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Love in the Time of Coronavirus

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Are You Sure You Just Haven't Run out of Men? 

 

It’s mid-morning, mid-March, the lilac is just beginning to bud outside her office window, and somewhere between this Friday and last Friday, the world has caved in on itself. 

School is closing. Coronavirus is spreading. But the mounting list of things marked  URGENT!  that just can’t wait to be done, do nothing but form a vague grey mist around what plays brightly and repetitively at the forefront of her mind: Last Friday night. Hebdon women’s disco. And Gillian. Gillian who tipsily swayed closer and closer to her as the evening progressed. Who laughed at her awful,  awful  jokes, and sat, chin on hand, listening so intently, watching so intensely. Gillian who leaned in to kiss her without even thinking... 

Which is how she found herself leaving school at lunchtime, despite the record number of emails in her inbox, and the phone that won’t stop ringing, and arriving at Gillian’s farm, all coat and scarf, adjusting her bag on her shoulder, keys jangling in her free hand as she slams the car door and negotiates sparse gravel and grit in three-inch heels.

The front door is open to let the sunshine in, despite the cold, and Caroline sidesteps Gillian’s mud-caked Wellington boots as enters, tapping gently on the open door, peering in, only to find her mother sitting by the fire, radiant and warm, firelit and dozy. She looks up and smiles.

“Oh hello, love.” She adjusts herself in her chair and shakes open the newspaper on her lap to rouse herself.

“Where’s Gillian?” Caroline asks, edging between the sofa and Calamity’s lego box to lean down and kiss her mother on the cheek by way of greeting.

“On the floor in the kitchen,” Celia answers from behind  The Daily Mail , peering at Caroline as she straightens herself up.

“On the –” Caroline stops. Pauses. Slowly unwinds her scarf. “What’s she doing on the floor?!”

“Looking for slugs. Apparently. They keep getting in under the sink now the weathers turned.” She sets the paper down on her lap again and looks at Caroline from over the top of her varifocals. “What do you want her for anyway, thought you were in school today?”

Caroline folds the scarf over her arm, draws in a breath and wonders briefly if she could leave without explaining why she was ever here at all.

“I am. I was. I’m going back there in a minute, I just thought I’d pop in to see–”

The stairs creak and Alan appears holding her mother’s travel slippers. 

“Hello, Alan.”

“Alright love?” He smiles warmly, gestures with the slippers and shuffles over to Celia.

“She’s just popped in,” Celia tells Alan with a raise of her eyebrows and a lowering of her tone. “To see  Gillian .”

 “What’re you saying it like that for?!” Caroline watches as Alan bends slowly and places the slippers neatly by the foot of the chair and holds them still whilst she slips her feet in.

“I’m not saying it like anything.” She’s indignant, and even Alan glances up at her with a subtle frown, a shake of his head and a silent  don’t say anymore... but she is her mothers' daughter after all, so she continues nevertheless.

“Yes you are, I could all but  see  the air quotations around her name!”

“She’s in kitchen,” Alan says, attempting a conversational diversion, but Celia, like her daughter, can’t let it go.

“It just strikes me as odd that you can’t take time off for my birthday, but you can  swan  off in the middle of the day to pop round to see Gillian.” She casts a perfectly executed bewildered look towards the window. “Of all people.”

“Oh! Mum, let it go, that was months ago!” She hesitates, a beat in the air before a sentence follows that she casts off as casually as she would her coat if someone could be bothered to take it from her. “Anyway, I had OFSTED in.”

“Yes, well…” Celia purses her lips looks down her nose and gives a little shrug of her shoulders to further her point.

Caroline rolls her eyes, expels a breath and steps back over what looks worryingly like a lego BDSM chamber, towards the kitchen.

“Uh, be careful when you open door, she were on floor.” Alan cuts in again as Caroline edges closer to the door. “Looking for slugs.” He adds, and she smiles.

“So I heard...” She says gently.

She opens the door into the kitchen to find Gillian not looking for slugs at all, but sitting at the table, in profile, a cup of tea in front of her, sunlight coming in, low and pale, catching the steam from her tea and the paleness of her skin.

“You’re supposed to be on the floor.” She says as she closes the door behind her. 

Gillian smiles a smile that doesn’t make it to her eyes but doesn’t turn. She’s sat upright, hair caught up in a ponytail, the sleeves of her red plaid shirt rolled up over tense forearms and the arms of her blue overalls hang limply from either side of her waist.

The kitchen is much colder than the sitting room, though the Aga is lit, and the light that shines through the thin glass panes has lost the yellow warmth it had only moments before.

“Everything...alright?” Caroline asks, her voice higher than she intended it to be.

Gillian inhales, tugs her shoulder with one hand, rolls her neck and finally turns to look at her.

“Just been in here listening to you lot jabbering on about how I’m in here on the floor, looking for slugs.”

“And were you?”  She can’t think of anything else to say...

“I was. Earlier. Now I’m drinking tea…” She casts Caroline a sideways look before continuing, “enjoying a bit of peace and quiet.” She says pointedly.

“Ah.” Caroline shifts the strap of her bag into the crook of her elbow and glances at the clock. “I wanted to talk to you.” She looks back to Gillian whose attention is once again bound by the mug of tea in front of her. “About last Friday?” She adds  as if Gillian couldn’t guess .

Gillian looks at her again, dead and sullen behind the eyes. 

“I wanted to talk about it because it’s been worrying me…upsetting me, and I just...I mean, what I want to say is- I suppose I just wanted… needed ...to know why you did it?” She comes to a faltering stop, and the moment she does she realizes she’s made a mistake in coming here at all, because Gillian visibly bristles, her mouth twists and her eyes widen.

“I didn’t  do  anything!” She gestures with a hand and nearly knocks her mug. 

Something is offset. Caroline can feel it, as she always has, ever since they first met, as if whatever it is that fuels Gillian in these moods is alive, breathing - a beast of its own.

“You kissed me!” She braves it anyway, beast or no beast, she’s here now and she needs an answer that will satisfy the thoughts that have kept her from sleeping for six nights straight.

“I bloody did not!” Gillian’s indignant.

“Well, you tried to...”

“Those are two v- very  different things.” She’s stuttering and jittery, full of that trademark nervous energy and there’s steam in her eyes, in her hair, from the pot on the Aga that she sits too close too, and she’s smoldering and tense. Her leg starts it’s rhythmic anxious jiggle, and it’s in her, this  thing . This beast of rage and sadness. It’s inside her, she can feel it, and it’s too much -almost too much to bear. But she can handle it, just like always does.  She can handle it.

“But, why?” Caroline watches her, sees the flickering beat of her pulse in the side of her neck, and wonders, fleetingly, how warm that hollow between her shoulder and neck would be against her lips.

“Can we not just ignore this like... normal  people? Move on! It was a f-f…. stupid mistake. I was pissed. You were pissed n’all! I was drunk, and I was sad. I was really f...ing….sad.” She lets her arms slide from the table and her hands fall to her sides. She slouches back against the chair, shakes her head, and looks out of the window to a cloudless spring sky.

Caroline notes the grey hairs caught up in Gillian’s ponytail and the sunlight on her face that makes the lines of her face even more stark than usual. “What about?” She asks softly.

Gillian shakes her head, keeps looking at the sky, and for a moment Caroline thinks she won’t answer at all.

“Just. Just stuff. Just, lot going on, with farm, with this f-ing woodworm…Raff, Ellie…” She looks down into her mug.  That wasn’t it at all.  “Think I’ve reached that age.” She speaks more quietly and her mood shifts. The anger dissipates. Now, Gillian is left, smaller than she seemed before and Caroline realizes just how exhausted she looks. She braves moving closer. Adjusts the angle of the chair closest to Gillian, and lowers herself down slowly to avoid the chair legs grating against the flagstone floor.

“What age? What are we talking about? And be careful what you say here because we are the same age.” She leans closer, tries to make eye contact, but Gillian doesn’t smile, and instead looks away from the sky and rubs at the chip in the rim of her mug with the top of her thumb.

“That age where no one wants you anymore. No one’s interested…in me, anymore.” She glances up. “Men. I mean.”

“Are you sure you just haven’t run out of men?” Caroline asks without thinking, and Gillian half-coughs, half-laughs.

“Fuck off!”

“Sorry.” She apologizes, but she’s relieved to see Gillian smiling, albeit briefly.

“It’d worry me more, only I don’t really care. That’s what worries me. I’m stewing out here on’t farm, a lonely old…” She leaves the sentence unfinished and turns the mug a fraction of an inch.

Caroline resists the urge to reach out and move the mug away entirely, as she would a student fidgeting in front of her. Instead, she attempts humor, “are you having a nervous breakdown? Is that what this is? Or the menopause, have you thought about…?”

Gillian raises a threatening eyebrow.

“Listen, Caroline. I wasn’t thinking, when I…. I was really, really f-f-….ing pissed….I’m sorry I behaved like a...twat.”

Caroline nodded. Apology wordlessly accepted. “I’m sorry I mentioned the menopause...”

For a moment there was silence. From the sitting room, there is the murmur of the television and the clucking of hens outside the front door.

“Do you want a cuppa?” Gillian asks suddenly. “There’s more in pot.”

Caroline shakes her head. Wishes she could, and pushes the memory of her email inbox into the farthest recess of her mind.

“No, I’d…I’ve got to get back. To school.” She catches the momentary flicker of something (disappointment?) in Gillian’s expression. “It’s…actually, I will have one.”

Gillian nods slowly, looks down at her hands, then pushes back her chair with no regard to the squeal of wood against stone.

“You’ll have to make it yourself though.” She’s standing up and pulling the rest of her overalls up over her shirt. “I’ve got a hundred and one other bloody things I’ve got to do before I move sheep. There’s a wall down by main road.” She looks up from buttoning herself up, to add, “Some pillock in a range rover ran into it.”

Caroline opens her mouth, closes it again, then, for want of something better to say, says, “Can’t trust those range rover drivers.” as she watches Gillian take her own mug to the sink before reaching up for a clean one out of the cupboard.

“Just leave it by the sink when you’re done.” She says, setting it by the Aga.

And she’s gone. Just like that. Leaving everything and nothing behind her.

“Right.”

Caroline answers to the house.

 “Right…”

Chapter Text

 

“They’re everywhere!” Gillian shouts over the music, twists further in her seat, wobbles, sways, purses her lips and stares at a woman she may or may not know from god-knows-where, “It’s not like you’re short of options!” she shouts again as she turns back around and leans unsteadily across the table.

Caroline curls the end of the semi-circle of water at the base of her glass with the tip of a finger, and smiles - secretly, softly, gently. There were a million things she could say. A million reasons she could give for her disinterest in the window shopping of the bodies, minds and lives of these other women, but instead, bored of her own reasoning, her own excuses, she raises her voice only to say, “I am exceedingly picky” slowly, and watches as Gillian huffs. Sighs. Picks up her drink and musters up enough common sense to shift clumsily, drunkenly, from one dead-end conversation to another, “what’s Ruth’s problem, anyway?” she grins and screws up her nose, wine glass swaying in one hand. 

Caroline gesticulates vaguely. Tired. Tired of Ruth. Tired of the noise. Tired of trying to fill the emptiness that sprawls like creeping ivy through the walls of her home...her heart.

“Her husband’s-” she falters, leans back slightly in her seat, watches Gillian’s face turn from dark fuschia to brilliant midnight blue under the lights, “a bit of a  prick. I don’t know the details. She hasn’t told me, but…” and here she eyes Gillian, head ever so slightly to one side, “I get the impression he’s abusive...physically. Well, emotionally too...I would imagine.”

Gillian pulls a face, “Shit.” she pushes her wine glass half an inch to the left and moves it back again, “men are….bastards. The lot of them. They can just f… fuck off. All of them. What do we need them for anyway? Really?”

Caroline laughs but the sound is swallowed by the backbeat of Panic at the Disco  - High Hopes. High Hopes indeed, she thinks briefly, before raising her voice again, “you’re preaching to an entire room of the converted…”

Gillian hums a noise of vague acknowledgement, raises her glass so that the rim of it just touches her bottom lip, then suddenly sets it back down on the table with a look of amused, drunken triumph.

“Maybe I should try it!” the music lulls briefly so Caroline hears her exclamation perfectly, but still she frowns, shakes her head, looks thoroughly baffled, though that could be the wine...

“Try what?” she asks, though she thinks she knows.

“Lesbian….lezzing…. Lesbian -ing …” the words tumble, awkward and stilted through tipsy laughter.

“Not sure that’s a word,” Caroline lets her sentence drift into her own laughter.

“Are you not?” Gillian laughs whilst she rubs her palm against the edge of the table, happy in the smudgy wine clouded bar with Caroline softly laughing next to her, and she thinks briefly, meanderingly, how there were very, very few people...if anyone, perhaps, who she felt more at peace with, than Caroline. Caroline, who breaks her train of thought by leaning closer, to ask, “Have you really never…?” 

Gillian looks up, smiles, head slow with the beat, the rhythm, and too much wine, “with a woman?” she asks, after a pause.

“Mmm,” Caroline gave her that look - half curious, half already disbelieving the answer, whatever the answer may be.

She took another sip from her glass, let the warmth of it fill her mouth before swallowing and shaking her head, “never.”

“Really?!”

Gillian laughs, “Why is that so surprising? Because I’d shag anything with a pulse?”

“No! No, it’s…” Caroline falters, draws in a breath, “I don’t know, really…” and she doesn’t know, not really, and finds she can’t figure out whether it is less believable that Gillian has or hasn’t, no matter how hard she thinks about it.

“I’ve thought about it. In’t past…” Gillian says, infuriatingly, and (Caroline knows this), deliberately vague. 

“Have you?” she asks, unable to help herself.

“Once or twice,” Gillian shrugs and sucks in her cheeks, amused at Caroline’s sudden peak in interest.

“Tell me more…”

Gillian shakes her head and swills her glass with faux nonchalance but starts talking anyway;

“When you and Kate…” she leans to one side, and for one mad moment Caroline thinks she might topple off the stool entirely.

“When Kate and I what?” she asks, when she’s sure Gillian isn’t going anywhere.

“Just got me thinking, what it would be like,” she draws up her shoulders and looks across at Caroline, feeling, briefly, the difference and distance between them, despite their  current physical closeness. It was something they never spoke about, an affectionate disconnect between the two, and now, Gillian found herself wondering just what it was like to be Caroline, or perhaps...perhaps, the thought entered her head before she had time to catch it, to be with Caroline?

“Me and Kate?” Caroline asked, perhaps for the second time.

“Is it a lot different? With a woman?” She asked, suddenly needing to know.

“Well, I haven’t got much to compare it to, but yes…” she pauses, “very.”

“You can compare it to John. We’ve both got experience there.” She says without thinking.

“Oh...god.” Caroline’s expression wobbles from horror, to disgust to something more.

“Sorry. Sorry...”

“I try not to think about it,” Caroline says quickly. An uneasy heavy feeling beginning to bloom somewhere between her throat and her stomach - like the sour rotting creep of jealousy, and a deep burn of anger that colours her cheeks and sends a splintering feeling seemingly through her very bones. 

She is suddenly angry, suddenly so full of rage that she can barely contain it. Angry with John for sullying Gillian. Angry that he wanted her, and that she wanted him. Angry with Gillian for wanting him when she could have- 

She stops. Looks sharply at Gillian. It’s funny how quickly an evening can shift, lurch from safe to unsafe and Gillian stiffens, past trauma almost bristling and glowing around her like an ironic halo in the gloom.

All at once she can’t think, can’t see, can’t focus on anything but the slowness of her head, the dizziness, the drunkenness, the falling of herself into such a painful recess of her own mind, that she barely notices the drink she knocks and spills over when she stands up and murmurs,“I have to go. To the ladies. To the toilet,” in a voice already far away.

“You ok?” Gillian struggles to react, struggles to stagger from her own stool quickly enough, “Caroline?” 

But Caroline is already a silhouette between others, already pushing between bodies to the green bathroom sign. 

Inside the bathroom it smells of bleach and urine, two women she barely sees stop kissing and pull guiltily apart. But she doesn’t smile, doesn’t care…instead she lurches unsteadily, feels her way along the green tiled wall and locks herself into a stall, stands and finds herself welling up. She tries to breathe. Tries to calm herself down but all she can feel is this sudden overwhelming shock that she cannot name. Gillian. She’s in her mouth, in her throat, in the air. Gillian , she closes her eyes and can’t tell if she’s swaying or standing still, can’t quite tell if this is real or imaginary.

She breathes. Shallowly, then deeply, deeper, hands and forehead against the wall that seems to tremble along with her. 

She breathes deeper, deeper...

Eventually, she calms, finds herself in the shadows of her own mind, and opens her eyes. Keeps breathing slowly. Listens but hears nothing, and opens the door slowly, Gillian is by the sink, and at the sight of her she jumps, suddenly, haltingly, breath drawn in so sharply she almost chokes.

“You ok?” Gillian’s voice sounds far, far away and Caroline feels the warm creep of nausea rise from deep inside to where it aches just below her jaw and makes her swallow.

“Yeah. Yeah...it’s…” she tries, then gives up, squints across at Gillian with her back against the sinks, her reflection in the mirror shining all angles of a tense, nervy, crushed and hopeful Gillian back at her. A Gillian that is flushed bleary, swaying. Or is it her that’s swaying?

“Did I upset you?” Gillian asks, one shoulder hunched like she’s waiting for the blow,  and she can’t meet Caroline’s eyes so she stares at her lips.

“No. I- No...Just. It’s just a bit of a….sore spot. John, and-”

“Thought you were over John?” Gillian cuts in without meaning to and Caroline seems to come suddenly to her senses.

“Oh god, I am. I am, it’s just-” she gushes, catches her breath then leans heavily back against the wall opposite Gillian. Defeated.

“You seemed fine with him and Judith.”

“I am, I am…I mean I was, before she-” she lets out a breath, shakes her head, hopeless...

“Just...me?” Gillian asks after a pause. Normally Caroline would have been able to tell what it was she meant by that, just from looking at her, from reading the look behind her eyes, or the caved in tautness of her body, but right now she can’t quite bring herself to look directly at her. Her face feels hot and her head feels light as air.

“Well, it's just a bit odd, isn't it?” She starts, “I mean we’re stepsisters and you slept with my ex-husband. It’s just a bit…” She flounders…”odd.” 

But Gillian seems too caught up in her own head to notice how Caroline flails, and she frowns in that sleepy way of the too-drunk and says, “Can’t imagine what he sees in me. Someone like me. After being with you. Talk about from the stars to the gutter…” whilst picking at a thread from her cuff and Caroline is momentarily relieved at the slight diversion from her own feelings on the subject to Gillian’s.

“Oh god, that's not it at all. No! If anything it’s the other way around! I mean...I don’t mean...I mean you! I mean really, what did you see in him?”

Gillian glances across at her, still frowning, mouth puckered with thought, “He were there. I suppose. Beyond that, I didn’t really...think.”

“Has it always been like that? For you?” Caroline asked, before she could think better of it.

“Like what?”

“Sex? Does it… has it always been so…” she gestures vaguely with a hand.

“Meaningless?” Gillian offers.

“I was going to say self-destructive.”

Gillian considers this for a moment and frowns even harder, then relaxes her face and shakes her head, “Not always. It’s like I’ve always said. Think there’s just something in me, missing that decent streak. Just how I’m wired I suppose. Why I’m such a disappointment. To me dad I mean. Think me dad just thinks I'm a f-randy sod.” She almost laughs but catches herself and looks back down at the floor, the light on wet tiles making her dizzy.

“Well, you do...it does...come across in that. Way.”

Gillian smiles again, glances up, laughs and looks down at her hands.

“Just got a healthy sex drive. Above average. Apparently. ” She says, somewhat smugly quoting god only knows who she might’ve shagged more than once, but can’t quite recall. “You should try it. Loosen up.” She adds, cocking her head to one side.

Caroline gives a laugh that sounds somewhere between incredulous and self-deprecating, “I don’t think promiscuity is the answer to my problems.”

Gillian raises her eyebrows and grins, “You never know,” She's joking. Trying too hard to get things back on track. 

“I don’t think I’ve got the energy to…”she makes an odd gesture with her fingers that doesn’t seem related to anything, “…let alone the…”

Gillian’s frowning again, “What?”

“I thought sex drives were supposed to decrease with age?” She asks, changing tact.

Gillian grins again, “Mine was above average, to begin with, so…” 

Caroline laughs, and suddenly can’t stop herself, suddenly everything, everything is ridiculous.

“What?!” Gillian’s laughing too despite having no idea what’s so funny.

“Well, you’ve got…” She begins, but can’t finish for laughing.

“Got? What’ve I got?” She’s curious now, and waits, amused, as Caroline manages to stop laughing enough to reply.

“A list of Sexually transmitted diseases as long as your arm the way you go about it I’d imagine.” She feels giddy and high, and she wonders briefly whether her drink has been spiked or if she is finally, finally, going round the bloody bend.

“Oh, thanks! Thanks that’s really lovely that is!” 

“I’m joking. I’m sorry. It’s the wine. Blame it on the wine. What I was going to say is you’ve got…You’ve got...well, the body of a teenage boy, according to John,” she watches Gillian’s face morph from amusement to confusion.

“What?!” She half exclaims, half-laughs.

“In his novel. That book he was writing. The one he and Judith had that falling out over years ago.”

“The one about your mum and my dad?”

“Yes. I was...let me recall…. a flaccid overripe fruit, and you, you had the body of a teenage boy.”

Gillian gives a sudden, unexpected snort of laughter that makes Caroline jump.

“I don’t know what you’re finding so funny,” Caroline begins, catching Gillian’s mirth and finding herself breathless with laughter, laughing until their eyes watered, laughing until it hurt and made the insides of their rib cages wince and sting.

“Overripe fruit!” Gillian wiped the tears from beneath her eyes, “Fuck off. John can just fuck the fuck off!”

“Well, quite” Caroline agrees, catching her breath.

“Twat.” GIllian adds, seemingly unable to help herself.

They sit in silence for a moment with Gillian stroking Caroline's hand.

“Just to clarify,” Gillian pauses, belches, then carries on, “I in no way resemble a teenage boy. In any...department,” She glances down at her chest, frowns, and gives a look of disappointment that Caroline can only imagine she has given herself a thousand times before, and when she looks up she catches the fleeting passing of something (pity? Weariness? Fear?) flicker haltingly behind Caroline’s eyes, and suddenly she knows that look, suddenly it’s twisted, fragmented, burning up inside her, and she sees the look of so many men from the past, who have sidled up to her, pint in hand, beer-breath heavy as they give her that pitying once over before making their move. She knows that look. Something inside her gives, and some age-old genetic defect still going strong sets off a marble-run of reactions that all clatter too loudly to the same conclusion; this is all you’re good for, and she leans, lurchingly, awkwardly, to kiss her, but, just as she reaches her, Caroline moves backwards, pushes her physically, one hot hand flat against Gillian’s chest and shakes her head at the same time as she croaks, “ Gillian… ” in a voice that doesn't sound like her own. 

“Sorry! Sorry, Sorry....” it’s all in a rush as she tries to reach out, tries to grasp at Caroline’s hands, but, like water, she slips right through, and Caroline steps further back, unsteadily, seems to try to think of something to say but can’t.

“Caz….Caroline…” she tries again, and Caroline looks at her, right at her, despite the bleariness of her head, and says, “I have to go,” as she backs away, leaving Gillian, back facing the mirror, starting to cry and breathing as though she had been running for her life.

 

Later that night Caroline glances into Flora’s room, looks at the smudged outline of her sleeping child and thinks of Kate, good sweet Kate . She loved Kate. Loved her, loved her, loved her. Her head was throbbing and it hurt to think, to see....but she still hesitated, waveringly, in front of the mirror as she closed the door and made her way across the landing back to her own room. She stood, looked at herself, bleary eyed, trembling hands. She couldn’t possibly be attracted to someone like Gillian after Kate. Gillian! Of all people. She heard her mother's voice in her head but couldn’t quite brush it aside. Instead she goes to bed, falls asleep before she realises she is in bed, and dreams of Gillian, and the colour of her eyes.





Chapter Text

Lockdown: The Beginning

 

“It’s like it was during the war. They’ll be rationing everything next. Ration books. One square of lavatory paper...each,” Caroline, phone wedged loosely between ear and shoulder, squints at the underside of a plastic wrapped packet of asparagus tips to determine its use by date whilst Celia drones on about god knows what. It’s all background noise, and has been for a good few minutes. At least it has been since the dairy aisle.

“...for a month!” Celia exclaims, then her tone drops to one of suspicion, “are you listening?” She can all but see her mother’s withering gaze.

“Yes! Yes, I’m just…” She’s exasperated…stressed...depressed, probably. At least she assumes she is considering how much she’s been drinking lately and how hard she’s been finding it to get out of bed in the morning, “do you want green beans or Runner beans?” She drops the asparagus into the trolley and moves a few feet to the left to where the last few bags of beans lay mournful and flaccid at the bottom of a plastic box. 

“French beans.”

“They haven’t got any French beans, they’ve got green beans or runner beans,” she doesn’t bother adding the existence of broad beans, she remembers the last time her mother was substituted with a broad bean. She’d thought the delivery driver might’ve rather committed suicide on her doorstep than bear the brunt of any more of Celia’s distaste.

“Oh don’t bother. What about sweetcorn? Have they got any sweetcorn? Only not the fresh stuff. The tinned. The fresh stuff gets stuck in my teeth.” 

“I’ll have a look.”

“Only if it’s no bother.”

Caroline pulls a face at the carrots, inhales and gathers herself before replying, too sweetly, “No it’s fine, mum, it’s fine. I wanted to have a look for some tinned bits for Gillian anyway, so-“

“Gillian? Why can’t Gillian do her own shopping?”

She can hear Alan humming  in the background, and the rustle of the Daily Mail in her mother’s lap.

“She can, I just thought whilst I was here I’d pick a few things up. As a surprise. I can’t imagine she’s got much cash to stock up so I thought I’d help out.”

“Mmm.” It’s a noise of disapproval she can recognise a mile off.

“What?!” Caroline pushes her fingers into the bridge of her nose and closes her eyes for a moment to ground herself.

Celia sighs pointedly, before changing tact,“What about pork pies? Do they have those pork pies? The freshly made ones from the deli? Alan likes them with a bit of piccalilli.”

Right now, if somebody had run her down with a trolley and hospitalised her, it would be a welcome relief.

“The deli’s not open,” she’s just passed it, moments before, shuttered down by a long metal grill.

“What do you mean it’s not open?” 

“It’s not open. Mum. It’s shut down. There’s a sign…”

She can almost see her mother’s pursed lips and the roll of her eyes. 

“What does it say? The sign .”

Caroline sighs again, audibly this time and walks backwards a few steps so that she can stand right in front of the sign, like an idiot,“It says they’re not open.” 

Celia tuts, “Well what good is that?”

“I think they’re just focusing on essentials…”

“This is an essential...to Alan.” Celia draws in a breath and breathes out heavily, “would you mind getting a jar of piccalilli anyway. If they have one?” She injects an added note of disbelief, as if Caroline is probably just standing there, right in front of the bloody pork pies, but can’t be arsed to actually buy them.

“Do you want to text me a list? It might be easier if you-“

“Ooh no, it’ll be easier like this, otherwise I won’t know what they have.” Celia cuts her off and says something quick to Alan that she doesn’t quite catch.

“Oo-k” she lowers her voice as a couple walk quickly past, shielding their faces despite being a good seven or eight feet away, and she thinks it’s more like a zombie apocalypse than the war, and then wonders briefly if she really does look as rough as she feels after so little sleep from thinking about bloody Gillian at ten past two to quarter to five this morning.

She takes her phone from her ear to glance at the time and calculates quickly that she has just over an hour to do three peoples shopping and collect Flora from Greg’s. Marvellous.

 

It is, in fact, 54 minutes later when she leaves, tense, tired, and almost regretting buying Gillian anything considering how much Gillian loves being helped.

She justifies it by telling herself that she only brought necessary things, like wine, for example, and chocolate - whole nut bars, the kind she knows Gillian likes the most and has a secret stash of on the top shelf of the cupboard by the sink, behind the soup bowls. 

She bought pasta, too. She avoided fresh vegetables because she knows Gillian grows them on the farm. Enough for herself anyway. Butter, flour, rice. She had tried to remember what Gillian had in her house, what she likes...and more importantly, what she doesn’t like. Practical things like powdered milk, tea, coffee, sugar. Cream crackers and marmite - she had remembered Gillian’s penchant for too much marmite...and sweets for Calamity, too.

 

-

Far Slack Farm

“Can sheep get Coronavirus?” Calamity asks, head to one side, one eye closed, squinting against the sun. She’s sitting on the wall in front of the house, swinging her legs, watching Gillian knock together the ends of two scaffold boards to make a raised vegetable garden next to the house.

Gillian pauses for a moment, stands up, straightens her back and frowns, open-mouthed;

“No…. I don’t think so,” she swipes her hair out of her eyes with her wrist.

Calamity looks unconvinced.“No, or you don’t think so?”

Gillian considers this for a moment, the backs of her hands on her hips, standing there sweating in the March ( March!) sunshine. “No,” she decides eventually, to avoid further interrogation.

Calamity screws up her face in an expression reminiscent of her grandmothers, “How do you know ?” She asks, unconvinced.

“I don’t know. Not for certain. I’m just assuming,” she’s breathless from hauling wood and dragging wheelbarrow loads of compost and manure over from the back field. Calamity looks sceptical.

“To assume makes an ass out of you and me…” she chirrups, swinging her legs harder so that the heels of her converse bounce back on the wall. 

Gillian pulls a face of mock outrage, “Mmm. Right. You, madam ...that’s enough of your bloody cheek,” she turns, distracted. From somewhere in the lane, in the near distance, she can hear the sound of a car crunching gravel, “...don’t know where you get it from,” she adds, distractedly, though she knows full well where she gets it from.

“Who’s that?” Calamity’s legs still and she sits up straighter, like a meerkat on high alert, hair askew in two long windblown pigtails, freckled nose crinkled as she watches the car pull into the drive.

“Looks like your Auntie Caroline” Gillian answers, more to herself than to Calam, as she watches the car park as close to the house as she can. She can see Caroline, half-visible behind the reflection of the farmhouse, the trees, and a sky that is low and threatening despite the heat.

“Are you friends again now or what?” Calamity asks.

Gillian casts her a look, so often she is surprised by how much she notices, and how much she has grown up in such a short space of time. No longer is she the helpless baby of years before, but a strong willed little girl with ideas and opinions. Too many opinions, if you ask me, she hears Celia’s voice in her head.

“We weren’t not friends, we just...had a bit of a misunderstanding,” Gillian answers, still watching the car, wondering why she’s here, what she’s doing, and if she’s ever going to open the door.

“About what?”

“Never you mind.”

Caroline opens the door, one foot, (no heels today, just a tan coloured boot) tip-toe pressed against the ground as she leans over, out of sight, presumably fishing for something in the footwell of the passenger seat.

“Is it adult stuff?” Calamity loses interest in the car and starts picking out the grout in the wall and flicking it onto the grass.

Gillian glances at her dubiously, there seems no end to what the child picks up when she’s thought to be out of earshot, “What do you mean, adult stuff ?”

Calamity gives a shrug of her shoulders and prises loose a piece of grout the length of her finger, “That’s what dad always tells me when I ask why you’re in a bad mood.”

“Oh. That’s charming, that is,” Caroline emerges from the car and shuts the door hard as Gillian swats at Calamity’s fingers to stop her picking at the wall.

“Gillian!”

Caroline calls, grocery bag in hand, Flora grasped by the other as she side-steps a scarpering chicken and makes her way towards them.

Gillian squints against the glare of the sun that shines too low through the browning storm clouds, “Alright?”

For a moment nobody seems to know what to say, and even Calamity senses the stiffness in the air between them.

“You look busy,” Caroline says after a pause, her voice slightly too high as Flora lets go of her hand and hauls herself up onto the wall beside Calamity, the two of them already giggling, already whispering and pulling faces.

“Making more space for veg. Thought it might be a good idea, considering.”

“I’m helping!” Calamity interjects and Gillian rolls her eyes and grins a smile that takes Caroline off-guard and causes her to busy herself by switching the shopping bag from one hand to the other.

“Yeah. She’s been helping by sitting on the wall and telling me how f....massive my arse looks when I bend over. Really helpful that. Does wonders for my self-esteem.” she’s joking, and as she looks at Calamity her eyes are shining in a way that makes Caroline more flustered and hesitant than she already was.

But then, out of nowhere Calamity adds, without thinking, or perhaps to impress Flora, “Grandma said you've been avoiding her because you’ve got your snotty-nosed knickers in a fucking twist again.”

“Calamity!” Gillian coughs and Caroline’s eyebrows disappear somewhere beneath her fringe.

“Did she now!”

“That was, that was….” She rubs her fingers across her forehead, “slip of the tongue…”

“No it wasn’t” Calamity is quick to retort.

Caroline looks from her to Gillian, amused, “That’s a remarkably articulate slip of the tongue…”

“Yeah. Well.” Gillian clears her throat, “I was talking to me dad. He asked why you and I weren’t seeing as much of each other. Little Miss... thinks she’s so funny must’ve overheard,” she widens her eyes at Calamity to make a point and gestures with the tilt of her head, “go and pack your bag, you’re going to granny and granddads soon. And you can take Flora with you n’all.” 

Calamity, smug and satisfied, slips down off the wall, Flora following cautiously, neatly after her, running around the back of the house to the field.  

“She hasn’t mastered your art of the almost swear yet, I see.” Caroline stands watching the disappearing figures of her daughter and Calamity, taking a moment just to see them as they were - brief, scattered, holding hands, colliding, laughing, oblivious to the oncoming storm.

“Takes years of practice to get this good.” Gillian murmurs, feeling the sudden drop of temperature, the eerie stillness that pricks the back of her neck with a whisper of anxious excitement, and the quieting of the birds. 

“Mmm.” Caroline looks back at her. They regard each other for a moment. A silence full of so much more than just the air between them.

“Are you ok?” she begins quietly, falters, “Are we...ok?”

Gillian pushes her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and looks at Caroline for a moment longer, her fringe in her eyes.

“You’re reading too much into things, Caroline. Nothings changed. Far as I’m concerned.”

Caroline nods slowly, glancing again to the space where Flora had been. She draws in a breath, hunches up her shoulders, then relaxes them and looks back at Gillian, standing there with the storm clouds rolling in behind her, her eyes the colour of the coolest blue sky, her hair still clinging to the cooling sweat on her forehead.

“You look hot.” She says, without thinking, frowns all of a sudden when she sees the brief smirk and raise of Gillian’s eyebrows, “warm…” she corrects.

“Been moving these boards around all morning.” Gillian gestures to the garden and Caroline nods thoughtfully again. 

“How’re you going to manage? With the farm?” She asks, feeling the plastic handles of the grocery bag begin to strain and dig into her palm.

“Hmm?”

“In quarantine. Have you found anyone that can sort your roof out for you?” She glances up to the roof as a sparrow swoops, flutters and darts into the eaves through a hole she can’t see.

Gillian follows her gaze, “Not yet. Everyone’s shutting up shop now, so...Everyone, I can afford anyway.”

Caroline adjusts the bag, swaps hands again and flexes her fingers, “I told you before, and I know you don’t like it, but I can help…”

“I can’t. It’d make me feel… thank you though.”

She screws up her mouth and runs her palm over the end of her ponytail.

“The offers there...if…” 

Gillian’s unease bristles between them, “Thanks. Thank You…” she rolls the sleeves of her shirt down her arms as she continues, “what’re you doing? William coming home?”

“No,” she seems momentarily distracted, “he’s staying in London. There’s no point in him risking the journey home when he’s safe there. He’s working from home, so- and anyway, he’s got Maggie,” she references his girlfriend with just an ounce too much nonchalance.

“What about Lawrence?”

“He hasn’t decided. Well, he says he hasn’t.”

It’s Gillian’s turn to nod, slowly, allowing the silence to stretch between them until it is too loud to bear, “It’s weird. All this. It’s..” she struggles to find the words she's searching for, “it feels weird. Everyone panicking...buying all the bloody bog roll.” There was a strained tension in the air, like sailors saying goodbye to their loved ones, or soldiers going off to war, and then, out of the blue, when will I see you again? Began to play somewhere far back in the very corner of her mind, almost just out of earshot.

“Are you ok...for food?” Caroline asks, breaking her train of thought.

“Think we’ve got enough to get by.” she’s deliberately vague, not wanting to return to the subject of money, “So what are you here for anyway?” She asks instead. 

Caroline looks suddenly uneasy. The bag she is holding suddenly ludicrously large and unbearable to admit to, “Well, I just thought I’d pop by. See how you are. Before we all go into hiding. I just wanted to check you were ok.” It was somewhat true, she supposed, and marginally better than, I just wanted to see you.

She clears her throat, tucks her hair behind her ear and immediately untucks it, “I bought you something,” she holds out the bag, “Just from...just some bits and pieces. I got some bits for mum and Alan, too.”

Gillian takes the bag, momentarily taken aback. The weight of it surprises her, and she glances in, only quickly - quick enough to note the glint of a wine bottle, chocolate, the red of early Spanish strawberries...and packets of food cupboard staples - not your bog standard pasta, rice, flour that she would have bought, this is Caroline standard shopping, no expense spared.

“Caroline…” she’s not entirely sure if she’s uncomfortable or grateful, so she smiles and murmurs, “...didn’t have to do that.”

“No, I know I didn’t...but I wanted to.” I wanted to take care of you, she wants to say, “You’ve got a lot on your plate and if I can help with that, then…” she leaves the sentence unfinished and gives an uncertain smile.

Gillian nods slowly. It’s a peace offering, she knows that. An olive branch extended in the hope that things can return to normal between them, “I’ve got time for a cuppa. If you want one. There’s cake too, and biscuits.” She takes a step towards the house, “Homemade,” She adds, and Caroline smiles, properly this time. The sort of smile that seems to light her up from the inside. 

“I’m impressed.” She says quietly, then, “Yeah alright,” already following Gillian up the steps to the door.

She waits while Gillian prises off her wellies and sidesteps into the house around a half-naked Barbie left in the hallway. 

In the kitchen the light is dim, dust motes hang in slanting light and the room takes on a cosy,  charming light despite the wind beginning to get up outside and the newly budding walnut tree that clatters its branches against the window pane.

Gillian stands between light and dark and busies herself by filling the kettle and setting it to boil. 

“It’s only fruit cake.” She says as though it’s an apology while she places an old Quality Street tin to the table, “It’s alright though. It were me mums. The recipe. Found it in a box in the loft when I was having a look at the roof.” She lifts the lid off. Half an oblong loaf of fruit cake sits on a blue and white china plate, a small pile of biscuits nestled into the crumbs at one end.

“And what are these?” Caroline asks, taking a biscuit whilst Gillian roots in a drawer for a knife to cut the cake.

“Digestives” She uses her hip to close the drawer.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a homemade digestive.”

“You haven’t lived.” She gestures with the knife, “They were my favourite. Still are. Me mum used to make them every Sunday. For tea.” She holds the cake neatly with her thumb and middle finger and cuts two even slices, “We’d have a roast for lunch and have these after, in the evening.” She looks happy and her face is pink and flushed from being outside. She sets the knife down so that she can take her hair down from its ponytail. It’s wavier than usual, and in the grey-gold light of the oncoming storm she looks as though she belongs - in this kitchen, this light, this moment, and she looks beautiful.

“Digestives are your favourite biscuit?” Caroline’s eyes sparkle and Gillian gives her a practised look of amused defiance. “Yeah? Something wrong with that?” She asks in mock confrontation.

Caroline laughs and shakes her head, “Nothing… just had you down for something a bit more….rambunctious…”

Gillian laughs unexpectedly loudly.

“Rambunctious! Like what?!”

“Oh, I dunno.” She feigns deep thought, relieved to be back to this, this conversational ease and affectionate goading, “a gingernut?” She offers mid-laugh.

“You find me a rambunctious bloody gingernut and I’ll eat it.” Gillian’s laughing and scornful. A gingernut, indeed!

Caroline snorts.

“You’d be a bloody rich tea you would.” Gillian murmurs, taking a gulp of strong tea.

“Oh no,” Caroline gets that headteacher look about her, “I’d be a Viennese whirl.” And again Gillian laughs loudly, in that way that she has. Uninhibited and contagious.

“You’ve given this too much thought, you have. Anyway, what’s wrong with a f...digestive?!”

“Nothing! Nothing. They’re just a bit…” She teeters on the edge of saying something offensive, but says it anyway, “boring…”

Gillian purses her lips gently against a smile mostly hidden behind her mug, “Can’t spend all my time being exciting, can I? Not fair on rest of population” Her eyes shine across at Caroline from over the rim of her mug, and Caroline feels herself flush.

“I’ve missed this.” She says softly. “Laughing together.”

Gillian sets her cup down and breaks the corner off her slice of cake, glancing up only fleetingly.

“Me too.” She says quietly.

 

Chapter Text

When the Rain Came



It’s the middle of the night when Gillian’s roof caves in.

She’s lying listening to the sullen creak of the house and the screaming of the wind after a long day. A good day. A day of reconciliation. She is full ( too many Marmite crackers before bed. Too much chocolate after lunch… ) and finally she can sleep. Finally, she and Caroline have put to bed the tension between them.

Now she’s somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. In the place where shadows stretch and pull shapes - bigger than the biggest thing, and then smaller than she can bear, casting shapeless nothings across the walls, the ceiling, like rising damp rolling into the backs of her eyes as they close, finally, finally , she is exhausted. Her mouth falls partially open, her breathing slows and she drifts, slower, slower, slower. 

Then she is awake, too quickly, too suddenly. Now the house screams and the wind creaks and thunder roars right overhead. 

For a moment she is stuck. Lying there in bed with one leg sticking out of the covers, foot dangling over the edge. Then the lightning comes again and she realises that is what woke her - a great cracking smack that makes her scream - a scream unheard through the splintering of wood and the cracking of tiles, brick and plaster and she’s kicking off the covers and getting out of bed before she’s even realised what she’s doing. 

Thunder comes again, lower, then louder, and louder, lightning flares and the thunder comes again, immediately. 

Rain. She can feel the slanting beat of rain on her face, in her eyes, the whole house seems to move and shift. Something crashes into the floor with a squeal of wood snapping. Then came the smell - thick earthy, woody, and for a moment, standing there in the dark, heart racing so hard she can barely breathe, she can’t recognise it. Then the choke of it, the thickness in the back of her throat, “Fire…” she whispers, “ fire …”. 

Then she is alive again, something kicks in, some age-old survival mode, and she’s running her hands blindly over her bed, over the bedside table looking for her phone. Nothing. She pushes her hands under the pillows, finds nothing, throws the pillows on the floor and stretches over the bed. Still nothing. 

The panic begins to bloom. The room is illuminated for the briefest moment where everything seems turned inside out and too bright to see. 

With arms outstretched she feels her way to the door, feels the light switch, but knows before she pushes it that the lights are long gone. Instead, a dull stinging jolt of weak electricity hits her arm, in her chest, and the thunder roars again as she grabs at the doorframe, feels nothing as her head hits the wooden frame, and chipping splinters of paint and fine dust and smoke sting and burn her eyes, stick in her hair and her throat and make her cough. 

Somehow she finds the wall - hot to touch and wet with rain. She catches her shoulder on a half-rotted beam swinging like a pendulum in the wind, and the wood, though soaked and soft from woodworm plunges deep against her. She pushes past and half-runs down the stairs, feels her way down the walls in shifting darkness where you can only see straight of you look away, collides with something on the stair, slips, and falls the last few steps with the thunder and lightning following her, cracking and snarling at her heels.

From somewhere by the door she grabs a coat, pushes her feet into wellies, pulls open the door and leaves it to bounce back on its hinges.

Outside the wind knocks the air out of her, but still, she runs, still blind, still breathless. Somehow she finds the steps from memory and sees the flash and red glint of the landrover in front of her, and she stops, falls against it, and turns. 

The whole house is moaning. The wind and rain and hail sting her face and her lungs are burning. The sky cracks open again. Lightning forks and thunder rolls and turns and growls. The farm suddenly illuminated like a great white tooth jutting out from the earth, heaving and torn and hanging, lit up with a flare of light - blown out and sagging, the bones of the rafters bleached in a negative bolt of light, white curtains flapping and slapping like sails in a storm.

Shit…F...fuck. Fuck! Fu…” she’s sobbing and gasping. The whole end of the roof gone - collapsed inwards into her bedroom, and still, from somewhere the crackling of a fire and the thick smell of damp wood smoke. 

She digs her hand into her coat pocket, and through tears she pops open the landrover door, pulls herself inside with a wince of pain and falls into the seat, slamming the door behind her.

She can’t look back. Can’t look again, no matter how many times the sky tries to tempt her. Instead, she starts the engine with a hand that shakes, grasps the wheel and hunches toward the windscreen to ease the pulsing ache in her shoulder. She pulls away, lurchingly, feels the graze and squeal of stone on metal as she catches the wall on her way out of the driveway, and then she sees it, the flicker of brilliant orange in her rearview mirror. Fire.

But she can’t go back. She won’t go back, and she knows where she’s going as she leans closer and drives faster.

Caroline....”

Chapter Text

She hears the banging on the door somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness, and thinks, as she rises slowly, slowly, thick with sleep, that the wind has woken her again, the wind in the trees, or the bang of the old front gate with the latch hanging off that she’s been meaning to ask Gillian to replace. 

She begins to roll over, stiff and heavy and sluggish, and the banging sounds again, rhythmic and hollow, like the sudden beat of a heart from inside the house. 

She stops, mid-turn, resting on one elbow and squints into the dark, the room smudged and grey and full of shadows.

The banging comes again, shorter this time. Three of them, one after another, and a noise? A voice? A call? 

She sits up, reaches for her phone, screws up her face against the light of the screen that burns her eyes and makes her blink.

3:27 AM.

She sits for a moment, listening to the dying of the wind and the faraway rumble of thunder, then, in the silence, the banging comes again, a fist on the door, and finally, she is compos mentis enough to realise someone is banging on her door, at 3:27 in the morning.

Shit…

Lawrence is the first person that comes to mind. He’s been locked out. He’s run away. John and Judith have murdered each other and now he’s here, banging on the door, in the rain…

She slips quietly out of bed, and ever so slightly moves the corner of the curtain back, holds her breath and presses herself against the wall to angle herself so that she can see the driveway.

That’s when she sees the Land Rover, parked askew and lit up briefly by a flare of lightning, like something from a horror film, rain-streaked windows glossy, glinting and shining.

Gillian …”

Something in her sinks and twists and burns in her heart. 

With quick fingers she pushes open the window, the noise of the wind and the rain is sudden and sharp and real, and the wet slanting wind lashes and punches the breath from her chest before she can call out. She sees Gillian step unsteadily backwards, hand against her forehead shielding her eyes, a black figure in an even blacker night with the silver of rain on her face, shining in fleeting moonlight.

“It’s me!” her voice cracks as she yells, and she takes another step back, “It’s Gillian!” 

“I’m coming down!” Caroline shouts, but she’s already left the window, she’s already at the door, flicking the landing light on and taking the stairs so quickly she’s breathless, the palm of her hand just skimming the handrail.

The wind pushes the door open as she unlocks it, forces the wood back on its hinges, creaking like the branches of the great oak trees that crack and scream from the woodland beyond them.

“Gillian-” she reaches out for her, can’t quite make out Gillian's face in the dark but hears the guttural sob that comes in place of a greeting, and suddenly she thinks of Alan...something’s happened to Alan...

“What is it, Gillian? What’s happened?” Gillian’s face crumples, she’s rain-soaked, and, even in the dark, Caroline can see her trembling, can feel the gut-wrenching sob that Gillian emits as she reaches out for her, falls against her, “Gillian...Gillian?” she’s wet and cold and shaking so hard that her teeth chatter loud enough to be heard.

Caroline stands there, holding her, there with the door open, watching the rain pelt and hiss against the smooth metal hood of the Land Rover.

“Alright.” She murmurs, running her hands over the hunched curve of Gillian’s heaving back.

“It’s alright,” she repeats, “I’m just-” she draws Gillian inside, “I’m just going to close the door...” She takes another step backwards and Gillian follows, squinting against the light, and Caroline sees her now, for the first time,

“Oh God, Gillian...“ A bruise blooms black and red and purple at Gillian’s swollen temple and her face is speckled with flecks of grit and dirt-smudged tears.

“Has someone...did someone?” she begins but isn’t quite sure what she is asking.

Gillian shakes her head, rubs the back of her hand against a trembling lip “Roofs gone,” she manages to say, “At farm. Lightening-” she sobs again and pushes her fingers against her mouth, “I don’t -,” her breath catches, “I don’t know, I don’t…”, her face puckers and crumples and again she shakes her head, blue eyes tired and desperate.

“God...are you...come and, come and sit down and I’ll-” she gestures to the living room with one hand, and reaches out to Gillian with the other, guiding her gently by the elbow into the living room.

“Sit,” she turns on the lamp and pats the back of the sofa, “Sit down and I’ll-” she trails off as she watches Gillian slouch down into the sofa, defeated and exhausted.

“It’s on fire,” her voice wobbles, dirty hands balled between her knees. She glances up at Caroline who stands in the middle of the room in her white pyjamas with the light above her head like a halo whilst she unfolds a blanket from the back of a chair, “It’s on fire...”

“It’s on fire?!” Caroline repeats, louder than she meant to, “have you called...?” 

“No-”

For a moment Caroline just stands there, looking at her, holding the blanket between her hands like all of the energy has just left her body, “I’ll just ring the…”, she makes to go and get her phone, pauses, turns back and holds the blanket out awkwardly for Gillian to take, then leaves to make the call.

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

Gillian wakes, slow and thick, rising through sleep to wakefulness as though she had drowned in the night.
She stretches, winces, curses and curls back into herself, the ache and stiffness in her joints and the throbbing beat of her heart inside her own head bring her back to life too loudly.
From somewhere in the kitchen she can hear the gentle chink of mugs and the padding of slipper-clad feet, and, when she cautiously pushes herself up, she can smell the unmistakable smell of bacon frying.
She sits up more, and pushes a fist against her eye, rubbing away sleep like a child. She squints around her, the low yellow-grey of moring light that stretches thinly through a crack between the curtains.
Caroline’s sitting room. A place usually full of people and their chatter, now, in the quiet, there is only the light, turning everything to gold and casting shadows as deep as the night in the folds of the curtains, the cushions, and the fold of her coat on the arm of the sofa by her feet.
At some point, she must have nodded off, and Caroline, being Caroline, had not only tucked her neatly in with a duvet that rustled with the hint of feathers but had also draped a soft grey knitted blanket over the top, just in case.
And there was more, she realised, when her eyes managed to focus properly - a cold cup of tea, a glass of water and a packet of paracetamol and codeine on the table next to her moved closer for easy reach.
She pulls her knees into herself, slowly, pulling the duvet with them and curled her arms around her legs.
“I made you one fresh.”
Gillian looks up, turns, smiles.
“Morning,” Caroline gestures with a mug of tea and a white china plate as she comes in from the kitchen,“thought you might be up early so I made one earlier,” she sets the fresh tea down next to the cold one and puts the plate down next to it.
“Blimey,” she reaches for the tea, wincing at the twinge in her lower back as she does, “I didn’t know bacon butties were allowed in this house, Caroline?” She offers up a fragile grin and settles back on the sofa with the tea.
Caroline smiles slightly, still standing in the middle of the living room in her pyjamas and dressing gown, but instead of a Caroline come back, she moves to open the curtains, making Gillian squint and blink against the rose-yellow sunlight.
“Sorry,” Caroline says as she turns to a narrow-eyed tea-sipping Gillian, “I made you up a bed. Upstairs. But when I’d come back down, you’d...so…” she stops, starts again, “how’re you feeling?” She ventures.
Gillian reaches out to set the tea back down and swaps it for the bacon sandwich, which, on closer inspection was very much a Caroline take on the greasy spoon classic, grilled bacon on freshly toasted ciabatta.
“I should get back t’farm,” she takes a bite, ignores the question, chews, then speaks through her mouthful, “see what’s what,” she swallows, then continues, “I’ll need to get someone out to look at it. See what needs doing. Don’t reckon many’ll want to come out because of the virus.”
Caroline lowers herself gently onto the other end of the sofa as Gillian takes another bite.
“I’ve got someone. I rang someone. Earlier this morning.”
“Christ,” Gillian interrupts through a swallow that hurts her throat, “what time is it?”
Caroline glances at her watch, “7:45.”
“Bloody hell Caroline.”
“I wanted to call first thing. I didn’t want you having to worry about...anything more than you have to, so,” she falters, looks at the table, “I’ve left my tea,” she says, and Gillian waits while she pads back into the kitchen and appears a moment later, with her own mug of tea, a large earthenware mug Gillian had bought her one birthday with a bottle of Baileys, as a joke after a particularly long evening of drinking Baileys out of mugs at Gillian’s, leaving both of them swearing the drink off for life.
“Danny, he’s called,” she says as she sat back down, closer this time, and she takes a sip, “he’s an ex-pupil, lovely boy. He’s going to meet us over there at nine to have a look. Said he’s not got much on, so…” she blows gently into her mug before taking another sip, and Gillian doesn’t quite know what to say.
“Thanks….Caroline..” her voice comes out gravelly and she clears her throat, “...you didn’t have to do that.”
“I know I didn’t have to,” Caroline curls her mug into her lap, “I wanted to. I wanted to help. And if it’s overstepping the mark, I’m sorry... I just thought it might be a weight off your shoulders…”
“Thank you. Thanks….” Gillian pauses, “I appreciate it.”
Caroline looks at Gillian in the morning light, the purple of the bruises on her cheek beginning to bloom, her hair tufting out at one side from sleeping on it wet, but still, her eyes are that brilliant sky blue.
Gillian looks back, for a moment, then grows uncomfortable under Caroline’s gaze, pursing her mouth into an awkward smile and then, finally, dips her head to smile down at her plate, “I must look like-”
“You look fine,” Caroline cuts her off, then, more quietly, “I’m just glad you’re ok,” she adds, and then turns back to her tea, leaving Gillian bewildered and somewhat slightly amused, before taking another bite of her breakfast.