Dublin Suffragette Logic
(Abbey Street, Dublin)
January 14, 1910
Bulmer celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday in bed with Helena. The blizzard kept them trapped inside her flat. The gramophone was broken, so they had to make do without any musical accompaniment.
While Helena was undressing, Bulmer noticed bruises and scratch marks on her hips and shoulders. The gradation in color also suggested that they were left over the course of several days. He knew better than interrogate her about the origin of the marks.
“I hope you haven’t been bored or lonesome,” he said. “Those Dublin winters can be depressing.”
Helena picked up her clothes from the floor and folded them methodically. She proceeded to remove her comb and her earrings lest they should get damaged, blotting the gloss from her lips and examining the circles under her eyes.
Bulmer, growing impatient, tapped the blanket twice. “Hurry now. You’re starting to behave like a reluctant wife.”
Their lovemaking had already begun losing its spontaneity. At the dawn of their affair they would initiate foreplay in the presence of onlookers and then seek a secluded spot. Often the consummation would happen before they even had a chance to remove their clothes. Now they would take the time to undress themselves side by side, sort out the garments, making sure that nothing of value fell out of the pockets, slip under the covers and only then begin kissing. They had not grown bored yet, but they had certainly grown complacent. Once the initial fervor of their reconciliation had abated, once the terms of their alliance had been renegotiated, the two settled into their version of ‘ever after’. Bulmer was no longer afraid of disappointing Helena, having made his peace with the fact that she, in spite of being younger than him, possessed more experience. Silencing his insecurities, he freed himself to indulge his curiosity—and Helena, her ingenuity. Her instructions and compliments were equally blunt.
“Blessedly, you’re not a smoker, Hobson. They taste horribly. This gent I knew before you—nice as can be—went to bed with a pipe between his teeth.”
“Men like him keep Tom Clarke’s business afloat.”
“I’m all for supporting local shopkeepers, but that gent was portly and sweaty and had red dots under his skin. I only tell you this to demonstrate how vice, gluttony and poor hygiene can undermine one’s amorous prospects. Of all my friends, you have the firmest, healthiest body. Even your sweat smells like pine sap. Animals use scent to choose their mates.”
The topic of mating and procreating kept rising with intriguing frequency. Helena never asked Bulmer to exercise caution and welcomed him into her body wholly, which left him both alarmed and flattered. If a beautiful woman wanted to bear his offspring, even out of wedlock, who was he to protest?
“I’m spoiling you, Hobson,” she said, looking up at him. “You aren’t learning to exercise self-restraint. That may become an obstacle should you decide to marry.”
“You mean, not all women are like you,” Bulmer said in all innocence.
“You’d be astonished to learn how many married men lead lives of sensual deprivation. Their wives still perform their spousal duties in complete darkness, in the only acceptable position, for the only acceptable purpose. And once those women decide they don’t want any more children, they leave their husbands in the cold altogether.” Helena enjoyed the look of horror on Bulmer’s face. “I hear frightful tales from my married gentlemen-friends, whose wives constantly complain of headaches and fatigue. Sometimes they grow fat on purpose, just to repulse their husbands. Consider yourself warned. Even if your future wife doesn’t torment you in this manner, you still may find yourself feeling deprived, after all the piquant little sins we’ve committed.”
“Then I’ll never marry!” Bulmer laughed and pulled Helena on top of himself. “I’ll remain your jester, your playmate, anything you want.”
With every round of lovemaking, as he noticed, the sensations were less acute but deeper and broader, engulfing the entire body. Both had to work a little harder to reach the peak, but it also lasted longer.
The repeated rising and dropping of the blood pressure left Helena drowsy and her lover famished. Bulmer knew that in her flat there was no food except for intellectual. Helena had an impressive collection of old books and treated them in the most irreverent fashion. A rare copy of the William Barrow’s 1846 English translation of The Three Musketeers was lying open on the damp floor amidst shoes, which could not possibly be good for the leather binding. Bulmer thought of giving Helena a lecture on the proper treatment of collectible prints, but in the end he decided not to provoke fate. Instead, he picked up the abused book, blew the dust off the cover and began reading it.
Helena took a few sips from a whiskey bottle that she kept by her bedside, yawned and laid her head on his shoulder. “Ah, this is heavenly. “Hobson, stay for another day. Belfast can wait.”
Bulmer thought it would be even more heavenly if the woman sharing his blanket was Isabel. Oh, it was unforgivable piggishness towards Helena, the mother of his unborn baby, and possibly, of his future children. To atone for his ingratitude, he cuddled Helena closer to him and planted a few apologetic kisses on her sweaty forehead. “Go to sleep, darling. You have a grueling rehearsal tonight.”
“Will you still be here when I return? I dread coming back to a cold, dark and empty flat in the middle winter.”
The book slipped out of Bulmer’s hand, as he began dozing off. “I’ll stay here until you kick me out.”
“Don’t be foolish, Hobson. I cannot kick you out in this blizzard. You’ll never reach the train station.”
“Can I come along to the theatre? I’ve never seen you rehearse.”
“But then everyone will assume we’re a couple. They’ll starting winking and grinning and asking questions. You know how people are.” “As you wish, darling.” There was no sense in arguing with Helena on that subject. The woman was willing to get pregnant by him, yet she would not allow him to come to her rehearsal. Now that was a classic example of Dublin suffragette logic. “I knew you’d understand.” Helena sighed and rubbed the tip of her nose against his collarbone. “By the way, before I forget … I spoke to her last week.”
Bulmer shuddered and opened his eyes. “Who is ‘her’?”
“The one of whom you were thinking half a minute ago.” Helena lifted her head from his shoulder. “No need to feign innocence with me. I know what’s on your mind, and I’m not offended in the least. Dream about your divine Isabel all you want. She’s crafted a business proposal for you. She wants you to go to Carrick for a few months and train her father’s men. Did you hear that, Hobson? Your unattainable princess is dispatching you on a quest. Her mother is even willing to give you a modest stipend. You can lodge with the Malones, if you do not mind living side by side with pigs and horses. I know that the patriarch would welcome you with open arms. Hosting an IRB activist under his roof would be holy oil on his peasant heart.”
Bulmer sat up, his drowsiness suddenly lifted. “I’ll do whatever is necessary,” he said with rapid eagerness. “I told Isabel she could call on me anytime. I’ve met those men in Carrick. They are good raw material.”
He started rising from the bed, but Helena held him back by the arm. “Before you agree to this endeavor, examine your motive carefully. Are you doing this for the cause or only to impress Isabel? If it’s the latter,
then I must warn you that your efforts, in all likelihood, shan’t pay off. I’d hate to see you become devoured by another fancy and start neglecting your work.”
“That won’t happen.”
“You mustn’t make such promises. Recall how you went to pieces when you and I first quarreled? And you don’t even love me.”
“That’s not true. I do love you, as much as you allow me to.”
“I suppose, there are gradations of love.” Helena shrugged, acknowledging her defeat. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t care for me at all. But Isabel has bewitched you. If you say a woman’s name in your thoughts often enough, others will hear it too. With your every thrust I kept hearing Isabel, Isabel, as if there were three of us in bed instead of two. Again, I take no offense, though it would pain me to see you demeaned.”
Bulmer did not want Helena to think they were having an argument, so he embraced and rocked her gently. “Hypothetically speaking, even if I were to pursue Isabel, what makes you so pessimistic about my chances of succeeding?”
“I’ve seen her with other men. She’ll never belong to any one of them. She’s betrothed to the Republic. Of all our nationalist friends she’s the most fanatical one, even though it may not seem so at a first. Oh, she may press your fingers, stroke your brow and impart a few secrets that aren’t really secrets. You’ll walk away feeling privileged and empowered, while in reality you’re but clay in her hands. Isabel doesn’t do it out of malice or for her feminine vainglory. Believe it or not, she hates being a woman and would give up anything to be reborn as a man to better serve her country. Everything she does it for the cause. I saw her kissing Malone’s youngest on Frankfurt Avenue two years ago. She still hasn’t given up hope of recruiting him into the IRB, even though Hugh’s been courting that Ashley woman from Belfast. Isabel wants him for that circle in Carrick. I’m ninety-nine percent certain that our prized Irish Baritone won’t join, but if there’s anyone who can convert him, it would be her. Did you hear me, Hobson?”
“It’s done,” Bulmer declared, alert and battle-ready. “Tell Isabel that I’ll go.”