A Quiet Night

London, 1939

It was a spur of the moment decision that saw Genevieve head across to Dennis’ house that evening. Her uncle had refused her last-minute request to borrow his vehicle, referencing some witness or other he planned to call upon, despite having already settled into his pipe and slippers by the time she broached the subject. Perhaps she might have provided more notice. Perhaps he might have locked the door to his wine cellar. In the end, though, she hurried from her house into a waiting taxicab, clutching a stolen bottle of merlot.

Dennis lived on Pitton Street, which might have been the longest street she’d ever seen, and the memory of Dennis advising his house number was quite wiped from her brain. She paused, staring along the rows of tiny front gardens fenced by green and yellow hedges, as though Dennis would suddenly appear and beckon her to him but the residents were well ensconced in their homes. The taxicab disappeared with a bang from the exhaust, and so she began traipsing resignedly down the street, hoping for a flash of inspiration.

Halfway down she heard raised voices, muffled against the window panes. She turned, following the noise, and her shoulders sank. Through the quartered bay windows of a house across the street she saw Dennis very clearly. Bright red, his lips quivering, he stared wide-eyed at an intruder, a man whose back faced the window. Dennis’ brow was drawn down, eyebrows closely knotted as though the person was uttering complete nonsense, nonsense that precipitated fury.

Genevieve crouched instinctively then scrambled across the road like a child playing a hiding game and hovered behind the wildly overgrown hedge lining Dennis’ front garden. She glanced quickly up and down the street – a few doors down a man and woman left their house, hurrying away in the opposite direction. Other than the couple, the street remained silent. Slowly, carefully, she stretched her body upward until her eyes and forehead became visible, peering over the top of the hedge at Dennis.

He was speaking again, something unintelligible to her ears. The intruder moved now, coming to face Dennis head on. He seemed older, with a greying beard and almost nineteenth-century style of dressing as though he had refused to say goodbye to the century, and shorter – he glared up at Dennis with his chin pushed firmly toward the ceiling. Then he uttered a few well-pronounced words, which she almost caught in lip reading. Something or die.

Genevieve gasped. She glanced away again, heart pounding, expecting the police to come roaring into sight and neutralise the situation then a sudden movement in the room caught her attention. It was Dennis, swinging a gun up to point at the intruder.

She blinked in shock. Well then, perhaps he didn’t need backup after all.

The gun was a big, ugly thing, and Dennis wielded it with a confident authority. He aimed directly at the intruder’s face, who began to falter slightly but still did not move. Dennis bellowed one word at him repeatedly: “OUT! OUT! OUT!” He indicated the front door with the barrel of the gun, but when the man still refused to budge – though sweat began beading across his face and rolling down his neck – Dennis’ rage turned him purple.

He swung the gun to his front window. Yelled “OUT!” once more. Then fired.

Genevieve realised his intention a split second before he pulled the trigger, and threw herself to the ground behind the hedge, landing heavily. The loud bang was followed instantly by shattering glass and echoed down the street.

Her ears rang. She panted, face pressed into the crook of her elbow where she lay, arms shielding her head. She remained curled there, her heart thudding in her chest, until the intruder appeared at the garden gate.

He visibly shook as he stumbled onto the pavement, muttering to himself. “Insane… mad that’s it – mad just like her…” He didn’t see Genevieve in his panic. He scurried away in the opposite direction, fleeing up the road.

Genevieve took a shaking breath and pushed herself gingerly to her feet.

What’s goin‘ on down there?” Dennis’ next-door neighbour, with her hair in rollers, materialised at her first floor window and glared down at Genevieve as though she had caused the disturbance. Several other neighbours appeared at windows, twitching curtains, and one ventured bravely outside to investigate the gun shot.

Genevieve wobbled on her feet, adrenaline pumping. “N-Nothing to see here!” she called back lamely.

Dennis, standing in his living room with the gun hanging over the crook of his arm, looked up upon her sudden appearance. His eyes widened madly, staring at her as though she were supposed to be dead, then he yanked the curtains shut.

Genevieve waved at the neighbours in a blank, almost royal fashion, while they gaped in shock and watched her slowly back up into the house. Her feet crunched over the shattered glass. She stood for a moment on the threshold, waving stupidly – the bearded man had left the door wide open – then took a step backward and swiftly slammed the door.

“Oh Jesus.” She headed down Dennis’ hallway into the kitchen, barging the man himself aside, set the wine bottle on kitchen table and began rummaging through his drawers.

Dennis leaned over a kitchen counter, fingers gripping the edge tightly, lips curled into a snarl, and said nothing. The gun rested on the counter beside him.

“Dennis – where on Earth is your bloody corkscrew?” Genevieve cried without looking at him, now opening and closing cupboard doors in her feverish search. There was a wet, thudding pop and she spun to find Dennis had opened the wine, glowering at her. She scurried forward, grabbed the bottle and began drinking straight from the neck.

“Look, Genevieve,” he began, in a strained voice. His right eye twitched. “Now’s not a good -”

She held up a finger to interrupt him and continued glugging the wine. He fell silent, moodily watching her drink. A dribble of wine escaped her lips and trickled down her chin. Finally, when she ran out of breath, she slammed the bottle back onto the table and hunched over it, gasping for air.

“What – in the blazes – were you thinking?” she panted between breaths.

“This is really none of your concern.”

Genevieve scoffed. “You shot a bullet through your own window!” When he refused to respond, scratching the back of his neck in irritation, Genevieve picked up the wine and took another swig, eyeing the discarded gun warily. “You know, I’m beginning to suspect whether you really are a policeman.”

“That man is Grace’s dad,” he told her darkly.

“Because, now I think on it, I have never actually seen you on the beat,” Genevieve continued, ignoring him.

“Did you hear me?”

“Nor have I once seen you at the station.”

“DAMMIT GENEVIEVE!” Dennis roared, spit flying from his mouth. “SHE WANTS A DIVORCE!”

Genevieve took a long swig of wine and followed it with a long inhalation of breath.

“Well? Don’t you have anything to say on that?” Dennis leaned toward her, eyes bulging once more.

She directed her gaze at the old saucepans hanging from the ceiling above the hob. “You shan’t like it.”

“We both know you’ll say it anyway.”

She stared rather hard at a little milkpan with a patch of rust on the bottom. “Are you purposefully forgetting your dalliance with Verity – ?”

Dennis exhaled angrily and stormed from the kitchen. Genevieve followed, taking the wine with her. He entered the front room again, the only other room save the kitchen on this floor, and paced it wordlessly, hands curled into fists. A slight breeze blew in through the broken window, rippling the curtains gently. Nailed to the wall over the mantelpiece was a wooden crucifix, keeping watch on the room, and Dennis came to a standstill before it, curling and un-curling his fists.

Genevieve leaned against the doorway as a sudden rush of heat swept her; the wine was hitting her empty stomach and making itself known. Food first, she scolded herself, then wine.

“Grace and I…” came Dennis’ cracked voice, “we were joined together in the eyes of God, I will not – I cannot – destroy those vows.”

Genevieve snorted and pointed at him accusingly. “Says the adulterer!”

Dennis spun to face her, his face flushed at the further mention of his indiscretion. “That doesn’t mean I wish for an end to my marriage.”

“Apparently Grace does!”

“I refuse to believe it.” Dennis shook his head. “No, no, I won’t do it. I will not tear us apart in this ungodly manner.” He pressed his palms against his temples. “How – how can she do this to me?”

Genevieve straightened up, alarmed. She placed the wine bottle on a nearby bureau and opened her mouth to reply but suddenly Dennis had crossed the room, his eyes blazing. He seized her by the jaw and wordlessly pressed his lips against hers. She stumbled slightly in surprise but he held her upright, so tightly her jaw ached, and continued to kiss her fiercely… yet there was no passion in it. Merely determination. Her stomach filled with acid. She pulled herself away and angrily slapped him hard around the face. He fell against the door, clutching his cheek.

“For God’s sake, Dennis.” She strode past him into the front room, wiping her mouth.

“What? What’s the matter? Genie-”

“Don’t call me Genie!” she barked, spinning to face him. She took a breath and then continued, in a firm voice, “What the hell were you thinking just now? You may not use me to simply” – she waved a hand in the air – “bolster whatever you imagine Grace’s father took from you.”

Dennis glared at her, his scowl casting a shadow over his eyes. “Why are you here? Why did you come tonight?”

Genevieve readjusted her headscarf, tightening the knot and sweeping the freed hair from her eyes. “To say goodbye,” she said eventually. “I have bought passage on the Duchess of Richmond and set sail from Liverpool on Saturday, to Canada.”

“You’re leaving?” Dennis’ eyes rounded. He took a step backward.

“Just for a little while. I have to get away.”

Dennis pressed his lips together so hard they turned white. They stood in silence for a few moments, each unable to look at the other, then Dennis said, “Shit. Shit. Shit!” He turned without another word, seized his overcoat from the coat stand in the hallway and took off out the front door, not even bothering to close it behind him.

Genevieve hurried to the broken window. He strode so quickly he was almost out of sight, disappearing into the dark night in the same direction she had first arrived. The shattered glass glinted on the lawn in the moonlight. Directly across the road, a curtain twitched again and a grumpy-looking man peered out, looking at her unabashedly. She pulled a cigarette from her pocket and lit it, staring back.