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The Courtship of Caroline McKenzie-Dawson

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“Stupid, stupid, stupid. What do you even think you’re DOING?” Caroline’s Inner Voice has launched an inquisition in the auditorium of Caroline’s brain, each seat occupied by facets of personality and emotions, dream versions of herself or who she had wanted to be, beings that were the personification of a vivid day, a memory walking the corridors of her mind. The rowdy audience barely comes to heel at the direction of Inner Voice booming on the overhead speaker. The flow of questions punctuated by negative adjectives has been going since Caroline let go of Jane’s hand, even as she is driving to the Fourth Horse Inn. “Why did you agree to this?”

 

She asked.” Caroline’s Ego rouses her posh head from under a downy comforter center stage. She is a projection of Caroline’s image on her best day multiplied by a power of 10. “And you saw how she looked at us.” Ego’s lips purse in a pout as she shakes her hair like one of Charlie’s Angels. A spotlight finds her as she begins a series of warm-up stretches readying for any argument the Inner Voice offers.

 

Yes well; could have imagined that. Your gaydar has been less than accurate… remember that footie player?” Inner Voice counters, while stage left reveals the Librarian, the silent keeper of Caroline’s memories.

 

The Librarian of Memories looks like Caroline the day she defended her doctoral thesis; she holds up a thick file sealed with a red band to the audience. After adjusting her glasses, she projects a video of a denied kiss her second year at Uni. A number of factors led to failure in that moment, among them drunkenness, poor depth perception, and the footie player not being aware of Caroline’s intention, indeed, that Caroline was trying to kiss her at all. The rejection successfully tamped down any confidence Caroline had in her ability to read anybody for almost 6 months. That the object of her misplaced affection was of her persuasion, and oblivious to Caroline’s snog attempt, would forever remain unknown to her.

 

Not our fault, she was in denial.” Ego was now wearing Marilyn Monroe’s Dress from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and reclining on a chaise lounge used explicitly for tart arguments, all while smoking from a delicate gold cigarette holder; blowing rings that traveled up and up and up to a ceiling that didn’t exist.

 

Yes well, Ruth then.” The Inner Voice continues nonplussed.

 

We didn’t do anything wrong, that was nothing!”

 

Which brings me back to, what do you even think you’re doing? This is a priest! Priests don’t date! They’re married to God!” Inner Voice screeches.

 

We’re having a drink with her, because she asked if we were coming.” Ego drapes herself across the grand piano that’s appeared on stage and blows a kiss at the Librarian.

 

“We’re here because she asked.”

 

Caroline silences the discussion with this out loud pronouncement, bringing the Jaguar to a stop in the carpark. She turns the engine off, and reflexively looks in the rearview mirror to check her makeup. Her breathing has returned to normal, but when the Librarian replays their brief introduction: of Jane’s eyes and warmth of her hand, Ego lights up the stage with well-placed pyrotechnics; fireworks and glitter bombs illuminate the entire arena. Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” reverberates through the speakers.

 


 

The pub is busy and warm and the back room where the Brown family have set up a reception of their own is full. Caroline momentarily reconsiders pushing her way in when she spots off to the side, separate from the back room, Jane in a booth. The white robes have been put away and she is now attired in a grey shirt with clergy collar and black jeans. Caroline’s view of Jane is slightly blocked by an elderly man standing over her, head lowered to hear her better.

 

As Caroline approaches, Jane stands from her seat and guides the gentleman outward, towards the main pub as she gestures to the open side of the booth for Caroline to sit.

 

“Yes, thank you, however I can help, Mister Graham. I hope to see you soon.” Jane has taken his hand, offered in greeting, in both of hers, and jealousy hop-scotches through Caroline’s body down to her fingertips. “This is Doctor Caroline McKenzie-Dawson, she’s a head teacher.”  Jane releases his hand to gently direct him toward his seat; Caroline can see his cheeks are rosy from an early start in the day.

 

“Oh that’s lovely, so nice to meet you both. Until next week, Reverend Oliver.” The elderly Graham makes his way unevenly back to the other side of the bar.

 

“Converting already?” Caroline loosens her coat and shrugs it off her shoulders. She leans her head toward Jane in an effort to extricate her arms from sleeves and to receive Jane’s response, as the pub noise grows louder.

 

Jane mirrors Caroline’s lean to say the words directly in her ear. “Just tending the flock.”

 

Her hair barely alights Caroline’s cheek, but the slight touch sets off Caroline’s senses and she can feel herself getting warmer. Neither sits back immediately; both lingering, angled toward each other. Caroline is rapt to the curve of Jane’s eyelashes, her cheek, the downward slope of jaw to chin, the ascent to her generous lips, straight nose, to fall again in her eyes.

 

Jane breaks the spell by sitting back. She is fully aware of the energy between them; the air crackles with it. The Saturday, the afternoon, the pub, none of it, would possess the full Technicolor display without the woman sitting across from her.

 

Caroline is frustrated at the disconnection; she has become an unstable element, odd electrons flying off searching for a partner. Her body is now all impulse spurred into action by the mere vicinity of Jane. More than that, Jane is a catalyst and Caroline is comprised of stupid chemistry. Doomed to react and react and react as both body and brain follow the dictates of desire.

 

She momentarily regrets not studying biology.

 

The Doctor of Chemistry can speak of the physical and intangible attributes of conductors, but sadly little of electrical properties. Her experience with wiring came to a head in the weeks after moving into the new house. While plugging in her hair dryer, her right index finger was touching a prong as it met the socket. There weren’t sparks, nothing like what is seen on television, but instead Caroline was surprised to find herself frozen in movement. She could see herself standing in her bathroom, right hand gripping the plug in the socket. She saw the situation; was keenly aware of the rippling current dancing along the base of her hand. Then there was pain. It shimmered in the periphery to grow quickly into a tidal wave inducing a flinching motion finally clearing her hand of the plug. Only after several minutes of deep breathing did she realize what had happened.

 

Looking at Jane now, she is again at the outlet, making contact, letting the surge run through her, willing it to pull her in and consume her.

 

“Doctor McKenzie-Dawson,” Jane pronounces like the discovery of a new territory. “What is your doctorate in?” Jane’s hands, flat on the table with fingers splayed, serve as grounding wires.

 

“Chemistry. And please—call me Caroline.” She offers her first name almost shyly. “Do you prefer Vicar to Reverend Oliver?” This is a ridiculous conversation to be having. How is she of the church? Do I ask what translation of the bible she prefers?  Does she read Greek?

 

“Jane.” There is a smile dancing on her closed mouth. “I hated chemistry. All maths. And you can’t even see it. Like physics, you can see physics.”

 

Caroline laughs, not many people engage her on her choice of study. “Yes, it’s true. There’s maths, but chemistry makes up everything. Matter changes forms, elements leave traces of themselves wherever they are; it transcends time. It’s exact. I like that. There is always a search for equilibrium. Maths is how you can achieve it. And for all you can see with waves and gravity, there’s maths in physics too.”

 

“I never got that far.” Jane laughs.

 

Caroline opens her mouth to ask why; the question lost in the arrival of drinks neither she nor Jane ordered. A white wine has been placed in front of her and a large dark beer with a full foamy head is deposited to Jane.

 

“Thank you, but—” Jane looks to the girl who has delivered them, gesturing with amazement that the drinks were not requested. Jane has produced alcohol from thin air. However, the young woman is preoccupied with a tray of pints; she shrugs noncommittally while nodding to the bar proper then enters the back room to a cheer.

 

Caroline’s wine is adequate. She’s more thankful for the opportunity to occupy her hands allowing her to tap or trace circles on the glass.

 

Jane raises the beer with a “cheers” and sips. Her eyebrows go up and Caroline is delighted to watch the small show of self-control as Jane swallows. Her eyes tear slightly and she looks up at Caroline. “Well, that’s a nice gesture,” comes out throaty and hoarse. Caroline involuntarily presses her thighs deeper into the seat at the tone. The hair at the back of her neck tingles and her core tightens at the thought of Jane out of breath. However, Jane pushes the beer over to the side and confesses, “I don’t really drink dark beers. Or much beer at all.”

 

Caroline looks past Jane into the room with the family. “Maybe you need some food, think there’ll be cake?”

 

“Hope so... Caroline,” Jane says her first name as a test, a hard consonant softened by an arc of the tongue and rolled to a stop behind the teeth.

 

Hearing her name is a beacon calling Caroline’s eyes back to Jane’s. There’s a warmth in her stomach radiating outward stoked from Jane’s voice, the honeyed sound of her name.

 

“During the service, I looked at you and I felt you ask me something.” Jane measures out a pause with a breath. “My answer is yes.” The yes curves her mouth in a smile. “What have I agreed to?” She looks steadily into blue eyes. Caroline freezes.

 

Jane is correct. Caroline felt the question form, but to give it words would reduce it down to something common. It’s the translation of a foreign word loved in its sound to the ears, but in the native tongue becomes an object, weathered with familiar meaning.

 

Caroline wants everything from Jane.

 

A thought in the back of her mind suggests the comfort and trust she has with Gillian is being projected into a facsimile of her stepsister. The hard-won love and safety of Gillian’s company is readily transferred to this woman not only because she reminds her of Gillian, but also because she wants to feel those things again.

 

Rather than pursue the thought, or even answer Jane, Caroline sips the wine in front of her. “You’ve met my parents,” she says brightly, “Well, mother and stepfather. They said you met earlier this week, on Tuesday. They wanted to talk about summer drama.”

 

Caroline watches carefully as Jane easily absorbs the change in conversational direction; her expression is calm and her shoulders hold a confident patience that Caroline will eventually answer the question.

 

“Those are your parents?  They’re very dapper!” Jane laughs, “They were the first people I met, just as I’d arrived. I was walking around the church just as they pulled in, and I,” Jane pauses and blushes at the memory of her tripping in front of them. She swallows her embarrassment and absently moves to take another sip from the beer, but catches herself.

 

“I fell on the stones; just a total wipe-out. Hit my knee really hard, cut it up. I need to patch those jeans now. I- I skinned my hand.”

 

Jane offers her right palm for inspection by laying it in the middle of the table. Caroline can see the brush burn has mostly healed and now pinkly radiates health. She reaches automatically, and gingerly traces a fingertip along the outside of her palm in a tightening spiral. The golden ratio. Another mathematical equation, a constant found everywhere. Jane’s pulse is steady on first contact but quickens as Caroline approaches the center.  Jane’s fingertips twitch upward; a tickled Venus fly trap. The movement startles Caroline out of the intimate reverie and she withdraws her hand, followed by Jane. 

 

Caroline mentally files away that Jane darns her own clothing.

 

Staring at the place on the table where her palm had rested, Jane offers, “Celia and Alan had a first aid kit that they offered. Handy. They were very kind.”

 

“Gillian will be thrilled to know the Christmas gift has gotten some use. Alan is her Dad, she’s my stepsister, and she gave him that kit because he kept getting paper-cuts and bruises on his hands. She said it was inscribed – she wrote ‘Clumsy Git’ on it.”  Caroline remembered how proud Gillian had been in filling up the plastic container, making it ‘Dad-specific’. Also included: an easy open vial of a few of his heart pills, plasters, and some single use wet wipes.

 

“I did think it was unique.” Jane smiles and chews her lip realizing she never completed her third lap. “But they helped me up and dusted me off. They were very accommodating as I was unprepared; still I felt like I was a disappointment. Did they know the previous vicar?”

 

“Oh, no! I mean, they had met her, but that’s just my mother; she doesn’t like women in the church. It’s weird. I don’t know why.”

 

“Ah. I thought it was the gay thing.” Jane sits back; eyes sparkling.

 

“No,” Caroline answers too quickly. “No, no, no, no.” Continuing to repeat the word while trying to process the implication; the mental rush pouring from the floodgates. “No, just your profession.”

 

“Should have been a doctor then.” 

 

“Ha! That wouldn’t have helped.” Caroline goes back to her wine and spins the glass on the table slowly with her thumb, an even push at the base of the stem so that the glass rotates 90 degrees at a time.

 

“Are you married?” Jane asks with an even tone as she points at the gold band on Caroline’s hand.

 

“No,” Caroline looks down at the ring and then touches her thumb to it, circling it around. “I’m divorced from the father of my boys. They are both grown; William is working for a publisher in London, and Lawrence, should be in college, but, maybe one day, he’s making videos for YouTube.” She pauses, and looks down at the wine glass, “I’m widowed from the mother of Flora. She’s 6.”

 

Jane’s eyebrows knit together and she frowns slightly.

 

“We got married a few weeks after Valentine’s Day; she was pregnant and I had wanted to provide a stable home situation. We had a small service at the registrar’s office and then the next day, she was knocked down by a car while running errands. The doctors were able to save Flora, but…”

 

“That’s—” Jane pauses thoughtfully. “Unimaginable.”

 

“Yes,” Caroline answers softly. “It was hard, for a very long time. But there’s been time now. I miss her still. I loved her, but I can’t bring her back. I’m thankful now for the time we had and I’m thankful for Flora. I’m thankful for my boys too, but I can’t change any of it. That’s just…life.”

 

Jane nods.

 

“Now I’m trying to connect more with life outside of just my own immediate house and school. It’s better for Flora, it’s better for…” Caroline pauses to inhale deeply, thinks about how different next week could look, and then says “Me,” while Jane with a small nod of understanding whispers, “You.”

 

Jane bridges the slight table again, this time to take Caroline’s hand. The circuit is complete; Caroline’s palm sings with the contact, and a light fluttering feeling resides in her throat.

 

Jane is silent while trying to fathom the grief Caroline said in so few words, reconciling it with the woman in the moment. And so they sit with Jane holding Caroline’s hand while Caroline wants to pull the vicar into her; the attraction between them thick in the air, buzzing in Caroline’s ears.

 

“Thank you. Thank you for telling me.” Jane says, and the words float somewhere between solemn and grief stricken.

 

Caroline told of an ache she carries every day, but there is euphoria in the physical contact. Caroline spurs into action and moves to claim Jane’s other hand, chasing a high.

 

At the same time a cake the size of the child that was christened is ushered into the room causing a flow of pub and party goers to back up and give way for the delicately balanced dessert. An idle hand, a bum, and a jerky movement to clear a path all disrupt the little island of their booth, sweeping Jane’s abandoned beer into her lap.

 

“Oi!” Caroline is up and grabbing for the glass to right it, while Jane sputters, “Fuck, oh fuck, fuck, fuck! Not the shirt, no!” 

 

Caroline has the presence of mind to attempt a mop up and realizes where on Jane’s body she is touching with the napkin. Another wave of heat surges through her, a frisson that must be visible for how strongly she feels it. Flushing a deep red, she offers the napkin back to Jane reluctantly; a heady feeling from the close proximity of her body. It was all natural motion; Jane moved to aid her ministrations.

 

“I’m very sorry, Caroline. I need to go back to the vicarage.”

 

“Sure, sure, you drove?”

 

“No.... well…shit. The Browns gave me a ride down. It won’t take long to walk back.” Jane offers a rueful smile and shakes her head.

 

“Jane, may I drive you back?” Caroline is now attempting to herd Jane towards the door of the pub using only her eyes.

 

Jane turns to the party where cake is being handed out all around. She waves and smiles, mouthing a “goodbye” as she apologetically points at her soaked shirt. Turning to Caroline, she straightens so that she is almost eye level.

 

“Yes,” she says. “Thank you.”

 

“Happy to.”

 


 

Down the road from the church itself, sits the vicarage: An end unit in a set of neat attached houses, each with a small front porch and an overhanging roof to guard against the elements.

 

Caroline holds her breath for most of the short drive. She wants an extension. More. Anything that would be offered. Jane is here in her car, sitting in the passenger seat, looking at her. She is completely at ease as if the seat has always belonged to her, as if she should always be beside Caroline. At one point Caroline thinks she spots movement from Jane, a motion to place her hand on Caroline’s knee, but stopped.

 

Now the little white door of the house stares back at Caroline. She feels like she’s back at university, sitting in a movie theatre next to Maggie, trying to muster the courage to touch her hand. The interior argument of inaction is excruciating. Caroline worries that their time is past. She’s missed her chance. The door has closed.

 

Jane unbuckles and stretches her legs in the seat, a feline in a sunbeam. Then in a satisfied voice breaks the silence: “Caroline, would you like to come in?”

 

Relief floods through Caroline. It’s so irritating she wants to cry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just Because:

Donna Summer – I Feel Love