“I’ve rung them. The fire brigade,” Caroline reappears holding a cream first aid tin and a damp flannel that she sets down on the coffee table at the same time as she sits on the edge of it, “They’re on their way now, so-” she lifts the lid from the tin, and without looking up asks, “can I…I’ve got some bits,” she gestures with the lid, “to clean you up if that’s-?”
Gillian, red-eyed and breathing through her mouth glances up at her, sits up just that little bit straighter and clears her throat, “thanks…”
Caroline takes a tube of disinfectant with the end perfectly rolled up and unscrews the top, “do you want to take your coat off? What’re you wearing under...?”
“Pyjamas,” Gillian shifts again so that she can unzip her coat, “electrics were out, couldn’t see enough to….or my phone. That’s. Dunno where that is. Otherwise, I would’ve rung,” she lets Caroline help ease her coat from her arms, and watches as she folds it neatly in half and sets it over the arm of the sofa, “I didn’t want to go to me dads...your mums, because I didn’t want to wake them. Thought I might give them a heart attack...sorry,” she glances up at Caroline again, head to one side, trying to read Caroline’s measured expression, eyes averted, full attention given to the squeezing of the tube whilst Gillian’s head kicks up the long practised “ you’ve done the wrong thing….you pillock” song and dance number she is so very, very well-rehearsed in, “sorry,” she adds again for good measure.
Caroline looks back at her, really looks at her, flannel screwed loosely in one hand upturned and resting against her thigh, “don’t be silly,” she says quietly, almost too quietly, and then, “you did the right thing,” and she leans forward again as she speaks, carefully smoothes Gillian’s fringe from her forehead and gently presses the flannel against the already drying graze on her temple, “I’m glad you came,” she adds as Gillian closes her eyes, “glad you felt you could.”
For a moment they just sit, Gillian with her white hands clasped between her knees, face only slightly, hesitantly, upturned toward the light and Caroline, who in turn focuses her attention on the grazed and sore skin over the rise of Gillian’s eyebrow on the left-hand side of her face, and doesn’t focus at all on the tension that pulls Gillian’s mouth just slightly tighter than usual, the occasional twitch of her lips and blink-and-you’d-miss-it frown and the furrow between her eyebrows.
“You’re going grey in your old age,” she says, almost without thinking, and Gillian raises her eyebrows, almost laughs while Caroline again absently smoothes back the hair at her temple to keep it from getting wet, soft brown hair flecked with grey she had never noticed before, or perhaps had always been hidden with a box dye from the local chemist.
“Sign of wisdom,” Gillian says quietly, amused, and she feels Caroline’s fingers still, her fingertips just touching the skin below her hairline, the flannel cooling against her cheek.
Caroline smiles to herself, “About time…” she murmurs, clasps her hands in her lap and smiles again as Gillian exhales an unexpected, “snotty bitch!” opens her eyes just wide enough to convey her jest, and for one tired, bleary middle-of-the-night moment they just sit, looking at one another, time passing between the walls, themselves, stretching in the low lighting so that shapes and shadows distort, grew and bloom in the corners of the room.
“What’re you going to do?” Caroline asks finally, in a voice so far away that it takes Gillian a moment to bring herself back into herself to respond.
“Dunno,” she draws up her shoulders and inhales slowly, “nothing I can do. Not until tomorrow anyway,” she shifts, suddenly and once again she is all too aware of herself, “can I… could I...is it alright if I stop here tonight?”
“Of course. Of course, you can. Stay as long as you need. Til you get things sorted out,” she takes a moment to smile, slowly, as if in soft-focus, her eyes a darker blue in the half-light, then, with an inhale she sits up straighter, folds the flannel into a square and sets it down next to her, “I meant to ask...what about Raff...Ellie?”
Gillian looks momentarily puzzled, “they’re at Ellie’s mum. The lot of them. House sitting for them while they're in….Mallorca….Majorca...somewhere,” She draws in a breath, felt the flicker of a thought plume-like fire in the back of her mind, Calamity’s room was right next to hers, what if she’d been there...sleeping when the roof caved in...what if-
Caroline watches the clench of her jaw move shadows on her cheeks, could all but see the smouldering of her mind, “Gillian…”
Gillian blinks, tugs on the sleeve of her top and speaks down to the palm of her hand, “They’re stuck there now. Her parents,” she looks back up, “until flights open again.”
Caroline nods slowly, “oh yes, I remember you saying.”
The hush falls again between them, and again the fire smoulders in the back of Gillian’s mind, and she closes her eyes against the thought of Calamity in bed, beneath the heaving moving roof, her hair the same colour as the flames.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Caroline’s fingers touch her knee, her thigh, and then she feels the weight of Caroline on the sofa next to her, but she can’t open her eyes, can’t contain the struggling breath that catches in her throat and makes her feel as though she’s suffocating.
She screws her eyes shut against tears and lets out a whimpering sob that makes her recoil into herself.
“Think I’m in shock,” her voice is an aching, strained whisper, and she pushes her fingers against her lips to stop herself from falling apart.
“Well, you would be. It is a….shock,” Caroline’s staring down at Gillian’s knees, the gaping hole in her pyjama trousers that she had only just noticed, showing one pale white knee. “I’m sorry. Come here…” she wraps her arms around Gillian slowly, always aware, when she’s hugging Gillian, of how the other woman will hug her back, almost desperately, but her body always feels taut and stiff, as though anticipating the release with something resembling fear or dread, and Caroline’s never sure which, and never quite sure why.
“Do you want to come upstairs? Get cleaned up?” She asks quietly, Gillian’s hair against her cheek that smells of rain and damp earth and burning thick smoke, “I can find you something to wear.”
She feels Gillian nod, slowly, but “thank you…” is all she can say.
“You don’t need to thank me, I’m here for you.” she squeezes the back of Gillian’s hand, pulls her closer just for a moment, “That’s what I’m here for,” she says, and Gillian, frowns, smiles as if her face can’t quite make up its mind, and she isn’t quite sure what Caroline means but she’s too exhausted to ask.