven face. He nods to the surrounding area. ‘Being a butler does have its privileges. You get to know about all the secret passages in an old manor house like this.’
‘What are you doing here this late? Or early, I should say,’ I ask, remembering the time.
‘Same as you. I was curious about what was going on with those two. I never expected her to go that far, though,’ he says. ‘Breakfast tomorrow should prove to be interesting.’
Breakfast is indeed proving to be interesting. We’re all seated together in the dining room while Markus, dutiful as ever and with no indication that he has any idea of what went on last night, brings our food.
Michelle looks ill, but that isn’t enough to stop her giving me filthy looks. Rich, in his seat at the head of the table, catches her in the act and dryly announces how fine the weather is today. I cast my gaze out the window; it’s grey and stormy.
Abruptly, Michelle stands up and takes out a cigarette from the silver case she always keeps on her person. She lights it, and taking a deep drag, walks around the table to stand beside me and exhales the lot in my face. I cough and waft it away with the newspaper.
‘Is there something you want to say to me?’ I ask, getting up too. I hold my hand up to silence Rich as he starts to say something. I know I shouldn’t react to her childish behaviour, but frankly, after what she said last night, I’m ready to have my say.
‘You could put it that way, yes. I know what you’ve been up to with my husband.’
‘Really? Then perhaps you should tell me so that I can know too.’
She sneers. ‘He’s having an affair with you.’
I snort. ‘An affair? How original. When did this supposed affair take place?’
‘Don’t play innocent with me, Jody. Your perfume is all over his shirt, and ever since you got here he’s been distant from me.’
‘Michelle, when I came here Jon had just died. Rich was in pain just like me. Of course he’s been distant. As for his shirt, it’s just like he told you last night, I mended it for him.’ Okay, that last part wasn’t wise.
‘You were listening? How dare you eavesdrop on us! I bet you had your ear to the door listening to every word we said. You must have been hoping that I’d split up with him so you could move in like the snake you are and have him all to yourself!’
‘Michelle,’ I say in a pained voice, ‘for the last time, there is nothing going on between myself and Rich. Believe me.’
‘Believe you? Why should I? You think I’m an idiot, nothing more than white trash. You’re so bad at hiding it that I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone knows how you feel about me.’
‘Alright, it’s true that you’re not the type of person I can like easily, but I’ve never thought of you as trash.’ Though I do think she’s and idiot. ‘I try my best to get on with you, but you certainly make it difficult when you go around accusing me of everything. Last week it was spilling paint on your new carpet, and now this.’
‘Jody, you are one patronising b—‘
‘Michelle, will you keep your mouth shut and listen for a change? Jody-and-I-are-not-having-an-affair-!’ Rich interjects, speaking through clenched teeth.
‘You’re wasting your breath, Rich,’ I say.
‘You’re both lying,’ Michelle hisses, proving my point.
‘Why would we lie to you?’ I say.
‘Why? Why? Because you think I’m just some silly tart and Richard just thinks I want his money, so stop insisting that there’s nothing going on between you two and own up. I’ve seen you walking around the grounds together, arm in arm—’
‘They’re not lying, Michelle. You’re just so paranoid that you’re seeing things that aren’t there.
She whips round to see Markus standing by the door with a tray of tea. His knuckles are white; he’s gripping the tray hard. I frown. He’s angry. Markus never gets angry.
‘What would you know?’ Michelle spits at him.
‘Jody would never do such a thing. She’s still in love with Jon, even if he is dead. However, seeing as you’re so bent at wanting to accuse someone, perhaps you should accuse me.’
I notice the colour drain from Rich’s face. What’s going on here?
‘Markus, perhaps you should just serve the tea and let me handle this,’ Rich says quietly.
‘Oh, no,’ Michelle says. ‘I want to know what he means by that.’
‘I mean what I said. Maybe you should accuse me of having an affair with Rich. After all, it’s true. He’s just too shy to admit it,’ Markus says bluntly.
Well, that’s a surprise. I also feel like a lousy sister. Markus knows so much about me, and I thought I knew everything about him. Yet I had no idea he was gay. How could something as important as this have slipped by me?
I do know this, though: Markus has always had great timing. The horror on Michelle’s face at her sudden revelation will stick with us for years, and I think even Rich was glad when she left the manor barely ten minutes later with her suitcase fully packed.
Honestly, how he ever ended up with her in the first place I’ll never know. At least now he and Markus can actually be happy. And, for the first time since Jon died, I think I can be too.