She counted in her head, like reverse hide-and-seek, counting down her last few seconds of freedom.
She kicked her heel into the ground, kicking up dust, grit, and the tuft of dry, twisted dandelion leaves.
“Gillian?” there it was again.
She looked up. Squinted from beneath a fringe that had grown too long over the summer and hung in her eyes. Thin hair somewhere between brown and blonde, curly and straight, shoulder and jaw.
“Gillian!” boots crunched, and there was the thwack of a stick through dead brambles before Teddy rounded the bend and found her against the wall.
“Fuck, Gillian! Been calling you fucking ages,” Teddy was thirteen, and he swore for effect, thought it was grown up.
“What you doing?” he asked when she didn’t reply.
She squinted, looked right past him to where the tilt-a-whirl undulated against a bright blue sky.
“Couldn’t think with that racket,” she nodded in the direction of the fairground.
“What you got to think about?” his tongue and the inner edges of his lips were stained blue.
She looked back down at the dirt, shuffled the toes of her converse into the dust and rubbed a hand over the back of her neck like she’d seen cowboys do in the movies.
He started talking again.
“Rich got one of those massive bears…won one for that girl on the shooting range.”
“Wow…” her sarcasm was missed. A pause, a beat in the air, smothering and hot.
“What girl on the shooting range?” she asked finally.
“He won it on the shooting range,” Teddy pushed his hand into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a crumpled box of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a pink plastic lighter.
“What girl?” she tried again.
“Meg…something…our year, the blonde one?” he twisted the end of the cigarette.
“Want me to win you one?” he asked, lighting it and ramming the packet back into his pocket.
“Piss off,” she laughed, looked at the ground, watched a line of ants split in two around a bottle cap.
“Where’re they now…everyone?”
“On the Ferris wheel. Rich wants to spit off the top,” he exhaled smoke into the air between them and Gillian screwed up her face.
“Twat. And you’re a twat for smoking that’n’all,” she snatched the cigarette from between his thumb and forefinger and crushed it into the ground with the toe of her shoe, just like she always did. And he didn’t complain, just like he always didn’t.
“Let’s go find them,” he turned to go, ignoring the way she screwed up her nose and turned her face up to the sky, squinting against the sun.
“Think I’ll stay here for a bit.”
He turned back around and let both of his arms raise slightly and clap against his thighs at the same time. A trait she recognised from his mother.
“Why?” he asked.
She shrugged, let her head fall to look at him again, sunblind this time, only seeing a negative white blinding version of him against black grass. But she couldn’t tell him why, couldn’t tell him that she preferred to be alone, to slip unseen between everybody else, so she pushed herself away from the wall with her elbows, and followed him without another word.
“Her name’s Margaret. Her real name,” he carried on talking as they neared the fairground.
David Bowie was in the air and “Let’s Dance” came louder and quieter, and then louder again, blurring momentarily with the clunking nightmare music of the carousel and the bubbling whooping noise of the slot machines.
“Who’s real name?” she shouted.
“Meg. It’s short for Margaret. Rich told me.”
A bell sounded from somewhere, a gong, the hiss of hydraulics.
“Oh. That’s…oh,” she walked behind him a good two steps. The sun was on her back, her vest top sweaty and her arms were brown and lined halfway up from wearing the same T-shirt all summer long.
They cut the queue for the Ferris wheel. Rich – tall for his age, with sun-bleached blonde hair, and a toothpaste commercial smile was, despite the heat, wearing his trademark denim jacket sewn all over with patches and badges. Gillian picked out her favourites, the ones that always seemed to catch her eye whenever she found herself behind him in the school corridor - the bright blue and red lightning bolt, the acid yellow and red of KISS, and the others: The Beatles, Queen, Genesis…
An oversized brown bear was slumped against his right leg, a bright red bow around its neck, head flopped down, nose touching his belly like a sad, flaccid old drunk. Meg was next to him, blonde hair tied back from her face in a neat ponytail. She had her back to them, gesturing with her hands to the girls around her – all girls in Gillian’s year; Anna, Vanessa, Josephine…easy prey, Gillian thought as they approached, for Rich and his wolfish grin.
Teddy clapped Rich on the back, shook his shoulder and leaned into him, pushing his way into the group.
Gillian stopped on the outskirts and wished again that she was there alone like she’d had it planned like she did every year. She’d walk down the track from the farm, tell her granddad she wouldn’t be late.
She’d jump the fences – the quickest way to Horne Hill - scuffing her knees and the inside of her thighs on drystone walls and splintering stiles. She’d run as fast as she could up the hill, just to see if she could still make it to the top without stopping. And when she got to the gates she’d climb the half-rotten apple tree and drop down on the other side without paying.
She knew the fair, knew the stalls, the rides, the tricks to get another go-round for free, and which vendors sold the biggest sticks of candyfloss for the cheapest price. She’d got it all worked out.
Bumping into Teddy hadn’t been part of that plan.
“You coming on, Gillian?” Teddy called.
She smiled, shook her head, and watched as the mention of her name made Meg and the others turn to look at her. Josephine had dyed a streak of her hair cerise pink, almost the same colour as her sunburned face.
“Think I’ll go and see what else there is,” she tilted her head in the general direction of everything else.
“Don’t be silly, we need one more anyway,” at thirteen Meg already had that way of speaking that made her the voice of authority, of reason.
“There’s six of you, two in each,” Gillian pushed her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. She wasn’t that stupid.
“Rich has his teddy bear,” Meg lowered her voice.
Gillian glanced at Rich who was laughing too loudly and wrestling with Teddy and another boy from the group ahead.
“Alright. Once. But I’m not stopping. Told my granddad I’d not be late.”
Meg regarded her for a moment, arms crossed, a paper cup in one hand. She drew in a breath and smiled, but before anything else could be said the Ferris wheel slowed to a halt, gears jarred and grated, the metal chain on each swinging seat clattered open and Gillian slunk closer to the edge of the queue, following the line of kids, two by two, filing into metal pods painted with chipped ceramic swirls of colour.
“Meg!” Rich had the bear by its neck under one arm, gesturing with the other to the seat next to him as he swung in, faded blue jeans stretched tight and tucked into loose brown boots.
Meg shook her head and smiled that sweet smile, her lips the colour of the candyfloss Gillian was missing out on.
“I’ll take the next one with Gillian.” was all she said, looking away, turning and ignoring the throw of Rich’s hands and the “What the fuck!?” as he shoved the bear into the seat next to him while the man running the wheel tightened the slack metal chain around him, fixing him in place. He shot Gillian a glare and mouthed something she couldn’t make out.
The wheel turned slowly, clunked, stopped again, and they stepped gingerly into the next seat, Meg moving side-ways, hands smoothing down the front of her yellow sundress as Gillian lumbered in behind her, clutched the guard rail, wobbled, and sat down harder than she had meant to.
“He’s not happy.” Gillian nodded to the back of Rich’s head in the seat in front.
“He’ll get over it.” Meg edged closer to let the Ferris wheel man clip them in, her thigh against Gillian’s.
“Think he was trying to impress you with that bear…” she said, more for something to say to break the silence than for anything else.
“Not interested I’m afraid,” Meg laughed.
“Are you not?”
Meg looked surprised, turned to look at Gillian, leaned back a bit to regard her with raised eyebrows.
“You thought I would be?” she asked slowly.
“Dunno. Most girls I know seem to like him.”
“He’s not my type,” she said simply, unblinking, and Gillian felt the creep of embarrassment deep in the pit of her stomach, and time seemed to stretch uneasily between them.
“What is your type, then?” she asked finally, though she wasn’t sure she even wanted to know.
Meg looked down at her hands in her lap, the smallest of smiles twitched at the corner of her mouth.
“Do you like him?” she asked, avoiding the question entirely.
Gillian laughed out loud, a sudden ‘Ha!’ of a laugh that she regretted immediately.
“No!” she paused, felt the jolt of the wheel turning and the drop of her stomach as it rose.
“I’d rather be with the sheep...” she hesitated again, “not in that way. I don’t mean…I mean, my granddad has a farm, I live with my Grandad…a sheep farm.”
Meg looked up from her hands.
“Oh.” she said.
“Why don’t you wear a bikini, like everyone else?” Ted asked, watching as Meg and Josephine came back out of the house wearing candy-striped bikinis and carrying plates of food.
It was the end of summer, the last day before they were scattered across the country, to university, to work, to sheep farming, and, somewhere along the path to adolescence, Ted had grown his hair, lost the last two letters of his name and swapped the Lucky Strikes for joints that made his speech slower than it already was.
“You’re not wearing a bikini,” Gillian said pointedly, stretched out on a deck chair, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face and the burn of orange-red through her eyelids.
“Fuck off. You know what I mean,” he flicked ash in her direction.
“Anyway, why should I?” she asked, shielding her face with her hand so that she could open one eye to look at him.
He shrugged, grunted, pulled a face, and swore at the wasps that buzzed around his hand and bumped against the neck of his beer bottle.
Summer stretched out behind them, a seemingly endless summer culminating in today; a somewhat melancholic gathering of friends, some old, some new, at Meg’s parent’s house, where people lay on the lawn by the pool, making the most of the bushfire summer friendships that had already begun to fade, and summer romances that had already turned wistful, whilst, from somewhere, Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ played in between the hollow tinny beat of a basketball on hot tarmac.
They were on the porch drinking pear cider out of plastic cups. Meg had baked a lemon cake and the smell of it was in the air, on her clothes, and in her hair, warm and tart and yellow.
She waved a hand over it, batting away lazy flies. She was wearing a sun hat, big and floppy, and it cast tiny sun flecks of trapezoid light all over her face, just down to the very tip of her nose, and she sat on the wooden decking, her back to the garden, her silhouette framed by the pinks of peonies and yellow roses, the reds of poppies and vivid blues and purples of delphiniums.
Josephine smoked a menthol cigarette, inhaling long slow drafts and exhaling ribbons of white smoke that faded into the clouds.
“Gillian doesn’t do bikinis,” she said, late to the conversation, voice strained before releasing the last draw of smoke as she shifted in her seat, leaned forwards so that the sheer fabric of her kimono rippled about her arm and reached for another slice of cake, and Gillian wondered just how Josephine knew what she did or didn’t do.
Meg cast her a sideways glance.
“Gillian can wear what she likes,” a moment of acerbic rarity from Meg which left the conversation immediately abandoned.
Meg’s moods had become a feature of the summer, her frown of deep thought already leaving a permanent line between her eyebrows. She seemed to flutter between groups of people and conversation as easily as she did between her role as the popular girl with the face full of sunshine, queen of quick-witted remarks, to an emotionally detached, vague sort of creature haunted by her own thoughts.
Gillian twisted in her deckchair, but Meg wouldn’t make eye contact. Instead, she studied the rough edge of her flip-flop, where the rubber was beginning to fray.
The afternoon light was hazy and dreamlike, the sun was low and hot and from somewhere the whisper of autumn seemed to hesitate around the edges.
Dishes, napkins, and glasses were collected and taken inside, yet still, nobody mentioned leaving. The day was too precious, there was too much to be said, too many goodbyes to say and too many promises to make.
Meg stood in the kitchen, hands on her hips looking at the piles of dirty dishes.
“I think I’ll leave it,” she said, more to herself than to anyone else. “I can do it tomorrow.”
“I can help?” Gillian offered, but Meg shook her head, she had made the decision.
“I want to enjoy the sunshine,” she stopped. Looked at Gillian. Really looked. “When will I see you again?” she asked, and The Three Degrees started up in Gillian’s head.
“Christmas, I suppose, if you’re coming back?”
Meg nodded slowly. She was going to Oxford to study English, and all of a sudden Oxford seemed a long way away. Christmas seemed a long way away. School would be forgotten, friendships would be left to die a slow, long, painless death and memories would no longer be remembered, but left forgotten, replaced by the people and moments that would suddenly seem like so much more.
“You’ll still be here?” Meg asked though Gillian had no idea why. She had no plans to leave, no wish to leave.
“I’ve got the farm. My grandad’s getting too old - ”
Meg cut her off, caught up with her own train of thought, “It’s funny, thinking of you shearing sheep.”
“Don’t think I’ll be doing much of that,” Gillian laughed, pushed her hands into the pockets of her shorts and made her way back to the open door. “You can visit me in the spring. Help me with the lambing?”
“I’d like that,” she said vaguely, beginning to follow Gillian out of the door.
“Actually,” she stopped half in and out of the kitchen.
“Actually, can—can I talk to you?”
Gillian flicked a glance her way. The pavement was almost too hot to stand barefoot in one place for too long.
She imagined at this bleary point in the afternoon Meg just wanted to talk more about lambing, university, or some obscure book she just read but couldn’t remember the name of.
They stood by the side entrance to the house between the door and the porch where the last few roses of summer were thick and sweet-smelling and turning brown at the edges.
“I want to talk to you. I wanted to talk to you about - ” she stopped, made to restart and stopped again. “I wanted to - ” she gave up. Almost laughed, and then, in a moment of madness, grasped Gillian’s wrist with one hand, the back of her neck with the other, flinched at the muffled squawk of surprise, ignored another protesting syllable, lost her balance so that she inadvertently had Gillian up against a hopefully not-too-hot wall, and kissed her.
But this sudden, attention-grabbing flourish quickly transformed into something deeper, slower, more sensual, something that got better and better, an ardent give-and-take that defied expectation. A thousand kisses condensed into one, a book of a thousand pages fluttering to conjure the beauty of a single word, a thousand sensations distilled into one moment: the sun-warmed wall at her back, Meg’s hands pulling her closer, and a sweetness like biting into an overripe fruit, and that thousand-page book was on fire, everything must be rewritten, reworked, retold because the fire, this fire, consumed it all.
Meg was the one who pulled back first. Blue eyes wide. She took another step back, flexed her fingers and folded her arms tightly across her chest.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered too quickly. “I’m sorry.” Her voice suddenly stronger.
Gillian opened her mouth to speak but found she had nothing to say, her lips felt too hot.
This feeling had been growing inside her for years, alongside their friendship, but she had never dared name it. Now, standing in front of Meg, it was too big to bear, an ever-growing ache inside her chest. If Meg smiled, she couldn’t help but smile too. It wasn’t her body she wanted, the way Rich and the other boys did. It was the way she tucked her hair behind her ear, the way she laughed, the way she was quiet until she wanted to say something, and then said it supremely well.
“Meg!” from somewhere back by the porch Josephine was calling for her, and Meg flushed, hesitated, didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands.
“We’d better - ”
Gillian nodded in agreement, all too aware that she had yet to say anything at all.
Time passed slowly, the day-long and slow, like a dream in the sunshine. Conversation passed easily between them, in fits and lulls, between silence and laughter. Ted and Gillian played cards, Josephine slouched against the chest of a boy Gillian couldn’t remember the name of, and Meg cut more slices of cake than were needed. She passed one to Gillian, wrapped up in a pink and green napkin, waited a moment too long whilst Gillian cupped her hand to take it, her palm warm against Meg’s fingers, a red flush beginning to creep from Meg’s chest all the way up her neck.
“Maybe at Christmas, when we are all back, we could meet at Gillian’s. At the farm?” Josephine asked as if she had overheard their earlier conversation.
Meg looked at Gillian, knew what she would see before she saw it, the strain of a smile, a noise of something noncommittal, and Gillian rearranged herself on her deckchair, tugged at the dying tuft of grass nearest her and couldn’t seem to think about anything other than the slowly rotting floorboards and missing tiles above the fireplace back home.
It was Rich who saved her from explanation. Rich who appeared from the basketball court, sweating, his hair down to his shoulders and pushed back from his face, his white T-shirt smudged with dust and grey dots from the rubber of the basketball.
“Hey,” he was talking to Meg but he ruffled Josephine’s hair so that she spilled tobacco into her lap. “Any more of that cider? We’re beat after the game,” he gestured with his thumb to the basketball court.
“In the fridge. In the kitchen,” she started picking at her flip-flop again.
“Yeah? Want to help me? I might get lost,” he slouched over the porch railing and flicked the edge of her sun hat.
“Twat,” Gillian said under her breath, almost without meaning to.
“What’s that, Gillian my friend?”
“Surely even you can make it to the kitchen and back without getting lost,” she looked at him, stared him out until he laughed.
“Dyke,” he hissed.
Ted squinted across at him, eyelids heavy, ready for whatever macho crap Rich was about to pull, “You better fucking watch it, mate.”
“Alright! Just stop it,” Meg got to her feet. “Rich?” she tilted her head in the direction of the kitchen and started to lead the way before he had even had a chance to respond.
They watched them go, Gillian, Ted, Josephine, and the boy Gillian couldn’t remember the name of.
“You’re not often right, but I’ll tell you one thing, you’re right about him,” Ted relaxed back down again and took a swig of his beer, forgetting it was empty. “He is a twat,” he scowled at the bottle.
“Get me a beer, G?” he asked, reaching out, letting the empty bottle swing between his thumb and forefinger.
She looked back at him, silent for a moment. His words were getting slower, more slurred, his eyes were half-closed and he smiled a wavering smile that made her want to slap him.
“Get one for yourself too, looks like you need it.”
Still, she said nothing, merely took the empty bottle and stood up, walking barefoot to the house. The kitchen was hotter than outside. The air was stale and heavy. Flies swarmed around the hulled-out bowl of a watermelon left on the table, and the fridge door was ajar.
She opened it, looked inside. Found nothing but the blinking fluorescent light and a bottle of coke, but as she turned to go back outside the flicker of something caught her eye, and there, through the back window on the far side of the room, on the other side of the glass, were Rich and Meg, thrust together, Meg’s back hard against the wall, her face flushed, her hair caught in his hand, and he was kissing her. Kissing her like it was exactly what it was. The last day of summer.
She stood there for what felt not an eternity, but rather more like a very long Joni Mitchell song. Her breath seemed to come too short and too long, she felt hot and light-headed and all of a sudden full of rage.
Breathless, she rushed to the bathroom, thought she might throw up, but instead, she slapped the wall with her hand so that her palm stung with a satisfactory flare. She screwed her eyes shut tight against tears, and, with both hands, she held onto the rim of the sink, tried to breathe properly before she looked at herself in the mirror above the taps. Her cheeks were red and blotchy, her eyes unfocused, wisps of hair stuck to her wet cheek. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, mascara smearing. In her recent life as an emotional wreck, she had gotten rather skilled at remaking herself with a trembling hand. In every trembling smudge of her fingers beneath an eye, the art of self-deception. In every fragmented gleam the art of almost.
She left without a word to anyone. Left her shoes, left Meg with Rich, Josephine with her cigarettes and Ted wanting another beer.
She went home on the bus. The sunlight was flat. The fields were no longer floodlit with sunshine. Rabbits didn’t bound but loped lazily, and the air inside the bus was suffocating, warm and smelled of sweet rotting fruit and too-hot plastic, and somewhere a bluebottle buzzed and butted the same windowpane over,
Gillian’s leg jittered. Her knee hit the table and her grandad’s pint jumped, slogging lager over his side plate.
“Gillian!” he tutted at her whilst she scrambled for a napkin, scattering cutlery. Desert spoon clattering oh so close to the edge of the table. She apologised, and across the table Gladys, her grandad’s new beau, leaned back, eyebrows raised, holding her orange and lemonade like she was afraid to put it down.
“Whatever’s the matter with you?” her grandad’s voice was low.
“Sorry…” she said again, caught herself, touched the very tips of her fingers to her lips briefly.
“I don’t really know,” she cleared her throat. She seemed to be unraveling right here in the Kings Head.
“Family gatherings…social occasions, aren’t really my…” she paused, looked down at the way her fingertips were pressed white against the edge of the table “…thing.”
“Not much is your thing, is it,” Gladys sighed, finally setting her drink down but keeping a loose hold on it just in case.
“What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“Gillian…” her grandad’s warning shot.
Ted was coming back from the bar. She recognised the unsteadiness in his gait out of the corner of her eye.
“Tell her to enjoy herself would you, it’s New Year’s Eve,” her granddad gestured with his pint to Ted as he grasped the back of Gillian’s chair to steady himself before sitting down.
“Gillian? Enjoy herself? Fuckin’ hell, Gillian hasn’t smiled since 1987,” he laughed, wrapped an arm about Gillian’s shoulders and squeezed, pulling her close so that the stubble of his chin scratched her temple and she could smell his sweat through the rancid stench of cigarettes and alcohol.
She pulled away, feigned a smile, glanced once again from her granddad to the table, then up, to the sound of the great oak door of the pub opening, the rabble of voices from outside growing louder suddenly, then quieter.
She watched a group of people move from the doorway to the bar, shedding coats and gloves, faces flushed from the cold. A man laughed and the woman next to him shook her head and turned, and for a moment, only the briefest of moments, Gillian couldn’t place her, then all at once something dropped, heavy, inside her, her chest squeezed tight and it was Meg shrugging her coat from her arms. Meg greeted friends at the bar with flurried kisses, scarf flailing and catching on her arm as she gestured and laughed, and grasped affectionately at the shoulder of a very tall man wearing an appalling shirt.
She felt hot and sick and cold all at once. Everything seemed loud and too quiet, bigger than anything she had ever seen and then tinier than she could bear.
She stood up.
“I just have to…” she began, but her voice was swallowed by everyone else’s and nobody seemed to notice as she stood for a moment, behind her chair, glancing between faces, waiting for somebody to look up.
She left her coat on the chair, and pushed her way between people to the back door, and out.
She stopped. Stood in the shadows, arms limp beside her, the murmur of the pub behind her, and looked up at the sky, endless black, starless, the whisper of the road and the soar of a plane overhead. She could breathe. Despite the cold airtight in her chest, and she was free, if only for a moment.
She started at the sound of her name, flinched, turned. Meg was in the doorway, half in and half out, blonde hair whipped into her face across her mouth.
“I thought it was you!” she stepped out into the cold, arms wrapped around herself, the neck of her pale grey jumper rolled up against her chin.
“Meg…” it was all she could say. She looked older, there were faint lines around her eyes and her mouth that had never been there before.
“I was worried you wouldn’t remember me,” she moved closer.
“Of course I remember,” she spoke through an exhale, her breath blooming white between them.
There was a moment's pause where neither of them seemed to know what to say.
“You’re wearing a dress!” it was an exclamation seemingly unexpected by both of them.
“I do that sometimes,” Gillian looked down at herself, suddenly self-conscious in her old black dress and cardigan. Somewhere at the back, beneath her left shoulderblade was a penny-sized hole she had meant to sew up.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a dress before,” she paused, the flicker of something passed behind her eyes and she cleared her throat again. “You look lovely,” she added.
Gillian paused. A beat in the air too long.
“Thank you…” she looked down at her feet. “Who’re you here with?”
“Oh. Just old friends. Friends from uni…”
“Who? Oh. No. I haven’t seen him in…years,” Meg rushed.
Gillian nodded, pushed her hands into the pockets of her dress, hunched up her shoulders and rocked back on her heels like she was seventeen again.
“Rich was never…he wasn’t…who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with,” she cleared her throat and even in the dark Gillian could see the creep of that telltale blush begin to creep up from her jaw. “He kissed me, you know. I don’t know if I ever told you that. I didn’t…invite him to. And we never…” she huffed out a breath. “I saw Ted, over by the fire. That’s why I thought it must be you when I saw you,” the subject change jarred in Gillian’s head.
“I heard you married him?”
The air smelled of bonfires and burnt wood, smoldering pine needles, and damp earth. Electric. Magic. Fraught with possibility and the faraway dream of someone else.
Gillian nodded slowly, “Ten years next year.”
Meg was quiet, just watching her so intently that Gillian had to look away.
“Are you married, or…?” she asked, looking down at the toes of her shoes again. Black high heels, scuffed, battered and tired with the soles all but worn away. The perfect metaphor for her life, as it happened.
“No! No, not yet, anyway, we’ve only been together for a couple of months.”
“The man with the...” she gestured to her chest. “Shirt?”
“What? Oh. No. Actually, I’m…she’s called Serena.”
“Oh!” a prickling feeling crept up from the base of her scalp and her chest felt tight. Meg folded her arms tighter and frowned down at the gravel.
“Gillian, I - ” she began.
The door bumped open, the glass shook in its frame, and the door handle squealed against the weight of Ted’s hand.
“Meg.” he was squinting at her, his mouth hanging open like an idiot. He didn’t give Meg a chance to reply, “We’re going home,” he could barely hold himself up.
“It’s not midnight yet!” Meg laughed.
“Don’t. It’s fine,” Gillian hushed.
“Home.” Ted was blinking too much; his face was red and sweaty and there were globby white triangles of spittle in the corners of his mouth.
“I’m coming. It’s fine. I’m coming,” she skirted around Meg, who reached out for her.
“You ok?” she squeezed her forearm.
“She’s fine,” Ted rattled the door on its hinges.
“I’m fine,” Gillian whispered, momentarily covering Meg’s hand with her own. “It was nice to see you.”
“You made me look like a right idiot,” he hissed, thick and slow between belches.
She’d driven home, paid the babysitter, and now they stood, opposite one another in the sitting room, the light dim, the curtains drawn with a crack in the middle where the great white full moon shone through.
Even in his drunken state, he was surprised she had replied. He shook his head, as though she should realise herself how stupid she was being, and laughed that slow sick laugh that made her feel as though she was falling.
“What were you doing out there with that bitch anyway, huh? Telling her how shit your husband is? You think she’s interested in you? Well, she’s not. No one is,” he was distracted mid-flow by the mugs on the coffee table.
“Who’ve you been having over?” The sudden change in conversational direction threw her.
“Who. Have. You. Been having over?” he leaned forwards, his breath hot and vile on her face and he gestured with a finger that pointed everywhere but at the mugs.
“The babysitter. I made h - ”
“Yeah right.” He cut her off. “Who’re you shagging now? Not that anyone would have you. You couldn’t get anyone if you tried.”
“Yeah?” she stopped, suddenly knew exactly what to say. “Well, maybe I will start fucking around. Just like you,” she was giddy and made brave by the cider and the thrill of seeing Meg. “Maybe I’ll - ”
It was so quick a hit that for a moment, as she lost her balance and made a grab for the dresser, she didn’t know she had been hit at all, but he was looking at her, holding his hand, breathing heavily, waiting for her to react.
Her nose felt hot, then her lip. She opened her mouth to speak and her skull creaked, her jaw grated, and there was the bloody, hot, metallic taste of blood on the back of her tongue that made her gag.
“Get in the shower,” he said,
And she did. She showered. She let the water beat against the blooming bruise of her nose and mouth, then sat, waiting, on the edge of the bed.
It didn’t take him long. It never did. She could be glad about that, she supposed. He flexed and peacocked, some sort of narcissistic routine to get himself in the mood, and she wondered, whilst he did so, was there any reason for her being here at all?
She’d faked every orgasm with him from the very first time. Convincing herself it must be her, there must be something wrong with her. Sometimes she even lied to herself about it. There must have been once, or twice, maybe? The odd occasions where she had been drunk, perhaps?
And then, of course, she would have to time it right, otherwise, he’d start up again, tell her he could tell she wanted more.
Then he left to go back to the pub with only a grunt goodbye, and whilst the midnight fireworks started up somewhere close by she was left, sitting up against the headboard with her knees pulled into her chest, left in this house, this broken home. And all she heard when she pushed the heels of her hands into her ears and screwed her eyes shut was the beat of her heart. Quickening, quickening. The throbbing muffled thump of it, the blood in her ears, the pulse in her eyes. There was nothing. She had nothing. She had shed blood in every room of this house and now she was dying.
It would be easier to die, she thought. It would be easier to die than to leave.
But then she thought of her son. She thought of the way his hands curled and reached out for her whilst he was feeding, how his milky blue eyes searched for hers.
She was trapped, by her own child, in a life she had no wish to live.
“Help me,” she whispered to the house and screwed her eyes closed tight. “Please,” she whispered, to the beat of her heart. “Please…”
The house had been full of ghosts since Ted had died. Cards from the past dropped through her letterbox daily, people she had all but forgotten sent bouquets of sweet-smelling flowers, and the neighbours bought over a casserole that she’d given to the dog.
Everyone was sorry. Sorry that Ryan had lost his father, at only six years old. Sorry that she had lost her husband, sorry that he had died. Now she had a mantelpiece full of cards from people whose surnames she didn’t know, people who had no idea about her life, or her, or how it had been, and that actually, the fact that he had been knocked down and killed by a Land Rover whilst staggering home from the pub had been one of the best things that had ever happened to her.
And now, she was standing in the kitchen, looking out of the window, the glass fogged up with steam from the kettle boiling on the Aga. She stared at her own reflection, sullied and blurry, hair all over the bloody place, curling about her jaw, slipping out from the French knot that she had attempted at the nape of her neck. Her hair, an unremarkable colour at the best of times, but in this steam bleached reflection it was even limper, even more of a non-color - an insipid pale brown with more than a fleck of grey, and her eyes, staring back at her, like the eyes of another more recognisable ghost, almost too pale to see, almost the same colour as the sky.
It was the end of February. She wouldn’t change this light for the world. Early spring light that breathed a thrilling sense of possibility through the house, this silent house, as sullen and creaking as she was, but beautiful, with its own charm.
Evening, the cool air, everything dull, and tinged with grey, blue and gold, the time of day when everything seemed to slow down to the beat of a heart.
Slowly, slowly, she arranged mugs on a tray, and from behind her the door opened, and she was roused from somewhere between deep thought and daydream, by Ryan, who stopped short of the edge of the doormat too quickly, remembering his muddy boots, and teetered for a moment between doormat and floor.
“Auntie Emily dropped her glass and now she needs a brush and dustpan,” his words were breathless and rushed and fraught with urgency and his cheeks were pink from running from the barn where the wake was being held to the house.
“It sounds like Auntie Emily might need to slow down on the old wine front,” she said more to herself than to Ryan.
“What?” he asked, pausing mid-turn.
It has been said that the past is another country; in Gillian’s case, it is more than that. It is an enemy combatant. Any object, or indeed person, such as Ted’s sister Emily, that could possibly function as a passport into this hostile territory runs the risk of emotional high treason and as such would be verbally hanged.
“Nothing,” she smiled, looking at him. He had her pale blue eyes and her pale brown hair. “I’ll bring it out,” she said gently and watched as he ran back outside, letting the door bang on its hinges and bounce back open.
She took her time walking from house to barn, the brush and dustpan loose in her hand, bumping gently against her thigh.
There was the quiet call of sheep from the fields, the distant squeak and bang of the front gate, the latch blown clean off in an air rifle incident, and the gentle panting of the dog as he paced hurried laps around his run.
Meg, in her white button-up shirt and charcoal linen trousers, stood talking to Gillian’s Aunt Jean, just outside the barn door, wine glass in hand. She smiled as Gillian passed, “You’ve done a beautiful job,” she said, interrupting Jean, who in turn, shifted, smiled, and reached out to squeeze Gillian’s forearm, and gushed, “You’re coping just marvelously,” as Gillian nodded, hummed a murmur of thanks, and gestured with the brush and dustpan.
“I’d better just…”
In the barn, it appeared to be summertime. A picnic was spread across makeshift tables with yellow and white chequered clothes, jugs and bowls of flowers were here, there and everywhere, filled with the scarlet tulips, yellow goldenrod as bright as the sun, and the blue of forget-me-nots as blue as the sky, turning what appeared to be a wake to everyone else, into a celebration of a life saved instead.
She crouched unnoticed by the leg of a table, swept up the glittering shards of glass into the bowl of the dustpan, and made her way back out, to where Meg still stood by the door. Meg, with a frown of concentration as she nodded and listened to whatever it was that Jean was saying. But then, as she caught sight of Gillian she smiled again, unable to help herself. Meg was beautiful in that moment, with the sky behind her the colour of a bruise, her hair almost white blonde in the milky blue light of the first whisper of spring, with the ivy that covered the west side of the barn curling out to touch her shoulder.
Meg was always beautiful, whereas she was standing in a fine mist of rain in her old boots, losing hair grips in the mud. But that one smile was all it took to remind her of why she was still here. Meg. When she thought about it, it had always been Meg.
Back at the house, she sat on the drystone wall with a bottle of beer she had begun sipping an hour ago and forgotten about. Now, she sat looking out at the hills disappearing into a lavender mist where the land met the sky. Meg was behind her. She’d known that she would follow when she left the barn, and if she had had this moment over again if she had somebody to retell this moment to, she would have said that she had smelled her before she saw her. Perhaps that was what had made her turn; a murmur of her perfume in the air, a hint of orange and jasmine and the memory of summertime. Perhaps it was the vibration of her presence, or perhaps, worst of all, it was just meant to be.
“Mind if I join you?” she asked, waiting. Gillian shook her head, raised her bottle of beer.
“Of course not.”
“Your grandad not here?” she asked as she sat down next to her, carefully and elegantly as always, adjusting herself on the wall.
“He’s dead. He died.”
Meg widened her eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“You’re alright…he’d have been 100 now anyway,” Gillian held the beer bottle by its neck and watched the sunlight turn the dead moss and brick a brilliant emerald green through the glass.
“Oh. I suppose he would have…sorry,” an easy silence stretched between them. “I tried to find you.” She said eventually.
“Did you?” Gillian looked back up at her.
“On the Internet…on Facebook.”
“I’m not on Facebook,” the familiar rise of panic began to bleed out inside her, a feeling she had come all too accustomed to. She drew in a slow breath, letting the feeling begin to fade before continuing; “Too risky when Ted was alive…”
“Oh yes, of course,” Meg nodded frowning down at the half-drunk glass of red wine she held, resting on her thighs. “Was it really that bad?”
Gillian looked at her then looked away, down at her hands in her lap.
“Yep,” She looked up and squinted out across the fields, could feel Meg waiting for whatever more there was. “I wanted to die,” She watched a V of ducks flying in the far distance. “I wanted to die, and for it to be over. But more than that. More than…I wanted the pain of dying. I wanted the peace of death. I was angry at him, I was angry with myself. I was tired of living,” she braved looking at Meg. “Sometimes, when he was asleep I’d get up, I’d go into the kitchen, I’d get a knife out of the drawer and I’d run the point from here, to here,” she ran her finger from her wrist to her elbow, “I thought how easy it would be to kill myself, and I’d hold it, point against my stomach, handle against the countertop, and I’d wish for the courage to step forwards. There was nothing of me left to take. He’d taken it all. And what’s worse was I had let him. I was already dead before I realised dying wasn’t an option.”
Silence hung between them.
“Have I shocked you?” she asked, her voice quieter this time.
Meg shook her head ever so slightly. “No,” she said, paused, tapped her index finger twice against the bowl of her wine glass. “Why did you marry him?”
Gillian smiled. Almost laughed.
“Because he asked!” she straightened her back, looked up from her hands across the fields, otherworldly in a lemon-yellow fog. “Didn’t reckon I’d get a better offer. Thought marrying my best friend was better than being alone for the rest of my life.”
“I wish I’d known.”
Gillian shrugged. “Nothing you could have done short of running him over yourself.”
“No, but I could’ve…” she let the sentence tail off.
“Could’ve…?” Gillian prompted.
Meg inhaled slowly, steadying herself.
“Vita and I broke up,” she said, all in one breath.
Gillian raised an eyebrow.
“I thought her name was Serena?”
“Yes. No. I mean, Serena and I never lasted more than a couple of months. Vita…we were together for three years. We had a house,” she paused. “In London.”
Meg just looked at her. Her cheeks and nose were pink from the cold and her mouth trembled ever so slightly in that way that it does before you say something you’ve kept hidden for over three decades.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” there it was, shuttling between them, over and over, and Gillian didn’t seem able to hear anything except the crackling foggy beat of her heart in her ears.
“Sod’s bloody Law I end up buggering something up without even being there,” she said quickly, quietly, tensing.
There was a warmth in the air, unnatural for spring.
“I couldn’t stop wondering about you. Where you were, what you were doing…you know I’ve always liked you…” she stopped abruptly, felt the words form in her mouth, cleared her throat and tried again, “…more than liked you.”
Gillian shot her a sideways glance. Swallowed the last mouthful of warm beer from the bottle and half-coughed, half-laughed.
“That’ll be the wine talking.”
Meg smiled down at her glass.
She didn’t look up, but she knew Gillian was watching her. Those pale blue eyes wary and afraid.
“You hitting on me at my husband’s wake?” Gillian laughed, shifted, tucked her hair behind her ear and then untucked it again.
“Sorry…I shouldn’t have said anything…”
“No! It’s…fine, it’s - ”
“I’ve made you uncomfortable.”
Gillian looked out across the fields, squinting against the low sunshine, the clouds sugar almond pink shot through with gold.
“Think I knew...deep down,” she spoke more to the sky than to Meg.
“But I’d convinced myself it was all in my head.”
She watched the clouds move above them.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…my timing is…appalling…” Meg sighed and Gillian smiled, tilted her face up towards the sun and sighed.
“What?” Meg asked.
Gillian shook her head.
“What is it?!”
“Nothing!” she puffed out a breath, gestured with a hand-cast haphazardly about her head. Gave up, let out a breath and looked at Meg sitting there next to her on the wall. She could feel herself cracking, like ice in spring.
“I’ve been in love with you since I was thirteen,” she said finally.
Meg pursed her lips and gave the tiniest nod of her head.
“I know,” she said eventually when the wind had stopped blowing the grass flat. She waited, gently tilting the bowl of her wine glass so that the last drop of wine slipped this way, then that, in the bottom. “What do we do now?” she asked.
Gillian narrowed her eyes, took in the world before her, the whisper of the wind, the birds, the incredible distance between her and the sky, then she turned back to Meg. Meg with the sun setting behind her, and for the first time in years she was able to say what she felt, and really mean it.
“We take it slowly,” she said.
(c) Natascha Graham