Oh, if you keep reaching out
Then I'll keep coming back
And if you're gone for good
Then I'm okay with that
If you leave the light on
Then I'll leave the light on
Light On, Maggie Rogers
Vanessa sighs as she reads the text from Tracy on her phone: Had to collect Johnny from nursery. They think it’s chickenpox.
She has an afternoon filled to the brim with appointments, all as boring as the next. Cats, dogs, even a guinea pig. Paddy owes her bigtime for covering for him. She’d rather be up at Butler’s, vaccinating and then popping in for a brew afterwards. Or, ideally, at home, looking after her little boy. He’d been fussy this morning. She should’ve known better than to drop him to nursery. There’d been rumours from the other mums that chickenpox was going around.
Pearl glances up from her spot at the desk, reappearing from her perch behind a newspaper with a head article about yet another famous model heading into rehab. She eyes Vanessa over the top of her glances. As critical as always.
“Something the matter?”
Vanessa pockets her phone. “Johnny. He’s got chickenpox.”
“Ah, yes. I’d heard it was going around.”
“How did you know that?”
“Well, some of us do have interest in others’ lives,” Pearl remarks. She sets the newspaper aside and thumbs through the appointments ledger. “You have about twenty minutes before Snuffles gets here.”
Vanessa’s already pulling her coat on. “I’ll be right back, I swear.”
Pearl hums, a little too judgmentally for her liking, and disappears behind her newspaper again. A photo of a beautiful blonde with bags too heavy to hide beneath makeup replaces her. It’s an improvement. Vanessa smirks to herself before hurrying out the door, heading over to David’s.
Her sister’s ex mopes behind the counter as she enters. A group of teenagers, who should probably be in school, hang around the chocolates while eyeing up the alcohol. Vanessa makes a beeline for some of the sweets Johnny likes, something to make him smile at least, and a Paw Patrol magazine. The teenagers move away quickly.
The bell above the door chimes as another customer enters. Vanessa heads over to the counter as a head of blonde hair hovers by the card section.
David scans her items. “How’s Tracy?”
“Fine,” she replies, clipped. “You have any Calpol?”
David ducks away to grab the item for her. Vanessa drums her fingers against the counter, surveying the shop, when he gets into an argument with the teenagers. Who, apparently, have been shoplifting a couple packets of crisps. Vanessa rolls her eyes and turns her gaze on the blonde. She’s standing so Vanessa can only see her profile, but there’s something familiar about her, though she can’t quite put her finger on it.
The blonde holds a card in each hand. Both are birthday cards, one more cartoony than the other.
“You should get that one,” Vanessa tells her, pointing to the more mature card. The blonde turns to her and raises her eyebrows. “Other one’s a bit garish.”
The woman studies for her moment. “Yeah. I s’pose.”
She places the cartoony card back on the stand and joins Vanessa at the counter. David finishes with the teenagers, who stomp out of the shop scowling, and finally returns with the Calpol. Vanessa pays him and turns to leave, not before she catches him gawping at the woman standing with her. She rolls her eyes. Men really do have a one-track mind, she thinks.
With only ten minutes left before the next appointment, Vanessa rushes home. Tracy’s sat with Johnny, his favourite film on TV, but her poorly boy has tears rolling down his cheeks. Vanessa scoops him up from the sofa, feeling his temperature with the back of her hand.
“He’s burning up,” she comments, dumping her bag on the table. “Grab his gloves, will you?”
As Tracy heads upstairs, Vanessa feeds Johnny some Calpol. He clings to her stubbornly, shaking his head at the sweets and magazine she’d bought him, cheeks wet as he hides himself in her shoulder. She rests her head atop his and rubs up and down his back.
Tracy heads back down the stairs, mittens in hand. “Please tell me you’re staying, V.”
“I can’t,” she sighs, guiding Johnny’s hands into the mittens. “We’re full until six.”
“Well, can’t you get someone to cover?”
“I am cover.”
With a final kiss to her son’s head, she passes him back to Tracy, even as he starts fussing and reaches his arms out to be handed back to her. Guilt gnaws away at her and she decides Paddy Kirk owes her bigtime.
“Try and see if Dad can pop to a pharmacy, get him some cream to stop the itching,” Vanessa tells Tracy as she heads to the door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise.”
Tracy tries to encourage Johnny to wave goodbye but he sulks instead. “Hurry back.”
The rest of her day drags. Every owner has her gritting her teeth as they hover, especially those whose animals aren’t even sick, wasting her time even more. Pearl doesn’t help either, with a niggling comment between each of her patients, and doesn’t even offer her a hot drink once. By the time she’s finished, she’s on edge, impatient, and ready to burst. She sends a text to Paddy with one too many expletives as she locks up, fumbling with the keys in the dark.
Vanessa stalks from the surgery to Tug Ghyll, muttering under her breath. So focused on her irritation that she doesn’t see the woman from earlier heading down the path, a coffee in hand, until she smacks straight into her.
She feels the coffee burn through her own blouse instantly, warming her skin. The other woman comes off worse for wear. A huge brown patch covers her white blouse, staining her jeans too.
“Oh my god. I am so sorry,” Vanessa gushes.
The blonde growls, throwing the empty polystyrene cup to the ground. “Don’t you watch where you’re going?”
“Er, don’t you? You’re the one with the coffee, not me.”
“Yeah, which you’ve just gone and spilled everywhere.”
“I said sorry.”
“Whatever,” she grumbles, pulling her soaked blouse away from her skin. Vanessa definitely isn’t eyeing up how see-through it is and how much skin’s now on show. “It was probably rubbish, anyway.”
“Look, I live down the road, I can lend you a new top - ”
“I don’t need your pity.”
“It’s not pity. I spilled a drink down you. It’s manners.”
The woman sighs. “Alright. Fine.”
Vanessa nods and continues her walk back home. The woman follows behind her, surprisingly quiet, and Vanessa doesn’t remember why this is a bad idea until her keys are in the lock.
She swears under the breath. The blonde smirks bemusedly.
“I forgot. My son, he has chickenpox - ”
“S’alright. I’ve already had it.”
“He might be a little fussy,” she warns, but the woman doesn’t leave, so Vanessa heads inside anyway.
Inside, however, she finds the house is completely silent. The TV’s switched off, no sign of Johnny or Tracy anywhere. She hears the shower running upstairs and then discovers a note from Tracy on the table. Johnny’s asleep, gone for a shower x
“Your boyfriend?” The woman guesses, startling Vanessa out of her thoughts.
"Definitely not. There are no boyfriends around me,” she says without thinking. She feels her face redden as the stranger raises her eyebrows. “It’s my sister. She lives here. She helps look after Johnny.”
They stand in silence for a second until Vanessa remembers why they’re both here.
“Sorry. I’ll go, um. Grab you a top.”
She roots through her wardrobe, suddenly realising how much yellow she wears. She can’t give the woman yellow. It takes her too long to find a simple white blouse, not too dissimilar to the one she’d soaked in coffee, and heads back downstairs to find the woman studying her photos. There’s one of her and Johnny in her hand.
Vanessa pauses on the last step, studying her. She’s tall, beautiful, and familiar while distant. There’s something about her eyes - green, a colour so rare - that has Vanessa curious about her. It’s a bad idea. Dangerous, really. A feeling she quashes down all too often because she’s not gay. Yet she can’t help it, drawn to the fluttering feeling like a moth to a flame.
“That’s my son,” she says. The woman looks up at her and places the frame back down. Vanessa holds the blouse out between them. “Here. You can change upstairs, if you’d like. My room’s at the end of the hallway.”
The woman sheds her coat and blazer, grinning a little. “Why? You shy?”
Vanessa splutters, unable to think up a retort before the woman unbuttons her blouse, leaving her standing in jeans and her bra. Vanessa swallows and looks away, though her brain has already catalogued the soft dip of her waist, the swell of her breasts - the silver stretch marks at the bottom of her abdomen, so similar to her own from carrying Johnny. Her cheeks burn with heat and the back of her neck feels strangely itchy as she waits for the woman to change.
“I’m Vanessa Woodfield, by the way,” she offers.
The woman finishes buttoning up the blouse. It’s too short on her arms, but she doesn’t seem to mind, rolling the cuffs up to her elbows.
Vanessa gapes as it clicks into place.
“I do know you.”
Charity rolls her eyes. “Here I thought I’d escaped the gawping.”
“Sorry, it’s just - I thought I knew you. I just didn’t know why. They don’t call you Dingle in the press, though.”
“Well, not exactly a supermodel’s name is it, babe.”
Charity’s lazy smile fades. “Saw it on a book.”
Burnett. Dingle. She lets the names roll around in her mind, unsure of which one suits the woman standing in front of her now. An image of The Woolpack floods forth.
“Hang on, that doesn’t mean you’re related to - ”
“Even Cain? ”
“You’ll have to pull teeth before he’ll admit to it,” Charity says. She starts gathering her belongings. “Anyway, thanks for the shirt.”
“Do you want to stay for a brew? Least I can do after wasting all yours.”
Charity hesitates before she pulls her coat on. “Best not. I’m not in the village for long.”
“Alright.” She doesn’t know why she feels strangely disappointed by this. “I am sorry, by the way. About the coffee.”
Charity pauses in front of the door. In the small space by it, they feel too close. Vanessa longs for distance, yet can’t find the will to move. Charity grins, a sparkle in her eyes.
“Think you liked it for the show, though,” she says, winking.
“That’s not why - ”
“Sure it isn’t.”
Charity’s tone is too light, too breezy. Vanessa steels herself against it and has a comeback on the tip of her tongue when suddenly Charity’s lips are pressed against her own.
Her mind goes blank. The butterflies in her stomach roll as she pushes up on her toes, meeting Charity in the kiss with as much fire as she puts in. Charity’s hand cups her elbow as she places a steadying hand on her shoulder.
Charity pulls away. That same sparkle is in her eyes. Vanessa’s too incoherent to form any words at all - or even breathe.
“Yeah. Definitely no boyfriends around you,” Charity murmurs smugly and leaves.
Vanessa shuts the door, leaning against it as she struggles for breath. She screws her eyes shut. What a stupid, stupid thing to do.
But how right, too.
Upstairs, she hears Johnny start to wail. She takes a steadying breath and touches her lips with the tips of her fingers, still scarcely believing what’s just happened, before heading back to reality.
She spends the next week looking after Johnny. Covering him head to toe in cream, making sure he doesn’t scratch the blisters, and babying him the moment he makes a fuss. Tracy and her dad do their part to help too, but Johnny rejects anyone that isn’t her, forcing her to take time off of work so that he doesn’t scream the house down.
It’s such a full-on experience that she almost forgets about the kiss with Charity Burnett. Dingle, she reminds herself.
At first, she almost convinces herself that she dreamt it up. After all, what the hell would a supermodel be doing in such a remote part of the Dales? And why would she kiss her?
Yet, whenever her sister or dad are round, she feels it creeping across her skin. Like it’s written all over her for people to see. I kissed Charity Dingle. Whenever they look at her, she feels it, a mixture of shame and excitement bubbling underneath. No-one would ever believe her. And the mention of kissing a woman would open up a whole can of worms she’s not ready to confront just yet. So she keeps a lid on it and thinks of the woman who’d grinned before she’d kissed her late at night.
When Johnny’s symptoms begin to subside, no completely better but he’s no longer miserable when she’s not hovering around him like a hawk, Vanessa heads out for a coffee in The Woolpack with Rhona. Her friend sits opposite her, a little frazzled, complaining about whatever it is she and Paddy have been arguing about recently. Vanessa finds herself nodding absent-mindedly, agreeing when she should, but not taking a word of it in. It hadn’t felt like this, with Rhona. The way she feels now. That had felt - desperate, almost. This just feels like… well, she’s not sure.
Rhona stops talking as Chas interrupts them.
“Someone wants to speak to you. Through the back.”
Chas widens her eyes slightly, as though she has to guess. Rhona glances between them with a frown as Vanessa’s palms start to sweat.
“Who?” Rhona asks.
“I’ll see you later, Rhona.”
“No, hold on - ”
“It’s fine,” Vanessa assures her, fiddling with the strap of her bag. “Tell Paddy I’ll be in tomorrow, okay?”
She doesn’t wait for her friend to answer. Chas motions her through before tending the bar again. Vanessa stops ahead of the door, trying to calm the rapid beating of her heart. Charity’s a supermodel - she probably messes with people like her all the time. Giving them just a glimpse of that higher kind of life.
“Are you going to stare at that door all day?”
Vanessa jumps, turning to find Charity emerging from the cellar, a packet of crisps in hand. She heads on over to Vanessa, leaning her hip against the wall as she grins.
Vanessa crosses her arms over her chest. “You’re a terrible host.”
Charity shrugs. “It’s not my pub.”
Vanessa has to lead them through to the front room. Charity shuts the door behind them before flopping down on the sofa, feet up on the coffee table. Vanessa fights the urge to nudge them off.
“Aren’t you gonna sit? I don’t bite.” Charity pauses then wiggles her eyebrows. “Well, not unless you want me to.”
Vanessa sits on the edge of the sofa, as far away as she can manage.
“Has anyone ever told you you’re really annoying?”
“Mm, might’ve heard that one a few times.”
She picks at a loose thread on her tights. “Chas said you wanted to talk to me.”
“Yeah. Wanted to return that blouse, didn’t I. Not that it looks like your wardrobe is missing it much. You’ve worn yellow every day.”
“I’ve been inside every day, how would you know that?”
Charity finishes the packet of crisps and fusses with the empty packet. “I take walks.”
“Are you stalking me?”
“What? No. Don’t flatter yourself, babe. It’s a little hard to ignore all that blinding colour through the window.”
There’s that itchy feeling at the back of her neck again. Thinking about Charity walking past her house, seeing her every day - especially when she hasn’t been presentable lately - and not noticing her. She wonders how many times Charity passed her house. Saw her with Johnny.
“I thought you weren’t going to be staying here long,” Vanessa finds herself saying.
“I’m not,” Charity answers. “Don’t get your hopes up.”
“I wasn’t - ”
“God, you’re easy to wind up.” Charity laughs.
Vanessa stands, irritation clawing at her chest, grabbing the bag with her blouse in it.
“Is that it, then?”
Charity continues fiddling with the crisp packet. She doesn’t look at her when she speaks.
“Do you want it to be?”
Vanessa finds herself stumped. She should want that to be it. She doesn’t know Charity at all, bar seeing her plastered across magazines as she desperately followed fashion trends in her early-twenties. All they’ve shared is spilled coffee and a kiss. And Charity sets her on edge, effortlessly confident and flirtatious. She should rub her in all the wrong ways.
“Are you free tonight?” Vanessa finds herself asking.
“Depends on who’s asking,” Charity answers flippantly.
“There’s an Italian in Hotten I’ve been meaning to try out.”
Charity shifts in her seat. “Bit public, babe.”
Vanessa rolls her eyes. “It’s Hotten. No-one’s going to recognise you there. Wear a hat, if you’re that bothered.”
“You know just how to woo a girl, don’t you?”
“Is that a no?”
“Calm your horses.” Charity finally meets her eyes. “See you at seven?”
Vanessa clutches the carrier bag to her chest. “Seven it is.”
“Why does it have to be tonight? ”
Vanessa grumbles as she attempts to fix her messy attempt at smoky eyeshadow. Tracy’s sitting on the edge of her bed, watching her in the mirror and pouting.
“Paddy and Rhona have been arguing a lot recently, you know that. She just needs a break,” Vanessa lies. “Johnny’ll be in bed. It’s fine.”
“What if he wakes up? He won’t go down without you.”
Vanessa drops her eyeshadow brush onto her vanity. “Tracy, you’re his aunt. You’re more than capable of putting him to bed.”
“Alright, moody,” Tracy says with a frown. Vanessa starts working on her bronzer, feeling Tracy’s gaze running over her. “You’re pretty dressed up for Rhona.”
She’d spent at least twenty minutes agonising over what to wear. After all, it’s a date - at least, she thinks it’s a date - with a supermodel. If there ever was a time to dress to impress, it’s tonight. She’d settled on a black dress in the end, something that accentuates her curves, with a neckline that dips just low enough for a hint of her cleavage.
“I haven’t been out in months. I’m allowed to put a little effort in,” she says, surprised at how easily the lies spill out of her. She growls when she puts too much blusher on. “Ugh, this bloody - ”
“Here. Let me do it.”
Tracy spins her chair to face her, plucking the blush from Vanessa’s hands. Vanessa closes her eyes, letting her sister fix her makeup, trying to breathe deeply to calm herself. Not only is she going on a date with a supermodel - a beautiful, female one - but she can’t tell anyone about it. It’s an unspoken agreement. And not being able to turn to anyone for advice, neither Rhona nor Tracy, is driving her crazy. It’s not as needs their guidance necessarily. She’d deeply appreciate it, though.
“There,” Tracy says quietly, some time later.
Vanessa glances at her own reflection, finding the makeup crisis has been averted. She lets out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding.
“Thanks, Tracy,” she says, pulling her heels on before she stands. “How do I look?”
“Tell you what, if Rhona was a bloke, you’d knock her right off her feet.”
Vanessa swallows past the guilt. “Thank you. I think.”
Before she goes, she tucks Johnny into bed. He plays with the ends of her hair as she pulls the cover up around him, the spots on his skin a little less severe now. She brushes a kiss to his forehead and watches his eyelids droop, even as he tries to fight sleep. She sits by his hip, humming a lullaby until he drifts off to sleep, losing track of time so much she almost forgets where she’s going until her cab pulls up outside.
When she arrives at the restaurant, she instantly regrets not taking Charity’s phone number. She briefly considers calling the pub and getting it from Chas, but then she’s not quite sure whether that breaks the unspoken agreement of not telling anyone. Chas and Charity are related - sisters, maybe? - so it’d stand to reason that Charity would tell her about the date. Considering her own experience with hiding it from her own sister however, she thinks it might be another roadblock. She heads inside instead, letting the waiter guide her to an empty table and ordering herself a large glass of white wine.
Vanessa plays with the napkin as she waits, steadfastly willing her heartbeat to slow down, while trying not to pay too much attention to the time. She’d arrived at seven on the dot. Charity’s most likely never had to be on time for anything in her life. She’s beautiful, rich and famous. Why would she?
When it hits almost half past seven however, Vanessa begins to reconsider, feeling a bit of an idiot as the waiter fetches her another glass of wine. Maybe it’d all been an elaborate joke. The Dingles are like that - cruel. She’s heard one too many stories about them from Moira. Of course Charity would be just like the rest of them. Playing games.
As she starts to pull on her coat, Charity appears in front of her with a lopsided grin and a ridiculously oversized pair of sunglasses on.
“Going somewhere?” She asks.
Vanessa hesitates. “Well, apparently people can’t tell the time.”
Charity plops herself down in the seat opposite Vanessa, pulling her sunglasses off. Vanessa wonders if she has any idea how effortlessly beautiful she is.
“Apparently, people in Hotten can recognise me. Had to get a cab the opposite direction for a bit to draw attention away from here.”
Vanessa finds herself settling back down in her seat.
“It’s really that bad?”
“It’s worse in London. Can’t go anywhere without being stopped.”
“You live there?”
“Yeah.” One of Charity’s shoulders lift. “Has nothing on the Dales, though.”
The waiter reappears, taking Charity’s drink order. Charity runs her fingers through her curls after. Vanessa watches them tumble around her shoulders.
“So,” Charity says, resting her elbows on the table, “how long have you lived in Emmerdale?”
Vanessa finds herself letting out a laugh.
“Seriously? You’re going to ask about my life?”
Charity tilts her head to the side, assessing. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well. Just - because,” Vanessa splutters. “You’re you. Why would you want to know anything about me?”
The waiter passes them, handing Charity her glass of wine. She takes a sip and raises an eyebrow.
“It’d be a pretty rubbish date if I didn’t ask you anything.”
The waiter hovers this time, ready to take their orders. Charity doesn’t look through the menu before she orders. Vanessa fumbles with her menu, scanning it as quickly as possible, picking out the first thing she thinks sounds good. He takes their menus and leaves them on their own.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Charity reminds her.
Vanessa collects herself. “A couple years. I started as a locum but ended up buying into the surgery.”
Charity wrinkles her nose. “Oh, don’t tell me you’re a vet .”
“What’s wrong with vets? You pout at a camera for a living.”
“It’s not the fact you’re a vet, babe. It’s that it means you work with Paddy Kirk.”
“You know him?”
Charity huffs a laugh into her wine. “Practically raised Aaron, didn’t he? I met him once. Never met a man more prone to bumbling in my life.”
Vanessa watches Charity carefully. Under the ambient light of the restaurant, she seems even more distant than before.
“How come I’ve never seen you around before?”
Charity sets her wine down. “It’s been a second since I visited.”
“Full of questions, aren’t you?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Fine. They don’t really want a lot to do with me, do they,” Charity confesses. “The Dingles. They say I left them behind.”
“And did you?”
Charity’s eyes harden. “Wasn’t a lot to leave, at the time.”
They lapse into silence. Vanessa wonders if she should apologise, if that’s what Charity wants, if she’s used to getting what she wants. She’s not sorry for wanting to know more about this woman, though.
When the waiter appears with their starters, it’s easier. Charity asks her about Johnny’s chickenpox, and Vanessa finds herself rambling happily about her son. Charity listens intently as she does, and she finds herself wondering about the stretch marks on Charity’s stomach. She doesn’t think she’s read anything about Charity having kids. Considering she didn’t know she was a Dingle however, she’s willing to bet there’s a lot of things she’s unaware of about the mysterious, unknowable woman sitting opposite her.
As they tuck into their mains, Charity reaches over to brush the hair out of Vanessa’s eyes.
Vanessa stops. Charity leans back as though nothing had happened.
“You look beautiful, by the way,” Charity says. “I think London’s missing a model.”
Vanessa swallows past the lump in her throat and raises an eyebrow. “How many people have you used that line on?”
“A few. Didn’t mean it til now, though.”
Vanessa looks anywhere but Charity. She focuses on her pasta.
“So, why’re you here?”
“You asked me here, babe.”
“Not here. I mean Emmerdale. If your family don’t want much to do with you, why visit?”
Charity takes a bite of her salad, considering.
“When I was a kid, I sort of made my way around the family. Passed from one to the next. Emmerdale always felt like a home,” she confesses. Then, as though she’s said too much, she laughs. “Sad, isn’t it?”
Vanessa shakes her head. “Not at all.”
Charity shrugs, poking at her salad with her fork. Vanessa wishes she’d eat more of her food instead of playing with it. She’s hardly rail-thin, Charity, but she looks like she could do with a bit more meat on her bones.
“Does your kid live in Emmerdale?”
Charity’s eyes snap up. “You what?”
“Or do they live in London with you?”
Charity pushes away from the table. “How do you know about her?”
“I’m sorry,” Vanessa finds herself setting her fork back down. “I didn’t realise it was a secret - ”
“ No-one outside of my family knows we’re related,” Charity snaps.
Vanessa holds her palms up.
“I saw the stretch marks on your stomach. I just assumed,” Vanessa tells her. Charity stops. “I didn’t know it was a bad subject.”
Charity still looks as though she’s ready to dart away.
“Please stay,” Vanessa says, hating how needy she sounds. She reaches across the table for Charity’s hand. “Charity…”
Vanessa jerks away as though Charity had burned her, twisting to find her father and Megan approaching them. Her dad ducks down to kiss her cheek and Megan offers her a smile over his shoulder.
“What are you doing here? You should’ve said, we’d’ve joined you.” He asks, smiling broadly.
She can’t find words. Luckily, she doesn’t have to. Charity speaks for her.
“That’s my fault,” Charity says. “Had to make sure Vanessa here can keep her gob shut.”
Vanessa watches her Dad and Megan’s eyes widen as they take in the sight of Charity grinning at them. She offers them both a hand to shake, so oddly forced and bright compared to the woman she’s spent the past hour with. It’s almost embarrassing, watching her be someone else as her Dad struggles to pick his jaw up from the floor.
“Blimey,” her dad says, “I had no idea you knew each other.”
“Neither did I,” Megan adds.
“I like a bit of privacy, me.”
“You can’t tell Tracy,” Vanessa blurts out.
Her dad frowns. “Oh, come now. Tracy wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“A couple drinks in, she would,” Vanessa says in a panic, palms sweating. “Please, dad. Don’t say anything.”
“Alright, I won’t. My lips are sealed.”
He’s still gawping at Charity, though. Megan’s glancing between the two of them, assessing, her eyes lingering too long on Vanessa’s dress.
“Well, we’ll let you get on with it, shall we?” Frank says.
Vanessa almost deflates with relief. “Thanks, Dad.”
He gives Charity an odd half-bow, Megan nods to them both, and they leave. Vanessa watches Charity, waiting to see if she’s still planning on leaving too, but Charity picks up her fork and resumes pushing her salad around the plate nonchalantly. Vanessa hides her smile with her glass of wine.
After dinner, they take a cab back to the village. Charity helps Vanessa out of the cab as she complains about her heels, but takes up her offer of a walk regardless. They’d taken a bottle of wine - or, rather, Charity had - from the restaurant. They share it now, as they walk almost as far as Butler’s, settling on a wall and staring out over the rolling hills and the lights of the cities beyond them.
Vanessa shivers against the cold. Charity slings an arm around her waist, pulling her close, and the itchy feeling starts up on her neck as her thigh presses against Charity’s.
“How come you’ve not told your dad you’re gay?” Charity asks, as though they could be talking about the weather.
Vanessa takes a heavy swig from the bottle, heart pounding.
“I didn’t know. Not for a long time,” she adds at Charity’s disbelieving look. “Then I didn’t want it to be true, so I tried to ignore it.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yeah,” Charity murmurs, and this time, she’s softer. “You are.”
When they kiss this time, Vanessa’s prepared for it. It’s gentle, and leaves her aching for more. She finds herself turning in Charity’s arms, pulling her closer, letting their tongues meet. Her whole body feels as though it’s been set alight. She aches for more, desperate to stop denying herself any longer, certainly not with a woman like Charity Dingle.
Vanessa pulls away to catch her breath and finds herself laughing at how smudged Charity’s lipstick is. The model simply grins, drawing patterns with her fingers on Vanessa’s back.
“Do you want to come back to mine?” Charity asks.
Vanessa bites her lip. “Your cousin will see.”
“She’ll be busy working.”
“You’re not staying much longer.”
“No, I’m not,” Charity says with a nod. She reaches up to tuck Vanessa’s hair behind her ear. “Do you want to come back anyway?”
As they approach the back door to The Woolpack, Vanessa feels herself starting to sweat. Charity walks languidly, the half-finished wine bottle dangling from one hand, her other twined with Vanessa’s. She wonders if she can feel her trembling.
They draw to a stop sooner than expected. Vanessa frowns, pulled out of her own thoughts.
She follows Charity’s line of sight. Debbie Dingle is standing by the back door, staring at Charity with hard eyes.
“Seriously?” Debbie asks, glancing between them. “You stood me up to go on the pull?”
Charity’s eyes slam closed. “I forgot.”
Charity lets go of her hand. Vanessa tries not to be hurt by it, but somewhere deep down it stings.
Tears rise in Debbie’s eyes, and she wipes them away quickly, face scrunched up with anger. She starts to walk away, but Charity blocks her path, reaching out for her. Debbie pushes her away, catching sight of the wine bottle.
“And you’re drinking?”
“Debs, it’s not like that - ”
“You just got out of rehab, so please, do tell me how it isn’t like that ,” Debbie spits.
“Please - ”
“No, mother,” Debbie says, twisting out of Charity’s grip and ignoring Vanessa’s gasp. “I gave you a chance. I’ve given you a million chances. No more, okay? I’m done.”
Tears spill down Charity’s cheeks as Debbie storms away. She throws the wine glass to the floor, the shards and liquid spilling out over her booted feet, before swiping at her own cheeks. She looks as though she’s forgotten Vanessa’s stood less than a foot away from her, watching them both. Vanessa has no idea whether to stay or to go. She approaches her slowly.
Charity’s head snaps up. “Don’t,” she breathes. “Just… don’t.”
She pushes past Vanessa, making her stumble slightly, and disappears through the door to the pub. It slams closed behind her, leaving Vanessa standing shivering in the cold night air.
The next day, Vanessa wakes to a pounding headache. Tracy fetches her water and ibuprofen, looking after Johnny until she’s ready to drag herself out of bed and face the world. If there’s any trace of tears showing on her face, Tracy doesn’t mention them, and leaves around the lunchtime for taskforce meetings.
Rhona breezes into the house around two, closing the door too loudly behind her and making Vanessa wince.
“You look like hell,” she comments.
"Thanks. I feel like death warmed up.”
“I’m not surprised, considering we went out for dinner and drinks last night,” Rhona says, settling herself on the sofa. “Why does Tracy think that, by the way?”
"Ask your husband,” Vanessa grumbles.
“Nothing.” Vanessa presses the heel of her hand to her head. She groans. “Sorry. Ignore me.”
“Now, a normal woman would assume you’re having an affair with my husband, but I think we both know who you’re interested in out of me and Paddy.”
Vanessa feels a blush blossoming on her cheeks. She doesn’t know what to do with the feeling, and lets it turn into embarrassment, ripping herself up from the sofa and stomping into the kitchen.
“Is there a reason why you’re here?” She asks abruptly, staring into the sink.
Rhona’s quiet for too long. “Sorry, Ness, it was just a joke - ”
“Well it’s not, is it? It’s my life!” Vanessa blurts out, waving her arms. She turns to Rhona, who’s watching her carefully. “Maybe it’s not you, but women.”
Rhona tilts her head. “That you like?”
She crosses her arms over her chest.
“What’s prompted this?” Rhona asks. “Did you… go to that gay bar in Hotten?”
“No,” Vanessa sighs. She thinks about Charity pushing her away. The secret life she has here in Emmerdale. “I went on a date. With a woman. It didn’t go anywhere.”
“Did you want it to?”
Vanessa gives in, drifting back over to Rhona and flopping down on the sofa. “I don’t know, Rhona. It sort of felt like a dream.”
Rhona’s smiling slightly. “A good one?”
Vanessa snorts. “I guess.”
“Well, what makes you think it didn’t work out?”
“It just didn’t. ”
“That’s what second dates are for, right?”
“The fact I even got a first date is crazy, believe me. She’ll never want a second one.”
Rhona wraps a reassuring arm around her and squeezes. It’s a foreign feeling to her now, the love and attraction she had for Rhona. It feels like someone else’s memory when looks back on it. She appreciates the touch nonetheless.
“How do you know if you don’t try?” Rhona asks.
Vanessa decides to wait until after work the next day. Charity will need time to cool off. After all, she’s a private person, and so much of her personal life had been spilled out in front of Vanessa. She’ll give her time to adjust, she decides, so that she doesn’t jump to any rash decisions. So that she doesn’t reject her, though Vanessa’s unsure how much Charity had been interested in her in the first place, and how much of it had been a sexual desire. She decides to wait.
That is, until Pearl shows her a photograph of her and Charity in the newspaper.
It’s a grainy image and taken at a bad angle, probably from a passerby on their phone. Only half of Vanessa’s head is visible in it, but the rest is unmistakably Charity, beautiful and effervescent.
Pearl rambles about having someone so famous so close to the village, but Vanessa doesn’t pay attention, not until they’re both staring at the photo. When Pearl says her date doesn’t look like a man, if you ask me.
With a strained smile and the excuse of fetching coffee, Vanessa darts out of work and heads straight over the pub. It’s midday, there’s only a handful of patrons inside, and Chas standing at the bar. She’s distracted though, something faraway in her eyes as she wipes at the same spot of the bar with a dirty cloth. She doesn’t see Vanessa until she’s stood right in front of her.
“Sorry,” she offers. “What can I get you?"
Vanessa bites down on her lip. “Is she here?”
Chas sighs. “I’m sorry. She’s not.”
Vanessa slips onto one of the stools. “That’s fine. I’ll wait for her.”
Chas begins to pour her a pint, shaking her head.
“You’ll be waiting an awful long time,” she comments. She places the pint in front of Vanessa and rejects her money, squeezing her hand instead. “She’s left, Vanessa.”
She has no word for the feeling that settles in her sternum.
“When is she back?”
Chas gives her a sympathetic smile.
“Years, probably. If she decides to come back at all. I’m sorry, love.”
Vanessa frowns, staring at her drink. “Don’t be. No skin off my nose, right?”
Chas doesn’t seem to believe her - not that she blames her. Her voice is too shaky and the tears are too hot in her eyes.
She’s late home that night, drinking one too many, and when she gets home she can’t help but lean against the front door, remembering the whirlwind of a woman who’d kissed her there. When she closes her eyes, it almost feels like she's right there with her, still as beautiful and unattainable as ever.
How very cruel, for her life to turned upside down by someone who’d never planned to stay.
“The rest of us, we’re… we’re not like you. We’re everyday people. You know?”
“Yeah,” Charity replies, monotone. “I get it.”
Thank you all so much for your response to the first chapter! I've had to extend this to a three-parter since there's so much to fit in. This chapter is where the AU becomes a bit wibbly wobbly and mixes with the canon of Emmerdale - though, bonus points if you spot the dialogue I stole straight from the film.
Vanessa rests her head back against the sofa cushions. Her girlfriend dips down to meet her with a kiss, her fingers skittering along the length of her jaw. Somewhere else in the room, Vanessa hears Tracy sigh with jealousy, and she smiles as her girlfriend pulls away from the kiss. It’s good, to have something that other people wish they could have.
A small voice at the back of her mind reminds her maybe it shouldn’t be the primary reason for their relationship.
“You’re home early,” Vanessa comments, watching her girlfriend head into the kitchen and make herself a brew. “Was the interview quicker than you thought?”
Her girlfriend snorts. “That’s putting it lightly. Oh, you’ll never guess what I heard today.”
Tracy looks up from her magazine, eyes sparkling at the idea of gossip. Vanessa rolls her eyes at the pair of them.
“I’ve told you I don’t know half the names of the celebrities you talk about.”
“ I do,” Tracy whines.
Her girlfriend’s shoulders shake with laughter as she stirs too many sugars into her tea. She pours the milk in after, dropping the spoon in the sink before she turns to them with mischief twisting her lips up into a smile. Vanessa shakes her head affectionately as Tracy turns towards her, eagerly anticipating.
“Even you’ll know this one, Ness,” she says, dramatically taking a sip of her tea, “though she’s a bit of a has-been if you ask me.”
Tracy’s practically crawling over the back of her chair with impatience. “Stop teasing!”
She leans in conspiratorially, dropping her voice to a whisper. “Nude pictures of Charity Burnett have leaked.”
Tracy squeals as Vanessa feels her blood run cold.
“Steph, how do you even find out about these things?” Tracy asks with wonder.
“It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
“You work in lighting, you’re not actually the interviewer,” Vanessa snaps. Steph frowns, her eyes fading to a dull brown. Tracy glances between them and Vanessa glares at her sister. “And you, after everything that happened with Phil, how can you find this funny?”
“Well, that’s different, isn’t it? She’s probably leaked them herself. Hasn’t been earning much money since her rehab stint, apparently,” Tracy comments.
“You honestly believe everything you read?”
Tracy frowns. “Where’s this coming from, V?”
“I just think it’s unfair to gossip about her like she isn’t a real person.”
Steph’s eyes have narrowed on her. Vanessa carefully doesn’t look at her, setting her jaw as she sits silently, fuming. Most of the stories her girlfriend comes home from work with she dismisses as rumours. For some others, she’s never even heard the name of the so-called celebrities that she’s talking about. She’d be lying if she hadn’t been keeping an ear out since they started dating for the mention of Charity’s name, but she’d never expect the people around her to speak about her so vindictively.
Not that they know her at all. Neither do you, that small voice at the back of her mind reminds her.
“Well,” Steph drawls, and Vanessa can hear the warning tone in her voice. They’re going to be arguing later. “I do have more gossip, but I think we’d better go to the pub for that, Tracy.”
Tracy doesn’t say anything. A moment later, she hears them grabbing their coats from the hooks. A hand squeezes her shoulder in passing - her sister, definitely - and then the door slams closed behind them. She’s alone.
Vanessa drags a weary hand down her face. It’s not their fault, she tries to remind herself. To this day, the only people who have any inkling about her brief relationship with Charity Dingle are Debbie and Chas. The barmaid had watched her with sympathy the first few months after Charity had left. Debbie had been as cold as ice whenever she’d seen her out and about. Vanessa had always made sure to avert her eyes and walk on quickly lest she face the wrath of a Dingle.
It’s been almost six months now. Thinking about Charity Dingle feels like a dream to her. Sometimes she’s sure she’s remembering things lovelier than what they really were. She tries to tell herself that Charity’s eyes weren’t as green as she remembers. That her fingers weren’t so long, that they weren’t warm when their hands linked. That she didn’t watch her with interest - that, Vanessa’s decided, had been a figment of her imagination.
There are things she owes Charity, though. An acceptance she’s found within herself, for herself, that she doesn’t think she’d have been able to face without that experience. She wants to thank her, though getting in contact with her proves more difficult than contacting the bloody Prime Minister. Besides, Charity probably doesn’t even remember her. Who knows how many normal women - and men, she’s read about Charity’s brief engagements online - she’s seduced into her bed and left the second reality set in?
There’s a knock on her door, sharp on strong. Vanessa sighs, spotting her sister’s keys on the coffee table. She grabs them and opens the door, a lecture on the tip of her tongue -
Vanessa stops completely.
Charity looks frailer than before. She has her own arms wrapped around herself as she stands shivering in the winter air. Her hair is pulled up in a loose greasy ponytail, the majority of her face hidden behind sunglasses. She doesn’t even smile. Vanessa’s yearned for that smile for so long that it feels like a betrayal for Charity to greet her like this.
When Vanessa says nothing, Charity wets her chapped lips.
“Can I come in?”
Vanessa stands aside and Charity steps in. Her mind feels like it’s floating away from her body. It doesn’t feel like her as she closes the door behind her, leading Charity through to the front room.
Charity’s fingers drag along the length of the sofa cushions. “It’s still the same.”
“Not all of us are millionaires.”
She watches her lips downturn. “It wasn’t an insult.”
Vanessa hovers between Charity and the front door, unsure of what to do. She’d planned this moment. Whenever she had a second to herself, she’d envisioned it. She’d had a speech prepared. She was going to be confident and direct. Now, she can’t think for the life of her what it is she’d wanted to say.
Charity pulls off the sunglasses, revealing eyes rimmed with red. Vanessa sighs, guiding her to sit down on the sofa.
“You need a brew.”
“I don’t need a sodding brew,” Charity snaps. Vanessa begins making her one anyway. “I s’pose you’ve heard, then?”
With her back to Charity, she pauses after she flicks the kettle on.
“I was told there were… pictures.”
Charity’s laugh is twisted and malicious.
“That’s not even the half of it, babe.”
Her heart does a somersault in her chest. She closes her eyes against the feeling, willing it away. Charity’s in crisis. Now is not the time to feel a thrill over a pet name. Now is not the time to think about how much it irritates her when Steph calls her the same thing. She focuses on making her tea instead. She does so in silence. She doesn’t speak until she sits beside Charity on the sofa, passing her the warm mug.
Despite her snap earlier, she takes it eagerly, humming as she takes the first sip.
“What do you mean, that’s not the half of it?” Vanessa asks quietly.
Charity takes another steadying gulp of tea before setting the mug down. Her hands shake as she does, eyes snapping over to Vanessa, who pretends not to see. Charity leans back against the sofa and covers her eyes with her hand.
“They know… everything. My whole life.”
“Charity, I don’t know - ”
“I used to work the streets, alright. You happy now?” Charity thunders. She removes her hand from her eyes to glare at Vanessa, eyes flashing with anger. “Me dad kicked me out after Debbie. Had to work just for scraps to survive. It’s how I ended up so bloody tiny. That’s where my agent scouted me.”
She spits the word as though it’s dirty.
“But… you must’ve been so young after you had Debbie - ”
“I was. No more than fourteen when I was scouted. And those pictures… you have to do some things to make it, right? I was used to selling my body already. What difference would some bloody pictures make?” Charity sighs, tears twinkling in her eyes now. “I was so stupid .”
“No,” Vanessa returns fiercely. “You were a child.”
“Not anymore now, am I? They can’t print the pictures, but they can talk about it all they want. Selling myself on the street, to my agent, to photographers. They can spread rumours about - ”
Charity stops. The tears are rolling freely down her cheeks now. Vanessa reaches over and covers the back of her hand with her own. She bites down on her lip when Charity flips her hand so that their palms meet, fingers linking.
“About Debbie?” Vanessa murmurs.
“They don’t know about her. But they know about - ”
She stops again, wincing. Vanessa squeezes her hand.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to talk about it.”
Charity watches her with something akin to wonder for a millisecond. Then her jaw sets.
“No, but people I don’t even know can. It’s all over Twitter. I thought that was just for kids, who wouldn’t even know who I am. That’s why I’ve come here. It’s a frenzy in London and I - I needed to explain to Debs. I needed to make her understand. But they all protect her like she’s still a bloody child. Even that rotten dad of hers.”
Vanessa stares at their hands. “Is Cain - I mean, do you still - ”
Charity rips her hand free, coming to a stand, She shakes with anger.
“Why don’t you go sodding read about it, if you’re so interested.”
“I won’t,” Vanessa assures her quietly. “Not if you don’t want me to.”
That seems to sap all of the energy from Charity. Her shoulders drop with another cry, silent and trembling, the tears leaving her cheeks blotched. Vanessa has no idea what to do. Whether to touch her, or leave her. It seems like Charity has always had both. Men who used her body for their own pleasure. A family that cast her aside because of jealousy.
Her heart aches for Charity. Her arms do too. She pictures herself standing, drawing the woman into a hug, but she stays exactly where she is.
She doesn’t know Charity. She can pretend she does. She can think of their brief kisses and one-time date and she can defend her from her girlfriend and sister, but the truth is the woman standing crying in her living room is a stranger to her.
“What can I do to help?” She asks. “Do you want something to eat? A bath? A punching bag?”
Charity laughs wetly. “A bath would be great, ta.”
Vanessa runs the water so hot it could blister her skin. She overdoes it with the bubbles, just the way she likes it after she’s had a hard day at work. Charity stands in the doorway, watching her, making that itchy feeling at the back of her neck prick back up again. She ignores it, disappearing when the bath is full, leaving Charity to undress. She reappears with a pair of pyjamas to lend Charity, intending to leave them by the door, but she calls her inside, and it’s impossible to resist such an invitation. She grips the clothes tightly as she steps into the room, trying to tame her reaction to the sight of Charity’s body hidden only by a layer of bubbles.
“I just wanted to say thanks,” Charity says roughly. She’s watching the ground as she says it. Vanessa wonders how much she’s had to fight to be treated well. How long the people in her life have expected something in return for kindness. “You didn’t have to take me in.”
“Don’t be daft.”
Vanessa sets the pyjamas down. As she does, she hears the door downstairs open, and panic blossoms through her quickly.
“I forgot,” Vanessa says. “I’m so sorry - ”
“How do you remember that?”
“We’re not all empty up here,” Charity remarks, tapping her temple. “It’s okay. If you trust her, I do too.”
She hears her sister calling her downstairs. Vanessa yells that she’ll be down shortly, turning to Charity with that panic still spreading through her.
“It might not just be her. She went out earlier with my - I mean, she doesn’t live here so she might not - but they went out together - “
Charity smiles, beautiful and bemused, the same way Vanessa has yearned for six months. Her mouth tastes like cotton after, the words jumbling in her mouth and struggling to find their way out. Charity’s eyes are soft as she watches her.
“I get it, babe. You have a girlfriend.”
“I won’t tell her,” Vanessa says quickly.
The softness in Charity’s eyes morphs into curiosity. She sits up a little straighter, the bubbles and water sloshing with her movement, until Vanessa can see the swells of her breasts. Heat winds it way up her neck, across her cheeks.
Charity raises an eyebrow. “Very articulate, Miss Woodfield.”
“Oh, shut up.”
She leaves Charity, closing the door, that gentle laugh following behind her.
Downstairs, Vanessa finds Tracy pouring them both a glass of wine. She hovers near her sister awkwardly, trying to find the right words.
Tracy looks up, smiling with relief when she spots Vanessa. She holds out the glass of wine between them like a peace offering. Vanessa takes it.
“I’m sorry, V,” Tracy says. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Vanessa shakes her head. “Forget it.”
“No. Really. You’ve been so supportive during all this stuff with Phil, then watch me judge another woman for the same sort of thing. The last thing I wanna do is disappoint you, big sis.”
Vanessa reaches out to grip Tracy’s hand fiercely. There’s tears in her sister’s eyes.
“Tracy, you could never disappoint me. I promise.”
Tracy gives her a watery smile in return.
“I thought we could get takeaway? Have a sisters’ night.”
Vanessa bites her lower lip.
“She went home. You sure do pick the stubborn ones, V.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
Tracy spins, rooting through the junk drawer. She holds up three takeaway menus.
“What’re you in the mood for? I’m hungry for Chinese, but it’s your choice.”
“Actually,” Vanessa takes a deep breath, “I’d have to check with our guest.”
“Upstairs. She’s having a bath right now.”
Tracy’s smile wavers.
“If you’re… V, if you’re trying to tell me you’re having an affair, I - ”
“No! No, nothing like that. Well - no, not really.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“Charity Dingle - I mean, Burnett. She’s upstairs. Right now.”
Tracy drops the menus to the floor and her wine glass almost goes with it. Vanessa dives forward to save it, her own glass wobbling in her hand. Tracy just blinks at her as she sets the glass back on the table. Then her gaze flickers between the ceiling and Vanessa, her jaw lowering further and further each time.
“You’re having me on.”
“Trust me, I wouldn’t joke about this.”
“But she’s - in our bath?”
Images of Charity, soapy and relaxing, invade her mind. She blows her cheeks out with air as she nods, the collar of her blouse too tight suddenly. Tracy continues looking back and forth, as though she’s watching a tennis match.
“What’s she doing in there?” Tracy eventually splutters.
Vanessa takes a large gulp of her wine.
“I know her. Her real surname’s Dingle. I met her last time she was visiting her family here. Six months ago.”
“But you never said! Why wouldn’t you tell me something this exciting?”
“It’s not my secret to tell, Tracy,” Vanessa explains. Her sister’s expression softens. “She… when the news about her broke out today, she came back here. I guess we’re a good place to hide away.”
Tracy eyes her curiously.
“So… how well do you know her?”
“Not like that,” Vanessa lies.
Tracy purses her lips. “I don’t believe you.”
Vanessa heads upstairs when she hears the bathroom door open and the sound of the water escaping down the drain. Charity stands in the doorway like she’s waiting for her, Vanessa’s pyjamas on, the hair around her collarbones wet. She smells like her, and it’s not a thought that should knock her for six - of course Charity smells like her, she just used her bath and is wearing her clothes - yet her heartbeat flutters in her neck as she breathes it in.
They decide on Chinese. Charity is almost shy with it. Vanessa finds herself wondering whether Charity has ever had this before. People to simply share a meal with. To watch some bad television and tell even worse jokes to each other as they do so. She leads Charity downstairs with a hand in hers, a warning glance to Tracy when her sister’s jaw threatens to drop back down to the floor again.
After they eat, Tracy makes excuses to go to bed early. She mouths she’s beautiful over the top of Charity’s head as she heads up the stairs. Vanessa pretends not to notice. Charity’s smiling wryly to herself and she considers the fact that she might actually have eyes in the back of her head. God knows she’s probably had to learn to look out for any threat.
An hour later, the credits of the truly terrible movie they were watching begins to roll. Charity’s eyes start to droop, her knees drawn up on the sofa, her cheek cushioned against it. Vanessa shifts closer, dropping a hand to Charity’s knee, intending to ask her if she wants to go to bed. But then the woman makes a pleasant little hum at the touch and her throat goes dry. Especially when she looks at her, sleepy-eyed and a little bit vulnerable. The words leave her there.
Vanessa leads Charity up to her bedroom without another word. She receives a kiss on the cheek in gratitude.
Though Vanessa sleeps on the sofa, her cheek burns for the rest of the night.
She wakes with a post-it note stuck to her forehead. Vanessa groans, pulling it off to read, the edges of her vision still hazy with sleep.
Gone to pick Johnny up from Rhona’s. We’ll keep out of your way for a bit. T x
Vanessa rolls off of the sofa soon after, tucking the blanket away. With a glance to the clock she finds it’s almost nine. She doesn’t think Charity will be surfacing any time soon, so she resolves to get a little bit of housework done. Light stuff, like cleaning out the fridge and dusting around the frames. Something to keep her mind occupied and to stop her from thinking of kisses that happened six months ago. So that she stops feeling like she’s still sat on that wall with Charity, looking out over the Dales, the world stretching endlessly ahead of them before their lips meet.
She’s so absorbed in her work that she doesn’t hear Charity emerge. She’s kneeling on the floor, trying to reach under one of the cabinets for a long lost dummy of Johnny’s, butt sticking up in the air.
“Well, what a sight to wake up to.”
Vanessa startles, bumping her head on the cabinet.
“Aw, flamin' heck,” she lets out, gripping the back of her head. Charity’s laughing as she rounds the sofa. “You scared the life out of me. What are you skulking around for?”
“I thought you might still be asleep. Clearly you’re trying to knock yourself out.”
“Your fault,” she grumbles.
“Want me to kiss it better?”
Vanessa glares as Charity flutters her eyelashes.
“You’re not funny.”
Vanessa huffs a breath, resting her hands on her knees. The dummy stays long forgotten, gathering dust beneath the cabinet.
“Well, now you’re up, what can I get you? Some breakfast? Coffee?”
“I do know how to cook. Well,” Charity pauses, scrunching her nose. “I can manage toast.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t fancy you burning my house down anytime soon. So how about we leave the cooking to me, yeah?”
Charity tilts her head. “How long can I stay?”
Vanessa swallows down the sloppy, cliched forever.
“However long you want.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Vanessa makes the two of them breakfast - porridge with a handful of fruit for her, toast and a black coffee for Charity. The model sits at the table, watching her, making small talk as she does. She asks about long-time residents of Emmerdale Vanessa hadn’t even had the chance to meet. About her own family, about Debbie. There’s too many questions and Vanessa has too few answers, but Charity doesn’t seem to begrudge her for it.
Charity asks about her work, about Johnny, as they eat. Vanessa tries to approach the subject of her son with tact. It’s strange - she’s not used to having to restrain the love in her voice when she speaks about her son. But she thinks about Charity’s face when they’d bumped into Debbie. Thinks about the dark swirling in her eyes. The tears that had followed after. She cannot imagine what it must be like for her, to be rejected by her own child. She can’t imagine, doesn’t want to imagine, losing Johnny in that way.
After, Charity stretches out on the sofa, avoiding the news as she flicks through the TV channels. Vanessa washes up while humming a tune to herself, though she couldn’t put a finger on what the song’s called. She grows quiet when she hears Charity humming along.
“My publicist wants me to do an interview,” Charity tells her sometime around lunchtime. They’re both lounging on the sofa, sharing a bowl of ice cream. “Give them my side of the story and all that crap.”
“It’s not crap.”
Charity rolls her eyes. “Come on. People will tune in just to hear the juicy details. They don’t actually care what I have to say.”
“But wouldn’t it help with a conviction?”
“Well, you were underage in those photos. It’s a criminal offence to share those, right? And to force you to - well, you know.”
Charity steals the spoon from Vanessa, scooping up a huge wad of ice cream. It leaves traces on her lips after. Vanessa has to stop herself from staring.
“I could name names, but let’s be real here, nothing’s gonna come of it. I mean, this was years ago. Women today can’t even get justice, let alone an ex-prostitute turned alcoholic.”
“Don’t talk about yourself like that.”
“That’s how they will. In interviews. That’s what I’ll be remembered as.”
“Not to me.”
Charity stares at her for too long. Vanessa steals the spoon back, eating the last of the ice cream.
“I’ll remember you as the woman who left me with concussion,” Vanessa jokes uneasily. It’s worth it when Charity smiles.
Vanessa begins to forget the world outside. By the time the nighttime pulls itself up to the sky, all that exists is this little bubble she and Charity have created. It feels like home, she thinks. It feels easy , when Charity steals the wooden spoon from her as she’s cooking, using it like a microphone. When she takes Vanessa’s hands and encourages her to dance, just for the hell of it. When she rests her feet in her lap, the colours from the television lighting up the shadows on her face.
“I don’t think I could talk about it,” Charity confesses quietly, as Vanessa’s locking the house up ready for bed. She’d turned the lamp off, thinking Charity had gone upstairs. “Vanessa.”
She gropes to find her hand in the dark. They come into contact clumsily.
“Debbie’s not my only kid. She’s just the only one that made it to birth.”
She squeezes her hand. “Oh, Charity.”
“There was… the guy that first scouted me. Even when I said no… “
Charity drops her hand and then arms are around her, warm and a little bit desperate. Vanessa lets herself be pulled into Charity’s embrace, closing her eyes when she rests her forehead against her shoulder.
“I was just a kid. But they wanted me to make millions. Couldn’t be pregnant and stay skinny, could I?”
Vanessa feels her hands shaking as she rests them against the small of Charity’s back. “What happened?”
“I was grateful, when they gave me the pills. There was such a hole in me already, from when my dad sent Debbie away from me. How the hell was I gonna love a kid when I’d already had one taken off me?”
Vanessa’s throat burns with tears.
Charity confesses the rest into her hair. “I couldn’t have been that far along. But there was so much blood. I was happy until I saw that. Until I realised another kid had been taken away.”
“I’m so sorry, Charity.”
Charity’s mouth finds hers. She’s soft and warm and a little wet with tears. It’s achingly chaste, the kiss, but she can feel the restraint. She can feel her body humming for more, waiting for Vanessa to give the word. Vanessa cups Charity’s cheeks, brushing the tears away with her thumbs, trying to seek out her eyes in the pitch black.
“I have a girlfriend.”
She feels Charity nod, her shoulders deflating with acceptance.
“The rest of us, we’re… we’re not like you. We’re everyday people. You know?”
“Yeah,” Charity replies, monotone. “I get it.”
Vanessa doesn’t think she does. Then again, how could she? She’d had a child ripped from her arms by her father, a man who was supposed to raise her and love her and protect her no matter what. Then to fall into the arms of more abusive men under the guise of escape, with rough hands and forced ideologies. Charity has no idea what it means to be a person, respected and complete.
They don’t speak again before bed. Her body feels cold without Charity’s wrapped around it. Incomplete. It’s a long time before she falls to sleep.
Charity’s awake before her the next day, a full face of makeup on, though she’s still borrowing Vanessa’s clothes which are remarkably less fashionable than her own. Vanessa pushes away sleep and sits watching her as she fills in a crossword, muttering to herself when she thinks of the answers. It’s ridiculous, really, how fierce the feelings she’s developed for Charity are. She’s a whirlwind that will only flitter in and out of her life, never ready to stay, yet Vanessa’s ready to forgive her for the hurt, if it means she gets to watch her like this. If it means they get these Sunday mornings together, the world outside quiet and peaceful, their bubble of domesticity impenetrable and calm.
Charity shakes her head and flips the pencil around, erasing a previous answer. She mumbles to herself before filling the words in again. Vanessa props herself up on her elbow, watching the way the sunlight falls through the kitchen window, illuminating Charity in a yellow silhouette. It really is unfair, how dull she makes other people look in comparison to her. How much she makes Vanessa ache with the need to catch her light in her hands.
“Seven across,” Charity says in greeting. “Unspoiled and perfect.”
Charity, she thinks.
“Idyllic,” she answers.
Charity smiles, jotting it down. Vanessa realises she’s been ruined forever.
It’s Steph who texts her, in the end. We need to talk.
Charity’s supportive when Vanessa tells her where she needs to go. It’s an act she can see through instantly. The smile is too strained, the light in her eyes dull. There are words she wants to say that she knows she can’t give her, so she ducks out of the door with a wave and a promise to be back soon. It’s something Charity’s probably heard all too often.
She drives up to Steph’s place in Hotten, letting herself in the already unlocked door. Steph’s standing by the window, an arm crossed over her waist, a cigarette in her free hand. It’s a horrible habit, one she only goes to when she’s stressed. Vanessa hates to think that she was the cause. She can already see there’s no fight in her girlfriend’s eyes. That Steph’s going to make this easy for her.
She wants her to be mad. She wants her to throw things and call her names and give her a place to put all of this guilt.
Instead, Steph’s voice is calm and level. “I’m going to need my key back.”
Her eyes sting with tears as she fumbles for the key on the ring. They’d only swapped them two weeks ago, the first serious step in their relationship. She’d been happy, she really had. She was finally out, living the life she’d denied herself for so long, with a woman who adored her.
Maybe she’s selfish, for not letting that be enough.
“How did you know?” Vanessa asks, setting the key in Steph’s outstretched palm.
Steph turns her gaze to the window, taking a drag of the cigarette.
“I didn’t. Then I came by yours yesterday to apologise. Almost didn’t recognise her without all that slap.”
Vanessa sighs. “I swear, we never - not while you and I were together - “
“I know. You don’t strike me as the type,” Steph murmurs. Her brown hair catches the breeze tumbling through the window, shifting it across her shoulders. “Who am I to try and compete with a supermodel, right?”
“It’s not like that,” Vanessa protests quietly. “I knew her before you.”
Steph flicks the cigarette butt out the window.
“I hope she’s worth it. I really could’ve loved you, Vanessa Woodfield.”
They decide to go for a walk.
Charity’s almost climbing the walls when she gets back from visiting Steph. The next day, Charity donning one of Vanessa’s beanies to tame all of her endless hair, and those ridiculous sunglasses on her face, they head outside.
The change in Charity’s demeanour is instantaneous. She finds herself reaching for her hand to reassure her. They keep them linked, neither making a move to pull away.
They walk for hours, through the village and surrounding farms. The higher the get, the windier it is, but Charity doesn’t seem to mind. Vanessa’s content to listen to her stories of her childhood. Despite her Dad and his hateful words, it sounds like her life with her cousins had been good. When she had escaped, as she called it, and visited Cain and Chas. Her voice is soft when she describes the swingset in Chas’s garden, when they would swing so high it felt like their feet were touching the sky. It makes her eyes sting, to think of the young girl who had no idea what was ahead of her.
They even go to see a movie, after Charity confesses she hasn’t set foot in a cinema in over two decades. The film is cliched and ridiculous and it’s the middle of the day, so they’re the only two in the screening. Yet the bubble of Charity’s laughter as she pelts popcorn at the screen from the back row is worth it. The poor teenager hired to clean the place might not think so. But Vanessa sits beside her with a warmth blooming in her chest, witnessing Charity forget the ghosts that haunt her, if only for a little while.
And then they go to David's. She should’ve known better, really. It’s only been four days. Of course Charity’s name is still being plastered over the front of every newspaper and magazine in the country. Of course people will still be gossiping.
It’s the same group of teenagers as before. She and Charity are bickering over which chocolate bar to buy - Vanessa wants plain, Charity wants caramel - and the teenagers are hovering by the magazines they’d both carefully avoided looking at. One of them picks up one with an unflattering photo of Charity on the front.
“I’d pay for her,” he says.
“She’d probably do it for free, mate.”
Vanessa feels Charity freeze beside her.
“Do you reckon all models are prozzies?” One of them asks.
The others heckle him.
“Nah, only the ones gagging for it.”
“I’d give her something to gag on.”
Charity drops the chocolate, turning towards the teenagers. Vanessa grabs her elbow before she can do anything she regrets. The teenagers are already moving on as David watches them carefully, waiting for them to shoplift again, but the tension doesn’t slip from Charity. Vanessa tries to murmur something soothing, but it’s as though she’s gone deaf. She spins on her heel, storming out of the shop and leaving a blazing trail behind her.
Vanessa leaves their basket behind and chases after Charity. She disappears from her view. She goes home, checking to see whether she’d managed to break in somehow, but the place is completely empty. She considers The Woolpack, but since all of her family had refused to see her, she thinks it’s the last place she’d go to hide. Vanessa’s left walking through the village, hoping that she’ll simply appear, apologising for worrying her.
The last person she expects to bump into is Debbie Dingle.
She’s standing, watching Jack play in the park. Her eyes are cold as she watches Vanessa approach. They widen when she realises Vanessa isn’t changing her path, but heading straight towards her.
“What do you want?” She demands before Vanessa has a chance to speak.
“Your mum. Have you seen her?”
Debbie frowns. “The last time I saw her was with you. Months ago. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“She’s been staying at mine since the news broke - “
There’s a tiny hint of hurt in Debbie’s voice. Vanessa hesitates.
“She tried to come see you.” Vanessa sees the disbelief in Debbie’s eyes. “The rest of the Dingles are very protective of you.”
“Yeah, well. Someone has to be.”
“Debbie, I won’t pretend to understand what life has been like for you or for your mum. But can’t you just… there were kids at David’s, they said something that set her off. Now I can’t find her. Can’t you help?”
Debbie’s gaze wanders to Jack. He’s giggling as he goes down the slide, his breath visible in the air in front of him.
“No,” Debbie murmurs. “I can’t keep putting myself through that.”
“Debbie - “
“You shouldn’t either,” she warns Vanessa. “She’ll stay until she’s used you up, and then she’ll move on to somewhere else. She always does.”
The thought rings true in her mind. She’s not stupid. She knows she’s not enough for Charity. For God’s sake, the woman’s a supermodel. She’s just a vet. No-one writes about her in newspapers, not even when she performs emergency resuscitation on a kitten. Charity would never be able to cope with the boring kind of life she leads.
“Just - let me know if you see her, okay?”
“Okay,” Debbie concedes. “Good luck.”
She walks away with a heavy weight compressing her chest. With every step it just feels heavier.
She considers ringing the police when it hits midnight, but figures it’s the last thing Charity needs - to have not only the paparazzi but the police hunting her down, too. She can do nothing but pace the living room, wired and full of energy, jumping at every small sound she thinks is a knock on the door. Every time it isn’t, she struggles to breathe, thinking about the last time she’d disappeared. Six months. Last time, it’d taken six months before she saw her again. She doesn’t think she can handle losing Charity without a goodbye again.
When there’s a knock at her door, Vanessa’s sure she dreamt it. It’s almost four in the morning and her eyes are bloodshot with exhaustion.
Charity’s like a mirage, when she opens the door. Beautiful and shimmering and… no. She’s actually swaying.
“Hey babe,” Charity greets her cheerfully, pushing past.
Vanessa slams the door and follows her inside.
Charity snorts. “So?"
“Charity - ”
“You have any wine?”
Charity’s already rooting through her cupboards, coming up with a bottle of prosecco Steph had bought on their four month anniversary. The sight makes her snap, reaching for the bottle and snatching it out of Charity’s hands. The mirth on her lips twists into something nasty, almost frightening.
“You are not drinking anymore. Jesus, Charity, hasn’t rehab taught you anything?”
Charity lunges for the bottle. Vanessa takes steps back, holding it out of reach.
“I said no.”
“Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?”
“The woman who’s housing you, so please do as I say.”
Something unhinges in Charity. She watches it pass across her face. The eyes turn dark and dangerous. Her edges become sharper. Hands turning into fists. Jaw set in defiance.
“It’s like that, is it?”
Charity begins unbuttoning her coat. Vanessa watches, flabbergasted.
“You’re all the same, aren’t you? All kind until you get what you want, yeah?”
Her coat slips to the floor and she goes for the buttons on her blouse next. Vanessa reaches out, tears burning in her eyes.
“Charity, stop .”
“Come on, then. Get on with it.”
“I don’t - ”
“I know you sacked your girlfriend off,” Charity spits, and each word feels like a physical blow. Her blouse drops to the floor. “Well, now you can feel less guilty about having a go, can’t you?”
“That’s a horrible thing to say.”
The tears cling to her eyelashes. Her throat is too swollen from crying to swallow. She dumps the prosecco on the sofa. She crosses the room in long strides. Charity’s eyes flicker with disappointment.
She closes her arms around Charity tightly, burying her face in her neck.
The woman flinches at the contact.
Then, slowly, her arms close around Vanessa, and she cries too.
Later, when Vanessa is helping Charity get into bed, still too drunk to do anything more than stumble around the room, Charity catches her by the cuff of her dressing gown. She pulls her close, too close.
“It’s not the booze that’s the problem, you know,” she murmurs. “It’s the stuff that leads me to it.”
Vanessa leaves her with water and aspirin on the bedside table, and a kiss to her forehead.
She doesn’t see Charity the next morning. Instead, she gets up early, dresses quietly, and creeps out the door.
It’s been too long since she’s seen her son. Tracy greets her on their Dad’s doorstep with a wide smile, asking questions she doesn’t have the answer to. Her dad seems suspicious about Vanessa’s absence from Johnny’s life, especially since she hasn’t told anyone but Tracy and Debbie who’s currently become her new housemate, but she doesn’t care. All she wants to do is hold her son, who looks up at her like she hung the stars in the sky.
She spends lunch with her family, reminded of what a normal life is like. Her dad and Megan bicker good-naturedly over the last slice of cake. They end up giving it to Johnny, who ends up with chocolate smothered around his mouth. Tracy helps her clean him up after, but Johnny’s attention remains solely on Vanessa, pressing kisses to her cheek whenever she’s within his reach. Her heart aches for him, and it’s for this reason she decides to stop putting her own life on hold.
She returns in the afternoon with Tracy and Johnny in tow. Charity’s not downstairs, probably still up in bed feeling sorry for herself. Vanessa’s content to sit on the floor playing with Johnny, building blocks and reading books that are far too condescending towards their audience. Tracy sits at the table painting her nails, watching them with a grin. This is what life is without Charity, Vanessa reminds herself, and her son is enough. When Charity inevitably leaves again, she knows she will survive it.
The footsteps wake her.
Vanessa’s hyperaware, waking with a sharp inhale of breath. Her heart pounds with trepidation as the footsteps get louder. She hears the moment Charity reaches the creaky second-to-last step.
She could pretend to be asleep. She knows she could.
Vanessa rolls to face her. In the low light, she can make out the form of Charity standing at the bottom of the stairs.
“Come to bed,” she requests gently.
“You don’t owe me, Charity.”
“I know,” she answers. She holds her hand out. “Please. Come to bed.”
The stairs creak louder on their way back up. Vanessa forgets how to breathe as Charity leads her into her own bedroom. The door shuts behind them with a soft snick.
Charity waits, watching her.
Vanessa reaches out, thumbing the collar of the sleep shirt she’s wearing. The first few buttons are undone, making it easy to push aside, to expose the skin of Charity’s shoulder, the jut of her collarbone. Her lips are drawn there first. She dusts kisses along the length of Charity’s collarbone, leading from her shoulder to her sternum, then drags her lips up, along the column of her neck. She feels Charity’s throat bob beneath her touch.
“Ness,” Charity whispers.
Their lips meet next. It’s exquisite. Her insides feel like they’re burning up, but it’s delicious, and when Charity’s hands reach for the knot of her dressing gown, she doesn’t stop her.
The morning light shines white through the windows, catching in the halo of Charity’s hair. Vanessa watches her, propped up on the other end of the bed, smiling softly at the woman who’s managed to change her life.
“Rita Hayworth used to say… they go to bed with Gilda, they wake up with me.”
Vanessa blinks the sleep out of her eyes.
“Her most famous part,” Charity replies. “Men went to bed with the dream. They didn’t like it when they would wake up with the reality.”
“I’m not a man,” Vanessa replies easily.
Charity’s smile is slow and predatory, her eyes tracking along the outline of Vanessa’s figure beneath the covers.
“Oh, I know babe.”
She pushes the sheets aside and covers Vanessa’s body with her own.
Vanessa tries not to laugh as Charity re-enters the room, trying to balance breakfast on a tray. She settles on the edge of the bed, by Vanessa’s hip, the plates clanging together. There’s a sorry attempt at scrambled eggs on one plate - more liquid than solid - and what looks like something that once resembled bacon on another. Vanessa reaches for the toast, the safe option, and pushes up on her elbow to reward Charity with a kiss.
“You forgot the jam,” she tells her.
The butter on Charity’s toast melts down her arm. She licks a sure path up her own wrist, eyes locked with Vanessa’s, making her heart flutter in her chest.
“I don’t need it.”
Vanessa rolls her eyes and nudges her aside, pulling on underwear and a t-shirt. She feels Charity pinch her bottom and quirks an eyebrow as she glances back at her over her shoulder. She could get used to the sight of Charity sitting in her bed, wearing her clothes, grinning up at her.
When she’s downstairs, rooting through the fridge for jam and her carton of orange juice Charity had also mysteriously forgotten to bring up, the doorbell goes. Vanessa frowns, jam in hand, glancing around the room. Her eyes settle on a familiar pair of keys and she rolls her eyes. Even now, Tracy’s still the same. She switches the jam for the keys and trots on over to the door, opening it.
The light blinds her. She’s frozen, senses on overdrive as they take in the cameras, the sheer amount of men standing outside her front door. They’re shouting something, words she’s forgotten how to comprehend, and she’s been standing there for far too long before she remembers to push the door closed.
“Who was it?”
Charity appears, soft with afterglow. Vanity opens her mouth to speak, but the words get lost on their way out, and Charity opens the door herself.
Her reaction is far quicker than Vanessa’s. The anger comes easily. She sees it travel taut through her body as she slams the door closed, swearing loudly. Vanessa’s ears are still ringing when Charity moves away, stomping up the stairs. She stands uselessly in her front room, still hearing the men yelling outside.
Charity’s back downstairs in less than a minute, wearing the clothes she’d arrived in, her phone held on her shoulder as she speaks to whoever her agent is. Vanessa can only gawp at her.
Charity yells in frustration once she’s off the phone, grabbing the minimal things she’d brought with her that had littered throughout the house.
“What… what are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Don’t go. Charity - ”
“I hope your sister thinks it was worth it.”
Vanessa sucks in a breath. “Excuse me?”
“Well, the paparazzi didn’t decide to come to the dales all by themselves, did they? Hm, that one’s called Tug Ghyll, what an interesting name, she must be there.”
“You’re being paranoid.”
“And you’re naive.”
Charity shoves the last of her things into her bag. “She owes you dinner.”
“How dare you?” Vanessa rounds on her. “My sister would never - “
“Were you both in on it? Thought you’d get a little bit of fame out of hooking up with that model, the one who’s gagging for it, and earn a bit of money while you’re there?”
Vanessa has no idea what to say to that. Charity’s eyes are sharp with malice. She doesn’t recognise this woman. She wonders if this is the one Debbie knows. The one the Dingles know. Who hurts and leaves. Hurts and leaves.
“It’ll be old news by tomorrow.”
“Old news? ” Charity cackles. “This’ll be written about for the rest of my life, babe. Any time I do anything for the rest of my sodding career, this’ll be mentioned. It’ll go on forever. I’ll regret this forever.”
Vanessa’s eyes prick with tears. Charity runs out of steam once the words leave her mouth.
“Right,” Vanessa murmurs. Charity has the grace to look ashamed. “Well… I won’t, if that’s okay with you.”
The doorbell goes again. Charity hesitates, but Vanessa is sharp in the wake of rejection.
“See yourself out, yeah?”
Charity disappears out of the door. Lead by security through the sea of yelling men and their constant cameras. She doesn’t look back before she’s swallowed by the waves.
Moira lets out a breath. "Well, in my experience with the Dingles and love, I don't think there is a right thing to do."
"That's because Cain has the same emotional output as a rock."
"Maybe," Moira admits with a laugh. "But the same could be said for Charity."
Charity leaves, and the world doesn't end.
There are one too many glances sent her way whenever she's out in the village, though. Too many strangers and gossips who've seen pictures of her in next to nothing and know what'd happened. Too many rumours going around that she cheated on her girlfriend. That she paid for Charity's services. Those are the rumours that grate her the most - she even kicked a client out of the surgery one day because he'd recognised her, and asked how much Charity charged. Anger clusters brittle and bright in her chest, ready to pounce whenever anyone says anything, but the world keeps turning.
Paddy's red in the face when he sees her, after the news breaks. After the news rolls headlines about her and Charity. After they make their real, genuine connection out to be something sordid. A subtle hint of homophobia laced through every article that's printed. Rhona rounds the village and buys all the copies she can, lecturing Paddy that he should've told her that he knew what was going on, and together they burn the evidence. There's still tons they can't erase, though. Tracy tries to hide it from her, but she knows it's all over social media. That there're words they're using to describe Charity. Her. It doesn't go away overnight, like she'd thought.
Steph eventually owns up to selling Charity out. Not her, exactly, but a friend she'd confided in after they'd broken up. Vanessa's angry at first, for what has been taken away for her all in the name of money, but she learns to let it go. She has no right to tell her ex how to cope. She only wishes it hadn't meant she'd lost, too.
One evening, weeks later, when the paparazzi have stopped hiding in bushes near her home when they find all she's doing is continuing living her life with her son, she sits on the sofa to share a glass of wine with Rhona.
Rhona pulls her legs up under her. "I just wish you'd have told me, Ness."
"Would you have believed me?"
"Well, it might've been a bit to get my head wrapped around. But you know I'm here for you, no matter what. Don't you?"
Vanessa sighs. Rhona reaches out to link their fingers together.
"I know. I do, Rhona. It's just... it's not an ordinary situation. There's no handy guide."
Rhona gives her a small smile.
"I just hate to see you hurting."
"I'm not," Vanessa says, and it's not entirely a lie. "I knew it would always end. Not like this, maybe. But... well, how could it ever have gone anywhere?"
Rhona doesn't answer that one. They spend the rest of the evening watching sappy romcoms that make Rhona cry. After, she walks her home to make sure she gets back safe, and instead of going straight home, she heads up the road, the night air nipping against her skin. Until she can see the dales spanning ahead of her. She wonders if it'd made Charity feel big too, sitting up here with her. The rest of the world reduced to tiny lights. Hers reduced to the taste of Charity's kiss.
The interview breaks exactly three weeks and five days after Charity had left.
It's sensationalised. Advertised everywhere she looks. Everywhere she goes, a picture of Charity stares up at her. Charity Burnett tells all! Airs 9pm. She even catches Pearl marking the date and time in her calendar.
Tracy sits with her when it airs. The interviewer's eyes are sparkling with delight, probably knowing this is going to be a marking point in her career. Charity looks small and malnourished under the lights, the makeup around her eyes too smudged, her bronzer exposing too-sharp cheekbones. Vanessa grips Tracy's hand for strength.
It begins without accusations. The interviewer lets Charity lead, describing how she'd been thrown out, had no other choice but to work the streets. That she had only been a child. That she had no-one else to turn to. That the men were heavy with their fists and selfish with their pleasure and cheap with her reward. That her scout had preyed on all the young girls working the streets, promised them all better lives. Plied her with alcohol and money in return for her body long before she'd outgrown them and learned the power of her own fists, the control of her own fame.
"And what about the abortion, Charity?" The interviewer asks after a glance to her notes. "Was that your idea, or theirs?"
Vanessa clutches Tracy's hand tighter, watching Charity struggle for words.
"That's none of your business, is it?" She snipes.
The interviewer pushes her glasses further up her nose.
"But the claims are true?"
"I was fourteen," Charity defends.
"But you did willingly go along with the abortion?"
Charity refuses to answer. The interview continues, but now there's an accusatory tone striking through each of the questions. Charity keeps her back straight and her expressions calm, but Vanessa knows better. She can see the way each word is like a physical blow for Charity; laying her life out for the world to gossip about, knowing they'll blame her for it. She claims to be drink-free now. She denies having any other mystery children and Vanessa can see the way the lie twists around the inside of her mouth before it falls out. She thinks about Debbie, watching this with her own children, her own mother rejecting her to keep her safe from prying eyes. She's crying before she can stop it.
"And this woman you were with - Vanessa Woodfield, is it?"
She blinks the tears away furiously. There's no change to Charity's expression at her name, no bat of her eyelids.
"What about her?"
"Well, you've heard the rumours, I'm sure. I wondered if you wanted to clear the air."
"She's no-one," Charity says tonelessly. "An old headache. Offered to hide me away."
"Not someone important, then?"
Charity crosses her arms over her chest.
Vanessa switches the telly off. There's nothing left to say that she hasn't already heard. Tracy's riled, ready to throw insults about Charity around, but the truth is she's just tired of it all now. There's only so many times she can keep seeing Charity's face on magazine covers and hear her mentioned between songs on the radio. Not when she's simply losing, in this situation. Not when there's nothing left to win.
She nips into The Woolpack for lunch one afternoon to find Chas stone-faced behind the bar. She claims food will be on the house, that she can order later, but there's someone waiting for her through the back. Someone who wants to talk to her.
Vanessa waits in front of the closed door with a pounding heart. It feels like forever ago, when Charity had teased her right where she stands now. It's someone else's life, someone else's memories.
When she pushes through the door, it isn't Charity waiting for her.
She must read the disappointment on her face.
"Sorry. I never was as pretty as her."
Vanessa gives her a look. Debbie moves away from staring in the mirror and heads into the kitchen, flicking the kettle on.
She slips her coat and bag off. Apparently, she's here to stay.
"I went to see mum," Debbie tells her quietly.
The kettle finishes boiling and she watches her pour the water into each mug.
"How'd it go?"
Debbie smirks as she pours the milk.
"My whole family warned me against her, you know. Apparently they've been hiding me from her for a long time."
Vanessa accepts the mug Debbie offers her carefully. She can see the resemblance, between mother and daughter. Maybe not so much in their looks, but definitely in their expressions, the way they hold themselves. Debbie may not have been raised by Charity, but she's her mother's daughter all over.
"Did she tell you my Granddad gave me away?"
"She mentioned it."
"She didn't even know who he gave me to, apparently."
"It can't have been easy," Vanessa sympathises. "For either of you."
Debbie looks away, taking a seat at the set of table and chairs by the kitchen. Vanessa follows her lead. She's never felt so out of place.
"I was seventeen when I first met her. Chas had found a way to contact her. I'd already had Sarah," Debbie explains. "I think that's what freaked her out the most. To see me end up just like her."
"It's not the same."
Vanessa shifts in her seat.
"She's been... in and out of rehab for most of my life, pushed in by her publicist and agent so they could keep milking money out of her. They'd send me updates on her after news about it had already broken, like I wasn't her daughter. The more the years have gone on, the worse she's been. And I really tried, you know? I tried to understand why she is the way she is. Even introduced her to Sarah, but there was always something, I dunno... missing."
Vanessa sighs. "She didn't tell you."
"No. I had no idea." Debbie taps at her mug, an uneasy rhythm. "I thought she was just another famous junkie. If I'd known about her past, I - I might've tried harder, I guess."
"Did you tell her that?"
"Yeah. She's sorry, actually. For not telling me. And you know what? It's the first time I've ever heard her apologise."
Cautiously, Vanessa reaches out and squeezes Debbie's hand. Debbie smiles back at her.
"I'm glad you got to clear the air."
"Yeah. Me too. I'm taking the kids to see her soon. She wants to start over."
Vanessa takes a sip of her tea. The liquid scalds her lips, but she needs something to do with herself.
"How is she?" Vanessa asks quietly.
She looks away when she catches Debbie watching her.
"She's good." Debbie pauses. The tapping on her mug continues. "You know, I've seen her go through relationship after relationship with men wealthy enough and famous enough that they should've kept her happy. They never did. She'd cheat and con and flaunt it all to the press for the publicity. But with you, she was... I don't know. Quiet."
Vanessa finishes her tea in a few quick gulps.
"I'd better get going," she says, gathering her things. "Pearl's probably complaining that I'm taking too long on my lunch break, as always."
She makes it as far as the door before Debbie calls her name. Vanessa turns tiredly, one hand on the door handle.
"Thank you," Debbie says quietly. She smiles when Vanessa's jaw drops in shock. "You were exactly what mum needed. I just wanted to thank you for that."
"I didn't do anything."
"Yes, you did."
Debbie scoops up the empty mugs from the table. Vanessa's grip slacks on the door handle for a moment.
There are too many questions she has, really. She knows every answer would only hurt. She goes without asking any of them.
Two days later, she's doing the end of day drug count. Pearl's finishing the last of the filing next door. It's been a long day, which has passed slower than most, thanks to Paddy begging off sick and one client asking her about Charity while she tried to assess his cat. She's looking forward to going home to a large glass of wine, a takeaway curry, and a bad western movie.
Vanessa finishes writing the last of the numbers down in the sheet.
"Sorry, Pearl, you can go. I'm happy to lock up."
"Oh, well, it's - actually, there's a patient."
Vanessa shoves the bags back up in the cupboard with a frown, locking it after.
"We're closed, Pearl."
"I know that!" Pearl splutters. Vanessa turns to find she's shifting from foot to foot. "It's a bit of an emergency, actually."
"Well, Rhona's on call-out's, so you'll have to speak to her about it."
"No, it has to be you!"
Vanessa starts wiping down the surfaces, eyeing Pearl carefully. The woman's lied to her about many a manner of things during her time at the surgery. Especially if it means she can favour Paddy. She's used to questioning her motives, especially when the woman refuses to meet her eye like she does now.
"Pearl, I really - "
"I'll just send them through, shall I?"
"No, don't do that - "
But Pearl's already disappeared back through the door. Vanessa glares up at the ceiling and mutters a couple expletives she'd rather the older woman didn't hear her say. She has her back to the door, grabbing her gloves, when she hears the door reopen.
"This had better be an emergency, we're closed," she says, and loses all train of thought when she turns to face the client.
Charity's standing in Pearl's place.
Debbie hadn't been lying before. Charity does look like she's doing good. Her face is a little rounder, hips a little wider. It no longer looks like the clothes are wearing her. Her hair hangs long and straight and Vanessa is overcome with the need to bury her hands in it. To hold on and never let go, despite how bumpy the ride may be.
Vanessa continues to stare.
Charity holds out a small gift-wrapped parcel she's holding in her hands.
"I brought this for you."
She accepts it slowly.
She goes to unwrap it, but Charity takes a step forward. She takes a step back.
"Don't open it now."
Vanessa nods, setting it on the side.
"How've you been?"
"Your sister? Johnny?"
"Good." Charity picks at imaginary lint on her sleeve. "That's good."
Vanessa shoves her hands into her pockets to hide them shaking. It's been over a month since Charity left.
"I heard prosecution has started against those men. That's good."
"Yeah. Against Bails, mainly."
"That was his name?"
"I can't name him publicly. Keep the jury fair and all that," Charity murmurs.
A month ago, she'd step forward, fold Charity into the curl of arms. Anything to keep her safe and shielded from the life outside. She wonders what that says about her, with the women she's loved most - first Rhona, supplying her drug addiction. Then Charity, doing anything to prevent reality touching them. She doesn't know why she can only be happy in relationships where she's a secret. Where she's always second-best.
"I've missed you."
The words are too late. The anger that's been brewing in her chest feels ready to rip its way out. To pull Charity down, let her feel how she feels.
"You could've called."
"Would you have answered?"
"Probably not, no."
The honesty feels refreshing. After telling everyone she's fine, she's okay, that she and Charity were a one-off. To be true to herself and her feelings - it helps dislodge some of the anger, just a little. The feeling of being left behind.
"The thing is," Charity starts, wringing her hands, "I'm here to pick Debs and the kids up. They're coming to stay with me for a couple days. Then we're going on holiday. You know, to get away from things. Start fresh. And I thought... I just wanted to know... I wondered, if I asked you to come too, what you'd say."
The anger rears its head, ugly and horrible. Vanessa closes her eyes, anger melting away to make way for longing. She pictures them on a beach somewhere, away from magazines and social media and men with cameras. Mocktails in hand. Charity would probably wear a skimpy bikini, something that makes her blush, always trying to get a rise out of her. She thinks of the waves rolling in and out with the tide. Johnny dipping his little feet in them, all of them happy.
If there's anything she's learned from this experience however, it's that she should rid herself of such romantic notions. She's never thought herself to be someone with their head in the clouds. But with Charity, she thinks she just might be. That's not fair for either of them. Disillusion won't help them in this situation.
"What happens after? I just come home again?"
"No," Charity counters softly. "No, I come home too."
Vanessa scoffs. "You? Move to Emmerdale?"
"Well, my family's here. I have fences to mend." Charity lifts one shoulder in a half-shrug. "I gave Chas money towards the pub, you know. Half of it's mine."
That she didn't know. Chas has kept her lips firmly shut about Charity, regardless of who's come asking - Vanessa, the press, the rest of the Dingles. Out of all of that ridiculously extended family, she's always found the landlady the most amiable. It makes sense now, she supposes.
Vanessa thinks about the way Charity had sauntered out of the cellar. The way she had seemed too bright and beautiful in the living room of the pub. The fact she'd had to go on her village walks at night, in case she was spotted. The fact that, even now, she's had to lie about her daughter to the public, just to grant her a semblance of privacy. There's no way she'd ever be caught dead working behind that bar, pulling pints for pittance compared to the luxury she's used to. No. It's just another fanciful dream. Something Charity couldn't possibly follow through on. She'd be back in London within a week.
"You told the interviewer that I was nobody."
"So why would you want me to come with you?"
Charity frowns. "I did that so they'd stay off your back, babe."
"You're saying it isn't true?"
"No," Charity replies without hesitation. "Ness. Come on."
The woman takes another step towards her. She takes one back, her back bumping against the table. She sees the way defeat slides across Charity's face, before she even manages to get the words out.
"I can't, Charity."
"I know. I know." She nods. "But I had to ask."
"There's just too much of you. Too many adverts, too many magazines. You'd never be able to live a normal live and you'd leave. I'd be left behind and, I think, I wouldn't be able to cope with that again."
Charity tries to laugh, but it's small and quiet and it breaks her heart. The only other option involves breaking her own beyond repair, and she doesn't think she's strong enough for that.
"God, you really know how to reject a woman, don't you?"
"Don't be. I'm not."
It's like balm. Soothing old wounds. Vanessa lets out a long, slow breath, and tries to let go of the hurt with it.
"The fame thing isn't really real, you know."
Vanessa feels the tears slipping free at Charity's words.
"And don't forget... I'm also just a girl, standing in front of you, asking you to love her."
Tears are glittering in Charity's eyes and she can taste her own, salty and wet against her lips.
Charity steps forward and this time she doesn't back away. She closes her eyes and feels her place a kiss against her cheek, soft and lingering.
"Bye, Ness," she whispers.
When she remembers to reopen her eyes, Charity's already gone.
The next day, she keeps herself busy. Covers Rhona's call-outs even though it's her day off. Doesn't stop off in The Woolpack for lunch, keeps soldiering through work instead. It's only when she gets up to Butler's to check the herd that Moira pulls her inside, reluctantly, to have a brew. She's not looked in the mirror, didn't even bother with makeup, but she gets the feeling she's not looking her best.
"Come on, then," Moira says, setting the mug in front of her. "Tell me why you're going around with a face like a slapped - "
"Charity came to see me."
Moira pauses, mug halfway to her mouth.
Vanessa sighs, reaching down for her bag. She pulls out a copy of The Secret Garden. It's what Charity had given her. She traces the author's name, Frances Hodgson Burnett, before flipping it open. Inside, in scrawled, messy handwriting, it reads Property of Charity Dingle, aged 12. Then, beneath it, in handwriting no neater: Vanessa. Sorry I forgot the jam.
Moira glances between her and the book, frowning.
"She asked me to go with her and Debbie. They're going away, I don't know how long for." Vanessa chews the inside of her cheek. "I said no. That was the right thing to do, wasn't it?"
Moira lets out a breath. "Well, in my experience with the Dingles and love, I don't think there is a right thing to do."
"That's because Cain has the same emotional output as a rock."
"Maybe," Moira admits with a laugh. "But the same could be said for Charity."
"So you don't think I made the right decision?"
Her friend squeezes her hand.
"That's not up to me. If that's what you felt was best, then it was the right decision. Plenty of fish in the sea, eh?"
It's been niggling at her, though. Ever since she pressed that kiss against her cheek. Ever since she said goodbye, something she didn't think Charity would grant her. The ideas she'd had were ridiculous. There'd be nonstop gossip about Charity in the village, about both of them, if she returned. They'd be recognised and harassed and tested every day. Yet, somewhere, deep down, she can't stop herself from thinking about her night with Charity. The way she had touched her, gentle and careful, like she revered her. The soft morning afterwards, with her hair around her like a halo. The way they were able to exist in the same space, happy and content, without a word.
She blinks out of her thoughts. "Mhm?"
Moira points to Charity's inscription.
"Given that her dad chucked her out... wouldn't this be one of the only things she has from her childhood?"
Vanessa buries her face in her hands, groaning.
Her talk with Moira is how she ends up in a car, with Paddy driving, all the way down to London.
Rhona's in the back with Leo and Johnny, keeping them calm and occupied as she and Paddy argue about which exit to take from the motorway, and how much he drives like an old woman. They stop too many times to let the boys go to the toilet and grab coffee to keep Paddy awake. Then there's further argument once they reach London about which airport to go to, which ends up with Vanessa calling Chas out to blind desperation to see if she knows. If she'll help. She does.
Rhona pushes Vanessa's things into her arms and leaves Leo in the car with Paddy, carrying Johnny as Vanessa heads into the airport in a fast jog.
Her bag beats against her thigh as she searches. Chas had said that check-in closes in ten minutes. Vanessa had bought the flights online with the few savings she has, practically ripped the house down searching for Johnny's passport, and now she's hoping on nothing short of a miracle to get her there in time. She has no idea if Charity even wants her still. There's been so much rejection, after all. Maybe she'd want them to leave it, too.
In the end, she follows the sound of cameras. It makes her laugh as she hits the ground in a full-paced run now. She can hear them calling Charity's name, yelling questions about the woman and children she's travelling with. Behind her, Rhona calls for her to wait, but there's no way she can stop now.
She ducks under the barriers for the paparazzi, using her small frame to her advantage to squeeze through them all and elbow her way to the front. Charity's just passing, so close that Vanessa feels her heart beat in her throat.
"Miss Burnett!" She calls out, voice flooded among the sea of voices.
Charity stops. The journalists go wild, flinging their questions at her. She turns and has eyes for no-one but Vanessa.
Her lips curl up into a smile.
"Okay. A couple questions, yeah?" She states. Debbie stands behind her, making a face at the crowd. "How about you - the woman in yellow?"
It takes a moment for her to realise she's referring to her. The rest of the journalists fall quiet, phones and microphones outstretched, ready to catch her question and the answer.
"The woman you were seen with..."
"Miss Woodfield," one of the journalist supplies.
Charity laughs at that one.
"Thank you. Yes. This Miss Woodfield," Vanessa says, in a braver voice than she'd thought herself capable of, "are you sure she's not important?"
Beside her, one journalist is scribbling frantically. She spots the words important and Miss Woodfield.
"I thought she might be. Turns out I'm not important to her."
The men surrounding her explode with questions, but Charity waves them away. Their eyes still locked. Anticipation snakes its way up her neck.
"If this Miss Woodfield, if she realised what an absolute idiot she'd been - " there's a nervous titter of laughter from the crowd for that one - "would you, maybe, take a couple extra guests with you on your trip?"
There's no words for the light that passes through Charity's eyes.
"Yeah. I think I would, babe."
Vanessa stands, grinning like an idiot. She stares right back, grinning as well.
She feels the moment the journalists around her realise who she is. There's a collective gasp, a wave as they all orient themselves to face her. Cameras and microphones shoved in her face, cataloguing exactly how she feels in this moment. She's deaf to their questions. Blind to anyone but the woman standing on the other side of the barrier to her.
She slips under the barrier and meets her halfway, leaving the rest behind. She has to push up on her toes to reach her in a kiss.
It's worth it.
"Oh, stupid sodding thing."
Vanessa heads down the stairs of the cellar, following the sound of her girlfriend's cursing.
She finds Charity in the middle of an argument with a barrel. She stands on the very last step, holding her laughter in, as she repeatedly tries and fails to connect it to the line. In the end, she kicks it, rebounding off of it and clutching at her foot. She catches Vanessa watching her not long after, scowling.
"What do you want?"
"Well, I did want to know what was keeping the granny of the birthday boy from the party. I didn't expect it to be an inanimate object."
"Don't say that," Charity says, wrinkling her nose. "You make me sound old."
"You are old. Good thing I like you."
"Hey, you're no spring chicken yourself, babe."
Vanessa chuckles, dropping down from the last step and moving over to help Charity. She's thrown herself into pub life enthusiastically - when she's not sneaking off of her shifts to pull Vanessa into her bed, that is - yet there's some skills she's yet to master. Together, they change the barrel and connect it to the line. Still, her girlfriend curses the thing out as she does, complaining about whatever idiot genius invited this design and it was never this hard to stare at a camera.
"Give over," Vanessa nudges her. "You like working here. Admit it."
"What, in this cramped place where Rishi lets his dog sit at the bar? I don't think so, babe."
Her hands curl over Vanessa's hips, drawling her closer. "I can think of one customer who gives excellent tips, though."
"Is that so?" She curls her arms around her girlfriend's neck, indulging her with a kiss. "But what does this customer get in return, when you have her helping out all the time?"
Charity flutters her eyelashes. "All my love and devotion?"
"Mhm. Nice try. I was thinking free booze."
"I've got a business to run, babe. Can't be giving my product away."
"Then shouldn't you be upstairs serving?"
"They can wait," Charity murmurs, before dipping down for a kiss.
It feels the same way, every time. Toe-curling and mind numbing. She can't help but push up, pressing her body against Charity's, despite the fact she had a lecture on the tip of her tongue. The heat spreads through her quickly, especially when her girlfriend's hands creep up her thigh, slipping under the hem of her dress. She tries to pull away, tell her that they don't have time, but she's so clever with the way she touches Vanessa. She can reduce her to a mindless puddle. So she lets her girlfriend walk her backwards, until they reach the armchair. Charity pulls her down into her lap, shoving her dress up and over her hips, lips trailing fire down her neck and Vanessa gasps, hands twisting in her hair -
Vanessa rips herself out of Charity's lap, yanking her dress back down to her mid-thigh. Debbie's stood, side-facing them, a hand covering her eyes.
"You should've knocked, babe," Charity says, sounding all too amused by the situation. Vanessa glares at her but she simply crosses her eyes in return.
"We're about the do the cake."
"Give us ten minutes and we'll be back up."
"What? It's not my fault you decided to dress like that."
It's the same dress from their first date. At this point, Charity's seen it on her countless times. Or, rather, peeled it off of her before she could finish getting ready and left it on their bedroom floor.
"We'll be up in a minute, Debbie. I promise."
Debbie, with a disgusted grumble, heads back out of the cellar. Charity stands lazily, tossing her hair out of her mess Vanessa had created. It's still unfair, how easily she can take her breath away, even in a dingy cellar with the stale smell of beer in the air.
"I s'pose we'd better go up. If you can handle to tear yourself away from me," Charity comments, laughing when Vanessa elbows her.
"You're incorrigible," she says, following Charity up the stairs. She can hear the sound of their joined families celebrating through the main pub.
"You love it."
"Against my better judgement."
They stop just before they join the others. There's laughter, she can hear Johnny's intermingled with it, and raucous applause as Jack shows off for the hundredth time his attempt at a cartwheel.
"But worth it, yeah?"
There's always a hint of insecurity in Charity's eyes, something she hadn't expected at first but has learned how to handle. After all, she's the first person who has ever shown Charity kindness. The first person to show her what it means to be respected. Not admired, or worshipped, like girls staring wistfully at her in magazines do. Not with expectation, like the men who used her did. Simply because she's deserving of it.
"I love you."
Charity's presses a swift kiss to her lips.
"I love you too, babe."
Pictures of the two of them together still leak sometimes. Busybodies with nothing better to do will visit the pub just to gawp at Charity serving the punters. There's always a mention, however small, of Charity's past when a Famous Stars: Where Are They Now? article is printed. Since Bails was found guilty though, the scrutiny has dropped. The pictures of them show them happy and carefree. The articles show how much healthier and happier Charity is now, despite her bad beginnings. The family she's surrounded with.
Vanessa reaches down and links their fingers.
Charity's lips bloom into a smile.