Inside gilded wrapping paper was a small cardboard box which fit squarely into her palm. She slid off the lid to reveal two silver full-stops, each with a white diamond in its centre.
“Earrings,” said Cat simply. “Thank you, March.”
March smiled. Luke rolled his eyes as Cat returned the lid to the box.
“Cat doesn’t wear earrings,” he sighed, narrowing his mahogany eyes at March.
Oblivious, March picked up a magazine, swishing through the pages.
“No, she doesn’t have any earrings,” he said, bored.
“No, she doesn’t have any piercings,” barked Luke.
This was true. None of the Isla girls did. Except Georgie. And hers was a secret.
March bent down the top corner of the magazine, craning over it to look at Cat’s earlobes.
“Oh,” he blinked, “Neither you do.”
He returned to the magazine.
“Ach well,” continued his voice from behind the page, “Keep them for your dolls.”
Luke’s glare deepened. Ignoring both of them, Cat ran her fingertips over the other gifts. There was a cookbook from mum and dad. Billie and Luke had bought her afternoon tea at the Botanic Gardens. There were the usual chocolate fudge-sticks from Aunt Siva. And something that was either a wine-rack or a back-massager from Phil-The-Cheese. All were thoughtful, if unremarkable, presents.
Truthfully, it had only been March’s gift she had longed to open. And so, it was only March’s gift which wrought her disappointment.
The first year, he had silently marched her to the end of his garden. There he revealed a tiny tea-party. He had baked inch big scones; poured Earl Grey into the smallest blue china; there was even a table and chairs made from an old box of Cook’s Matches. Seated at the table were her two favourite dolls: Annie, the redhead from her latest collection; and an 18thcentury china doll, the kind that had inspired her first ever creation. The four of them shared tea on Christmas morning.
The next year, Cat awoke to find her room filled with snowdrops. She couldn’t move, and for some reason that made her laugh hysterically. March waited for her to quiet. Then he told her he would always, and only, love her.
Last year, he had woken her at four in the morning and carried her by piggyback to the river. There, he dropped her - rather unceremoniously. Before she could protest, a small army of origami ducks snake its way along the water. Handing her a fishing rod, he asked her to hook one. She chose a maroon and gold one. It was paper, that much she knew, but how it had survived its icy plunge was something he would never tell. Inside the duck, he had transcribed one of her favourite poems. It saddened her that she had missed the others. But he didn’t mind.
This year was different.
She knew she was acting like I spoilt child, frustrated with herself for allowing disappointment to claw onto her. She shook it off.
“Yes, good idea March,” she smiled. “They’ll suit Annie.”
March returned the smile, warmly. Luke rolled his eyes again.
Cat knew Luke thought she was weak. They all did. March was temperamental, eccentric and altogether a little strange. At his best, he would dismantle and reassemble the bedroom furniture in random arrangements; insist they only ate foods beginning with K; and engage in extended midnight sonatas on the piano.
At his worst, he would simply disappear. For hours, sometimes days, at a time. Her friends told her he was being unfaithful. A classic sign.
She should leave him.
Key his motorbike.
Take the cat.
Once, on her friends’ advice, she had planned to follow him. She imagined seeing him entering a mysterious suburban house; watching his shadow as it moved around in the windows; watching as another shadow joined his, a shadow with very blonde hair.
But as he fastened his coat to leave, she simply asked to join him.
“Of course,” he had smiled, without even a pause.
Under his direction, she drove them to an old warehouse. March produced a key from his coat pocket, and they entered. It was vast and empty, like the hull of a ship. And it was entirely black, but for a square of light in the middle, lit from a single skylight. He closed the door, leading them towards it.
“Wow,” she blinked, looking up to the clear afternoon sky.
He lay down on the floor. She joined him, tucking her waist into his ribs. He closed his eyes.
“Are you sleeping?” she whispered.
“No,” he laughed, quietly, “I’m searching for an idea.”
Sometimes he would think of one right away, springing up and dancing her around the warehouse. Then he would speed home and haul up in his studio for a fortnight. Other times he would lie there for hours, stuck. Usually she stayed. But not always. He never said whether he wanted her there or not, but he never let go of her hand.
“My friends think you’re with someone else,” she told him one night, as he climbed into bed.
He blinked, rolling parallel with her.
“I’m with you,” he shrugged, kissing her neck once as he fell asleep.
The next idea he won an award for. An old mobile phone that continually rang with a maddening scream. When you answered it, the line was always dead. He called it ‘THE CHEAT’.
Her mum called them through for Christmas dinner. March was sat next to Billie with Luke to her left. Billie and Luke were very-happy-together. Luke fit into the family the way Christmas cards fit into envelopes. He was sensible, polite and had a 9-6 job at a stock-brokers in Edinburgh.
Introducing Luke to the family was like returning with an old friend. Everyone adored him, including Cat. He was caring and protective, like an older brother.
Luke was a comfortable, cable-knit-sweater handsome; tall, with dark hair and doe-like eyes. March was shorter. And he had very ginger hair. In some lights, Cat swore it looked like flames. He too had brown eyes, but his were caramel. And although he was also handsome, his was an unsettling kind of beauty. He looked ethereal, but not angelic.
Cat watched March serve the others before adding a little of everything to his own plate. He complimented her mother’s brooch. And although Cat’s mother smiled at him, Cat noticed the smile stayed at the upper lip. Her mother had always been wary of him.
In a way, March was an odd shoe in the family. But to Cat, he had always been a glass slipper.
“Didn’t you notice that I don’t have my ears pierced?” Cat asked March.
Startled, March looked up from the steering wheel.
“I just thought they were nice,” he stuttered, sighing.
He looked sad, and immediately Cat felt guilty.
“They are nice!” she clasped his hand. “They’re beautiful. But you didn’t need to...”
March frowned, flexing his eyebrows.
“I just mean…” she paused, warily. “I just mean the earrings…Mum’s candle-set…the cookbook for Luke…”
She tailed off, shrugging.
“Your mum gave you a cookbook,” March added, confused.
“Exactly,” Cat shrugged again.
He blinked at her.
“It’s just not very you,” she concluded, tightening her grip on his hand.
March turned off the road, pulling into a layby. They were near the warehouse.
“Your mum likes candles,” he said firmly, clicking off the engine. “And I got the perfume from that nice shop Billie favours. Georgie lost her hat the last time we met for lunch. And Luke…well, he likes seafood.”
March never got angry. Even then, as he pressed one hand to his temple, he just looked tired. Guilt knocked at Cat’s forehead, but she had more questions than ever.
“What about the puppet theatre?” she asked.
March looked puzzled.
“That was last year,” he shrugged.
Cat thought back to their last Christmas. March had arrived with a handsome, handmade puppet theatre. He had made two puppets: one of Billie, one of Luke. They were strange and abstract, made from broken pottery and old china. But somehow, March had captured a likeness of both Luke and Billie. Using the puppets, he reenacted Billie and Luke’s first date. Then he gifted the Luke puppet to Billie, and the Billie puppet to Luke.
“It was wonderful,” Cat smiled at March.
“It made Luke uncomfortable,” he said soberly.
“What do you mean?” she continued.
“At your birthday,” he shrugged, “Him and Billie, they told me it made him nervous.”
“I’m sure they were just kidding,” whispered Cat, unconvincingly.
March stared through the windscreen.
“He said I’d embarrassed you,” he whispered.
Cat started to cry.
“It’s not true,” she sobbed, “I thought it was beautiful.”
March blinked at her.
“You shouldn’t care what they think,” she sniffed, looking at him.
“I don’t,” said March firmly, turning away from her, “But I care what you think.”
They had met at the gallery. Cat had just closed the first sale of her dolls. Eleven bespoke pieces for a jeweller in Chelsea. There was even to be a feature about her in a magazine. She felt successful and confident. And she wanted to celebrate.
Alfie had arranged to meet her there; a friend from work was showcasing a few pieces. They wouldn’t stay long, but there would be free champagne and plenty of daft, ‘artsy types’. Her favourite.
And he was right. Cat was greeted with a green champagne flute offered by a girl in a matching cloak. She had guided Cat into the exhibit, showing off her piece: a wooden flute with a Sanskrit music score.
Sinking the last of her champagne, Cat made her own way through the rest of the exhibition. In the first room, was a vast, empty canvas. It was up-lighted from four, floor-height spotlights. There was a man staring at the canvas, intently, and a single chair in the corner. Otherwise, the room was empty.
Cat’s phone buzzed.
Running late. Kenny wants to know if there’s still alcohol?
Cat grinned, dropping into the chair to reply.
“Oh my God,” she froze.
Wet paint clung to her back, seeping through her green dress. The man turned, laughing indelicately. He bounced over, peeling her up and off the seat.
“Stupid modern art!” Cat shouted.
The man grinned at her, keeping a hold of both her hands.
“Well, that’s the most honest review I’ve ever had,” he laughed again.
Cat’s eyes widened. Her face went an unhealthy shade of maroon.
“Oh my God,” she repeated, quieter, “You’re the artist.”
“March Tailor,” he nodded.
He paused, staring intently into her eyes. They were a deep, butterscotch colour. She became a gawky teenager. Dropping his hands, she clasped hers to her mouth.
“I’m so sorry,” she buried her face in her hands, “Is it ruined?”
In tandem, they turned to face the chair. It was less polished, but otherwise unharmed.
“It looks better than your dress,” March grinned.
Cat craned around. The back of her dress was lacquered with brown paint. She blushed again, cursing. March blinked at her, still smiling.
“Here,” he nodded, unhooking his blazer from his shoulders.
He was, at once, immaculately and ridiculously dressed. He wore navy loafers with no socks. His slacks, which were also navy, hung loosely on his thin hips. And he had a striped shirt tucked into the waist, making him look like the cartoon of a gondolier. The blazer he offered her was maroon velvet, and it clashed incredibly with his flaming red hair.
“Oh no,” said Cat, evenly, “I’ve just destroyed your piece, I can’t ruin your blazer too.”
March considered this.
“A compromise, then,” he smiled, retracting the blazer. “May I show you my other pieces? I’d like your opinion.”
“You realise I’m just going to say they’re all fantastic,” Cat winced, “Entirely out of guilt.”
“Well, I’m in the mood to be flattered,” reasoned March, slinging his blazer over his shoulder.
“After all,” he continued, grinning at her, “You’ve just sat on my £3000 instillation.”
Winking, he guided her without protest into the next room.
There was a pregnant silence in the car. Cat fiddled with the chain of her bracelet. March watched a robin cross the windscreen.
“Aren’t we near the warehouse?” Cat asked suddenly.
March blinked thoughtfully. He clicked the engine back on, reversing out of the layby. A light icing sugar was dusting the windows, melting before they could fully appreciate each snowflake. They reached the warehouse.
March broke the chain off the door, and they walked inside. The air was crisp like in an old ruin. He had not been there in weeks. Not since her birthday.
Folding his legs clumsily beneath him, March sank to the floor. Cat felt for the little cardboard box in her jacket pocket. Removing it, she looked once more at the two silver spheres. March grimaced.
She lifted the left one from the cushion. It glistened in the moonlight, picking up fire from March’s hair. He watched her, intrigue stretching across his pale face.
Tugging her earlobe, Cat raised the sharp point to it.
“Don’t!” March barked, stretching up to grab her wrist.
He missed, and with a short yelp Cat forced the earring through the soft flesh of her lobe.
“Ta-dah!” she winced, revealing the glittering cavity.
March’s face was a potion of disapproval and obvious glee. Before she could protest, he stole the other earring and forced it through his own earlobe.
“Ouch,” he laughed, spinning the diamond.
March grinned at Cat. She blinked, watching three drops of blood trickle down his left lobe and onto the concrete.
“Look,” March nodded, pointing at the splash.
“It’s sorta love-heart shaped,” he continued, goofily.
“Classic artist,” she teased, lacing her hand into his.
His eyes widened, grasping her shoulders suddenly.
“That’s it,” he whispered.
“That’s what?” Cat frowned.
“My new exhibit,” he nodded at the three red drops.
In the darkness, the small patch of skylight looked even brighter. Through the skylight, the stars clustered together with the snow, making the sky look almost silver. The three dots had darkened onto the concrete, but the dust in the air sparkled in the moonlight. It made the blood twinkle in a strangely beautiful way.
“What’s it called?” Cat whispered.
Taking a notelet from his jacket pocket, March scribbled a name. Bending down, he placed the card beside the ‘love-heart’ drop.
It read ‘THE ENGAGEMENT’.