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Which Will it Be?

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I’d been seven years old the first time I’d tried marmite.

I’d licked it, tentatively, off one of the edges of my Father’s butter knife, cringing instantly as the saltiness of it, as it hit the back of my tongue.

“Try it spread on toast,” my Father had urged, grabbing a single triangle of toast from the rack and handing me it upon a small plate.

I knew I most likely would still hate it on toast (nothing would be able to erase that flavour), but I dipped my knife into the jar regardless, spinning the blunt blade round, in my hand, to avoid the tar like consistency from dripping all over.

With a healthy amount, I spread it thinly onto my toast, and without hesitating for too long, bit into it.

The explosion in my mouth was even worse than when I’d licked it from the knife. It felt as if the marmite coated every inch of my tongue, and inner cheeks, thick, paste like and hard to swallow. Gagging, I’d reached for the water beside me, gulping, gulping, gulping, in an effort to get the taste away, away, away.

But no such luck.

While my Father laughed at me, I’d attempted to remove the awful taste by wolfing down a small slice of raspberry jam on toast, and then a tiny amount of scrambled eggs.

“Better now?” Father had asked, watching as I pushed another forkful of fluffy eggs past my lips. “I’m taking your reaction, to mean you didn’t like the marmite?”

I nodded my head in regard to his first question, and shook my head for his second.

Only one of those was a lie.

It wasn’t better now…

In fact, for the rest of the day, I could have sworn I could still taste the salty, yeasty concoction in my mouth, stuck between the polished grooves of my baby teeth.

Catching myself in the reflection of the bathtub taps, as I sit and soak, washing off the remnants of the day, I notice my lips have puckered up in recollection of the memory, as if the taste of marmite has flooded my mouth once more.

I’ve never attempted to eat the food again.

But it wasn’t until I was thirteen, that I understood the phrase ‘she’s like marmite’.

And I was twenty two before I realized the phrase applied to me.

I’m the marmite.

In the sense of being somebody who isn’t liked by all, who has qualities and personality quirks that not everybody around them agrees with.

I fucking hate being the marmite.

God, that word feels good to say.

Fuck.

I know of the traits that make me not exactly easy to like.

I wear my heart on my sleeve.

I’m a protector of others.

I’m honest and truthful… sometimes too much.

I’m blunt.

I’m harsh.

I’ve got a big mouth.

I’m needy, constantly asking for reassurance, or going out of my way to look for it blindly.

I’m hard to read.

I contradict myself a lot.

I bury my head in the sand.

That last one in particular… I’m doing that right now.

Confusion is the first emotion on my mind after Jamie’s departing words, slowly followed by something close to elation.

But with each step, which took me further and further away from him, I began to second guess myself.

He doesn’t mean it.

It was a slip of the tongue.

It was just a compliment.

I’m not special because he’s given a compliment to me.

In an effort to stop my mind from spiraling out of control, and hyper focusing on something that isn’t a priority right now; I mentally collect my thoughts about Jamie into my hands, catching every last slippery grain, shoving them into a makeshift box and securing the rickety lid into place.

I’m not sure the box will stay closed for very long, not with the lid seemingly not to fit perfectly. But it’ll do for now, I say to myself, as I push the box into one of the corners of my mind.

I need to be concentrating on making money, and surviving by myself for the very first time.

Not allowing my fly away, scatty, brain to be taking charge.

I need to be an adult, with her top priorities in order.

And Jamie Fraser isn’t one of them.

---

“Hiya, lass, will ye be able to work yer first proper shift tomorrow?” Murtaugh’s voice filters through the speakerphone option on my mobile device.

“Tomorrow? So that’s Thursday?” I ask, staring down at my nonexistent plans in my planning app. My schedule has never looked so empty. But I can’t say I’m mad at it, rather, I’m quite enjoying the slow living of life that I’ve found.

“Aye, tomorrow, Thursday.” Murtaugh confirms. “I’ve counted yer hours of practice on Monday with our Jamie, into yer weekly sixteen hours – so if ye work another four hours on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday… then we should be equal for this week.”

My fingers fly over the touchpad screen as I block out tomorrow in a pretty periwinkle blue that does totally not match Jamie’s eyes. “So I’m working the weekend?”

“Only for a bit,” I hear Murtaugh chuckle breathily. “Don’t worry, lass, I won’t put ye in to be doing the late night shifts just yet. How about ye come in about one to five, starting tomorrow, and continuing on both Friday and Saturday?”

“One to five,” I repeat, peering down at the satisfying blue blocks. The time in between starting and finishing work will still leave me without enough time for myself; enough time to acclimatize without getting overwhelmed, by the thought of having somebody above me to answer too…

Although, I guess I’ve always had somebody to answer too. They just hadn’t called themselves my boss. Instead, they’d hidden themselves, disguised as my Mother and Father.

“Okay, I’ll see ye then, Claire, lass. Is that all right?” asks Murtaugh, thankfully breaking me out of my flashback.

Clearing my throat I answer, “Yes, of course, I’ll be there tomorrow at one,” and then gently pressed the red end call button.

I should have known my anxiety would skyrocket.

At least I know the reason why; it’s the fear of the unknown once again. The unknown of my first proper work shift, where I’ll no longer just be practicing, but I’ll actually have to take orders, serve and make the drinks.

Before I can stop it, the tingling in my fingers and toes have begun, a sign that my brain has misread the signals and is now sending most of my blood to my most valued organs. Inside my rib cage, my heart starts to pound in rapid succession, matching up with the beat of blood audible in my ears.

Breathe, Claire, I remind myself. You’ve been here before. Just hold on.

On shaky legs, I make myself stand, telling myself it’ll help to get the blood pumping steadily once more around my entire body.

I stumble to where I’ve dumped my Prada tote bag in the back of the wardrobe, beside the metal safe, (I’d actually attempted to store it in the safe… but it had turned out to be much too big). Rummaging around one handed, bypassing the cool leather straps, which serve as the bag’s handles, I pull out my tiny vial of lavender scented roll on essential oil - my panic attack savior.

Allowing my legs to go, I sit, crumpled, on the floor, hastily unscrewing the tightly screwed lid, and then liberally applying the oil to the familiar points of my body; the delicate skin inside my wrists, the hollow triangle that connected my neck to my chest, behind my ears, and my pounding temples.

Desperately clutching the roll on in one hand, I bring my left wrist up to hover beneath my nose as I breathe in deeply.

In for four counts, out for eight.

In for four counts, out for eight.

In for four counts, out for eight.

I’m unsure how long I’ve been sitting on the floor for; blocking out everything around me and focusing on my chest expanding and deflating, but once I eventually feel like I can catch a breath fully, my lungs getting just the right amount of air, I crawl along the floor to the bed, hoisting myself up.

In the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t been a bad attack, in fact it’s been quite mild compared to some of the others I’d experienced. My face is dry from tears, I haven’t been scrabbling at my clothes in an effort to get to my heart, I didn’t need to talk to myself out loud to self soothe.

Other than sitting on the floor, nobody around would have known I’ve been having a panic attack…

That’s the scary thing, they’re silent, with the ability to creep up on you out of the blue, and leave behind a riot of emotions in their wake.

I feel sadness and anger now. Angry that it’s come out of nowhere, and decided to attack now instead of when I’d been boarding the train by myself with no specific destination in sight, or when I’d shown up for the speed dating event, or even when I’d been walking to my trial run at McTavish’ on Monday.

All of those times I’ve been nervous, some much so I haven’t slept well and my stomach has turned into knots, preventing me from eating much at all. But that anxiety hasn’t manifested itself into the shape of a panic attack… so I don’t understand why now. Why, when I’m in the safety of my own room, simply talking over the phone, does my brain want to convince me that I’m in danger?

Swinging my feet back out of bed in search of finding something to drink fresh water out of (my mouth is always super dry after the panic had subsided), I laugh maniacally to myself, in my non-rational thinking mind, as my toes connect with something small and slippy.

A credit card.

Beneath my gel painted toes (the classic red colour grown out extensively), littered among the floor, lay a number of coloured, square cards, each from a different department shop or retailer.

My guess is they spilled out from the bottom of my bag when I’d been searching for the calming oil. The bag in question also lays on the floor, appearing more like a broken shell than I’ve ever seen the luxury bag to look before.

I realize then, just how silly keeping it would seem to others.

Here I am as poor as I’ve ever been, not even enough money to afford another black cab taxi ride, and scrounging off the kindness of Mrs Baird (who, had stopped me on my way out from the breakfast room on Tuesday, to say she was keeping my tab open, but assured me I needn’t be in any rush to pay it all straight away. I’d wanted to die of embarrassment.), but yet in my possession I still hold onto a luxury handbag; a bag which cost over a thousand pounds to buy.

I’ve kept it in a nearly mint condition, perhaps with only a little bit of fraying on the white stitching that keeps the tan leather strap attached to the cream canvas material. If I sold it off now, I know I could get the asking price if I really pushed it, or perhaps only a hundred pounds lost if I wasn’t so eager.

Selling it would mean a little bit of extra security to cushion around me, something to pay Mrs Baird off with and have the start of my savings. I know anyone sane would tell me to do it.

But I can’t bear to part with the last remaining proof of the existence of my other life. Yes, it hadn’t been great; sometimes it had been downright awful. But I’d had good times too, once in a life time experiences and holidays that some people could only dream of.

Something inside me won’t let me part with the Prada bag, even though I’m unable to wear it proudly upon my shoulder as I once had done. It simply isn’t safe to do so up in Scotland, especially not when I’m a lone woman walking about from place to place.

So instead, it sits pride of place in the back of the wardrobe, covered by the thick coat I’ve dumped on top of it unceremoniously, with the idea of hiding it away from any cleaners that may enter my room.

Quickly, before I can dwell on it too much, I pick up each card, bundling them into stacks and throwing them back into the depths of my bag.

They, like the handbag, are of no use to me now. I’ve double-checked, and even triple checked, to see if there is any cash left available on any of the cards; but to no avail. My Father has stopped any transactions going through, just as he has on my credit card.

Once the floor is tidy again, I replace the bag, and shut the wardrobe doors for good measure.

My brain still feels very delicate, wobbly even, as if it needs more time to recuperate than I’ve given it. Knowing deep down in the bottom of my heart that I need the rest, even though I don’t feel like I deserve it, I make fast work of reaching the bathroom, cupping my hand under the tap and slurping up the water.

I’m back in bed in a matter of minutes, sliding under the covers and pulling the sheet up to my chin. An extra few hours of sleep can’t hurt anyone, and by the way my eyelids are already closing of their own accord, I decide my body knows what it needs more than the stubborn side of my brain.

The last thing I hear is the comforting noise of a car driving past the bed and breakfast, it’s engine purring as it travels at a steady speed.

Distantly, I begin to wonder who drives the car, if they are alone or if somebody sits in the passenger seat beside them, keeping them company? Where are they headed? Perhaps back to the comfort of a loved one, who will open their arms in a welcome home hug, squeeze them tightly and then…

Rolling over, I pull the other pillow on my double bed towards me, hugging it to my chest tightly until the pillow dents in certain spots.

God, I’d kill right now for a hug.

A hug from literally anyone, even a stranger will do.

And with that depressing thought, I am, thankfully, out like a light, before I can spiral further.

---

Heart fluttering unsteadily again, I wake up bright and early Thursday morning. Thankfully, I’ve managed to catch a few more hours than I’ve been averaging recently. But my body is still waking me up just as the sun rises, hair knotted all over the place, and a dried line of drool down my chin.

Nerves about my first big girl shift at work today have already started from the moment I’ve opened my eyes, so as I stand in the bathroom, thoroughly brushing my teeth, I make a pact with myself.

If I don’t feel comfortable I’m leaving.

If at any point my anxiety doesn’t feel manageable, I’m leaving.

I’m allowed to leave no matter what the reason, without berating myself, without feeling guilty, or, another great trait of mine, without punishing myself.

I’ve sacrificed my mental health enough in my old life… I don’t want to be following the same pattern in my new one.

Easier said than done I know but…

Last night I’d been sad, angry, hurt, that my panic attack had seemingly come out of nowhere. But today I’m willing to try and be gentler with myself. It’s the least I can do.

I take time getting ready, not so that I look extra good, but more so that I look awake (like I’ve been getting a full nine hours of sleep), and so the intrusive thoughts will be kept at bay, by the business of my mind and hands.

Slipping into my trusty pair of jeans, I pair it with a black, long sleeved top, tortoise shell buttons decorating the sleeves themselves, and my only other sensible shoes – my brogues.

In the bathroom mirror, I fight with my curls, as I attempt to run a brush through them to obtain some sort of order and sleekness. My shoe covered feet click against the tiled floor as I walk in a small circle, simultaneously brushing and quietly talking out loud to myself.

“Just get dressed, Claire, and we’ll go on a little walk. Just a little walk and then you can come back.”

With my knotted headphones jammed into my ears, I begin my little walk just before the clock strikes one.

I’m glad for the long sleeved top I’ve decided to wear, my dark fur jacket slung over the top, to ward off the upcoming chill. September, so far, has been pleasant. More so than I’ve been expecting, what with growing up listening to horror stories about the Northern weather (and way of living, now I came to think of it)… but I’m not so sure that October will be as forgiving.

Keeping my chilled fingers pressed on the up button on the side of my phone, I turn the volume up loud enough until my Mother would have disapproved (wouldn’t she always), but at least I can no longer hear the pulsing of my heart.

I can still feel it in my mouth, though. But at least the thoughts… well I can’t hear those over Katy Perry.

Sticking both my phone, and my hands in my jacket pockets to keep somewhat warm, I force my feet to move forward and before I know it, McTavish’s bar is in front of me once more. Its large, dark doors are closed, looking just as intimidating as it did when I’d gone storming in, asking for a job.

But I don’t feel like storming in right now.

Rather, I feel like cowering and running away.

Money, Beauchamp. You need the money.

And you can leave at any time. You’re not stuck, you’re not trapped, you’re going to be okay, you’re…

I’m still talking to myself in my head, when I realize I’ve walked inside. Somehow, as if my body has overtaken my brain, no longer waiting for instructions or the go ahead, I’m already inside the bar. I’ve floated over the biggest obstacle.

Murtaugh, being behind the bar, is the first thing I notice. As I draw closer, I can see his lips moving, gesturing something, but I can’t hear him. Why can’t I…

Oh.

Ripping out one headphone, I feel as if my head has emerged from under the water.

I only just catch the tail end of Murtaugh’s conversation. “…and… are ye okay lass, ye look pale?”

“Y-Yes, I’m fine.” With a quick tap of the pad of my finger, I turn off my music, take out my other earbud and wrap the wires around my phone securely. Like a fish being thrown onto dry land, I flap for something to say. “J-Just cold, the weather’s turning, isn’t it?”

If Murtaugh sees through my lie, or my nerves, he doesn’t make a fuss of them. “Och, aye.” He slings a tea towel over his shoulder, and holds the partition in the bar open for me to slip through. “I think we’ll get a few more sunny days, and then it’ll turn. We’re usually always in for a cold autumn and winter… and a not all that warm spring, but I suppose ye won’t be used to that, ye southerner.”

I laugh along with his joke, feeling a tiny amount of tension and nervousness, slip away from my body.

I’m here now, and I’m safe. This bit, being behind the bar, is familiar.

I can do it.

“So ye feeling okay aboot yer first proper shift?” Murtaugh asks, handing me over a smart, black pinafore, which I hastily tie around my waist. “Jamie said ye did braw, so—“

“I am a bit nervous,” I admit, focusing on smoothing out any nonexistent wrinkles in my apron, rather than looking at my new boss as I speak to him.

A hand, this one cooler than Jamie’s had been, descends over my shoulder. Murtaugh squeezes the muscle there tight, quickly, before retracting.

“There’s no need to be nervous, Claire lass. I’m only gonnae be in the back office all day,” he jerks his thumb to gesture behind him, as if I’ve forgotten where the back office might be located, “and Angus and Louise will be working alongside ye at the bar, so if ye need help with anything… there’s plenty of people around to ask.”

“Isn’t Jamie in?”

The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.

God knows why.

Why, when I already feel nervous down to the pit of my stomach and beyond, do I want to see somebody who’ll potentially make my nerves worse?

Well… not even potentially.

Definitely, is more like it.

Jamie Fraser makes me feel jittery around him, like I’ve got nothing but pure adrenaline running through my veins.

I’m not entirely sure if that’s a good or a bad thing…

Maybe I just want Jamie to be around for a comfort thing… because he’s the only one I’ve met before, and therefore I wouldn’t have to go through the awkward stage of introducing myself again.

Yes, that’s it.

I feel comfortable around Jamie Fraser already.

… How strange.

“Jamie?” Murtaugh repeats, already shaking his head. “Nah, it’s the lad’s day off today, but he’ll be in with ye tomorrow.”

“Oh, okay, so--”

A loud clap sounding from behind me makes me jump, stopping me mid sentence ramble.

“Is this the new lassie?” A voice asks, a grin apparent in their tone.

I turn to find a man, not much taller than myself, grinning as he walks towards us, followed by a graceful looking woman with an hourglass figure that I’ve once seen in a magazine. She smiles at me, but not quite as crazily as the man, who is showcasing square, but straight, teeth.

“Aye, Angus.” I hear Murtaugh say. “This is Claire.” Feeling like a madwoman, I raise my hand slightly, in line with my ear, in a silent ‘hello’. “Claire, this is Angus and Louise.”

“It’s nice to meet you both,” I mumble, focusing on my eye contact. I will not look away, I will not look away, I will not…

“And ye, lassie,” Angus exclaims, his eyes bouncing gleefully from me to Murtaugh, who still stands behind me. “Christ, I never thought I’d see the day when ye hired a Sassenach, boss.” He laughs bawdily. “A Scotsman, an Englishwoman, a Frenchie… all we need now is an Irishman, and we’ve got the whole joke.”

With a roll of her pretty blue eyes, I see Louise come forward, and wrap a tight hand around my forearm. She pulls me into her body, shuffling us both, until we stand a little bit of a ways from the men.

“Ignore him, ma cherie,” she says, staring at Angus with humoured disapproval. “I’m Louise.”

“Claire,” I reply, only to feel a wash of stupidity come over me as I realize she already knows my name.

Louise’s laugh is high and bright, and perhaps I should be upset that she’s laughing at my awkwardness, but I don’t detect any actual malice in it.

“I know, ma cherie.” she continues, winking. “I couldn’t wait to meet you, ever since Murtaugh told us he’d employed another woman. Now there’ll be two of us to deal with these pigs.” Louise punctuates the word ‘pigs’ louder than the rest of her sentence, as if wanting Murtaugh and Angus to hear.

I know they had done so, when Murtaugh laughs out loud, the first time I’ve ever heard him do so, as if he takes no offense to the insult.

Bumping her much more curvier hip than mine, Louise grins at me. “Us girls have got to stick together, haven’t we, ma cherie, Claire?”

I swallow thickly, rather overwhelmed. “Y-Yes, we’ve got to stick together.”