A/N: This is a strange little stand alone that climbed into my head while I reflected on Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. The basic premise of the book is that it is written from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, who is fascinated by her husband's late wife. Completely AU, of course.BLAIR
"We can never go back again, that much is certain. The past is still close to us. The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again, and that sense of fear, of furtive unrest, struggling at length to blind unreasoning panic - now mercifully stilled, thank God - might in some manner unforeseen become a living companion as it had before."
- Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca.
* * *
When Blair Bass was the mistress of this holiday house, she would often look out the window, announce suddenly that it was going to rain, and run out to trim the azaleas. Sometimes, Chuck Bass would join her, for no other reason than to watch her in her white gardening clothes as she sent worried glances to the sky. On the days when their children were with their friends, and the grey, rumbling sky threatened to burst at any moment, Chuck would grab his wife's hands, throw the clippers on the ground and kiss her until those first drops landed on their heads.
I can live it over and over again, although of course I wasn't there. Because Blair Bass and I have never met.
It was always at this holiday house – Barbiston – that I felt as if I could live their memories. Each corner was haunted by a past that I had never known. And it seemed that when I was here, I would once more pick up my holiday task where I left off: the careful chronicling of a past that belonged to another woman.
Eric Van Der Woodsen would roll his eyes at me, while cutting up sandwiches for his grandchildren, who were climbing all over Paul. "You are utterly tireless in your crusade."
"It's not a crusade," I would say defensively. "I find the past interesting."
Eric smiled at his lover, grabbing one of the toddlers form his lap and kissing him lightly on the head. "But it's not your past."
"But it's all of your pasts. And it fascinates me."
"You're fascinated by Blair," Eric invariably retorted. "After all these years, you just want to make a woman that you've never met happy by recording everything you know about her."
There was nothing I could say to that; he was absolutely right. The history I was preoccupied with writing was not my own. It's origins lay in a time before I was even born. And it's legacy would outlive my brief cameo role. But I couldn't help it. I was addicted to Chuck and Blair Bass – to Chuck Bass and Blair Waldorf. And I liked to think that I had more claim on their legacy than most.
After all, I'm married to Blair's husband.
I find it difficult to recall exactly when I first heard their names. When I first moved to the city, it seemed like I only heard the words Chuck and Blair uttered in whispers – in the lowered voice of gossip.
At that time, Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass were no more real to me than very beautiful models on the side of buildings. The few times I was involved in a direct conversation about either of them, I felt strange not whispering their names; the syllables had too much significance for me now. They had the shock of a curse and the reverence of a holy word.
Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass were in love. There was consensus on that at least.
Of course, that wasn't what the gossip was usually concerned with. People were more interested in the intrigue that surrounded the glamorous couple. Every time Chuck stumbled during the early years of his position as CEO, people would shake their heads and refer darkly to his wild days.
"Imagine, trusting that amount of money to a punk kid," Louise tsk-ed when I asked her about those early days.
Louise was a kind woman who had taken me under her wing during my first months in New York. I had come from Illinois with an impressive inheritance and little understanding of the real world, and was desperate to soak in as much information as I possibly could. Louise was a godsend when it came to sage advice about handling myself in New York. But we would soon lose contact; even in the early days of our friendship, she made me feel ignorant, and I unfairly resented her for it.
"He's hardly a punk kid, Louise," I protested, my head light from the champagne that was being liberally served with brunch. I had felt so sophisticated at the time. Louise must have laughed at my gauche behaviour. But she was always kind to me. "He's at least twice my age."
"Well, that wife of his keeps him on the straight and narrow," Louise admitted. "Always has, always will."
That was probably the beginning of my fascination with Blair Waldorf. She seemed unbelievably beautiful and glamorous, encapsulating the alien glamour of New York City. I was probably only twenty-two years old, but I remember leafing through the New York Times in a café and finding a picture of Chuck and Blair in the social pages.
It was unfathomable that a newspaper-quality photograph could convey so much emotion. There was Chuck in that showy suit with his signature bow tie, staring at her intensely, while Blair rested her hand on his chest and smiled at someone off camera.
His eyes do have a gift for intensity. They change with the light, even more marked now that his hair has turned grey. Then though, he was young and powerful with a beautiful family. That's the strange thing about photographs. They taunt us with moments that have passed. The instant we capture them on film they pass from our hands. This moment was particularly poignant. My breath caught as I looked at the smitten man, who was on the surface such a hardened son-of-a-bitch.
"Forty-five and her husband still looks at her in that way," the waitress sighed as she glanced over my shoulder. "Lucky bitch."
Even then I was affronted by the obscenity in relation to someone who seemed to embody perfection.
It's embarrassing, really. It embarrasses me when I look back on the way I fiercely guarded my image of Blair. Since that time, I've spoken to anybody and everybody about her, only to find that Blair was anything but the wilting flower that I envisaged. It was pure fantasy, this notion that I could protect her from anything. When I look at that picture of Blair that hangs in the hallway, where she sits next to an achingly youthful Serena, wearing a white beret and a red coat, I can almost see her roll her eyes at me. I still murmur an apology to her for my foolish naivety.
Thankfully, as the years passed, and my interest in the famous couple was no more intense than my interest in the actors in gossip magazines. I could pick up the thread of their lives and put it back down with little thought. They were fodder for gossip, even in my much younger circle. But after a few years in the city, I felt like a local. And locals were never star struck.
The day Blair died, I was rushing to work, and caught only a glancing reference at a local news-stand. But just a part of the headline was enough to stop me in my tracks. "Billionairess Bass Perishes - "
"You read it, you buy it," the man behind the counter commented in a bored tone.
My hands were shaking when I passed two bills over the counter. The Bass jet had passed off radar en route home from Paris. Struck by lightning, I thought grimly. It seemed fitting somehow. Their eldest son, Henry, thanked everyone for their concern and requested that they respect the family's privacy.
Of course, no one respected the family's privacy in the slightest. It became a gruesome spectator-sport, watching Chuck's decline over the following months. There were bar brawls, there was public drunkenness, and even muttering on the Board of Bass Industries that he should be removed.
Then, there was a year of absolutely nothing. No news reports, no public sightings. It was a vacuum. To this day, I have no idea what happened in that time. Knowing Chuck as I do, he probably threw himself to the wind in the hope that it would take him to her.
Exactly one year later, sadder and older, Chuck Bass walked into the office and picked up where he left off. The media lost interest; it was Chuck's exuberance that made for interesting copy, and after he returned from the mystery disappearance, there was no sign of it.
My husband has many admirable qualities. He is loyal to his family, he cares furiously for his children. He has always been a courteous and generous husband. But, any trace of his former exuberance disappeared one morning en route from Paris. And since that day, his life has become a steady wind-down.
When I told my sister that I was marrying Chuck Bass, she shook her head at me. "It will never be enough, you know. It was the real thing between them. I mean you could sense it. He'll never love you like he loves her."
And she was right. But that was one thing that my sister would never understand. I didn't need the grand love story. I was happy to pick up the story in the middle. I think it was my inherent sensibleness that drew Chuck to me; there couldn't be anyone further from the Blair mould. Any attempt at a Blair counterfeit would have insulted his finely honed sensibilities.
It was lucky, really, that I didn't fit into the image that his family had of me. They expected a bimbo, I'm sure. But when they met me, they immediately saw that I tended more towards bookishness and mousiness than I did personal trainers and gold-digging.
"I was just relieved," Nate smiled when I asked him what he thought of me when he first met me.
"You didn't expect me to be such a nerd?"
"Pretty much," he admitted. "I mean, don't get me wrong – Blair was a complete geek, but…" he faltered at that. Emotions chased each other across his face.
"The two of you dated before Blair and Chuck got together, didn't you?"
He swallowed. Although his grief expressed itself in a different way to Serena's, I could tell that Blair had left a large hole in his life. Combined with his inherent discomfort with expressing emotion, I knew that it was a big step for him to be willing to talk to me – of all people – about his ex-girlfriend. "We dated for a lot longer than we should of, I think. But after she and Chuck finally…I mean when they opened those flood-gates. Well, let's just say that those years with me don't even come close."
"They really had something special, didn't they?"
Nate misunderstood me; he thought that I was jealous or upset by my observation. But really, I found it fascinating. The Chuck I knew, the man I call my husband, seemed to have so little in common with the Chuck they had known for almost half a century before he met me.
Our relationship began so haltingly, with coffees and the exchange of books, rather than grand shows of romance. It was easy for him to be around me, and soon enough he began to depend on my practicality. Then, one night he called me to ask for my help in selecting a painting for his house; I had been Lily's art collector for a while, so I didn't read much into it.
When I arrived, I found him slumped on the couch with a glass of scotch in his hand. Although I didn't understand it at the time, the evening had been designed as a clumsy and half-hearted bid for my attention. Of course, he had been overcome with heart-wrenching guilt and grief and ordered me to turn around and leave his house immediately.
"I had never really dated," he explained later. "I was at a loss. And was feeling more than a little guilty about even thinking about it."
"Blair would have wanted you to be happy," I said.
"No, she'd want me to be miserable and never get over her," he muttered. "I'd want the same thing."
In those early days, it could have gone either way. We could have been no more than friends – meeting only when Lily threw lavish parties for her staff. We would schedule lunches and continue those coffee dates, but I had long since given up on expecting any more than that. Until I found him in a dark corner of one of Lily's Christmas parties, with an look of inexpressible sadness on his face, undoubtedly thinking of Blair. My heart was filled with such tenderness that I had kissed him, surprised by the needy insistence of his response.
"Perhaps we should go back to your place," I whispered into his ear.
His immediate response had been to take a step back and to fix those dark eyes on me. It was the look Chuck gave people when he was trying to discern a motive. "Why on earth would you think we should do that?"
He was probably expecting me to blush furiously and run away from his barbed comments. He had misjudged his audience. "Because you're about to come apart at the seams and I want to help you."
A pause and then the smallest nod.
Later, when I lay naked in his arms, achingly aware that his mind had drifted back to Blair, I turned my head to look at him. "You never will get over her," I said. "She wouldn't have wanted you to be miserable, though."
"I'm a real shit, you know," Chuck responded after a while.
I felt him nod, although I wasn't looking at him. "Only a real shit would let someone as young as you jump aboard a sinking ship. And that's what I've been, since…she died."
"You can say her name, you know."
I've never quite been able to name the emotion that accompanied that statement. It was like the vertigo that comes with looking down from a great height. I knew from that night on that if I stayed by his side, I would never know love like that. There was, quite simply, not enough room in that damaged heart for anyone other than his family, his children, and most all that enigmatic woman who pervaded every space of this house.
"Tell me about Blair," I whispered.
We spoke of her often; I insisted upon it. But sometimes, he would be on the verge of telling me some story and would suddenly stop. To talk about her was a type of release for him, and I listened with a patient ear. But, some stories were too precious. They stayed in the secret space of his mind where Blair lived.
It was always a thrill to say her name; it was never forbidden in our house. In fact, we spoke of her often. In those early, resentful days with her children, I had asked them to talk about her freely. Soon enough we were laughing about their recollections of their parents' embarrassing public displays of affection, their passionate fights, and the way they seemed to move in sync when they prepared for glamorous dinners. Elizabeth remembered hiding in Blair's closet, watching the way her mother would spritz perfume into the air and walk through it. Invariably, Chuck would wrap his arms around her middle and kiss her neck, while Elizabeth blushed in embarrassment in the closet.
"I love you so fucking much," he said huskily.
"I love you so fucking much, too, Bass."
At that point, Elizabeth had gasped so loudly that her parents had discovered her. When the door opened, Chuck found her nestled in one of Blair's fur coats.
"You swore," she breathed. "Mommy, too."
"Beth Bass, were you snooping?"
"I think she was," Blair said conspiratorially, scooping her up and placing her gently on the bed. "I wonder where she inherited that charming genetic trait?"
"I have no idea," he deadpanned, before turning his attention onto his youngest daughter. "You remember what we do to snoops, don't you?"
"Do we tickle them?" Blair drawled.
And with that, her parents had tickled her mercilessly.
These little anecdotes were easy to share. There would be laughter and tears whenever one of the kids would start a sentence with "Remember the time when Mom…". But it was harder to draw out those stories about her death. When Blair had died, the entire landscape of their lives had changed. And most irrevocably of all, their father had changed.
"It's a kind of BD, AD situation, to be honest," Henry said, frank as always. "Before Mom Died, After Mom Died. He was one person before and afterwards…well, he's been haunted by a ghost."
When I asked Henry what it was like when Chuck heard the news, his face paled and he shook his head. No one who had been there at the time seemed willing to talk about it. Serena had been slower than most to accept my presence in all of their lives.
It was the night we announced our engagement, when Serena stormed from the room, with Chuck in pursuit. I caught only the tail end of their conversation in furious whispers in the kitchen.
"What am I supposed to do with a girlfriend, Serena?"
"So you decide that making her your wife is the answer? What about Blair, Chuck? Have you forgotten about the vows you made to her?"
"Don't talk about what you don't understand," he hissed. "You have no idea what it feels like. All of you. You don't know how it feels. It's like someone ripped my fucking heart out and I have to walk around every day…"
"Chuck," she said, incredibly gently.
I am almost certain that my proud and private husband shed tears in that kitchen. "It's too much. It's just too much. Why would she make me fucking love her like that if she wasn't going to stay with me?"
I felt like a voyeur in the dark hallway, listening to this private exchange. I would have loved to see his face; I had never heard his voice touched with so much emotion. I heard a fait rustle, which told me that Serena had taken her step-brother in her arms. "I miss her so much, Chuck. It doesn't get any easier, does it?"
"It gets easier to pretend to be okay," he whispered. "Which is why it also gets worse."
Serena was now only adopting the pose of disapproval. "Does she make you happy?"
"She makes it easier to pretend to be happy," he said simply, and I took some solace in that.
"Then I guess I should help her pick a dress," Serena said, the fight gone from her voice.
And slowly, over time, Serena had come to accept my presence, although she never made the overtures of friendship that she did to Nate's wife. Nor did she ever speak to me about Blair, apart from the most superficial, factual statements she could manage. "That was while we were at Yale," she'd say. Or "Cyrus died before Elizabeth was born." And she certainly never spoke about the day when Blair's plane crashed.
It was Lily who often took pity on me, petting my hand comfortingly. "You have to understand. It's a painful time for us to remember."
I was close to begging. "I just want to understand what it was like."
Lily bit her lip; she was easy to manipulate. "Chuck refused to believe it. I think that his body simply couldn't accommodate that kind of loss. He became mono-manically obsessed with the thought that she had survived."
Lily sighed, lost in a time before I had known any of them. My eyes travelled to the pictures that sat in pride of place on the mantle piece. There was Serena on her wedding day. There was Eric and Paul with their tiny adopted son. And there was Chuck and Blair on Christmas Day, three years after Abigail was born. There was a small twinge, as always, when I saw that the picture from my wedding day was in the less coveted spot; I understood, but it still hurt me.
"It took months to find her body. Months of Chuck lost and furious and refusing to accept that she was really gone. And then, one day, we received a phone call. And all I can remember is Chuck hanging up the phone. We were all there – the kids, Blair's mother, everyone – and I remember that Eleanor poked her head out of the kitchen and just stared at him. He didn't say anything, but we all knew that the retrieval team had finally proven to him what we all knew to be true. It was over."
"What did he say?"
Perhaps it was perverse to seek out more information about the day my husband found out that his wife was dead, but I couldn't resist. Lily couldn't understand my preoccupation with the love of my husband's life. And she didn't trust it. But, she never begrudged me the stories.
"Nothing," she said after a brief pause. "I think Abby asked him what they had said. She was just starting college at that point. I think she said, 'Dad, are you okay?' or something like that. And Chuck started pacing. And then his whole body seemed to crumple, as if something was pressing down on it. He just crouched there – right there, next to where you're sitting – and clenched his fists against his forehead and let out this scream. I've never head anything like it. And until the day that I die, I doubt I will ever hear the sound again."
The afternoon was spoilt after that. And there was nothing left to say.
"You won't tell Chuck that I asked?"
Each year, on the day Blair fell from the sky, Chuck will disappear. In some morbid way, I think he takes his late wife out for a date. The entire week, he will be cruel to those around him, he will snap at me. And then comes the day of disappearance. Then, in the morning, he will be sitting at the kitchen table with a copy of the crossword already open at my place.
I take these small kindnesses and collect them in my hand. I feel like one day, when I pass from life to death, Blair will seek me out and I will be able to hand over all those years that she missed. And she will interrupt her indignant rant and take a moment to thank me for taking care of Chuck during those twilight years when she couldn't reach him.
The house I live in is a type of mausoleum. Every surface of it has been touched by Blair Waldorf, and I keep it that way for Chuck's sake. Whenever I move anything in the slightest, he gets that pained look in his eyes and glances at his wedding band. He still wears the one that Blair slipped on his finger.
"I'm not trying to replace her," I explained, when I informed him that he would not be needing a wedding band.
"I'm a shit for letting you do this," he said, shaking his head.
"You're not so bad," I grinned.
He smiled back. That was my reward.
I was not made for the great romance. I love my husband, and each day we take a step closer to old age, comfortable in our affection for each other and in the close proximity of his grand children.
He was wrong when he called himself a shit for doing this to me. He never once lied about what I was to him. We were to be companions – I was to make it easier for him to pretend to be happy.
I don't let it bother me as I scribble furiously in the room overlooking the garden, with the ghost of Blair leaning over my shoulder and criticising my story of her life. Soon enough her spectre will look out the window, decide that it is going to rain soon, and hurry outside to join Chuck as he trims the azaleas.
It is my fate to be a place-holder. Because even though he is kind to me often and gentle with me always, Chuck is merely biding his time until the promised day when he can shrug off this life and ascend like a butterfly to take his rightful place by Blair's side. Despite life's many, little pleasures, he knows that his happiness lies on the other side of the veil. It calls to him in her voice, and today he is out in the garden, trimming the azaleas and remembering each moment of his time with her.
One day, his decade-long wait will be over. And when that day comes, I will release my light hold on him and smile when they finally wrap their ghostly arms around each other.*
Mrs. Danvers: You tried to take her place. You let him marry you. I've seen his face, his eyes. They're the same as those first weeks after she died. I used to listen to him, walking up and down, up and down, all night long, night after night, thinking of her. Suffering torture because he lost her.
2nd Mrs. de Winter: I don't want to know. I don't want to know.
Mrs. Danvers: You thought you could be Mrs. de Winter, live in her house, walk in her steps, take the things that were hers. But she's too strong for you. You can't fight her. No one ever got the better of her. Never. Never. She was beaten in the end, but it wasn't a man. It wasn't a woman. It was the sea.
Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.