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Tell It To Me Singing

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i

You grew up surrounded by strangers. Strangers who wore dark dresses and pressed suits. Strangers with stern expressions and stiff postures. Strangers with ridged mouths and pinching fingers you were encouraged to think of as your family, though they were not.

Before your father died it was different, but you were small when he died and you don't remember much about him. If pressed, you can recall standing next to him in a light room, with the cold winter sun coming in through the shades. You can remember crying and clutching to his long legs, but you can't remember when it was or what made you cry.

(You can't remember his face).

As a child, you were always anxious about details, about your mother, about silences. After your father died you were looking for signs your mother might disappear as well. The day you met Eddie was the day this fear transformed into something bigger, something heavier, something that was suffocating you from the inside.

Before you met Eddie, before you became a fixture in the O'Mara household, before you were expected to make a home by Eddie's side, under his name, you were anxious and you were supposed to know your place.

Know your place, Danielle, was what your mother always told you. She didn't always mean for it to sound harsh, you know she loved you, but it always did and the pattern held for years.

Know your place, but you never learned what place that was, because you couldn't talk back – not even to ask where exactly to find this place you were meant to think of as your own.

Know your place, Danielle, your mother always told you and followed with a string of commands that made little sense. Lower your chin. Don't stand on the edge of your shoe. Wipe that smile off your face. And for the love of God, stop fidgeting.

As a child, you learned many things; how to be quiet, what not to say, how to look at things without touching them. Most importantly, you learned how to keep your mouth shut. You learned to close your ears when your mother had a friend over, learned to ignore the unfamiliar, archaic, rhythmic creaks of bed and sofa., You learned to never question the wordless, mindless, almost agonising voices of a woman you never quite thought of as your mother at nights like this.

The most important lesson was to never touch anything. To be the object of silence.

I don't care how much it hurts, Danielle. You're a lady. Remember that. Now keep still and stop twisting. And for heaven's sake – stop this noise at once. It's unbecoming to wail like that.

Your mother always looked at you like you were something a little dirty, something a little foreign, but something she had to take care of, nonetheless. You tried to be better, tried to make her think of you as something other than a chore, other than a burden. After Eddie's family moved to the neighbourhood and you became friends (through a happy accident Eddie made you swear to never talk about ever again), you ceased to try and make her see you as anything other than what she thought of you.

Stand straight, Danielle. Keep your mouth shut. Know your place.

But you didn't know your place, and you had trouble standing still and when your mother turned her cold blue to stare at you, you dug your nails deep into the edge of your thumbs and pulled until a tiny drop of blood blossomed on your skin.

All you could think of, by the tender age of ten, is that you want to get away from your small, decent town in this suffocating middle west. You didn't want to be trapped, and you didn't want to stand still, and you didn't want to end up like your mother; bitter and small and reeking of alcohol.

We're gonna have a big family, Eddie used to tell you, excited and bouncing, misunderstanding your silence for complacency. I'm gonna drive a nice car, and you're gonna wait for me to come home from work. You won't have to worry about anything, Danielle. I'm gonna take good care of you.

But you didn't want to have a big family or be anyone's mother, ever; you had none of those ambitions. You never wanted a big house with a white fence and Eddie's carbon copies running around your house. You never wanted to own or inherit any objects. Possessions, you always thought, were a noose around one's neck – not the way you want to live your life. You didn't want to cope. You didn't want to deteriorate.

(When you were small, just a child, you used to pray that you wouldn't live long enough to have to fulfill any of the things the people around you expected you to fulfill).

(To become the thing Eddie expected you to become).

Eddie didn't understand why you used to flinch away from his suffocating dreams. Judy smiled sadly when you told her you think there's something wrong with you, and your mother was never one to listen, so eventually you stopped talking about it. You wore your pastel clothes, you leaned on Eddie's arm, you pretended to be something you never were, a mask of a girl you hardly knew.

By fifteen you became a quick expert on appearances. Your small town demanded it. Red Victorian houses and autumn trees dotted the hillside in the distance. Below the ground, something that can't be seen but nevertheless there, full of gritty old rocks and buried stumps, worms, and bones and nothing you ever wanted.

There was never charm to the town in your eyes, only primitive, exotic suffocation you longed to escape. A mere misery. Heaven gone wrong.

At sixteen you looked in order to copy, knowing there was something wrong with you, not knowing exactly what. At eighteen you looked to distance yourself from everything you secretly hated too much to try and suppress. After you came back from college, you just looked.

Eddie always thought you were well ahead of the rest of your small group of friends (mostly Eddie's friends) but you knew yourself as peripheral. You performed a character, Danielle, a foreign concept you never learned to play well enough, though nobody was looking long enough to find faults in your performance.

You should smile more, Eddie used to whisper into your hair, confusing possession for love. You're so beautiful. I want everybody to see how beautiful you are.

So you did. There were always teeth bared at your too- flushed cheeks, at your fascination with women, at your hands, fidgeting and picking at nails and skin, drawing blood.

You became a theater of one. Arms flung to the side as if to show there were no concealed weapons. You always smiled, a good-girl smile, the kind you see on your mother's friends' faces, the kind that holds no threat. Your head thrown back, throat bared to the knife; an offering, an exposure to make sure the real you was concealed, tucked away beneath the layers of this unfamiliar girl – this complete stranger Danielle.

You felt no eagerness, no separation, no embarrassment. You floated through almost thirty years of your life, closed off and unread, frenzied, pushing people's attention away from you in fear they might see through some unguarded crack you weren't aware of in your pastel-coloured front.

When Eddie died it was as if you were floating back from an anesthetic.

You did not feel anything, at first. Then you opened your eyes and you knew this could never go on. You were never meant to be Danielle. You were never meant to carry Edmund's last name. You were never meant to be this.

So, you turned your head, opened your eyes slowly, and for the first time you saw the truth. There was nothing holding you back anymore.

The realisation hit you as if from a long distance. As if you were looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Go, you told yourself, stumbling and choking on tears you didn't feel. Go. And never come back.

ii

The gardener has the looks of someone who would resist with all their might being done over, jerked around, toyed with. For one thing, she's too old for childish games; past the silly putty stage. She must be thirty, or on the verge of it. She is also sporting the hint of sullen, useless anger that isn't showing, the kind that turns into teeth and claws and mad furry, twisted and misshapen.

She has a nice tan, not the leathery kind, but a smooth one, all honey, and sunshine. Her skin is sun-kissed and soft, muscles flexing just under the surface. Her curls, messy and brown, are post-hippie-length – bottom of the earlobes, slightly under the collar. The hair's a little ragged, though, as if she does it herself with kitchen scissors. She's wearing denim overalls and a grey tank under a blue flannel shirt. Her combat boots are old. There's a certain air about her, not a rascal, not a rebel, not a pirate, but there's something.

When you look at her hands; good, calloused, practical hands, you can tell those are worker's hands. Carpenter's hands. Someone who doesn't shy away from hard work, scraping the skin on toughened wood, bleeding from all sorts of cuts into beautiful, colourful flowers.

When the gardener is not welding tools or digging in pots of soil, when she doesn't toy with half-burnt cigarettes or wrappings her fingers around tea mugs, the hands – those worker hands, are not doing anything and there is something idle, something warm, something maddening about her.

What is most appealing about the gardener is not the way she looks, but the way her soul is visibly shining through her eyes. When she looks at you, she is not asking for anything. No admiration, no absolution. No explanation. Her eyes are bright, stormy, not blue and not green and not grey. She smiles, a crooked little smile that says I see you, and then she turns her head and swaggers off, walking away, kicking dust and small stones, humming a tuneless tune.

The gardener is a brilliant, distant mystery. She chases the children, who giggle happily. She’s parading around the house and gardens, she's pinching them playfully, smiles for them in a way she does not smile for the adults, steals a biscuit from a tin box stashed at the corner of a cupboard.

She's gentle. You've never thought someone so charming, someone so brave can be this gentle.

//

Bly, unlike London, is moist and green and welcoming. The outline is softly rounded. The air is clear. London, in comparison, is a line of harsh vertical cliffs, flat-topped ancient buildings, scrubby and glassy and dry – something you don't miss.

Nothing about Bly reminds you of London, and it doesn't remind you of home. The hills are evicted, the grass is green. The whole place looks like a postcard.

Bly is clean. It has one main road, a couple of stores, all two-story and grey brick, a pub, a church, then square houses, white, and pastel, scattered up a small hill.

"Posh buggers," says the gardener but you're having trouble believing her grumpy observations. When you smile politely, she shakes her head, shrugs, and ventures off.

You tear your eyes away from her and back to the village. You wonder if the gardener is right, after all. If Bly has the same small-minded people as your hometown, or if it looks peaceful just because you're watching the scene through a stranger's eyes.

You think it must be. After all, It's a small village.

//

You wake up early, even though you went to bed late, too excited to sleep. You lie on the warm sheets and listen to the house, different now that the sun is up. From downstairs you can hear Mrs. Grose walking the halls, moving through empty rooms. The children are still asleep.

You grope your way out of bed and lean on the windowsill, looking out at the sunlight, which is bright but not ferocious. Down below is a lawn, green and pretty, and you think your room must beis at the back of the house since you can't see the path leading to the front gate.

The morning is kind and you consider your wardrobe. There isn't much choice but you’d like to take a moment and make sure you're presented as Dani for the first time in your life.

You make sure to keep your clothes comfortable and fluffy, non-threatening. You know that after breakfast will come the rest of the day, which will surely be long and bright and filled with activity and new experiences. You will have to learn the children, sustain some of your authority but keep it light. This isn't a school. This is something different altogether.

You look at your hands when you finish washing, and they don't seem professional to you. Your fingers are bitten to the quick, stub-tipped, slightly grubby rawness you know all too well. The skin is red and wrinkled around the nails, hard like a scar.

When you look at your palms, you are a little repelled by the sight. Your hands are like pure damage, the edge between inside and outside slightly blurred.

"Poppins?" Jamie says at the dinner table, the troubled crease between her eyebrows, and you jerk your head up and give her a somewhat demented smile.

Jamie raises one eyebrow. "Alright?"

"Yes," you say breathlessly. "Thank you".

//

You do what you do because you're good at it. This is what you tell people. Also because you don't know how to do anything else, which you don't say.

If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, your mother used to say. Not that it has ever stopped her.

It's hard to detach yourself from who you used to be; from Judy and your town and your mother. When you call her from the green phone in the foyer, she sounds angry and sad and disappointed but she doesn't explain.

She's talking about things you don't understand, then she tells you to keep your head straight and never look too happy to see a man. She tells you to keep your legs closed, even though she knows you're not the kind to flop on your back out of loneliness. If you were, you think bitterly. Eddie might still be alive.

"Don't forget to call me, Danielle. It's terribly lonely here without you".

And it's a lie because your mother is not fond of you and you never spent too much time with her back in America. You always wanted to, but you stopped trying years ago.

"Okay," you say. "I love you, mum".

"Also, I've been sick lately".

Your mother says 'I'm sick' in a sort of hushed voice that blends pity, admiration, and envy together.

"Nothing serious, I hope?" you want to end the call. You know how it is where you come from. It's always a contest of illness. Someone has to win and it can only be the sickest one. That's how things are done.

"You know it cannot be serious, Danielle. I have things to do. But enough about me. All is well with you, I trust?" it's not real interest, you remind yourself. It's a duty your mother performs half-heartedly.

You stopped telling your mother bad news a long time ago. You don't always bother to tell her good news, as well. As a child, you learned to conceal cuts and scrapes, since your mother seemed to regard such things not as accidents but as acts you committed on purpose to complicate her life.

What did you do that for? your mother would say, jabbing at the blood with a wet towel. Next time watch where you're going, Danielle. This is not acceptable behaviour for a young lady.

"I'm okay," you say through gritted teeth and beg silently for this torture to end.

Until next time. There is always a next time.

"Good. Stay safe, darling. And be good".

"I love you, mum," you say again but she has already hung up.

You hope your mother is doing as well as she sounds. Your hometown can be a hard place for women like your mother. Full of strange lunatics and fanatics and people who think it's a sin to wear makeup.

It's hard for your mother, you know.

She's the type of woman who thinks it's a sin not to.

iii

Eddie's ghost is haunting you. Still haunting you in England. Still haunting you in London. Still haunting you in green, peaceful Bly.

You feel like you've stepped across a line and found yourself on Mars. You try to reason with him, to ask what he wants, to understand the bright, blinding stare behind his familiar glasses. You try fear, and you try logic and you try ignoring him, but Eddie is silent and Eddie is frowning and you don't know what he wants.

"I'm sorry," you tell him. "I should never have said yes. I know that. It was my mistake. I wanted… I hoped – "

Whatever it is he wants, he doesn't voice it. You can feel him behind you everywhere you go, following you. You try to quicken your pace, but he speeds up, too. You're almost running and there is more of him around you, scary and suffocating and nothing like your best friend.

The people around the house, smiling and laughing, don't know what you're dealing with and so they cannot help.

You're always anxious these days, just on this side of panic, and it's too much like the bad dreams you wish you could stop having. But you don't know why Eddie is following you, and you don't know why you can't sleep and you are crowded by a man you never loved, by a friend you dreaded to lose but always knew it was inevitable.

"Slow down, Poppins," says Jamie, in her blue denim overalls and with her trademark troublemaker's smile.

You're breathing hard, your face is wet and must be red. You probably look demented and certainly inept.

Jamie is still smiling, small wrinkles at the edges of her eyes, pink tongue poking between white teeth.

"Easy there".

And also:

"You alright?"

And you're not alright and you can't stop and you can't explain.

You're more angry than frightened when Jamie corners you with her easy manner and gleaming eyes. You're not upset with Jamie, though, not angry at her for trying to help. You're angry with yourself for not being able to deal with the rising panic in your chest, with the clogging in your throat, the tears prickling behind your eyes, pressing on your nose.

Jamie is brilliant and Jamie is beautiful and Jamie is good and you can't take your eyes off of her, but you are here – breathing heavily, crying like a lunatic, snot and tears running down your face. You're not someone Jamie should spend her time on.

You fist your hands into tight balls. You're calmer now but not cooler.

"I'm okay," you manage to choke out. "Thank you".

Jamie doesn't touch you when she stands close, leaning in to search your face. She stretches out her hand, calm and beautiful and solid, and you want to cry.

When she does touch you, much later, she has her fingers around your palm. Her fingers are rough and calloused from hard work and she clamps them around you, holding for an instant, squeezing reassurance into you. Then she lets you go, smiles, and turns away.

It's an act of kindness, but also of friendship.

You feel rescued.

//

There's a line between being asleep and being awake which you find hard to cross. You crawl through the grey folds of netting as if through a burrow, sand in your eyes, blinking in the dark, disoriented, tired, but not asleep. It's far too late to be awake but you get up anyway. You take a shower, which helps a little. You go down to the huge kitchen. You drink tea. You steal one of Owen's homemade biscuits.

The house is making you very nervous, for some reason you can't figure it out. You know it's a little deranged, though only a little. But you gradually open up enough space in your life that makes way for other feelings, feelings that haven't verged on full-blown lunacy, and when the sun is out and the kids play in the field beside the house, you can almost pretend to be calm.

The fluttering in your chest is making you nervous, too. Jamie is always in the corner of your vision, lifting heavy sacks and digging holes in the ground. You think of Jamie more often than you should and it's hard not to slide into patterns you know all too well.

A cloud of butterflies takes flight in the meadow. Jamie must have startled them with a careless swing of a hammer. Blue jays or crows make a fuss in the woods. Jamie makes a beautiful sound, something between a groan and a laugh, and squirrels chatter at her, grouse whirring away at her approach.

In the dusk, fireflies mark Jamie's path and owls greet her with muffled calls. She looks at home in the middle of the field, standing in the garden, surrounded by greens and blues and yellows.

"Should probably get inside, Poppins. S'getting cold out here".

You snap out of your Jamie-induced haze and smile at her apologetically because Jamie isn't someone to build dreams around just to shatter them in the morning. Jamie is a human. A wonderful human. Jamie deserves better than your late-night fantasies. Your misplaced desires.

You lock your dreams behind a door, and you can't stop worrying that the dreams will hatch and something unpleasant will emerge once you see Jamie's bright greyish-green eyes again.

You try not to think about her at all.

When you greet her at the breakfast table, you make sure to avert your eyes.

//

The first few weeks are a little rough, granted. The kids had needed to work their way uphill over some fairly thorny ground, and you discovered that you were less prepared for the conditions inside a huge country manor than you'd thought you would be.

You have to assert your authority, draw a few lines in the sand. At one point you thought about walking out, but the children are sweet and sad and lonely, and you can tell they had too many people quitting on them for you to add to the pile.

Miles has a look of complete astonishment on his face every time you wave away his boyish attempts of intimidation, smiling and far away from being upset. Flora looks at you as if she sees you for the first time, moving closer and closer with each passing day, not so wild and flamboyant anymore, but rather soft – a child finally being permitted to act her own age.

Both of them, you notice, surely have an unopened box, hidden somewhere under a rock, behind the house, marked V for Vengeance. You still don't see clearly where they're going, or where exactly they come from, but you trust that it's all getting better.

You call them guys like you used to call your favourite students, back home. When their faces light up, you know it's the right call.

Jamie's eyes twinkle at you as if from a great distance, and you smile right back at her, queasy and uncertain but present.

//

Jamie is sitting on the edge of a platform outside. She slouches forward, a cigarette stuck almost filthily between her teeth. She's dangling her legs like a restless child. Flora is sitting in front of her on the grass, a serious expression on her face, her fingers plucking small blades of grass, two small dollies abandoned by her side.

"Flora," you say with a sigh, heart hammering painfully in your chest as you try not to sound angry. "We've been looking everywhere for you".

"I'm so terribly sorry, Miss Clayton," Flora pipes up, the corners of her mouth turned downward. "It's just that – today is such a beautiful day. And Jamie promised to tell me a story".

"Well," you say as you wipe sweat from your brow with trembling fingers, horribly twisted images still sticking to the edges of your imagination. "That's alright. Next time just let me know, maybe?"

Jamie is not watching you, but the space between you and Flora, where the grass is the colour of mud. She has a crease between her brows and the half-smoked cigarette wiggles in her mouth.

"Oy, you," she says to Flora, mouthing the words around her half-burned fag. "Lie to me again, see how many stories I'll have for you".

Flora's shoulders sag. "I'm sorry, Miss Clayton." She says again without looking at you, fingers still nervously plucking the grass. "So very sorry".

"It's alright," you give Jamie a pointed look. "I was just worried".

"Alright," Jamie says patiently and kicks up ahead of her. She takes a drag from her cigarette, releasing the smoke skywards. Her eyes are running between you and Flora, scanning, back and forth, taking everything in.

You motion for Flora to come with you as you admire Jamie's eyes, which are an elusive shade between blue and green.

"May I have a glass of orange juice before supper, Miss Clayton?"

You smile down at Flora. "Sure thing".

When Flora disappears into the house, Jamie is still looking at you, except now she seems almost embarrassed. Her cheeks are a shade darker than usual. She's watching you sadly.

"I'm sorry, Poppins. Should have let you know the little monster was here with me".

"Oh, no!" you breathe out and make a visible effort to steady your choked voice. "It's okay. You haven't done anything wrong".

"Did, though," Jamie shrugs and takes a deep drag from her dwindling cigarette.

You step closer and put your hand on her knee. Jamie's eyes jump to your face. You force yourself to smile, though a lump is forming in your throat. You don't feel like smiling because your hand is on Jamie's knee and you can feel just how hot her skin is under the thick fabric.

(What you really want is to lean forward and press your mouth to her lips).

You shake your head and Jamie is still looking at you; clean and good. You notice, for the first time in your entire life, that clean and empty could be different things entirely.

Jamie has deep emotions written in tiny letters in her eyes. A storm of sorts swirling the depths of her pupils.

You squeeze her knee gently, to let her know that she's done no damage. Jamie releases the breath she was holding. She smiles back at you around another puff of blue smoke.

//

What you like most about Bly, about this big house, is its people. The kids, a little strange, maybe, but not cruel. The housekeeper, wonderful and motherly with a slight detachment to her eyes. The cook, friendly and silly at times, like everyone's favourite big brother. But most of all you like the gardener – a little rough around the edges, a little grumpy, and with a warm, golden heart.

It's nothing like home, you decide. There is no disapproval, no automatic and self-righteous ill-wishing, no taut anticipation for your failure.

Nobody is looking at you like you're the embodiment of midwestern innocence or a charming version of the village idiot. There is an unfamiliar calm around the house, and its tenants, that you fall into without noticing, a honey trap that doesn't hold you a prisoner, but a willing participant.

Jamie, when she's talking, usually does so with a little frown. Sometimes she throws her head back while laughing, body shaking, showing her teeth. Hannah doesn't pry at all. Her questions are kind and soft. Owen asks questions, but mostly about what you used to eat as a child and how many American wonders have you witnessed. For a long time, his interest is purely professional.

You're not talking about your family to anyone but Jamie. You don't tell anyone but Jamie about Eddie and the missing ring around your finger. Most of all, you keep your background to yourself, letting a sentence here and there slide, just to make Flora smile, just to bring Miles down from his angry high, just to let Jamie know there is nothing about her sad little tales that shock you.

You're no stranger to everything that is bad and you keep your stories short, just a means to a bigger purpose. Nothing too personal. Nothing too painful.

Sometimes, you let more than a little slide, especially when there are horrible, heartbreaking sounds coming from the children's joined bedrooms. They have bad dreams and the moaning, stifled cries that are coming out of there are far worse than silence.

When Miles gives you a smile, something between a challenge and a smirk, you do your best not to get irritated. Instead, you tell him about America. You tell him about your late father and the stars and the things you can only do back at home. It seems like a good decision because it always calms him down.

Sometimes Miles pulls faces at Flora and you find it funnier than bothersome. As a child, you were never the troublesome kind; Eddie was always the one making a mess, the one running wild. You were always the one staying behind, cleaning his boyish wrongs, apologising with a kind smile and a heart full of envy. You did all of these not because you wanted to, and not because you weren't brave enough to join Eddie, but because it was expected.

When you were thirteen, your back talking age, your mother used to say you shouldn't pull faces at anyone, even at yourself in the mirror, or your face would grow that way permanently.

Is that what happened to you? you said once, but you said it under your breath and she didn't hear you.

You remember this vividly, and so you make sure not to scold Miles too harshly. He's only a kid. Instead, you encourage Flora to get bolder, not to stay behind.

//

Jamie walks over. She's taking her time. She never seems to move very fast. Jamie puts her half-full drink on the table and sits down next to you. She smiles and you smile back. Today, Jamie smells like turned earth and mowed grass and sunshine. She smells like leather and a hint of perfume and sunscreen. She smells like summer.

"Long day?"

Jamie waves her hand and sticks a cigarette between her teeth, fingers toying with the lighter.

"Gremlins' asleep?"

You laugh. "No. Owen insisted on showing them how to make real dough".

Jamie gives you a patient but exasperated look and fails twice to light her cigarette. "Cheeky bastard".

"You have plans for the weekend?" you don't want to sound jealous or reveal too much interest, though you suddenly realise that you feel both.

Jamie gives you an amused side-eye as she takes a satisfying drag out of her finally lit cigarette.

"I live above the only pub in Bly, Poppins. Got a little flat there. Just how exciting do you think my life is, outside this goddamn place?"

You imagine a small place, slightly messy and battered, like Jamie's books and flannels – something well-loved.

Your hands are cold. All of a sudden, you're sweating.

Jamie is talking and you can hear the birds, thin and shrill voices like fingernails, coating her raspy, warm voice. Something croaks, the small, gentle waves move across the lake. You can hear insects, your heart going too fast. Jamie is looking at you, young and open, and her face is right there.

You're fuzzy, but not too fuzzy.

Jamie, who has been charming and playful and teasing the whole time you've known her, is none of those things now. You stare at her, wild and hopeless and desperate.

Then Jamie's lips are pressing to yours (yours pressing to Jamie's) and your body lights up. Jamie's hands are careful, yours are almost rough and you whimper into her mouth, pushing in closer, making tiny reckless noises into Jamie's mouth, tasting wine and nicotine and faint mint on her tongue.

Jamie says, "You're sure?" and you push into her with delirious glee, with something grand and urgent, crashing your mouth against hers. Jamie's mouth is sliding hotly against yours, licking into you, past your teeth, gliding against your tongue with deliberate softness. With something like reckless desire.

Something rumbles under your skin, huge and sudden, and you cling to Jamie like she's your lifeline, unable to let go.

//

"Do you want kids?" you ask quietly, gently.

What you want is for Jamie's hands on you. You want to reach out to her. You want her to hold you as she did before. You want to feel her again, to know how it feels having her arms around you with the passion quietly taking a back seat. You want her to care for you, to put those worker's hands on you. You want to be cured, miraculously, of everything. Of anything at all.

Jamie takes a sip from her glass of wine, looking thoughtfully at you.

"Aren't you sick of kids yet, Poppins?"

You try not to look as if you just choked on your own sip of wine. Jamie is smiling slyly, a good smile, a smile that says did you think I don't know? and you're having trouble calming your own racing heart.

Jamie smiles and you smile back. She's so carefree and beautiful, hair brushed off her eyes, fingernails clean, boots muddy.

You duck your head and try to swallow the huge smile that just almost split your face in two.

"Seriously".

"Never been good with life-long decisions, me," Jamie says with a shrug. "Lifetime goals. Those aren't for me. Forever's a long time and as I see it, kids are forever".

You nod. Jamie cocks her head to the side, watching you carefully.

"You want kids, Poppins?"

"No," you say truthfully. Jamie extends her hand over the table and you take it, lacing your fingers. "I think I have enough children right here".

As if on cue, Miles and Flora storm into the kitchen, shrieking. Jamie rolls her eyes. You try very hard not to look as though you've been caught doing something improper by holding Jamie's hand.

The kids are playing some sort of game and aren't paying attention to you and Jamie. They dig up Owen's pans and cups, spoons, plates, saucers. They're inspecting them as if they belong to some extinct, vanished tribe. They're unearthing them, exhuming food leftovers, exclaiming with wonder and archaeological delight over curious bumps in the silverware.

Jamie gifts you with a bright, childish smile.

"Look at 'em go." She says fondly.

//

You and Jamie walk through the garden. It's full of blossoming flowers, overgrown weeds and shrubs, and something odd, reddish-orange husks split to show white cores and seeds. There are a lot of things here that you have no name for.

"Do you ever feel like you found your place?" Jamie says quietly.

You look at her and her eyes are burning hotly into you.

You say, "Almost," and Jamie nods, fingers wrapping around your hand. You give her a strong squeeze.

"Yes," you say. "Only for me, it's not a place".

At the back of the garden, there is a small stone wall. The kids are running around and Jamie lifts them up on top of the wall at their shrieking demand, grunting dramatically as if it's a real effort for her. Miles balances himself and starts walking as soon as his legs touch the top of the wall, but Flora reaches down for your hand. You take hold of her. You don't know where they're going.

Then Jamie takes your other hand and leans close, lips brushing the shell of your ear.

"Nor for me, Poppins," she says and smiles a broad smile.

//

Telling Jamie your story is dangerous, but you do it anyway. It's cold and the fabric of the old sofa is slightly damp under you, the sort of cold you feel through thick layers of clothes. Jamie is looking at you with an open expression. She's no longer a gorgeous stranger, no longer a grumpy gardener, no longer a charming, handsome woman.

She's simply Jamie; tentative and wonderful and silent. You're still slightly dizzy from too much wine and Jamie's smell and her hand on the back of the sofa, close enough to touch your trembling fingers. Her knee is pressed lightly to your thigh, leg bent under her and the outlines are too clear, the sounds too sharp.

Your stories are a shade calmer than grey. They are dungeon-like traps, with chains and shackles and bloodstains. The walls around those stories are painted passion-inflamed red, dark-brown, and colours that were always supposed to be lovely, but rarely were. Those stories are clean, with a slight polish, but they are also your failings, your painted-over, locked desires. They are closed doors nobody but you ever ventured through before and Jamie’s eyes are beautiful, forest green and stormy grey and clearly, not blue at all.

You turn to Jamie and face her when you’re done talking. Jamie, who usually give an all-knowing smirk, is not doing so now. Instead, she's talking and you’ve had enough of that so you lean in and kiss her.

At first, the kiss is more exploration than passion. After a moment, Jamie puts her hand on the back of your head, fists her fingers in your hair and you can feel her muscles strain, like ropes, like knots, before she allows herself the true release of acting on a much-wanted desire.

(This is not the first time you kissed, but it feels like it).

Your hands move towards her breast, and you take hold of her coat, slide your fingers between the fabric of her black funeral jacket and her big coat. Now the kiss is no longer sweet. Jamie slides closer, her hand fists in your hair harder, her knee pressed almost painfully into your thigh.

You want this so much your hands are shaking and Jamie moans into your mouth.

"Dani," she sighs and you kiss her harder for that.

//

The kids work as a team on story-time. They both have a function, writing and directing, and acting, though it’s obvious Flora is the dominant one.

You have two potential rebels on your hands, but you have anticipated that. You face the age issue, making sure not to give Flora the same treatment you’ve gotten from grown-ups when you were her age, but you still manage to keep it under control.

Flora is a child, and a vulnerable child at that. Even while playing, even while panning the next story, the next act, there is a strange air of sadness about her.

“Monsters’ doing good,” Jamie says with a smile, leaning one shoulder against the doorframe.

You glance at her. There are tiny clean paths on her mud-smeared face, where sweat runs down from her hair to her collar. She looks sweet and innocent, smiling her usual smile like there is no part of her that has ever touched you tender and scared.

“Well done, Poppins”.

You grin at her and try to keep your thoughts on the kids, away from the need to steer her by the elbow across the corner and kiss her senseless.

“Are you staying for dinner?”

Jamie bends her head, eyes gleaming.

“Of course,” she says.

//

Jamie takes hold of your face and kisses you gently on the mouth. She runs the ends of her calloused fingers over your lips.

"I love you," you tell her in a hushed whisper, murmuring the words against the tips of her fingers. "I love you".

Jamie kisses you again, quite a lot harder than the first time. She's magical, grandiose, in technicolour.

Jamie is not very good with big words, with words at all, but she's good at this; at showing and expressing and silently letting you know all the truths she can’t keep quiet any longer.

You put your face against Jamie's neck and the collar of her shirt. She smells like perfume and cigarettes and like turned earth. Her smell is intoxicating.

You want her to take your clothes off. You want her to take her own clothes off. It's not very safe, here, in the middle of the garden with the kids and Hannah and Owen in the house, preparing for dinner. You want her to, though. You want to lie down beside her, right here on the prickly grass, and touch her and be touched by her.

(Jamie's hands, when they touch you, can transfer anything, change everything. Her hands are pure magic).

You want to see Jamie lying with her eyes closed, silent and content and at your mercy. You want to see and not be seen – you want Jamie to trust you enough to let go.

You want to make love with her, very slowly, until neither one of you can take it any longer.

You want it to last a long time.

You want the moment just before coming, that helplessness, that wild lack of control. You want hours of it.

You want to open Jamie up, just to get to know her better. Not to possess. Not to pry.

Only to love. Only to understand.

//

Jamie lights a cigarette. She sucks on it, making the end glow, and blows the smoke out in a long grey plume. You watch her in the garden, kneeling by a tap, letting the cold sunlight toy over her hair.

There are vines over the garden, large cream-white flowers, cup-shaped and unreal spectacles.

There's a sunset – a quick one. It's getting dark.

You trudge up the wet road toward the house. The asphalt and little stones are soaked. They look like they've melted.

Inside the house, Hannah is cleaning with a straight face, the golden cross resting against her breast reflecting soft lamplight. When she notices you and Jamie, she smiles.

Hannah wipes the tables, washes the dishes, and dries them. She cleans the top of the stove, sweeps the floor. She carries sheets in strong hands, washes them by hand. She rinses them and wrings them out and hangs them up. Then she disappears and you and Jamie are left alone.

"Where are the monsters?" Jamie wonders.

You smile at her. You stopped correcting her some time ago. "Went to town with Owen".

"You didn't go?"

"Owen said he didn't need me".

Jamie's smile is mischievous now, full of intention. You swat at her arm but you don't resist, heat pulling at the pit of your stomach.

It's raining, heavy drops like tacks patter on the roof and windows, making sounds like the dragging of thick cloth across a floor. Jamie tugs on your arm and you forget about anything that isn't her.

iv

You run through the house, out into the gardens – Jamie's beautiful, dark gardens. Only you don't think about flowers now. You don't even think about Jamie. Something urgent is tugging at your body, at your heart. Something scary. Something dreadful.

It's muddy here, outside the house, from the rain. You don't bother to pick your way around the water-filled potholes. There is no time and it's hard to see. The only light comes from the big house behind you as you move deeper into darkness, as you’re nearing the lake.

The road is deserted, the action is a couple of miles ahead of you. You hear shouting and a smash of glass. You hear Flora screaming.

Your shoes are muddy. The bottom of your pants is dripping. You're frightened and disoriented, stumbling, with no idea where you are or where you're going. Branches heavy with damp flowers brush against you, the smell is alien. You push through the leaves, slipping on the wet earth of the path toward the lake. Through the undergrowth, you can see figures, moving in no hurry. Almost like in a dream.

You're afraid, but your fear feels inappropriate.

Flora, you think in a desperate manner, your mind a jumble of fear and insufferable agony. Miles!

You are near the lake now. You find the gardens dark and silent. Behind a few of the house’s windows, lights flicker. The grounds are deserted. There is broken glass on the earth and it crunches under your feet. Along the lake-shore you can hear Flora's voice, screaming herself hoarse.

The night is strangely luminous. You're having trouble breathing.

The moon comes up, it's almost full. The grey-white light comes through the slate of the clouds, throwing shadows across the ground. It's cold and in the icy water, a tall figure is walking slowly ahead of you, the water parting for her like mist. Her figure is slender and her body steers the waves.

Flora is clutching to the figure, eyes squeezed shut.

You're screaming and the figure is moving, turning, stopping in place. You're ready to face calm rage, excited anger. You expect her eyes to gleam in the moonlight. Fragmentation. Dismemberment. But what you see is nothing. A smooth face without features. A slit for a mouth, a bump for a nose, and nothing more.

You only come back to yourself when you have Flora in your arms, sharp pain in your chest, Jamie's hand on your shoulder, splashing water, soaking wet, murmuring reassuringly into your ear, her previous shrieks a distant ringing in your ears.

You close your eyes. Something with enormous weight comes down on you. You can hardly breathe.

"Shhh," Jamie whispers in your ear, nuzzling her nose into your cheek. "S'alright. S'alright".

You hear her, voice raspy and scared. You hear the night sounds and Flora's frightened moans. The lake sings lightly, quietly, the waves moving gently around you. It's so cold you can barely feel your feet.

Then everything starts to move.

//

Battling the beast is like fighting an ocean. You're safe now, with Jamie's arms around you, with her breathing softly next to you, fast asleep, but you’re exhausted. Drained.

It's almost dawn. The house is quiet now after the kids have settled down. Owen is passed out on the sofa in the library, Hannah, queasy and scared, still hadn't found her voice. Last you saw her, she had her hands in Owen's hair, stroking him gently.

You are dizzy and nauseated, just like you felt the first time you boarded a boat, back in America, back when your father was still alive and the world wasn’t yet scary.

You are battling the beast and it feels like you are rolling with huge waves, smashing into them, a collision too great to survive, a sickening lurch downwards, then up like a roller coaster, thud, crunch, your bones grinding, stomach-lurching inside you with its own motion.

Then – a dreadful calm.

You're trying to hang on, trying to think of something, anything, that isn't the faceless beast, the scary creature in your chest. You try to keep your head up, eyes on the moon, on the walls, on Jamie.

The water is a jungle now and the jungle is glowing, moving, sweating all over your body despite the wind, thick and dark and more fearsome than the waves and you wonder if you're going to throw up.

What do you want from me? you ask the creature but its only answer is silence. You know these sorts of silences. It’s the same one Eddie used to possess, eyes hidden behind blinding glasses, reflecting the headlights.

Jamie breathes in deeply, murmuring something in her sleep. She has her hands around you, tight even in this state. You look at her. Jamie is not a mirage, not a figment of your imagination. Jamie really exists; this wonderful woman, this brilliant person. She's not an illusion and not a talisman you finger, over and over, to keep yourself safe. She really is here, lying by your side, pressed close.

You're restless. The flesh around your nails is raw.

//

After you leave Bly, Jamie drives her green truck to the village. Above the old pub is her flat and when you enter it, you're slightly shocked.

The walls are painted light green and there are rocks and cactuses and rubbery-looking plants around the corners. The shrubs at the gateway are dying though, and you wonder if it bothers Jamie. Inside, the flat is neat, almost blank, as if no one is actually living in it. The furniture is noncommittal, wood-framed chairs of a kind you have seen in American beach bars. On the shelves there are many books, old and tattered and with broken backs, almost falling apart, no doubt loved dearly by Jamie.

On the wall above the sofa, there's a map, on the wall facing it hangs another, but there are no pictures. The kitchen is an open counter with appliances behind it, a stove, a small refrigerator, and through the window, there's a warm sunset.

The bed is precisely made, hospital corner firmly tucked in. You don't have to wonder where Jamie learned to do that. It's empty and cold and there are two pillows. It reeks of the kind of discipline one only gets in the military. Or in prison.

"Don't look so sad, Poppins," Jamie whispers behind you, close but not touching. "This is not a home. It's just a house".

Then, very quietly: "I am a felon, you know".

You smile at her. With Jamie you are not afraid, you don't feel like a failure. You're not all here, that's true. There are parts of you missing. There is another creature inhabiting your body. But Jamie is looking at you with relaxed, familiar joy. Her eyes are good and sincere and you feel light, insubstantial. There's nothing to worry about. With Jamie, nothing bad can touch you.

Jamie is standing in front of you, in the half-light, smiling a little, watching you. Her stare shoots right between your legs and you move your hands slowly down your sides, smoothing down your body.

"Here?" Jamie says with a sort of breathless disbelief while you undo the buttons of your blouse.

Jamie doesn't touch you, not yet. She's just watching. Jamie knows everything – knows about the beast and the lake and the children. She knows about the marks around your throat. She knows about splitting souls.

(Jamie knows that death kissed you lightly, not so long ago, and there is a piece of you missing).

Jamie doesn't look away.

"It's for good luck".

Jamie is grinning. Her eyes are burning. "Dunno what you're talking about. Have plenty of that right here, it seems".

"Then I'm the luckiest girl on earth," you say and Jamie’s breath hitches.

Jamie reaches out her hands and you can't remember ever having been touched before. Nobody lives forever. Who said you could? This moment will have to do. This much is enough.

Your clothes are gone and you're tugging on Jamie's, eager to have her naked and pressing to your front. The hunger makes it difficult, but Jamie; pupils blown, mouth kiss-swollen, hands in a perfect, reckless angle, is determined. You groan, catching her by the shoulders, pulling her down with force until she settles low on your stomach, rocking lightly, covering your breasts with her hands.

"Jamie," you sigh and you urge her hands lower, whimpering quietly as you guide her fingers between your legs, when you make her circle once, twice, before throwing your head back and getting lost in Jamie Jamie Jamie.

You're open now. You've been opened, you've been drawn back down and you enter your body again and there's a moment of pain, incarnation, this may only be the body's desperate flare-up, a last clutch at the world before the long slide into final illness and death; but meanwhile Jamie is solid against you and you're still here on this earth.

Jamie touches you and once again, you can breathe.

//

Jamie has never been on a plane and it's so beautiful seeing her confidence slide away, revealing someone younger, someone softer, someone you can put your hands around and hold close. Jamie is always the strong one. You enjoy being able to give that back for once.

The plane is too crowded and smells of cinnamon, coffee, sweat, and cigarettes. A sweet, stuffy, unhealthy smell, clogged with emotion. You press your nose to Jamie's neck, breathing in her smell.

"Reckon the lady across the aisle will be pleased if I put my hand inside your pants, Poppins?"

You laugh against her skin quietly. "I think she will have something to say about it".

Jamie’s eyes burn into your skin. "You make me want you in places I shouldn't".

"Should," you sigh into her neck. "Always. Everywhere".

Jamie opens her mouth. There is a soft embarrassment about her. She licks her lips.

"Dani".

Jamie says your name as if she has forgotten how to breathe. You cast a quick look around you, then you reach out, steady yourself against Jamie, and with a tremble, with your heart beating painfully hard against the inside of your chest, you curl your fingers around Jamie’s collar and you kiss her.

The kiss is fast and short but Jamie opens her mouth in a sort of breathless hunger you are helpless to do anything but indulge. You tip your head to the side, brush Jamie's upper lip with your tongue, arching against her, guiding her closer.

"Dani," Jamie murmurs into your mouth and you know this tone. Desperate, shaky, bruised. Jamie is not a coward, but she's afraid and you know all too well why.

"For luck," you whisper against her mouth before settling back in your seat. No one is watching. Nobody's paying attention to you.

You curl your fingers around Jamie's hand, curl your toes inside your boots.

She squeezes back with all her might.

//

The new American apartment, the one above the flower shop, is something you enjoy. Not because of the space or the decorations, but because it's something you share with her.

Jamie, who gets up way too early to make tea and eggs. Jamie, who manages to make so much noise while simply walking the corridor, you’re forced to wake up.

Jamie's cooking is not very good, but she makes wonderful easy meals – eggs and toast and jam and sometimes even pancakes. You're a better cook, but being spoiled by Jamie is not something you are willing to give up.

More often than not, Jamie takes your hands and pulls you to her and kisses you, her mouth tasting of butter or wine or nicotine. Then she leads you into the bedroom with a happy grin, with glowing eyes, and takes off your clothes slowly without fumbling. You take your hands with her blunt, practical fingers, and guide her in. She doesn’t need permission but she always seeks consent.

You slide on the bed. It's effortless.

When it happens, it's about love and about lust, and desire. It's also about closeness. It's about intimacy.

You come almost at once with Jamie’s fingers buried knuckle- deep inside you. You cling to her, the both of you slippery with sweat. Having Jamie move above you, below you, moaning and sighing and grinning, moving her practiced fingers between your legs, is a luxury. It's indulgence. It’s as gleeful as rolling around in warm mud, the muscles of your thighs aching.

It's sweet and hot and maddening. Jamie pauses, goes on, pauses, goes on until you come again. She's skilled and attentive. She's good at this.

Then you shower together. Jamie soaps your back and breasts, carefully and lovingly, with so much attention you are tempted to believe it’s serious work. In your turn, you pass your hands over her body, learning her – the muscles and hollows, the dimples, the freckles, the scars.

Jamie is so present in her body that it's beautiful and you tell her so. She smiles, ducks her head, peppers kisses all over your soapy shoulders.

It's lazy and unhurried. The future seems a long way from here.

//

Sometimes, Jamie gifts you with an evil grin. She does this when you're lounging on the sofa and she parades around the flat in nothing but an unbuttoned flannel hung around her shoulders.

You bend your knees and take a deep breath, putting down your book low on your stomach.

"Don't do this," Jamie says in a low, dangerous voice.

"Do what?" you smile at her an innocently, something you've perfected a long time ago. Jamie's bright eyes are darker now. The colour of a stormy sky.

"You're turning me on when you know full well I'm about to start dinner".

"Turning?" you say and Jamie has abandoned the kitchen in favoure of padding her slow way towards you. "I thought you were on all the time".

Jamie flops down on the sofa beside you. You can see the swell of her breasts under the flannel, the flat, toned expanse of her stomach. You don't look lower, but you can still make out the dark shadow between her legs.

Jamie, these days, is a shameless mess of taut muscles and crooked grins and wandering hands.

You don't fight the smile that's spreading on your face when Jamie spreads her arms over the back of the sofa, tilting her head back, baring her throat. You shift into her lap, sinking down on her warm thighs, one leg on either side of her and you begin to lick her ear.

"Poppins, have a heart. I'm an old woman".

Jamie just celebrated her thirty-sixth birthday. She's older than you by almost two years and you teased her lovingly about it for about a week, enjoying the old grumpy attitude she seemed to leave behind in Bly.

"Beg for mercy," you whisper.

Jamie puts her arms around you and you rock slowly back and forth together. The force is shattering. You're wrapped up in Jamie, your hands at her back, and you pump your hips, jerking on top of her, repeating her name over and over until Jamie shudders and you're falling, gasping into Jamie's mouth, leaving red marks on her back.

Outside, a bell rings somewhere. The window shatters lightly.

v

You're standing in a garden. In Jamie's garden, around the huge house. You know this garden disappeared a long time ago, but here it is, back in place, everything so bright and familiar. The red zinnias, the hollyhocks, the roses and sunflowers, the poles with scarlet runner beans, the hummingbirds like vivid bees around them.

It's cold, though. There is snow on the ground, the sun is low in the sky; small icicles hang from the stems and blossoms. Jamie is not there. She's not smiling her crooked smile, she's not sucking on her eternal cigarette, she's not cocking her head to the side, gentle and beautiful and naughty.

You are alone in your red dress, but you don't mind the cold because you're dead. You can hear someone singing hymns from afar. It's a three-part harmony but none of the voices are Jamie's because Jamie can't hold a tune to save her own life.

You smile a sad smile. The hummingbirds are around your head, lighting on the hands - life everlasting.

And Jamie is not there.

//

You struggle to wake up. You don't want to be in this dream, and finally, you make it out. You're lying in bed, the sheets twisted around you, and you thrash to untangle yourself and push yourself upright.

Outside the window the world is grey. The room is dim. It's not even morning yet.

Jamie is sleeping beside you, her hair a tangled mess of dark curls, her eyelids moving fast. She's dreaming, but you can tell by the crease of her brow and the twist of her mouth that her dream is not peaceful.

You touch her shoulder and she steers. In her sleepy state, she still calls you Poppins sometimes.

You don't want to talk. You roll on top of her, biting gently at her neck. Jamie is watching you with half-lidded eyes, no longer sleepy but not fully awake yet. You pin both her hands above her head, holding her wrists, and shove yourself between her thighs, grinding down.

"Fuck, Poppins," Jamie sighs. Then, because she's Jamie; "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I just want to –“ you swallow the embarrassment that rises in your chest. “I want to fuck you".

Swearing was never one of the social graces you learned early in life. You had to teach yourself the art and you're still slightly uncomfortable using those sorts of words. But this is what you want and Jamie doesn't mind your dirty mouth. Her own vocabulary is spotted with curse words, rough around the edges but always lovely.

Jamie doesn't need encouragement. You release her right hand and she runs it up to your leg, across your belly, down your thigh, over the back of your bent knee. She moves her hand between your legs, delicate and hesitant.

"Jamie…" you sigh darkly. "Please. Please".

Jamie hooks her arms around your neck and kisses you. You all but melt into her arms. It's easy, to come under Jamie's wandering hands when she looks at you like that, slightly bewildered, slightly lost.

Jamie is quick to follow. You whisper sweetly into her ear and she answers in a low grumble, her raspy voice a thundering moan. You move your hands until Jamie begins to shake. She says things you heard her say many times before and you kiss her, a survivor’s kiss, press her into you, dig deep inside her until Jamie tells you in a breathless cry she can't take it anymore.

You lay together after, Jamie curled into your side and shaking. You stroke her hair and keep your arms wrapped around her, your legs entwined on top of the crumpled sheets. At one point, Jamie almost falls asleep against your chest and you lay awake, listening to her heartbeat and her lungs and the odd sounds of the night.

You will never be rescued, and you don’t need to be. You have already found your place.

You will not be exempt. Instead, you are unbelievably lucky. Suddenly, finally, you are overflowing with luck. It’s luck that’s holding you up, curling beside you, taking the beautiful shape of a curly-haired woman, of someone you don’t need to wonder what it will be like to live without.