A Gap In Time – 1
Maybe in Another Life
East Street, the main road through the village, was all but empty. Residents had disappeared indoors for lunch or sought shelter before the dark clouds broke with heavy spring rain. In the silence, gritty shoes on cobblestones hurried by.
Inside number 25, two women cowered in a darkened room. Ermentrude shook as her sister, Bess, reassured her everything would be all right. The sound of the walkers outside stopped. When the latch rattled to no avail, the intense rapping on the door boomed in the hush.
“Open up,” Henry called. “Ermentrude?”
Ermentrude gasped. “He’s angry with me.”
“No, he’s angry with me,” Bess said.
Ermentrude squirmed, unsure of what she should do. Allow her husband in and end this stalemate? Or stay true to her sister?
“Let me in!” Henry demanded.
“No,” Bess tightened her grip on her sister. “He can wait. I’m sure Perrin is with him.”
“For how long? This isn’t his fight, nor mine. You cannot hide from your husband forever.”
Ermentrude often pointed out the obvious. She didn’t cope well when the unexpected happened. She preferred the predictability of structure.
Bess, however, seemed to thrive on questioning things. ‘Who decided the sea is blue?’ she’d asked one day. A query none of her friends could answer. ‘I see green, white, even grey. But, no. I should think a man decided it was blue. So, it must be blue! She’d rolled her eyes, incredulous at the logic many women accepted.
“Bess!” Perrin bellowed.
Perrin liked to think he was a patient man. He didn’t understand why Bess had stormed out of their house that morning, leaving him with nothing to eat. He only had a short time before he’d be required back at the workshop.
“Bess! Come on, woman; I know you’re in there. What’s this about?”
While Perrin asked the question, he suspected his tone hadn’t been appreciated. Bess knew he’d be ready to eat when he arrived. It was a daily occurrence. Was she upset because he’d challenged her?
Henry banged once more, demanding the door be unlocked. Being locked out of his home was not something Ermentrude would do of her own accord. Henry didn’t like it.
“I have to let them in,” Ermentrude broke Bess’s hold on her. “He has to eat while he can.”
“Erma—” Bess sighed. It was no use; she saw nothing wrong with a husband making demands.
Ermentrude sprinted to where the entry had been blocked with a heavy wooden chest. As Ermentrude struggled to push the barrier, she wondered how Bess had the strength to move it in the first place. She glanced at Bess over her shoulder, puffing and panting. She was hoping for help.
However, Bess remained near the corner with arms crossed, pretending not to notice her sister struggling. She was more intent on composing a defiant expression.
The box shifted enough for Henry and Perrin to open the door and squeeze through. Once inside, Henry used his frustration to move the obstacle out of the way with one thrust while Ermentrude scurried to a pot hanging over the fire and stirred the broth bubbling inside.
“It won’t be long, Leof. Let me…” she mumbled as she dithered in the dining space.
A pang of guilt washed over Bess as she stole a peek at Ermentrude. Her sister’s hands were shaking as she tried to ready the table for the prepared meal.
Henry, positioned by the opened door, gestured between Ermentrude and Bess. Unsure which to address, his mouth gaped and then closed, unable to verbalize his thoughts.
Perrin entered and stood with his hands on his hips. Observing Bess, he waited. Bess, however, refused to acknowledge him as she pushed her chin out and crossed her arms.
The two men appeared bewildered. Henry shrugged and shook his head before sitting at the table to wait for his soup. He left Perrin to decide on an approach.
Perrin marched towards Bess and knew it wouldn’t matter what he said. It would be wrong. He stopped by the window and peered outside, hoping Bess would talk first. Stealing another glimpse, Bess noted Perrin’s proximity and maneuvered away from him.
“Bess, what did I do?” Perrin asked, turning from the window.
“You don’t know?” her words dripped with sarcasm.
“If he knew, he wouldn’t be asking,” Henry ventured from across the room.
Ermentrude poked his shoulder as she placed a bowl of broth before him.
Henry scowled at the woman. “What? That’s fair.”
Ermentrude withdrew to her place beside the fire.
“I am unsure,” Perrin said. “As far as I’m concerned, I came in for food, was surprised there was none ready, and asked why.”
“‘What have you been doing all morning, Lemman?’ were your words,” Bess reminded him.
The fire in Bess’s eyes both bothered and entertained Perrin. He knew she could be unpredictable when her eyes were wide and sparked with emotion as they were now. But he’d learned to tread carefully when the emotion was directed at him.
“It was a simple inquiry, a curiosity about your morning,” Perrin said.
“It was a damning statement dressed as a simple inquiry,” Bess said.
Perrin stared at Bess with his hands extended, pleading for understanding.
Over at the table, Henry had stopped eating.
Ermentrude positioned herself beside Henry with her mouth covered by her hand, somewhat shocked by the discussion.
“How is that a damning statement?” Perrin asked.
“To be honest,” Bess said, “I’m not sure what I’m more offended by. Being asked about my activities or being called Lemman.”
Bess now faced Perrin, stretching to full height, and placed her hands on hips. His words had cut deep. She was aggrieved that he should suggest she had been undutiful and that she had not prepared something for him. He would have seen what sat warming had he looked and could have helped himself.
Perrin returned Bess’s stare. He regarded the situation as unnecessary. He meant nothing untoward by his remark. But the standoff would not get him fed.
“Bess, I’m sorry if I offended you,” Perrin shrugged his shoulders. “But I can’t have knowledge of what you do after I’ve left the house.”
“You think I’ve been lazing this morning, don’t you? That’s why you called me Lemman!”
“I called you Lemman because you are my dear one and enquired about your activities because I am interested. Forgive me for caring about my wife!”
Perrin couldn’t help but feel cross that his spouse found issues where others did not. No other man seemed to have as much trouble as he.
“You called her Lemman?” Ermentrude stared in disbelief, clutching a hand to her chest. Aware of the fiery relationship between her sister and brother-in-law, she couldn’t help but feel affronted by the word.
Henry interjected as he ate, “It’s a term of endearment, an old-fashioned term for sure, but…”
“It can also be an insult!” Ermentrude transferred her shock to Henry.
Perrin now realized why Bess was angry. He knew the term had moved from compliment to insult in other regions, but he meant it with love.
“I’m sorry,” Perrin said, this time with sincerity. “I did not mean to insult you, Bess. I never would.”
Henry soaked up the broth with chunks of bread, noting the unspoken communication between the pair. He’d seen these expressions before, many times. Both were too pigheaded to back down.
“Bess, he’s an old-fashioned man that uses language from last century. Let it be a slip of the tongue.”
“Perrin has a point, though,” mumbled Ermentrude.
All pivoted to Ermentrude, whose countenance fell as she realized she’d spoken out loud.
Perrin was the first to respond. “Pardon, Ermentrude?”
“I just meant,” Ermentrude scratched at an invisible itch on her arm, “well, a man has a right to come home to food prepared for him.”
Ermentrude felt uncomfortable, so she picked up Henry’s near-empty bowl and remaining bread, removing them from the table to a corner bench where she stood with her back to the room.
Ignoring Ermentrude, Bess lowered her gaze and relaxed her stance. “I do realize that you would never intentionally insult me. But the way your words came out seemed unfair.”
Perrin smiled at Bess, feeling the heaviness of the room shift.
“And I was home earlier than you were expecting,” Perrin said. He attempted to meet her halfway.
Ermentrude turned from her darkened corner with a furrowed brow.
“So,” Ermentrude began, “Where were you this morning, Bess?”
“Ermentrude! Shush! It’s not our business,” hissed Henry.
“A husband should have awareness of his wife’s whereabouts,” she scurried back to her corner. Ermentrude couldn’t imagine doing anything without Henry knowing.
“Henry, don’t use that tone when speaking to my sister,” Bess turned her attention towards Perrin. “And just so you all realize, I have not been idle. I was with Mrs. Collins’s daughter. Her baby came in a hurry, and Mrs. Collins needed help.”
Henry now stood beside the dining table, glaring at Bess. He felt insulted being chastised. “I’ll speak to my wife as I see fit, thank you. Especially in my own house!” he said.
Perrin disliked Henry’s tone. “Henry, don’t talk to my wife as you do your own.” He turned his attention to Bess. “I’m glad you could help Mrs. Collins, Bess.”
Henry looked flustered and wide-eyed as Ermentrude moved closer to his side. Her eyes were filled with tears.
It became hard to tell who the warring parties were as questions and retorts bounced around the small space. The two couples opposed each other across the room as confusion rendered them silent.
Perrin took Bess’s hand and squeezed it—a gesture of solidarity which Bess reciprocated.
“We have taken up too much of your time,” Perrin said. “We should take our leave.”
“Please, Henry, think about how you converse with Ermentrude. Have you not noticed how she flinches at times?” asked Bess.
Henry studied Ermantrude and saw something he didn’t recognize in her expression. Ermantrude lowered her gaze.
“I appreciate it appears we have an unusual way of relating,” Perrin said, “but at least I know what my wife is thinking.”
Henry and Ermentrude looked at each other questioningly, then glanced at their visitors, unable to grasp Perrin’s meaning.
“How dare you!” Henry pointed a finger at Perrin. “You cause a commotion in my home and then have the gall to tell me how I should interact with my wife? She gladly does as I bid!”
It was too much for Ermentrude, who burst into tears. Retreating to the corner, she again stood with her back to them. Henry moved towards her placing a hand on her shoulder.
Ermentrude swung towards him, clinging to his affection, desperate for comfort.
Perrin looked at Bess and tilted his head towards the door. Understanding the gesture, Bess nodded. Hand in hand, they walked towards their exit.
“Apologies for the intrusion,” Perrin said as they left.
Henry let his comforting arm fall as he stepped away from his wife. He studied her as she continued to avoid his gaze. Uncertain of what to say, he prepared to leave, hesitating for a moment before he took his hat and coat from the hook.
“I’ll be home at the usual time,” he said.
Ermentrude nodded as she wiped her eyes and nose on her apron.
Down the street, Perrin and Bess approached their home.
“I am sorry,” Bess squeezed his arm.
“And I’m sorry too,” Perrin gave her a cheeky smile. “You realize it wouldn’t hurt to be more like other wives and obey man’s rules.”
Bess struck her husband playfully. “Maybe in another life…” she laughed.