Jamie didn’t have any proof that Miss Claire Beauchamp was avoiding him, but he was almost certain of it.
It didn't help matters that the words on Jamie’s tongue had felt thick and gritty, as if he’d just swallowed a mouthful of clay-laden soil.
Jamie spent the rest of the weekend stewing, finding jobs around the farm, which required solitude. Willie didn’t appear to notice. He was much too busy giving his pony a thorough wash in the stables and then completing his maths homework assignment.
But the time alone gave Jamie that extra bit of time he needed to get his mind back into the right place.
Talking about the past, about Geneva, was never easy. No matter who Jamie was talking to. It typically took him a few days afterwards to completely calm down, center himself, and get back into the right, and present , frame of mind.
His Mam, Ellen, and Jenny could sense something was off as soon as Jamie and Willie walked over to the big house to spend Sunday morning together as a family unit. Jamie prepared himself for an onslaught of questions and sideways looks, something all of the Fraser women were experts at doing. But although they showed twin concerned expressions, neither of them said anything outright to his face. Jamie wouldn’t be surprised to learn they already knew the reason for his quietness. After living together for so long and being so close as a family – it wasn’t hard to learn the signs of Geneva’s ghost hanging about the estate, or worse, hanging about Jamie’s mind.
The only sign of something amiss was the quick squeeze Jenny gave her younger brother around his thick wrist, just as he and Willie stood up to leave. To an outsider, it wouldn’t look different or unusual, just a sister giving her brother a sign of affection. But those people quite clearly didn’t know Jenny Fraser Murray very well.
Jenny was a hugger by nature, to everyone, but especially to one of the people she loved most in this world - her brother.
But she’d seen his outbursts before. Had been there, right front and center when he told them all about Geneva’s tragic death. Jenny knew from experience that at a time like this all Jamie needed was space. He didn’t want to be coddled, to be hugged, to be told everything would be okay. He simply would ask to be left alone. Jenny didn’t exactly think it was a healthy coping mechanism, but who was she to judge? Most of all, she hated to not be able to wrap her arms around her younger brother. To pick up and stick back together the pieces of his broken heart, as she had done when they’d been younger.
From the moment baby Jamie had been brought home from the hospital, all wrapped up in a blue blanket with a white hat upon his head, Jenny had been there. She’d sat in the same chair she sat in now, baby brother held safely in her arms, cooing away to him while their Mam bustled about the kitchen, making dinner for the four of them. Jenny had been the first to run up the stairs and grab a change of nappy and some fresh baby wipes for her Mam to use, and before long, Jenny could change Jamie’s nappy all by herself. She’d paid enough attention to her Mam, standing silently by her side at the changing table, until Jenny was sure she knew the careful steps in her sleep.
As they’d gotten older, Jenny made sure to share all of her toys, even if Jamie had no interest in playing with Barbies or the latest baby doll. In fact, Jamie would usually be found destroying them; drawing all over the dolly’s faces or clothes, and cutting their hair. But Jenny couldn’t stay angry with her younger brother for very long, not when she got one look at his cheeky, toothless grin.
Jamie's first heartbreak at fourteen couldn’t even be classified as heartbreak. Ask Jamie yourself, he’d tell you; he was just being dramatic. But it had been slightly painful to learn the girl you’d just lost your virginity to, was dumping you for a lad you thought was a friend. From the moment he’d come home from school, and only picked at the ham salad sandwich she had made for him, Jenny knew something was amiss. Eventually, she’d coaxed it out of Jamie, laughing, as his face, ears, and neck turned a bright red as he told his older sister the full story. Jenny had simply patted his back, made him another cup of tea, and this time placed a blueberry muffin, still fresh from the oven and all gooey inside, down in front of him.
“They’re supposed to be for after dinner, so don’t tell Mam, will ye?” She’d said.
Jamie had stood up, ducked his head to reach his sister, who was now shorter than him, and placed a feather-light kiss on her cheek in thanks. Jenny had batted him away, listening intently as he took his muffin and ambled away to his safe haven. The stables. Once he was gone, Jenny turned back to the pot of stew she was supposed to be keeping an eye on, and let herself smile widely at the thought of cheering Jamie up, even if it was only a little bit.
Throughout her life, Jenny had prided herself on being there for Jamie, to help him through the tough turns of life. But this? This wasn’t something she’d ever expected. Something she, or anybody else, seemed to be able to help him with. It broke Jenny into pieces more than anyone knew, not even her husband, Ian.
So when the ghost of Geneva, that scornful bitch, was apparent in Jamie’s eyes, Jenny wouldn’t bring him in for a tight hug as she wanted to. No, she’d simply squeeze a part of his body that she could reach. It was a silent form of communication. A way to reassure both Jamie and herself, that Jenny was here if he needed to talk and still there, even if Jamie just wanted to sit in silence with his thoughts. Her brother wasn’t alone, no matter what he might think.
Jamie squeezed her hand back, giving her a smile, but with no warmth in his deep blue eyes. But at least he was willing to touch her and be touched. That was something in itself.
The rest of the weekend passed by in a blur, and by Monday, Jamie still did not feel his best. He’d dropped Willie off at the school car park, not feeling like he could face getting out of the car and making small talk to one of the other parents. Jamie had spent the rest of the day flitting from one task to another, not being able to concentrate on one single thing for very long, which was very unlike him. Around noon, Jenny had brought along a box full of homemade shortbread biscuits. She’d left wee Jamie at home with his Da, so it was just her and Jamie who sat at his kitchen table together, dunking their biscuits in their tea, in silence.
“Do ye want to talk?” Jenny had asked once, staring at the top of her brother’s head, as Jamie bent to reach for another biscuit.
Jamie met her stare. “No, thank ye, sister.”
Out in front of her, Jenny’s fingers twitched in towards her upturned palm, as if in a phantom grasp. “Ye ken where I am if ye do want to talk, don’t ye?”
“Aye, of course I do.”
He didn’t want to admit it to her, but Jenny’s presence was just another reminder of everything Jamie didn’t have - a loving Mam for Willie, a pregnant wife who loved him, a growing family.
By Tuesday morning, Jamie felt the grey fog from around his head begin to disappear. Outside, the sun was shining brighter than it had in days. Jamie rose out of his slumber with the stars rising, heading downstairs still in his pajamas and filling the kettle up with fresh water. He brewed himself the perfect cup of tea, with just the right amount of milk and sugar to his taste, and decided it might be nice to sit out on the step with it. Jamie hadn’t been able to do it recently, what with the Scottish weather being so temperamental, so it was a pleasant change of routine. Something his brain quite clearly needed.
Time ticked by. Jamie wasn’t exactly sure how long because he’d left his phone on the granite countertop, but he knew it was still early, when the door creaked open again and Willie appeared. He too, was still in his pajamas, feet bare, and the blanket from the bottom of his bed wrapped around his shoulders.
“What are ye doing up so early?” Jamie said, patting the space next to him. “I wasn’t gannae wake ye for another half hour or so.”
Willie sat himself down, bringing his knees up to his chest, and tucking himself into Jamie’s side as much as possible.
“I heard ye get up.” Willie’s eyes fixed on a stray yellow weed in the middle of the pasture. “Didn’t want ye to get lonely.”
“Tcha, lad.” Jamie slung his arm around his son’s small shoulders, holding him tight, holding him close. When he bent down to lay a kiss upon his bairn’s head, Jamie could smell the mixture of soap Willie had used in the bath last night, and a slight undertone of hay from the horse’s stables. “I’m never lonely with ye by my side.”
By the slight movement of the sun, Jamie would have guessed the two of them, just a Da and his lad, stayed basking in the early morning sunshine for about twenty minutes. They said nothing more to each other, but closed their eyes, tipping their heads back and feeling the heat lay on their skin.
If it was even possible, behind his eyelids, Jamie could picture the bright, golden light burning away that grey fog which had followed him around since the weekend. He could feel the hard concrete step beneath him, supporting his weight. The cold material, which hadn’t had time to warm up yet, bit into the empty soles of his feet, but it was rather a nice contrast to the rapidly warm sun on the top of his head. Around him, the birds were already busy, chirping to one another, and diving towards the grass in search of sustenance. Most of the other cattle were still in their pens, but away in the distance, Jamie could spot a lone ewe and her calf standing together in the fresh air, miles of grassy verge surrounding them.
“I’m gannae go in and get some juice, and then get ready for school. Are ye coming, Da?”
For a moment there, Jamie had forgotten Willie sat beside him. It had felt so natural to have him tucked into Jamie’s body, the two of them falling into the same breathing pattern. As they had done, when Willie had been only a baby and Jamie had chosen to wear him around his back in a sling, in order to have use of both of his hands and get the extra work done around the house.
“Aye,” Jamie nodded, corners of his eyes crinkling to see Willie’s silhouette in the sun. “Two minutes, I’ll be right in.”
“What are we having for dinner?” Willie asked, the spoon from his current meal still hanging out of his mouth. Jamie did have to laugh, a lad after his own heart - thinking about his next meal while he ate his first one.
“I was thinking of garlic chicken, chips and veg.” Jamie added a pinch of sugar to his own parritch. “How does that sound? Good?”
“Aye. But will ye ask Nana what she’s got for pudding, for afters?”
As they drove to school, Jamie and Willie listened intently to the new football podcast Ian had introduced them to. Jamie only had the intention of getting out of the driver’s seat to watch Willie get into class okay, but that changed when he spotted two familiar brunette heads.
“Are ye listening to me, Da?”
“Eh?” Jamie looked down at his son. “Och, sorry Willie, what were ye saying, lad?”
Willie lifted one dark eyebrow, clearly not very happy with his Da’s behaviour. “I said,” he repeated. “Will ye make sure not to listen to this week’s episode with me? Don’t even skip over, all right?”
“Aye, okay.” Jamie laughed. “I promise I won’t listen to it without ye, I’ll save it for when ye get back home. Now let’s go, otherwise ye’re gannae be late and…”
“But I thought ye weren’t coming to the door? Ye said ye didn’t want to socialize with dick…”
Jamie held up his hand, stopping Willie mid sentence. “Don’t repeat that word out loud, son. I’ll just drop ye off at the door quickly. I’ve seen someone I want to talk to.”
“Is it Miss Beauchamp?” Willie said mockingly, clasping his hands together at his chest and batting his eyelashes.
“Don’t be such an eejit.” Jamie gave Willie a slight bat about his head, but a smirk toyed around his lips. “And shut yer mouth, ye shouldn’t speak to yer Da like that.”
Willie stuck his tongue out; racing ahead to greet a small boy Jamie couldn’t place a name too.
Whether she meant to or not, Claire stood out in the crowd. Her natural height helped, elevating her, and making her easy to spot. But the way she was so neatly dressed, curled hair sprayed within an inch of its life and pinned back and a pretty china blue print dress highlighting her figure, even at this time in the morning, compared to some of the other parents, set her apart easily.
“Claire! Sassenach!” He called.
Claire turned around at the sound of her nickname, twisting her elegant neck to find where Jamie stood. Once she spotted him, Claire held up two fingers in the universal sign of ‘wait two minutes’, and bent down to give Fergus one last kiss. She waved her son off, checking over her shoulder to make sure he’d gotten inside okay, as she strode over to Jamie.
“I can’t stop and chat,” she said, before Jamie even had the chance to open his mouth. “I’ve got a quick meeting with Mr Wellman and that bloody English teacher.”
“Mrs Kay, ye mean?”
“Yes,” Claire nodded, crossing her arms. “I think that was her name, or at least something along those lines. Why? Do you know her?”
“Och, no,” Jamie smirked. “I had the same meeting with her last week when Willie came home upset.”
“Did you actually?” Claire grimaced, chewing on her upper lip. “I bet she hates the both of us right about now.”
“Well.” Jamie held either palms up to the shining sky, in a ‘what can you do, expression. “She shouldn’t come up with a stupid school project, then should she?”
That got a small giggle out of Claire, but her body was still strung up as if she were preparing for all out battle, arms over her chest to protect herself.
“Yes, you’re right about that. The mother bear in me has come out to play, and I won’t be going down without a fight, so…”
“Aye, I can see.” Jamie agreed. “There’s almost flames burning in ye poor eyes.”
Claire attempted to bat for his shoulder, but Jamie ducked out of the way, laughing to himself. “Shut up, won’t you? Don’t be such a clever dick.”
“A clever dick?” He repeated, breaking out into a grin.
Her lips twitched at the corners, but she resisted the temptation to smile. “Yes, you heard me.”
The watch sitting around Claire’s wrist pinged annoyingly, signaling some sort of text or perhaps a notification. Bringing it up to her face, Claire’s eyes swung from side to side as she read whatever was on the screen. “I’ve really got to get going, Jamie. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, lass. See you later?”
“Mhm.” It appeared Claire’s mind had flitted away to a different place. “I’ll, um… eh… see you in a bit.”
And then she was off.
Jamie would be the world’s biggest liar, if he said he didn’t watch his Sassenach leave. Watch intently the way the cotton material of her dress clung to her tapered waist, and round arse. How was a man supposed to resist, for God’s sake? He was only human, after all.
Each day Jamie woke up, he felt like more and more of the awful fog had disappeared. Until he was almost positive, this time around, it had gone for certain.
He was also certain his Sassenach was avoiding him at any given chance. After Tuesday, Jamie had seen Claire at the school gates only on Thursday and Friday morning. He could tell her mind had been elsewhere, he’d noticed her almost, well… scurrying about the place, was the only word for it. Claire had brushed him off both times Jamie had opened his mouth to start a conversation; holding that damn watch up to her wrist, and promising she had some hospital meeting that she must run to.
Jamie wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it.
He knew Claire was a busy woman, she’d told him directly, and with a glass face like hers, Jamie thought he’d be able to tell if she were lying. In all honesty, it didn’t feel like his ego was hurt by her actions, his feelings trampled on and pushed to the side. Jamie had experienced that particular pain one too many times with Geneva, and Claire (even if she was keeping him at arm's length) certainly hadn’t made Jamie feel like that.
He was confused most of all.
The question of ‘why?’ floated about his head, mainly as he stood in the shower, hair sopping wet, or just as he tried to drift off to sleep.
Why did she feel the need to avoid him?
Was it something he’d done?
Or did her chosen avoidance say more about her own behaviour?
From both experience and age, Jamie knew all too well that people did strange things. Behaved in a weird manner, or at least a manner, which was foreign to you and your ways. Sometimes it hurt. Sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the other person meant it to hurt, acted out the way they did to get under your skin on purpose. But sometimes, and it happened more times than you would imagine, that particular person didn’t mean for it to hurt you. They didn’t go out of their way to make it burn.
Jamie didn’t believe Claire had purposefully gone out of her way to avoid him. She didn’t seem the type. So perhaps she didn’t even ken she was doing it?
But as the week drew to a close, and Willie’s Saturday football match crept ever closer, Jamie was determined to ask Claire about it as they stood together on the pitch sidelines.