I stared into the thin air, my gaze blank and unblinking. It had been three weeks since we had come home to an empty house and a baby room that we knew would never be used. Carl asked Lillian to store it all away, but I think it was given to a charity in the end because I could find no traces of our Emmanuel whom we had only weeks ago been expecting. Those days are hazy, and you have to forgive me for failing to remember what exactly transpired. I can only remember staying in bed for the first week, eating little besides the soup and bread that had been prepared. When no one was around, I would bellow out my sorrows, letting my tears fill up my eyes, my chest exploding with pain until nothing was left but emptiness. And so my days went by in a haze, until I removed myself from bed to wander the house, finding comfort in trickles of light that penetrated drawn curtains. There I would sit for what seemed like hours until darkness once again descended.
We never spoke about it. It was like an unwritten rule that we both respected – perhaps Carl more so than me. Whilst I didn’t find need for company, actively seeking to repel any attempt sought by my husband, Carl tried to accommodate my wishes. He eventually left the house, going back to work, staying away long enough to find his wife asleep on his return. But most of the time I was not, lying awake in an overcast room filled with shadows of various densities. In hindsight, as I look back, my husband and I never talked about what happened to us. We never talked, full stop, always allowing silence to speak for our pain and shortcomings. In truth I don’t know what Carl felt. There was of course a terminated pregnancy lurking in the past. I can’t deny there were times I felt that God had punished us for failing to respect the very sacredness of human life. And, as if God’s judgement was not harsh enough, I sought out means of self-destruction that would only amplify my suffering. In some ways it became a panacea for my deeply perturbed soul.
I rarely ate, and my weight plummeted to a svelte forty-eight kilos. Regaining my figure became an obsession and I spent hours in the evenings running on the treadmill until spells of dizziness set in. My body became an instrument of control, which I used with great success to supress my feelings of loss. The baby boy we had once expected became a muffled memory who only made himself heard in my dreams. In those dreams he was a boy with dark, wavy hair and immense blue eyes that would look at me with great sadness as I purposely rejected him, leaving him outside of a shop or restaurant in his baby pram as I walked away. I would wake up to the feeling of a cold, moist pillow and I would know I had been crying.
Six weeks later I was back at work. My staff was supportive, but as the manager in charge, I never felt I could wholeheartedly allow them into my life. Perhaps I never could allow anyone in, and the few friends I had dwindled to south of nought. But work proved a great escape, and somehow, despite an impending recession, it picked up through my sheer effort in rekindling every contact I had in the industry. It worked, and once again our office was buzzling with activity.
Amélie, who I considered my closest confident, a girl in her mid-thirties with blonde flowing hair, full hips and an ample bosom, came one day into my office with some great news. Our company had been accepted to do the research for a TV show called The Mysteries of History for a global history channel. It was a deal worth a six-figure sum and would take us from a small company with global ambitions to a world-wide player in the field. Two weeks later we were on a plane to London to sign the deal that would take us to stardom. Or so it felt in our own world where little else mattered beyond old codices and remnants of lost civilizations.
It was a late-August afternoon. The weather carried a suppressive atmosphere, and the portable fans worked at full speed to cool off the temperature that was threatening to break into the thirties. Mr Fowler pushed the contract over to me, which had been reviewed and reworked by our lawyers over the past weeks before it had reached its final version. I put my signature on the papers and heard a massive “ka-ching” reverberate in my mind.
We celebrated our success that evening. Amélie and I roamed the clubs of London before dropping into our hotel beds just short of sunrise. The next morning we had a briefing that would take us through the project, which was to span one season of ten TV episodes with an option to be extended pending viewer ratings and the satisfaction of our client. Several of the episodes were traditional mysteries known to the public. There was the mystery of Mary Celeste, the ghost ship found drifting the Atlantic Ocean; there was Rennes le Chateau, a riddle well known to me as a French historian who more often than not dabbled in esoterica; the third episode scheduled to air was about the Holy Grail; Atlantis and the Shroud of Turin made up episodes four and five. Episodes six and seven were both of personal interest to me: was there ever a female pope, and who was the black Madonna? Eight, nine and ten were still open for discussion, and the agenda covered the brainstorm of such topics. Before long the discussions took a more sinister turn.
“We have quite a few suggestions here, mainly thanks to Amélie and Andrew.” Mr Fowler winked in the direction of my colleague. It was clear the two of them had hit it off more than professionally.
“What about you, Justine? You’ve been rather quiet this whole time.” This was true. I was still nursing a headache from the night before with an arsenal of painkillers, Evian and coffee. None seemed to work, which rendered me both thoughtless and speechless. His comment jogged me back to life though and killed my headache in one blow. I looked at the flip chart covering enigmas such as the Bible Code, the Easter Islands, the Ley Lines and Secret Societies with offshoots such as the Freemasons, the Bilderberg, the Illuminati, the New World Order (although technically this was an objective and strategy more than an society), the Rosicrucians, the secret bloodlines, and others lesser known.
“We need more that is dark, sinister and provocative,” I suggested.
“I hear you. Go on.” Mr. Fowler stood with his legs apart, stroking his chin.
“Of course, there are famous mysteries such as Jack the Ripper and the Manson murders, which would serve very well as entertainment. But there are even better ones – and perhaps lesser known.”
“Such as Gilles de Rais, Thomas de Torquemada and Rasputin, to name but a few. Add on top of that Elizabeth Bathory and Madame LaLaurie.” I saw some people raising an eyebrow, others looking perplexed. Elizabeth Bathory was known to most as the female Count Dracula but few had heard of the horrors of Madame LaLaurie.
“Think New Orleans, 1800s. A striking woman who is the epitome of French Creole society gets her pleasures out of sadistically torturing her male and female slaves. A French-born husband — and a doctor at that — stands by her in her experiments of creating new creatures out of her human victims. They even said they found a slave made into a human crab with his arms and legs attached in reverse.” I paused for effect. “In fact they said Idi Amin did the same to his wife who was pregnant with his child.” Blank stares met me, and this invigorated me even further, as topics fell off my tongue in a steady cascade.
“What about the Marquis de Sade, the origins of sadomasochism (very few people know of von Sacher-Masoch’s contribution to the infamous word), Bodysnatchers, snuff movies and hunts for humans (I was referring to the obscure and often forgotten book The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, where a Russian aristocrat hunts shipwrecked sailors on his island).”
“OK, hold on. I need some time to write these down. It’s good, though. Very good. And precisely why we hired your company.” He sped up in his writing, making it almost unreadable as he slanted his words more to the right the longer he continued.
“Does anyone else have anything to add to this?” There was a moment of silence, as if continuing in the line of thought I had just opened would indicate an indisputably warped and twisted mind. And perhaps it did, as most people remained silent whilst only a few followed in my path.
By the early evening we had worked out a format and topics for shows to last for at least five seasons to come. If success was to be ours remained to be seen, but I was cautiously optimistic. And the dark-side angle would later prove not to be entirely out of our depth.
We began our research the following week with the aim to start production in late autumn. The first episode was set to air the following April, but as it covered a lot of ground, we were in for an uphill battle. I have to admit it all was a welcome distraction from a marriage ridden with plights and failures. And despite my newfound devotion, the loss of Emmanuel was never far away.
Carl seemed resigned to the fact that our relationship was heading for an irreparable, if not permanent breakdown. We made a half-hearted attempt to seek counselling in the weeks before Christmas. We talked about our recent sorrows and a past that we both held each other accountable for. But the aim to heal only seemed to aggravate the wounds that time after time were reopened and rubbed with the salt of our bitter discussions. We entered Christmas with a truce, and spent the holidays holed up in our house, trying to keep the Christmas spirit within the confinement of our walls. Looking back on it, I think it was a last-ditch attempt to salvage our marriage.