The storm had passed a few hours ago, and the beach was littered with branches, seaweed, shells and pebbles washed ashore by the high waves. The sand was wet high up the bank (both from the crashing waves and the pouring rain) and felt firm under Anne’s boots as they sauntered along the shoreline, keeping just off the thin waves that tried to reach their feet - high tide was slowly coming in.
At 6:48 am on April 3rd the morning was light, but grey, the storm clouds still looming foreboding over the open sea, but, according to the forecast, pulling away now. The wind had calmed down (it had shaken the windows on their little cottage throughout the night), but Anne still felt its bite on their skin, despite the merino wool vest and sturdy wool jumper they were wearing. They were glad to have taken a woolly hat for themself and the boy. Adney would give them hell if she found out Arthur was not dressed for the weather.
Anne had been up most of the night. Adney and the boy had, of course, slept like logs, while Anne had woken up to the most minute of rattles (which were abundant in an old cottage, especially during a stormy night). When they’d tried to get up and try their luck for sleep on the sofa, both their wife and son had somehow sensed their attempt to leave the bed, and clung to them as if for dear life. As a result, Anne felt not like 45 years of age today, but dead instead.
Arthur was constantly shilly-shallying about how he felt about the sea. At first, he’d dashed for the beach as soon as they’d left the cottage garden. Then, hearing the rumble of the waves grow, he’d dashed back to Anne, urging to be picked up. Now that they’d walked along the water for some time, he was no longer clinging to Anne, but sitting up and pointing at things, before starting to jump cumbersomely in Anne’s hold (a sign to Anne to let him run free again).
“Go on, then” Anne put the impatient boy down, “no!” they took him by his arms as soon as he made a dash for the waves, “we stay away from the water today, darling.” Arthur was a second away from a hearty protest, but then Jack returned to them, trotting leisurely, apparently having run to his heart’s content already. He dropped the tennis ball he was carrying to Anne’s feet and backed off a bit, wagging his tail expectantly. Anne was just about to bemoan how managing an overly active dog and a two-year-old was a full-time job, but then Arthur picked up the ball and threw it (not very far of course) for Jack, and the dog fetched it like it was the best throw ever, and returned the ball to the boy.
Anne rejoiced; this would give them a luxurious 15 seconds, or perhaps, if lucky, even 20, to sleep while standing. They closed their eyes for just one tiny moment, and suddenly remembered their own mother complaining about what a pickle Anne had been as a child, a proper rascal with more energy than anyone knew what to do with. Their son shrieked and giggled happily, and Anne’s eyes snapped open, to see Jack licking the boy’s face. It appeared that their own offspring would prove at least as much a challenge to them as a parent.
“Mum!” The command was intent.
“Mhh?” Anne reacted. They felt Arthur’s hands against their leg, and looked down. The boy was handing the tennis ball to them.
“Is it? Well, thank you” Anne took the ball from him and ruffled his hair.
“Big!” he shrieked.
“You want me to throw it far?” Anne clarified. He nodded.
Anne threw the ball (it was not their best throw) and both the boy and the dog dashed after it, Arthur screaming and giggling as he went. Jack caught the ball and jogged back, circling Arthur who stopped to pet the dog.
“Good boy Jack!” he declared. Anne walked to them with no hurry. Arthur had crouched down and was picking up pebbles and shoving them in the pockets of his yellow jacket. He loved pebbles; the front yard at Shibden was littered with little piles of pebbles (pebble homes, as he called them) and recently Anne and Adney had started to find pebbles in the house as well (an especially nasty surprise had been a fistful of pebbles in Anne’s hiking boot).
“Mum!” he had found a big one and held it out to Anne.
“Oh wow! That’s a big pebble” Anne crouched next to him. An hour ago, when he’d cupped their cheeks and awoken them from what had felt like 5 minutes of sleep for the whole night, they’d wondered ardently what their life would be like as a childless married couple. Adney had arranged this week off for them, rented a cottage by the sea so that Anne may escape their birthday and they could all spend time as a family just the three of them. How convenient for Adney, who now no doubt was still sound asleep, only having muttered a faint ‘you take him’ at Anne when Arthur had customarily woken up a bit before 6. Now, though, when he smiled at them and asked them to hold the pebble for him (he stated it was too heavy for him to carry), they knew they wouldn’t be without him. Well, maybe just for one evening. Just one evening alone with their wife.
“Mum?” he asked and opened his small fist.
“That’s a seashell” Anne answered, “there used to be a small creature living inside, but now there’s just the shell left.”
“Maybe it was eaten by another creature.”
“It is pretty.”
“It sure is.”
“Take it to mummy? Please?” he was already trying to fit it into his pocket. Anne took his hand gently.
“No, we leave it here.”
“Sea creatures belong in the sea or here on the beach. It’s not kind to take them away from their home.”
He took the news in and was clearly on the fence about accepting Anne’s argument.
“Why don’t we leave it here and build a little pebble house for it? With the pebbles you collected?” Anne suggested.
They took a while to empty Arthur’s pockets (Anne was always blown away by the number of pebbles he managed to collect in what seemed a second) and gathered a small pile on top of the seashell. The clouds got lighter and Anne guessed the sun might come out sometime after noon. Adney would probably want to come down to the beach for a swim once she’d had breakfast. Cold water swimming for leisure was something Anne did not understand, but since it helped both Adney’s physical aches and her mental health, Anne was more than willing to support her odd hobby.
Anne held Arthur by the hand and they walked just a bit further to see some tidepools and let Jack run around for a little longer. Anne had hoped for a solitary brisk early morning walk on the beach, just themself and maybe Jack, but for the three mornings they’d spent at the cottage, their son had accompanied Anne every morning, while his mummy blissfully snoozed cocooned in a heavy warm duvet, the master bedroom’s king size bed all to herself.
Apparently Anne had been a bit too deep in their thoughts for a while, and it took them a moment to spot their son dashing into the water.
“ARTHUR!” the boy did not stop, and Anne hurried to him, seeing the wave pull only to come crashing in taller a moment later. He wasn’t far, but a small wave was enough to topple him over, and Anne did not want to risk him being hurt and soaked or being scolded themself when they’d get back. They reached the boy and picked him up just before the wave came in. It would’ve hit him on his legs and it was high enough to wet Anne’s hiking boots. Also, cussing voiceless at the sensation of icy water seeping in their shoes, Anne noticed their son was not wearing his wellies. Anne looked down and saw them stuck in the sand, the wave pulling back, leaving them soaked. Anne crouched quickly and picked them up before the water took them.
“Are your socks wet?” Anne panted and tried to balance and walk out of the water with their shoes heavy with water and sand, a pair of wellies in their one hand, the other wrapped around their son.
“No” Arthur quivered, clearly in slight shock. Anne hopped him up a little bit and got him to a more comfortable hold, and pecked him softly on his hair.
“Alright” Anne spoke softly as he wrapped his arms around their neck, “let’s get back and see if mummy’s awake.”
Ann opened her eyes languidly at the small rapping sound by the door, just in time to see Arthur sneak into the bedroom. She smiled softly and lifted the duvet, and he came to her.
“Good morning, Otter” she greeted him and helped him climb on the bed, wrapping her arms around him gingerly, “oh, my, you’re cheeks are cold! Have you been out?”
“Was mum with you?” Ann kissed his head and caressed his back. She could smell the fresh air on his hair.
“And Jack?” Ann kept talking, Arthur was picking at the front of her nightgown lightly.
“Did you play ball with him?”
“Yah. Mum did big!”
“Did they? They’re a good throw, aren’t they?” Ann agreed, swaying him lightly, “is mum downstairs?”
“We say ‘yes’, my darling” Ann corrected him patiently. He’d picked up his curt replies from his mum, “do you think mum’s making breakfast?”
“Yes. Mummy” he nuzzled closer and tittered. Ann hummed content and caressed his back.
“Do you remember what day it is today?” she asked, muttering against his silky hair. She’d not seen a small child with as much hair as their son; he’d inherited his wild locks from his mum. Anne’s hair was a bit darker and more coarse, with a few fine strands of grey in it; his was incredibly soft and silky, a handsome chestnut brown colour. Arthur shook his head.
“It’s mum’s birthday” Ann explained, Arthur looked up at her, puzzled, “did you remember to congratulate them?”
“... no.” Ann hummed and kissed his forehead.
“That’s okay. Shall we go downstairs and congratulate them together?” She felt him nod timidly against her chest. She took a good hold of him and sat up.
“Alright, darling, do you think you could walk downstairs?” she gasped, a sudden pain shooting down her back, “mummy’s had a backache for the night--”
“Poorly?” he cocked his head and sought to look behind Ann’s back.
“Yes, mummy’s a bit poorly, Otter. But just a bit” she held his hands as he slid down the bed, “let me just get my dressing robe-- Arthur! No running in the stairs!” he dashed out of the room before she had the time to get up.
“Yes, mummy!” she heard his reply from the hallway, probably halfway down the stairs head first already. Ann got up, wincing, and took a few steps before she felt comfortable to straighten her back. Apparently a few nights in a strange bed was enough to do the trick these days. She pulled on her dressing gown and made her way downstairs. Jack was curled up, asleep on the heavy hallway carpet. Ann heard Anne yelp and Arthur giggle, and hurried her steps. Jack awoke and came to poke at her hand gently, and she absent-mindedly scratched his head while scanning the room. At first she could just see Anne, a mug in their hand, and no boy, but then Anne lifted their right leg and Ann could see Arthur doing what he liked best; clinging to Anne’s leg, sitting on their foot, urging Anne to lift him up.
“Happy birthday, mum!” he shrieked and Ann grimaced at the volume.
“Thank you, darling” Anne replied, clearly still recovering from the shock of someone abruptly taking hold of their leg. Ann laughed softly at the sight, and Anne found her.
“Look” Anne kept their leg up, “the human race has finally found an energy source to rid us of fossil fuels for good.”
Ann giggled and came to them, taking the mug from Anne’s hand so that Anne may pick the boy up. Jack followed her lazily and jumped on the armchair by the living room door.
“Happy birthday, dearest” Ann ran her hand up and down Anne’s back. Arthur shrieked and tossed back in Anne’s hold, so they only managed to briefly peck Ann on the cheek.
“How long have you been up?” Ann asked while Anne sat Arthur down by the table.
“About two hours now” Anne replied, “we went out on the beach and got our shoes wet, didn’t we?”
“You didn’t let him in the water, did you?” Ann worried before she could stop herself; of course Anne wouldn’t. They took good care of their son. Ann needed to trust that they did. Anne looked both hurt and tired that Ann would doubt them.
“It’s not me letting him in the water” Anne replied quite sour, “he’s very good at getting there on his own. I was just in time to save him from getting wet, but unfortunately not his wellies or my feet.”
“I dropped my wellies!” Arthur chimed. Ann could picture them on the beach; especially Anne’s disbelieving frown was vivid in her mind. She smiled sadly and leaned in to kiss her wife.
“Poor Pony. You must be cold” she rested her forehead against Anne’s and caressed the back of their neck with her hand, “have you two had anything to eat?”
“He had half a banana before we left” Anne sighed and took the mug from Ann, sipping their morning coffee.
“The other half of the banana” Anne croaked, and Ann couldn’t help a shy laugh. Ann put her arms around Anne and swayed them gently. Anne placed the mug on the table and embraced Ann in return.
“Did you sleep well?” they whispered to Ann. Ann shook her head.
“I woke up to a backache around two and had to take some painkillers. I’m sorry I didn’t get up with you, I was just--- knackered” she rested her chin against Anne’s shoulder, “did the storm keep you up?”
“Yes…” Anne muttered. They heard the chair screech against the floor, and quickly retreated from their embrace. Ann went after Arthur who was trying to climb up on the counter, seemingly after an apple.
“Why don’t you…” Ann huffed as she crouched and picked the boy up, fighting the mild cramp in her back, propping Arthur firmly against her hip, before reaching for an apple with her free hand, “let us take care of your breakfast and go lie down for a moment? Hmm? Do you think we could cook mum’s breakfast for them? It’s their birthday, after all. What should we cook for mum?” she spoke to the boy as she went about washing the apple and looking for a peeler.
“Mhh, good, what else?”
“Sounds delicious. Anything else?”
“Not for breakfast, darling” Ann sat down with him and started peeling the apple.
“It upsets your tummy.”
“You need to ask your mum for that, they know better--” she let him down and went to look for another knife to cut the apple for him.
“Mum?” she heard him from further away, uncustomarily shy and soft. She peeked out of the kitchen to the living room and saw Anne curled up on the sofa, mouth slightly ajar, fast asleep, Arthur approaching them timidly. A warm flood of affection washed over her at the sight.
“Otter, darling” she whispered to him gently, “later. Let your mum sleep for a bit.”
Anne only stopped at the front garden gate, and pressed the button on the side of their fitness tracker. It had been a quick 3 mile run, and 29 minutes was fair considering their level of fatigue. They crouched down, their hands on their knees, taking a moment to catch their breath before straightening their back, swiping back a few loose strands of hair and walking to the front door. Anne stepped in and kicked off their trainers, and suddenly noticed how quiet the cottage was. No Jack to greet them. No shrieks and laughs echoing from upstairs. They looked down. No tiny trainers on the shoe rack (just the wellies set to dry upside down).
“Adney?” Anne called their wife and stepped in, “Arthur?”
“Just me, dearest!” Anne heard their wife from the living room. Puzzled and frowning, they walked towards the voice and found Adney curled up on the sofa, browsing on her phone, but putting it away as Anne entered the room. Adney chortled and bit her lip as Anne stared at her in obvious confusion. Adney got up and came to Anne, sliding her hands gingerly to rest on Anne’s hips.
“I had Eugenie pick the boys up” Adney spoke, “they’ll have a very exciting sleepover at home, before we’ll meet up with them in York tomorrow.”
“What?” Anne blurted and blinked, “you… we’re… alone? For… the day?”
“And the night” Adney stepped closer, pulling Anne to her by their hips, “happy birthday, dearest.”
A disbelieving chuckle escaped Anne’s lips, which seemed to amuse Adney.
“What? You didn’t think I’d think this through? It’s your birthday, after all” Ann mused and swayed them gently.
“I didn’t expect---” Anne started, but didn’t quite know how to finish their sentence, so they just nodded, “thank you.”
“I also thought you might want to take a shower after your run” Ann cocked her head and smiled languidly.
“Yes, that was my plan.”
“I also thought you might want me to join you.”
Anne had not been prepared, and so the sudden rush caused by Ann’s suggestion caught them off guard, and they drew a sharp breath before bringing their hands to rest on the small of Ann’s back.
“That wasn't my plan, but I most certainly do,” they replied, having pulled themself together.
“And then…” Ann pressed her palm against Anne’s chest, “perhaps… a nap?”
“Stop” Anne smirked, “you’re going to make me cry.”
“Cry out, you mean?” Ann reached up and pressed a faint kiss on the corner of Anne’s mouth.
“That I’ll leave to you” Anne replied and let their hands slip lower.
“Oh, is that so?” Ann ran her hand up to the back of Anne’s neck and dug her nails to Anne’s skin just lightly.
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep” Anne whispered, a wide grin on their lips before they kissed their wife.
Ann lay next to Anne, breathing in their scent, her head resting on Anne’s shoulder. They’d been quiet for a good while now, both awake from their nap already, but in no hurry to leave the bed, taking their time revelling in the silence of the cottage, only the faint sound of the sea entering their quiet cocoon from afar. She heard and felt Anne take a deep breath, and then soft lips landed on Ann’s forehead, and Anne pressed a few long, tender kisses on Ann’s skin. Ann pushed against Anne’s jaw gingerly and wrapped her arm around Anne. They did regularly take time for themselves, but every time they found themselves like this, it seemed suddenly like an eternity had passed since the last time. Ann felt a faint quiver of fear fluttering in her chest, as she just briefly thought that maybe they were drifting apart. Not as a family, no, they were close-knit, but as the two of them. As a couple.
She knew of course that Anne didn’t go anywhere, didn’t see anyone; Anne was home just as much as Ann was, but that of course didn’t mean they didn’t have someone or something else in their mind. Anne was a master of words, but their signs of affections towards Ann were mostly little things they did rather than the things they said. They rarely told Ann how they felt about her, their son, their marriage or anything personal; instead, they’d bring breakfast to bed, take them out on a field trip, hold Ann in their arms in the bed, reading aloud to her. Ann on the other hand was all words and no deeds; arranging this week away from home was a rarity for her, and she couldn’t quite trust herself that it’d carry through.
“Adney?” Anne’s voice startled Ann a little.
“Pony” she replied.
“Do you…” Ann heard Anne’s breath tremble just minutely as they sought to continue, “do you love me?”
Ann blinked, stunned, and was quiet for long enough to register Anne’s elevated heartbeat.
Anne’s nervous. Why on earth?
“Yes” she spoke calmly, “Yes, I love you. More than did before, and more than I’ve ever loved anyone. Save for Arthur, but that’s--”
“Different, yes” Anne finished her sentence for her, “mhh.”
“Why’d you ask?” Ann continued, “or did you just need to hear it?” She knew sometimes people needed reassurance. She sometimes needed it from Anne, desperately, but she couldn’t force them to say it. Anne didn’t reply, but instead turned and tilted their head to kiss Ann.
“I’m old” Anne muttered against Ann’s lips, when they’d barely parted.
Oh. Goodness. Oh, Pony.
“D’you know…” Ann started and brought her hand to cup Anne’s cheek, “that, statistically, people who have more birthdays live longer?”
It took Anne a nanosecond, before they chortled heartily, making Ann giggle in return. Anne wrapped their arms around Ann and pulled her to rest on top of them.
“Do we ever have to leave this bed?” they asked and caressed Ann’s back gently. Ann ran her fingers in Anne’s hair. They’d let it grow again, and it reached their chin now.
“Hmm, I do have plans for us for the evening” Ann admitted, “and that, unfortunately, requires getting up and dressed and out of the house.”
“Oh, really?” Anne raised their brow and smirked, “I thought this” they gestured with their hand, “was your dream downtime.”
“Mine, perhaps, but it’s your birthday” Ann replied and kissed Anne, before she sat up and slid off the bed. Anne caught her by her wrist.
“When will I have you like this again?” they husked and scanned their naked wife from head to toe. Ann scoffed and rolled her eyes.
“Not any time soon. We need to start getting ready--” she was interrupted, as Anne pulled her back to the bed and to a tight embrace.
“Well, in that case…” they murmured and started to pepper kisses down Ann’s neck, “5 more minutes…”
“Anne---” Ann chuckled a mild protest.
“But it’s my birthday” Anne countered and Ann gave in, falling on her back and pulling Anne on top of her.
Adney had insisted on driving. Anne would usually drive them everywhere and Adney would only drive if she had to go somewhere on her own, but she’d been very stern. And as Anne could guess, driving blindfolded was neither legal nor one of their strengths, they had little choice but to obey and sit on the passenger's seat, knowing nothing about the destination.
“Oh, god--” Anne heard Adney, and before they could ask what was going on, they drove over a hearty bump on the road. Anne brought their hand to the blindfold.
“Don’t!” Ann shrieked, evidently catching them mid move, “I’ve got this, we’re nearly there--”
“Alright” Anne sighed, “but just so you know, Tib splurges, but not on the roads, so you can expect a few more of those buggers.” They could hear Ann let out a frustrated breath.
“How’d you--? Never mind” she sounded disappointed and Anne could picture her rubbing her temple, “you’re too good, Pony.”
“Can I take this off now?” Anne pleaded, “I’m getting a bit nauseous.”
“Yes” Ann sighed, “yes, yes, by all means. Doesn’t matter anymore…”
“Oh, Adney, don’t be sour” Anne sought to console her, while they squinted at the sudden bright daylight, relieved the pressing sensation of the cloth against their skin was gone, “I didn’t expect anything, and Langton’s lovely. You did good, darling.”
They drove over another bump, splashing muddy water on the freshly washed car.
“Oh, for fuck’s sakes--” Ann cussed. Anne placed their hand on Adney’s thigh.
“It’s alright. You seem a bit tight wrung.”
“Whatever for?” Anne chuckled, but withdrew their hand.
“Because!” Ann shrieked, “it’s your birthday and we haven’t been anywhere for ages, and I wanted this to be a nice day for you, but instead Arthur woke you up at like… 5 and you got your feet wet and I couldn’t even give you this one surprise--”
“I wasn’t expecting anything” Anne cut her off, suddenly displeased that they had to soothe Ann, when it was their birthday, “I didn’t expect the cottage, I didn’t expect any time together with just you, and I didn’t expect a visit anywhere. So I think you’ve done marvellously.” They knew they failed to hide the annoyance in their tone, which was likely to upset Ann even more. But instead of responding in any way, Ann just drove on and a silence fell over them.
The road stretched on for some 5 more minutes, before they arrived at the gates to Langton Hall. They waited for a moment for the gates to open, and Ann was drumming her fingers against the wheel. Anne tried to look at her, to lock eyes with her, but Ann kept her eyes facing forward, her face seemingly blank, but her jaw tight. As they drove in and came to a halt by the front door, Anne saw Tib step out and spread her arms in greeting. Anne wanted to take Adney’s hand, to somehow dissolve whatever minute disagreement hung between them, but as soon as the car stopped, Ann jumped out and slammed the door shut after her. Anne sighed and closed their eyes, before unbuckling the seatbelt and stepping out.
“My favourite Mrs Lister!” they heard Tib’s bellowing greeting to Ann, “come here, sweetheart!”
“Isabella” Ann stepped in Tib’s crushing embrace and Anne feared, every time, that she’d come out of it with a broken rib, “so good to see you. Thanks for having us.”
“How come she’s your favourite?” Anne called, getting their things from the trunk, “you’ve known me for over 20 years!”
“And that works very much against you,” Tib countered, “Your wife’s a good person. You should try that sometimes.” Anne pretended aghast, and grinned widely, as Tib came down the few stairs to help them with the bags, “come on, you!” Anne caught their friend to a hug and tried to match the sturdiness of Tib’s hold.
“Good to see you” Anne patted Tib on the back.
“You do look old, you know,” Tib smirked and gently slapped Anne on the cheek when they’d parted.
“Pretty rich coming from someone over 50.”
“I don’t look a day over 40 and you know it” Tib remarked and tossed her head back cocky, “but then again, I don’t lead a busy family life. Where’s the only boy I’ve ever loved?” she asked and looked around, as if expecting Arthur to emerge from the car.
“Home for the night” Anne replied, “Ann’s planned everything---” they looked up to smile at Ann, but she was no longer by the front door, presumably having gone in already. Anne’s smile dropped a notch. They felt the familiar anxiety about Ann’s mood and well-being forming a knot in their stomach.
“What’s that for?” Tib asked, not missing even the most minute changes in Anne’s expression and conduct.
“Ahh, nothing” Anne shook their head, “I think… Ann had meant it to be a surprise, us coming here, and she had me blindfolded, but I guessed anyway, so…”
“Ah,” Tib only raised a brow and offered to take Ann’s overnight bag from Anne, “Well, it certainly is hard to surprise you. But if I were you” she turned back to look at Anne, who was locking up the car, “I’d trust her to deliver. I know there’s one or two surprises coming your way today.” Anne sighed and walked up to her, frowning.
“I hate surprises. I hate celebrations” they cursed and shook their head at Tib, “Frankly, I thought she would respect that.”
Tib looked at Anne, suddenly very stern, and placed her hand on Anne’s chest.
“Why don’t you” she spoke calm, clear and somehow slightly threatening almost, “for just this once, sit back and relax? Trust her.”
She pushed Anne back before giving them a warm smile, making her way across the hall to the stairs.
“Come on, you!” she roared happily, “I’ve given you the best bedroom in the building!”
Anne was happy. Well, they looked happy, at least, and that was enough. That had to be enough. Ann retreated from the party in the living room and made her way to the kitchen to fill her glass.
No, Anne had not guessed that Ann and Tib had invited some of their oldest, closest friends to dinner tonight. Seeing their expression when greeting Johnny and Rebecca, Marian and Richie who’d come all the way to Langton to celebrate them tended to some of the insecurities Ann had about the success of her carefully planned birthday week for Anne. The conversation grew muffled the further down the corridor she walked until when she reached the kitchen she could only catch the heartiest bouts of laughter from the living room.
She took the white from the wine cooler and set her glass on the table. She hadn’t heard Marian follow her and so she jolted, when Marian entered the kitchen.
“Pour me some too, won’t you?” she came to Ann, smiling, “how’s the week been so far?”
“Good” Ann turned to her and smiled briefly, before focusing on pouring the wine, “the weather’s been alright, save for the storm last night. And the cottage is lovely.”
“Has Anne appreciated even a minute of it?” Marian asked dryly and leaned on the kitchen counter.
“Oh, yes!” Ann replied a bit too shaky and eager, “yes, they've been running… And they’ve taken a walk every morning with Otter and Jack, on the beach--”
“And you?” Marian cocked her head, “have you had any fun?”
“Oh, I’ve… I’ve slept. Anne’s been wonderful with Otter. My back’s been a bit worse these few days.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Ann” Marian sighed, “have you been able to go swimming, though?”
“Yes, yes, the sea’s been wonderful, best medicine.” Ann handed Marian her glass and put the wine back in the cooler.
“Where’s Arthur?” Marian asked, “I thought you’d take him with--”
“Oh, Eugenie picked him up, he’s home for the night. I thought it would be nice if Anne got one late morning this week” Ann chuckled and raised her glass and they toasted briefly.
“And you” Marian nodded and smirked, “god, that boy’s just like Anne. Up before dawn and you have to run to keep up with him!” Ann smiled languidly when Marian squeezed her arm.
“Come on, we better get back” Marian spoke, “are we still waiting for someone?”
“Uh, yes, actually” Ann sighed and rubbed her temples, frowning minutely.
“I won’t spoil the surprise” Ann smirked and followed Marian out of the kitchen. Marian’s step was quick, and Ann used the walk to gather her thoughts, staying behind. She stopped by a drawer under a big painting in the hallway; a familiar photograph had caught her eye. She gingerly reached for it and brought it close to examine. Their wedding picture.
They were facing one another, holding hands, their fingers entwined, bright smiles on their faces, absolutely lost in each other. Ann simultaneously remembered everything and nothing about the moment. It had been a warm late spring day. The camellia behind them was in full bloom. Ann had never felt so happy before; everything about the day was so surreal and unbelievable she still quite couldn’t believe it ever happened.
She had difficulties recognizing the two of them. The people in the picture knew very little about sleepless nights with a crying baby; about mindless bickering at the verge of insanity; about falling asleep next to one another, knowing that was the only physical intimacy you’d have with one another for days, weeks to come. About the simultaneous blissfulness and horror of doing things on your own, because that was the only way of getting anything done for oneself. The point of this holiday had been to do things together. Anne was busy with finishing their med school studies. Ann had her own master’s to finish. Arthur slept between them every other night. Sometimes, just getting out with Jack alone was the best thing the day could offer. Ann looked at the Anne in the photograph who seemed to adore every fibre of Ann. She didn’t remember what it felt like to be adored by them. She didn’t remember the Anne who did.
She tried, and she knew Anne tried too. They kissed every day. They asked each other how they were doing. They talked and touched and showed affection as much as they could, tired. They played and spent all possible time together with Arthur, whom Ann knew they both loved to bits. Still, Ann felt Anne drift away, as if they were behind a cling film all the time, clearly visible to Ann, but every time Ann tried to reach for them, something stopped her from quite feeling Anne like she used to.
Ann jolted as a warm hand landed on her shoulder.
“That’s a good looking couple” she felt Anne’s cheek against hers, their voice soft and warm and smiling. Anne put their arm around Ann and swayed them gingerly. Ann placed the photograph back on the drawer.
“Mhh, you think so?” Ann asked and leaned back against Anne, her eyes still on the photograph. Anne pecked her cheek briefly.
“I know so.” Ann closed her eyes, breathing in Anne’s scent. Anne’s hand travelled down Ann’s side to rest on her hip.
“You look lovely in this dress” they whispered and Ann could hear the smirk in their tone. It made her chuckle softly. She knew Anne liked to dress up, even for dinner with friends, so she’d told everyone to dress accordingly, making sure she’d packed Anne their favourite suit (a handsome burgundy one) and this new, champagne dress for herself. Her hair was up on a high ponytail, and she drew a sharp breath when she felt Anne’s lips on the back of her neck.
“Enjoying the party?” Ann asked, caressing Anne’s arm that was wrapped around her.
“Mhh” Anne replied, “you certainly managed to surprise me with Richie. Well done. Although, I think even more of a surprise had been if you’d left Marian out.”
Ann let out a soft laugh.
“Aren’t birthdays supposed to be a bit uncomfortable?” she countered and drew out a hearty chuckle from Anne. Anne moved her arm to turn Ann to face them, placing their hands firmly on Ann’s back. Anne crouched and rested their forehead against Ann’s, their noses gently brushing.
“Adney, I…” they started, but the doorbell rang and gave them both a jolt. Ann hummed and pressed a brief kiss on the corner of Anne’s mouth.
“Go” she spoke as they slowly parted, “it’s for you.” Tenderly, she straightened Anne’s jacket, and Anne took her hand. Ann stopped and looked back at her wife, speechless, expecting Anne to say something. Apparently Anne didn’t know what to say either, so they just chuckled a bit awkwardly and squeezed Ann’s hand. Ann smiled back, and let go of Anne’s hand, turning away. Walking towards the living room, the conversation grew louder, and Ann took a hasty sip of her wine. Her hands were shaking. She knew who was at the door.
Anne knew ‘what are you doing here?’ wasn’t a polite greeting to anyone, so they racked their brain feverishly to come up with something more courteous. Their heart was beating a million miles, and they didn’t know if that was for the pleasure of seeing Mariana after a long while, or for the anxiety of her sudden appearance.
“How are you here?” they managed to chuckle amidst their shock and astonishment. Their state seemed to amuse Mariana, who was standing on the lowest step by the front door.
“Your wife invited me.”
The absurdity of the sentence hung around them, making the silence heavy and thick with feeling.
Anne blinked and tried to keep their smile on. Anne’s wife could’ve just as well been Mariana, but she wasn’t, and that spot in Anne’s heart belonged to someone else now. Mariana smiled too and walked up the short flight of stairs, enclosing Anne in a soft embrace. Anne held her gently and tried to fight feeling comforted by Mariana’s scent that suddenly twirled around them.
“She said you’d be celebrating with some friends and family” Mary spoke as they parted, “and she wished I’d come. Although I think I’m neither friend nor family.”
“I think you’re both” Anne replied and stepped aside, allowing Mary to walk in. Mary placed her clutch on the chair by the door and expected Anne to help her coat off, which they did.
“You’ve let your hair grow again” Mary remarked and turned to look at Anne, giving her a gentle squeeze on the arm, “you look good, Fred.”
“Thank you” Anne smirked and put Mary’s coat away, “how was your drive? Did you come from Lawton?”
“No, I’m at Steph’s.”
“Are you staying the night?” Anne asked, “say hi to him and the family, when you get back.”
“Will do” Mary smiled and cupped Anne’s cheek playfully, “I don’t know yet. I’ve got my bag in the car and both hostesses have welcomed me, but I’ll see if their moods have changed.”
Anne wanted to say they didn’t know what Mary was talking about, but they knew exactly what she was talking about, so they just raised their brow and hummed. Ann had clearly stretched far out of her comfort zone to treat Anne on their birthday. Mary’s hand lingered on their cheek.
“How are you?” she muttered, a slight frown on her brow. Anne shook their head, dismissing the thought of going beyond pleasantries now.
“It’s been a good birthday” they replied, “we’ve been staying on the coast this week, with Ad-- Ann and Arthur.”
“Is he with you?”
“No, he’s home for tonight. Bit of a breather for us both” Anne attempted at a relaxed chuckle. Mary raised her brow and tilted her head a notch.
“Shall we?” Mary asked and pulled back, “I don’t want to keep you from your party.”
“We haven’t really started yet. Ann wanted to wait for--- everyone to get here.”
“How very kind of her” Mary spoke and picked up her clutch from the chair. Anne didn’t know what to say so they just signalled to Mary to go first and then followed her to the living room.
Anne wished they could do something, when the dynamics in the room started to change as soon as they stepped in. They watched in agony how nervously Ann smiled, listened to how her voice shook when she greeted Mariana. They wished they could wipe the look of shock and horror from their sister’s face, the awkward blushes on Johnny’s and Rebecca’s cheeks. Tib and Richie, ever the skilful navigators of socially awkward situations took Mariana in, greeting her and making chitchat fast enough for everyone else to lose doubt there was anything painful in the situation to start with.
“Why’s she here?!” Anne heard Marian whisper to Ann angrily, when Tib pulled Mariana aside to make her a drink.
“I invited her,” Ann replied, looking down.
“Because she’s one of Anne’s oldest, dearest friends” Ann replied sternly, but quietly, “and I know Anne would’ve wanted her to be here.”
Anne’s chest swelled with compassion, gratitude and pride for their wife.
“We good for dinner, Anne?” Anne startled, when Johnny patted them on the shoulder.
“I-- I suppose” they breathed, an awkward, hasty smile on their lips, “Tib! Are we ready for dinner?”
“Affirmative” Tib confirmed, “if you’d be so kind as to follow me.”
Johnny and Rebecca went after Tib, and Richie took Mariana to their arm. Marian gave Anne an icy glance before tailing Richie and Mariana. Anne made their way to their wife and linked their arm with hers.
“Ready for dinner, my darling?” Anne asked as they slowly started walking towards the dining room.
“Mhh” Ann only replied, but leaned minutely against Anne. Anne took a deep breath and pressed a firm kiss on Ann’s hair.
“I thought by now they’d know I don’t want anything for my birthday” Anne muttered frowning, caressing the back of Ann’s hand with their thumb, as they looked at the four bottles of Madeira that had been gifted to them by their friends, “It’ll take me years to drink all this.”
“We’ll finish them in time for your 50th, dearest” Ann consoled them, but her tone was listless, and she soon pulled away, “come on, take a seat. I know Tib’s prepared something for you in addition to the Madeira and the dinner.”
“She shouldn’t have--”
“I don’t think this is so much for you as it is for the rest of us” Ann turned to give Anne a smirk and held out her hand for Anne to take.
“Oh good Lord” Anne rolled their eyes and sighed, “please tell me it’s got nothing to do with being publicly humiliated.”
“I’d hardly call this public” Ann was amused, “everyone here’s known you for years--”
“Alright, what is it?” Anne pulled Ann’s hand and stopped her. Ann shrugged innocently.
“I wish I knew, dearest--”
“We’re married. Aren’t you supposed to be on my team?” Anne pressed on, but gave Ann a playful smile.
“Have I given any indication that I’m not?” Ann cocked her head and then yanked Anne’s hand in return, “come on now.” Anne let her take them to the living room, where the rest of the party had already taken their seats on either the large sofa or the arm chairs around a coffee table. All except Tib, who was, in Anne’s opinion, rather ominously standing up next to the television, a laptop in her hands.
“Ah, for a moment I feared you’d chickened out of your own party” Tib remarked as Anne slumped down on the sofa. Marian had signalled Anne and Ann to take seats in the middle.
“I didn’t know there’d be a reason for me to want to chicken out” they replied dryly, “I hope to God you haven’t put together some bizarre, banal exhibition of… embarrassing memories.”
“Oh, Your Excellency, I didn’t know you had embarrassing memories!” Marian gasped and Ann tittered both at her remark and the murderous look Anne gave their sister. Anne lifted their arm and took a gentle hold of their wife. Ann leaned against them and Anne tried to relax; they needed Ann to anchor them to good humour and kindness now, to be able to take whatever was coming their way.
“First of all” Tib started and tapped on her laptop. The TV screen blinked and Anne’s graduation photo appeared on the screen, “I thank you all for participating---”
“Oh, good heavens, spare me---” Anne moaned.
“Oh shush” Tib waved her hand dismissively, “it’s all good and you deserve all the love.”
“Don’t I have any say as to in what form that love comes--” Anne protested.
“Will you shut up?” Tib commanded Anne with a gentle smile, “just sit back. It stings, but just for a bit. Think of it as removing a plaster. Albeit a full-body one--”
“Just get on with the torture already” Anne barked and shook their head. Ann caressed Anne’s thigh tenderly. Tib tapped on, and a title appeared on the screen.
“Early Years” Tib spoke, “I suppose my second favourite Mrs Lister can fill in some of the gaps here themself, but I’m happy if Marian and John can help me cover whatever Anne refuses to share with us.”
Anne groaned and closed their eyes.
“Arthur looks so much like you” they heard Adney whisper to them, and they opened their eyes.
They were maybe just about a year old in the old photograph. Aunt Anne was holding them, beaming with the child in her arms. Anne was busy pointing at whoever was taking the picture. This was almost how Anne still thought of their aunt; long, dark wavy hair, huge specs, a colourful blouse. Often, she’d be smoking, too, her and uncle. They couldn’t help a smile.
“He does” they admitted, resting their head against Adney’s, “where’d you get this?” they turned to ask Marian, “is this mum’s?”
“Auntie’s” Marian replied, “she put together a few gems for me.” Anne swallowed. What was a gem in their aunt’s eyes was not necessarily that in theirs. Tib clicked on and an Anne wearing their father’s old service dress jacket appeared on the screen. Anne chuckled with the others. It looked like they were talking very passionately about something in the picture. They were maybe 4, tops 5. They remembered often digging out the jacket and wearing it around the house, their mother complaining to them how it’d get stained and wear out.
Auntie had also given Marian a picture of Anne’s first day at school. Auntie was holding their hand, but Anne looked miserable. They remembered the weeks before it; how much of a fight they’d put up for their parents to allow them to wear trousers to school. To no avail. The first day had been a nightmare; other kids had made fun of Anne’s hiccup, and they hadn’t even learned anything they didn’t already know.
They looked at the sorry little creature in the photo and how utterly defeated they had felt, their head still hurting from all the screaming, shouting and crying the night before. They were suddenly once more so very grateful for everything they’d left behind; Market Weighton, their family, the social circles, the dull, futureless halflife everyone else was living. Physically, they lived barely an hour’s drive from their early home; mentally they were lightyears away. Somehow the picture still managed to catch them after all that distance they’d gained.
“Mhh” they huffed and sat back down, only now noticing they’d been leaning towards the screen. Tib noticed Anne’s discomfort and tapped again, and Anne’s smile returned.
“I had to” John apologise, “mum’s always liked this one--”
“It’s a good picture” Anne admitted and watched their younger self, now around 10 and already living in Shibden with their aunt and uncle, hanging head down from a tree branch. They’d just finished building a treehouse in a maple tree in John’s back garden, “is it still there?”
“Yeah, yeah, had to fix a few things… Well, everything, but it’s a good spot. The girls love it.”
“We smoked our first cigarettes in that tree house” Anne pointed at the screen and smirked at Johnny.
“What, that young?!” Adney sat up, horrified.
“No, no, course not!” Anne scoffed, “years later.”
“Which takes me to---” Tib spoke and clicked on, and this time Anne moaned and tossed their head back.
“Oh my word, you’re adorable!” they heard Richie.
“Sorry… again” Johnny muttered, “but it’s just as embarrassing for me as it is for you!”
“Oh, Anne” Adney took her hand and squeezed it gently.
Anne sighed and opened her eyes, catching the sardonic smirks from both their sister and Mariana. They were in Johnny’s old room, Anne was lounging on a beanbag, a gaming controller in her hand, looking flustered at the camera. Johnny was sitting on his bed, apparently shouting at his mother, who’d just popped in unannounced and snapped a photo of the two of them (knowing they wouldn’t ever let her take their picture willingly). Anne had their favourite shirt on, a faded oversized Nirvana t-shirt, and loose, worn jeans. They were skinny and absolutely sank in their clothes, their hair cut short. Their expression was surprised, their cheeks red for having been inside, gaming for hours.
“You look like young Johnny Depp, dearest” Adney purred and caressed the back of Anne’s hand.
“Anne looks skimpy” Marian commented, “did you even have other clothes besides those?”
“I had a jacket” Anne defended herself, “what would I have needed other clothes for? School required a uniform anyway.”
“I didn’t know you were a grunge teen” Richie smiled, “you look like you’ve grown overnight.”
“I did. I went from 4 foot 9 to 5 foot 8 in two years.”
“Goodness!” Adney gasped. Anne just nodded and smirked.
“Yeah, well, you may look scrawny, but you were a tough nut, weren’t you?” Tib spoke and the picture changed, showing Anne with a handsome black eye and a cut on their cheek.
“Anne!” Adney turned to look at them, worried.
“I bet Chris Rawson didn’t know we’d be family one day, when he tried to beat me up” Anne scoffed and leaned back, smiling proud.
“Is that… my cousin Christopher hit you?!” Adney cried out, “god, that’s awful, Anne!”
“You should’ve seen him, he was worse!” Anne tried to defend themself, “it’s not like I took it lying down!”
“Nope. Certainly not” Johnny agreed, awkward.
“Well, that’s nothing to be gleeful about!” Adney continued, “Lord, he never bothered to mention that…”
“Course not” Anne huffed and rolled their eyes, “he was embarrassed enough back then, why would he ever want to bring it up to anyone that I whooped his arse.”
“And what did you do that for, then, hmm?” Adney was not pleased.
“He started it! It upset him that I was a better shot.”
Adney closed her eyes and shook her head in defeat.
“Alright, enough bickering. We’ll get to the married part soon enough” Tib announced, “Formative years, my dear friends. Let’s take a look at how that skin and bones hellraiser--”
“Hellraiser?” Anne chuckled in disbelief, “me?”
“Take it as a compliment, my dear” Tib cut them off, “transformed into the Lesbian Overlord most of us know Anne as.”
The room filled with laughter when the next photo popped up.
“I had forgotten that hair…” Anne muttered, the air punched out of them. Ann could hardly contain her giggles; Marian and Mariana were openly howling at Anne’s bright green mohawk.
“When’s this, dearest?” Ann tried to be polite, but her body shook as she held back her laughter.
“First year of uni” Anne said, deadpan.
“That’s me” Richie pointed out the short, dark-haired person just next to Anne, “we’d just met. There wasn’t a student union for queer folks back then. I met Anne at the library one night---”
“How surprising” Marian commented.
“We became friends and started hanging out with other queer people we knew. Mostly drinking, but… Sometimes there would be a good conversation to have” Richie smiled, looking at Anne, who gave them a fond smile in return. The next few pictures were from Anne’s university years. They’d started climbing already in Halifax, mostly on their own, but at uni they’d joined a club, and one especially happy photograph was of them on a field trip to Spain, hanging on the wall, having just climbed their hardest route ever. They looked happy, healthy, and they realised it was just months before Sam’s death, and were suddenly grateful that Tib hadn’t included any pictures of their brother or mother here.
“This one’s from me” Mariana spoke as the next photo appeared on the screen. It was Mariana’s family home in York, and they’d made goofy poses for the camera, Anne and Mariana, all her sisters and Steph.
“That was a good summer,” Anne recalled.
“Obscenely hot” Mariana remarked and caused Anne to chuckle. They’d left med school the following autumn term. The next photo showed Anne and Mariana next to one another on Richie’s sofa. Anne looked absolutely pissed.
“I’m surprised I didn’t die,” they commented, their drunken expression in the picture amusing the party. Anne wondered if Adney had noticed the engagement rings on Anne’s and Mariana’s ring fingers. Anne chuckled softly at Mariana’s horrible perm. It had been only hours since they’d asked Mary to marry them. The rings were cheap, but they’d meant everything to Anne.
A few more photos followed, and Anne especially liked the ones from their 30th birthday. They’d taken a week off with a group of friends, flown to Côte d'Azur, rented a villa and celebrated for 6 days in a row. It was the only time Anne had boarded a plane drunk for both the flight to their destination and back. The hangover had lasted at least a week. The photograph was amusing; Anne was holding a book upside down, reading it earnestly.
“Was that a good book?” Mariana teased them.
“I never forget anything I’ve read, so I suppose I have to say I didn’t read that one.”
“You look so invested in it” Richie shook their head.
“Ah, shitfaced in France” Tib sighed and smiled with nostalgia, “I wish I could say I’ll always remember it, but frankly I don’t remember much.”
“You burned handsomely,” Anne commented.
“You let me. What kind of friend are you?”
“In my defence I was probably passed out somewhere.”
“Or reading, it seems” Tib continued, “I have to say, the next few years, I don’t know, Anne, you got a bit boring. I mean--” she clicked on and showed a photo of Anne receiving an award for their blog, “you just didn’t do much--” Anne’s second move to Paris, “life got to you, you know, the everyday things--” Anne summiting Denali.
The party chuckled and Anne tried not to blush. They were quite pleased with what Tib had put together. Nice, just a bit awkward, but very sweet, nothing to absolutely trash Anne.
“And then” Tib paused, “suddenly, you’re 40.”
And there it was.
“NO!” Anne shouted, but there was nowhere they could hide, and no way to make the photo disappear. There they were, standing on the bar counter of Richie’s club, wearing nothing but their black boxer briefs and an Arsenal jersey, drinking champagne from two bottles at once.
“Oh! Ohohohohoh, dearest!” Ann laughed out loud.
“This was a proper party, my love” Tib nodded to Ann, struggling to keep her face straight. Marian had probably pissed herself already, and Johnny as well. Rebecca was politely looking away.
“It’s a miracle you didn’t break your arm, when you fell down” Richie mused dryly, “broke my chair, though.”
“Partied like no tomorrow” Tib commented, “Anne ever tell you about this one?” she asked Ann.
“Only that they’d had a civilized reception at Shibden, and a less-civilized one in London” Ann spoke, “oh, Anne---” she rubbed Anne’s back gently. Anne felt their soul leave their body out of sheer embarrassment.
“Oh, chin up, mate” Tib consoled her crushed friend. Anne cursed themself for having thought Tib would take a chance to pick at them, “it’s good you had your moment back then. Cos look--” she tapped through a photo of Anne and Ann at a summer party, “you’ve been too busy--” their wedding picture, “doing this.”
The widest, brightest smile spread on Anne’s face, when they saw a photo from last year pop on the screen. They’d taken a short hike in the Lake District, the three of them, to High Rigg, and Anne was drinking coffee from their thermos, their son on their lap. Anne felt Ann’s hand on their thigh, and they took it, holding it firmly.
“Goodness, he’s grown” Marian sighed. Anne only nodded, eyes still keen on the photo.
“I guess it’s thanks to him you only get a boring dinner with your old pals instead of a proper night out” Tib sniggered.
“I’m not sure I’d want that,” Anne replied, smiling relieved “I’m quite happy here. Thank you. Is this all? Please tell me it is.” Tib responded by shutting the television.
“Sorry, mate. I’d always wanted to do that, but the parties before were a bit too--”
“Wet” Anne filled in.
“For that, yeah” Tib put her laptop on the coffee table and raised her glass, “many happy returns on your birthday. To Anne” she toasted and the rest of the party joined her. Anne sipped their warmed wine, feeling the day heavy on their body, but quite content leaning back on the sofa, their wife next to them.
Ann had come upstairs to their bedroom to finish her phone call with Eugenie. They’d called Otter together before dinner to wish him goodnight (that had luckily gone well enough), but she’d asked Eugenie to keep her updated. Otter had had a good evening and had been fast asleep for hours now, and Ann felt an ease in her breathing hearing that everything was alright at home. She’d see him tomorrow. He was fine. She and Anne were fine.
She thanked Eugenie and ended the phone call, but didn’t feel like returning downstairs just yet. They’d had dessert after the slide show and Anne had appeared less humiliated than Ann had originally feared. They were all getting a bit tipsy, and Ann found the laughter and noise a tad hard to bear. She welcomed the silence of the bedroom.
She dropped her phone on the bed and made her way to the double glass doors leading out to a balcony that gave to the beautiful garden. The night air was cool and she returned inside for a moment, digging out Anne’s comfortable oversized hoodie she knew Anne liked to wear in the mornings. She’d packed it just in case Anne wanted it when they woke up. And a bit for herself, too. She slipped it on and Anne’s scent wrapped around her. Ann made her way back to the balcony and looked up. A few lazy clouds were trying to surround the bright half moon high up. Ann took a deep breath, and just as she was about to sigh relaxed, she heard a conversation below her. She realised it was the terrace outside the living room. Some guests must’ve come out for air downstairs.
“How are you?”
Ann jolted as she realised it was Mariana. She held her breath, hoping not to hear Anne’s voice reply.
“Good. I’m good.”
Ann squatted and wrapped her arms around her legs, hugging herself tightly, Anne’s scent around her.
“You look tired, Freddy.”
“I am tired” Anne answered, a touch of frustration and fatigue in their tone, “but that’s life with a two-year-old.”
“Mhh. I suppose. How’s… med school--- excuse me, I just” Mariana sounded amused, “think it’s hilarious you went back to your studies after all those years.”
“What’s so funny about it, Mary?”
God, Ann hated that nickname. She knew she shouldn’t listen. She wasn’t certain she even wanted to, but she couldn’t move.
“Nothing, I-- I just thought it was something you’d left behind.”
“Hmm. I thought so too. But Ann encouraged me, so… I thought, why not.”
“Of course” Mariana spoke plainly, “and how’s Ann?”
“She’s fine. Of course, you could always ask her yourself.”
They were quiet for a moment, and Ann inched towards the edge to see them and had to bring her hand up to cover her mouth when she saw Anne put their arms around Mariana.
“Thank you for coming tonight” Anne spoke, “I know it isn’t easy for you--”
“No, it isn’t” Mariana replied. Silence again.
“That was our engagement picture” Mariana then said.
“Mhh. I know. I think Ann may have noticed that too.”
“Does that worry you?”
“No” Anne spoke, “No, I trust her. She’ll tell me if it bothered her. It’s my past. But it is the past.”
Ann fought the warm tears of shock swelling in her eyes.
“Freddy, can I ask you something?” Mariana broke free of Anne’s hold and turned to face them.
“Are you happy?” Mariana was frowning, “and before you say anything, I want you to think. Are you really happy?”
“Mary---” Anne huffed, frustrated.
“Please, Freddy. You don’t have to paint a rosy picture for me--”
“I don’t really know why I have to paint any picture for you” Anne’s tone was sharp, “why are you asking?”
“Because I care about you--”
“Touching. Well, yes, I’m happy, Mariana--”
“Freddy, please, look at yourself. You look miserable.”
Anne fell silent. Ann buried her face to the overly long sleeves of the hoodie, suffocating a sniff. Of course Anne wasn’t happy. She knew it, Anne knew it, everyone knew it. Anne was with her for two reasons; Arthur and kind-hearted pity, and that was all there was to it.
“It isn’t easy.”
Anne’s voice was quiet but Ann could still hear it clearly.
“Ann’s struggling. Some days more than others, but she is. I’m not exactly sailing smooth myself. And then there’s Arthur, and as much as I love him, I miss---” Anne took a deep breath, “I miss being just me. I miss being just with Ann.”
Ann tried to keep her sobs at bay, her body shaking.
“I wish---” Anne continued and their voice was suddenly thick with sentiment, “I’m not unhappy, Mary. But I wish there’d be… that someone could guarantee that I’ll get through this. I want to make it better, but I don’t know what to do.”
Ann lifted her head and blinked away the next flow of tears, trying to look down on the terrace. Mariana came to Anne and cupped their face.
“Do you love her?” she asked Anne. Anne scoffed.
“Mary, please, we’ve been through this--”
“I’m not asking for me” Mariana was stern, “Trust me, I know painfully well I’m not your wedded wife, and I won’t be. I’m asking for you. Do you still love her, Fred?”
Ann wanted to become undone, to dissolve on the spot, never to have to breathe again.
Anne was quiet for an eternity.
“I know what you are going for” they then started, “but I can’t say it without--- I need you to know that… It’s not easy.”
Ann felt the world starting to crumble from under her.
“I love her” she heard Anne, “I love her for her ability to love me for who I am. Not just as… what everyone else sees, but everything that I hid for so long, everything that I am. She accepts me, everything about me. She always has.”
“Hasn’t--- Didn’t anyone… you know, before her?” Mariana sounded a bit hurt by Anne’s words. Ann saw Anne shake their head.
“There was always something… Somehow, I was wrong” they muttered, “but Adney, she--”
“Ann. She’s always loved me for me. And I love her. Not just because I know she wholly loves me, but--- I love her for her. For everything she is. I sometimes find it hard to abide her, and I know she feels the same about me. It isn’t the easiest relationship I’ve been in, but--” Anne took a deep breath, “I can’t… I find the thought of being separated from her in-- intolerable.” Ann heard Anne sniff faintly.
“Gosh, Fred” Mariana smiled sadly, “ever the poet.” Anne scoffed and shook their head, stepping back a notch.
“For asking” Anne replied, “listening, and… reminding me.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, you are a soppy one, aren’t you?” Mariana laughed, teasing Anne, “come on, then, there must be something about her that grinds your gears.”
“She kicks my ass in Tekken.”
“Still? You’ve had years to practise against her!”
“Look, she’s really good! It gets to me sometimes.”
“That’s the Anne I know. Come on” Mariana linked her arm with Anne’s, “let’s get you one last drink on your birthday. I’m afraid it’s April 4th in 10 minutes.”
Anne hadn’t seen Adney for a while now. They enjoyed their drink first, but as Adney did not emerge, they left the party and made their way upstairs. Perhaps Adney had already retired for the night (Anne couldn’t blame her). On their way up the stairs Anne spotted their wife about to return downstairs.
“There you are” Anne smiled as they met midway, “I thought you’d gone to bed already.” Ann shook her head. Her expression was somehow sad, but her eyes were clear and calm. She’d let down her hair, and it now flowed free, a bit more curly after having been tied.
“No, Eugenie called and then I just took a moment to refresh a bit,” she replied. Anne took her hand gently.
“Is everything alright? At home?” they asked and brought Ann’s hand to their lips, pressing soft kisses on Ann’s fingers.
“Yes, he’s been asleep since 8” Ann answered, “I was worried he’d wake up and miss us.”
“He might in the morning” Anne admitted, “but he’s home and we’ll see him soon enough. Do you miss him?”
“Yes…” Ann sighed, “but… and don’t ever tell him. Or anyone.” She looked at Anne keenly.
“My lips are sealed” Anne nodded, “but let me guess; you’re just a teeny-tiny little bit grateful for a night away from home.” Ann tittered faintly and tossed her head back.
“Maybe a notch more than a teeny-tiny bit” she smirked and Anne let out a laugh.
Anne had a feeling they somehow stood in Ann’s way, but they couldn’t move aside. They still felt like they needed to go up to find Ann although she stood right before them.
“Have you had a good time?” Anne asked, as the silence between them stretched uncomfortably long. Ann nodded.
“Yes, it’s been fun. Have you?” the worry in her tone hurt Anne ever so slightly.
“Yes” they smiled then, “I have. I thought-- I thought I’d just want a grueling run in pouring rain, to-- push myself, punish myself a bit for getting older. And afterwards a hot shower and, I don’t know, a cup of tea and then off to bed. But this has been much nicer.”
“Why would you want to punish yourself for getting older?” Ann frowned, a puzzled smile on her lips. Anne shrugged.
“I don’t know. Why do you swim in ice cold water?” they countered and Ann let out a dry laugh, shaking her head.
“It helps me… get back into my body. You can’t think about anything else in the cold water. It’s a very physical, raw place. On a good day, it’s exhilarating. On a bad day, it… It lets me leave sadness on the beach. It’s cleansing, for the lack of a better word.”
She had never verbalised her reasons for swimming to Anne like that. Anne looked at her, grateful and in awe, and stepped one step up, closer to Ann. They cupped the back of Ann’s head and pulled her to a light kiss. Ann inhaled sharp, but relaxed soon in Anne’s hold. They parted and Anne rested their forehead against Ann’s, hesitant to go in for another kiss. They stood close for a moment, their breaths warm on each other’s faces. Anne was certain Ann would push her back, if they’d continue, but then they felt Ann’s hands slip under their jacket, trailing along the line of their waistcoat, coming to rest on the small of their back.
Anne opened their eyes in surprise, but other things occupied their mind, as Ann reached to kiss them, pulling them slightly closer with her hands on Anne’s back. Anne’s hands found their way to Ann’s waist, taking a firm hold and pulling Ann to their body. Ann ran her fingers through Anne’s hair, her hand landing on the back of Anne’s head, not allowing Anne to pull away (not that they especially wanted to).
Anne felt a fire burning at the pit of their stomach, and they deepened the kiss, pushing Ann back against the wall, their right hand travelling up to press against Ann’s breasts, their left hand gripping Ann’s hip. Ann released her hold on Anne’s neck and tapped Anne’s chest lightly. Anne pulled away, crushed.
“Bedroom” Ann husked barely audibly, and Anne didn’t have a moment to react, before Ann had already taken them by the hand, hurriedly walking them up the stairs. As soon as they were on the landing, Ann pulled them to a rough kiss, and Anne put their hands on Ann’s waist, urging her closer while they swayed towards the bedroom door. Anne tried to be careful, but they had to stop when they heard Ann hit her elbow loudly to the doorframe.
“Are you alright?” they breathed. Ann winced and grimaced.
“Fuck it--! Gosh, yes, yes, I’m alright, just-- Get in here--” Ann cursed. Anne caressed the length of Ann’s arms and closed the door behind them. Ann pressed them against the door with force and reached to kiss Anne. Anne was taken aback, but swiftly recovered and wrapped their arms around Ann, answering her hungry kiss. Their hands ran up Ann’s back and fiddled with the zipper of her dress before opening it. Ann wouldn’t let the dress drop off until she’d had Anne remove their jacket, her fingers quick on the buttons of Anne’s waistcoat. She pushed away the waistcoat and brought her hands on Anne, impatiently tugging their shirt, urging to get her hands on their skin.
Anne pushed the straps of Ann’s dress over her shoulders and the dress dropped onto the floor. Anne’s hands glided down to Ann’s hips, before they plucked her up. Ann wrapped her legs around Anne as they carried her over to the bed, onto which they tumbled quite cumbersomely, but Anne didn’t care; Ann clung to them and they crawled on top of her, hands quick to unhook her bra. Ann freed her hands from behind Anne’s back and started to work on Anne’s collar chain and tie. She grimaced and gnarled in frustration.
“Why does something that looks so good must be absolutely impossible to remove…” she hissed and fiddled with the chain. Anne chuckled amused, but let Ann take care of it, only frowning minutely when Ann carelessly tossed the collar chain onto the floor, followed by the tie. Ann’s fingers were quick to unbutton Anne’s shirt, and as soon as her hands were on their skin, Anne forgot about the fate of the chain altogether.
Ann wriggled off her bra and pinned Anne on top of her with her leg on their back. Anne ran their hand the length of Ann’s leg, over her hip, stopping to press down tenderly, before making their way up to Ann’s waist and slipping behind her back, urging her closer. Ann slid her hands down and opened Anne’s trousers, slipping her hands under the waistband. She pulled Anne’s hips down and ground hers against them.
Anne pressed a hard kiss on Ann’s lips and for a moment they just pressed against her, absolutely willing to melt together. They felt Ann’s tongue caress their lips and opened their mouth to deepen the kiss. Anne pushed Ann’s legs apart with their leg and set themself between her legs. Ann lifted her hips and Anne was quick to retreat from the kiss for a moment to pull off her knickers, before wriggling out of their trousers. When they looked back at Ann, they smiled and breathed deep, hearing a soft, sweet laugh from Ann, too. They ran their hands up Ann’s body to cup her breasts, coming to lie on top of her again. The warmth of Ann’s skin on theirs momentarily felt so pleasing Anne was almost petrified. They thought about their conversation downstairs with Mary before, and were both astonished and grateful that they were suddenly here with their wife, the closest they’d been in a long while (well, save for this afternoon).
“Anne?” they heard Adney whisper. Anne shook their head minutely.
“What is it? What’s the matter?” Ann sought to sit up, and Anne pulled back to allow her, cursing that they’d suddenly gotten all pensive. They gently pulled Adney to sit on their lap, her legs around them.
“Nothing, I just…” Anne tried, “I’m just happy we’re… close.” They heard Adney let out a faint, soft laugh, before her forehead came to rest against Anne’s. Gingerly, she caressed Anne’s legs and sides, while brushing her nose softly against Anne’s cheek.
“I think we could be a bit closer, even” she then whispered and pushed her hips down, before pressing a quick kiss on Anne’s lips, “if you wish.” Anne chuckled, nodding, starting to remove their binder.
“Help me out of this, won’t you?”
There was nothing better than to feel the weight of her wife on top of her. Well, perhaps to feel their hands trail up the inside of her thigh, to land between her legs, cupping her firmly.
Ann tossed her head back in a sigh, and Anne was quick to place their lips on her neck, pressing rough kisses, nibbling her skin as they went. Ann turned her head and found Anne’s mouth, biting their lower lip teasingly, before melting into a deep kiss. They parted for just a second, and Ann moaned against Anne’s lips, when Anne slowly slid their finger in.
The laboured groan that escaped Anne’s lips sent a shiver down Ann’s spine, and she pulled Anne down, tight with her leg, rocking her hips as Anne’s hand started to move. Anne introduced another finger, and when their thumb landed on Ann’s clit, Ann whimpered into their kiss. Anne broke off their kiss and moved lower, and soon their mouth was on Ann’s nipple, sucking gently.
Ann couldn’t help a gasp and she ran her hand up Anne’s back to their hair, tugging on it. Her hips jolted up as Anne curled their fingers, their thumb pressing on her clit, a perfect, infuriatingly teasing ebb and flow of rough and light. Then, she felt Anne’s body tense, and Anne moved up and sank their teeth to Ann’s shoulder, attempting to muffle their moan. Ann gasped in surprise and for a split second Anne’s hand came to a halt. Ann was about to speak, when Anne pulled their fingers out and brought their mouth to Ann’s ear.
“Sit on my face.”
Anne retreated and Ann hurried up, allowing Anne to fall on their back. Ann crawled on top of Anne and came astride above Anne’s face.
“You good?” she muttered as Anne’s hands came to hold her by her hips firmly.
“Yes” Anne replied shortly and arched their back as Ann gingerly lowered herself. She’d been sorry for a fleeting moment when Anne’s fingers had left her, but her mind was cleared of any other thought when Anne pressed their mouth onto her.
“Ahhh---!” She knew they were upstairs and well away from the living room, but there was a chance someone heard her just then. She fought hard not to collapse on Anne, but the way they worked their tongue made her legs weak. She thought nothing could add to her absolute bliss, but then Anne moved their hand up her side and squeezed her nipple, and Ann had to bite her lip to not moan again. Anne licked her length and Ann knew it would only take them a few more seconds to make her come. She tried to stay as high up as possible, afraid she was hurting Anne, but Anne’s hand pulled her down hard on their mouth, and they sucked on Ann one last time before Ann’s gasps filled the room.
Anne didn’t stop until Ann brought her hands up against the headboard, gasping. She struggled, but moved aside and fell on her back, panting. A second later, Anne tossed onto their back next to Ann, equally out of breath. Ann caught their smile in the dim room and replied with a languid smirk, closing her eyes. She felt Anne come closer and wrap their arms around her.
“Shall we retire for the night?” Anne whispered in her ear. Ann let out a content chuckle and nuzzled closer, resting her head on Anne’s chest. Anne’s heartbeat was elevated still, its sturdy sound erupting a small wave of comfort in Ann with every beat.
“Yes” Ann replied, and Anne pressed a soft kiss on her hair.
At 6:48 am on April 4th, Anne woke up to a faint feeling of cool air on their face. Slowly and expecting a mild headache, they opened their eyes. They’d turned to face Adney at some point during the night (they mostly fell asleep spooning Adney), but found Adney’s side of the bed empty now.
Anne sat up and looked around.
“Adney?” they called. Adney’s phone was on her bedside table, next to a glass of water. Anne turned and reached for their watch on their side, and found a full glass of water there, too. Adney had thought of them, then, apparently. Anne took their watch and checked the time. Early, but late enough for them to not be bothered if they didn’t fall back to sleep.
“Adney?” they called again. No answer. Anne noticed one of the doors to the balcony was open. Panic rushed through their body and they scrambled up, hurrying across the room.
“Adney?” they stumbled out the door. The stone floor felt freezing against their bare feet. Adney turned, astonished, when they called her name.
“What’s the matter?” she blinked, “Pony! Get some socks on--” she hurried to Anne, “it’s freezing!”
Anne tapped their feet, lightly skipping to avoid the cold floor.
“I was looking for you--” they muttered. Ann tutted and crouched by the door, and soon handed Anne a pair of slippers. Anne put their arm around Adney and pressed a firm kiss on her hair while slipping their frozen feet in the slippers. Adney seemed hesitant at Anne’s touch, but then timidly leaned against them, resting her head against Anne’s shoulder.
“Did you sleep well? How’s your back?” Anne muttered as they both looked at the frosty fields and hills spreading in front of them. It was a clear, still morning, the sun just rising behind the house.
“Yes. I’m alright. Evidently Tib splurges on good beds, then” Adney replied.
“Why does that not surprise me?” Anne muttered and felt Ann huff a soft laugh.
“I would’ve hoped to sleep a bit longer” Adney spoke, “or that you would, at least. But I guess we’re both used to getting up before 7 now.”
Anne caressed her back gingerly. They wanted to say something, but felt nervous and shy suddenly, the words sticking to their throat.
“Adney?” they whispered, their voice a tad coarse.
“I love you.”
Ann put her arms around Anne and nudged their shoulder with her head tenderly.