I’ve always thought that one can infer a great deal about a man from the condition and state of his cuffs. My father’s shirt never looked pristine white – ivory and starched – from the moment he put it on. It was always coated in an impermeable layer of grime, a kind of earthy grey – smuts and soot. His cuffs were the dirtiest. He worked in a factory all day, and it showed on his sleeves. They always bore the metallic filth and grease of the workplace of the lower class man. Sometimes, he dispensed with what little formality he retained, shed his tatty, brown waistcoat and rolled his sleeves to the elbow.
One can tell a lot about a man from his cuffs. Arthur MacInton, the butler of the house I find my employment in, has clean cuffs, but they have softened in the rain, their previous starched shape collapsing due to the water. His character is so very similar to his cuffs. He has a stiff, assertive exterior when one first encounters him, but over time, he softens towards you, like the cuffs in the rain. I like Arthur. One might say I even love him, but I wouldn’t dream of it being a romantic attachment. Arthur is like a friendly uncle; a father figure, but without the strictness and façade of authority.
One can tell a lot about a man from his cuffs. Mr. Aisbury, my employer, has cuffs as white as the spray on the sea, and as stiff as bark. It is astonishing how they are always clean, but then again, it is my job, as well as that of Arthur and the other staff in the Aisbury house, to ensure that the master of the house’s cuffs never lose their cleanliness and flawless appearance. His shoes are polished to the pinnacle of perfection, and he has diamond cufflinks. One does not require a particularly high intelligence to observe that he is wealthy. It is all inherited. Mr. Aisbury comes from a line of rich fathers, who died and passed their wealth to their rich sons, who grew to become rich fathers, to then die and pass their gradually increasing wealth to their rich sons, and so the chain has many more links added.
The only reason why his cuffs remain in their original, bone-dry condition is the umbrella which Arthur is using to shelter him and his dancing partner. Arthur is singing, a lilting swing piece, as music for the couple to dance to. That woman is acting quite the whore around Mr. Aisbury. I was always brought up to act a lady around men, or around anyone, for that matter. This woman’s behaviour disgusts me. The invention of jazz must have affected her morality.
I can see that maid staring at me quite distastefully from under her hat. I almost enjoy it, despite the sour expression on her visage. She is the least superficial element of this whole charade. Everything about this is a veneer – the servants provide an illusion of good weather with their ebony umbrellas, threatening to become concave in the wind, and I know that my shying away from my partner’s closeness must be obvious. I can barely recall his name… Frederick? He was always introduced to me as simply ‘F’, a ridiculous nickname if ever I heard one. I am perfectly aware of his surname, however. Aisbury. The one. Cut off the head and the body will die. Cut off the last male heir in the Aisbury family and the family will be no more. There was a time when I wondered whether or not I loved him, the suave gentleman with a charming attitude and a pleasant face. It was not long before I realised I felt no love for him. Of course, a girl from flapper roots like me has engaged in numerous romantic understandings over the past few years of life. I fell for a musician, a saxophonist in the band at the jazz club where I was dancing, who always called me ‘Viola’, like the musical instrument, rather than pronouncing it correctly, and told me my American accent was beautiful.
My surroundings are so wonderfully bizarre. The butler is holding my shoes in his right hand, discarded when their sharp heels quickly sunk into the sand. The sky is smothering, like it is closing in on us, a heavy background of smoky lilac. My dancing partner has a relaxed hand at the bridge between my silk dress, a flirtatious plum colour, and the bare skin of my back. I do not appreciate his attitude. So far this evening, I have moved his hand upwards from the small of my back three times. His hand is clammy and uncomfortable against my skin. The butler is singing; a deep and glorious bass with a distinct Scottish accent. The maid has my handbag at her feet, a damp patch developing on its underside from the sand, left moist by the receding tide. They have no idea of the secret it contains.
The skies are darkening ominously overhead, and despite the umbrella, inclined towards Mr. Aisbury and his woman, I can feel spots of rain falling and tickling my cheeks as I lift my hat from my head. The wind is picking up too, and I exchange a glance with Arthur. He sings the final notes of his tune, and in his voice like a clap of thunder, suggests to Mr. Aisbury that we return to the house, as the weather is gradually worsening. Mr. Aisbury’s hands drop from his partner’s waist and left hand, and he stands with military straightness, before agreeing with Arthur’s suggestion. The woman, who has a nasal American accent, reaches for her bag, and I return it to her, grateful for the responsibility to be removed from me. Arthur and I take down the umbrellas, shaking the raindrops from them. They fall in a flurry, catching the light and refracting rainbows at all angles, providing a captivating show. We turn, and with almost tentative strides, trouser-clad legs moving in step with my own bare limbs, modesty preserved by my apron and dress, Arthur and I lead the way from the beach.
A crack fills the air.
I spin round. Mr. Aisbury crumples to the ground, his pristine cuffs reddened with blood as he clutches the bullet wound at his chest.
She is standing over him, pistol in hand, chest rising and falling rapidly with every wild breath she takes.
The maid and the butler turn, shaking water from their umbrellas like a dog drying itself after a swim, and with my bag comfortably back in my hand, I take a deep breath. They turn to leave the beach, the maid taking choppy little steps to keep up with the butler.
Now is my moment. I cautiously undo the clasp of the bag, and reach inside for it; for my revolver, with its mother of pearl handle and single bullet. One bullet is all I will require.
I withdraw it from the bag, its leather body still damp from the beach and the rain, and raise it to F’s chest. Our eyes meet momentarily, and I mouth, “I’m sorry,” as I pull the trigger.
There is a crack, and that is that. The maid and butler turn to face me. I take ragged breaths, almost unable to believe what I have just done.
I am guilty.