Rating: 12 (non-explicit femslash)
Summary: The opera's over, but that's not the last of Renée Adler
Many thanks to Kalypso for betaing
Anthea wakes in the middle of the night, because there’s someone in her room, standing right next to the bed. She’s sure of it. As one hand rests on the light switch, the other reaches for her gun. Birdy Edwards may not be real, but the Scowrers are.
But when she flicks on the light, it’s not a man staring down at her, but Amina. No, not Amina, even though she’s still wearing Amina’s demure check dirndl. It’s Renée Adler’s clever eyes that are scanning Anthea’s face. The Scowrers wouldn’t use a woman for anything important; that’s not why she’s here.
“How did you get in, Renée?” Anthea demands, and Renée gives her a cheerful smile that has none of Amina’s simple sweetness.
“Call me Irene, all my friends do,” she replies, in her low, rich voice. “Maybe I’m sleepwalking again.”
“The door’s locked,” Anthea says firmly, and now she remembers. As always, she used a doorstop and the deadbolt as well last night, and she’s on the eleventh floor. Unless Irene can fly, she can’t have got in.
“This is a dream, isn’t it?” she says and Irene’s smile doesn’t waver.
“Of course, but the question is, whose?”
“It must be mine,” Anthea says. “You’re just a figment of my imagination.”
“Then what do you want?” Irene’s smile is suddenly demure. “If it’s your dream, it’s your choice. Ask me anything.”
Strange how she knows that what Anthea always wants first is information.
“Why does Amina do it?” Anthea asks.
“I don’t know.” Irene’s voice is matter-of-fact.
“But you’re playing the character.”
“Amina doesn’t know why she sleepwalks. She’s doesn’t properly understand what’s happening to her. So I don’t know – can’t know – the reason.” Irene’s face is serious now, the master craftsman assessing her own work. “It’s better that I don’t know: don’t try and turn it into subconscious trauma or rejection of Elvino or something like that.” She smiles again. “Too many operas spoiled by half-baked bits of Freud as it is. You should know that.”
“But you know why she stays with Elvino?” It’s not every day you get to hear the insider’s view.
“Because it’s her village and it’s all she knows. She’s scared to leave the valley; even the castle’s too far away to seem truly real. And in the village there’s Elvino or the smelly goatherd or the boy from next-door with pimples. Elvino’s the best of a bad lot.”
“I thought Amina adored him?”
“She believes in love. If she loves Elvino enough, he’ll become what he should be. Love is the true mystery, not sleepwalking.” Irene’s smile is mocking now. “At least I presume that’s what Bellini thought.”
Anthea doesn’t know how to reply, and she finds herself blurting out instead: “How did you walk across the mill bridge without looking down?”
“Nylon cord at the back of the bridge, as a guideline. My hand on that keeps me walking straight, but the cord’s practically invisible. A safety harness under the dress, attached via a cord up my sleeve and a karabiner to the guide-cord. If I did ever slip off the bridge, I’d just dangle in mid-air.”
Anthea can almost see it. “You’d look ridiculous.”
“It’s opera. Everyone looks ridiculous at some point.”
“I don’t want you looking–” Anthea says and breaks off, because Irene is reaching out and pulling the duvet away. Then she sits down at the end of the bed, smiling at Anthea, who’s lying curled up in her grey satin pyjamas. Anthea finally gets a close-up look at her for the first time. Irene has a voluptuous figure, obviously – you don’t get a voice that powerful without a substantial chest – but she doesn’t remember Amina’s dirndl being cut quite that low.
“So now I’m here, would you like a private performance?” Irene purrs and for a moment Anthea’s tempted to ask what’s on offer. Till she remembers the Crown Prince of Bohemia.
“Not interested,” she drawls, and the other woman smiles understandingly.
“Godfrey wouldn’t like it anyhow,” she says, tucking her elegant legs under her.
“My husband, Godfrey Norton.”
“I didn’t know you were married,” Anthea says, thinking back to the newspaper articles.
Incongruously, Irene pulls a mobile from a pocket of her dirndl and swipes it a couple of times.
“This is Godfrey,” she says, showing Anthea a photo of a remarkably handsome African-American man with a pencil moustache.
“One in the eye for the Scowrers,” Anthea replies promptly and Irene nods.
“We met in high school,” she says, “and I always knew he was the one. We got married when we were nineteen.”
There’s a tenderness in her voice that Anthea’s heard in some of her arias tonight. When Irene’s looking adoringly at the tenor playing Elvino, is she thinking of Godfrey?
“I was willing to give up my music,” Irene goes on, “but Godfrey said I was made for more than Hoboken. He took two jobs so I could study at Juilliard. Every step of the way, he’s been behind me.”
“But not by your side,” Anthea says, and Irene sighs and shrugs.
“It’s not just the Scowrers,” she says. “All the agents say the same. Audiences prefer their female singers single and old white people are the most likely to oppose interracial marriage.”
And opera audiences are mostly old and white, Anthea thinks, and wonders what they’d have made of Godfrey and Irene Norton in Warsaw.
Irene adds: “That’s what the private performances are for. Get enough in the bank so when I tell people about Godfrey, it doesn’t matter if the engagements dry up. Things won’t be this way forever.”
“It’s hard concealing who you are,” Anthea agrees. “So eventually you’ll tell the Crown Prince where to get off?”
“Godfrey’s prince enough for me,” Irene says, standing up. “I’d better go. We’ve both had long days.” She smiles down. “You wondered what would happen if someone touched the sleeping woman. Time to find out, Anthea.”
Ice and knives or melting tenderness?
“Goodnight,” Irene breathes, and a slender hand reaches down and trails gently across Anthea’s mouth.
At Irene’s touch, she wakes up, but there’s no-one in her room.
There’s definitely no-one in her room. Anthea gets up and checks the door; the deadbolt and doorstop are undisturbed. Windows locked, en-suite empty, and even as she opens the wardrobe to check its back isn’t false, she knows that’s not the answer. Not a locked room mystery for Mycroft – or Sherlock – to solve. The right answer is the obvious one. She’s still hyped up in the aftermath of the mission and she dreamt the whole thing.
Hardly a surprise that her own mind came up with possible explanations for aspects of the show and then foisted on them on dream-Irene. The unconscious trying to process experiences: standard psychology. But why did she think that Renée Adler needed a husband? And where specifically did Godfrey Norton come from? Anthea doesn’t believe in premonitions, but Mycroft’s taught her to beware of coincidences. A name doesn’t come from nowhere: it’s a signpost to something. She picks up her phone from the bedside table.
A Godfrey Norton is easy enough to find. Quoted in one of the early profiles on Renée Adler that Anthea had read this morning. “Godfrey Norton, an old friend of Miss Adler, said: ‘We knew back in tenth grade that Irene would be a star. Once we heard that voice and saw her on stage, we told her she had to go to music school. And we made sure she did it in the end.’”
Nothing there to suggest he was more than a friend to Renée, but also nothing to contradict it. And no picture of him in the article. Still, she has other sources. But as Anthea’s about to check the New Jersey vital statistics website, she stops. Her subconscious has clearly been putting two and two together, but is it to make four or five?
‘Godfrey Norton’ is a very English name, isn’t it? Specifically a WASP one. And Hoboken’s a lot whiter than London is. Is it likely that Renée contracted an interracial marriage straight out of high school, one that lasted? Don’t you need to be a bit older, more mature, to cope with the inevitable prejudice? That’s her own experience, at any rate.
Her own experience. She sees the real pattern at last, the fragments of feelings woven into her dream story. The loyal spouse who makes their partner’s glamorous job possible. The loyal black spouse, unknown to others. ‘Godfrey Norton’, whatever he may really be to Renée, isn’t what matters here.
There’s a score for La sonnambula on her desk from yesterday; Anthea goes over and leafs through to the end to read Amina’s final words of joy:
Ah mi abbraccia, e sempre insieme
Sempre uniti in una speme,
Della terra in cui viviamo
Ci formiamo un ciel d'amor.
A couple of swipes to pull up the right number on her phone and Anthea starts to type, translating as she goes along, because she’s not sure how good Ella’s Italian is:
Embrace me, and always together, Always united in one hope, From the land in which we live, Let us make a heaven of love
A few more characters spare in the text, and so she adds: Miss you, A, and presses send. Ella will get that in the morning, smile that slow, warm smile of hers as she reads it. Anthea’s never been one for sentimental gestures. Until Ella came along, that is.
Now it’s time to get herself a drink of water and then go back to bed and try to sleep. She’s got an overnight flight this evening, it’d help to have a decent night’s sleep tonight. Hard to sleep soundly in the Valley of the Fear, but she’s out of that now. And in two nights’ time, she’ll be back in her own bed with Ella, which is a comforting thought.
Anthea’s phone rings when she’s in the bathroom, and as she goes to pick it up, for a moment she can’t stop her stomach knotting. Another urgent mission from Mycroft? Who else would be phoning at this time of the night? And then she sees the caller’s number.
“Ella?” she answers, and Ella’s voice, pitched halfway between the professional and personal, asks:
“Are you alright? Can’t you sleep?”
How could she know? And then Anthea finally thinks to look at the time on her phone. 2.46 am, which means it’s 7.46 in London and Ella’s just having breakfast.
“I...woke up early,” she says and doesn’t know how to go on. She can’t think straight and she doesn’t know what to say. But one of the good things about Ella is she’s used to people being incoherent.
“How was the opera?” Ella asks.
“Good. Gorgeous music.” There’s a silence on the line, Ella waiting to see if she has more to say. But she can’t talk about the opera, because the valleys are blurring together in her weary mind, and she can’t talk about Vermissa yet. “I’ll tell you when I get home.”
“I’ll look forward to that,” Ella says smoothly. “Are you still coming on the same flight as you planned, by the way?”
“Yeah. I’m not expecting it to change.” The Valley of Fear is past now, and Anthea can go home.
“Let me know if it does. I want to come to Heathrow to meet you.”
The thought of Ella there at the end of the trip is as comforting as a warm bath, but Anthea has to warn her wife:
“I won’t be able to come straight home...”
“I know,” Ella says. “You’ll have to go down to Millbank first, to be debriefed. But you won’t want to cart your luggage about all morning, will you? I’ll come in the taxi with you and then take it home. And I’ve got the whole morning off, so I can meet you afterwards, if you’d like.”
“You’ve got the morning off?” Ella never has Thursdays off.
“I did a lot of covering for other people at the clinic while you were away, so I’ve been able to work it. One appointment at 2 pm on Thursday which I can’t skip and then I’m free till Monday lunchtime. So when you see Mycroft, tell him you have a lot of time in lieu to take.”
Three, no, four days with Ella, and nothing else to worry about. If Anthea can just get through the next thirty-six hours, when she’s so tired.
“That’s wonderful,” she starts to say, and somehow there’s a massive yawn intruding into her conversation. “Sorry. I really appreciate that.”
“Do you need to go to bed?” Ella asks.
“I did. I woke up because I was having a strange dream,” Anthea says, and knows she sounds like a five-year-old.
“Go and lie down and then you can tell me about it.”
“I saw Irene, Renée Adler again...still in her costume...in my room...Renée, not Amina,” Anthea says, and then there’s silence. Except for a few sounds, that might be the phone slipping out of a woman’s hand as she falls asleep, and the tiny hitches of her breathing.
“Anthea?” Ella says in a low voice, but there’s no reply. She waits for a minute or so, because she always waits, but there’s nothing more.
“Goodnight, my darling,” she says, and hangs up. She glances at her watch. She can still get to the clinic on time if she gets a move on. The washing-up will just have to wait till the evening, she thinks, as she shoves the butter back in the fridge and heads for the door.
When Ella had first met Anthea, she’d seemed deeply asleep, just drifting through life. Odd, now, to realise that was just an act, that Anthea’s hidden brilliance means she’s often sent into situations that most women wouldn’t dare face. Undercover in Pennsylvania this time, she’d said, and Ella knows better than to ask questions until it’s all over. Mycroft will get the official debriefing, of course, but it’s Ella who’ll hear the truth about the mission. Not what Anthea learnt, but what it meant to her. Ella will be the one to hold Anthea if she has nightmares, to listen to her when she can’t sleep. Protecting your country isn’t an easy job.
Not what Ella expected from her personal life. She’s counselled veterans for years, and now she’s ended up with someone on active service herself. Probably not her wisest move. But that’s what love is like, isn’t it? Unplanned, unexpected.
Once she’s found a few square inches of space on the train, she pulls out her phone and re-reads Anthea’s text. A quotation, surely; Anthea finds it hard to express emotions in her own words. From the opera, perhaps? Easier to sing about a heaven of love, than to say the words. Love isn’t always heaven. It’s only on stage that you can believe the dream that it is. The happy ending when everyone’s married off and you have the final triumphal chords. Then you have to go out of the theatre, into the real world. Which for most people, most of the time, is less dramatic.
So it’s odd that one of her favourite quotes about marriage should come from an actress. Marriage is the deep, deep peace of the double-bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue. Not something she can use with her clients; it’d be too hard to explain the chaise-longue, let alone who Mrs Patrick Campbell was. But she’s met so many people who could do with knowing the substance of the quote. That marriage isn’t just a dream ending, but the beginning of something different, something more important.
Ella never dreamt of marriage, of course, or not once she realised she wouldn’t want the bridegroom around afterwards. And even after civil partnerships came along, and she met Anthea, she never expected an actual wedding, with Anthea and her dancing together afterwards in matching dresses, and a marriage certificate to take home. Not the sort of thing Anthea would want, she always presumed. But she was wrong about that.
She’ll have to tell Anthea that Campbell quote when she’s back, ask her what she reckons to it. Not immediately, though; what with the jetlag and the debriefing, Anthea will want to unwind first. She’ll probably need a few catch-up sleeps as well to recharge. But she’ll be recovering by the weekend, and in the past few weeks Ella’s been dreaming of a lot of things she’d like to do when Anthea’s back. There may be a deep peace to the double-bed, but they can probably still manage a bit of hurly-burly there themselves.